Angie Grant was a friend of mine in 9th grade. She had a blunt-cut died black bob and wore black and white striped tights with black Creepers. She stained her lip cherry red and idolized The Cure's Robert Smith.
At 15 Angie had found a look. She'd created a strong visual that invited ridicule and attention. I admired her greatly. And when i found out a few years back she'd died a little piece of me too also left this world.
I was thinking of Angie Grant this past weekend as I travelled to Iceland for the first time. Angie gave me Bjork's album Debut when we were high school kids. And it changed my world. It was one of those crystal-clear moments when you easily look back and remember finding a new world.
Bjork's Debut was a sonic melting of Icelandic oddity with disco. In it she dissected the human race and sang love songs so vivid. Volcanoes and airplanes helped explain the enormity of her elfin heart. And her visual matched that voice! She knotted her hair and wore disco boots and mini-skirts. She was alien. She was like Angie Grant, unafraid to be a clown.
Sequential albums were also great events. On Post she orchestrated both techno-pop and old-school pop in neon colors. On Homogenic she donned a McQueen kimono and sang songs in honor of her children and trapped whales. In Dancer in the Dark, her acting debut, she won at Cannes and scored an Oscar nod. And she wore that swan dress.
Bjork's albums have sold a little less with each release. But she's still very much an influential musician and about to release a new album and embark on a tour. In San Francisco many year back I watched her show under the bay bridge. She donned spacewoman couture and belted love songs for aliens, Icelanders, and even Americans. She's always been otherworldly and a definite acquired taste.
But on this flight from Reykjavik to NYC it all makes sense. Bjork took isolation and coupled it with Iceland's amazing landscape, small-town vibe, and connection to animals. In it she made music, looks, and worlds from a blender of inspirations. She created another world and welcomed others not as odd to her party.
Bjork too, like Angie Grant, created a strong visual that invited ridicule and attention. I continue to admire them from afar.
The new issue of the zine Put A Egg On It, the one with Justin Bond on the cover, is out now. I was asked to contribute an essay about an independent food brand from my hometown. I chose Goetze's Caramel Creams, a true Maryland classic. Enjoy the essay and grab up a copy of the zine. It's an eclectic mix of people:
My first job was in the summer of 1990. I was 14 and I had then, as I
continue to today, a very, very severe sweet tooth. I worked as a
cashier at High's Dairy Store, a poor man's 7-11. High's dotted
Baltimore the way Starbucks do now in every city. Everywhere you went
you'd see a High's store.
High's sold remarkably good hand-dipped ice cream. This separated it
apart for the other Maryland convenience stores -the 7-11s, Wawas, and
Royal Farm Stores. High's, like any convenience store, also sold
candy. Lots of it. Tastycakes and Twizzlers and Big League Chew.
Hershey's bars and Snickers and Peeps. Heaven. Pure heaven for a sugar
addict like myself. I was a 14-year-old kid in a candy store.
At 10PM or so, before we mopped the floors, but before we closed the
doors, people would stop coming into the store at a steady pace. It
was then that we, the workers, who made something like $5 an hour,
would raid the candy isles!
My favorites were wrapped in clear cellophane with red and white
print. Goetze's Caramel Creams. The packaging was old school and in
complete opposition to the over-sweetened and over-marketed
confections of the day. Their simple caramel rings, with powdered
sugar dusting, sat lined in rows under the clear plastic cover. Within
those caramel rings sat a chalky white filling. They were as simple
as candy could get: all wheat flour, cream, sugar, and milk.
I often times jones for candy. And the bodegas of Manhattan have
plenty of candies, from Good-N-Plenty to Jujubes, to choose from. But
only in Baltimore can I still find those caramel rings.
The cellophane's changed colors and the labels appear more current, but
when unwrapped those caramel discs look, and taste, exactly the same.
I still cannot have just one. They're too good. Too simple. They're
made in Baltimore for Baltimoreans. And they taste like home.
It was on a whim that David Mason Chlopecki and I planned a trip to Iceland. He'd flown Iceland Air this past winter and remarked about how he thought I'd like the flight attendant uniforms. That led to a conversation of how I am obsessed with all things Scandinavian. No one ever wants to go to Scandinavia from NYC. My friends long for beaches and more exotic locales.
But in David I've found a sister soul, interested in the bizarre like myself.
I owe much of my fascination with Iceland to Bjork. I own all her albums. And her lyrics, a mix of elfin/alien gibberish, heartbreak, and descriptions of wild animals and far-off places, seemed other-worldly to me when I was in Baltimore wanting to escape. Much Icelandic music I love. Bjork's Sugarcubes made strangeness chic. GusGus' electro pulse and Sigur Ros' trippiness painted even more ethereal visuals of the island nation. And Emiliana Torrini's ode to Golum is a gem. Odd. Weird. Breathtaking.
Which is exactly how I'd describe Iceland. It really is breathtaking. The water is crystal clear and blueish green. The mountains are covered in snow. The volcanic rock is covered in green moss. And the people are covered in eclectic sweaters and funky boots. It's extreme. I felt many times I was on the North Pole. On Mars. On the moon.
There's no polish in Iceland. Things are crafty and look handmade. It's small, quaint, and charming. In the phonebook so many people have the same name that jobs are also listed to avoid confusion. There are only 120 prisoners and women leave their baby strollers, and their babies, outside while they lunch in cafes. Yes, they leave their baby-filled cribs on the sidewalk, outside!
You can see how Bjork would elevate oddity to an art form. Along with David's friend, the lovable Londoner Graham Miller, we dined on horse, whale sashimi, smoked puffin, and decomposed shark. The food in Iceland is fresh and Scandinavian fare, but again with the oddity that only an island close to the Arctic could produce. We felt adventurous with our appetites.
We also felt adventurous with our actions. In 4 days we climbed underground in pitch black volcanic caves. Saw waterfalls and Icelandic horses and geysers. We danced until 5AM in the country's only gay bar, which was filled mostly with straight women. And we popped in and out of shops selling knitted scarves, vintage Scandinavian housewares, and goofy, avant-garde fashions.
Everyone we met in Iceland was kind and a little weird. They smiled really big and proudly talked about their land, but not in an overbearing way that Europeans and Americans typically boast about their homeland. The people here are one with nature and sheltered to some extent from the rest of the world. That's bread a unique spirit, asthetic, and culture.
Within a period of one hour it was not uncommon for the sun to shine, hail to pelt our faces, rain to soak our coats, and wind to blow us nearly to the ground only for the sun to emerge again. The weather's unique, unpredictable, never annoying though. Just diverse. Off. Odd. Like Bjork's voice and lyrics. Like puffin and shark meat. Like Icelandic fashion designers. Like vampire djs spinning J-Lo to singing drunk straight girls decked in pumps, spandex, and fur at 5AM.
In Reykjavik, finally, a childhood dream had come true. I returned to Manhattan with (imaginary) spiders in my pockets, violently happy from my travels around the world.
It's become a habit. A way to start the day.
You don't really dust off MP3s. But every once in a while iTunes does throw a curveball at you.
It did that to me the other day when a track from Tracey Thorn's last album blasted on my Harmon Kardons. The song, "Why Does the Wind?," pulsed in my office, with Thorn calmly pondering, "Why does the wind blow through my heart each time I look into your eyes?"
I discovered Thorn in 1988, a year I discovered much music. Her band, Everything but the Girl, a duo consisting of Thorn and her lover, Ben Watt, made acoustic pop rock. "Driving" was a hit on VH1. She was frumpy. Chubby. That art-school girl all us gay guys loved in middle school.
Then, suddenly, as my music tastes turned very gay, so did EBTG's. After Todd Terry remixed the shit out of their pensive ballad "Missing," the greatest sad love song ever recorded, EBTG turned disco enthusiasts. Thorn's look turned more severe. She lost weight. Became more androgynous. And she sheared her locks even more. The next two albums were club records embracing house and drum and bass, and EBTG enjoyed massive success in Europe and achieved gay fame in the States.
Thorn's voice is not standard dance-music fare. She does not wail. She does not belt. Her voice is more a woodwind instrument, floating along solemnly in its own prettiness. Like her looks, it's an atypical voice. That voice sounds sad yet sweet. Her puppy-dog eyes also look sad. She has released a pair of solo albums in recent years and is still whispering poetry over electric beats. And she's still shorn, with puppy-dog eyes and stuffy English fashion. She's an unlikely house-music diva. But she's oh-so-effective. She's just as unlikely and effective as a fashion force, too.
We met at Indochine and were quickly seated at a round booth in the middle of the room.
Everyone in the room could see us and watch us. We were in view of the bar and the dining room, and all the servers and busboys had to walk by us.
Not only did Indochine's staff stop to greet us that night, but many restaurant regulars did too. They came to pay their respects to one of downtown Manhattan's greats, Joey Arias.
How David Mason and I ended up sitting with Arias is quite a funny tale that goes to show you just how easily the Internet can bring like people together. A few weeks back, I wrote an Iconography essay on Klaus Nomi. In it, I accused David Bowie of ripping off Nomi. I was wrong. It was Nomi who borrowed the look from Bowie, and Joey Arias, Nomi's best friend and the executor of his estate, quickly set the record straight on my Facebook wall. This, naturally, led to my wanting to know the real story about Nomi. So Arias suggested dinner.
Indochine is one of those restaurants that have stood the test of time. It was chic, then not, and now, like, say, the Odeon, it's chic again. It's not one of New York's hot spots. But there is a history. It was a perfect setting.
Arias wore all black and arrived promptly, with his hair pulled back tight. David and I were giddy like schoolkids ready for a lesson on a New York we'd only read about.
Arias did not disappoint. He told stories of his travels. Of being gifted with kittens by Divine and of the infamous Saturday Night Live performance, which came about after Nomi and Arias met Bowie at a nightclub downtown. Names of the famous and the iconic were thrown around as reference points, not as braggadocio: George Michael, Mugler, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Penny Arcade. Pierre y Gilles. Arias was thrilled to tell his stories. We lapped them up like starving puppies before a bowl of chow.
David and I both came to New York City to be amongst the Joey Ariases of the world. And in both our careers we've met many an influencer and artist. And we've both made our mark on Manhattan in some little way. So sitting there with Joey Arias was the culmination of many, many years of hard work for both of us. We were treated to an intimate look at New York's past, one that exists today only in coffee-table books, like the one documenting the scene at Indochine, where we sat and held court while most watched the Super Bowl.
After four hours and two bottles of wine, we joined a group of middle-aged women who were also dining that night. One of them, Arias told me, was a noted fashion photographer. Another, with bleached-blonde hair, looked as if she'd given Debbie Harry a run for her money back in the day. A limo pulled up and the women hopped in, as they were celebrating a birthday and heading out after dinner. Arias, David, and I locked arms and did a brief cancan on the street near Astor Place. We laughed and the lesson was over. We vowed to do it again, making this a monthly occurrence.
Class then was dismissed.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, the iconic electronic band that sadly most in the US only know from "If You Leave," played their first US shows this week in over 20 years. At NYC's Terminal 5 the energy was palpable and nostalgia flooded the room.
OMD's latest album, History of Modern, is a welcome return to form. Unlike many other past-their-prime pop stars' recent efforts, this album is quite good. It's so good in fact it trumps much of OMD's back catalog, which has always been a bit uneven.
But when OMD are good, man, are they good. And they electrified the crowd with "Enola Gay," "Dreaming," and the aforementioned hit from that Molly Ringwald movie. Their new songs solicited huge reactions. This is because the floor was packed with diehards, but also because they were really tight songs that the band obviously wanted to play. The music was crystal clear and so were Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys' voices. Sadly my favorite, the early 90s disco-stomper "Pandora's Box," never made the cut.
But the show went on and the band captured the energy of its youth. Along with Kraftwerk and Human League, OMD really did create the sound we know as electronic music today. They're widely under-appreciated and worthy of rediscovery.
Several summers back on a Saturday afternoon I sat around the pool of my Fire Island share house. It was a typical lazy Saturday on the island, nothing to do and no one to see.
One of my housemates, then a rather new friend, Monte Albers, invited me to his friend Andy's house later in the afternoon. An afternoon house visit like the one we were about to embark upon are part of the tradition of Fire Island. Other Fire Island traditions, while not for all, include the afternoon/early evening Tea dances at the harbor in town and cruising the Meat Rack. There are rituals to that island. And being a guest in a stranger's homes on sunny afternoons is just a part of the welcoming culture.
Monte told me we'd be visiting the home of Andrew Tobias, the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and his partner Charles Nolan. While most assumed it was Andy I'd know, the opposite was in fact true. I did not know who Tobias was, but Charles Nolan I did. I was a fashion lover more than a political junkie.
The visit was brief. We drank a few beers. Mostly talked of politics and blogging and assuredly some other beachfront small talk I cannot remember. I don't remember what I was wearing. I don't recall Tobias' summer outfit nor Monte's. But I do recall Charles. He had on a faded, well washed T-shirt and black Ray Ban Wayfarers. I remember being so impressed with Nolan's look. It was relaxed. Not put on. Classic. Timeless.
I was newly single that summer. I was growing up, having just turned 32. And I was looking to tone down my audacious style in favor of a more age appropriate personal style.
I never saw Charles Nolan again after that summer afternoon. But I did take a little piece of him with me that day. I rushed out and replaced all my glasses, both eyeglasses and sunglasses, with that American classic, the Wayfarer. It's since become a part of my personal style. And I borrowed that. Copied it, yes, from Mr. Nolan.
When news of Charles Nolan's death broke a few weeks back, the inspiration I pulled from his quiet charm and classic style became apparent. That's how the truly stylish people inspire and affect us. They don't force us to buy or buy into their look. They inspire in subtle ways. In quiet, powerful, subtle ways.
I really have my sister Angie to blame for my homosexuality. Maybe not entirely. But I am sure she had a hand in it. Because the year was 1987 and she was a George Michael die-hard. She made me, and our entire house, dance to Michael's album Faith. Looking back through time it's obvious that Michael and I were nelly, nelly queens in 1987. But that was a different time. And a different place. And the world's most famous homosexual was actually a straight sex symbol.
Faith was re-released last week in a remastered format. And I must say, it is worth snatching up. I've always been a big George Michael fan, even now when he's more or less druggie hermit. But Faith is his album I've always listened to the least. I adore Listen Without Prejudice Vol. I. and his later work. Faith's never been my go-to Michael album.
But listening to Faith crystal clear in all it's glory is a road trip back in time. It's joyous and fun. You will shake your ass to the title track. You will appreciate his gorgeous voice on "Father Figure." And you'll laugh off some of the more ridiculous songs like "Monkey." Faith was an album that defined an era. The end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. It was a soundtrack for girls of the 80s and the gay brothers who followed in their footsteps.
It was sometime in the 1990s. I was most likely in high school. And I used to escape into fashion magazines. It was the era of the supermodel. And Versace. And Herb Ritts. Naomi, Linda, Claudia, and Christy were on covers. In editorial spreads. Miming George Michael.
As a teenager in Baltimore in the early 1990s, I had very little access to, or interest in, foreign cinema. But I had fallen in love with models. And I remember one spread in particular. Sadly, I cannot find the images online today, but my memory is not failing me. There was a fashion spread most likely in Vogue featuring the supermodels of the day and one other woman, who simply stood out. She did not fit in. Her name was Rossy de Palma.
That fashion spread forever altered my notion of beauty. It's one of my earliest remembrances of atypical beauty being celebrated. For Rossy de Palma's nose was large and bent. Her eyes drooped and were two different shapes. She was, as countless others have pointed out, a living and breathing Picasso painting. She had no other choice than to become a celebrated fashion icon. It was her Spanish destiny.
Thank God for Pedro Almodóvar. The Spanish director cast the newcomer in several of his films, most effectively in WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, which I recently watched again, thus fueling this newfound love for her. De Palma crossed over from the world of film into fashion, where she was a muse to both Mugler and Gaultier. She, like the aforementioned supermodels, also landed a cameo in a George Michael video, holding her own with Evangelista and a very young Tyra Banks.
De Palma now lives in France and is the mother of two. She's pretty much gone from the spotlight, but her image is forever cemented in my brain. One need only watch her in Almodóvar's films to fall in love with her all over again.
My friends canceled dinner at the last minute this past Saturday night. And though I had offers to attend parties and had time to ring up other friends for dinner, I stayed home. I popped open a bottle of Spanish wine. And I decided to spend the night with some lovely ladies. I watched Pedro Almodóvar's WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN.
And how lucky I was to have stumbled back upon this gem. It's an incredible tour de force of fashion.
The women's dress perfectly captures the colors of Spain. Carmen Maura as Pepa Marcos is the story's heroine. She's also the most fashionable. In a white polka-dot blouse, she lifts a red phone to dial her departing lover. She pairs another dotted blouse, this time the color of a ladybug, with a short red skirt suit, black nylons, and red pumps. Rossy de Palma, the living embodiment of a Picasso, is stuck up, yet sexy, in fire-engine Lycra. Julieta Serrano's Lucia totes a pair of guns in a pink Chanel suit. And in blue-and-white-striped spandex shirt and tank, María Barranco as Candela is camp and comedic.
Almodóvar's black comedy is an homage to women. And though they're all suicidal, vindictive, angry, and, yes, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, they're also very lovable. They're endearing. And they're so fashionable. The film's love letter extends beyond crazy women. It's also a love letter to the decade in which it was produced, the 1980s. In miniskirts, bold prints, four-inch pumps, and lots of red, the women are gorgeous, fashionable figments of Almodóvar's imagination.
The whole time they're going around threatening to kill themselves and dosing themselves with barbiturates and crying in fits of emotional overload, they look like a million dollars. And when Pepa says her "only crime was falling in love and being afraid," we realize she's human. A high-strung, Spanish vamp. But, yes, a human.
After watching the film, I thought of Emmanuelle Alt's new role at Vogue Paris and how upon Googling her I felt let down by her flat hair and what appears to be all-black wardrobe. More boring fashion people. Great. If only more fashion folk had Almodóvar's sense of humor. And sense of fashion. The world would be a better place. And it would have many more red pumps, red minis, and polka-dotted blouses.
Having already written a love letter to Sean Young, the ingenue of BLADE RUNNER, I now turn my attention toward another BLADE RUNNER replicant, Daryl Hannah. As a young boy I was so intrigued by Hannah. She seemed so tall and just a touch "off." Even back then I knew she'd never be a sex symbol, never be America's sweetheart.
Which is odd to say because when you look at Hannah, particularly a young Hannah, you see movie-star looks. Her face is symmetrical. Her hair is long, blond, and flat. She possesses wicked, raw beauty. But her delivery of lines. Her oddity. Her voice. They cancel her looks out. She's interesting but not too commercial. She's weird.
Her early role of Pris in BLADE RUNNER, captures this Hannah. With smeared black eyes and blunt white bob, she fights Harrison Ford while looking like a model plucked from the editorial pages of Vogue. Lady Gaga borrows heavily from Pris.
In SPLASH, she's still a unique beauty, but here she shows off that body and the blond mane and almost becomes the next big thing. But again, something's just not right about Hannah. She's not cheesy enough to be a Julia Roberts. In STEEL MAGNOLIAS, she holds her own with Roberts, Shirley MacLaine, and Dolly Parton, and in CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR she barely speaks for two hours in what became a huge flop. Other roles -- for instance, in WALL STREET -- solidified her status as an '80s actress. She was cast but never won America's heart.
And then the '80s left and so did Hannah. I often thought of her, as many gay men my age did, and was so ecstatic when Quentin Tarantino cast her in the epic KILL BILL movies. For once, someone cashed in on Hannah's uniqueness. It worked to great effect. She's one of the most easily remembered and visually stunning villains in movie history.
With KILL BILL, she came full circle from her role as Pris, returning to the aggressive, highly stylized genre she started in. Those like me who'd always dreamed of a Hannah comeback sighed in relief.
Now, like many other actresses her age, Hannah is less in the public eye. But watching her awkward, though stunning, turns in SPLASH, BLADE RUNNER, and KILL BILL will yield one obvious observation: Fashion people have been borrowing from her looks for years.