Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Me & RuPaul
RuPaul and me, ca. 1983
By Robert Burke Warren
Before I met RuPaul Andre Charles, I saw him do a stand-up routine on amateur night at an Atlanta comedy club in 1982. I was seventeen. A twenty-two-year-old RuPaul came out in pasted-on tassels and glitter. In front of an unsuspecting congregation of white frat guys and their feather-haired dates, he gestured to his get-up and squealed, “You like my outfit? Well… this is the front…” then, executing a dainty spin, he added, “and this is the back!” It didn’t go over well, and I recall feeling pity and fear that he’d soon be gay-bashed in the parking lot.
Almost two decades later I would see him do this same bit on his own national TV show, and it would kill.
A year or so after that night, I was forming a band with my best friend guitarist Todd Butler. Todd had come into his own at the local art house theater portraying Riff Raff in the live floorshow of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and I’d been playing bass in a punky pop band.
Through Rocky Horror, Todd had gained access to the new wave queer underworld of Atlanta, and had fallen in love with trash-funk band the Now Explosion and their back-up singers/go-go dancers RuPaul and the U-hauls. One day Ru took the bus to Todd's house, but unlike the cringe-worthy “comic” I’d seen, this RuPaul was charming and magnetic. The three of us fired up an ancient drum machine from the 60s and christened ourselves Wee Wee Pole – “like something a little kid would say.” In short order we appeared on public access and booked our first gig – opening for the Now Explosion at a seedy downtown club. We tore the roof off the place.
Within months we added percussionist David Klimchak – the only “functioning adult” in the band – made a three-song demo, and began gigging regularly. One memorable night we played at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, and RuPaul screamed from the stage, “Where’s MICHAEL STIPE? He’s so CUTE! I just love him!” Sadly, or perhaps not, Stipe was on the road.
Inevitably, we fell out with Todd’s mother, Betty, and lost our practice space. Mrs. Butler had been a gracious hostess; despite – or perhaps because of – her devout Christian beliefs, she tolerated RuPaul’s screamingly obvious gayness, never even addressing the non-issue. One day, however, she overheard the lyrics to a song called “Get Sexy” (“Perfume on yo’ cleavage, perfume on yo’ toes/Perfume on yo’ privacy, where everybody wants to go!”) and Mrs. Butler evicted us. We had officially tried the patience of a saint.
Regardless of minor setbacks, RuPaul went into promo overdrive. He Xeroxed fanzines about himself and wheat-pasted Wee Wee Pole gig posters all over Atlanta. One featuring a photo of him clad only in a loincloth was stuck on my grandmother Gammie’s street in a conservative Atlanta neighborhood. She was not pleased. (It would be years before I would convince her I was not being “recruited by the gays.”) It all paid off; soon our local hit “Tarzan" was getting airplay on Georgia State’s WRAS, we were opening for national acts, and headlining clubs.
RuPaul didn’t do much full drag in the early 80s. It’s expensive, for one thing, and he was dirt poor. He was an impressively inventive thrift store cross-dresser. I recall a feather boa wired into his short Mohawk, an oversize diaper, football shoulder pads affixed to his shirtless torso, and a pair of size 13 fisherman’s waders worn with hot pants.
On the downside, RuPaul could get pretty drunk and cavort sloppily onstage with drag queens while Todd, David and I vamped interminably on “Love Hangover.” I had no patience for that and I made sure everyone knew it. How I wish I had tapes of our band meetings from that time, just to hear things like: “Ru, you cannot invite Ty-D-Bowl on the stage with you, he ruins everything.”
The tech department at my alma mater Northside School of the Performing Arts had brand new video equipment and they were eager to do a live shoot with an audience of students. I volunteered Wee Wee Pole, worried yet thrilled at the risk. Ru did not hold back one iota – parading amongst the teens and dumbstruck teachers in one of his trash-glam ensembles, cutting loose with some over-the-top moves and cries of faux ecstasy, exhorting the spellbound kids with “EVERYBODY SAY LOVE!” I always have hoped his performance gave courage to some secret misfit kids.
I sent our demo tape to New York City, and from my grandmother’s kitchen I booked a Thursday night at the Pyramid Club and a Friday at Danceteria opening for Gene Loves Jezebel. Our fellow Atlanta scenesters took it upon themselves to warn us about “New York audiences,” clucking that the folks up there wouldn’t clap and perhaps might even boo, and not to take it personally.
We made the trip from Atlanta to New York City in one twenty-hour shot of continuous driving, done mostly by Ru, who once had earned a living as a drive-away car guy and loved the open road. It was late fall of ’83, I was eighteen, and the gigs we would play would be my last with the band. Athens, Georgia was calling like a siren.
Since R.E.M. had started their precipitous climb, the stock of the sleepy little college town had risen, and I was enthralled from 65 miles away in Atlanta, where I’d spent my whole life. Invited by well-established musician Vic Varney to start a new Athens band, I was drawn to the presumed depth and artiness of the scene.
In spite of Wee Wee Pole’s success, I’d grown frustrated; I told myself we were destined only to do songs about sex, partying and fun, as if that was a terrible fate. I decided this was a bash I wanted to leave early, and a New York tour was a perfect swan song.
Wee Wee Pole arrived in Manhattan on a cold autumn evening. We crashed on the Chelsea apartment floor of Dan, an old buddy of my girlfriend’s mother. A former male-model-turned-professional-waiter, Dan was prone to walking around his apartment completely naked, which seemed fine at the time and caused no incident. In fact, his shower was in his kitchen, so there was no way around it. None of us took showers.
The next night we played the Pyramid Club on Avenue A in the East Village. Within moments of our first song, it was clear that the sizable Thursday night crowd loved us. With thunderous applause still ringing in our ears, we stumbled into the post-midnight chill deliriously happy, relieved, and nowhere near tired. Ru had begun some celebratory drinking and although Todd, David and I didn’t drink, take drugs or smoke pot, we all got caught up in his elation. We asked around about something to do and someone suggested the Staten Island Ferry as a cheap, touristy adventure. The early morning hours found us heading towards the water in our van.
We parked on the ferry and found seats upstairs. The fluorescent lights and sad, dingy colors of the boat could not suppress RuPaul’s drunken gaiety. He ran full-tilt from bow to stern, getting right in the faces of the taciturn late-night commuters, crowing “JESUS LOVES YOU! YOU ARE SO GORGEOUS! WHO WANTS GUM? I DO, I DO!” Todd, David and I were still buzzing from the gig, so we took no notice of some sneering Mean Streets-looking toughs who growled, “You gotta wake up to reality, man… wake up to reality!” It wasn’t until we landed on Staten Island and went to retrieve the van that we noticed our tires had been slashed. We drove our crippled vehicle onto the Island, temporarily marooned. Ru moped and dozed in the front seat, and as the sun came up and our adrenaline dipped, we sat in silence, awaiting delivery of a new rental.
We slept at Dan’s most of the day and awoke in time to go play our Danceteria gig. We kicked ass, and once again RuPaul had the crowd in the palm of his hand. It was another triumphant night and I daresay we blew Gene Loves Jezebel off the stage. The next day we would retrieve our hapless new van – which had been towed – from a carbon-monoxide drenched garage and hit the road for home, satisfied and eager to relay news of our conquest.
Within weeks I quit. No one was surprised – my dissatisfaction with the band was no secret and there had been friction, complete with morning-after recriminations and apologies for missed cues and drunken lewdness. But if RuPaul ever bore me any ill will, I certainly never felt it.
Ru and I would cross paths several times over the next couple of decades. After spending most of 1984 playing in Athens band Go Van Go, wanderlust overtook me. I pulled up stakes and moved to Manhattan at the age of nineteen. In the 17 years I lived there, Ru would be a sometime-New Yorker and I was called in to play guitar and bass on his LP RuPaul Is Starbooty. We had a ball.
After getting sober and hooking up with ace management in the early 90s, Ru’s star really began to rise. At that time, I ran into him on lower Broadway and he had a whole agenda laid out – hit single, TV show, book, movies. Within a few years, it all happened. And when my elderly Gammie called to tell me she’d seen his career-ma king spot on Arsenio – “I saw that RuPaul on the TV!” – it seemed a part of the natural order of things.
The last time I saw RuPaul in the flesh was during my late-90s years as a Manhattanite stay-at-home dad. I was carrying my toddler son Jack through the East Village in a backpack and there was Ru, dressed in a sharp suit, passing unrecognized through my neighborhood. He had all the time in the world for us. He’d had his hit single “Supermodel,” his talk show, and various roles in Hollywood movies, and at that time he was a popular morning DJ on WKTU FM New York, splitting his time between Manhattan and L.A. His freckled face beamed goodwill and happiness for me, and he expressed empathic joy for my new life as a parent, and even hope that one day he might be able to take on that particular challenge.
It would not surprise me in the least if he did.