Contact High

As I approach senility, I’ve managed to outgrow most of my childhood heroes.

Lucille Ball was the first and easiest one to get over. By the age of 10 I’d memorized every line of dialogue of I Love Lucy. Even though I knew what was going to happen when I watched an episode for the 100th time, how Lucy did it kept it in the now.

I was one of the last rats to leave the sinking ship in the post-Desi 1960’s. I willed myself to love her subsequent sitcoms but intense loyalty could not make them funny. When I learned about her John Wayne politics I soured.

As an adult, I watched her on talk shows and was surprised by the effort she had put into her craft. The diligence and intense concentration that created joy for millions of people did not provoke the same feelings in her. It was just a job to Miss Ball which, in the end, made her seem like a very sad person.

My Jackie worship started as transference through my Mother. As documented in this blog, it began as pure idolatry that moved on to a fascination for her perverse imagery. Then the tackiness of her as a collectible commodity gave me a hobby. I ended up liking her but with some reservations.

As for Mick, I think I’m over him but I’m never quite sure. It helped last summer when I was in Bloomington and was reunited with Susan after 40 years. She seemed annoyed when she remembered, “you were always trying to be like Jagger.” Then she added, “I thought you were limiting yourself.”

I first saw Ike & Tina Turner on American Bandstand in the mid-60’s. The Ikettes were doing their mini-hit, Peaches ‘n Cream. Dick Clark lavished praise on Tina during the interview and called her shows legendary. I’d never heard of her.

Tina didn’t perform that day and barely spoke. But she was so self-possessed and confident, I was beguiled and instantly obsessed.

My favorite Ike & Tina album back then was called In Person and was a live recording of their performance at Basin Street West in San Francisco. It was on MINIT Records and available for 99 cents in the Rexall discount bin. I wore out about 10 copies.

It’s mostly covers of popular hits but there are two medleys where she talks extensively. During one 17 minute recitative she stops and starts the band repeatedly to wax on about love and hurt. Like a Baptist Preacher, she varies her volume and cadence for dramatic effect. The album was released at the height of the soul music trend and there’s nothing more soulful than a Sunday sermon from a southern pulpit. Which is basically what Tina delivered. Very effectively.

There was always a manufactured and meaningless rivalry back then between Tina and Aretha. They were really quite different and I loved them both.

Aretha had the better voice and was more musically talented. But she was what opera queens call park and bark, a diva who plants herself on stage and lets the voice be the show.

Tina had a great voice too with a more limited range. But she danced exceptionally well and, incredibly, sang and danced simultaneously. She constantly worked on creating new dance moves and on staging to highlight the movement. She wore long falls because she said they had “action.” As did the fringe on her costumes. Hers was one of the first acts to use strobes and fog machines.

Show business cognoscenti took note. I remember hearing Diana Ross say with astonishment “oh my god, she’s so bad.” (Back when that phrase was first used as praise.) In 1969 Dick Cavett asked Janis Joplin who she admired as a performer. She immediately responded, “Tina Turner.” And Lena Horne was quoted as saying she wanted to be reincarnated as Tina.

Listening to one of the Turner’s albums was always hit and miss, gems surrounded by mediocrity. Ike was a musical control freak and notorious for stealing from other acts. Even the “rough” part of Proud Mary was nicked from Fort Wayne’s own Checkmates. It was Phil Spector’s majestic uptempo production of the Checkmates version that made Ike’s recording.

He also controlled most of the stage act. Tina later admitted being embarrassed by things Ike made her do like the lewd, kabuki-esque fellatio she performed on the microphone. Or singing lyrics with heavy drug references (“she reached in her sack and she pulled out some coke!”) She may have been reluctant to do them but, again, it was so good because she was so convincing.

Make-up’s a little scary but the fringe flew.

I completely internalized her music and always played it when I needed a lift. In college I drank prodigious amounts of coffee and mimiced the way she splayed her thighs, sat her butt down in it and gyrated across the stage to get that fringe moving.

Later when I did her on stage I was never an impersonator. She was sui generis and impossible to recreate. But she inspired me as I tried to perform with her spirit and attitude. And I loved doing her songs because they were full of energy and so sexually provocative.

David Bowie said that being on stage next to Tina was the hottest place in the universe.  Rock ‘n Roll gods melted in her presence. A YouTube clip that has since been taken down showed Mick and Tina in Tokyo doing Brown Sugar. When he drops to his knees in a corny gesture she dismisses him with a look: “not on my stage.”

(Note bene 11/28/18: a friend and devoted reader found the clip. What I wrote was on memory. Who knows what they were actually thinking. But at approximately 2:00 the look is there. Thank you Mimi.)

There is a video of Keith Richards in a group jam of Keep A Knockin’. He takes his vocal turn and nervously sings two lines. He’s palpably relieved and shows such affection when Tina steps up to rescue the verse.

And when Paul McCartney does Get Back with Charles and Diana in the audience, his look of anticipation as Tina makes her entrance and the thrill in his eyes as they harmonize are unmistakable ardor.

My generation grew up with a Bill Murray sneer for show business. We mocked every gimmick and show biz cliche there was. I kid you not. But the happiness Tina exhibited on stage was impossible to deride. There was joy in every performance she gave.

On New Years Eve 1982 she was gearing up for her return to the lime light. No one knew it was in the works but I thought at the time her stunning visual presence needed to be captured in the new medium of music video. Although she was technically still down-and-out in this appearance on Johnny Carson, watching it again she obviously was not going to be denied a comeback. And with a piano player like she had I’d be attempting one too.

Happy Birthday Tina.

Back Pages

How could something that was worthless 45 years ago still be worthless today? In the mind of a collector this should never happen. The mere act of preserving something fragile for that many decades should add some value.

In the case of tabloid newspapers it doesn’t. My stack of Jackie National Enquirers, International Tattlers. and Weekly World News that cost me 10 to 50 cents back in the day don’t even fetch the $4.95 of a current issue.

After all that effort, the archivist in me couldn’t allow them to be tossed or destroyed. I thought of salvaging them as bathroom art but who among us wants to see another door papered with Jackie Kennedy covers?

Then I decided rather than focus solely on her I would celebrate the toilet bowl genre of journalism that fed her celebrity so effectively.  There are a few Jackie front pages included but they are among more hard-hitting pieces like: the tallest known traveling salesman in the world at 8′ 2″; the woman who sprouted porcupine quills; and, the first ever pictures of the Antichrist.

To honor her lifelong struggle of protecting herself and her children from the hordes, Privacy Film was used to cover the articles. And the borders are neon yellow to warn of potential hazard: there are some dangerous ways of thinking out there.

It’s fascinating to think how appalled this refined woman must have been to have her gawkish likeness on two-bit tea towels and coffee cups. Then how she was turned into a cartoon character for the tabloids by the Kennedy publicity machine. They had no problem using her because it only increased the power of the family brand among the masses. Plus it gave her a few bargaining chips in life.

It’s also hard to reconcile that figure with the one who studied art with Bernard Berenson and debated philosophy with Andre Malraux; who was the only one ever to convince the French to temporarily lend the Mona Lisa; whose influence brought the Temple of Dendur to the Met; and, who would charge clothing to Onassis’ haute couture accounts then immediately sell them to second hand shops to pad her cash on hand. You gotta do, girl, what you gotta do. It was the perversity of how she got ahead, and not so much idolatry, that appealed to me.

That was the inspiration for starting the collection 50 years ago. I was so much older then I’m younger than that now.

The Metropolitan Museum of Jackie

One of the millions Who have visited the shrine
One of the millions who have visited the shrine

The Bay Area Reporter ran a story about me today. Ostensibly the interview was about my Jackie collection but the conversation turned into a mash-up of Jackie, eviction, and drag.  I was fine with that and pleased with the article except I look so old. But then so does Mick. It’s always fun to talk about Mrs. Onassis.

It all started in a Chinese Political Systems class back in the fall of 1972. As I leafed through my Warhol book I happened on his Jackie series. Inspiration struck. I turned to my friend and said “this is it!”

He was actually paying attention to the lecture and gave me a perturbed, “what’s it?”

I pointed to her and said “my Halloween costume.” We both started laughing. I knew I had a winner.

The Gay Halloween Dance at the Student Union was one of the biggest events of the year on campus. The pressure was on to be outlandish, everyone tried to outdo each other.

I thought my idea was the perfect antidote to glitzy, traditional drag. My idea contained the essential elements of Halloween: ghoulish, glamorous, sickening, sexy and instantly recognizable. Not to mention controversial and potentially in very bad taste.

I found a pink suit at the Goodwill and proceeded to alter it to resemble her Chez Ninon boucle. Food coloring mixed with ketchup served as the blood and brain matter. There was nothing haute about the reconstruction since I didn’t know how to sew. But as long as it produced the right effect, bas couture would have to do.

It did. People were stunned. I walked into the hall on Gary’s arm as he shouted “the President’s been shot!” Half the room was fascinated by it, the other half repulsed. The latter thought it cruel and callous making fun of America’s sainted widow (cum Greek shipping magnate courtesan).  I was dealing with imagery not people.

It would have been one thing if I was mocking my next door neighbor who was killed in a hunting accident. But I was in the public domain here. This was a person I would never meet or ever know, an image that would be used for years to gain political advantage.

And it’s not like the Kennedy’s haven’t milked martyrdom. Every time one of Bobby’s kids takes the stand it begins with a litany of the family tragedies.

My connection to Jackie was sealed after that night. When I moved into my second San Francisco apartment on 14th Street, a friend brought me a house-warming gift. He had just moved into a flat on Page Street where someone left behind Jack and Jackie salt and pepper shakers. He re-gifted them to me.

I had no idea this kind of kitsch existed. I could only think how appalled such a refined woman like Jackie must have felt seeing herself represented in such tacky gewgaws. It made me love them even more.

Once the pattern was identified, the collection was off. I found a plate to match, then small pitchers, then another pattern, and on and on. Friends gave me Jackie ephemera they found like books, magazines, autographs, letters, head vases, and pictures. The collection grew exponentially.

The first couple decades it was a challenge to collect since I only wanted items that included her. Kennedy’s campaign teams considered Jackie too effete for the masses so her image was rarely used. The scarcity of propaganda using her meant I could go months without finding a thing.

Then eBay came along and it was like fish in a barrel. Many items I’d accumulated as unique were really rather commonplace. Though I had a lot that were not. I continued to search but the sport went out of it. I slowly just stopped collecting.

One morning back in the 1980’s I was having coffee with an overnight guest. We sat quietly in my dining room under Jackie’s serene gaze. Out of the blue he said, “it’s like being surrounded by death.” I hoped he was commenting on the shrine and not the night before.

Testifying at the Church Hearings, 1975. Shirt courtesy of Chicken Little's Emporium.
Testifying at the Church Hearings, 1975. Shirt courtesy of Chicken Little’s Emporium.


The Jackie Obsession