BY SARA “I’m Not Gay But I’m Willing To Learn” SHERR GUEST COLUMNIST While Tommy Zane is on vacation this week, I’ll continue to advance the gay agenda, since according to Margaret Cho, fag hags are the fabric of gay society. However, if I get my pronouns wrong, please remember that at the end of the day, I’m a boring old straight girl in an eight-year relationship who hasn’t worn a pair of pants since the end of the Clinton administration. But, having gone through puberty during the early years of MTV, I love a man in eyeliner and a woman in a suit-and-tie.
Since 2003, Earl Dax’s Direct From NYC series has brought the queens of drag (Lady Bunny) and provoking performance artists (Karen Finley) to L’etage, Bar Noir, and the dearly departed Five Spot. But Beyond Beyond! was his most ambitious production: a four-hour plus, queer variety show for the Third National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Health Summit. Say that three times fast.
Staged Saturday night at the Trocadero, Beyond Beyond! wasn’t your typical kings, queens, and cabaret. The performers were outsiders’ outsiders, misunderstood in mainstream gay society for their ability to move between genders and sexual preferences and their failure to conform to appropriate images and body types.
The T-shirts on sale at the merch booth said it all: the Mastercard logo redone as Masturbate, along with “Trannie Mouse” and “Hello Pussy” forgeries, and Banana Republic with a slash through Dubya’s face. The oh-so-perfect host was Justin Bond, otherwise known as the Kiki half of outrageous cabaret duo Kiki and Herb and the den mother of a pansexual underground salon in the 2006 flick Shortbus. Looking like a long, cool (wo)man in a black dress, he set the tone for the evening, bringing elements of punk and Broadway together in the same gloriously unholy mess you usually get with Kiki and Herb, or even Hedwig. Patti Smith’s “Pissing in the River” was pure Kurt Weill. Bond sung Bob Dylan’s “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” from the perspective of both the admired and the admirer — Twyla Tharp could have used his expertise in her failed Dylan musical.
Is it possible to make show tunes even queerer? If you’re singing lines about passing, then yes. Novice Theory’s Geo Wyeth came off like a boi Ben Folds or a trans Rufus Wainwright when he revealed, “This is no magic trick. I was born without a dick.” Cherry Hill refugee and zaftig go-go dancer Glenn Marla imagined Gypsy’s “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” as the bee girl from the Blind Melon video, except without wings. Dressed in an orange bathing cap and blue spandex sack, he stripped down to a leotard that was half zebra print and half neon pink and tight black sweat pants. His moves could be described as interpretative tap dance. He didn’t lip-sync — he was feeling the song. Everything’s coming up roses! For me! For me! Like the bee girl, you wanted to cheer him on. He was finally among his people! Marla was not the graceful physical specimen of Philadanco’s Mykal D. Laury II, who followed him later. And that was the point. When explaining his act, Marla said it was “about jellybeans and Divine and Meat Loaf and kickball and vaginal imagery but not like Georgia O’Keefe.”
Philly-turned-New York burlesque artist Amber Ray represented old school glamour, dressed in winter whites and feathers that were part Vegas showgirl and part Madonna’s wedding dress from her “Like A Virgin” performance on the early 80s MTV Awards. In this kind of environment, singer-songwriters can be sort of a mood-killer, but at least Daniel Cartier had a good sense of humor. He introduced a song by asking why the father of his first high school boyfriend would send his son to military school, “where a bunch of teenage boys take showers together,” and then launched into Kirsty MacColl’s “They Don’t Know About Us” over a chord progression that sounded like The Cranberries’ “Zombie.” Cartier gave a funny spoken-word intro to Bacharach classic-turned-new wave nugget “Always There To Remind Me” about two boys “who like totally fall in love and like start a hemp pet store!”
Even better was Philly expat Dan Fishback of electro-trash duo Cheese On Bread, who had the uneasy task of going on much later in a very long evening. He danced and cheered on every act that preceded him. A bundle of energy in a pink hoodie, his rapid-fire strumming and high, boyish voice reminded me of a gay John Darnielle, except Fishback was singing about the joys of bisexual boys, sexless times in Philadelphia, and body hair.
A poet in a rock club would have her work cut out for her but Samantha Barrow captivated the crowd by being funny, accessible, and of course saucy. In a poem about a motorcycle trip to Louisiana, the self-described “half-dyke” fantasized about “giving boys a bit of pain where they don’t think it’s Christian.” Her refrain, “vowels drip between consonants like the hammocks hang between trees,” had the audience stomping along.
One of the funniest people of the evening was Chicago “lesbian sex activist” Jessica Halem. Dressed in a plunging black-and-white mod dress, she revealed that she gave up being a professional feminist because she was tired of hummous and that she makes her lovers put condoms on their dildos because she’s allergic to cat hair. To Halem, ‘fisting’ is a poor choice of words; it’s more like the movements from “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Halem lamented the lack of anonymous lesbian sex, Casual Encounters on Craig’s List, and glory holes. According to Halem, girlie glory holes would be scented with aromatherapy and be made of shellacked wood because “shellacking is a lesbian sport.” And on the other side, instead of a mouth, it would be a voice saying, “You’re so pretty. Everyone likes you.”
The night’s real stunner was Portland singer/performance artist Holcombe Waller (pictured, top) and his band, Patty Heart Townes, a folk-operetta tribute to Patty Griffin and Townes Van Zandt. Backed by a cellist, violinist, and a banjo player, Holcombe appeared as a gaunt, desperate figure with white kabuki eyes, an unflinching clown-red smile, spiky blond hair, a black vest, and tight black pants. Like the tears of a clown, when no one’s around. He stood on a chair without a visible mic and gestured up to the heavens, which in this case was a giant video screen behind him, alternating images of a noose’s shadow, a sunlit underwater scene, and a full pink moon. On paper (or in this case, onscreen) this probably sounds like a disaster, especially to a no-nonsense Townes Van Zandt fan, but Holcombe’s soaring, expressive voice and gorgeous string arrangements brought a whole new meaning to the term high lonesome sound. After all, everyone knows that real cowboys aren’t supposed to be manic-depressive, which plagued Van Zandt’s brilliant career throughout his short, unhappy life.
The one thing that gay and straight culture has in common is obsession with youth and fear of aging, but Beyond Beyond! represented two survivors: Penny Arcade and Needles Jones. Penny Arcade, a teenage runaway who became a Warhol superstar, Patti Smith peer, and eventually, a playwright and spoken-word performer, made two appearances. The first was an homage to the late superstar Andrea “Whips” Feldman, whose life and death were performance art. According to warholstars.org, the blond, velvet mini-dress wearing star of “Trash” would climb on top of the Warhol group’s big round table at Max’s Kansas City, rip open her shirt and proclaim, “It’s Show Time! And everything’s coming up roses! Marilyn’s gone five years, so love me while you can, I’ve got a heart of gold.” Feldman committed suicide in 1972, by jumping out a 14th-story window after making dates with her exes to arrive just in time to see her meet with the pavement.
Of course, if you didn’t know any of this, you would have thought you were watching Ab Fab-meets-Judy Tenuta.
For Arcade’s final appearance of the night, she ruefully joked about how gays are rejected by their parents because of their sexuality, while parents hate straight kids for no reason at all. Meanwhile, in the gay community, she’s marginalized for being bi. “Everyone says that bisexuals don’t want to come out,” she said. “I was never in!” Then she brought back the Patty Heart Townes band and performed a song called “No Mona Lisa,” which is kind of a ringer for Lou Reed’s “Dirty Boulevard.” Except her lyrics go something like “I am magnum-mouthed, honey-snatched, my flavor changes constantly…Mona Lisa has no mouth, no cunt. She stops at the waist!”
Drag queen (and the evening’s cocktail waitress) Needles Jones follows the late Divine/John Waters interpretation of genderfuck by paying homage to women who are anything but glamorous. By day, Needles is a little Jewish man named Ira Abromovitz. But by night, in a big blond wig, black leather tank top, black gloves, pink-and-black leopard skin mini skirt, and stilettos, Needles channels Courtney Love (early 90s model) through an old South Philly lady. She refuses to lip-sync and defiantly sings in a voice that sounds like Marge Simpsons’ sisters Patty and Selma. For this reason, her biggest fans are straight punk rock girls and her venues are usually rock clubs. “I’m a pariah among other drag queens,” declared Needles. “An outsider among outsiders.”
Armed with a cocktail tray and a dance club backing track, Needles spelled out “a-n-g-s-t,” an outcast anthem from a man who came out in 1972 by wearing a halter top to school. She made reference to last year’s 10-week hospitalization for a stroke. “I’m not gonna stop living because I’m afraid to die!” Words to live by.
[Holcombe Waller photo by Ericka Heidrick]