Clothes, Male Nakedness, Long Hair, Emma, Sweat ,â€¦.oh and Music, a Few Memories of Woodstock, 1969
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Excerpted from MY AMERICAN FAMILY; IN ONE ERA, OUT THE OTHER, an autobiography by BillyBoy*
1969. I was clearly born to be queer. It was pretty clear by now. I was a nice little boy. Timid, in a manner. I had no compunction to dress like a raging, rabid queer, but I was oh-so-polite and very quiet. I just was « doing my thing » as they said, doing it quietly in my bedroom, often alone or with my tutor. ahem.
I had just started really applying myself into making my little art things. I began about this time to make weird, unwearable, impractical jewels to go with my collages, little paintings and poems and I stuck at first with what I knew…consumer products. I guess, well obviously, this was Andy Warhol’s fault (the Warhol curse had started). Tide, Ajax, diverse sculptural perfections such as sink faucets, pots and pans, which I worshipped as far as their shapes were concerned, and old-fashioned flat irons, like the kind which was in my doll’s house left over from the 1920s array of doll accessories. Man Ray’s cadeaux and and an « R. Mutt » signed urinal by Duchamp photographed by Alfred Stieglitz did not come as a surprise in my later art education and cultural development. In a strange way nature played it’s role too. I was very much influenced by seeing a few bowerbirds and catbirds, related to birds-of-paradise, which I’d seen in Australia and to a lesser extent birds who did less spectacular but equally as odd things which we saw each spring in the forest near our house. Bowerbirds, hilarious animal consumerists, did their insane decorating/mating rituals of combining colourful bits of plastic, flowers and leaves and twigs to make fabulous decors to attract the ladies. I was a nine-year-old gay though I had no idea exactly what that implied nor did I know the word catbird but I was clearly like these exotic animals. I wanted to attract boys with neat stuff. I liked this very vague and naturalist idea alot. I then turned my hand and cathode tube brains to Wilma Flintstone but she was dressed as a Biba chick and then tried to ressemble Hanna-Barbera’s gay octopus Squiddly Diddly as Shiva. I think I was od-ing on Chocks, « The fruit flavoured, multiple vitamins, specially made for children, chewable Chocks », they had speed in them, I think. Oh, a small detail and incidentally I believe this was the year I learned the word (shudder) â€œforeskinâ€.
I wore glitter eye shadow. Jesus, I loved that stuff. I used vaseline and the glitter from those kid’s toys of that era, called « Glitter Painting », to do my eyes up like those Biba photos I’d see in Henri Bendel’s when I went shopping with aunt Sylvia in her blue ranch mink baseball jacket. I also had theVogue Twiggy cover up in my bedroom still. They were these paint-by-number sets with plastic tubs of various coloured glitter. Very useful for eyelids, lips and hairlines. I eternally had glitter on my face and in my hair which unnerved my dad of course. My mother would look at him with an odd expression when she found it on his lips and face. Sequinned butterflies adorned my now-that-I-think-of-it, a twee bit sleazy, skimpy pink tee-shirts, and I had heavily-appliquÃ©d jeans jackets which were trimmed in hot pink rhinestones and sequins. Cloth patches were the hot thing at the time, you saw them advertised in comic books. Like most kids, I had many of them shaped like « Mod » Partridge Family-esque daisies, peeled bananas Ã la Warhol, the Rolling Stones tongue of course (though the sexual innuendo was totally lost on me) and other sundry motifs. I had a Sylvester the Cat, the Warner Brothers feline version of Nietzche, and he was surrounded by smiling fruits and peace symbols on my jackets, and for more formal moments I wore purple and yellow, two-toned hip-hugger bellbottoms (with patch pockets) matched with a shirt in orange and lime green peace symbol repeat motif accentuated by a big zipper down the front ended in a big ring, over which was a green vinyl CourrÃ¨ges mod jacket. God, how I recall having to beg for those bellbottom pants, at least the first pair, which, I may add, were a sober matt black crepe jersey. This, thought my style-conscious mom, was the only kind of bellbottom besides a sailor’s, which were acceptable. I guess she got this logic out of the basic black dress concept, which a decade earlier was her only dictum. That’s before she turned into a lesbo version of Barbara Streisand, her hero. I begged, threw a tantrum, even smacked my father at some point. « You don’t love me ! », that always usually worked. Emotional blackmail was a classic in our Russian family. Even though I was adopted, and Viennese, I had the gift and flair for their Russian Chekovian drama. Throwing fits of depressively tinted rage mixed with pitiful sadness and the pathos of the anemic child, was not only aesthetically arty, but useful in that large family of aristocratic White Russian drama queens. And this was just for a pair of flaired pants.
Drama aside, I also, needless to say, loved clothing and my mom dressed me in the most startling designer’s clothes of the day. I loved the Parisian clothes the most. Jacques Esterel’s clothes were incredible. I especially loved to wear the fabulous Jacques Esterel Unisex (it was him who invented the word!) clothes, they were very, very gay. And of course, there were the vinyl and lycra â€œModâ€ vestiments of Pierre Cardin. I also loved my Space-Age look provided by the genius of AndrÃ© CourrÃ¨ges. I would become personally acquainted with these fashion makers a decade later when I moved to France. I remember telling Monsieur CourrÃ¨ges that he was responsible for me being gay, as a joke, but I think he scowled and mumbled something, sternly and seriously, to the effect, â€œMais, il est fou ce BillyBoy* !â€. I mean, he was a 60 year old man in a white jumpsuit and a pink jacket and go-go boots, AND HUGE WHITE BUBBLE GLASSES for chrissake ! Anyhow, these were just some of the designers whose clothes I’d wear with great happiness in the late sixties and very early seventies.
Contributing to the gestalt thing my mom was into was my outlandish clothing and my enforced by pretention manifestation of my inner self: accessories meant EVERYTHING and they â€œpulled the look together” as certain types of people of that era tended to say only too often. Bubble glasses, just like Barbie’s friend cum cousin P.J. (AND Monsieur CourrÃ¨ges!) wore, in delicate tones of purple and pink stripes for casual moments. Gatsby caps (often in suede two-toned Burgundy) were puffed up to look more cool like the Osmond brothers (sigh! I had discovered masturbation by that time too !), and goofy metal chain belts, mine were links by Paco Rabanne. My aunt even bought me the Paco Rabanne make-your-own dress kit in a plastic suitcase with Paco Rabanne bits in it to assemble a dress, but I made necklaces, bracelets and belts. The quintessential crowning objects of adornment were platform shoes though, I have hardly ever, stopped loving them way up until the 1990s when enough was enough ! Those big rounded toes. Those big “chunky” heels. The stripes and dots and cut-out and laces and piping and perforations and wacky colourful lamÃ©s were simply the ultimate experience of that era. I also wore, believe it or not, very prim, very conservative suits, some custom-made for me and vintage clothes from the 1910s to the 50s. I was as unpredicatble with my clothes as I was with my sexual orientation. Was I a top or a bottom, (though I had not yet even heard such terms), and what did I have on top and on my bottom? It all was just too, too confusing.
We went to Woodstock, in Bethel, New York, the famous music venue which has become mythic since all the greats in rock and folk appeared there. One early morning we all piled into a big Cadillac limousine and headed upstate. In another car following us was my English tutor Jonathan, who was at that time, in his mid or late 20s and not at all into Pop music, but English literature, my summer reading was Emma by Jane Austen. It was in August, 1969. My mom was into Monticello Racetrack at the time and we’d be so close to the hippies and their debris that there were practically paths of garbage right up to Jimi Hendrix! Thirty-two of the most eclectic musicians of the day made a huge amount of noise under the rain that weekend in front of nearly half a million body painted, or naked, high, long-haired, smelly concert goers. Arlo Guthrie was probably my favourite, Joni Mitchell didn’t appear, if I recall which was a disappointment to my lesbian mom, (« â€¦perhaps no man can be a good judge of the comfort a woman feels in the society of one of her own sex, after being used to it all her life » – Mrs. Weston to Mr. Knightley in Emma) but Joan Baez was probably her favourite, and there was legend of legends Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the colourful Ravi Shankar. I still cannot believe, on the last day, Sha-Na-Na was there. Then of course there was Janis Joplin, who was at moments fascinating to a nine-year-old boy that I was. I loved her hippy retro freak look, or rather, I should say, I was momentarily distracted by her looks as my many aunts haute couture gowns were infinitely more appealing in the long run. A cocktail dress by Dior was traumatizingly more glam than a sweaty tie-dyed teeshirt and a vintage bead necklace. I still can see in my mind with her dirty feet and I do recall a ratty little feather boa though I am not sure it was on her or one of the many other girls AND boys there (I was fixated on boas that year), and her sweaty blouse and the tips of her hair, all wet with sweat and rain. There was Sly and the Family Stone, Canned Heat and Joe Cocker, my was he sexy, though I did not know this word really, at the time. The Canned Heat song which was known and heard everywhere at the time, â€œGoin’ to the Countryâ€ my mom loved. The Grateful Dead did not interest me at all. Some of the others, some quite famous, I heard a teeny bit of and was just dazed, probably from the marijuana smoke and cigarette smoke which permeated the air. My uncle seemed to smoke joints the size of cigars. I just recall going back and forth between Montecello and Woodstock, seeing performers until they finished and went away. My mom thought it was too dirty, too muddy and freaky but seemed to enjoy it a little bit, she loved her fun, in any form it seemed. In her sheath dresses, stilletto heels and hairdos, she was not above letting her hair down, figuratively and literally. She had a bit of the Anita Ekberg in her, and wouldn’t hesitate to toss her heels off and jump into the Trevi fountain, though in this case, it is a muddy water in a pond. My dad, though a rather formidable businessman and a cowboy, had alot of the child in him, something I was just coming to understand about this butch child/man. He had an unbridled enthusiasm for things and when he hadn’t he would stamp his feet, growl, shout and bully people. He just hated Woodstock and being of Russian origins, made it very clear. It confused me as to why all the youthful beauty, the colours and celebratory atmosphere would upset him. It was the free love I’d understand later, but at the moment, he seemed disagreeable and loutish to me. I sat on his shoulders to see much of it though.
I went swimming, naked, feeling totally like a heathen and like a fish since the concert was billed as an â€œAquarian Expositionâ€ and I was a double pisces. There was really no way to express the freedom I felt swimming naked in the big pond where the singers stage was, filled with gorgeous naked young people, all very friendly and mellow though some a bit noisy and freaky. Women’s tits were of all sizes and shapes too and they bounced and sagged (I’d only seen them in tight Dior corsets, Balenciaga strapless dresses and heavily underwired boned bathing suits pretty much up until then), and like the boys cocks, it all was so foreign and fascinating and seeing all this teenage nudity en masse really left a branded effect on my thinking to manifest later in my life in my work. Clearly I loved seeing the naked boys and the long hair. I had not seen so many naked people all in one place up to that point in my life except maybe in the turkish baths my grandfather Bernard took me to once in awhile in his old fuddy duddy club, which was distinguished, a place which in my memory is a blur of leather armchairs and the pungent smell of cigar smoke, furniture polish and musty long ago consumed highballs and whisky sours. There, in that sauna, all the men were fat and old and even in my young mind, I felt like bait on a hook. At this Woodstock orgy of boys, I had never seen so many boy â€œtypesâ€ before either and secretly in my mind, I was figuring out what type of boy was the most appealing to me, the conclusion being that I loved all boys and fantasized kissing them all. In the town, or what was left of it as it seemed to be picked away as if by termites, the people all smelled ripe.
I know it was not the case, but it seemed everyone was naked. This contrasted immensely with the hard-to-follow storyline of the civilized world of Emma Woodhouse. Mister Knightley, Mrs Bates, Miss Harriet Smith and Miss Jane Fairfax did not even mention taking their clothes off. While I was dreaming of a romantic hero sweeping me off my feet, dressed of course, and the heated debates of good manners and what is and is not acceptable for a well bred lady, which is what I considered myself, the raunchy Pop scene screamed contrast to my face.
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And scream it did. The boys almost never had a shirt on and the pheromones were flying. I was fascinated at underarm hair and body hair in general. I had an attraction/repulsion response to it. It had a dangerous appeal and at this prepubescent stage of my life, deep within I heard the stirrings of sexual attraction, but these voices were very far away. So, the body hair which seemed to be my main preoccupation, was confusing. My father told me one day I’d have hair on my body which entirely grossed me out, and I anticipated some sort of horrible day, I’d wake up, like one of those boys, but oddly I’d remain as hairless as a girl. All that worry for nothing. However, I think he was even worried back then of my girl-y nature. He took me into a grocery store, my dad. It was right out of the 1930s with wooden floors and built in shelves with old-y world-y products which seemed to have been on those shelves since the crack of dawn of mankind. Rinso detergent and Brillo and things in mysterious dark bottles. In a corner were a few toys and my dad bought me a cowboy gun and holster and hat, I swear to heaven, it must have been there since the 50s at least. I was happy to get it because it was, after all accessories and when in a pinch you make do. It was a nice matching group of accessories so I ended up wearing it as if it had come straight from Dior. The rakish angle I wore the hat disturbed my father. He kept setting it straight on my head and telling me a cowboy hat was NOT worn like that. My reference was my aunt Bebe’s Schiaparelli and Paulette hats she always had plopped on the side of her head like a saucy coquette. They had veils. I longed for a veil to put on this cowboy hat. HÃ©las no. Secretly I draped handkerchiefs, doilies or anything I could get upon it to give me that « mysterious woman » look. The belt I wanted to cinch in my waist. This too was a point of contention with my father. He did not appreciate my Betty Page-inspired waist emphasizing way to wear it. I adored the way my aunt Sylvia wore her tailored suits with such tight self belts or patent leather wide belts from HermÃ©s. Dad said it was worn on the hips. It took alot of convincing to get me to wear this holsterbelt on my hips, but then I realized I could use my hips as a point of emphasis. When I starting swinging them like Mae West, then all hell broke loose with my dad and it took a long time to cure that habit. Mrs Guggenheim, who I called Mrs Guggy, another one of my teachers, was a buxom bombshell with a bleached blonde beehive hairdo and stretchy, clinging sheath dresses and stillettos and wiggled when she walked, like that character, the sexy, bright secretary Joan on the television program Madmen, and she was my reference.
Woodstock, I was particularly thrilled to know, much later in life it all happened thanks to a gay man. Elliot Tiber, an artist and screenwriter, who, infact had the only music concert permit in the area and his parents, owning the El Monaco motel allowed the organizers to create the mythic concert at a nearby farm. Tiber also was involved in the Stonewall riot, the also mythic gay liberation cornerstone. It makes you think that the entire history of art and culture is thanks to gay people. I know I’ll eat these words but anyone important in the arts seems to be gay.
The most exciting thing, besides the boys and the totally foreign sounding music (though strangely I was never really into music of this sort), more than anything which cemented the event for me into my psyche, was the amazing hippy clothing and looks. Though I am a couture boy at heart, these are the things which I recall as if it were yesterday. One was more psychedelic than the other. The hair, the flowers, the printed dresses, the nehru jackets, the brocades, the bellbottoms, the swirly, curly tie-dye, the bandanas, the headbands, the jewellery and God, there was alot of it, the face-painting, the whole craziness of it was to mark me for life.
I loved the poster of the concert and my dad got one for me which I had in my bedroom for a long time until I discovered Art Deco and found the lurid Pop Art colours vile. By the end of the Woodstock days, I was almost finished with Emma. I found that the electric buzz of all the pheromones and tie-dye wore thin and it was amongst my first disillusionments. Pop hippy grunge I found somewhat ugly and distasteful. While all the while Jonathan was sniffing disdainfully at it all saying such things as « Stuff and nonsense, stuff and nonsense », and like Emma Woodhouse, he made me understand that I was way above all this â€œyeomanryâ€. It took a while for me to understand what he meant. In his mind, I was too bright to be attracted to this filthy band of what he thought were beatniks! I was by the end, finding it all quite sad. Maybe it was Emma’s world of delicate 1815 romance which spoilt it for me. At some point, I recall looking at my dad. â€œHe will be a completely gross vulgar farmer – totally inattentive to appearances, and thinking of nothing but profit and lossâ€ from the book hit a very private nerve in me. I think I felt sorry for him. Emma (and Jonathan) had won over my feelings and I gave into a snobbish sense of superiority and melancholic sense of waste and foolishness. I silently said to myself, a line from Emma to Miss Harriet Smith, â€œThe yeomanry are precisely the order of the people with whom I feel I can have nothing to doâ€. I threw my cheap cowboy hat and holster into the garbage and anticipated going home. I had heard too many diphthongs instead of vowels.
What was happening in the Pop hipster world around me at the time I was wearing such get-ups, torn between English Empire manners and peace symbols drawn on lithe male bodies with marker?
“All the red tape is mechanical. Rape of the TV program waste. Data control and IBM. Science is mankind’s brother. But all I see it’s draining me.” A ditty from Jefferson Airplane, who years later linquistically and technologically changed their name to “Jefferson Starship”. They practically hissed these sentiments at the world by use of sophisticated recording and communication devices. One can only think of the monkeys on the moon banging bones together in the shadow of the mysterious object that was in 2001, A Space Odyssey. The self-righteousness of the media even seeped into the entertainment arts and the very methods used to sell millions of records, tapes, books, and TV programs became what was condemned by their authors. It was quite confusing actually. Some days my mother was in a black cocktail dress and serving martinis at her Chinese-influenced black lacquered bar with big wig friends, all either glammed out and arty or business-like and other days she was with her girlfriend Rita smoking joints and listening to music as she sped around town in her convertible Cadillac, thinking she was â€œfreeâ€. Like in our house, the whole world apparently was this way. It was a peculiar duality and perverted social phenomenon. So, like monkeys, youth mocked its very supporters unconscious of their dependency and their imitation of the very modus operandi they resented. If they’d only stuck to banging bones together maybe the hypocrisy of the revolution could have been reduced. It perhaps would not have become just another fashion and “look,” sold to millions the same way hairspray and Tupperware were sold. TV commercials and print advertising along with most entertainment cynically sold its wares by inadvertently telling viewers, “You aren’t good enough, you aren’t sexy, smart, clean young, rich, talented, thin, fun, or groovy enough!” The message which hit you from every corner of every street, every day, was quite clear. It was seen as colour two story-tall billboard ads everywhere. It was what some people could say about the message of the Barbie doll. As the youth of the late sixties had really no alternative lifestyle role models it was a heavy dose of angst to bear if one didn’t totally accept the message. Just trying to live up to the perfection of the stereotyped personality created by the mass-media was a full time job. “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” was a deeply-ingrained sentiment and on-the-edge youth rebelled sporadically and instinctively against everything that got in its way. Either you played the game to the hilt or you sank deep in to the recesses of social failure. “Be there or be square” became more like “Be hip or die trying” Everyone became so engrossed in the colloquialisms “In” and “Out” and became so self-conscious and introspective that the spontaneous act became a real risk. Being cool was in essence, the only way of being and surviving – that is, being indifferent and uninvolved emotionally. Don’t forget, I unlike now, (and my testicles are shrinking and crawling back up into my pelvis as I write this) wanted Barbie dolls at that time !
“Hey, man, like, don’t get heavy…” This became the call of the day. When I first heard this phrase, I had no idea what it meant. Heavy? It made me think alot. I guess heavy meant that it made you think alot. SO, â€œheavyâ€ it was, at least on the surface, because looking back, it was clear most of these teens were confused, disillusioned, bored and like myself, most were bourgeoise kids running away from families like the kind you saw on television. Consumerists. 1960s American consumerists. These hippies without doubt, really freaked out by the whole era were just a new kind of consumerist. Also, a big naked party was the order of the day. It was one big orgy really. The fashion of childish behaviour was another leitmotiv spurned from this environment of violent emotional confusion and as a witness I can assure you did not make the matter better, but only worse. Think Mia Farrow in Secret Ceremony. Think Twiggy. It was a puerile and symbolic returning to the beginning, a futile attempt at re-education and building of new values. Unfortunately, the human psyche is not as easily erasable as an Etch-a-Sketch, and the artificial naÃ¯vity became another cosmetic apparition. The only remnants of this mode that is truly ensconsed in our contemporary culture is perhaps the ultimate acceptance of the word “Baby” in music lyrics. That’s why today, I don’t understand the big nostalgia for Woodstock. Unless you were there, with your first little borderline pubescent erection and smelling it, seeing it, hearing the often unlistenable shrill music, eating the junk food which seemed to the the only food you could get outside of your own house there, the romanced version of it people try to sell it as now is quite phoney. Yeah, it had a bit of love, as I seemed to recall alot of sexual innuendo. I think this was the first time I saw homosexicals (as Shirley Q. Liquor says) kissing behind the tennis court, a peculiar wrestling of bodies, an odd tug-o’-war between my camp counselour tennis teacher and Jonathan. â€œStuff and nonsenseâ€ – indeed!
Despite this first glimpse of sex, I don’t think the Woodstock event itself really was a big love and peace-in as one would believe now. The « peace » was drug induced stupor, the « love » was more like teen lust accelerated by the drugs and excitment of the proximity of the nudity and mayhem. It suddenly seemed grotesque and made me feel even lonelier. It was a sham, a marketed sham for teens who were horny and bored. It appeared more, now that I have looked back on it, like a big excuse to freak out, get naked, get drugged, party and be with people who, like many people of the time, needed to escape the wildly rigid guidelines of conformism. In the words of one other iconic and visionary group of philosophers of the time, « Hey hey, we’re the Monkeys ! People say we monkey around, we’re too busy singing, to put anybody down,â€¦. »