She wore green fingernails. It was the first thing I noticed about her, though it was hardly the first thing to notice. Up on the bandstand, her skintight black ciré jump suit flashed in the spotlight like slickered-down leather, unzipped to the navel. Her frizz of hair kinked up from the shoulders to a crown that was cut short to cowlick like a corona of pineapple spikes. She strutted across the stage, thumbs hooked in her heavy silver belt like a street punk. She eased the long silver microphone pole between her legs, taunting, slung her scarlet lips back over her teeth and hurled out her words at the audience in a mocking south-Bronx squawk:
When I first saw you, like a smoldering harlot You were so enigmatic, 1 was nailed to the spot The room was bouncing bodies, and anointed flesh Everyone was decadent, everyone regressed.*
Out in the darkened depths of the nightclub, teen glitter queens were living out the lyrics. They slid their arms tighter around the girls they danced with, pelvis to pelvis. The Happy Hooker herself took up the message, clutched a slimhipped guy to her, locked her lips to his in a solid five-minute star turn of her own. The entire hermaphroditic hip underground was there for the occasion, but there were straights too jamming the doorways, beckoned by a word-of-mouth blitz and the posters outside promising a band called Rough Trade (“Repulsive yet fascinating”). And when they weren’t hanging on each other, they were hanging on lead singer Carole Pope’s every word.
They listened, rapt, to songs about cruising and losing, about women panting after other women, about the joys of whips and chains. They applauded wildly songs called Lipstick On Your Dipstick and Restless Underwear. Applauded wildly but, mind you, never too wildly. For if Carole Pope’s lyrics were all wittily, literately outrageous, flagrantly in delicto and proudly perverse, they were nevertheless delivered straight from the soul with a yawning smirk and her fans returned the compliment: the air hung thick and steamy with jaded insouciance.
Something was happening here — and it was not just an isolated freak show. This was no smoky underground afterhours den but one of Toronto’s biggest clubs. Rough Trade was no sleazy import from Warhol-land, but a homegrown band that has built up its own massive and unfaltering following from club to club without a single record or hype campaign, a group that Margaret Trudeau came to hear and Alice Cooper’s producer wants to record, currently the hottest group on the Canadian music scene.
Rough Trade is a sign of the times. The night after I first heard them, I went home to read an Oxford student’s thesis on Andy Warhol that concluded: “One proof of a decadent society seems to be that morality is replaced by style.” And in this society of ours, which is swamped in excess, the ultimate style has become the style of decadence itself.
In the tradition of Warhol, Alice Cooper, David Bowie, and the New York Dolls, Rough Trade has taken the last taboos of sex and violence and flaunted them, celebrated them and sent them up, wiped them out with one single sardonic what-me-worry smile. Suddenly outré is in, perversion has become the new chic; it has become cool not to care. Peace and love and the denim cosmic consciousness of the Sixties are museum pieces now. Glitter is what’s happening, silks and satins and terribly sophisticated costumes out of other, older, terribly sophisticated times. There is a role for everyone who cares to play it in this costume drama. The entire cast of characters has seen it all and done it all.
I have seen seven-year-olds scream for Alice Cooper to behead himself on a guillotine that will drip scarlet and they were not afraid; they watched in fascination from shellshocked eyes. I have met 14-year-olds who patterned themselves painstakingly after David Bowie — poor dear pouting David Bowie in his lipstick and space suits, bisexual, asexual, omnisexual, bored with being sexual; it is just too dreary. And now I sit in the audience beside a sweet, witty boy in a fright wig and white face powder intent on Rough Trade and I wonder: have we become so Novocained by the passing newsreel that we seek out mass shock treatments to restore some semblance of feeling? Are we so benumbed by the future careening toward us that we have donned the tokens of what was once evil to ward off the worst that is yet to come?
Carole Pope (above) is shy and sensitive offstage, a former commercial artist who sprang out of Toronto’s ultimate suburb, Don Mills. But along the way something happened. She dropped out into hippiedom for a while, got into the women’s movement and then turned against it and men. Though she says her lyrics are a send-up — “I just want to make them laugh at sex because it’s all so serious” — she admits that she herself is openly bisexual and has whipped people. “Whips aren’t really my trip, but they’re very sexy.” She envisions becoming a star with big production numbers, “lots of whips and riding crops, rubber and leather, furs and feathers. I’ve always been fascinated by decadence.”
And now up on the bandstand, the music starts to play and she sings to it. She smolders behind her plastic castanets. She wails a “love song to Ricardo my pimp.” She jabs the air with her green fingernails. And I am reminded of another pair. They were only a pair of “divinely decadent” green fingernails in a film I saw once — but for me they have always been the touchstones for that frightening frenzied era of edgy amorality in Hitler’s prewar Germany that was celebrated in the movie Cabaret. It is not, as it turns out, a thought that is beyond Carole Pope’s own emerald finger-endings.
“From what I’ve read,” she says thoughtfully, “when Rome fell there was a lot of decadence and homosexuality and general overdosing. And it’s like the fall of Rome now. There’s a definite crumbling. People want to be entertained and escape. And that’s what we’re giving them.”
*®Surrender, copyright Kevan Staples and Carole Pope, published by Dream On Music (Capac).
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