This September, I bought my girlfriend a record player for her birthday.
We’d just moved in together and I had this romantic vision of us spending lazy weekends reading the New York Times and playing jazz records, so I went down to Urban Outfitters and grabbed one of those Crosley record players that looks like handsome suitcases of yore, and I mailed in a weekender subscription to The New York Times.
But why did I think I would want to listen to jazz? I guess because, as I’ve gotten older all sorts of things I once thought were really boring and dumb have become sort of exciting –- monogamy, early bedtimes, decaf, babies, neutrals, preppie clothing. Why not jazz?
But it only took me a couple of episodes of "Homeland" to realize it still sounds like what happens inside your head before the voices come and you go insane. What’s the word for pre-schizophrenia? Jazz.
I used to have a huge record collection, and I left it all in the basement of a brownstone in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, when I moved to California. I was in the throes of a Lesbian Feminist Nervous Breakdown, and thought I probably wouldn’t have any use for my impressive collection of goth, death rock, glam-punk and 80s alternative music in my new life, which would consist of living off the grid on a women’s commune and reading tarot cards, perhaps changing my name to Amethyst (still not a bad idea).
My recent decade or so of violently ratting my hair, wearing clown makeup as foundation and spending all my money on European imports and rare re-mixes of bands like Christian Death, The Sisters of Mercy and Lords of the New Church made no sense with this new me who had chopped off her hair, gone vegan, sold all her "objectifying" clothing and was busy reading Mary Daly and Andrea Dworkin, purging all male-created culture from her life.
How such a big swing in such a short period of time? It’s what happens when you realize you’re queer, have a feminist breakthrough and discover your stepfather is a peeping tom all at the same time. I left a chunk of amazing vinyl in the basement of a building owned by a scrappy Viet Nam vet who got by selling shit he found at the dump. He certainly made a bundle on my records.
Now that I have this new record player in my life, I am finding myself flipping through stacks of records, that same familiar stance, the albums falling into my chest, the motion sending dust off the dust jackets and into my nose. Am I having body memories of the last time I regularly record shopped, is that why I find myself looking for all the bands I looked for in high school?
Music I haven’t heard since I was obsessed with it, music that was the soundtrack to everything from my hormonal crying jags to fights with my mom to my teenaged alcoholism to the loss of my actual virginity. I want to hear it again. Would I still like it? Would it stand the test of time? Some bands, like The Cure or Siouxsie, are recognized classics and live on in my iTunes. Others -- like Alien Sex Fiend, Kommunity FK, or Love and Rockets -- I haven’t heard in forever.
As much as it drives me crazy to spend money on something I already once spent money on, I am setting out to re-create my 1980s record collection, one slab of vinyl at a time. And first up is Gene Loves Jezebel.
I loved Gene Loves Jezebel SO MUCH that I would shred my clothes into tiny rags and then tie the rags into my hair, down at the root, trying to approximate Jay Aston’s hairdo, which had lots of little crimps and rags and wraps and braids and whatnot. This is NOT a hair-wrap as we have come to know it today, hippie-style. This was something else, something darker and more creative.
Gene Loves Jezebel were (are?) the doomed music project of Michael and Jay Aston, fraternal twins from Wales. Their image was like androgynous incestuous brothers. They draped themselves seductively on one another. Jay was much more androgynous, with all that beribboned hair and a full face of makeup; Michael couldn’t pull it off as well. He was too manly. His hair was short and choppy blond and he wore lighter makeup than his brother.
In a subculture of black clothes, Gene Loves Jezebel were a relief of satiny pastel and velvet jewel tones. I was able to wear color because of Gene Loves Jezebel. Vintage velvets and ruffled shirts and colorful beads and scarves. They were a romantic band and they made romantic music that made me feel very romantic.
When they played a show with the Cult at the Orpheum Theater I waited outside the doors at sound check, listening to the familiar thumps and fuzzy guitar. I was filled with something rising and manic –- my favorite band ever was right inside there! I had stopped at one of the little carts that sell things on Washington Street and bought a scarf shot through with golden threads that I thought Jay Aston would love, and I was determined to get it to him. And I did! I waited until someone left the building, and I dashed inside, chased by a security guard.
“Please, I love them, I just have to give this to themmmmmmmmm!” I screamed behind my shoulder as I ran down the carpeted aisle to where the band was noodling on the stage. They stopped and looked at me –- Jay Aston stopped and looked at me.
“I brought this for you,” I said breathlessly at the foot of the stage. “You’re my favorite band, I love you.” Jay Aston bent at the waist so I could drape the scarf around his neck. It was such a humble movement, as if I, a peasant, were bestowing knighthood upon royalty!
“I’ll wear it tonight,” he said, which kept me high for hours, until the actual show when in fact he did not wear my scarf.
“Okay, out of here,” the security guard grabbed my arm and hustled me out.
The next day I left school early and took the Peter Pan bus to Providence, Rhode Island to catch Gene Loves Jezebel’s all-ages show at the Living Room, with my friend Katie. We got there hours before the show started, and froze outside until they opened the doors, and then twitched nervously waiting for the band to show up.
This was normal, this is how me and my friends saw bands when they came to town. We constructed elaborate ways to meet them, staged endurance performances of standing for hours or sleeping outside, and we often did. It was usually a disappointment. When Jay and Michael strode in our breaths got tangled in our throats. I grabbed Katie. We watched the twins decamped to and returned from the green room, then set about trying to become their new best friends.
“Hi,” I said to Jay like we knew each other. “I gave you a scarf during sound check yesterday.”
“Oh, yeah, right,” Jay nodded.
“Your show was so great last night!” I didn’t mention the scarf promise, but I hoped the words "scarf" and "show" and "last night" would trigger something in him, and he would be all, "Oh, yeah, that beautiful scarf, it was too precious to wear on stage, I slept with it wrapped around my slender naked body instead." Jay Aston was very slender. And his hair was the actual color of rubies, not that I’d ever seen one in real life.
Instead he said, “Someone stole Mike’s coat from backstage.”
“Oh, no!” I cried. “How horrible! Who would do something like that?”
“A fan,” he shrugged, and gave me a wary look. I wanted to exclaim right then that I would NEVER steal Michael’s coat, or steal any of their possessions, but of course that was not true AT ALL, and I was actually sickened with the terrible possibility that there was a Gene Loves Jezebel fan even more rabid and wily than I, and that she had absconded with Michael’s coat and was probably sleeping naked in it, because that’s what I would do.
What Michael didn’t understand was that however much he might have loved his coat, that fan loved it more, in a holy way he never could. She deserved it. Plus, they were rock stars. Couldn’t they buy all the coats they wanted?
“It sucks. It’s bloody cold.” Jay and Michael said things like "bloody" because they were from Wales, which is sort like London but gloomier and more mysterious, hence even more obscure and gothic.
Then Jay and Michael went to the pinball machine and played a few balls. Whenever Jay lost a ball he would hip check the machine and say, “Kuh!” or, “Ku-kuh!” -- these noises they made in their songs. Oh my god! It was like we were inside a Gene Loves Jezebel song! Amazing.
After the show, we went and stayed overnight at a hotel, something I do not understand how I pulled off except I must have lied massively to my mother. I remember I was wearing a black skirt with pink tulle underneath, and I wore it inside out so you could see the tulle. I wore a purple velvet vest and coral Mardi Gras beads I had tons of from my aunt in Louisiana who always sent us boxes. I had a fringed scarf tied into my hair so the fringe dipped down my forehead into my face. There is a picture somewhere of me sitting cross-legged on the hotel bed, very very very stoned. The room is a hazy of pot smoke.
Of all the Gene Loves Jezebel albums available at the Beat, a really great record store in Sacramento, I chose "Immigrant." It’s their second album so it feels like a middle ground for a band that began strange and moody and became increasingly pop, thus causing a rift between Michael and Jay that continues to this day. Now there are two Gene Loves Jezebels (and you didn’t even know there was one!), one belonging to Jay and one to Michael, and the only reason Jay hasn’t brought a lawsuit is because their mom was dying and begged him on her deathbed not to.
Jay does most of the singing but Michael chimes in, and often speaks, too. Their Welsh accents make their singing voices strange, like cats or fairy men. And speaking of fairy men, I can’t believe I didn’t understand how gay Jay Aston, and possibly Michael Aston, were/are.
The wistfulness in their love songs, the longing and impossibility of happiness really sounds like the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. And the best song on "Immigrant" is a soothing dirge called "Stephen," a really beautiful love song that goes, "When Stephen smiles my heart just seems to grow/if only I could let that poor boy go." With the opening line, "We’re southern boys with western smiles," it seems to prophesize the coming of Brokeback Mountain’s, "I wish I could quit you."
It’s such a pretty song, and, in fact, it’s the moodier, prettier songs that stand the test of time best. In my youth I loved the bouncy poppiness of ones like "Worth Waiting For" and "Always a Flame" -- which are still good, in spite of the 80s guitar that nearly ruins it -– but now I prefer the dense, plodding ones like "Coal Porter" -– another song of unredeemable romance.
The odd, seemingly coded songs "Cow" and "The Rhino Plasty" stand up the way all pieces of art and culture that seem to be created outside of time do. Stay avant-garde and you’ll never get old. "Cow" begin with a brag about Jay’s muscles while he’s bailing hay, and then asks, "Did you see the cow with the furrowed brow."
The chorus goes, "Weep for her (did you see the cow?)," which made me think it was an animal rights anthem, but there is so much longing in the song and repeats of, "Don’t talk about it," and, "Don’t think on it," it makes me think there’s something else going on. In "The Rhino Plasty," he’s all, "You love this boy," and chants, "Take off your clothes," and, ‘"Look at your nose." They were both weird songs in the 80s and they’re weird now, too, and interesting. And GAY! Bonus.
One last thing –- when I was a teenager in my shitty city of Chelsea, Massachusetts, I once tagged "Gene Loves Jezebel" on the side of a Cumberland Farms while waiting for the bus. The next day, someone had taped a PHOTO of the band on the newsstand at the bus stop! I freaked out and daringly left my phone number there in a note -– even though Chelsea was crawling with hoodlums and thugs and junkies and murderers –- and the next day I got a phone call from a girl named Sarra who loved Gene Loves Jezebel almost as much as me, and who incredibly lived around the corner from me and who wound pipe cleaners into the curls of her hair as a way to approximate Jay’s ragged-head look.
We were friends for many years, and when my mother would get pissed at me for dyeing my hair pink and blue and then getting beat up on the street for it, she would beg, "Why can’t you just put pipe cleaners in your hair like Sarra???"