Today is my birthday, or rather, by the time this is uploaded, the day before yesterday was my birthday. Nostalgia always creeps in at moments like this. It’s kinda like an undocumented mental illness you are cursed with when you start to get close to, or surpass the age of 30. You can’t escape it, it just happens like a cold sore after sharing a drink with Madonna.
I blame it on responsibility. Paying bills, taking care of things, working day in and day out, are all a cause of someone becoming nostalgic. The more responsibility we have sort of disconnects us from the “good ol’ days” and then we get nostalgic. And let’s be honest here, those good ol’ days were when we had someone else paying for our stuff.
Sure, you could argue that we start at 18 to pay for our stuff, but really, the things we buy from age 18 to 27 are prioritized differently. We exist on ramen noodles because the majority of our income goes for dumbass crap like overpriced drinks at clubs and tramp stamp tattoos.
Yeah, you know what I’m talking about, you naughty tramp stampers.
Anyway, my nostalgia has led me tonight to watching a recent film called Worried About the Boy. It’s about Boy George. While the dude probably has as many critics as he does admirers, there’s no denying he was, and continues to be, one of the brightest characters to inhabit the world of pop culture.
What’s less known about him, probably, is how an insecure George O’Dowd came to be known as the global pop icon Boy George. That’s the main focus. Hence, it all takes place before he was catapulted to worldwide stardom with Culture Club, back when he was just a strange kid on welfare, struggling with his sense of identity and sexuality, wanting fame but not knowing where to look for it, craving affection though not necessarily in the right places.
December 9, 1982. That’s where the movie ends, and in a small way, this writer was a part of it. Like millions of others, I was watching live when Boy George’s debut appearance on Top of the Pops prompted a generation of parents to lower their newspapers, peer quizzically at the television set and ask, “Is that a boy or a girl?”
Man, this movie took me back. It was absolutely soaked in nostalgia. I know those hedonistic heydays of Blitz club-era early 1980’s Europe. I know all the period detail and the club music on the soundtrack. I know the grubby glamour of it all. I know the swashbuckling theatrical style of clothes, the full sleeved frilly shits and velvet jackets.
No, you’re not gonna get any confessions from me of any gender confusion or riding the midnight meat train with an then unknown George O’Dowd. None of that happened. I understood perfectly where all the entrance and exit points on the human pelvis were, and I definitely knew which ones to avoid. But things did get a little weird back then, that’s for sure. It was sometimes hard to tell the difference between boys and girls. There was many a boozy “morning after” when I had to nervously double check my bed partner’s genitals.
Thirty years ago, most of my disposable income was spent traveling and going to clubs. They were my social landscape. For those of you who’ve never been to a real dance club, they are fancy bars with dance floors, where the dancing equivalent of softcore porn takes place.
I don’t know about now, but back then, during the glory years in Europe, you arrive at the typical club and enter a dimly lit orgy-with-clothes. The booze gets a nice buzz going and you unleash your sextastic dance moves on as many hot chicks as you can find. Things start to get heated and they do that straddling gyrating thing girls do on your thigh. Damn, those were fun times. Come, you can join me, if you like. In your mind, the music is owning your ass and you’re Fred Astaire-ing the hell out of this place. After a while, however, your frilly 80’s shirt and velvet jacket are becoming stained with sweat, giving a nice seaworthy scent about you. Your oceanic armpits remind you that this is a good time to expel some of that alcohol from your system, so you excuse yourself.
That feels better. You receive a horrified look from somebody who just watched you pee on the bathroom wall/floor and then you march triumphantly back onto the dance floor only to see your girl straddling gyrating on another dude’s thigh. Ironically, you saw that guy standing right next to you bobbing his head up and down for the last hour. He was waiting for you to leave, so he could make his move on your girl. Damn, the vulture got you. Slurping another drink, you leer creepily at the dance floor and wait your turn for some guy to empty his bladder. There he goes. That’s when you swoop in on the hot chick he left behind, and land your plane at Bonesville International Airport. Oh, yeah.
Suddenly you’re waking up at ten the next morning. You don’t know where you are, and you feel a throbbing sensation in your head that makes the throbbing sensation in your groin feel minor. There is a naked chick snoring next to you with her face planted in a saucy string of drool that’s puddled on the sheet. A quick check shows no hidden testicles on your random sex stranger. That’s good. That’s real good. You see the covers are on the floor, a huge urine stain is on the wall, and your clothes are nowhere in sight. You stand up, noticing the blended scent of sweat and bad decision making. Your car keys are on the table.
Once you arrive outside, the extent of last night starts to come back to you. Your car is parked halfway on the sidewalk and one of your headlights are bashed out. Your frilly shirt is laying in the middle of the street. And for some reason there’s also a huge indentation of an ass pressed into the center of your windshield, but you don’t care right now. All that matters now is getting home and getting rid of this hangover. By the way, you’re still naked from the waist down and there’s dried vomit crusted on your leg.
Anyway, that’s my collective dance club memory. It didn’t always happen that way, but it happened enough to be embarrassingly typical.
That’s why I’m glad not to be young these days. With all our modern cell phone cameras and internet social networks, I can only imagine the horror. ‘Cause you know somebody, probably one of your friends, is documenting your stupidity. I’m thankful never to have had to hurry home and log onto Facebook, ready to untag myself from pictures that could literally tear my life apart, and then see the red notification number that reads “476” and die a little inside.
Hmmm. I’ve gotten a little off topic here. Back to the early 80’s in Europe.
No cell phones, no computers. A different time.
Before Boy George changed the music scene, we had a choice of disco and punk rock. But disco was dying and let’s face it, punk rock was really just a bunch of strung-out scrawny kids sticking up their scratched and scrawny middle fingers up at the establishment. This was because they thought the establishment was keeping them down. Their anger was distinguished by music being played as fast and loud as possible, ignoring all those frivolous characteristics of catchy pop tunes like melody, beat, and dynamics.
I tried to join with the Punks, but man, they were depressing. They just felt some kind of pointlessness in existence that I didn’t share. And they were assholes too. When they weren’t taking out their frustrations on the public, they got together in punk clubs and took it out on each other. It was a scene that became a competition over who could spend the most energy letting the world know they didn’t care what the world thought.
The music had its appeal though. For an amateur musician, it was the simplest route to playing something. Anyone who could scream and only knew three chords could call themselves “punk” and pretend they were cool and edgy. My band was called Raw Sewage.
Thank you for the applause.
But looking back, only one band really shined from the punk era. I didn’t have to dye my hair pink or sculpt it into a Mohawk to appreciate The Clash. They were really something. If you know what a Casbah is, you probably owe it to those guys. And even if you don’t, you probably still thought they rocked the hell out of it.
While most punk bands focused on an aggressive attitude, there was a subculture that was more introverted and personal, and that movement came directly from the German clubs. It embraced older literary references such as Gothic horror and existential philosophy, so being a pretentious asshole, I naturally gravitated right towards it.
Last week, I touched the surface of my punk experience by showing a buddy the music video for Bauhaus’ Bela Lugosi’s Dead. Ain’t that right, Thorny? Probably the first ever “Goth” song, it’s a sparse, echoey song where the guitarist spends forever trying to figure out which chord he feels like clumsily strumming while the lead singer repeats the title over and over and over again.
Thorny watched the video with the expression of someone who’d just found a turd in his lemonade. I didn’t say it was very good, only that it was important that I lived it at ground zero. The Goth subculture found it’s genesis in the Frankfurt clubs and I was there to witness it first hand, with Bauhaus playing live on stage while yours truly rubbed against angry German chicks with spikey jet-black hair.
Unfortunately, the consequence of Bauhaus’s Bela Lugosi’s Dead is that it forever established a connection between Goth culture and vampires.
Years later, I would watch in sad amazement at the role this minor club occurrence would play in our global culture. Wynona Ryder in BeetleJuice, Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands, Fairuza Balk in The Craft, Brandon Lee in The Crow.
I was there at the birth. At the exact place where it happened, when it happened.
There’s a certain pride in that, I suppose, but punk wasn’t for me.
It never really was.
My finances were safe, and punk represented a Europe that was in the midst of a catastrophic economic downturn. This was especially true in England at the time. There was rising inflation and unemployment. Young people were pissed off because there wasn’t very much opportunity. Hope was disappearing quickly, the streets were littered with garbage, and things were starting to get pretty violent. Skinheads were multiplying in the cities and taking over the club scenes.
A few young people in London got fed up with punk and all the hooligans it attracted. They were just as poor and struggling and living in urban decay as everyone else, but they wanted something a little more aspirational. They wanted glamour like they’d grown up watching on the telly. So they threw together some cheap androgynous costumes, raided their mom’s makeup boxes, and started their own dance club in an isolated and badly lit part of London. Nobody paid much attention to them at first, except a few punks who laughed at their folly. It was all sort of like a bunch of sissies dancing on the deck of the Titanic.
The place was called the Blitz Club and it’s featured prominently in Worried About the Boy.
Things might have been bleak and grey outside, but inside the Blitz a brighter alternative was being provided. It was a melting pot of synthesizer music and outrageous fashion. The fashion was based on romantic themes, including those frilly shirts in the style of Lord Byron and Shelley. They also stole their looks from 1930s Cabaret and the golden age of Hollywood, particularly old pirate movies. Hair was worn in quiffs, mullets and wedges.
Boy George was the coat-check guy at the club. And his charisma made him a Pied Piper of sorts. His personality naturally attracted new followers. Among the moths to his flame were all the squatters, subterranean explorers, drag queens, fashion hopefuls, burnt out punks, suburban fantasists, urban hustlers, wannabe sophisticates and eternal dreamers. Dignity is in the mind, he whispered, the clothes and music just reinforce the beauty that’s already there.
They were called the New Romantics, and they operated under the idea that there are only four questions of value in life. What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth dying for, and what is worth living for?
The answer to each is the same.
And people swarmed into the cramped confines of the Blitz to find it. Outside was England, lurching towards a bitter class conflict, but inside the club were refugees from a class war they no longer belonged to.
They didn’t know it at the time, and I’m sure many of them, including Boy George, would pale at the thought now, but they were pioneering a cultural blueprint that accepted a political shift to the right and aligned with the conservative agenda of new Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Their little haphazard experiment of fusing past and future romantic aesthetics would reach far, far into the future. They had unknowingly created an era-defining template of optimism. Many a dancer at the Blitz emerged blinking from the neon glare to embrace the opportunities the new decade wanted to throw at them.
The secret of all magnetism, whether expressed through personality or through music, is hope. It is hope which charms, which is attractive, which delivers psychological results. Emotions are purged and cleansed. The right music by the right magnetic personality encourages dreaming and improves the health of the collective mind, on thought, on imagination, and the heart of a wounded population.
You see, ripped t-shirts with punk slogans like FUCK YOU doesn’t fix an economic depression. It deepens the problem. Loud and aggressive music threatening violence is only a symptom of the illness.
No, it takes love songs to heal the soul.
And those love songs were launched on December 9, 1982 with Culture Club’s first appearance on Top of the Pops.
At the ending of Worried About the Boy, Boy George may have been purging the emotions of his own personal story, but the cultural impact of his performance is more significant. He effectively destroyed the corrosive influence of punk overnight and gave birth to an economic miracle.
By George, that boy can sing.
Of course, the band was just the frame to the Picasso that was Boy George, and he was an instant sensation in both America and Europe as well as internationally. The debut single Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? was a chart-topper almost everywhere, a tune that showcased George’s soulful vocals as well as his shocking challenge to gender conventions.
Leftists and hardcore punkers would argue that the cultural shift was a bad thing. Or maybe they just didn’t enjoy the weird fashions and day-glo make-up. With their desire for something much darker and dirtier, they claim that in the 80s the world sold it’s soul. They say Western society became about greed, money, and consumerism, all surface beauty but hollow at it’s center. For some reason they actually resent the psychological value of love songs and the economic boom that magically accompanied the influence of the New Romantics.
They attempt to prove their bitter beliefs by pointing at the wave of New Romantics that capitalized on Boy George’s sudden popularity and who followed in his massive wake through the mainstream: Adam and the Ants, Flock of Seagulls, Billy Idol, Human League, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Roxy Music, Tears for Fears, The Psychodelic Furs, Kajagoogoo, George Michael, The Eurythmics, Soft Cell, Level 42, Howard Jones, Bananarama, The Pet Shop Boys, Thompson Twins, The Cure, Depeche Mode, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, The Fixx, Paul Young, and Simple Minds.
Music history calls that wave the second British Invasion. In fact, by the summer of 1983 when I was heavy into the club scene and slowly absorbing the cultural shift within my own politics, half of all the songs in the top 40 were by British acts. The New Romantics held 7 of the top 10 singles.
Sure, Boy George was much maligned during the 80s. That’s what happens to cultural icons up there in the stratosphere of Michael Jackson and Madonna. He was embarrassing at times, a strange mixture of shame and truthfulness, joyful and idiotic, ridiculous and taboo. But nobody was gonna personally get in his face about it. He’s actually sort of a big guy, and he grew up with a temper he learned on the mean streets of industrial London. This was a fag who could hand you your ass in an embarrassingly effortless fashion. His fall from grace a few years later was ultimately not caused by his critics, but by his own bad decisions.
But history judges him as pretty damned important to the twentieth century.
In fact, he was voted 46th in a poll of the 100 Greatest Britons that ever lived. Winston Churchill and William Shakespeare were voted ahead of him, as they should be.
But Boy George actually ranks higher than Jane Austen, Chaucer, and King Arthur.
Think about that for a moment.
He infused hope and beauty and a new sonic architecture into our culture at a time when it was sorely missing, and virtually sang England back to prosperity. He encouraged us to embrace the lush life, to drench our hearts in it, and he expanded our consciousness with the realization of the divine light that shines in everyone, which is the secret of all true art.
And for that, he deserves my nostalgia.