Penniman, Shelley and Lee

Sorry about the duplication. This is The Rill Thing. (Technical issues caused me to post this twice…)


Little Richard died Saturday. He instinctively figured in my review of Martin Aston’s Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out:

Richard Penniman was kicked out of the house by his father; that and a lewd conduct sentence sent “Little” Richard on the road as Princess Lavonne, whose act employed elements of his idols. Including lyrics: his hit “Tutti Frutti” was inspired by Carmen Miranda’s “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat,” and was given the drag act treatment with explicit rhymes that begin with “booty” but were bowdlerized in the booth. This began a series of, mm…, seminal singles, many of which had their genesis in his drag act. But, as Aston explains, Little Richard became remorseful, retreating to gospel at the decade’s end, returning only with reticence to the rock’n’roll he’d essentially invented.

It was my footnote to that paragraph which concerns me here, three years later:

I remember the late (gay) music critic Craig Lee’s consternation in his L.A. Weekly interviews with Little Richard and Pete Shelley (not together) when they both evaded the obvious.

Problem is, when I got access to the archived L.A. Weekly a while back I found Craig expressed this only about Pete Shelley. Somehow I’d conflated the two even though Craig wrote about them both, two years apart.

Homo Inferior

In Craig’s preface to his 1982 interview with Pete Shelley he couldn’t help but compare the Shelley of 1980 who’d launched into a “non-stop manic monologue twisting through his concepts with a schizophrenic romantic overview.” By contrast, encountering Shelley two years later, Craig had “the stiffest, most uncomfortable interview I’ve ever done.” Pete disowned any sexual content in his hit “Homosapien” by saying, “After I’ve done a song, it’s none of my concern.” If, as Craig suggested, “Some people see ‘Homosapien’ as a ‘coming-out-of-the-closet’ gay rights anthem,” Shelley replied, “If people want to use it as that, it’s up to them.” And yet Shelley felt compelled to explain what was “none of my concern”:

“Homosapien” is more about how you treat other people. I’m a firm believer that world change begins with yourself. I see the song as referring to the idea that the next step on the evolutionary scale is preprogrammed within us. There’s one line in the song “Homo-superior in my interior” that really threw a lot of people. It’s actually from the [David] Bowie song “Oh You Pretty Things”: “Gotta make way for the homo superior.”

Well-intentioned but hardly convincing. And his dismissal of disco music—his own hit being a sleek dancefloor favorite—was condescending, after Craig pointed out the irony of his prior band, the Buzzcocks, having been DIY punk.

When you’ve been over things like I have, you see irony in a lot of things. It’s a lot more respectable in dance clubs than it was in the mid-’70s. The disco stuff was a lot of rubbish, very repetitive. A good song is a good song, doesn’t matter what its beat is.1

A Trump-worthy jumble of contradictions. Not the least: Shelley hardly was doing twelve-tone serialism; as even Shoenberg said, “Intelligibility in music seems to be impossible without repetition.”2

This promo for Shelley’s song has bad sound, but is what you’d have seen on VH1 when “Homosapien” was relegated to the channel’s Classic franchise. If people want to read something into the outline of Shelley’s, mm…, telescope, I guess “It’s up to them.”

“Oh, my soul!”

Two years later, on the occasion of the release of The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock by Charles White in 1984, Craig Lee reminisced about meeting the star in late 1971, when Craig was only 17. But he could have been talking about Pete Shelley.

In his 1980 interview with Shelley, the artist was “close to a nervous breakdown,” his chatter adding “to the tale of drugs, booze and sexual shenanigans that simply did not jibe with the nice pop-punk image of the Buzzcocks.”3 Echoes of Little Richard who in 1971 was on the downside of nearly twenty years of rocking ’n’ rolling that had begun in ’62 following a five-year spiritual sabbatical. For the youngsters, Craig gave a twenty-line lesson in the School of Rock, concluding with:

Even more alarming than that incredible, electrical rush of Little Richard’s hungry, animalistic sound was his image. Sexually ambiguous? That wasn’t even the half of it. It was beyond being uninhibited. Little Richard gave the repressed children of Eisenhower the license to go completely wild, and popular music has never been the same.

Wild, Richard was, in the suite at the Carolina Pines Motel, La Brea & Sunset, where Craig and two friends were met by “that FACE, bigger than life, an overgrown creme de cacao bunnyhead with a turban on,” meaning Richard was “fixing his hair.” In other words: Wait. Craig wrote that The Life and Times mentions the motel by name. It was “where pimps and dealers hung out, and how [Richard] and his entourage had non-stop orgies in there,” he wrote. “We missed out on the orgy activity […].” But they got a tease.

A boy from Richard’s latest band, which is made up of white, long-haired pseudo-hip rock & rollers, comes in the room. He’s young, cute, has curly hair and gets a big smack on the lips from Richard. “Oh, my soul!”

The boy, slightly embarrassed, excuses himself.

Slightly.

Just before Craig’s visit, Brown had wasted no time to record a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” The original had been released in mid April as the first single from Sticky Fingers—its notorious LP cover designed by Andy Warhol—and Richard’s, mm…, cover appeared on The King of Rock and Roll six months later. He claimed, Craig recalled, “You know, that song’s about me!” figuring his white-bread visitors might need some cultural context. “I AM BROWN SUGAR! The Stones used to open for me. Nice boys, but man, listen to the way I do this song!” To Richard, the song may have been about Richard, but according to its author Mick Jagger it involved “the dual combination of drugs and girls.” Little Richard’s combo? See above.

(But what if Richard had been right? Stories of Jagger’s jaunts are legend if not legion.)

Craig then gave a capsule review of The Life and Times. “Yes, the Carolina Pines motel is in there […],” as mentioned above. “According to the book, it was a bad time for Richard, coke and booze burning out a career, coinciding with his sexual conflicts and a basic inner drive for spiritual salvation.”4

A 2011 Rolling Stone bio of Richard states that The Life and Times “got plenty of attention” for the artist, who proceeded to walk a tightrope between his sacred and secular selves rather than choosing one over the other. For instance, his “Great Gosh A’Mighty” for the soundtrack of Down and Out in Beverly Hills (in which he appeared). Not so with his sexuality, which was as slippery as a poached egg on a stainless steel spatula up until the end, according to his Rolling Stone obituary.

In the face of this—Richard being as lubricous in 1984 as he was more recently—Craig Lee was generous:

A person like Little Richard can never completely be at peace.

But even though Richard has denounced his former music as “demonic,” even though his conflict with homosexuality has him taking the old “It’s unnatural” line, I can’t help but admire the man who wailed […] in some forgotten motel room. I admire Little Richard because he’s a survivor. One of the stupidest myths of rock & roll is that of the pop martyr. […] Richard had the intensity to match any Morrison, Hendrix (who played guitar for Richard, by the way) or Joplin. […]

We romanticize desperation, idolize burn-outs and ignore the winners. Richard won his battle. We may not agree with his philosophy, but the man not only helped create rock & roll, he proved there’s life after it.5

Afterlife

As a writer, Craig Lee had life after rock ’n’ roll (he appears in at least two bands documented in The Decline of Civilization), but ultimately lost his battle with HIV/AIDs in 1991.

Notes
  1. All quotes from “Pete Shelley” by Craig Lee, L.A. Weekly, 17 Jun 1982, 23.
  2. I’m harsh here on Shelley because I’m a fan. I have most if not all of the discs from the Homosapien issue, LPs, 12-inches, and 45s. Hear how Shelley doesn’t “want to classify you like some animal in the zoo.”
  3. “Pete Shelley.”
  4. All quotes from “4/4 Play” by Craig Lee, L.A. Weekly, 01 Nov 1984, 59.
  5. “4/4 Play.”

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