When you think of grunge, do you picture a bunch of long-haired White guys in plaid shirts, singing about teenage angst and self-loathing? Time to expand that viewpoint. Standing above them all should be Tina Bell, a tiny Black woman with an outsized stage presence, and her band, Bam Bam. It’s only recently that the 1980s phenom has begun to be recognized as a godmother of grunge.
This modern genre’s sound was, in many ways, molded by a Black woman. The reason she is mostly unknown has everything to do with racism and misogyny. Looking back at the beginnings of grunge, with the preconception that “everybody involved” was White and/or male, means ignoring the Black woman who was standing at the front of the line.
Bam Bam was formed as a punk band in 1983 in Seattle. Bell, a petite brown-skinned spitfire with more hairstyle changes than David Bowie, sang lead vocals and wrote most of the lyrics. Her then-husband Tommy Martin was on guitars (the band’s name is an acronym of their last names: Bell And Martin), Scotty “Buttocks” Ledgerwood played bass, and Matt Cameron was on drums. Cameron would leave the band in its first year and go on to fame as the drummer for Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. But he paid homage to his beginnings by wearing a Tina Bell T-shirt in a photoshoot for Pearl Jam’s 2017 Anthology: the Complete Scores book.
Bam Bam’s sound straddled the line between punk and something so new that it didn’t have a name yet. Their music combined a driving, thrumming bass line; downtuned, sludgy guitars; thrashy, pulsing drums; melodic vocals that range from sultry to haunting to screamy; and lyrics about the existential tension of trying to exist in a world not designed for you. The band’s 1984 music video for their single “Ground Zero” is low-budget, but Bell’s charisma seeps through.
“She was fucking badass. That’s all there is to it. She was amazing as a performer. I’ve only seen one White male lead singer command the stage in a similar way that Tina Bell did, and that was Bon Scott of AC/DC,” says Om Johari, who attended Bam Bam shows as a Black teenager in the ’80s and who would go on to lead all-female AC/DC cover band Hell’s Belles.
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In 1920s Hamburg, a dancer couple created wild, Expressionist costumes that looked like retro robots and Bauhaus knights. The dancers were Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt, and through the new Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MKG) online collection, their tragic, forgotten story can be rediscovered.
The 1924 series of photographs of their costumes by Minya Diez-Dührkoop, herself a fascinating figure who took over her father Rudolf Dührkoop‘s Hamburg portrait studio in the early days of photography, are among thousands of public domain items released by MKG online this month. “With its MKG Collection Online, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe is the first museum in Germany offering out-of-copyright images under the Creative Commons license CC Zero,”Antje Schmidt, MKG Sammlung Online director, told Hyperallergic. “To make new cultural creation possible it is important not only to make this content accessible, but usable.”
Eventually MKG hopes to have its entire collection searchable online with high-resolution images, and open-use where possible. In addition to Diez-Dührkoop’s photographs of the dancers, the German museum holds the costumes themselves. They were acquired after the couple’s death in 1924, the very year the images were shot, and not rediscovered in their boxes until the 1980s.
According to MKG, the dancers created 20 full-body costumes for performances between 1919 and 1924, all accompanied by avant-garde music, often composed by Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt. One reason the striking costumes might have been left to gather dust was the startling and sad end to Schulz and Holdt’s story. Both were in their 20s, and had earned little money from their artistic work. In financial ruin, on June 18, 1924, Schulz shot Holdt, and then turned the gun on herself. They both died from their wounds.
Recently, their story has finally come to light, and the restored costumes are on view in the MKG’s Sammlung Moderne galleries. For the reopening of those galleries in 2012, there was a performance reanimating the costumes, with their creative mix of fabric, cardboard, papier-mâché, plaster, leather, and other found objects contributing to a lively frenzy of movement, revived after nearly a century in obscurity.
Welcome to the church of Sylvester. His gospel-tinged disco made us feel mighty real.
As stars go, they don’t come much bigger or shine much brighter than Sylvester.
Born Sylvester James Jr, in Los Angeles in 1947, he grew up in a religious household. The family attended the Pentecostal Palm Lane Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, where young Sylvester developed his love of music singing in the church’s choir.
Sylvester discovered his sexuality at a young age, and at age eight engaged in sexual activity with an older man at the church, which he always claimed was consensual. Taken to a doctor after being injured from anal sex, the doctor told Sylvester’s mother that her son was gay, something she viewed as a perversion and could not initially accept.
News of Sylvester’s same-sex activity spread throughout the church. Feeling unwelcome and persecuted due to his sexuality, he stopped attending church at age 15. He left home in his teens due to a dysfunctional relationship with his mother and step-father because of their inability to accept his sexuality.
Now homeless, young Sylvester spent a great deal of time with his grandmother, Julia Morgan, who enjoyed some success as a blues singer in the 1920s and 30s. Unlike his mother, she was accepting of his sexuality and was said to have had a great many gay male friends.
A group of black crossdressers and trans women known as the Disquotays soon befriended Sylvester. Wandering the town decked out in feminine attire, and known for throwing spectacular house parties with guests like legendary singer Etta James, they were a significant influence on Sylvester.
When Sylvester graduated from high school at age 21, he donned blue chiffon gown and a beehive hairstyle instead of the usual cap and gown. The Disquotays disbanded and Sylvester, bored with life in Los Angeles, moved to San Francisco and joined the drag group the Cockettes.
Sylvester eventually began producing his own shows, heavily influenced by (bisexual) female blues singers like Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday. He left the Cockettes in the midst of their tour of New York City to pursue a solo career.
Back in San Francisco, Sylvester performed as a solo act at the San Francisco supper club Bimbo’s. In 1972, he appeared at The Temple with the then-unknown Pointer Sisters. Defiant and unapologetically gay, critics sometimes described him as a drag queen, a description Sylvester rejected.
”I am Sylvester, ” he said, refusing to be categorized.
In 1977, Sylvester signed a solo deal with Fantasy Records and worked with famed Motown producer Harvey Fuqua, who would go on to produce Sylvester’s next five albums. Fuqua’s influence and frequent collaborator Patrick Crowley’s synthesizer-driven work pushed Sylvester’s ethereal falsetto in a dance-oriented direction. Rest of article here
John “Smokey” Condon was a pretty boy from Baltimore who marched for gay rights in the aftermath of the Stonewall RIots in 1969. EJ Emmons was a budding record producer from New Jersey, already starting to work in small studios around Hollywood, when the two were introduced by a Doors associate. Teaming up in 1973 as Smokey, over the course of the decade, the duo produced five singles as well as a treasure trove of unreleased recordings. Later this month, Chapter Music is releasing Smokey’s music for the first time in the digital age as How Far Will You Go? The S&M Recordings 1973-81.
Smokey was an extremely “out” act for the mid 1970s, even in the pretty gay context of Lou Reed, Village People or Jobriath, they stood out as going “too far,” which is saying a lot. Their lyrics were outrageously uninhibited celebrations of male on male sex, “water sports,” leather queens and transvestites. They went for it where others feared to tread, let’s just say. Although Smokey had a rapidly growing fan base for their live shows in Los Angeles, predictably 1970s music industry execs thought they were “too gay” even if many admitted that they liked what they heard musically.
Undaunted Smokey formed S&M Records and self-released five singles that showcased their ability to adapt to and even prefigure the decades’ bubbling up from the underground musical genres. Smokey did rock, disco, protopunk, synth-punk, sleazy R&B, stoner jams… but all of it was topped off by their outlandish choice of lyrical subject matter. How Far Will You Go? has been lovingly restored by Emmons from original master tapes, and even mastered for vinyl by Emmons on his own cutting lathe. Extensive liner notes tell the tale of one of America’s oddest, most obscure 70s should-have-beens-who-never-were acts. I posed a few questions to John “Smokey” Condon and EJ Emmons over email.
In the liner notes it indicates that you were living alone, or at least apart from your parents, at a very young age, above a rock club in Baltimore, partying it up with drag queens and the John Waters crowd. How did it happen to be that you were turned loose in the late 1960s in that way?
John: I was asked to leave by my Dad at fifteen so I went to Baltimore. I lived above a nightclub named the Bluesette in a small room with a scarlet bathroom. Met a lot of musicians there, I guess the most famous was Nils Lofgren who was in a group named Grin and he went on to play in Bruce Springsteen’s band and still does. Hung out at a nightclub in the Fells Point section of Baltimore called Ledbetters where most of the John Waters people hung out. Lived for a while with a drag queen named Christine. Moved to New York and then Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and back to Baltimore, where I met Vince Traynor who was the road manager for the Doors. I went to Europe with them and then to L.A. where I met EJ. That’s the condensed version.
Reading the press release, at first it’s tempting to think, “Okay, this is another obscure Jobriath kinda thing,” but Jobriath was more gay in the sense of show tunes and Greta Garbo, whereas some of your music goes beyond merely having an out and proud gay image and pisses right in your face. How did people react to music that lyrically celebrated S&M, watersports and the hardcore leather scene of New York in the mid 1970s? Lyrically “I’ll be a toilet for your love” goes far beyond anything that anyone else was doing at that time.
John: It still does as far as I am concerned, only a few rappers are pushing buttons these days. As far as people reacting to the music, they loved it. [The sexual subject matter] really did not affect them, in fact the crowds used to shout out for us to do “Miss Ray.”
EJ: People that heard the stuff really liked it, thought it was forward, and we did well whenever we played. We had girls faint in front of Smokey! So it was always a very mixed crowd. We were not intrinsically “gay,” we just did what seemed cool at the time, and what I hoped as producer was somewhat ahead of the curve, since it takes so long to get signed. Rest of article in link below