Do All 16 Dances

Hello Mr. Magazine - - DO ALL 16 DANCES - Text by Mike Joosse ArtW by Kevin Stan­ton

Fill in the blank: “I can’t be­lieve my par­ents didn’t re­al­ize I was gay when I __________.”

My an­swer is “danced around my room to ‘Love Shack’ when­ever it came on the ra­dio.” Me at nine: Coke-bot­tle glasses and a ter­ri­ble hair­cut, re­liant on my par­ents’ 70s/80s sta­tion and Video Hits One for any tips on un­der­stand­ing what the older kids were into. My friend Craig started lik­ing some band named Depeche Mode; I was still try­ing to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween Poco and Toto.

By twelve, I was barely more cul­tur­ally lit­er­ate. Good Stuff, the B-52’s’ sixth al­bum, was the sec­ond tape I ever bought, from an out­let mu­sic store; later, I bought it again on CD, in one of those card­stock long­boxes. The cas­sette was shock-or­ange and I loved to lis­ten to it on my Mag­navox boom­box. (Take a sec­ond to note that al­most noth­ing in the pre­ced­ing two sen­tences ex­ists any­more.) Its songs about hot pants and alien ab­duc­tions came from some­where be­yond the edge of my ex­pe­ri­ence. It was richer, cleaner, more stream­lined, more nu­anced than what I knew of “Love Shack” and “Roam.” But I didn’t quite get any of that at the time; I just felt slightly em­bar­rassed to tell any­one I knew that I was into it. The B-52’s weren’t the first band I ever dis­cov­ered. They weren’t the first band I truly loved, and they’re not my all-time fa­vorite. But they’re the first band I lusted af­ter, in some pri­mal, un­know­able way. And as the say­ing goes, you never for­get your first. All my life, I’ve been an ob­ses­sive col­lec­tor. I can’t ex­plain why; there was just al­ways some name­less de­sire to have ev­ery­thing I could find on one thing, and it came in waves. Rocks – geodes and min­er­als and stuff. Flags of the world. Le­gos – those were some se­ri­ously fun years. Star Trek. Comic books. And then, when I was twelve or thir­teen, it was mu­sic. Mu­sic turned from a ca­sual hobby into the last ob­ses­sion I ever had, and I lapped up mu­sic like a French bull­dog at a wa­ter bowl: hun­grily, nois­ily, mess­ily. Ev­ery­thing was thrilling and new; I was form­ing my own lan­guage from scratch, com­bin­ing gut­tural noises into sounds and words. I crawled, I walked, I ran. But you can’t run alone.

The B-52’s were lit­er­ally a band of mis­fits – nice Southern girls and gay boys who surely loved rocks

and ge­og­ra­phy and comics and space travel, too. Some­how, they found each other and made a weird fam­ily: Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, Keith Strickland, Cindy Wil­son, and her brother: poor, doomed Ricky. They were a band I felt like I’d found, like they’d been wait­ing for me the whole time. When you start get­ting into mu­sic, no one tells you how to pre­pare for a band that’s go­ing to change over time, that won’t al­ways sound like the song you first fell for. No one tells you what it’s like to dis­cover a band at the end of its ca­reer and have to work back­wards. No one tells you that you’re go­ing to lis­ten to a song many times and then one day it’s just go­ing to click.

I’ve had these ex­pe­ri­ences maybe hun­dreds of times. Some­times it leads to an un­pleas­ant dis­cov­ery – holy shit, what’s the deal with Metal Ma­chine Mu­sic? But Trans­former is so good! – but that’s the trip you sign up for when you love a band. You’re go­ing to fol­low them as far as you can, even though both of you are go­ing to change. Be­ing a mu­sic fan means a se­ries of ad­ven­tures that look minis­cule from the out­side but feel plan­e­tary to you. Be­ing “into” mu­sic as a teenager makes you… dif­fer­ent. Other kids de­velop at­tach­ments to sports or cars or art or ac­tu­ally play­ing mu­sic. These are things that friends and par­ents un­der­stand; af­ter all, if you’re re­ally good at it, you can make a ca­reer out of it. Lov­ing mu­sic isn’t enough to make you an out­cast per se; it just means you’re go­ing to have this se­cret world at home that’s more vivid and ac­cept­ing than the one out­side.

I think this pre­pared me well for go­ing to de­sign school, and much later, com­ing out. The more ex­pe­ri­ences you’ve had be­ing the un­usual one around you, the more alien it feels to want to be like ev­ery­one else. The B-52’s were never Cool. I mean Cap­i­tal-C Cool, like The Clash or Joy Divi­sion. If you cre­ated a map of mu­sic, the B-52’s would oc­cupy an exquisitely ger­ry­man­dered district which would cut through girl group pop, punk rock, surf, kids’ mu­sic, and a half-dozen other gen­res. But each of those was at least un­der­stood, if not com­pletely ac­cepted, by the main­stream, and each had its own icons of cool. For some­thing to be Cool, I think it has to ap­peal to main­stream cul­ture enough that it ac­tu­ally helps con­vert peo­ple to al­ter­na­tive cul­ture (or vice versa) be­cause it’s just dif­fer­ent enough that you can fol­low it down an iden­ti­fi­able path with­out end­ing up to­tally lost. I’m not sure the B-52’s led more peo­ple to like kitsch or sci-fi or lob­sters. In­stead, they re­as­sured peo­ple who al­ready liked those things of their in­her­ent value.

Their de­but al­bum was all sorts of things that had no place in the main­stream. “Rock Lob­ster” be­came an un­likely hit, like all those other songs you re­mem­ber as briefly punc­tu­at­ing cul­ture com­pletely be­cause of their oth­er­ness (see: “Is­tan­bul [Not Con­stantino­ple]” or “Tip­toe Through the Tulips”). The al­bum fea­tured stab­bing or­gans, elec­tri­fy­ing gui­tars, tam­bourines, an­i­mal calls, lists of girls’ names and sea crea­tures and plan­ets. Vis­ual records from that time show wild col­ors and wilder wigs bor­rowed from 30 years of recorded mu­sic. It might be the only al­bum of its era to imag­ine what a post-punk take on Mo­town would sound like. Af­ter a long time – maybe too long for a band I liked this much – I went back­wards from Good Stuff. There were songs that ex­cited and songs that were dif­fi­cult to love. Lush and pol­ished mo­ments pushed up against raw, al­most painfully naked ones. Touches of weird­ness and touches of imag­i­na­tion. Noise and sound. To­gether, they added up to a world that I hadn’t known be­fore. As I get older, the one thing I’ve re­al­ized I re­spect more than any­thing else is world-build­ing. You don’t get to claim that the B-52’s were silly or coun­ter­cul­tural when you fi­nally glimpse that whole, strange world. You can watch a com­plete 46-minute B-52’s set on YouTube from the 1985 Rock in Rio fes­ti­val. It’s a lit­tle de­press­ing, though, be­cause while the band ex­panded to a Stop Mak­ing Sense- es­que size for a fuller sound, they’re dwarfed by the black cav­ern of the stage around them. Their vis­ual aes­thetic at

these shows – by a wide mar­gin the largest they ever per­formed – could be de­scribed as “vaguely hip grandma.” Cindy sports an un­be­liev­ably mas­sive white Jackie O wig; Keith looks like he just came from a back­yard gar­den; Fred is wear­ing a bil­lowy shiny green one­sie with straps.

Com­pare this to a Satur­day Night Live per­for­mance of “Dance This Mess Around” from 1980. Kate plays a key­board, Keith’s drums are mixed high, and Ricky’s elec­tric gui­tar is al­most shock­ingly sparse. Cindy hits a tam­bourine while Fred plinks on a toy pi­ano. There are mere feet of stage space around ev­ery­one, and the au­di­ence is plainly vis­i­ble in front. You can hear in­di­vid­ual au­di­ence mem­bers cheer­ing on the per­for­mance with hoots and claps.

Watch­ing these clips to­gether, you know at once that they were des­tined for both mu­si­cal great­ness and rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity. Speak­ing of Stop Mak­ing Sense, no dis­cus­sion of New York mu­sic can ig­nore Talk­ing Heads as a ce­les­tial body. They were the older sib­lings, the ones who cleared the brush and made it safe for bands to get on the ra­dio while keep­ing Man­hat­tan weird. They were the un­of­fi­cial ar­biters of Cool. The B-52’s fol­lowed in Talk­ing Heads’ foot­steps in many ways, and David Byrne even pro­duced songs that re­sulted in 1982’s Me­sopotamia EP. Me­sopotamia’s songs, es­pe­cially “Deep Sleep,” show that re­la­tion­ship, with sub­tle but tight pro­duc­tion and gui­tars tuned to a sly, chim­ing post-punk sound.

But I think the B-52’s saw where the trail blazed by their older sib­lings was lead­ing and chose to leave it – the post-Byrne al­bum was Whammy!, which doesn’t con­tain a sin­gle ac­tual drum­beat. This late turn to­wards the mo­tor­ized sounds de­tached and aloof, al­most ironic. For a band that re­jects irony com­pletely, the al­bum feels like an odd en­try in their li­brary, and the sub­se­quent Bounc­ing Off the Satel­lites rep­re­sented a dra­matic course cor­rec­tion. The B-52’s are un­mis­tak­ably warm, while Talk­ing Heads seemed to take pride in be­ing cold and dis­tant. I be­lieve Talk­ing Heads be­came a slave to their process while the B-52’s stayed a slave to their muse, which was, in ev­ery def­i­ni­tion, earth­bound. Talk­ing Heads seemed to fig­ure this out too, and back­tracked to a more hu­man sound in their fi­nal al­bums, though by then it was too late. The “Love Shack” video might be one of the most lit­eral things I can name. The band is shown hop­ping into a big-ass car, driv­ing down a Southern high­way. They ar­rive at a “Shaque du Amour” and pro­ceed to play the rest of the song, to much mov­ing and groov­ing. Ev­ery­one looks like they’re hav­ing a to­tal blast, which is ul­ti­mately the point. You want to see them look like it was as much fun to make as it is to watch.

When Fred sings, “The whole shack shim­mies, yeah!” the first time – that mo­ment gives me chills. It’s the mo­ment of an­tic­i­pa­tion, when you know the song is about to get next level. Fat­boy Slim and James Mur­phy have built for­tunes based on this mo­ment. It can be just as re­ward­ing as the song’s cli­max, which is un­doubt­edly the line, “Ti­i­i­i­i­iin roof! Rusted.” The B-52’s were, at their start, 3/5 gay. Even­tu­ally it be­came ½ gay, then most re­cently, thanks to some late bloom­ing, ½ gay and ¼ les­bian. If you can re­mem­ber life be­fore Wikipedia, you’ll know that it used to be a lot harder to come across that kind of in­for­ma­tion. But with the band, sex­u­al­ity was al­ways a non-is­sue – just one among many plea­sures in­hab­it­ing their mu­sic. Any band mem­ber’s ori­en­ta­tion made no im­pact on me; I don’t re­mem­ber won­der­ing when I would get com­fort­able enough with my own sex­u­al­ity to don brightly col­ored pants. I just re­mem­bered think­ing that when I fi­nally could, I would make it a non-is­sue too.

And yet, Keith re­ally liked wear­ing sun­flow­ers. I should’ve fig­ured it out ear­lier. Oh boy, I re­mem­ber hear­ing “Love Shack” and think­ing how badly I wanted to cre­ate some­thing, any­thing as pure and heav­enly as Keith’s gui­tar in that song. It just fuck­ing rings out. Twenty-five years later, this sound still en­thralls me. It had as much an im­pact on me as that first chord of “A Hard Day’s Night” must have had on my par­ents.

The story be­hind that line is worth telling: the band had gath­ered in the studio to sing the line “tin roof!” Cindy for­got to stop when ev­ery­one else did – she looked around the room to find that she had sang it alone one ex­tra time, then im­pro­vised the last word. This also means there is (or was a plan to have) a ver­sion that fea­tures this group yell-chant promi­nently. I’m con­fi­dent we can find it in the uni­verse im­me­di­ately ad­ja­cent to ours.

It raises a ques­tion I con­stantly find in­ter­est­ing: what else has been edited out of things we trea­sure? What did a hand­ful of peo­ple deem un­in­ter­est­ing to the rest of the world? Ev­ery­thing is cu­rated, no mat­ter what. By the way, that “whole shack shim­mies” line is cut from the sin­gle and video ver­sions. An­other piece of B-52’s record­ing his­tory minu­tia: there’s only one orig­i­nal B-side, an in­stru­men­tal called “Re­turn to Dream­land.” There are a hand­ful of songs float­ing around and a cou­ple that have never been re­leased. For an 80s band with many 7” and 12” sin­gles, they to­tally bucked the trend of pro­duc­ing orig­i­nal songs to sup­ple­ment sin­gles.

On one hand, the col­lec­tor in me feels re­buffed since there isn’t much left to be un­earthed. On the other, I have a lot of re­spect for a band that says, “Okay, these are the nine or ten songs we have, we be­lieve in them, and they’re are all we need to of­fer.” In that light, noth­ing be­comes sec­ond-class. Fred was 29 when the band’s de­but al­bum came out. Kate was 32. The B-52’s weren’t one of those bands that started in col­lege and was over by the time its mem­bers were 27; their break­through came af­ter nine full years of per­form­ing to­gether. This gives me hope, too – that my 20s passed with­out in­ci­dent or much sat­is­fac­tion; and now, at 34, with greater hap­pi­ness and con­fi­dence and un­der­stand­ing, my golden age could be hap­pen­ing right now. I just had to wait for my own Shaque du Amour to show up on the high­way. The B-52’s sang songs about things or­di­nary (bak­ing a cake, walk­ing the dog), things ex­tra­or­di­nary (il­le­gally print­ing money, Satan tak­ing a ride in your car), and things some­where in be­tween (ap­ply­ing to a dat­ing ser­vice, vis­it­ing a nude beach). They com­pared love to vol­ca­noes and wanted to live in an­cient Egypt. They strongly ad­vo­cated shak­ing your butt and find­ing life­long friends. If there’s a com­mon thread through all of this mu­sic, it’s that we’re all hu­mans, and hu­mans are glo­ri­ously com­pli­cated. That’s a good way to sum­ma­rize the B-52’s – it’s dance mu­sic made by hu­mans. Com­pare that to the soul­less, bleak aes­thetic of EDM: it asks you to dance the same way for long min­utes at a time – so long, ac­tu­ally, that you’re not sup­posed to re­al­ize the song has changed. But the B-52’s ask you to spaz the fuck out, flail, shimmy, twist, what­ever. I can keep a beat like no­body’s busi­ness, but when it comes to danc­ing I’m be­yond hope­less. The band said–you know what? You can do what­ever the mu­sic makes you feel. It’s bet­ter to be Weird than Cool. It’s okay to be your­self and evolve.

When you’re nine and you have a whole life ahead of you – and even when you’re 34 – that mes­sage gets you through a huge part of your life. It pro­tects you, it em­pow­ers you, it wel­comes you into a fam­ily that was wait­ing for you. Ev­ery­one’s a mess; now it’s your job to dance that mess around.

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