ATLANTA, GA – I would have started this article with “Dunwoody, GA,” but it occurs to me, Queer San Francisco, that you may not know where that is, so I’ve given you an approximation. We are in The South, and you probably have preconceived notions of what The South is and who we Southerners are. This much is true: we inhabit the land of Jim Crow. The Trail of Tears led through our States. When I cast my second ballot in South Carolina in 1998, we were only getting around to legalizing interracial marriage (38% of the electorate voted against the measure, by the way); it would take Supreme Court rulings to eventually strike down most of the South’s anti-sodomy laws, as well as to overturn all of the South’s bans on same-sex marriage.
Even Atlanta, “the city too busy to hate,” is a place where streets change names at a dividing point, not because city planners of old wanted to be as creative as possible with naming conventions (we have 71 streets with “Peachtree” in their names for crying out loud, and I have yet to see a single peach growing within the city limits), but because white people on one side didn’t want to share an address with black people on the other. And, while most gay people in Atlanta and other smaller cities in the South manage to live in comfort and security, all one needs to do is watch the fabulous and chilling documentary “Small Town Gay Bar” to realize that being gay in the backwoods of the Deep South ain’t no picnic by a long shot. To be fair, from Appalachia to Louisiana, Texas to Virginia, and all points in between, we are faced with the lived experience of an (often messy) American history plagued with the same reverberations of cultural wounds currently playing out in every area of the country; it’s just that the scars here are more obvious.
But, dear people of the West, know this: two things can be opposing and true at the same time. Pearls, after all, are born of friction, and the South has birthed brilliance and art, cherished and adored by the nation (and arguably the world), for generations: the blues, Faulkner, and Elvis are children of Mississippi; Truman Capote and Flannery O’Connor were Southerners to the core, country music is a Southern creation and has its capital in Nashville; Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta and championed his civil rights movement starting across the South. Even Left Magazine’s own creative hails from Winder, Georgia; he and any Southern transplant you meet walking through the steep San Francisco streets could convincingly make the case that their homeland of contradictions weaves its tentacles through the artistic tapestry of these United States more than any other region.
The South’s influence on music still dominates today, and the alternative rock scene would not be what it is without the fair hamlet of Athens, Georgia. Nestled just east of Atlanta, it is the birthplace of the likes of R.E.M, the Indigo Girls, Pylon, many, many other fabulous bands you haven’t have the chance to hear yet. But it could be argued that the most notable band to come out of Athens are the B-52s, who are still the “world’s greatest party band” 40 years after forming and whose music is forever tied to Athens and drilled into the American psyche. If you can’t sing along to Love Shack at a moment’s notice, you haven’t been paying attention in a very, very long time.
It is with this cultural backdrop firmly in place that I sit down at a pizzeria with Cindy Wilson, a founding member of the B-52s, rock-n-roll royalty, brilliant songwriter and performer in her own right, and, it has to be said, one of the sweetest people you will ever meet. She didn’t know me from Adam’s housecat, but within five minutes of chatting with her, my husband and I had been invited to her house the following evening for a Halloween house party and music performance featuring her band, her children’s band Array, and Vanessa from Pylon, among others. I told her that it would be an honor to crash her party, to which she simply replied, “Well, I wish you would.” That’s how open she is; you can’t help but fall for her.
Most of the pictures in your mind (and mine) form a Cindy Wilson with a beehive hairdo in fabulous party attire ready to rock the house down. Ridiculous of me, I know, but I half expected that to be the person who met me. Obviously, dear people, she is a real person who can’t possibly keep that up all the time. She is currently sporting a modified platinum blonde pixie cut, white shirt with a blue & white shawl, jeans and a white fedora. She is unmistakably and unapologetically Southern. She loves the place, and her tours around the world and stints living outside Georgia have not taken away her delicious Southern drawl.
Her youngest child, Nolan, now a senior in high school, joins her and they both are cool and relaxed; they clearly adore each other. Nolan, in fact, is wearing a dark yet sparkly sweater that glistens in the low light of the restaurant. Cindy giggles a bit as she admits that it’s actually her sweater. “Yeah, he doesn’t mind going into my closet,” and we all agree that there is no end to the treasure trove that he has to choose from. Does she still have all of the outfits from her early career? “We have a lot of them. My husband, who’s a curator, has been saving things” and then she promises to show me some at the party. (I am still incredulous that I have been invited to her home.)
I ask her if she could even feasibly count the number of interviews she has given throughout her career, and of course her answer is “no” with a chuckle. Anxious to impress and eager to get going with a question she will have never been asked, I propose a hypothetical: she is to imagine she is involved in a bar brawl, but can only choose one Indigo Girl to fight by her side. Whom would she pick and why? She laughs and then answers “Amy” without hesitation. “Because she kicks ass.”
Jitters on my part mostly put to the side, we dive in.
First we talk about Athens, and how it influenced the B-52s and their musical trajectory. It’s actually her hometown, something that’s a rarity to encounter, given that most people there are actually from somewhere else. “I think there was a lot more culture, being a university town, and lots of different kind of people. It wasn’t just Southerners; there were professors’ kids and more diversity. And so I got to have that. And [we got to] take advantage of the university. We used to go see foreign films, which in other cities in the South you probably wouldn’t have been able to do, at least not then. It’s still a very creative town. It’s got a good vibe.” Her eyes brighten as she adds, “I might retire there.”
But she’s not ready to retire quite yet! The B-52s still tour regularly, though now they keep it to smaller, bite-sized chunks. “We’re all a little bit older now, and to keep it where we can actually do it. We do two or three shows, and then go home.” Keith Strickland, who writes the music for most of their songs and is the lead guitarist, actually stopped touring with the band in 2013, though he will continue to write songs and record in the future. The band mates miss him terribly, but understand. “He loves it. He’s just over it. And that’s his prerogative. But we keep in contact, and he has a happy, happy life in Key West.”
The band has clearly gone through transitions and losses. Most recently, they lost their longtime second guitarist and keyboardist, Paul Gordon, who suffered from heart problems. “It’s been a crazy year.” And, as is well known, the band suffered an early loss in their career when, at the height of the AIDS crisis, while our community was saying good-bye to almost an entire generation of souls, Cindy’s brother and fellow B-52, Ricky Wilson, passed away from AIDS-related pneumonia. It is a loss that has stayed with them, but the band persevered as a way to honor Ricky and complete his artistic vision. “It felt like Ricky was there in the studio [after his death]. It was definitely a way for us all to heal. It was amazing to come together.”
In 1989, Cindy, Kate, Fred, and Keith reemerged with their first project as a quartet, Cosmic Thing, releasing riches, including the aforementioned “Love Shack,” along with “Roam,” “The Deadbeat Club” and others into the American cultural landscape. They were catapulted to worldwide acclaim. “We didn’t write it to be a hit maker. And ‘Love Shack,’ now you’re sick of hearing it (writer’s note – we are definitely not), but it’s amazing that it ever came out like that. We wrote it to make ourselves laugh. It was amazing that things started happening with it; we were unprepared for it.” But she quickly asserts that they were grounded enough in reality to not get too caught up in the mystique of being famous. “It’s just for fun; it’s just music. Don’t take it too seriously, or think that you’re all that. It’s just a way to have a good time and share that with your friends and fans.” And I think any fan of the B-52s will admit that’s the main draw of their music; it’s just so damned fun!
Shortly after touring for Cosmic Thing, Cindy needed a break from the band, and left to raise her family, but by 1998 she had rejoined with the band and has not looked back since. “The perk being in the band is when people come up to you and tell you how you helped them through really hard times, being different, being gay, or just being an outsider. It’s helped them to go with it; it’s okay…just work with it. Have a good time and be yourself. And stand up! To me, that’s the best thing about it all.”
While it’s impossible to interview Cindy and not talk about the B-52s, I’m also excited to hear her talk about her newly released solo EP, Sunrise, a compilation of three cover songs and two originals that form the basis of her show “Change,” which you, Queer San Francisco, will be able to experience up close and personal at Oasis on December 12th. She will also be the guest of honor on December 10th at Oasis for their Mother: B-52s Tribute. Do yourself a favor and get to both events. She can’t wait to meet you. Really. “When I played a solo gig in LA recently at Largo, which seats about 150, I got to meet all the fans. I said, ‘I’m going to be in the lobby if anybody wants to talk,’ and the whole theater stood in line. I got to greet and talk to everybody. It was wonderful and I heard so many stories – they just really want to tell you how important your art is to them. You’ve got to realize that it’s your job to reach out to people; it’s important.“
She takes her job seriously, and Sunrise is no exception. From the first note sung on the EP, you’ll hear the unmistakable voice of Cindy Wilson, but the genres shift from song to song. “It took us two years [to record]. We wanted it to be modern, and for everybody’s styles to come in. I had to come up with a new sound. So we would meet maybe once a month for a couple days and kick things around and experiment with sounds until we finally got a sound that we liked.” And, let me assure you, it is a sound you will like. You are used to dancing to Cindy’s tones, but generally in a frenetic and jumping fashion. She wanted to start you somewhere else though with the EP. Beginning with the title track, you will sway more than dance, and relax rather than party. “If you need my sunrise / drift into my fall eyes.” And drift you will.
Next up, “Take Your Time,” one of the cover songs (written and originally performed by Danish band Junior Senior) nods at the B-52s with its driving beat and quirky lyrics: “I think somehow I know / When we dance real slow / From your attention span / That you’re about to plan / To throw my kiss in the garbage can.” In a way, the selection of this song is very meta…if you listen to Junior Senior’s recording, it honestly sounds like an homage to the B-52s dipped in disco, and while both versions are full of fun and dance, Cindy’s seems to shine with more presence.
In just reading the next song title, it’s possible that many people will simply assume that “Brother” is about Cindy’s late brother. However, the song is a tribute to Oh-Ok, another Athens-based band that formed in 1981 and were making the rounds at the same time as the B-52s in their early days. “We did this Georgia musicians show in Athens a couple years ago, and everyone took turns playing songs from different Athens artists, and that’s where I brought out ‘Brother’ [for the first time].” Cindy’s version veers darker than the original, which was already edgy and way ahead of its time. “My little brother is for himself / He is for nobody else / Wants somebody in a red miniskirt / tried for it.”
“We don’t mind going a little dark,” Cindy explains. “I’ve been doing the B-52 songs over and over, so it feels so good to be doing this. Don’t me wrong, I’m really grateful to have this career, but I’m just glad to be singing in a different way. With this style, you don’t have to yell to evoke these emotions. In fact, certain emotions come across much deeper when you’re a little bit more subtle. So that has been a delight to play around with.”
Jumping genres and decades, “Wake Up,” a Cindy Wilson original, takes us back to the chill out room at a rave in the early 2000’s. Her voice, pushed through a synthesizer, echoed, and looped, telling us to “wake up” at the same time the sounds are asking us to sit down and listen. This song is all about tone and feel; the lyrics are another instrumental layer, a modern lullaby.
The album comes to a close with “Corporeal,” written by the English electronic band, Broadcast. This cover version has more contrast to the original than the other covers on the EP, and is a beautiful salute to the band, and specifically to the band’s lead vocalist, Trish Keenan, who passed away in 2011 from pneumonia after contracting H1N1. As with the other songs on the EP, Cindy shows how much she trusted and believed in the vision that musicians and producer brought to the table. There is nothing forced about the song, and you would be hard pressed to pinpoint the decade that most influences the recording. You can hear slower songs from 80’s, 70’s keyboards, vocal styling from the 90’s. For those familiar with his work, you can definitely hear the touch of producer Suny Lyons, Athens-based musician and recording engineer.
There is clear excitement on her part to bring you these new treats, but she’s also completely jazzed about joining in for Mother: B-52s Tribute. “They’re going to be doing girl songs from the band, which is going to be a hoot and a half. And I don’t know how I’m going to contain myself…it’s just going to be so fun.”
Drag as an art form is something Cindy is completely drawn to. When I press about what it is she loves about them she says, “Their openness, their creativity, their sense of humor. I could just go on and on. It’s a naughty humor, and it’s just great. It’s also a way to celebrate. It’s a way of having a good time and celebrating life. Make fun of it. Have fun. Just laugh. It’s important. See the humor.”
She’s also drawn to the concept of Mother, that drag mothers can have a place to go with their drag children to show them the ropes and give them the love they need to blossom into the artists they are meant to become. And while she will never be able to be a drag mother to all the drag children, she’s happy to stand in as a supportive aunt. Especially to the younger drag children just starting out, go with what you’ve got and be fabulous. “I used to go out in the world with nothing. I remember being on tour and wearing nothing but my flip-flops the whole time. You know, go-go dress, and flip-flops and a wig.” (Speaking of wigs, Cindy knows her way around those! At Wigstock she once dawned a wig with a birdcage built into it. I ask if she still has any lasting neck pain. “No, but I still have the wig.”)
To the drag mothers, she understands the immense joy that comes from raising artists. Her own children are a source of great pride for her, as people, but also as members of the music world (their band, Array, is already making a name for itself in the Atlanta indie scene). With a glimmer in her eye she looks right at Nolan as she says, “I’ve been loving watching our kids and all their friends get into music. It’s what we had hoped for. It teaches them the right thing about making something out of nothing. It’s not just about the rules.”
A return trip to San Francisco is also something she’s very much looking forward to. “The first time my husband and I went to San Francisco, we stayed in this run-down little hotel called The Senator, and we were in a corner room, and I still have this image of these white curtains blowing in the wind. It’s always air-conditioned. It’s not hot there. There’s nothing bad about San Francisco. It just makes you feel so inspired.”
Lunch finished, and Cindy and Nolan needing to get back to their daily routine, we wrap up the interview…but not before she winks at Nolan and asks if he wants to try to “get that teddy bear.” I am immediately confused, as I think I’ve been brought into contact with an inside joke, but then I spy a claw machine in the back of the pizzeria, stuffed to the gills with plush fancies ready for the taking. I pack up my things and the three of us head over to the tiny restaurant arcade, and I watch along as attempts are made, sadly without success, to land that rainbow colored teddy bear. At that moment, I’m not watching a B-52 and her aspiring protégé; I’m simply out with a mom and her son, playing a game for nothing more than the whimsy of it. They are people who get the fact that there doesn’t have to be a point to having fun, and that fun happens where you make it, just like music, and that it should be a source of joy in a world that, especially lately, feels full of nothing but sadness and derision.
And the tower of musical might standing in front of me currently hoping to land a stuffed trifle is inspired to keep going, to keep making music that you want to hear and enjoy. And she asks that you do the same, Queer San Francisco. And for those of you who left the South to make a new home in the jewel of the West Coast, don’t forget the lessons you learned here. Cindy wants you to remember the pace and the good things that you bring with you from your own history and to share them with the world. After all, we’ve already shared a lot of good with the world. Y’all keep it up.
Wayne Fishell is an out-and-proud singer-songwriter/recording artist living in Atlanta. He has put out three albums under the name “the wayne fishell experiment” with his signature gay-acoustic-indie-folk-pop style. Songs available for your listening pleasure at www.ofishell.com