Punk and All the Sex and Love and Gender-Bending We Forgot About
A brilliant new show at New York’s Museum of Sex reveals a creative, rebellious culture that rewrote the rules about a lot more than just music.
I’m standing with Lissa Rivera, one of the curators of the brilliant exhibition Punk Lust: Raw Provocation at the Museum of Sex, in a section of the exhibit she calls “Idols of Perversity.” She isn’t anything near what I expected. She is far better dressed and more polished than I am, like a professor with her loose updo and scarf. Sex is all around her and yet she seems impervious to it. We stop under a photograph of Dead Boys frontman Stiv Bators receiving a blowjob while singing on stage.
“Here is everyone who is kind of upending the idea of the teen idol and perverting it completely to be the best bad influence a teenager can hope for,” she says so earnestly that I want to be her friend forever. “We have Stiv, who is every mother’s nightmare,” she points at him. “He was just this guy who attracted so many people, and he was always getting blowjobs on stage.”
Certainly, I am not the only person at the Museum of Sex wondering if Stiv could cum while singing, or if that is even the point. Or whether the person sucking him off was male or female. Both had short hair. And women in the punk world had the shortest hair—they weren’t hippies! I also don’t think watching that at a gig would be at all arousing. I would be shocked. But that was the intended effect. Now here we are, some five decades later, looking at the photo and kind of giggling and shrugging.
Punk Lust: Raw Provocation 1971-1985, curated by Rivera, Carlo McCormick, and Vivien Goldman and on display at the museum through November, is a brief history that explores sexual identity in a cultural system rarely characterized as sexy. Punk was a visceral reaction to disillusionment of the free loving heterosexual ’60s in America. In England, factory work and garbage strikes were dismal enough to make anyone rip themselves out of their clothes. Kids were angry at the problems they inherited: post war immigration tensions in England and post Vietnam disillusionment in America. On both sides of the Atlantic, punks weaponized everything they could control: music, clothing, gender, art, love, and sex—sometimes sex has nothing whatever to do with fucking. Despite all the sexual imagery and band names blatantly referencing genitalia—The Sex Pistols, The Slits, The Buzzcocks—Punk rejected cock rock, even as cocks dangled before audiences. And they spat at romance.
The tour begins and ends at a mock-up of the SEX storefront, London’s punk boutique owned by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. “Stores were so important for meeting people. And that’s where people would post flyers,” Rivera says. Tish and Snooky’s punk rock boutique Manic Panic [today a cosmetic empire] on St. Mark’s place downtown served similar networking needs in New York. People could find each other and a place to crash. Atomic Books in Baltimore, where John Waters still receives his mail, was also an important address for an underground base of operations. The SEX boutique and Manic Panic marked the commercialization of punk from its DIY roots.
Regardless of attitudes toward sex, where there is a band there are groupies. Jordan (no last name required) was the style icon showing up at London gigs in outfits that could be bought at SEX. As an employee of the boutique, she was a walking advertisement for where to buy the anti-fashion that comes to mind when we think of London punk and The Sex Pistols—the deconstructed visual assault that came after glam: mesh, see-through clothing, mohair sweaters, spiked hair, and angular makeup. As part of the Bromley Contingent, the Sex Pistols followers who trained into London from the suburbs, she influenced the looks of fellow Bromley members Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol, both of whom wore the more heteronormative and BDSM-inspired garb rather than the androgynous sheen of glam.
“Topless is one thing, but this is taking it to another step,” Rivera explains as she points to a glossy showing Clash fans in full anarchist regalia standing militantly sans panties. “Can you imagine how radical all this appropriated pornography was to be wearing on the streets in London? You couldn’t even buy a black shirt. You had to dye your own.” I wondered more about the implications of putting my bare vagina on a seat in a grimy punk club or the curb outside.
In many respects, punk traces back to Andy Warhol’s crew of performers, which included Wayne County, a drag queen trapped in a transexual’s body, and Cherry Vanilla, both of whom were in Andy Warhol’s play, Pork, and later formed punk bands. Wayne County also starred alongside Patti Smith in Jackie Curtis’ play Femme Fatales. David Bowie, needing a shot of avant garde, attended the London Production of Pork at the Roundhouse Theatre, where he would have observed Wayne County performing without eyebrows in the play.
Meanwhile in Baltimore, John Waters began his career in cinema by making films that starred all the misfits Baltimore offered: Divine, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce, David Lochary, Pat Moran. His low quality, trashy DIY films that celebrated bad taste opened the doors to the inclusive albeit filthy punk scene that sprouted in Max’s Kansas City and CBGB in New York.
In 1971, the New York Dolls were already dressed in designs by Vivienne Westwood and were later managed by Malcolm McLaren before their SEX boutique opened and he moved on to managing The Sex Pistols. So, the dots from early ’70s glam to mid-’70s punk by way of David Bowie can be connected there.
The New York Dolls played some of the most ferocious guitar driven music that anybody could stand to hear while decked out in gold lame and spandex with zero attempt to hide bulging muscles or chest hair. They were, by most accounts, hetero men dressed as women for no clear reason other than spectacle, but they rocked (to very mixed reviews).
At the same time, the grittiest music coming out of Detroit—MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges—piqued Wayne’s interest. And she wanted in, so she formed Queen Elizabeth, and later, Wayne County and the Electric Chairs and Wayne County and The Backstreet Boys. As a fixture at Max’s Kansas City, CBGB, and the Mudd Club, Wayne was a stunner in her blond wig and flawless makeup with stage theatrics that rivaled Iggy’s. She was the first openly transgender performer in a genre that she’d help pioneer and influence heavily. Unlike the New York Dolls, who simply dressed in womens clothing, she was feminine and later transitioned from Wayne to Jayne County. Her music was no less raw and loud and choppy than any punk before or after.
“I wanted to combine male and female together and make them ONE,” Jayne County said. “I thought the sexes should become closer together. I wanted to use the Rock and Roll format to get my point across.” Wayne County was beautiful, but so very unladylike. And the New York Dolls with their hot pants and muscles were just gross, yet really cool.
With all the glitter and spandex swirling around, MainMan Artistes, David Bowie’s management company, signed Wayne County, but never produced her band. Cherry Vanilla became Bowie’s publicist. Bowie’s look began to transform—he, too shaved his eyebrows and donned body- clutching metallic spandex and precise makeup. He pulled glam from the underground and brought it to the radio as he transformed into the palatably androgynous Ziggy Stardust.
“Cherry Vanilla’s music’s actually really good,” Rivera says. “She has this great song that I fell in love with called ‘The Young Boys,’ where she’s kind of positioning herself as a cougar and she’s talking about buying the young rock guys guitars and spoiling them.”
In the early ’70s, homophobia wasn’t pervasive in the cluster of artists living downtown. That came later, after the artists moved on and the skinheads and ideologues rolled in. Included in Punk Lust’s ephemera is the famous CBGB incident between Wayne County and Handsome Dick Manitoba from The Dictators. He heckled Wayne, screaming “Queer!” at her. When he passed over the stage to go to the bathroom, Manitoba was still snarling homophobic slurs, so Wayne hit him with the microphone stand and sent the burly Dick to the hospital. She continued the show covered in his blood.
The booming sex industry of the ’70s offered flexible hours and supplementary income for many seeking to support their art, drug habits, or partners. “Sex work, the openness of interacting with pornography and domination, phone sex, stripping…” Rivera trails off and I follow her to a photographs of the Cramps. “Poison Ivy and Lux Interior’s relationship...” she smiles and sighs. “When they first moved to New York, she actually worked as a professional dominatrix to support the band early on. But she was always in control of Lux.” Dee Dee Ramone wasn’t terribly discreet about his gay street hustling either.
Next up is a handwritten letter from Sable Starr, infamous underage Los Angeles punk groupie who bedded Bowie, Iggy, and Johnny Thunders. The letter talks about “stripping to pay for Richard’s debt... It just lines up with Richard Hell's autobiography—when he’s dating Sable Starr. But it just says, ‘Richard’ so I don’t know for sure.” Rivera reads from the handwritten letter: ‘So far I have made about $350 dancing and the only thing I have to show for it is an egyptian hippie necklace and eighty pairs of the neatest boots. You’ll die when you see them.” The letter is signed with her “really neat pink blush” and kissed with her “new theatrical lip schtick.”
Rifts between men and women in bands were rarely caused by the people in the bands. More often, they were inspired by the male-dominated music industry that signed these bands but had no idea how to market the punk ethos. So, the machine did what it always does: it sold the sexy parts. Women were often sexualized in ways they didn’t want to be.
“The Runaways were literal runaways. Their manager got these girls who were 15 and basically stole them,” Rivera says. “Honey Bane was on the Crass Records, and she recorded since she was 14 or 15. She’s just such an incredible artist. She was living with her commune and was in the Fatal Microbes as well.” Bane teamed up with Jimmy Pursey from Sham 69 who managed her career. But, as punk became mainstream, EMI/Zonophone, a major label, signed Bane and crafted her into a bombshell. Her identity as part of a band was ripped from her. “They [industry executives] wouldn’t let her have her own band,” Rivera says. “Every time she had an interview, they would talk about how she looked and her body and wouldn’t focus on the music at all, so she wasn’t able to maintain her voice. But if you listen to her early stuff, she was like a prodigy.”
Similarly, Gaye Advert, bassist in the Adverts, wanted to be in the band, not the girl in the band. Unfortunately, the press made much of her beauty—white skin, large eyes rimmed in black, and dark layered hair. She dressed in black leather, which added to her sultry appeal. Unbeknownst to the band, Stiff Records marketed Gaye’s beauty by making her the cover art for the band’s first single—a close up of Gaye’s face. She retaliated by declining to appear in band photos on the single. As the Adverts singles began to chart, she was cropped from band photos. “They [the band] would be suspicious that she was hogging the attention,” Rivera says, “but she was really… not. It was just the way they were treating women.”
The liberation women achieved by finding creative outlets in music, journalism, fashion design, and graphic arts gave them a lot of autonomy among their peers. But male-driven media sought to exploit the women on stage and to make money where they could—through mass cultural appropriation and sexualization. Photographers like Jenny Lens and Ruby Ray, both gifted chroniclers of punk subculture, never got the acclaim that their male counterparts have enjoyed. As a result, many of their photographs are being seen for the first time in Punk Lust.
But romance is inescapable—even in a youth rebellion hell bent against it. Johnny Rotten famously said, “Love is two minutes and fifty-two seconds of squelching noises.” But he was full of shit. He and his wife, Nora Foster, coupled up 40 years ago. He was stepfather to Nora’s daughter, The Slits singer Ari Up. In 2000, Ari’s twin sons went to live with Johnny and Nora, because she was unable to deal with them. After Ari’s death in 2010 from breast cancer, he and Nora became guardians to her third child. If that’s not fucking romantic as shit, I don’t know what is.
And there are other examples. John Doe and Exene Cervenka formed X in 1977 and were a couple for a decade. Over 40 years later, they continue touring their unique folksy, country, rockabilly-infused yolk-collared-pearl-button-shirt-and-vintage-dress LA punk. That’s the only amicable divorce I know of! Then there is Poison Ivy and Lux Interior. In 1972, Lux and Ivy got together and formed the Cramps, and stayed that way until Lux’s death in 2009. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon found love in 1981 when they formed Sonic Youth and were together for 30 years before their split in 2011. Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz from the Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club married in 1977 and will probably achieve happily ever after.
When this all began, many of these people were teenagers. We forget how young they were.