#transgender #LGBTQ #counterculture #scarcity #precarity #pop
As a young art-school graduate trying to understand the artist’s life that I had chosen, I could have had no better tutor than Leee Black Childers, who died April 6 at age 68. Childers, photographer and minder for rock stars and transgender icons, led the sort of life that the rest of us only read about. His generation, in the East Village and elsewhere, lived with a precarity and an immediacy that somehow produced enormous creativity. The rewards of that artistic output accrued unevenly to its creators, such that I came to know a man who had worked intimately with Andy Warhol, David Bowie, and Iggy and The Stooges as a colleague at what was, for me, a transitory job at a photography lab while I worked out bigger plans. Reflecting, I am reluctant to romanticize an era that left such crucial participants a hair’s breadth from mainstream celebrity yet financially destitute, but I’m awed by the tenacity and fearlessness that they brought to their art and to their lives.
Childers stage-managed and documented performers at the start of the 1970s who would shape the coming punk-rock revolution, including Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis and underground rock star Jayne County, in productions at the Theater of the Ridiculous that pioneered a model of sexual-revolution-as-Grand-Guignol performance art. This mode of performance, which was deeply rooted in the burgeoning LGBTQ visibility of the 1970s, was copied by Andy Warhol, who absorbed Childers et al into his stage play PORK and into his orbit. Speaking of this time, when superstars Curtis, Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, and County all lived at his tiny one-bedroom apartment, Childers told me the hardest part was that he could never get a chance to use his own bathroom, which had the only mirror. His combination of lightheartedness and insight is undoubtedly what carried him through nearly seven decades of glamour and excess as well as poverty, homophobia, and the AIDS crisis.
Through Warhol, Childers got connected with David Bowie and his manager Tony DeFries, who hired Childers to photograph the singer’s rise to superstardom. Bowie, who was indebted to American rock groups of the 1960s such as The Velvet Underground and The Stooges, had arranged for DeFries to represent the latter, and recruited Childers to be their road manager. Childers, Kentucky-born with a soft drawl, would speak of how he learned to swim at a house in the Hollywood Hills where Pop, stuck in limbo between touring and recording, would get bored and regularly throw himself into the pool to drown. Childers would diligently fish him out each time. Later Childers struck out on his own as road manager for Mott the Hoople and for Johnny Thunders’ post–New York Dolls band, The Heartbreakers. He continued to photograph as The Heartbreakers joined the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK tour in 1976, which also featured The Clash and The Damned, and launched the punk-rock movement in Europe. By this time, the queer and transgender aspects of these outrageous rock-and-roll performances were being sublimated to heterocentric machismo in the name of mass appeal. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that the queer and feminist sensibilities of punk revivalists in the Queercore and Riot Grrl movements were not a new slant but a restoration of foundational values in the movement that was galvanized by Childers and peers like Jayne County and Cherry Vanilla.
When speaking with artists who came of age in the 1970s, I am repeatedly struck by how comfortable they seem to be with uncertainty and with scarcity, but also by how threatened that condition leaves them as they approach their twilight years. Much of what was once counterculture is absorbed into the mainstream, sometimes almost immediately, yet the originators of ideas are rarely the ones who profit. For example, Lou Reed and David Bowie both had lasting, royalty-generating hits that borrowed heavily from the queer and transgender artists around them, Reed appropriating their styles for Transformer and their stories for “Walk on the Wild Side” (1972), while Bowie released “Rebel Rebel” in 1974, containing lyrics that Childers and others cite as originating with Jayne County. County, Woodlawn, and Childers have all enjoyed renewed visibility in the more recent past, but none of that came with health insurance or a pension. Perhaps no one expected to live this long. Certainly, many, including Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, and Johnny Thunders, did not.
Looking around, it would seem that today’s mainstream contemporary artists are free to play with gender and be open about LGBTQ issues, whether visual artists such as Grayson Perry, pop stars such as Lady Gaga, or theater performers such as Alan Cumming. The spirit of the Theater of the Ridiculous seems to be hanging on in New York in productions such as Ubu Sings Ubu at the Abrons Art Center, which blends the Symbolist play Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry with the music of the post-punk band Pere Ubu, named for one of the play’s characters. Still, one finds that the closer an artist gets to the big time, the more pressure to frame queerness as a persona to be worn rather than a lifelong condition. This, too, originates with Childers’ generation. Meanwhile, the uneven distribution of resources continues unabated. In a time of scarcity and oligarchy not witnessed since the 1970s, the fearlessness of that era’s counterculture should serve as inspiration. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the survivors before the last of them is gone.
#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.