Adam Ant Is Leading a Make-up Tutorial in the Park

by Jason Tougaw

It’s noon on a Saturday. Paul and I are in his room, playing D&D with the radio on in the background, tuned to 91X, the hard rock station. Robert Plant is whimpering about the price of a stairway when, abruptly, the needle scratches right through his falsetto. Then silence.

“They screwed up,” Paul says, savoring their fallibility.

A coveted Japanese import 12" single of Berlin's "Sex (I'm a)." Terri Nunn is still rockin' that amazing physique, decades after selling out for The Top Gun soundtrack.

Then a male whisper, “Sex,” over the sound of synthesized drums, a cynical mechanized melody, and the sound of a breathy orgasmic woman singing over the man: Feel the fire, feel my love inside you, it’s so right. There’s the sound and smell of love in my mind. “What the?” Paul asks. I have no answer.

We can’t do anything but listen and hope. I’m a toy come and play with me say the word now. Wrap your legs around mine and ride me tonight. We stare at each other, at the speakers, back at each other. I’m a man. I’m a goddess. I’m a man. Well, I’m a virgin. We stare at each other, at the speakers, back at each other.

The song fades, and a male DJ says “That was Berlin, “Sex (I’m a),” and you’re listening to the new 91X.  We have just witnessed the birth of San Diego’s first New Wave station. The weekend is a revelation. We hear The English Beat—and not just “Save It For Later,” but also “I Confess,” “Tears of a Clown,” and “Mirror in the Bathroom.” We’re introduced to Modern English, Adam and the Ants, Elvis Costello, Japan, Bauhaus, Blancmange, Joy Division, Madness, The Cure. We hear the full spectrum of punk: The Clash, Generation X, Dead Kennedys, Social Distortion. We hear ska, not just The English Beat, but Bad Manners and The Specials. We already know Duran Duran, The Eurythmics, ABC, and Culture Club. They’re here too. The station doesn’t seem to have that many records, so we hear most of these bands six or seven times over the course of the weekend, enough to learn the names and memorize the choruses. We leave the radio on constantly, even while we sleep, which isn’t much.

 

Modern English. Was the grace imaginary, or was it real? Maybe Peter Godwin can tell us.

I dreamed of better lives, the kind that never hate, trapped in a state of imaginary grace. I’m sitting in the concret driveway, my radio next to me, listening to Modern English’s not-yet-classic “Melt with You.” We’re renting this ramshackle house with a glossy red door from my mom’s peculiarly smart friend Sue Ellen. She’s in her studio, with the windows open. “This sounds just like sixties psychedelia. I used to listen to music that sounded a lot like this.” Sixties? I spend a couple of seconds entertaining the idea that she is right. Impossible. She’s wrong. I know it. I tolerate her ignorance, but I remember the statement for the rest of my life.

The chorus fades out, and Translator’s “Everywhere that I’m Not” begins, drums and jangly guitar, desperate male voice. The guy singing sounds like sex to me, like that’s really what he’s asking for.  

“She’s in New York. She’s in Tokyo. She’s in Nova Scotia,” Sue Ellen says. “But he’s not. He’s sort of like Mick Jagger.” She has gone too far now. Mick Jagger? I don’t even bother glancing in response. Sue Ellen is threatening to interfere with the cellular transformation that listening to 91X has initiated in me. The music reorganizes brain cells first, but the chain of chemical exchange spreads through the entire nervous system, setting off a cascade effect through the metabolism, respiratory and digestive systems, even bone structure. The notes in the songs are arranged to topple rock ‘n roll, whose macho dominance has made it the stuff of oppression, but they are also shepherding my personal transformation.

New wave is not a single kind of music or people. It’s a revolution gaining momentum, a loose band of genres and devotees committed to rejecting rock dominance and mainstream mediocrity. Punks have stolen the guitars, Goths have turned to the dark history of humanity to rescue poetry from the trite and tacky love songs that dominate our lives, New Romantics have painted their faces, programmed their synthesizers, and plundered Byron and Shelley for inspiration, Mods have bought vintage trench coats and Vespas, Skinheads have sliced the strings on their basses and used them to slash their chests, and Ska Boys have turned to their dark-skinned brothers and sisters for collaboration in the musical struggle for liberty. They have instigated the metabolic reconfiguration of my adolescent viscera.

The songs, even the ones overplayed, are cogs in the factory of my alteration. I begin to imagine the revolution at home. It starts with Del Dios, the hippie enclave I’ve dreaded living in for the  most of the past seven years, liberated from the post-hippy losers and rebuilt under the direction of my New Wave heroes. Annie Lennox will be king; David Sylvian will oversee the bulldozing of houses and rebuild them as little Japanese palaces of beauty; Peter Murphy will run the Del Dios store, selling ripped fishnets and red wine distilled from the blood of corrupt politicians; Boy George will be the local priest, presiding over ecstatic weddings and art-directed funerals; Robert Smith will revamp the Volunteer Fire Department into a New Wave dance club, where cool people in their teens and twenties from all over San Diego will gather with their hair dyed blues and reds and blacks and burgundies, waving their arms like snake charmers to the beat of mechanized drums. I am swirling in synth sounds, urbane irony, sexual innuendo, and futuristic melodies. The sounds diminish everything that has come before, my whole life, the history of music, the history of the entire world, to mere nostalgia.

New Wave is about the future, and for as long as I can remember I have been obsessed with a future of my own design. Unbeknownst to me, a coalition of musicians in Europe and America had already gone to work assembling the new me, crafting a milieu in which I would find my shape.

I’m a citizen in this new world, walking Del Dios roads arm and arm with Anabella from Bow Wow Wow, singing along to Haysi Fantayzee’s “Shiny Shiny,” which plays over the town’s loudspeakers. Adam Ant is leading a make-up tutorial in the park and we don’t want to be late, so we skip.

A slice of synthesizers cuts through hot Del Dios air. I’m swirling in the intro to Peter Godwin’s “Images of Heaven,” an extended sound sculpture, its precise, mechanical beat garnished with flourishes of robot strings, synthetic bells, and drum fills calculated to sound as inhuman as possible, like they come from something bigger than a flesh and blood drummer sweating his guts out. There is no need for sweat or guts when you’re part of a new revolution, isolating and making audible the hidden sonic framework of the universe. Images of heaven. There’s nothing I can do. The camera made you. My future self is hiding in Peter Godwin’s futuristic Casablanca image, his vaguely philosophical lyrics about the power of the image in a media culture, his bangs falling in his face.

I can listen to the B-52s or Devo or Culture Club or Bauhaus or the Cure or Madness, but I can’t imagine being them. But New Romantics like Peter Godwin, David Sylvian, Cee Farrow, Steve Strange, with their heavy make-up, casual referencing of avant-garde art movements, and complete ignorance of rock ‘n roll, are my tribe. These are men I could become. Just images of heaven, that take me to hell. When the title repeats at the end of each chorus, you know he will never capture the reality behind the image. I can’t articulate the profundity of this idea, but I feel it with every particle of my flesh. It’s not just about stalking some media idol. It’s about the nature of truth.

“Now, this is not like the sixties,” Sue Ellen says. Thank God. Watching illusion could still be the mind. Just because nobody sees doesn’t mean it’s not there. Illusion could still be the mind. Sue Ellen and I can agree on this. It’s what brought us together in the first place. In fact, I’m hearing the lyrics all wrong. The line is actually one cheap illusion can still be divine. For Sue Ellen and me, both sentiments apply. We have illusion-loving minds, and we firmly believe our cheap lives are divine because of it. As the words of the chorus repeat one last time, obsessive and futile, the song ends in an abrupt note of requiem. Sue Ellen and I can both feel the sound of mourning cut brief to leave you with the stir of dissatisfied longing.

David Sylvian, contemplating the art of parties and the architecture of Del Dios. 

For some reason, David Sylvian is standing out in front of the house, platinum bangs hanging over fire-red hair, just a little gold eye-shadow, a pale powder, brown (not black) mascara, and lipstick to match the hair, our door, and the fire truck across the street. I wonder if Sue Ellen can see him, directing a crew composed of members of Bow Wow Wow, Adam and the Ants (minus Adam, who is, as we know, preparing his make-up tutorial in the park), The Pretenders, and The Clash. Skinny as they are, these are the muscles of the Revolution. Anabella holds a pick-axe. Chrissie Hynde is wearing a yellow helmet and a red plaid flannel cut off at the sleeves. Sylvian is giving quiet orders, half-distracted, as he pores over architectural plans, spread out on a platinum drafting table, glancing every few minutes at the house, white paint flaking, then the driveway, cracked concrete, me sitting on it with my radio, fiddling with the antenna to improve reception. I wonder if Sue Ellen is anxious or excited about the demolition and reconstruction of her guest house.

“Let’s keep the door intact,” Sylvian says. “I want to incorporate it into the new design.”

 

(An excerpt from my memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism, represented by Carrie Howland at Donadio & Olson.)

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