Pleasant Gehman - continued from previous page
So some time has passed now and it seems like the old scenes are getting a different wave of attention.The Go-Go's just did their 30th anniversary tour for their first album and the Germs are getting After School Special-style movies made about them now. Do you feel that anything is being warped or misrepresented from the way you remember it being?
Yeah, I'll tell you a couple of... I see stuff maybe not intentionally being misrepresented, but I see people who are like your age, maybe younger, who think they're these authorities on it. Like, there was a cover page of a magazine called How To Look Punk, it came out in like 1976 or 1977, but it was made by someone who I guess was a stylist or something She took pictures of me and Helen and Trudie and Mary Rat at this thing that was called the Punk Rock Fashion Show. I think it was Jenny Lens' picture and she used it, and it was fine, everyone thought it was fine. It was at the Hollywood Palladium, and everyone was in it, Alice Bag was doing it, all of us girls were doing it. And I had bangs and kinda a crazy Louise Brooks-ish 20's hairdo, and Helen had like a crew cut and Trudie had long hair and Mary had a pixie cut, but a lot of people that saw it today were just like, 'huh, [with derision] that's not punk, look at that girl over there', meaning me, 'that girl looks like Roseanne Roseannadanna,' you know what I mean? Like they thought that we weren't punk. It was just like, c'mon, look at the date, it was 1977.
I don't think people today realize, unless they see that Masque book or other books, how many people that there were in the punk scene who didn't look like how punk grew to look years later. All of us were underage, so none of us had tattoos, unless we made them ourselves [shows me a pretty funny tattoo of a cat's face on her leg]. Like I said, there were only three colors of hair, a lot of girls still had long hair. Pat Bag, who turned into Pat Morrison, who married Dave Vanian, she had hair down to her ass, she never cut her hair. A lot of people never cut their hair. It wasn't about the haircuts. And guys, you know, when the Controllers started, they all had like Shaun Cassidy hair. There were people at shows who looked like Handsome Dick Manitoba, with mustaches, I mean, it looked different, it wasn't commercialized. It wasn't about the fashion. I mean, it was, of course, for girls, because we made it about the fashion, but that was just fashion, that wasn't what we considered punk. We were just doing stuff because one day we liked to look like a 50's movie star, and the next day just wear a trash bag. But younger people don't understand that that was like a cultural turning point in history. And it was attracting people from all different elements. Like that's how jocks got involved. I mean, obviously a lot of them were assholey jocks, but they couldn't have been that assholey because the ones that were really assholey wouldn't go to a Black Flag show or a Gun Club show.
But the main thing that really disturbed me happened a couple years ago. I was in Victoria's Secret, and you know how they have those sweatpants that say 'PINK' across the ass? I saw this, and I just stood there, it was worse than when I went into a Hot Topic, like I'm getting goosebumps just from thinking about this. I was just standing there thinking, 'oh my god, what the fuck is this? I think it's so cool, and it's just so wrong on just so many levels, and it's kinda expensive, should I buy this?... or what'. And what it was was a pair of PINK capri-length sweatpants that had on the back, PINK, which already I think is psychotic, for little girls to walk around with something that says that since Larry Flynt publicized the word, but it had the fucking Pretty Vacant busses on each leg, in like edgy silkscreen, exactly like the Sex Pistols' original stuff. And I was just looking at it, like, 'does Jamie Reid know that this happened? Was this licensed? Was this appropriated?' Like who the fuck on their design team said 'let's put the Sex Pistols' Pretty Vacant busses on front of these capri pants. Can you understand just the shock and awe that was going through my head when I saw that? I was just thinking, what has my youth come to? I mean, do they know what this originally was? Like 'nowhere' and 'boredom'; how the fuck can that be on a pair of sweatpants aimed at high school and college girls?
A lot of the old punk bands eventually signed to major labels, or smaller labels owned by majors. What was the feeling when that would happen?
Oh, we were so happy when anyone got signed. We thought it was fucking awesome. There were always huge signing parties. Huge! Big free guest list. Like when the Dickies got signed to A&M, or like Dangerhouse, who is still there, they weren't like a big big label, but they were a big-for-punks label. Everyone was really happy because people were signed in England all the time, and signed outta New York.
In terms of size at the time, it seems like everything just needed to be a lot more inclusive scene-wise rather than exclusive. It seems as if there was just less hostility and exclusivity present toward the diversity of styles than is more usual to come across within 'punk' circles these days, like melodic or pop influence could be just another experimental sound to incorporate into a style of music that was still relatively new and also different from other styles of punk across the world.
Well there was a lot of crossover. Like before Peter Case had the Plimsouls, he had the Nerves, and they played with the Weirdos and with the Germs. And the Nerves were pop, Blondie was pop, the Ramones were punk sounding, but it was kinda like pop melody, you know, and definitely pop-culture influenced. The distinctions between punk and quote/unquote new wave were kinda just a label that the press made.
Also, as much as I really dislike big corporations, I have to say that my heart gets warm and fuzzy when I hear Lust For Life being on on Carnival Cruises ads, or like Budweiser did the Cramps. I felt like, 'this is fucking godlike, who woulda ever thought that?' But the reason that it's there is because the people in the creative department now are probably my age, or a lot younger, who think this shit is cool in the same way that we thought the Warhol scene or the Beat scene was cool. When we were doing stuff in the 70's, even if you wanted to 'sell out', it was a hard fucking thing that you'd probably fail at because the people in charge of shit were like 60. They didn't understand it, they had no fucking idea. They weren't forward-thinking, they didn't have their hand on the pulse of America's youth. They basically had no clue.
My personal interest is trying to take these experiences, and trying to figure out how to use them to further a do-it-yourself mentality, which for me originally came from punk. Having written your own zine, and also later having written for national mainstream publications, you've been surrounded by, both, the DIY scene as well as nationally distributed corporations. What lessons do you feel can be applied to the current DIY scene?
Well I decided that over 25 years ago, that either I'm just going to live off my brain and my talent, or I'm going to be a fucking bag lady. Right now, I've gotta say, this is going to sound like I'm going all old lady, but if you can't get together your own DIY scene now, with the help of the internet and options to sell it and ways to make websites and communicate and find people... When we did it, you had to write a letter to someone or try to figure out how to make a silkscreen, like you couldn't just google it and get all the directions and materials needed. I think in some ways now it's pretty good because the way the world is going, it's getting rid of things like that.
So I want to talk about your bellydancing, how did you initially get into that? And how did it become such a dominant focus for you, as opposed to the past when it seemed like you were working on so many different projects?
Well I'm still doing a ton of stuff. I'm acting, I'm writing a lot. I just made a stage make-up DVD. I have a line of bellydance costumes that's debuting in the Fall, that are being made in Egypt. They're my designs, like 1920's style costumes, but with a lot of Egyptian beadwork and stones, stuff like that.
You're gonna laugh, but I always wanted to be a bellydancer, ever since I was little. I'm sure it came from I Dream Of Genie or from James Bond or Abbott and Costello movies. I always wanted to dance. When I was about eight, my mom took me for ballet lessons in this tiny little studio and the lady was like, 'Oh, she has flat feet. I can't take her,' like I was auditioning for the Bolshoi or something. So I cried and cried, I thought I'm never going to be a dancer. I wound up doing other things, I was drawing, I was writing, so I concentrated on those. I was acting a lot. So I was doing all that stuff. Then, one night, I was on the dancefloor at Club Lingerie, I can't even remember who was playing. But I go into the bathroom and this girl says, 'are you a bellydancer?' I said, 'no, why?' and she said, 'because you move like one.' And then I was like, 'are you a bellydancer?' and she said yes, and I was like, 'I want to see you! I want to see you!' So I kinda started stalking her. She invited me to a gig that I could go see her at, and we liked the same kinda music so we would always see each other at after-parties at someone's house. So we'd always be locked away in a bedroom, holding margaritas or bottles of wine, and she'd be showing me a figure 8 or something, and there'd be people banging on the door going, 'let me have some!' and they'd finally burst in and they'd be like, 'what are you doing?' They'd expect to see like a mirror full of coke, and we were just sitting there bellydancing. Then she introduced me to some friends of hers who were giving regular classes, so I started taking them and I was obsessed.
After that, this couple that I know, it was two girls, and one of them had sorta given up on this Master's program that she had applied for, she thought she wasn't going to get it. She ended up getting it, but by then they had already gotten tickets to Greece. She didn't want her girlfriend going alone, so she was like, 'Pleasant, if I give you this ticket to Greece, do you think you could pay for the expenses?' and I was like, 'Yes!' Then I turned to her girlfriend and said, 'do you have any interest in going to Egypt?' It was just like an hour flight away. She was like, 'I've always wanted to go to Egypt.' I just thought, 'oh my god, we're going to Egypt!' I quit my job immediately, I was working at the Hollywood Reporter then, and I was still writing for the weekly. I had no idea how I was going to get money when I came back. I was just scrambling trying to save money and borrow money for the next month, when the trip was. Around then I had been letting this guy stay at my house because my house had been broken into and I wanted to have a guy there. He was Swiss. He said his brother had just moved to Egypt for his job at Swiss Air, and I should call him when I get there.
We got stuck on the Greek Islands after a huge storm. By the time we got to Egypt, we were completely tired and just worn out. And I had written to this hotel called the Windsor Hotel, which is in downtown Cairo, right near Tahrir Square. The hotel looked like a 1920's or 30's Tarzan movie hotel. There were rhinoceros, and zebra-skin couches with horsehair upholstery, big palms. So the guy from Swiss Air came, and I thought he was going to take us out for a drink, instead he made us move into his apartment. He had an air-conditioned apartment, which our hotel wasn't air-conditioned, and he had a driver. In Cairo you can have that on like nothing because the economy is so different. So he let us have his driver because he was a workaholic and he didn't need him, and the driver was taking us everywhere. He was taking us to bellydancing places. Then when he found out that my friend was gay and that I had grown up in the theatre, he let it out that he loved showtunes.
So by the time we came back, I had costumes and I had that experience, and I just started working. I was getting hired by strangers, I obviously had a knack for it, even though now I look back and think that I'm glad there's no video because I just blew shit. I mean, my technique was, ehhh, but I've always been a ham and I loved dancing, so people would hire me. Sometimes they'd see me and one of my teachers dance, and, you know, she had been dancing for 19 years or something, and they'd come up and just completely ignore her and just be to me, like, 'you're soo good.' And she'd get all mad. But I know it's just stage presence, just like when you see a band and it's just the most amazing energy in the room ever, and then later you see the video or hear the tape and you're just like, 'what? Everything was completely out of tune and the drum's broken and the sound's cutting out,' you know what I mean? Just that kinda thing. I relate that to punk rock a lot. Still, when I see dancers, I'd rather watch someone that's having a great time and is just going for it than see someone that's doing perfect choreography in a really sterile way.
In regards to the old days and punk for you, does that feel like it was a separate life or a separate time, or does it feel like the dancing you're doing now is a progression of everything?
This might sound corny, but when there's a certain light here in LA, which I really can't describe, it's kinda like that white-out color, when it's got that marine layer and it's really white, that reminds me so much... I can see distinctly clear street scenes of walking down Sunset and getting a used leather jacket from the Thrifty's that a bullet fell out of, or being on Hollywood Boulevard in the light of day with Helen and Trudie. Or every so often I'll go into an old apartment of someone's and it reminds me of the Canterbury, like maybe it won't look like how it did, but it will have something in the architecture. Or the other day, I woke up and I had 'Boredom' by the Buzzcocks in my head. When was the last time I heard that song, like 30 years ago? And I still knew all the words, like all of it. Or I was explaining to someone a couple months ago who Gary Gilmore was, and then I started talking about the Adverts. I can't even remember, I think we were just talking about like corporeal punishment and executions and somehow Gary Gilmore came up, and I had worked for his brother. His brother was one of my editors at the Weekly. It's crazy, you know, it's always in my life in these weird ways.
Having been into punk, how does that history influence your bellydancing?
When I'm doing stuff, I don't do stuff that's specifically punk, but I always do stuff where I can push the boundary a little bit in a way that someone else might not, in a theatrical way or some other way, just because that was how I grew up. I grew up liking Cabaret, liking John Waters, liking the Damned, and everything was always extreme, crazy, and fun, sometimes scary-looking, or trashy-looking, and sometimes full-blown fantasy. Dancing, instead of doing a normal dance, I'll do something that reflects things. In Prague, I did a show called Hot Dreams and Poppies, and what I did was I had a girl laying on the stage, dressed kinda like an empress in a really great Chinese robe in perfect 20's make-up and a 20's bob. She was lying on pillows, and a girl came to serve her an opium pipe. So this slave is mopping her brow and she's taking puffs and coughing, and then she falls back on the pillow and suddenly I appear and I've got this giant head-dress of poppies and these big see-through gossamer pleated wings and a whole costume that's all shredded and it has lots of bling, so I was the opium hallucination - all poppies and smoke. I did that and people were like, 'she's not only promoting drug use, but she's doing Asian stereotypes, they were horrified over it. They were also horrified when I came out to the bellydance community that I'd been doing burlesque for ten years but I'd kept it a secret, which is because bellydancers don't like to be confused with strippers. And I didn't like to either, even though I had stripped in New York in the 70's and I thought it was fun. But, you know, bellydancing is a cultural thing and stripping is a different thing. I've done a lot of shit that's really really controversial in the world of bellydancing, and then it's really funny because I start realizing how normal so many of them are. Not in Egypt, in Egypt it's crazy, a lot of the dancers, not the foreign ones, but a lot of the regular ones, unless they're really famous, a lot of them are prostitutes, because it's a looked-down-upon profession, the way that actors were here at the turn of the century. It's just riff raff, it's like, 'why would you be a dancer if you could be someone's wife?' On the other hand, the famous ones are household words, they're bigger than Cher or Celine Dion. They're on soap operas, sometimes they make movies, their shows are sold out, they're like big Vegas productions.
The stuff that I see in Egypt is so wild, and it's not the cleaned-up, sanitized reinterpretation that a lot of people think is Egyptian dance here. People here are thinking this in a good way, in a well-meaning way, because they want to stay true to the culture, but they've never been there, so they don't know the culture. They don't know that there are girls who would wear hot pants or a mini skirt costume because they think it's cool and modern. American people are just not getting that. So I've seen some stuff in Egypt, and stuff that goes on in Turkey and Syria and other places that is just fucking wild. So people think I'm a maverik, I'm crazy, though in Europe it's just a lot looser. Here I teach somewhat burlesque style dancing at bellydancing festivals, but when I started doing that, it was six years ago and it was almost like I was a pariah. But I knew I wasn't the only person that doing it, I was like, 'someone has to step up out here.' So I did it, and that was obviously from my punk rock roots.
At this point, what is there that you still want to accomplish? What projects do you have in mind for the future?
I'm going to start really writing a lot soon. I mean, I've never really not written, and like I said, there are two other books that are mostly done that are sitting on the computer, but really, like what I said about dancing taking so much time earlier... I want to do more movies, I just did one recently called The Casserole Club that's like a 60's swingers movie. It's not like I'm considering giving up dancing anytime soon, but honestly I dont know how much longer I'm going to want to be sitting on 17 hour flights, or even 5 hour flights, four times a month. We'll see. But it would be nice to kinda transition into some other type of performing discipline, or do them both at the same time. Then, I sort of quit drawing and painting a lot when I started making costumes, I make a lot of my own, that's kinda where that time and mental input went into, rather than painting. But now that I have a costume line in Cairo, I don't have to make them. I would like to be away from here, I'd really like to live somewhere like Chincoteague or somewhere, but I've also been saying that for years.
Whoa, I mean, you literally wrote the book on LA.
Whenever I say that, I feel so sad and sorry. But I feel like I'm a stuck wife in an abusive relationship. Like, 'oh, but he was so cute and he was so nice at first.' LA's just kinda a hellish place to live in, it's just hard, it's expensive, now it's crowded and dirty, the traffic sucks, and if everytime I come back from Cairo, if I'm thinking the traffic here sucks, you know it sucks.
Well you did move to the nicer side of the tracks up here.
Yeah, but people on the right side of the tracks think I'm crazy. Some people I'm around these days know about my past, but most people don't. Like when I started bellydancing, I wasn't trying to hide any of my past, but it felt like being in a different life, it was really fun almost like having a fake persona. I would do that a lot when I wrote stories for the LA Weekly. I would live with pre-op trannies for three months, or would do only stuff on runaway kids on Hollywood Boulevard, or stuntwomen. I would do it George Plimpton style, just live with and do only that. So when I was doing it with my own life it didn't seem that odd. When I got really into bellydancing, when I started being in that world, I was like, 'oh my god, this is so cool, nobody knows who I am.' I could just go to a club and spy on people and look at the waiters, you know, just watch people dance. If I went to a rock and roll club, people would be like, 'I know you're with your boyfriend, but I just had to ask you a question,' or sneaking cassettes into my purse. And that's not even like one tenth of what Belinda or someone nowadays would go through, but I was just so excited when I got into that world. I had to borrow my mom's clothes to go to those clubs because all I had were like ripped up fishnets and stuff like that. Then I dyed my hair back to its normal color and I was letting it grow, so I could fit in as a bellydancer. I begin thinking, 'oh, I need this kinda nails, I need this kinda make-up. If I do this, if I dress like this Egyptian CD, it will work.' And it had to be offstage as well as onstage. I really started, after a while, getting some nice clothes to wear to the club, because at the clubs the waiters were always in tuxedos, there were always folded napkins, beautiful tablesettings. There would be bottles of scotch on the table. I mean, they partied like crazy, but it was so different. So I remember doing that every night because I was working as a bellydancer and I wanted to see dancers. I remember I went to one club, this was right in my switchover phase, when I was still writing a lot, doing bands and bellydancing. I went to one club and my foot was stuck to the carpet in gum and then I put my hand down on a booth to pick my foot up and it was in sticky and gross duct tape and, in my head, I was like, 'ew, what a dump,' and then right away I was like, 'OH MY GOD, WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH ME!' Like, 'when did you get to be so hoity-toity?!' [laughs]
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