My ipod has been on an awesome shuffle run for days, you know how sometimes every song that comes up is something you hate and didn’t even know was on there, and then other times it kicks into one perfect song after another? I’ve got the latter going, it’s all Ike and Tina and Faces and Cheap Trick, and I’m afraid to stop the shuffle until it peters back out into throwing up old Fugazi songs and second-rate death metal samplers I downloaded for free ten years ago and forgot to delete.
One of the songs that came up during this awesome and ongoing randomizing was “Possum Kingdom” by The Toadies. Guy would often spin this at Squeezebox during peak hours, and it became one of my favorite go-go dancing tunes. Michael Schmidt, who created the party, had sort of induced me at its inception to get up there and shake it every other week, and once I got over the initial panic of imperfections on display, I came to love it. When the party was packed at peak hours with everyone moving on the dance floor, the music at a high decibel, and a song like Possum Kingdom came on, I could completely lose myself in it. Separate human energies would click together as one and it felt great to move, everyone sweating and smiling. When we were all in that sync I could direct the dancing crowd below from my platform. It made me feel beautiful and free and connected to everything and everyone.
Of course there were off nights where you wore the wrong shoes and your feet hurt or the crowd was a little obnoxious and not as much fun as other times. One waste case regular would always spill her drink and leave broken glass under my feet. Someone burned a cigarette hole through my favorite fishnet bodysuit and into my stomach. I was a total nazi about “straight’ girls and models who always rushed to take my spot there the minute I went for a drink. Get off my fucking pole, sorority girl! But for the most part it was a joyous way to make a little bit of cash, filled with moments like a drunken Leonardo DiCaprio wrapping his arms around my legs and hanging on for dear life while his angry date pried his fingers from my thighs, or John Waters simply smiling up at me with a drink in his hand.
This is a clip from the documentary, I’m only in it for a few seconds at the 2:39 mark, but you get the picture.
So, thinking about this time in my life while listening to The Toadies naturally led me to think about another altogether different dancing experience, which I wrote a piece about for a reading a while back. It doesn’t read that well out loud, so I’m putting it down here.
THE FIRST AND LAST TIME I TRIED STRIPPING
1989. It didn’t even seem like a good idea at the time.
In the 80’s and early ’90’s I hated strippers. They were the cockroaches to my little rock and roll scene: dirty and regularly appearing when least welcome. In fairness, they probably kept music alive in some ways, at least they kept the boys alive financially. Many of us have read the accounts of how Guns n’ Roses survived almost exclusively upon the kindness of loose women. But I had a deep snobbery about it at the time. I didn’t like the competition. We were the rock chicks and we felt that they were interlopers. We had worked hard at creating a niche for ourselves, against the constant misogynist disrespect of most male musicians, just in time for these skanky girls to show up in bad outfits and an overage of cheap perfume, fully prepared to invade your dressing room to offer your boyfriend a blowjob in the bathroom while you stood across the room arguing with your bandmate over who got the last beer. A girl had to be steadily vigilant once the party got rolling and the strippers entered the room. Those bitches did not care, and as far as I was concerned, there was a war on.
But through a series of dramatic non-coincidences, I became friends with a stripper named Nadege. She was French and had the kind of truly shitty attitude that I found appealing in a woman. She dressed great, chain smoked, obsessed over Christopher Walken, and was white-knuckle sober because she’d had a raging heroin habit for years. And she had indeed, true to her profession, fucked my boyfriend and we’d had a big problem, but in the end it brought us together and that is another tale altogether.
So there we were, stripper and aspiring rock star/bartender, and stripper always had way more cash. She usually had a stack of crumpled bills on her dresser that looked mighty appealing, especially as I was going through a dry spell with lucrative bartending jobs. I hated bartending anyway, and the more broke I was, the less I sneered, until dancing seemed like a possibility. I started envisioning myself as a modern day Tura Satana, shaking it with style, untamed and wild. I was enthralled by her character in “Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill”. My Cycle Slut persona was inspired by her, so maybe, I thought, maybe I could be that onstage. Perhaps I could break the tacky mold and turn it into something dangerous and interesting…
Nadege was dubious, but willing to introduce me to her craft. She said, blowing a cloud of smoke in my direction, “You are goeeng to ‘ate it”. I chose New Jersey as my testing ground, because it was as far away from the East Village as a person could get without a car. And is wasn’t legal in the state to go topless, so I could keep my…ahem…dignity. Like it made a difference. But all of the Cycle Sluts were prudes in some ways, regardless of the band name and reputation. I didn’t want anyone on the scene to know what I was doing or to see my naked boobs, which in retrospect was ridiculous considering the constant rotation of rock dude “romances” in my life.
And thus, we began.
First, costumes: Costumes were imperative. I dug around in my dresser for g-strings and stockings and anything else remotely dancer-ey. I was woefully low on stripper gear, but my particular musical career incorporated some very similar clothing, and soon I had put together a big, bulky, impossible to carry bag just like the other girls.
Then transportation: A cab to the bus and then another cab, lugging that giant duffel. Sweaty, annoying, expensive.
The Club: I have no recollection of the name or the town it resided in. I can tell you that it was a nondescript white cinder block building with a sign over it that featured a cartoon of a reclining woman with an anatomically impossible tiny waist and enormous breasts. The interior was grubby, painted red, and dominated by a tatty linoleum floored oval stage with two poles on either end, and a bar circling the whole mess. The dressing room was also red, tiny, and unwashed.
Time: A weekday afternoon, when clubs tried out new girls.
Name change: No one used their real name, so for my alias I chose the name Varla, an homage to Tura’s character. Nadege couldn’t pronounce it properly, and instead called me “Vala”.
“Varla!” I said.
“Vala!” She said.
For my first set I put on my standard-issue thigh high Cycle Slut boots, a black g-string, and a black lace bra. Back then no one did the kind of hardcore pole work you see now. And that was a blessing, because I was way too busy partying and rocking out to have the ab muscles necessary for that kind of crap. Stripper requirements in those days were much less stringent. You just had to have a decent body and the willingness to show most if it while doing some rudimentary ass-pointing.
I had always wondered why the girls favored white clothing, now it became clear. There were black lights everywhere and under it my partner on the other end, a nearly underage girl wearing cheap blonde extensions, white stockings, white pumps, and a white teddy unlaced down the front, glowed very prettily, like an angel, if angels had camel-toe.
I am not a terrible dancer and was accustomed to being onstage. But five minutes into it and I had already run through all my supersexy moves. I was dancing too fast. Time seemed to stretch and bend into the distant horizon and I knew I would be dead at the end of a half an hour of that pace. I tried to slow down and sway my hips in a more timely imitation of the other girl and felt as if I were moving in slow motion. The music was awful and did not move me. I did finally understand that I wasn’t really there to dance so much as show people my ass and g-string under the purple lights. But I was not especially limber when it came to the required bending over and crotch thrusting. And my feet hurt already.
Then there was the floor work: flop to your knees on the ground and roll around with your ass in the air, then back on your ass and elbows to spread your legs. At least I could lay down. But then my knees hurt. I could feel bruises flowering every time I hit the floor. And the stage felt gritty with dirt and old glitter, a perfect recipe to make the skin on my back break out.
The blonde left and Nadege climbed onstage and hit the floor for her set. I did a sexy crawl toward her, thinking at least we could have some fun and goof around a little. Her eyes widened in terror and she crab-walked backwards away from me at a supernatural pace. “No, no, no!” She whispered. “Customers don’ like lesbian shit!” She pronounced “shit” as “sheet”.
Sigh…Back to my side of the stage for another small eternity of butt display.
20 minute break. Second set, gotta come up with a new outfit. I put on a red zip around g-string that went with an expensive stage outfit I’d worn only once so far when performing at the Ritz with Joey Ramone. It was designed to be worn over leggings and it seemed a crime to use it for this purpose. But I had to use what I had.
Once I got out and started rolling around on the filthy stage I realized the g-string was not made for this kind of work. It slid all over the place and the zipper hurt delicate parts with every movement. Another sigh...
There were four customers in the place, two of them friends of the bartender. I got on the floor in front of an Indian man who sat alone, silently sipping his drink. I did the standard leg spread and accidentally flashed him everything I had. He handed me a dollar and said, “Thank you.” He seemed genuinely grateful, which was sort of sweet. But I had just sold the goods for one measly dollar. I blushed and crawled back to my pole in shame.
Third set: At least I was free of that zipper. An obese, sweaty man had taken the place of the polite Indian fellow. And because it was pizza day at Ye Olde House of Inexpensive Beav, he was happily chewing an enormous slice of cheese pie.
I worked at my craft: hip grind, bend over, wiggle ass, swing around on pole, hip grind, bend over, knee slam to the ground, butt in the air, wiggle, flip over, leg spread, smile. The smiling was the hardest part. Every minute up there felt like slow death. But Jabba the Hut seemed friendly enough, and he grinned, his blubbery lips shiny with pizza grease. He swiped his mouth with the back of his hairy hand and said with an enthusiastic, gravelly voice, “I’m pretendin’ this pizza is you, baby!” He waved a thin dollar at me, squeezed between fat, oily thumb and finger. When I reached for it, he snatched it back so he could put it in my g-string himself, leaving a finger streak of grease on my thigh.
That was enough for me. Nadege was right, I was officially done, I knew I could never go back. We packed our gear for the long trek home and I counted my earnings. With minimal shift pay I’d made about $70 total, not the wealth I’d imagined. By the time we paid for the bus and cabs I’d be down another $20.
The owner asked if I’d be back again, I could tell he didn’t really care. I was non-committal.
He asked, “What’s your name again?”
I said, “Varla”
“Yeahhhh…” I sighed. “It’s Vala.”
When I got home I sat on the bed and rubbed my feet and poked at my black and blue knees. World takeover would have to wait for another day.