The indefatigable Dean Johnson remains true to his punk rock roots on the latest CD completed with his group, The Velvet Mafia, “Cheap But Not Free.” It’s an unapologetically in-your-face jam, featuring Johnson’s trademark bitter wit. It’s a sure bet he’ll be performing licks from this at his upcoming HomoCorps gig at Crobar on May 5.
“If CBGB closes in August then my final appearance there will be on the night before Gay Pride Day,” he told me. “That’s gonna be a bittersweet gig. I’ll miss CB’s a lot.”
I especially liked the song “The Pretty One,” which Johnson describes as “about dating someone better looking than you. I never listen to the radio, but one day I decided to check out a contemporary rock station while I was cleaning my apartment. Every single song was a variation on the same theme—my girlfriend left me because I’m a big loser who’s not worthy. I realized this whole new genre of rock music had emerged from college radio. Loser rock. I got on a treadmill at the gym for 20 minutes and when I was done with my cardio I had the entire song written in my head.”
“Foot/Stool” has pithy lyrics like “You think you’re on your way/Because you got a job/But at the end of the day/You’re an exploited slob,” and, Johnson says, “is about an ex-husband who thought he was better than me because he worked at Starbucks and I didn’t. The recording was produced by Wharton Tiers,”—Sonic Youth, Helmet—“and paid for with money from Triple XXX”—the party series Johnson hosts with Jonny McGovern. “My backers are everyone who ever dropped a load in the basement at The Hole. I have some good support in the dance music industry for the remixes. Darrell Martin, who just did RuPaul’s CD, produced a remix, and I’ve been getting some good advice from George Tenet, who manages several top djs.”
Johnson is actually the son of a Methodist preacher man whom he describes as “a fun guy.”
“He’s supposed to be retired but some other minister got busted for DUI and shipped off to rehab so Dad’s still working,” Johnson related. “He’s a big poker enthusiast, when I was home for his birthday he taught me how to play Texas Hold ‘Em.”
Given that he’s a true New York nightlife veteran, I wanted Johnson’s thoughts about the now very prevalent drug culture.
“Actually, crystal meth is not everywhere, we never had a drug problem at Triple XXX or Magnum,” he said. “And I don’t go to big dance clubs, so I was really shocked to see the vast majority of customers at that big circuit party visibly tweaking their brains out. Crystal meth is terrifyingly damaging to people’s lives. And so unattractive. Walking into a party at 6 a.m. is like wearing a sign around your neck that says ‘Hi, I’m a big mess.’ Cool people have stopped doing coke and speed. Of course, you would have to be cool to know that.”
I did attend that certain pricey circuit party on March 19, which left me with one basic question—how high must one be to really enjoy it? And I did arrive at 6 a.m.—which so many assured me was the right time—but totally sober. By that hour, the go-go boys had decamped, along with any erotic stage show, and the dance floor was a sardine-packed horde of the sweaty and shirtless, gyrating to thumpingly monotonous house music with nary a vocal, save Madonna’s highly appropriate reiteration, “Let’s get unconscious.”
There was naught to drink, save tiny $4 bottles of water, and empties of the same perilously littered the floor. This made maneuvering through the pushing, aggressive crowd—not an “excuse me” or “sorry” to be heard—all the more trying. The bathroom was the filthiest I have ever seen at any gay event—which is really saying something—and the fashion basically consisted of many harnesses of the inappropriate, as well as that knotted strip of leather I thought had died out in 1982, and the general ambiance had the glamour of a utility closet.
Leave it to the boys, however. In the upstairs, furthest, darkest reaches of the club, pressed up against an emergency exit, two guys were getting the nasty, pressed in by about 50 others, desperate for a taste, a look, anything. I’m used to having the “gay” sections of beaches and parks being shunted aside as far away as possible, but, at a party that endlessly promoted and promised open sex sex sex beyond your wildest dreams, it was kinda pathetic to see this needless drive for furtiveness.
At one point, I was sitting next to this preening Latino hunk, who toyed with a leash, at the other end of which was a topless girl in a dog collar. He was the object of major attention from all passersby, who droolingly begged to take his picture. One couldn’t help thinking, “Two thousand fags here, and this ‘straight’ guy gets all the attention.”
Theater award shows abound in the spring, but my favorite is the TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards for costume achievement coming up on April 8 at the Hudson Theatre at the Millennium Broadway Hotel on West 44th Street. This year the honorees include designers Florence Klotz (Lifetime Achievement Award), David Zinn (Young Master Award), Vincent Zullo (Artisan Award) and operatic wiz, Robert O’Hearn, will receive the Robert L.B. Tobin award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatrical Design.
A posthumous award will be given to Oliver Messel (1904-78), one of the most brilliant of them all. He was Cecil Beaton’s lifelong rival, both professionally and personally, and far more accomplished, I believe. Ironically, they were born a day apart in the same year. Beaton never forgave him for stealing the great beloved of his life, Peter Watson, in the ‘30s, and seethed with jealousy when Messel’s nephew, Antony Armstrong-Jones, Lord Snowdon, married Princess Margaret, giving Messel greater entrée to the royal family. Their rivalry was immortalized in a novella by their eccentric friend, Lord Gerald Berners, “The Girls of Radcliff Hall” (1937). In it, he parodied the vicious jealousy “Cecily” (Beaton) felt for “Olive” (Messel) over “Lizzie” (Watson). Professionally, Beaton, himself, perhaps said it best: “I am admittedly one of the quickest—make up my mind and stick to it, unlike Oliver, who dithers forever.” (And succeeds in developing an astonishing sense of detail.”
Messel’s first big production was the 1932 London staging of Offenbach’s “Helen!” In it, his dazzling white-on-white bedroom set for Evelyn Laye’s Helen dumbfounded audiences, and directly inspired Jean Harlow’s Cedric Gibbons-designed boudoir in “Dinner at Eight,” one of the most famous movie sets ever.
Messel triumphed in ballet, and his sumptuous designs for the 1946 “The Sleeping Beauty,” with Margot Fonteyn, which reopened Covent Garden after the Second World War, remain the absolute touchstone. You can see his work in British films like “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “The Private Life of Don Juan,” in which he lavishly dressed exotic Merle Oberon. He was Oscar-nominated for “Suddenly Last Summer,” personally handcrafting those lethal Venus flytraps in Mrs. Venable’s greenhouse.
George Cukor brought him to Hollywood for the 1936 “Romeo and Juliet.” There, he clashed with MGM’s house designers, Gibbons and Adrian. Adrian was particularly threatened by Messel’s talent and hated having to share the responsibility of Norma Shearer’s wardrobe with him. Adrian insisted on doing Shearer’s gown for the Capulet ball scene, which sticks out visually as being totally “Hollywood,” with nothing of the Renaissance-detailing magic Messel gave the other costumes.
Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com