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Part II: "The Clown Princes of Disco"

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How did you develop your Construction Worker costume?


We went out shopping for the costumes. They took Randy and Felipe to this western store and bought them these resplendent costumes. They hooked Glenn up at Mr. Leather with all this leather. I’m thinking, What are they going to do with me? They handed me five dollars and said, “Go buy a hard hat”. At the time, you couldn’t walk into a hardware store and buy a hard hat. You had to go through building supply. I showed up for the photo session for the Macho Man album without a hard hat. I couldn’t find one so they sent one of the gofers out. They gave him 20 bucks — 15 more than they gave me — and he bought this guy’s hard hat off of him right off the street! This guy must have worn this thing for 30 years.


It was sweaty and nasty. It sat up on my head like a turtle. I pulled all the guts out — I wasn’t going to have this guy’s sweat on my head — and I plopped it on my head. If you notice on the album cover, I look more like a polo player. I used that hat for a long time, too. It would turn into a terrarium onstage. It would literally rain down the side of my head. A hard hat is not meant to do an hour-long show. As it turned out, I ended up being the lucky one because my costume went into the washer and dryer. Except for that dreadful hat, it was all my own clothes. At the time, that “clone” look was out —Frye boots and plaid shirts.


The clone look was really popular in the gay clubs …


That’s how Jacques came up with the concept for Village People. He did his homework. He had produced the Ritchie Family. He would stand in the dark in these clubs and listen to the music. He would see what made people go out on the floor and what made people clear the floor. He was going to the Anvil. I was doing Pal Joey at the time the Anvil was happening and we just thought that it was the most lascivious thing we’d ever heard of. Jacques was there and that’s where he saw Felipe dancing on the bar. He’d seen people in the club dressed in cowboy hats and construction hats. I was never into the costume thing. I never understood it. I thought, If you’re not a construction worker, why are you going to come home, take your suit off, and go dress up like a construction worker and go dancing? I couldn’t figure it out.


What were your first impressions of the other group members?


We were from six different walks of life. We all had to test each other’s temperaments. You throw people together like that in some of the worst conditions in the world … We learned to live with somebody’s bad mood. We literally got on a bus and went from club to club to club around the United States. I can remember our first gig was in Brooklyn where they filmed Saturday Night Fever (1977). It was in a warehouse district in Brooklyn. It had big neon lights that said “2001 Odyssey”. There was only one entrance and that was with the rest of the patrons. They all looked like either Farrah Fawcett or John Travolta. The guys had the suits with the spread collars and the gold chains and the girls had the hair. Here we walk in with jeans and we’re trying not to look conspicuous. In the movie, the club looked beautiful. In reality, it was so tacky. The flashing floor from the movie was there. There was aluminum foil all over the walls with Christmas lights strung along. It looked like an Italian TV dinner — you were enclosed in aluminum and then there were these red and white checkered tablecloths all over, with a candle in a Chianti bottle on every table.


We went back to our dressing room. I say “dressing room” but it was really a piece of plywood that separated us from the audience. At the time, “Stayin’ Alive” was really popular. I think that DJ played that song all night. I think we didn’t go on until 2AM. The audience knew our music because they’d been dancing to it but they didn’t really know what the group looked like. We came in under strobe lights. The moment the lights came up onstage, when they saw us and we saw them … They didn’t know what to think. No one had ever seen a group like Village People before, but by the time we finished, they were totally into it.


At what point did you get introduced to the whole Casablanca kingdom in L.A.?


We didn’t see Casablanca until we worked our away across the United States in a bus. We literally stepped off the bus and into Osko’s Disco where they were filming a thing that was going to be shown on The Midnight Special to promote Thank God It’s Friday (1978). The movie was filmed in Osko’s. We were eager to meet Donna, those of us who had her music and loved it. They took us into her dressing room. She was sitting at this vanity table. They introduced us to her and she turned around and she just said, “It’s really nice to meet you. I just wish they’d leave me alone”. It wasn’t directed towards us. It was directed towards the fact that they were constantly coming in and out. She had just had it by that time. Then came our time to film “San Francisco/Hollywood”. Or maybe it was just “San Francisco”. Right after that, we did Merv Griffin. It was those two TV shows that sent “Macho Man” up the charts.


On that first Merv Griffin appearance, you did “Macho Man”. That was such a sexually charged performance. It’s amazing that it got on the air.


Well, they were pulling the old Elvis thing on us. There was one special we did, Steve Allen, and they were saying, “If you don’t stop moving like that, we’re only going to film you from the waist up.” Don’t you know at that point, Felipe’s g-string broke and his junk was swinging around like a yo-yo! We had to stop everything and put him back together. We were always having costume malfunctions. My pants would split out. I can remember having to run offstage in the middle of a song because there was no crotch left in my pants. There were so many bizarre situations.


How did you feel about projecting this very sexual energy onstage?


As long as I couldn’t see into my own eyes, and the audience couldn’t see into my eyes, I could sell it. That was how the reflective glasses came on. They were my idea. The producers didn’t want me to wear them. I had brought this picture of a guy with half of his overalls on and a hard hat and aviator shades. Jacques looked at it and said, “Bon. You will wear this!” When we recorded “Macho Man”, I thought it was the worst song I’d ever heard in my life. I went back to my roommates that night and said, “Well there goes my recording career. I just recorded the worst song you’ve ever heard.” I sang it for them and they agreed with me. Jacques was sucking up to the gay community because he wanted to be a star in the gay community, but I listened to “Macho Man” and thought, This is a parody of what’s going on. I decided that the only way I could do this was to cover my eyes up. I discovered it in my bedroom one night. I was rehearsing the dance steps and I just didn’t believe myself. I had reflective sunglasses. When I put them on, it was like putting on a mask.


Having been such a fan of rock and roll, I imagine that doing American Bandstand and meeting Dick Clark must have been a dream come true for you.


Oh God, yes! That was one of my first big thrills — shaking Dick Clark’s hand. I grew up on American Bandstand after school. It was Mickey Mouse Club then Liberace then American Bandstand. Meeting Dick Clark was unbelievable. I still treasure being friends with Dick. Meeting Merv Griffin was also very special because we’d been watching him on TV for years. He was such a wonderful guy and he loved a dirty joke. I was full of them. He always had a joke for me and I always had one back to him. He and I got along really well.


Both Jacques and Casablanca founder Neil Bogart seemed to have very strong personalities with a lot of creative energy. What was the dynamic like between them?


You know, I don’t even know. I know that Casablanca signed Village People because they wanted the Ritchie Family. Jacques was the hook man. He had a million hooks. Neil knew which hook was the hit. “Y.M.C.A.” was a filler song. They thought the hit was going to be “The Women”. Neil was the one who said, “No it’s not ‘The Women’ it’s this song — ‘Y.M.C.A.’” I liked “Y.M.C.A.” the first time I heard it. I thought it was catchy. I thought, We are selling a commercial! I threw a fit when they picked “In the Navy” because I thought it was like a children’s song. I can remember saying, “If that’s a hit, I will eat that record.” I was so glad they didn’t hold me to that. There was a lot of filler stuff that was really good music. I thought “I’m a Cruiser” was a great song. It started out like a French music hall number, like we should come out in straw boaters and canes.


Shortly after the release of Cruisin’ (1978), the group won an American Music Award for “Favorite Disco Band, Duo or Group”. Describe what it was like to be nominated, to hear your name called, and stand onstage in front of your peers.


Winning the American Music Award was a thrill, but not nearly as much of a thrill as it was when Ella Fitzgerald opened the envelope to announce the winners and said, “Oh, it’s my boys, the Village People!” When we ran up on stage to receive the award she held her arms out to me and hugged and kissed me. I could have died on the spot and been perfectly happy. Ella had been an idol of mine for years and to have her even know who I was was beyond anything I’d ever dreamed of. In fact the whole night was like a dream. During the after awards party I walked around talking to people whose records I owned, but never even dreamed that I would actually be sitting at a table and talking with them. I have something like 36 Gold and Platinum albums tucked away in a closet. You could walk into my apartment and never know I was one of Village People, but I do have that American Music Award out, if only to remind me of that amazing night. The group has won major music awards around the world, but none of them were presented to us by Ella Fitzgerald.


And then a couple months later the group appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone! It was rare that the magazine featured any disco-related act. What do you recall about the shoot?


That was Bill King. He was the photographer for a magazine called Viva, which kind of went after the Playgirl market. He did beautiful work. We got into the studio. They formed us in a group. They were spritzing water through the fan so that we were getting this mist on us. It really ended up being, seriously, the best picture ever taken of the group. It captured everything that we were about that other people were unable to get.


Yes, your individual personalities really come through whereas on the Macho Man cover, you’re just standing there. I’ve always loved that Rolling Stone photo. On the other end of the spectrum, you were regularly featured in 16 and Tiger Beat. How did it feel to be a teen idol?


I think my mother got off on it more than I did! At first, it was like, “Oh cool.” Then the fan mail … I tried to really be personal and answer every letter. It just became ridiculous. I saved these baskets and baskets of fan letters. You know who Randy Shilts is? He wrote And the Band Played On (1987). I found a couple letters that he’d written. I wish I’d kept them. I ended up having to throw them away, which was just heartbreaking. I wasn’t able to fulfill what I promised to do, which was individually sign these pictures and send them out. It just became overwhelming.


Among Casablanca’s label executives, who were your champions? I know Marc-Paul Simon was VP of Special Projects and his department serviced the discos.


I remember Marc-Paul Simon but he worked more with Pattie Brooks. She was kind of his project. I really admired Neil. You could walk into his office and sit down and talk with him. He was kind of my champion there. I don’t remember many of the others. Casablanca was king for awhile. That was the label to be on. It was young, it was new, it was vibrant, it was innovative.


And there you were — the princes of the label.


Yes we were. And Donna was the queen. In fact, one reviewer called us the “Clown Princes of Disco”. We always thought that was just perfect! We came along with Donna and kind of took over. Kiss have this edge about that. They had released the solo albums and Bogart was trying to squeeze the last juice out of that. There was Angel. We wiped Angel off the map. Every group hits, you apogee, and then you go down. It’s just the way it is. If you’re tenacious enough you can come back up. Basically, Donna and us were Casablanca’s bread and butter.


Paul Jabara was also a label mate of yours. He kind of traces back to your Broadway roots, since he was the one who wrote Rachael Lily Rosenbloom.


Paul was really talented but he was off the wall! He kept putting out these concept albums and it just wasn’t going over. Neil Bogart said, “Paul just put an album of music together. No concepts!” Paul couldn’t understand that. He was constantly trying to write a musical. He did write some wonderful things for Donna and other people. He used to call me on the phone in L.A. and he’d go, “You’re a star. I really want to be a star. You’re a star.” I’d try to stop it and say, “Oh Paul. It’s nothing.” It got to the point that it was annoying. He desperately wanted to be a star. I wish he was alive to see how his music has gone on.


It’s interesting how the producers handled the transition between Victor and Ray on Live and Sleazy. Victor sang on the live portion of the album and Ray sang on the studio cuts. You even got a lead on “Sleazy” …


They told me that I was going to sing “Sleazy”. There’s a line in there, “I’m a stud out on the make”. When we were recording it I said, “This is pretty rough”. Jacques said, “Yes, yes, darling. Everything must be sleazy now!” I sang it and it played in the clubs but it really flopped on the radio. They weren’t ready to hear me. They were ready to hear Victor. That was the signature sound of Village People. After it was a flop, Jacques walks up to me and says, “Darling, what means ‘I’m a stud out on the make?’” The producers would listen to everybody but us, yet we were the ones that felt the audiences out. If the audience was singing the song by the time we finished— a new song that they hadn’t heard before — we knew it was a hit. They could sing “macho, macho man” by the time they’d first heard it. That’s what the hook is all about.


On the back cover of Live and Sleazy, there’s a note that says “COMING NEXT: Our First Movie and Soundtrack Album”. When did you find out that you were going to be in Can’t Stop the Music (1980)?


Allan Carr came along and wanted to do a movie with us. He’d just made 350 million dollars for Grease (1978). He was the Casablanca of the movie industry at the time. We’d finished our national tour. It was 46 cities, 54 days. We ended with two sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden. Allan Carr came the second night. He introduced Valerie Perrine to the audience and said we were making a movie. We had yet to see a script and then he gave us the scripts. I went home the day after. We’d gotten these brilliant reviews in The New York Times for the show. I sat down and opened up the script. I was about 20 pages into it and I literally threw it across the room and called the producers and said, “What is this Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney bullshit? This is dreadful. This is terrible.” The answer I got was, “Allan Carr, darling. He made 350 million dollars with Grease!” Allan said he refused to work with Victor after he nodded off during the first read through of Can’t Stop The Music. Whereas it infuriated Carr, I thought Victor’s nodding off was a perfect critique of the dreadful script. We had no choice but to go along with this movie.


Allan tried to add as many “names” as he possibly could. Valerie’s a director’s actress. With Bob Fosse, she was brilliant in Lenny (1974). We had Nancy Walker who was a token director. The director was really the cameraman. It was a fun group of people. Bruce Jenner was a nice guy to work with. Valerie was a sweetheart, as was Steve Guttenberg. Arlene Phillips, who did Hot Gossip, was so promethean in her approach to the musical numbers. She filmed in bits and pieces like a music video. For years, any of those musical numbers [in Can’t Stop the Music] held up to anything that was on MTV because Arlene was so ahead of her time. When I was doing “I Love You to Death”, I had the idea of a spike heel going into the top of my hand. Allan Carr said, “That’s too S&M”, but Arlene loved it. I hated the song but I loved all the red in that scene. It was just sumptuous. We had some time off so Arlene got the cameraman and we filmed this shot of Perri Lister’s heel going into my hand. Well that was the only shot that was mentioned in the New York Times review of the movie. Of course they trashed the movie. It was terrible. People try to call the movie “camp” and it’s not even camp.


Yet the movie’s endured as a cult classic. A lot fans cite the “Milkshake” number as a favorite scene.


It was beautifully done. We had white costumes. They gave them to us and we put them on. Our whole thing was fantasy. We wore clothes that were too small for us, to make us look bigger. We wore our shirts open to a V to make our torsos look bigger. It was all an illusion. We put on this stuff that was like Ken doll clothes. I stepped out of the trailer. Allan was standing there and he said, “Oh gorgeous!” I said, “Yeah, when they take six feet in!” That night, Jacques called me and said, “Darling. You have insulted Allan Carr. You must take him flowers and go to dinner with him.” I said, “Jacques, You kiss his ass! You’re so much better at it than I am.” The next day I went to Allan’s office. I walked into his office and I said, “Allan, I was told I was supposed to apologize to you. I’m not here to apologize. You’re paying that woman an amazing amount of money for those costumes and your stars look like shit”. Those costumes were pulled that day. Allan respected me from that day on. He gave all the others hell. He came up to me after the movie was a flop and said, “If you ever need help with your career, never fail to contact me.”


 

Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 


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