Under the Hard Hat: An Interview with Village People’s David Hodo

[30 May 2014]

By Christian John Wikane

PopMatters Contributing Editor

May 3, 1980. Village People perform on Soul Train. It’s one of many appearances the group does to promote their starring role in Can’t Stop the Music (1980). Host Don Cornelius asks each member about what he did prior to joining the group. Attired in a sleek, electric blue version of his Construction Worker outfit, David Hodo answers with coy understatement, “I was just a gypsy looking for a good time.”

If ever a life in show business could be summarized in one sentence, it’s Hodo’s response to Cornelius. Before Village People, he belonged to a different group of people — the chorus guys and gals of New York’s theater community. “Gypsies, as we called ourselves.” A native of Sacramento, Hodo moved to Manhattan in the early ‘70s, a time when musicals like Company, Follies, and Pippin’ dominated the Great White Way. Hodo paid his dues in dinner theater and summer stock until landing his first Broadway show, Doctor Jazz (1975). Though lead actress Lola Falana earned a Tony nomination, the musical closed after only five performances. Within two years, Hodo would win a role that lasted 35 years — the Construction Worker in Village People.

Conceived by French producer Jacques Morali, Village People quickly evolved from a studio concept to a global phenomenon. The producer had struck disco gold with the Ritchie Family on Brazil (1975), Arabian Nights (1976), and African Queens (1977), and caught the interest of Neil Bogart at Casablanca Records. Bogart signed Morali’s newest enterprise in 1977, further expanding the label’s roster of disco acts, which included Love & Kisses, D.C. LaRue, Pattie Brooks, and Giorgio Moroder. All four tracks off Village People (1977) garnered massive club play, topping the disco chart for seven weeks in between the Ritchie Family’s African Queens and Chic’s “Dance, Dance, Dance”. The first public configuration of the group included Victor Willis, Felipe Rose, and Alexander Briley, plus four dancers who represented different archetypes of the gay club scene in New York’s Greenwich Village. Further honing his concept, Morali replaced the anonymous dancers with Hodo, Randy Jones, and Glenn Hughes, and unveiled a revamped Village People line-up on Macho Man (1978).

Casablanca went all-out to bolster the group’s image. Photographed in the Mojave Desert, the Cruisin’ (1978) album cover depicted Willis (Cop), Rose (Native American), Briley (G.I.), Hodo (Construction Worker), Jones (Cowboy) and Hughes (Leather Man) in full regalia, accompanied by horses, motorcycles, and tractor trailers. Writing for Rolling Stone Lester Bangs called the group “the ultimate crossover act”. Their music could be viewed through more than one lens, from kid-friendly fun to adult fantasies laced with double entendres. Whether in the gay discos of New York and Los Angeles, a Las Vegas show room, or a shopping mall in Middle America, one thing was undeniable: Village People had some of the catchiest songs on the airwaves.

Nearly overnight, Village People became one of Casablanca’s marquee acts, holding court alongside Kiss, Parliament, and Donna Summer. Between 1977 and 1979, the group released five consecutive gold-selling albums of which three went platinum in the US. “Y.M.C.A.” topped the UK Singles Chart and climbed to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 while “In the Navy” followed into the top five. Ray Simpson, who’d sung background for the group, assumed the lead spot on the studio sides of Live and Sleazy (1979) and ushered Village People into the ‘80s and beyond.

Part of what’s made Village People survive four decades of personnel changes, commercial disappointments, and changing musical tastes is the appeal of six distinct personalities. With his lean physique and winsome smile, David Hodo was the group’s blonde bombshell, a natural pinup regularly featured in magazines like 16 and Tiger Beat. “Onstage he’s the macho man, offstage he’s a cuddly pussycat”, cooed Super Teen. Quick-witted and straight-shooting, Hodo had an endearing personality underneath the tool belt and reflective shades. It equipped him to endure everything from industry politics to “wardrobe malfunctions” to performing conditions that tested all manner of resilience.

However, Hodo decided to retire his hard hat after recording the group’s latest single “Let’s Go Back to the Dance Floor” (2013). While Village People continues to perform, Hodo is adjusting to life off the road and reflecting on a career that’s taken him from the Broadway stage to some of the world’s biggest stadiums. In this exclusive interview with PopMatters, he retraces his 35 years with Village People and recalls how a gypsy kid from Sacramento secured a permanent place in pop culture history.

Part I: Broadway or Bust

Let’s go back to Sacramento. What is your earliest memory of music?

I can tell you exactly. I was seven years old. My mother had one of those big-ass radios. I couldn’t even reach the top of it. My parents were divorced and my mother was a working single mother so we had a series of babysitters and nannies. One day, this pretty girl showed up at the door to take care of my sister and I while my mother went to work. She was a teenager. I remember she had a pony tail. She walked up and changed the radio. I didn’t know it could even do that! I heard “Poison Ivy” by the Coasters and I was just mesmerized. I’d grown up with [sings] “See the pyramids along the Nile” and all of a sudden “Poison Ivy” and “Charlie Brown” came out. This babysitter was my introduction to rock and roll. She taught me all the latest dances. I learned the bop, the slop, the walk, whatever. I became a teenager at seven years-old. I spent all my allowance on 45s.

Did anyone in your family have musical talent?

My mother had a beautiful singing voice. She sang all day long when she did housework. She was always like a canary in a cage. My mother was more of a classical singer. It wasn’t a pop sound. I used to listen to the radio with my mother and of course with her it was Perry Como, Jimmie Rodgers, Rosemary Clooney, that stuff. My father was into country/western music, which I hated because he wouldn’t let me listen to my rock and roll. I grew up on Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, all of them. Slim Whitman was my father’s idol. He had this incredible falsetto voice. He was a huge star and ended up living in England for a long time. He just recently died at 90. As a kid, I could do dead-on Slim Whitman impersonations. It was only later when Linda Ronstadt came along and kind of turned it into folk rock that I realized how much I loved this country western music. I sort of blocked it out because it reeked of my father’s stinking cigars.

Yes, I remember you sharing with me that Linda’s Heart Like a Wheel (1974) is one of your favorite albums. At what point did you realize that music was something you wanted to pursue, professionally?

I don’t think I ever did. I loved to sing but I thought I was going to be an artist. I started college as an art major. I was such a country bumpkin that I’d never seen a stage production until I was 19. The college put on Once Upon a Mattress. I was just bowled over. I dropped all of my art classes and took all theater classes. I couldn’t tell my family because it was bad enough that I was an artist. “Starving artist” was always what I heard. When I graduated from University of California, Sacramento it was with a B.A. in speech because they didn’t have what was called a degree in theater.

How did you get from Sacramento to New York?

I was working on a farm, re-weaving wicker furniture. This was in a beautiful area in California called Aptos. It’s right between Santa Cruz and Carmel. This friend of mine had gone to New York for the summer and rented an apartment. We were in a dance company together. He came back and said, “I’m taking you to New York”. I was living with this bunch of hippies and I was ready to go.

You arrived in New York during the early ‘70s. What’s your first memory of the city?

I can remember when my friend and I landed at LaGuardia. I said, “Where are the buildings?” I just figured you were dropped down into the city. He said, “We have to drive into town”. It was nighttime when we came in. We pulled up in a cab to our new apartment on W. 69th St. and Central Park West. I opened the door and the first thing I saw was a pile of dog shit. Sacramento is pristine. It’s a very friendly city. You say hello to people when you pass them on the sidewalk. You never saw dog shit on the sidewalk. Then we moved over to W. 70th Street. We had one of those railroad flats. My roommate’s room was over the French laundry and my room was over the Chinese laundry. The French laundry is still there. Then three of us got together (we added a fourth roommate) and got a large apartment on W. 79th St. We spent several years there.

Did you feel overwhelmed by the city or did you fit in right away?

No, I loved it immediately. I took to New York like a fish to water. I was so lucky that I got my Equity Card on my second day in New York City, which is really unheard of. People wait tables for years before they can get an Equity Card, but it was a case of preparation meeting opportunity. I never had to wait a table. The day that I got my Equity Card, I had to take the subway by myself and I was terrified. It cost 35 cents. When the train came into the station, I didn’t know if it was an earthquake or what! I just really loved it … and of course it was the ‘70s, so it was wild.

At that time, were you auditioning for musicals or more dramatic productions?

I was into musicals. I wasn’t going out for serious stuff. I auditioned for No, No Nanette (1971). When I came to New York, the big choruses were no more. They couldn’t afford them. Now they had smaller choruses and you were either a singer who could dance or a dancer who could sing. I could shout in tune but I was basically a dancer.

What was your social world like, in terms of congregating with other actors or other musicians? One of the places that I imagine I would have enjoyed back then is Reno Sweeney’s …

I used to go see Ellen Greene at Reno Sweeney’s all the time. She was very classy. She had dark hair, slicked back into a chignon. She wore thick red lipstick that was very shiny. She was funny and she sang beautifully. I used to watch her and think, Is there anybody better? This must have been what it was like when Barbra Streisand was first playing clubs. One of the first shows I auditioned for was a show that Ellen was the lead in called Rachael Lily Rosenbloom (And Don’t You Ever Forget It) (1973). I think it lasted three days or something. Years later, my best friend told me that Ellen was doing this Off-Broadway show Little Shop of Horrors (1982). I ended up going to see that and of course it was wonderful. Then she did the movie. The sad thing is, nobody recognized her without that blonde wig. Ellen made such a splash in that movie. She played that part so well that they didn’t want to see anything else. They wanted to see the ditzy blonde. That was a career-maker and a career-killer. It’s really kind of sad because she’s a phenomenal talent.

From what I understand, your first Broadway show was a musical called Doctor Jazz (1975). How did it feel to land a role on Broadway?

It was great because by that time I’d done so much dinner theater and so much stock, I was really over it. I had gone home to California thinking about just returning to California. When I came back for Doctor Jazz, there was this thing in me: “I have to get that show” … and I did, so I ended up staying in New York.

What was the premise of Doctor Jazz?

Doctor Jazz was a wonderful concept. Basically, it started in Storyville, New Orleans where all the hookers were. That’s where Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin and all of them came from. The black artists had to play behind a curtain so as to not offend the white patrons of the brothel. Then Storyville was shut down and all the jazz people moved to Chicago. Lola Falana was the star of Doctor Jazz. Another phenomenal talent. She basically played a Josephine Baker character. She ends up going to France, which is exactly what Josephine Baker did, because she couldn’t get arrested in Chicago. Raoul Pène Du Bois did all the sets and costumes and the poster. He was a genius. The costumes were outrageous. Two guys came on as girls in corsets and then reached over and pulled each other’s corsets off. They just had g-strings on. They’d scream and run off stage. The show was full of hookers. I love a show that’s got hookers in it — I saw Seesaw (1973) four times just to see the hookers.

Cyma Rubin, who produced Doctor Jazz, was the one that famously chopped one of the other producers out of No, No Nanette. I can’t remember his name but he went on to do Irene. Cyma thought she could do it all herself. At our first rehearsal, they handed us our scripts. We went home and read them. We came back the next day and said, “We’re in a turkey!” It had to go through several re-writes. They didn’t take Doctor Jazz out on the road. They just rehearsed it in the Winter Garden Theatre and opened it there. It actually opened without a second act. It was a tragedy. It was the first million-dollar disaster on Broadway.

You went from Doctor Jazz to your second Broadway musical, a revival of Pal Joey (1976).

Pal Joey was another show that could have been incredible. It started out with Eleanor Parker and Edward Villella — America’s premier dancer. It had Janie Sell who won a Tony for Over Here! (1974). A few of the chorus kids went on to do bigger things. Marilu Henner was in the chorus. Marilu was a hoot! I praise Marilu ‘til the sun goes down. She was a doll to work with. She knew she was going to be a star. By the time the show opened, we’d lost Eleanor and Edward. Neither one of them were up to the task. The director had his head up his ass. If it had been with Eleanor and Edward, it would have been a decent show, but there were script changes every day. This was Edward’s first theater thing so it was totally throwing him. Joan Copeland and Chris Chadman took over. Of course, Dixie Carter walked away with it.

Tell me about watching Dixie Carter work.

Dixie was on a soap opera (The Edge of Night) so she’d show up in a limo with her script. We didn’t have that much interaction with her. We knew she was very quiet and kind of quirky. She had this very insouciant, tousled look that was very sexy. She only had that one number called “Zip”, which they gave to Rita Hayworth in the movie when it’s not that character’s number. It’s just this interviewer who comes on to interview Joey. She does this faux Gypsy Rose Lee striptease. When Dixie came out and did “Zip”, I’d never seen someone steal a show in five minutes. The audience would not let her leave the stage. They finally brought Richard Rodgers to see her and he brought another verse out of the vaults for her to do so she had an encore for the audience!

It seems like the 1970s was such a vibrant time for theater. You said you saw Seesaw four times. What other musicals did you get to see?

I also saw Pippin’ (1972) four times. I loved Pippin’. I saw the original Chicago (1975) with Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon. Looking back at it now I think, That was really good, but I was so over Fosse by then. I wish he was alive to see how long this new version of Chicago has lasted. Chita and Gwen were “Chita and Gwen” — they were incredible but the show opened the same time that A Chorus Line (1975) opened. A Chorus Line came along and just blew everybody out of the water.

Once Pal Joey closed, what did you do?

There was a lot of work. If there wasn’t work in New York, there was always dinner theater and summer stock. That kept the bills paid until you got that next Broadway show. I did a show that was going to be my third Broadway show but it closed on the road, The Red Blue Grass Western Flyer Show. It was about the Grand Ole Opry. Katharine Hepburn was bringing it into New York. She loved it. She’d seen it twice. She, Paul Newman, and Bette Davis frequented the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. It was this little picturesque place on the river, this old theater that brought many musicals into the city. Katharine would sit way down in her seat. We could see her because she had this white turtleneck. Every time the dance numbers were over, she’d go [slow, deliberate applause]. Otherwise, she was very sedate. When the show was over, the first thing she said was to take her back to see the dancers. They brought her to the boys’ dressing room. She said, [in Katharine Hepburn’s voice], “That’s some athletic dance number!” I just remember standing there. It was like this aura of gold around her. The second time she came to the show, same thing. She had to come backstage and see the dancers. Then she said, “You’re surely going to New York.” That was the last we heard. Then it closed and I had to audition for this non-Equity thing …

And that was for Village People. How did you find out about that audition?

I wasn’t getting any unemployment checks so I came to the unemployment office. It was somewhere on 34th St. They said you need one more week’s employment. I picked up a stage magazine, either Show Business or Backstage, I can’t remember which one. In those days, there was enough work that on the right side of the paper was all Equity work and on the left side of the paper was non-Equity work. It was close to Christmas. There was nothing going on in Equity. Everything had already been cast so I thought let me look over here (in non-Equity) and I see this ad, “Macho Types Wanted”. They wanted a construction worker, a leather man, and a cowboy for this world famous disco act. The group had already had the first album out (Village People, 1977).

I went to this audition. I was auditioning for the cowboy, because I’d just done The Red Blue Grass Western Flyer Show. I wore a western shirt. The audition was held in a sleazy studio that I’d never been to. I know Alex [Briley] was there but I couldn’t see anybody. They were sitting in the dark. All I could see was Jacques and Victor. They had a piano player to play the song that I had to sing but then I had to do choreography. They just put a cassette on. I was used to standing there with 300 chorus boys and having to learn choreography. I looked around and I said, “You mean you just want me to stand here and dance by myself?” I tried it a little bit and I just stopped. I said, “I feel like an ass”. Victor jumped onstage and said, “I’ll join you”, so I didn’t feel so stupid.

I got a call from Jacques that night. His accent was so thick. I couldn’t understand half of what he was saying. He said I was going to be a construction worker. Construction workers weren’t that visible as a sex thing. I just thought, Boots? I came to New York for the sequins and the tap numbers and the glitter. I can remember going into my roommates saying, “Remember that awful job I auditioned for today? I think I got it.” The next week we recorded Macho Man (1978). It was very fast. We did that album and then we went into rehearsals, putting the show and the concept together. That’s how I got into the group. It wasn’t intentional. The rule in show business is, “Say yes and then figure it out later.”

Part II: "The Clown Princes of Disco"

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.”

 

Part III: Hanging Up the Hat

After Can’t Stop the Music, the group left Casablanca and signed with RCA. How was that “New Romantic” image created for the Renaissance (1981) album?

We were sitting around the swimming pool one day in LA. Because the movie was a bona fide flop, they figured they had to change the look of the group. They were making us tour around in that crap from the movie, the bugle beads and satin shirts. I said, “We need to go back to basics — jeans and flannel shirts — because kids could dress like us. They can’t dress like us with bugle beads and sequins.” They had a couple of people there passing around ideas. The first one was these leather outfits that were monochrome — someone in solid red, someone in solid yellow. They had fringe on them. They were awful. We nixed that one. Then they had these guys trying to convince us of this New Romantic look, which was Adam Ant and Spandau Ballet. That was the better of the two choices. It went over almost as well as the movie. I think Renaissance has some of our best music … it also has some of the worst, one of which I had to sing, “Food Fight”.

You know, in its own way, “Food Fight” is actually a really cool kind of New Wave/punk song.

I just recently read a review of that and it said, “David Hodo singing this song sounds like Plastic Bertrand”.  Anything that I got to sing lead on was too stupid: “I Love You to Death”, “Sleazy”, “Food Fight” …

“Do You Wanna Spend the Night” is a great track, though.

That’s the one I wanted to sing but they wouldn’t let me do that one. “5 O’clock in the Morning” and “Do You Wanna Spend the Night” are great songs. “5 O’clock in the Morning” is like a bad Italian joke. We loved Italy but we couldn’t get a hit in Italy to save our lives. “5 O’clock in the Morning” was a huge hit in Italy only. Whenever we went to Italy, we had to do “5 O’clock in the Morning”.

 
 

What prompted your exit from Village People after Renaissance?

It had been four years. I was just exhausted. Our producers didn’t know when to pull back. There was a time when you could see Village People twice a week on TV. Even we were like, Again? It was the Bob Hope Special, the Tim Conway Special … It was over-saturation. It just didn’t stop. I had no friends left. Everyone I knew in New York had totally forgotten about me. I wanted to have some kind of life. We had no life. Our suitcases were our homes. I was simply tired of the exhausting traveling, the jet lag, the very unglamorous life of being in such a popular group. Glamor is only in the eyes of the audience, who has no idea of what you have just gone through to be able to entertain them.

Was it difficult to leave, in terms of your relationship with the other guys or with Jacques?

No, because I’d asked to leave several times before. I went into the office in Paris, because there had been a huge scene in Germany with a couple of the guys in the hotel, and said, “I want out.” They were going to fire Randy and Glenn at the same time. They begged me to please stay for the Renaissance album. I agreed to stay for the next year. When that year was up, I said, “Okay, I want to leave now.” They were fine with it.

After you left, the group released Fox on the Box (1982) and Sex Over the Phone (1985). What did you do during that six-year gap between leaving and then re-uniting with the guys in ‘87?

I kicked around. I tried to go back into theater but every agent I met with said to take Village People off of my résumé. That was four years of work. Around 1985, the group disbanded for about 15 months until Randy Jones managed to pull the group together again. He schmoozed this guy David Fishof, who’d just engineered the Monkees reunion tour. When Randy first called me about pulling the group together, I was ambivalent about it, but after watching all of the one-hit wonders of the ‘80s I thought that there was still no group that could put on a show like Village People did without having to resort to pyrotechnics and other special effects to hold an audience’s attention. After a six-year respite it started to look like fun again with the understanding that we took it at our own pace rather than the relentless pace we were forced to maintain.

Was Jacques involved with the reformation?

No. It was Henri Belolo [Morali’s business partner]. We had heard Jacques was sick. When we got back together, I went to visit Jacques in Paris. Henri had bought the rights to the group from Jacques. Jacques figured the group was over. Henri made a very shrewd business decision and Jacques made a stupid one. When I went to visit Jacques, he was bitter and railing against Henri. Henri was in charge now. Henri wouldn’t give us the rights to put the show together but he gave David Fishof the rights. Randy thought that we were going to be playing the big auditoriums again. We had to start at square one, playing little clubs in Scotland and Ireland. No one was offering us a record label. We had to re-establish this group.

In 1988, the group released “Livin’ in the Wildlife” on CBS. That looks like the last time Randy recorded with the group.

That was something that someone had written for us. We did it and it played in Australia for a little while. It wasn’t a very good song. When Jacques left, much of the magic left with Jacques and his hooks.

Sadly, Jacques passed away in 1991. He’s one of a few significant individuals in the group’s career who are no longer with us: Neil Bogart (1982), Glenn Hughes (2001), and Donna Summer (2012). What are some of your lasting memories of each of them?

Neil was the one who taught me what a hook was. I just thought he was brilliant. I was glad I stayed friends with Jacques. I was the only one he wanted to see in the group. We went to Paris. We were going to have lunch with him and Henri. We were at the table and Henri said, “Jacques can’t make it. He’s having an allergic reaction to some medication he’s taking.” When I got back to the hotel, the phone rang and it was Jacques. He said, “Darling it’s me and I would like to see you. I don’t want to see the others.” I rode out to see him. He was living with his lover in this posh area of Paris. That was the last time I saw him.

I really miss Glenn. He would drop whatever he was doing and come and help you with whatever. He really was a sweetheart. Donna’s apartment was just below mine in L.A. I remember we were sitting in front of my gas fireplace. I was complaining about having to deal with all the lawyers and all this legalese. Donna said, “David, it’s great that you just want to be an artist but now you have to become a lawyer.” Then she proceeded to tell me when she got her first royalty check from “Love to Love You Baby”. It was for $500. They had taken out limos that had picked her up at the airport, parties held in her honor, her dresses, her costumes. She had to wise up and become a lawyer and get smarter.

As the years went on, Village People started to draw those big crowds all over again and tour around the world. You even got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In the midst of all this, you recorded a few solo projects, including “My Sweet Lord” (2002). How did you decide to record that?

I’d always loved “My Sweet Lord”. One day at the gym, while listening to it on my Discman I thought, “This could so easily work with a dance beat.” This was before we knew of George Harrison’s illness. It wasn’t that long after I’d recorded the song that we heard of his illness and I thought, “This will look like I’m trying to capitalize on this tragedy.” So I didn’t do much with it, but some German promoter, who now seems to be in hiding, got a copy of it and has put it on several compilation albums from his Dance Street label. We have tried unsuccessfully to locate him and I haven’t seen a cent from the recording though many of my European friends have commented on having heard it.

You also released a solo EP in 2008. “The Kids’ll Be Fine” is definitely a standout. Tell me about the inspiration for writing that particular song.

When I wrote and recorded “The Kids’ll Be Fine”, school shootings were still a new phenomenon and I was moved by one particular school shooting that not only left several children dead, but put a young boy in whatever lock-up situation they put children in until they’re old enough for prison. It was not written in sympathy for the shooter, but rather from a dumbfounded feeling for such a waste of so many young lives due to the ridiculous ease through which a child can get his hands on a gun. As is usually the case, I’m sure bullying had something to do with this senseless incident. After the first verse the others just seemed to fall in line. I wanted the song to be an indictment about the mixed messages that young minds are receiving, from fashion magazines to hate-filled evangelists.

Last year, Village People recorded and released their first new single in 25 years, “Let’s Go Back to the Dance Floor” (2013). It’s great that Harry Wayne Casey (“K.C.”) was the one who wrote it. How did that collaboration come about? What was it like working with him after being each other’s contemporary for so many years?

He came up with the idea of “Let’s Go Back to the Dance Floor” while we were all backstage during one of the many concerts that Village People have co-billed with K.C. and the Sunshine Band over the past several years. I have known K.C. since about 1979. We may have been contemporaries, but K.C. is really one of the godfathers of dance music. K.C. was doing his thing long before Village People came along.

What prompted your retirement from Village People? Are there any other creative endeavors you’ll pursue now that you’re off the road?

Village People has been in existence for 37 years now. Of those 37 years, I had left the group for six years. By 2012, I was again exhausted by the pace we were having to keep and made plans to retire in 2013. Much of my decision had to do with the fact that the airlines have made travel a nightmare. Felipe and Alexander have been with the group for the entire 37 years and still counting. Ray Simpson joined us in ‘79 and has also been along for the entire trip. I am the only member of the group who ever left the group voluntarily (twice), but they are still going strong. As for what my plans are now that I’m retired, I’m still getting used to being retired and still can’t seem to find enough hours in the day. I miss the camaraderie that we had as a group, we could always make the best out of a bad situation, but I don’t miss the punishing travel, and the ofttimes crappy hotel situations. The life of a Village Person is one of extremes. One day you’re in a five-star hotel and the next day you’re in the middle of the boondocks in a poor excuse for a hotel. I do miss the audiences though. They have always entertained us as much as we entertained them.

In reflecting on the group’s career, how would you define the legacy of Village People?

I would say that we took something that we were told had a shelf life of four years tops, because we were a “novelty act”, and turned it into an international sensation whose very name conjures up a fun time, from the smallest county fairs to venues such as “Bestival” on the Isle of Wight for 20,000 twenty-somethings. I have always said, “When they tell you you’re a flash in the pan, make sure you’re the one that burns the kitchen down.”

 

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. 


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/182364-under-the-hard-hat-an-interview-with-village-peoples-david-hodo/