November 1996, Kooky down at Club 77. I’d been away for almost a year. John Howard had been elected and a pall had drawn over. Groovii Biscuit did a drag performance in a three-piece suit with big messy eyebrows and clunky glasses. The song was ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, spliced with soundbites of Howard. Behind Groovii/ Howard was a map of Australia covered in stickers of Aboriginal flags and trees. S/he pulled off the flags and threw them to the ground. S/he pulled off the trees and threw them to the ground. Across the middle and top of the continent, s/he whacked the nuclear waste symbol. S/he whacked up dollar signs, and USA flags. The song crescendoed and s/he started to strip. Groovii’s Howard was awkward, ugly and grotesque. S/he stripped down to Y-fronts, which had the US flag painted on them. S/he was packing with a little gun. S/he started to wank, and the show ended with an almighty gungasm. Oo-oo! Oo-oo!
Black Vine III, Sydney Town Hall. That grim year, 1997, when Howard’s mission was well underway. This was one of three concerts organised by Stephen Page. Bangarra artists did solos: I remember Sidney Saltner’s cat-like elegance. But some of the best works were drag and comedy numbers. Lillian Crombie singing ‘There’s a hole in the bucket’, popping her eyes, all ham. Leah Purcell doing a country and western song, half in language. And the patter between all of it: political, cheeky, humorous, defiant. Five-star deadly black cabaret.
That bath guy in an early version of La Clique. Did an aerial routine over a bath full of water. He was a superb acrobat with a chiselled body and short dark hair. Was he on the straps? He lowered and swung himself in and out of the water with increasing fervour, splashing the front rows. They were agog. He was especially adored by the heterosexual women, but of course he was gay. Most of La Clique were queer. Much higher ratio of queers in cabaret, and sex work, than in other sectors of the population. Those are our traditional twilit, body-based, transgressive worlds. Spiegeltent, early 2000s.
Imogen Kelly did this show a few times. Over a period of ten years, I think, from the 90s. A genderfuck striptease. She wore an indigo velvet suit over a white shirt with frilled cuffs. Very glam rock. There was a sofa on stage. She cavorted around it, straddled it, and of course had a big lunch. I can’t remember what it was when she stripped down. Maybe an actual latex cock. But the focus in the audience was intense. This was in the very early days of the transgender revolution, when we still said F2M, and some butch dykes habitually packed, let alone wore explicit male drag. I did myself occasionally, even though I wasn’t butch. A show like that now wouldn’t have the same impact. We don’t even use the same terminology. Anyway, Imogen was very sexy, her slim lithe body was all over that sofa like a licorice strap.
Patrick and Andrew at Sex and Subculture. Patrick would mummify Andrew in Glad Wrap backstage. The shows, one of which was captured by William Yang, generally involved Patrick unwrapping Andrew. Slowly inserting his lubricated hand into Andrew’s arse, and pulling out all sorts of things. Once, most notoriously, a roast chicken. Looking back I assume it was made of rubber. This was in the mid 90s.
Justin Shoulder at U Little Stripper in his first show, his cleverness with costumes and earthy charisma already manifest. He was a red fringed lamé dog, on all fours, in a dog-like headdress, also red and shiny. He had an accompanist on a type of Asian drum which made a hollow brassy sound, and he prowled around the stage shaking the fringes of his costume. This was in late 2007 at Lanfranchi’s Memorial Discotheque, one of the last artist warehouses on Cleveland Street, an old chocolate factory where they had lots of events and parties over the years. The developers had gotten their approval to build a backpacker hostel, and this was one of LMD’s last hoorahs. Out the window, up the lane, you could see the spot where crooked cop Roger Rogerson had shot Warren Lanfranchi, heroin dealer, two decades earlier (and gotten away with it). Justin was one of the first on in a long, sexy, hilarious night. The red lamé was attached to different parts of his body and he stripped it off piece by piece, shaking his doggy self. He was only twentyone, his body was perfect, he emanated pure animal joy. The thumbscrews had been tightening for a good ten years. The cycle of puritanism, proscription and punishment was upon us. The rest of the performers kept up the heat: Christa Hughes belting out The Lady is a Tramp, Nicci Wilks and Simone O’Brien doing some AC/DC drag king type of thing, Venus Noir doing traditional striptease, Vashti Hughes as Uncle Funky, a naive yobbo. By the end of the night the crowd was on fire; the strip karaoke brought the house down. It was a huge release of energy, people rushing up on stage, taking off their clothes and dancing like crazy. The cops came and the night had to finish early, but at least we got to do this much. Uncle Funky at the end on the mic: There’ve been loads of sexy people up here tonight. What’s wrong with the cops? Don’t they wanna get laid? What’s wrong with ’em? Don’t they have cocks and feelings? Aren’t they blokes? Ya gotta wonder about it…
It’s dark. None of us have been here before, a ritzy cavernous bar called Republic in the CBD, soaked in the corporate power of lawyer and stockbroker clientele, the name so ironic. Of all places to have a Sex and Subculture party, but it’s getting harder to find venues, so why not? And the creepiness of the place is even more intense due to the fact there was a federal election today. The results were called as we filed in around midnight. Thus began Howard’s second term, November 1999. Through the murk, we see Vixen (Antipodean Italian, as opposed to USA Noir) in a black latex catsuit, winching a cage from the ceiling down to the stage, releasing a mummified figure. She unwraps him and he spins across the stage to a pounding soundtrack, maybe Nine Inch Nails. It’s Pluto: the spotlight is on his face, his lips are stitched. He tears out the stitches screaming, blood running down his neck. He’s got a red swastika sewn into his chest, he tears out these stitches too. There’s so much rage and blood and pain and all the negative energy in the room seems to suck into this moment and catch like gas to a flame. We screamed and cheered, we stamped on the floor, then we danced all night, in a fury.
Let me depart from the common wisdom about cLUB bENT. One reason I look back on it fondly is not because all the shows were great. It was the feeling of queer underground cabaret occupying a funded space night after night that was great. It was the fact that what had been erupting in clubs and parties for years was being taken seriously by theatre professionals, so artists and amateurs alike could work with decent fees and technical support. It was the centrality of radical sexuality and politics. We went to every one; we began to take it for granted. I wouldn’t be the only person who doesn’t remember exactly what they saw. There were several, in Mardi Gras season, that is to say muggy February, in the mid 90s. After bENT came Taboo Parlour in the late 90s, a more sophisticated cabaret because by then the scene was bursting at the seams. But I remember the last Taboo Parlour well. Each night was themed with a colour which determined a mood. (For Red, Groovii, one of the curators, had gorge stitched across her décolletage with red satin thread; she was dressed to the nines, glowing.) At the last one, the colour was Yellow. Victoria Spence was probably the MC. Naturally, there’d been references to piss. Then somehow the suggestion that someone come up on stage and piss. PB Hobbs obliged. He pissed off the end of the stage, just like that. Then others came up and pissed. Then others went into the toilets to piss on each other. Soon, people were having sex. The place stank. It was a riot. Apparently the staff got into trouble for letting this happen as Performance Space, where the night was held, stank of stale piss for weeks after. Months.
‘People flocked to the bohemian cabaret, the Stray Dog, to hear her and recite her poetry,’ writes Judith Hemschemeyer in her introduction to The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova. ‘And her fans who had memorized her books, used to “say the Rosary,” one starting a poem and the others finishing it.’ This was in the 1910s, in St Petersburg. Rosary, Akhmatova’s second book of poetry, was published when she was only twenty-five, and like her first book, Evening, it was ‘instantly and wildly successful in pre-revolutionary Russia’. Places like the Stray Dog are nearly always romanticised in later accounts. Films furnish them with fringed lamps and jazz bands and women with red lips and long cigarette holders. What was the Stray Dog really like? I don’t know, but I imagine a plain room with battered wooden tables and chairs, possibly a small stage at one end. Probably in a cellar; if not, there still wouldn’t have been much light. In the Russian winter it would have been very cold, there may have been a stinky coal fire. What sort of music, if any? Most likely a piano. Perhaps an accordionist dropped by sometimes. People would have sung. Maybe danced. How would we with our bells and whistles and sound systems and cocktails have coped? Not well if comfort is your priority: up the road to the opera house with you. I’ve imagined myself many times in the Stray Dog cabaret, listening to Anna recite her poetry. I’ve read every single one of her poems, I love her for the passion of her love poetry, the terror of her political poetry and the splendour of her landscape poetry but also the fact that she survived two world wars, a revolution, the Stalinist Terror, while her friends her son her ex-husband and her lovers were shot by firing squad, exiled in Siberia, disappeared, emigrated. Anna lived through all of it.
Candy Royalle leading the charge at Word in Hand, the best one had to be the night’s debut at the Red Rattler featuring Women of Colour. On the mic, whether introducing performers, or blazing through her poem about her Palestinian grandfather—Yes I am angry, and it is righteous anger—she grabbed the audience by the lapels and shook us to the bone, like the best DJ does with music, and it was a poetry night that ended with dancing, I think, such was the energy in the room. Vale, my friend, vale.
But you don’t need to understand the words. When living in Paris in the 1980s, I took advantage of every jazz gig in town. Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Arthur Blythe. Fela Kuti too: fair to say I was obsessed with black music, being a sax player then. Afro anything, really. One night my boyfriend and I went to a gig on the periphérique, headlined by Senegalese drummer Doudou N’Diaye Rose. Turned out to be loads of acts on the bill from that little pocket of West Africa. A troupe of pygmy singers, griots and griottes. We were just about the only white people there. Some of the audience looked a bit annoyed to see us. Fair enough. Paris already had such a big African population, so big that African nightclubs were fiercely sectarian in which country’s music they played. It was also very segregated, and difficult for them: police raided buildings around Barbès-Rochechouart in the dead of night, hauling out entire families for deportation. But at this concert, people were in full celebration. When the griots came on, they knew all the words. They stood and shouted and swayed to the beat. We had no idea what they were singing about; we knew nothing, but the exultation rained down on us like a blessing.
Maybe I do remember shows from cLUB bENT. Drew Fairley’s Hotel California. It’s possible he debuted it there. It’s still good twenty years later. Drew’s put on a bit of weight. His character Randy Jacuzzi, ‘international catalogue model’, wears 1970s trousers and shirt, unbuttoned to the navel. His schtick is full of all the usual inanities (Yeah I love it here in Australia, there’s so much space!). His masculine ‘model’ poses get better the older and fatter that Drew becomes. There are the expertly mimed solos—cello, flute, keyboards, drums, a failed attempt at playing air triangle—then the ridiculous shag wig that spins 360 degrees: sleight of hand. I groaned the last time, Oh no not again! But as time goes on, I see more. The pathos of the lyrics. The vacuous American dream and how it reflects on us here in all our craven colonialism. The superb skill, the sheer hilarity.
David Page doing Tina Turner at an event around the turn of the century at the old Performance Space on Cleveland Street. Could have been one of the Indigenous festivals that took place in the year 2000, for the Olympics. A sort of variety show, but more down home than Black Vine. David did ‘Nutbush City Limits’. He wore a short spangly dress and heels, sang in a hoarse bright voice that rivalled Tina’s. A little guy, muscly, bit of a paunch, cute as a button, a dynamo of energy. He totally inhabited that song, he was his own Nunukul Tina. Another talent gone. Another loss. Life rushes on.
Another performance during the Olympics. I was living on the South Coast. The Central Desert women whom Stephen Page had choreographed into the opening ceremony were staying down there in a conference centre in the bush. A Maori friend was looking after them. One day she invited some of us locals up to a barbecue. The Desert women were numerous, there could have been anything from fifty to one hundred: many had never travelled off country and spoke little English. We were rather in awe because they had performed so powerfully at the opening ceremony. I don’t know if they planned to perform that day; certainly us locals didn’t expect it. But after lunch, the lawn before the hall was cleared, and the women rose, gathered in a circle, and began to sing and dance. There were clapsticks. We sat on the ground watching their feet raise dust, feeling as much as listening to the harmonic drone of voices, the swish of eucalyptus, the thumping of feet. When you are that close to that many people dancing barefoot on the ground—and they hit it so deliberately with the whole sole—the song seems to rise out of the earth, vibrating through your body, into your very marrow.
‘Thus the duende is a force and not a labour, it is a struggle and not a concept,’ said Federico García Lorca in 1933. Imagine hearing his lecture ‘Theory and Function of the Duende’ live. Instead, we must read it.
I have heard an old master guitarist say: ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende surges up from the soles of the feet.’ Which means it is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action.
This ‘mysterious power that everyone feels but that no philosopher has explained’ is in fact the spirit of the earth…
All the arts are capable of possessing duende, but naturally the field is widest in music, in dance, and in spoken poetry, because they require a living body as interpreter—they are forms that arise and die ceaselessly, and are defined by an exact present.
If the Fascists hadn’t shot him three years later, Lorca would have emigrated to Mexico: he had bought his ticket. He might have sat in the zócalo down in Oaxaca where the mariachis roam from café to café serenading diners. He might have watched the townsfolk gather each night to dance to bands with full brass sections even on Mondays. He might have joined them, the young and the old, the expert and amateur, some dressed up in high heels and suits, others in sneakers, everybody dancing together beneath the cathedral to songs of love and passion and the earth.
When Gurlesque Strip Club began I was one of many who disagreed with their women-only door policy. I remember standing up the back with Simone O’Brien, and calling out No! when Sex, co-founder with Glitta, took an impromptu vote from the floor. We’d come of age in a coalitionist culture—what you’d call intersectional now—and we fervently believed inclusivity was the only way. We backed our male friends who had performed with women for years and wanted to come; many of the performers, like Simone, had male partners. Transfolk initially suffered under this policy: transmen who passed were blocked, transwomen were made by many punters to feel unwelcome. But Sex and Glitta had a vision, they stuck to their guns and over the years changed minds. I remember women in the early days not knowing how to watch women strip without feeling uncomfortable and sliding into lechery, judgement or disrespect: with only examples of bad behaviour in sexually permissive contexts, many just didn’t know how to handle all that female flesh without acting like gross men. Sex and Glitta gave little pep talks each month. They emphasised respect over and over. All trans and intersex folk were welcome. On stage, all performers were encouraged regardless of experience, colour, age and size. And it worked: education—liberation—sophistication. And sorry fellas, but it wouldn’t have been the same had you been there, even the best of you, this I eventually realised. Over the decade that Gurlesque ran, through various licencing law restrictions (in the beginning you could get all your gear off and pull things out of your holes; by the end it was down to G-strings only) the crowd became almost unanimously supportive, convivial and at ease with female bodies and sexuality. This was nothing less than revolutionary.
Do we also romanticise the Weimar era? The nightclubs, queers and politicos. The fetishists and jazz dancers. Remember then, in Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood’s casual description of the old military officer in a leather bar fondling an adolescent boy on his lap. Remember that in Australia the poverty was just as extreme, but the culture more narrow, and more puritanical. Remember the social parameters of the 1930s, how even in the most leftist circles traditional power structures prevailed. The uniform acceptance of male dominance, domestic violence, and European superiority. But still, let me dream of a night in Weimar Berlin that Josephine Baker was in town. Secretly performing in a small club after her official show, with her lesbian lover being feted, given far more respect than any Afro-American could get at home at that time; let me dream of Josephine Baker partying with a rowdy crew of hedonists decrying Hitler. Let me dream of the good people, in the good times, for there were and are many, despite everything.
The Cook Island Drummers at Jamie and Vanessa’s, Vanessa herself with her ridiculous lips and giant hair on the Sydney Opera House forecourt tongue-lashing Alan Jones and other Toaster residents, frisbeeing slices of white bread over the crowd. The stiltwalkers at Bad Dog, Space Cowboy swallowing the longest sword in the world (truly), Paul Capsis channelling sundry divas through all that hair, Anita Douche cracking jokes about her mandarin the size of a cyst and morphing back to Celia Curtis, the wildest rock singer alive on this continent. Dickie and Dickie in their nudesuits with microdicks and poncey gay accents. Kilia Tipa at Naughty Noodle Funhaus in skimpy dress and heels like a cocktail chanteuse fresh out of bed, Stelly G hosting in a clingy bodysuit and huge floppy hat, oh yes, bring on the Pasifikas my darling.
One hot evening in early 2019, I cycled to Sydenham to attend Grrrls Ghurls and Ghouls. I went alone with no expectations and it turned into one of those nights where every single act was fantastic. Elizabeth Burton, Sydney’s Burlesque Queen, now tipping seventy, gave her lesson in making an outfit from fishnet stockings, using Oh as a model. Solid Gold did his butch strip routine, but now he’s transitioned the masculinity was owned as much as pilloried, giving the show more complexity, and a delightful feeling of reclamation or coming out. Plenty of patter was provided by Hornby Dickie who fluffed his lines so many times it began to seem intentional, maybe because he could barely stand in those tottering heels. Last of all was Emma Maye doing a routine to ‘Purple Rain’, part gliding part dancing with help from a soapy towel swished across and between every part of her body. Seeing her without Betty Grumble’s makeup is seeing an astonishing beauty, and I don’t know if she’d dare do that sort of strip in contexts where punters don’t know how to respect sexy women. She dragged that soapy towel between her legs, whacked it on the stage making suds fly then slid through the frothy pool, flicked back her mane, spread her legs and ground and ground into the ground. She fucked that stage so damn hard it made you ache. I cycled home on Cloud Nine.
Fiona McGregor‘s latest book is Buried Not Dead, a collection of essays on art, literature and performance, sexuality, activism and the life of the city, published by Giramondo. Her previous books include Indelible Ink, which won the Age Book of the Year Award; Strange Museums, the memoir of a performance art tour through Poland; the short story collection Suck My Toes, which won the Steele Rudd Award; and the underground classic chemical palace. In 2019 she released the photo-essay in book form, A Novel Idea. She is known in Australia and overseas for her extensive repertoire of performance art with a focus on the body, duration and endurance, and is an organiser in Sydney’s alternative queer culture.