Notes From the New Wave Queer Underground
Story by Robert Burke Warren
Photographs by Jon Witherspoon and Clare Butler
As a kid in the '70s, I was in several groups – the church choir, the Boy Scouts, the KISS Army. Still, I never felt like I had a tribe. In 1980, I finally found my people when my best friend, neighbor and schoolmate Todd Butler introduced me to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" at the Silver Screen cinema in Atlanta’s Peachtree Battle Shopping Center. Todd was 16, I was 15.
The Silver Screen was walking distance downhill from our Buckhead neighborhood, and Todd and I were pretty much free to come and go as we pleased. Once we’d hit puberty, Todd wasted no time. Like a redheaded Orpheus piercing the veil between worlds, intent on charming the shadows with song, he’d descended, and he returned for me. He led me back, and introduced me to a group of music-obsessed, lovably foulmouthed folks. They sized me up and took me in. They were the new wave queer underground.
Todd and I walked to and from the Silver Screen in the wee hours of countless, balmy Atlanta weekends, slipping in and out of our families’ unlocked houses as drunken partiers whizzed by in Camaros and Chevelles. We spent long weeks at Northside High School, eagerly anticipating those Friday and Saturday nights; in those hothouse times, we would come to know ourselves by what the new wave queer underground saw in us and expected of us.
This was my kind of clique, thick with gender-bending children of absentee parents, fledglings from broken homes who’d figured out how to turn negatives into positives, how to make high-octane fuel of their hypercritical adolescent hate. Some, like Todd and me, were still in the bloom of adolescence, while others were young adults re-inventing themselves on a weekly basis. I loved my regal drama queens, razor-tongued girls, country punks and broody soft boys. The combined voices were a symphony of variations on the Georgia drawl; some accents molasses thick, revealing shotgun-shack roots, some mild as May, tipping us off to private school weekdays. My favorites were the erudite junior Tennessee Williamses and Eudora Weltys, whipsmart and condescending in their meticulously arranged AmVets duds, testing the patience of the stoic waitstaff at the Majestic Diner. This was badassery of a new kind, and I was captivated.
Before we could drive, Todd and I crammed into many a backseat, heading to midtown, or then-funky Virginia Highlands, counting the days until we could get our licenses and haul ass. We tested wings bequeathed to us by hormones and DNA; Todd, who’d been overweight and shy in our childhood, jumped on the Silver Screen stage to play Riff Raff, and became popular; I soon picked up a bass and started gigging immediately, losing my virginity in a hot, tar paper-lined attic.
Some undergrounders, like me, were the spawn of exhausted, former flower-child single moms. These moms' laissez faire “trust in the universe,” plus unforgiving work schedules and/or willful blindness, meant they let their kids twist in the wind. A few moms, despite seeming “cool” until our adolescence, freaked out when our hormones kicked in, and they were more than ready for us to get our stinky, pimply, sex-glazed selves out of the house, where perhaps the world would kick our asses in a way they could not. None of us, however, felt like victims of “benign neglect,” at least not consciously. We were free. Frequently scared, but free. We pretended we were orphans, or that we’d been stolen by the Faeries, like children in Celtic folktales. The Fae loved us so, they’d taken us from distracted parents and spirited us away to … 688.
That would be the 688 Club, at 688 Spring St. in Midtown Atlanta. This punk-new wave mecca provided enough wattage to make everyone look like stars, and enough old-beer stank on the befouled floor to remind us we were still earthbound.
Of course I didn’t register how charmed a time it was, how lucky we were to run amok on the ever-widening streets of pre-AIDS and pre-Olympics 1980s Atlanta. More often than not, my new peers and I affected a studied sense of being put upon; we were kids in the shadow of punk, after all. Lucky was not cool. But lucky is what we were. And while most assumed the lives we created were better than the lives we came from, this was not always so. Time, as ever, would tell.
I had so much in common with the folks in the new wave queer underground. And yet, I possessed something none of my peers did: an elder from the time of the Klan who held a lot of sway over my life. My maternal grandmother, Genevieve Lucchese, née Camp, a Southern belle in her 70s, not only figured prominently into my days, but she was also the only adult keeping tabs on me during my chaotic teen years. I called her Gammie.
Gammie had been raised diehard Southern Baptist. She converted to Catholicism when she married my grandfather, a first generation Italian immigrant whom her Klan-friendly parents called "the Wop,” but she held tight to her Baptist core and proudly proclaimed her membership in the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In Gammie’s complicated personal pantheon, one could overlook any historic Protestant-Catholic (or Klan-Catholic) enmity, no matter how bloody. While her spirit remained Baptist, the pagan overtones and the drama of Catholicism, to which she gave her heart, suited her. All knew her as deeply devout.
Gammie prayed for me on her rosary, saying novenas as I tempted Fate. She seemed to know I was roaming rooftops in downtown Atlanta – the Biltmore Hotel, specifically – walking unaccompanied at all hours, and never, ever wearing a seat belt. God knows what she smelled on me. I took for granted her petitions to the Blessed Mother, ridiculed them, even, but when I think about the totaled Volkswagen Bug I walked out of unscathed, I do wonder about those novenas.
My mother, Mary, a child of the '60s, was profoundly reactive to Gammie. Yet, when it came to my older brother, Britt, and me, she remained deeply dependent on her mother. Our dad had died in 1972, killed when he drunkenly drove at high speed into an embankment. So, while my mom was attending protest marches, working hard for progress and chasing her own dreams, my brother and I spent lots of time with Gammie for much of the '70s. Lucky for us, she never wanted us to leave her home on Lindbergh Drive. And even though I can’t imagine tolerating it now, Gammie’s racism, which my mom relentlessly called her on, was normal to us. We didn’t think critically about our situation. Kids rarely do. It was just “the way things were.”
Gammie shaped me, but her influence went only so far. I admired aspects of my mom’s progressivism, and I appropriated her politics. Like her, I argued with Gammie about it all: intermarriage of the races, desegregation, the romanticized “Old South” and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose philandering Gammie was obsessed with. We always agreed to disagree. She never budged. But, politics aside, my mom and I depended on Gammie’s formidable presence, especially when it came to my brother’s intense rages; Gammie was the only one who could defuse them. She made it her business to interfere in my life, to feed me, to take me to get my glasses adjusted and to get me to school before I could drive myself. I abhorred – and still abhor – much of her worldview, but I daresay I wonder who and where I’d be without her.
As I grew tall and big-footed, I attempted to disown my past, but Gammie held tight to me, like a root to a stalk. Todd, on the other hand, led me outward. He and I spent more and more time together, listening obsessively to LPs and singles, trying fitfully to create original music. Fake ID in hand, he kept exploring, then coming back to tell me what crazy cool band he’d discovered. In a life-changing happenstance, he stumbled on Atlanta’s own Dayglo funksters, The Now Explosion. He was particularly enamored of their singer, Lady Clare Parker, whom he would ultimately marry, and their go-go dancers, RuPaul and the U-Hauls. Ru would go on to international fame as a drag queen, singer, cosmetics icon and TV star, but in the early '80s he was a thrift-store crossdresser just out of his teens, and borderline homeless. While Todd and I had been running with the “Rocky Horror” kids, Ru was tearing up stages, establishing himself as an over-the-top performer in the teeming, gay-friendly, post-punk Atlanta music scene. Thanks to Todd, RuPaul and I crossed paths in 1982.
Ru was itching to start his own band, so, at Todd’s invitation, he took MARTA to the bungalow Todd’s family called home. I can still see him striding up the oak-lined street, all 6 feet 4 inches of him, dressed down in clam-digger jeans, Chinese slippers and a T-shirt. In minutes, we were shaking hands, and our band, Wee Wee Pole, was born. I was 17.
I wanted to introduce my grandmother to this sweet, freckly beanpole with the megawatt smile and exuberant laugh. Sure, he was, as my grandfather would say, “light in the loafers,” but how could Gammie not love him? How could he not change every one of her ass-backward beliefs? I instantly knew Ru would’ve jumped at the chance, regardless of the obviousness of Gammie’s thick ties to the pre-Civil Rights Act South. He was brave like that.
Bravery, in fact, was a cardinal trait of members of the new wave queer underground. But “bravery” didn’t denote an absence of fear, it meant wrassling that fear. Ru did a lot of wrassling; I soon found he was accustomed to working through fear, not allowing it to thwart him as he changed his world. He was, in his way, confrontational – not so much with other people as with his own fear. Walking down Peachtree Street in hot pants and size 13 fisherman’s waders, which RuPaul often did, took balls.
I’d grown up afraid a lot of the time, so I was drawn to Ru’s willed intimacy with fear. Ironically, he and my grandmother were similarly brave; Gammie also strove to overcome anxiety by wrassling it. Even when she was afraid of perceived Devilish influence in my life, she barreled right into it, often to my excruciating embarrassment, which, needless to say, she did not care about. This compulsion, and her azaleas, which she worked like a field hand, could be one reason she would live to 94.
Wee Wee Pole was instantly popular. We played catchy, danceable, edgy, sexually explicit songs, and we were visually arresting – two cute, white, teenage boys with musical chops, dressed in castoff clothes, and a beautiful, willowy black man in dazzling outfits (or next to nothing) flanked by two large women – the U-Hauls – who danced and “did the dozens” with him while an ancient drum machine ticked away. (We later added percussionist extraordinaire David Klimchak.) We had all that going for us, but our quick local fame was also due to RuPaul’s tireless self-promotion, which included wheat-pasting provocative posters everywhere, in neighborhoods both sketchy, like his own, and respectable, like Gammie’s. The posters usually featured a Xeroxed image of a near-naked RuPaul, and his name in boldface.
On a leisurely walk down her dogwood-lined street, Gammie encountered this image on a telephone pole: Ru in a loincloth, a feather boa wired into his Mohawk, his arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross. Unlike Jesus, however, he was not in any kind of pain. On the contrary. Thus, my imagined meeting between RuPaul and Gammie came to pass.
I’d told my grandmother I was in a band with a guy named RuPaul. (“Tell me about your new band!” she’d asked, always interested.) I’d even told her we were called Wee Wee Pole. You know, like something a little kid would say. (Our stock answer, half true.) I’d omitted crucial details, however, and she’d not seen Ru until that day. As usual, I was home alone, practicing my bass, when she called and curtly asked me to come over. I figured she needed help with my Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandfather, whom she stubbornly refused to put in a nursing home, but upon turning onto her street in my VW, I saw the “Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul & the U-Hauls!” poster. My heart sank, and I cursed RuPaul.
Because Gammie had gamely co-parented my brother and me for more than a decade, her house was my house. As I’d hit my teens, she’d nurtured my rock-star ambitions, didn’t dissuade my long-shot dreams. She was a bit of a frustrated actress, my Gammie, quite the raconteur, and a fan of all awards shows, which we watched together. Until the mid-’70s, in fact, showbiz had been an integral part of her life.
My grandfather, Sam Lucchese, “the Wop,” was the retired entertainment editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and had been the publicist for “Gone With the Wind” and a stringer for Variety. When the Beatles played Atlanta Stadium in 1965, my grandfather was at the press conference, asking them who knows what. In the fading days of old Hollywood, Gammie tagged along on junkets, and, judging from the photos and frequent stories, she’d loved being close to the spotlight. Whenever stars came through Atlanta in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s, Sam Lucchese was there, often with Gammie; Lucille Ball, Natalie Wood, Cicely Tyson and Jimmy Stewart, hanging out with my beaming grandparents, smiled down from framed 8X10s on the walls of Gammie’s house.
Those frozen faces greeted me as I walked in, sporting thrift-shop regalia, high tops and a sloppy new wave haircut, my hands sweating. As ever, the house smelled of rosewater, coffee and my grandfather’s urine. I found Gammie in the den, where, in the '70s, I’d eaten many home-cooked meals from an indestructible TV tray as I watched “All in the Family” with my grandparents. Gammie and Granddaddy were an odd couple, certainly, a study in flinty contradiction Norman Lear would’ve loved. While my grandfather, a “yellow dog” Democrat (meaning he’d sooner vote for a yellow dog than a Republican) smiled at Edith Bunker’s little victories, Gammie cheered Archie Bunker’s bigotry. But those memories didn’t fill me as I walked in that den. Judging from the heaviness in the air, I knew she’d seen the poster. I knew she wanted to talk about RuPaul, about me running with a crowd she would say wasn’t good for me. She won’t say “black,” though. She’ll think of some code word, like “trashy.”
“Sit down,” she said, unusually terse. I did so, across from her Civil War library, which included the highly collectible multivolume “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” by Jefferson Davis. Gammie loomed over me in a faded housecoat, tugging at her sleeve as my bedridden grandfather mumbled incoherently in the next room. His decline had begun in the mid-’70s, and my teenage self-centeredness made me numb to what I now know was my grandmother’s daily horror. I was not numb to Gammie’s attention, however, which focused on me like a laser.
“Robert,” she said, drawing a deep breath and clasping her hands, “I know you are going to think I am just a crazy old lady who doesn’t know things. But I do. You listen to your Gammie. Robert, you … are a type.”
“A type?” This was not what I expected.
She held up her hand. “You are a type that … an older … homosexual man … would want to … lead … astray.”
I began to protest, but she was prepared for that. She wouldn’t hear my denials. I saw immediately: She was committed to this dark fantasy of me in a den of iniquity, clueless as Gomer Pyle, coupling with naked, sweaty, older men. Black men. Little did she know I was, at that time, frequently engaged in a dizzying amount of heterosexual sex with my latchkey girlfriend. I was, in fact, en route to said girlfriend’s house, just a couple miles away, to do exactly that. I wanted to blurt this out, but something held me back. Respect? Astonishment? I don’t know. I just sat there as the words tumbled out of her, and her face flushed.
“Your grandfather and I know … gays,” she said. “We met all kinds of people in show business. I know how it is. I’ve seen it, and I want you to know what I see with you and your … band. You are naïve, you need to know that. No one else is going to tell you this.”
I found my words, and I assured her several times I was fine and not being corrupted. She finally let me go, her lined face clouded with doubt, her hug a little harder and longer than usual. As always, she told me she loved me, and I believed her. But, for the most part, I was annoyed and embarrassed for both of us, eager to head back out into the sun, into the erupting springtime of my life. Many of my teenage memories would fade with time, but this intense episode – the only time Gammie and I ever discussed anything sexual – stayed with me.
Wee Wee Pole continued, branching out to play gigs in Athens, Marietta and Birmingham (!!). I didn’t see Gammie as much, and she didn’t hound me. I soon turned 18, graduated high school and looked ever more to the horizon, eager to cut ties and see who I was apart from my blood relatives and my increasingly claustrophobic social circle. The tale of Gammie buttonholing me and revealing her fears about “The Gays” was a great yarn, wherein she seemed so clueless and I so urbane, but in the telling, I always felt a little twinge of guilt mixed with confusion, like some element of the story, beyond its obvious entertainment value, was eluding me. But it got a laugh, so I told it.
After some band adventures in New York City, I quit Wee Wee Pole. We went out on a high note; we outshone fellow gender-benders Gene Loves Jezebel at Danceteria, rocked a packed house at the Pyramid Club and (not such a high note) got our van tires slashed on the Staten Island Ferry by some “Mean Streets” toughs who did not take kindly to RuPaul’s loud, drunken gaiety. Overall, though, things were looking good. Yet, despite the mounting successes, encroaching record companies and potential managers with dollar signs in their eyes, I wanted out. I felt creatively stifled by Wee Wee Pole’s “sexy fun” template, and my friendship with Todd was fraying under pressure. About that time, the “granddaddy” of the Athens music scene, friend-of-R.E.M. Vic Varney, invited me to play in his new, arty band, Go Van Go. Plus, I had girl trouble. So I moved to Athens, joined Vic’s band, enrolled and dropped out of UGA, and lived alone and independent for the first time in my life. Within a year, my wanderlust sent me back to New York City, where I decided to stake my claim as a small fish in the biggest of ponds. Soon enough, poverty, loss and heartbreak sharpened many of my perspectives, and the “you are a type” Gammie story came into focus, at last. It took 10 years and Arsenio Hall to help me get to the heart of it, but stranger epiphanies have occurred, I’m sure.
By 1993, I’d settled down, to Gammie’s delight, with a gal from North Carolina. We lived in Manhattan, in the East Village. At 28, I was four years married, enjoying stability. Todd had married Clare, and he was getting ever more serious about painting after having served valiantly in another band, the Michael Stipe-produced Opal Foxx Quartet. Although I rarely saw him, RuPaul was also a New Yorker. He’d gone through his own dark night of the soul, cleaned up, signed with World of Wonder Management, refined his blonde drag queen persona and scored a huge hit on Tommy Boy records with “Supermodel (You Better Work).”
For Ru, it was all going according to plan. As I watched from afar, I was not surprised. Back in the Wee Wee Pole days, he called himself a “Superstar In Exile,” and he’d been right.
In spring of ’93, RuPaul appeared on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” and to my amazement, Gammie, by then pushing 90, called from Atlanta to ask if I had caught Ru’s career-making performance and interview. I told her I had, and I was happy for my old bandmate. She said she imagined I would be.
I heard her smile down the line, a smile so familiar I knew what it sounded like. I smiled back. In that moment, a different light shone on Gammie’s and my long-ago conversation. What had been a cringe-worthy memory and funny story was now a reminder of when she, alone, was looking out for me, staying connected to me. I looked at the relative calm of my life, the one I’d been journeying toward in early ’80s Atlanta; I recalled my time with Todd, with the new wave queer underground, risking life and limb for thrills and experience, loving my freedom and seeing her meddling as an affront.
Gammie was no dummy; she knew I’d seen it that way. But she wanted the adult me to know, in her clumsy yet sincere way, that she’d had my back. And at last, I was ready to see it. Even when it was unnecessary, even when it was excruciating, Gammie had shown up. She wanted me to remember it like that, and I do.
Photographs from the collection of Clare Butler
It’s Cocktail Time Again!
We started the tradition with Jerry Slater’s Bitter Southerner No. 1 from H. Harper Station. Next week, Paul Calvert, the aces barkeep at Decatur’s Paper Plane, brings you the third in our series, the Bitter Southerner No. 3. You’re gonna love it, all winter long. And if you’re wondering what happened to the Bitter Southerner No. 2, we have it. We’re just waiting for the right moment. We’ll let that be our little mystery.