Quivery and CostumedJuly 23, 2015
Glitter Rock, Les Petites Bonbons, and the Performance of Identity in California circa 1973
This is a slightly revised version of paper presented at the College Art Association annual conference in Los Angeles in 2012 for the panel “Punk Rock and Contemporary Art on the West Coast,” organized by Adam Lerner and Steven Wolf.
An item of mail art from the early- to mid-1970s issued by the artists’ group Les Petites Bonbons distinguishes its recipients for their expression of five categories of teenage rebellion that evoke the antics of proto-punk musician Iggy Pop. The Bonbons, a band of Milwaukee transplants seeking fame and fun in Los Angeles, sent this work and other Xeroxed, handmade, and collaged items through the mail to participants in what was known as the Eternal Network.1 Using a form of academic and financial recognition, the certificate is a pastiche of different established idioms, such as the corporate term “bearer,” the music-industry introduction “Les Petites Bonbons present,” and the signature: “fairy and Baby Bonbon.” Moreover, in channeling Iggy Pop as an icon of rebellion, the group acknowledges in tongue-in-cheek fashion its status as fans of the singer, and recognizes not only the recipients of the certificate but also themselves as transgressors cast from a glam-rock mold. Thus through its form and means of distribution, through the mailings and kits the group circulated about their antics, the certificate reveals the Bonbons to be projecting different roles: mail-art insiders, industry promoters, rock rebels, and homosexual ephebes.
This piece of mail art introduces several issues at the center of the Bonbons’ practice, among them the willful projection of artistic personas, the relationship between discursive and embodied identities, the adoption of codes of behavior modeled after glam-rock performers, and the evolving role of fans of this music subculture. Two recurrent characteristics of the Bonbons’ art drawn from glam rock—the projection of sexual ambiguity, and behavior or subject matter considered objectionable by the so-called mainstream—contributed to the development of punk, a genre that followed from and often reacted to glam.2 In what follows, I examine how the Bonbons’ participation in the glitter-rock scene (which was the U.S. name for glam) revealed new possibilities for the expression of multivalent, oppositional identities by both performers and their fans.
Glitter-rock musicians drew on the idea that fame could result from the self-creation of a particular style and persona
Much of this story centers on the lively scene at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, a club that had become, by 1973, tremendously influential in popularizing glitter rock in Los Angeles. Rodney’s started out in October 1972 as the E Club, and two months later it changed names and moved eastward on Sunset Boulevard. Until it closed its doors in early 1975, it was the “mecca” of the glitter-rock scene in Los Angeles, where scene regulars danced and pranced to the albums of Gary Glitter, Slade, the Sweet, T. Rex, and other, mainly British, acts. People magazine reported that the “dancing is more exhibitionism than courtship—boys often dancing with boys and girls with girls.”3 Filmmaker Todd Haynes summed up glitter rock’s importance to shaping Hollywood culture in the early 1970s: “[F]or a brief time pop culture would proclaim that identities and sexualities were not stable things but quivery and costumed, and rock and roll would paint its face and turn the mirror around, inverting in the process everything in sight.”4
It was at Rodney’s that the Bonbons, led by two principal members, Jerry Dreva and Bobby Lambert, heeded the previous decade’s calls to blur the boundaries between art and life. In so doing, they actualized their particular breed of performance art. They had been engaged in the gay-activist scene in Milwaukee and in mail art, sending their manifesto of sorts, called “bon bon mots,” and other printed, stickered, and glittered items to correspondents and figures such as Norman O. Brown, Buckminster Fuller, and Lester Bangs. In Los Angeles they brought their mail art to life, appearing at Rodney’s and other parties in the outrageous and androgynous styles drawn from the newest British glam imports and homegrown acts. Prior to the arrival of David Bowie and Marc Bolan on the music scene, rock culture in Los Angeles was exemplified by the Laurel Canyon bohemian “buckskin-jacket country rock people,” as one journalist described them, and the airwaves were flooded with songs by the Carpenters, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and the Eagles.5 Glitter-rock musicians drew on the idea that fame could result from the self-creation of a particular style and persona, and this, just as much as any musical characteristics, helped to define the genre.6 Brian Eno explained, “For me it wasn’t about glamour so much as the idea of changing identity or thinking up your own identity.”7 Performers such as Bowie, Bolan, and Lou Reed demonstrated the malleability of identity in their stage antics, costumes, and changing public images. Marc Bolan’s move from folk Tyrannosaurus Rex crooner to glam T. Rex frontman, Bowie’s similar shift from his earlier albums to the bisexual alien character Ziggy Stardust, and Lou Reed’s later Transformer image all projected the sense that identities were not fixed, but in flux.8 This approach contrasted with the aura of authenticity conveyed by musicians associated with 1960s counterculture rock, an authenticity promoted by the sense that their personal and performance identities were one and the same.9
Moreover, with their elaborate, often effeminate costumes, makeup, sexually provocative stage antics, and, of course, glitter, glam musicians underscored the sense that gendered and sexual identities, in particular, were active constructions rather than natural embodiments. With the British release of his album The Man Who Sold the World, in which he appeared on the album cover photograph in a dress, David Bowie “open[ed] up questions of sexual identity which had previously been repressed, ignored, or merely hinted at in rock and youth culture,” sociologist Dick Hebdige asserts.10 Glam performers encouraged this rebellion against norms in their stage actions, such as Bowie’s provocative submission to Mick Ronson’s guitar playing during performances. Many of the male performers suggested bi- or homosexuality in their antics and dress, and this expansion of sexual codes appealed to fans of the new music.
In a marked contrast from the look of those frequenting the gay clubs and bathhouses in West Hollywood, Dreva and Lambert cultivated a flamboyant and distinctive style, and asserted their performative dress as a serious practice.11 In a collage from 1974, Lambert captures how his look changed over the years. In one picture he gazes soulfully into the camera, with wavy locks framing his face, whereas in another he sports a close-cropped bleached-blond cut and mustache. Taken together, the pictures demonstrate the protean nature of identity, and the role of dress and style in making visible that malleability. Arriving in Los Angeles a few months after Dreva, Lambert brought fresh stock of “Goodwill silks and gowns…and a set of decorated denim jackets and patchwork jeans that would become our mainstays.” Onto the jackets, he had laboriously “hand-sewn leather, satin and velvet appliqués, studs, rhinestones, jewels, and [the Bonbons’] logo.”12 These outfits brought photographers’ attention to the Bonbons, who were snapped outside of Rodney’s and elsewhere; images of the group circulated in rock magazines and even in mass-market periodicals such as People and Newsweek, as visual evidence of the new musical climate. Rock Scene magazine tagged the Bonbons as “L.A.’s latest dragrock sensation,” and Richard Cromelin, under the pseudonym Lisa Rococo, covered the Bonbons’ antics in his column in Phonograph Record magazine, an organ of United Artists Records.13
The Bonbons’ approach to the expression of their sexual identity shaped and reinforced their artistic identities. This was borne out especially in the complex roles they played as fans to the celebrities whom they admired. Glitter rock opened up possibilities for fans, offering alternatives to dominant ideas about sexuality and its expression through style, and also alternatives to “commercially informed fandom.”14 These manifestations of a subculture created through fan expression multiplied in the punk era of the later 1970s, with countless zines emerging.
The Bonbons actively embraced their role as fans; New Musical Express describes the Bonbons as “two ambiguous buffoons known as Geri and Bobbi whose specialty is posing in popstar dressing rooms with a whip and sending ornate greeting cards to their current fave-raves.”15 These “ornate greeting cards” were part of often elaborate collections of text and imagery custom-made as gifts for their favorite rock stars or artists when they came to town.16 They also appropriated comic books, to which they added rhinestones, pansy stickers, photographs of themselves, and other images into the existing narratives and scenes (for example, on the cover of Lambert’s reworked The Mighty Thor, Hercules brandishes a giant penis under the speech bubble, “Thou hast dared to challenge Hercules”).17 Among the performers, artists, and celebrities who received Bonbon mailings were Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Richard Meltzer, Leee Childers, Kim Fowley, and Robert Rauschenberg.18 Lou Reed received one such kit while giving an interview and exclaimed, “That took a LOT of work” before trailing off, “When YOU have fans as dedicated as MINE…”19 And their dedicated fandom was seen as bolstering the success of these musicians—the Bonbons were credited with helping David Bowie “cross over into an audience he might have taken longer to access.”20
In this period of decadent revelry, when norms were inverted, their active roles as fans actually enabled them to become celebrities themselves. Groupies Sable Starr, Lori Lightning, and Queenie achieved some level of notoriety on the scene, with their whereabouts and dress tracked in the industry press and groupie magazines like the short-lived Star. Similarly, the Bonbons themselves became the talk of gossip columns; Lisa Rococo recounts seeing the group “in the dead of night sneaking into the recording studios,” a report that contributed to the idea of the Bonbons as a bona-fide rock ‘n’ roll band.21 Another photograph caption advertises the Bonbons as “soon to be featured in a major motion picture,” drawing on the language of industry promotion.22 The group co-hosted parties for musicians, such as one in June 1973 for Iggy Pop (thrown by Columbia Records, who enlisted the Bonbons as hosts), and they became the featured attraction in a “Win a Dream Date with the Bonbons” contest, sponsored by Phonograph Record magazine. This shift, from fan to celebrity, is just one type of transformation that glitter rock encouraged.23
The Bonbons recognized that discourse and visibility determines fame and public image. They understood how identities are shaped by being pictured, written about, and talked about, and they adopted codes of behavior modeled after glam-rock performers in promoting their own image as artists. They circulated their “Iggy Pop School of Teenage Rebellion certificate” and “poetic licenses,” which avowed, “We want you to make us, we want you to make yourself.” Lambert published Egozine, a zine chronicling the Bonbons’ approach, actions, and musings on topics of interest; the pages of Egozine reveal the shift from glitter rock to punk through the leather and S&M scene. Lambert recalls a New York premiere party circa 1974, where the majority of attendees arrived in “the new Romantic look”—think chiffon—and he and Jerry Dreva showed up in leather and denim, with chains and handcuffs. Two revelers reportedly admired their appearance, exclaiming “You guys, we just got back from London today, and you’re all just like the new look there!!! How did you know?”24 After this period, Dreva transitioned to the L.A. punk scene, and was close with Darby Crash and the Germs, as well as other bands (the Bags, X), while Lambert moved to Northern California, where punk reigned at the Fab Mab (Mabuhay Gardens).25
With their dress-up, mailed items, press kits, zines, and groupie-ism, it is important to note that the Bonbons framed their practice as art, and in so doing, expanded the purview of performance art. They proclaimed their own rights to self-identification, and asserted that very process as an artistic one, as Jerry Dreva later reflected: “Conscious people, whether they are artists, workers, athletes, racial or ethnic minorities, women, or faggots, must wrestle with the profound question of self-identity… And in creating ourselves-as-art, we are also challenging the definition of art, demystifying it as a category separate from life.”26 The glitter-rock scene afforded them a place to actualize their ideas of art as a life practice, of which their play of identities was the constitutive aspect. Alluding to their life-as-performance, the Bonbons claimed, “We aim to be a walking exhibition.” In so describing themselves, they admit their desire to be seen, to become a spectacle, an embodiment of the glitter ethos. Yet their goal also calls to mind a different kind of exhibition, that of artists seeking to share their work with various publics—“Out of the closet/galleries & into the streets!” they exclaimed.27 The Bonbons translated the give-and-take relationship fostered by the correspondence networks to a larger arena. They sought to realize their art through this lived practice—it wasn’t that they staged a performance, but that they lived their practice.
Even more than calling attention to the body, sexuality, or social codes, they enacted performance art as a “way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon.”28 This is a view Susan Sontag attributes to “camp” in 1964, of which the Bonbons must have been aware, as Dreva later acknowledged he had read Against Interpretation, in which “Notes on Camp” appeared. In this view, it is not just one’s own life that is an art form, but life itself, seen through the eyes of an aesthete. This sensibility recurs in Egozine, which according to Lambert “presses itself to the mirror of life and strains to shape a performance.”29 The performance is shaped by what’s reflected in the mirror, an image that is distorted, and, of course, fleeting. This recalls Todd Haynes’ characterization of the glitter-rock scene as a “mirror…inverting everything in sight.” Mirrors don’t fix an image; they change with what they reflect. In this sense, the mirror is the perfect metaphor for the Bonbons’ approach to their art-as-life: It suggests how the group both helped construct and were constructed by the Los Angeles glitter-rock scene, and also how tenuous and short-lived a construction this was. It underscores the dematerialized nature of their practice, and how central this was to their formulation of group identity, of celebrity, of the role of the fan, of the role of the artist.