If you’ve ever yearned to plunge into the very real world of drag queens and hustlers described by Lou Reed in Walk on the Wild Side, now’s your chance.
Drag Queens, Rent Boys, Pick Pockets, Junkies, Rockstars and Punks, is a book of photographs – many previously unseen – and uncensored reminiscences from renowned scenester, band manager and photographer Leee Black Childers. Funny and frank, it takes us on a zig-zagging meander down a memory lane liberally strewn with glitter, and a fair few casualties.
Childers fled his native Kentucky for his spiritual home, New York, in the late 1960s. He found a flat on East Thirteenth Street, and spent his nights on Christopher, “a dark little street lined with stoops covered with cute boys just sitting there with nothing on their mind but each other”. He was instantly transfixed by the drag queens, with their towering wigs, eight-inch platform boots, and 12 pairs of eyelashes glued together so thickly that you could hear them blink.
No after hours club was too louche or too rough for Childers and his friends Wayne (now Jayne) County, Holly Woodlawn, and Jackie Curtis, who introduced him to Andy Warhol and the Factory crowd that dubbed themselves “Superstars”.
When Childers showed Warhol his early, amateurish snaps, he shyly said he hoped to become a photographer some day. Warhol’s response was typical: “‘Well, aren’t you one already? These are photographs. Do you know who Candy Darling is?’ Of course I did. Candy was the fabulously beautiful blonde transvestite often seen in newspaper photos with Andy. ‘Well, Candy says he is a woman. And if Candy can be a woman, you can be a photographer. All you have to do is say you are.’”
These are the antithesis of posed and polished studio shots. They’re dark, intimate, immediate. They capture a lost world of late nights, sexual fluidity, and bold experimentation. A time when the best compliment you could pay a drag queen, punctuated by finger snaps, was “Looking real, Miss Thing.”
And indeed, there’s a marvellous photo – evocative of Lee Miller’s self portrait in Hitler’s bathtub – of Viva and Jackie Curtis reading a letter in a bathroom in the Chelsea Hotel. With their frizzy mops and vintage dresses, they could be twins, this woman and her dragged up friend. Another striking photo depicts a snake-hipped, satin-shirt clad Johnny Thunders (of The New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers) balancing his infant son on his hip – both stare down the lens with eyes simultaneously knowing and innocent.
An almost embryonic Billy Idol is here, as well as a poignant photo of Sid Vicious – singing along to Jim Reeves – taken during a punk gathering at Caroline Coon’s London home, Christmastime, 1976. Holly Woodlawn vamps, and a very young Patti Smith perfects a deer in the headlights stare, looking like a dead ringer for Iggy Pop. He’s here, too, captured in concert before a singularly incongruous audience.
The narrative is only roughly linear, but oh, the stories. Pull up a chair and feast on the gossip, including cautionary tales about Cyrinda Foxe who married first David Johansen then Steve Tyler, and Andrea Feldman, a wealthy girl from the Upper East Side who liked nothing better than stripping down and dancing on the tables in the back room at Max’s Kansas City – until the day she threw herself and her future out of a window onto Fifth Avenue.
Childers reveals that his great friend Debbie Harry was born with two handicaps, devastating natural beauty and a consistently nice nature. He describes arriving in London in 1971, as the (unpaid) stage manager for the Warhol-inspired play Pork, and how he and Cherry Vanilla, the production’s lead actress, pretended to be journalists in order to befriend David Bowie.
That led to a job managing the Ziggy Stardust tour, and Childers describes taking the Trans-Siberian Express with an airplane-phobic Bowie, and making 95 stops across Siberia between Japan and Moscow! You couldn’t hang out with Bowie without taking on Iggy Pop as well, and Childers describes how he “learned” to swim while babysitting the heroin-addicted punk in a Los Angeles house where, each night, a spaced-out Iggy fell face down into the pool and had to be retrieved.
Childers photographed The New York Dolls for Melody Maker, commenting, “They had taken the whole out of the trash look of Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn and somehow made it cute; not scary.” After they broke up, Johnny Thunders asked him to manage the Heartbreakers, and they wound up on tour with the Sex Pistols, landing in London just hours after the Pistols’ infamous appearance on the Bill Grundy show, thus they were immediately swept up into the messy, chaotic life of London’s punks.
Even the gloss to the endpapers, postage sized snaps of “130 Fabulous Faces”, proves absorbing and hilarious, offering tantalising single sentence precis’s, such as: “121. Bunny Eisenhower: Heterosexual cross-dresser. Tough as nails, rode the New York subway in wig, white ankle socks, and Mary Janes.”.
Lee Black Childers’s Drag Queens, Rent Boys, Pick Pockets, Junkies, Rockstars and Punks
A limited edition of 1,000 copies have been published by the Vinyl Factory, priced £40, and there are 200 deluxe editions available, exclusively through The Vinyl Factory and The Society Club. For more information visit thevinylfactory.com. There’s an exhibition of the photographs on through 23 December at the Vinyl Factory at 91 Walton Street, London, SW3 2HP.