The sentencing of Boy George, former cross-dressing singer with Culture Club and persona extraordinaire who famously preferred 'a cup of tea to sex', this week sparked off for me a period of reflection, nostalgia and some sadness. I knew Boy George quite well for a while and we still speak if I bump into him out and about in London. Boy George would, amongst other things, write a gossip column for my short-lived New Romantic magazine Homage, which was also an important part of my journey to Redemption...
I first encountered George O'Dowd at the Blitz club where he worked briefly as the coatroom attendant, checking in the fake finery of the assembled fashionistas and occasionally helping himself to whatever had been left in their coat pockets. The young George was a gregarious beauty whose boy/girl persona made him stand out from the crowd even at Blitz where he had competition from the likes of Marilyn, Steve Strange, Stephen Linard, Princess Julia and a horde of glamorous acolytes. I met him as a result of being hit on the head by a bottle thrown at Steve Strange by a friend of a girl who would become my girlfriend, the textile designer Sue Clowes. I was sitting down inside the club when there was a commotion at the entrance and someone threw a beer bottle at Steve Strange, who ducked, and the bottle sailed on its merry way, hit the wall behind me, and then bounced and hit me on the head. This was how I met textile designer Sue Clowes as it was her friend, a film maker with a temper who shall remain nameless, who had thrown the bottle.
Sue was an incredibly innovative designer who mixed multiple images together and created a visual assault with her clothes and who was already creating a name for herself when she met George. George had approached her with a view to designing a look for his latest project, Culture Club. I should mention that Blitz had closed by this time, late 1981/early 1982, and been replaced by a fabulously dark club called Hell, which had in turn been replaced by Planets (hosted by Boy George) which had in turn been replaced by Steve Strange's Club for Heroes. The New Romantic scene was in fact now big business with Duran Duran, Steve Strange's Visage, Spandeau Ballet, Classix Nouveaux and others already venturing into music so it was only fitting that one of the 'cult with no names' most visual characters should be unleashed onto the world. For those interested, another club also started around this time called The Batcave... and Sue's future assistant would be a young man called Johnny who was in a band called Specimen. Ah the joys of reminiscing and nostalgia.
What Sue created, George wanted, and for him this meant a striking original look for his new band Culture Club and this look or image was to be developed over several months of meetings. It was these meetings, many of which took place at the flat I lived in with Sue, that I got to know George a bit, though for most of the times I usually went down to the local pub with George's drummer, John Moss while Mr O'Dowd pontificated on fabrics. The result though, for Culture Club, was to be a look derived from a mishmash of cultural and religious symbols put together into a series of designs that covered virtually every inch of the clothes that would be worn by the embryonic band. Symbols that mixed everything from Jewish, Muslim, Christian and if memory serves, Gypsy culture, together to a form a cohesive whole. The rest, so to speak, is history.
I should also mention that my first visit to the Blitz club had been something of a revelation, for here was something exciting and new and in a strange way threatening, even if the people involved were about as unthreatening as you could get. The club had a real energy and the fact that the clothes and look had emerged from the punk scene gave it a genuine elitist edge. Indeed, one of the first people I met there was Steve Severin from Siouxsie and the Banshees who I had met interviewing for my punk fanzine Stains, which I published between 1976 and '79 while I was at art school in Plymouth. It was my love of magazines and the fact that I couldn't sing or do anything else to get involved that caused me to publish Stains and with this new scene came a new title, Homage.
Homage was an equally short lived venture for me, though one that arrived before style titles like The Face revolutionised publishing, and was one which mixed music, art and fashion, even if only music, art and fashion produced by people I knew or who someone else knew. The first issue was circulated in clubs and shops and probably sold a few hundred copies, the second issue was to feature George on the cover and premiere his gossip column Stab Your Guest a brilliantly vicious diatribe against all and sundry. Alas it was never printed as although the whole issue was designed I had run out of money and Homage No 2, died, doomed by a lack of funds. Homage did though enable me to get a job in mainstream publishing which, by a series of twists and turns, led to my forming Redemption Films.
I mention all this because looking at George's scared and bloated face looking out from the papers over the weekend made me wonder about the man that had seemed so full of energy and excitement all those years ago and how potentially cruel and twisted life and fate can be. None of us know what the future holds and most of us fail to achieve the dreams and aspirations that drive us as we move from adolescence to adulthood and even fewer of us even get close to living the life we hoped for. O'Dowd did in a big way, but the copious consumption of drugs, in particular cocaine (which, contrary to popular belief, does not always keep long term users thin but rather makes them fat, bloated and often prone to violence), and whatever demons lurk inside, combined to destroy him.
Cocaine is an insidious and evil drug that uses its initial beauty to worm its way into your psyche distorting and twisting everything and leaving the user over time a paranoid, volatile and perverse version of his or her former self. Men in particular seem to get into coke in a ridiculous way and some of the users I have known have continued taking cocaine until it killed them. The drug becomes their life and eventually and ironically turns them off their relationships, their sex drive and their general bonhomie, in effect it kills their mojo, the one thing that attracts people to cocaine at the beginning is eventually the thing it destroys.
I'm not sure if cocaine was O'Dowd's drug of choice, but I suspect it was. His whole slide into debauchery, viciousness and sordid sexual encounters with rent boys have all the hallmarks of cocaine. But whatever drug he took, it's sad to see a life that started with so much promise dissolve into so much crap. The one good thing though is that O'Dowd is still young enough and talented enough to turn himself around and I suspect that all those mocking him now by singing crass renditions of Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? and Karma Chameleon may well be singing a different tune in a few years time. At the very least there's always the possibility George could resurrect his gossip column, though perhaps retitled Beat Your Guest.