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Tome On The Range

“You’re All Right, Doll”: When Jake Shears Met Jayne County
The Quietus , April 27th, 2018 14:07

In an exclusive extract from his new memoir, Boys Keep Swinging, Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears recalls gogo dancing through the early days of New York's electroclash scene and meeting Jayne County

Before leaving the Cake Factory that first night as a dancer, I laid my paltry options on my bed. There were some denim cutoff shorts and a pink string men’s bikini that I had BeDazzled with silver studs around the waistband. There was a red and blue headband with matching cuffs. And a pair of sad, gray New Balance sneakers. I sighed, picking up and examining each item as I placed it in my backpack. It felt like I wasn’t in my own body, like I was about to jump out of an airplane. So I actually yelped when I heard a crash hitting the other side of the wall of my bedroom.

I ran over to see what it was. Donavan was standing confused in his kimono, heavy eyes bloodshot and bleary, his room crumbling around him. Pieces of a broken vase lay underneath a dent on the wall where he had thrown it. “There was a demon in it,” he said. “I had to let it out.” I backed out of the room, got my things, and left. Something was gonna have to give, this place was getting seriously weird.

As I rode the subway, I thought of my mother’s face. What would she think if she knew I was about to get on a bar and take my clothes off? Another subway pulled alongside and began racing with ours. Through the window I could see people reading, staring off into space. We were all headed in the same direction but oblivious of one another. Every time this happened, I’d wonder, What if the love of your life was over there, in the wrong car? What if you caught a quick glimpse and never saw him again?

IC Guys didn’t look as festive as usual when I walked in. It seemed dirty, all the surfaces covered in a film. The room was mostly empty, with two guys standing around, none of the party lights on. The music was set at a soft volume. It occurred to me that I had never been there that early.

I nodded and said hello to Dave the barman, who showed me the “changing room,” which was also the beer-storage closet. I wrestled the door closed behind me. Under the dim, bare bulb I began pulling my civilian clothes off, knocking my elbows and forehead into the shelves. My body had started to take on a more distinct shape, from working out. But I was still skinny, with a little pooch of a belly. I looked down at it. This was a terrible mistake. At least Seth was going to show up to offer moral support. I figured if there was someone I knew there, it wouldn’t feel like I was doing something so seedy.

I walked out of the closet in a white tank top and denim cutoffs, my socks pulled up all the way to my knees. There were a couple more people in the bar now.

“Might be slow tonight,” Dave said, his eyes sleepy but smiling. “I only put one other guy on, but you never know, might make a cool million. . . . Beer?”

I shook my head. It was going to be water from here on out. A drink would have calmed my nerves, but I didn’t want to be fuzzy. I sat at the side of the bar, my mind racing. A few more middle-age guys with beards and shorts came in.

“Time to get up there.” Dave slapped the counter. There were only a few customers. I was embarrassed. “What song you wanna start with?”

“You got ‘Sexx Laws’? Beck?”

When the familiar horn riff started, Dave adjusted the volume, jumped up on a stool, and fiddled with some switches. All the lights shot on like a holiday feature in someone’s front yard. I put one foot up and lifted myself onto the scarred wooden box, squinting my eyes at the spotlight. Dave was adjusting it to my height to focus on my torso. I was only about a foot and a half taller than the five people in the room. Lasers with no smoke skittered around like digital bedbugs on my skin.

I didn’t know what else to do other than smile at whoever was looking and shuffle my feet. After Beck, Dave put on ‘Sexual’ by Amber and I allowed myself a little more sway. The swing of my hips grew wider. When was I supposed to take off my shorts? I gave it at least ten minutes and pulled them down ungracefully. The elastic waistband got stuck on my sneakers and I almost fell over. My neon- pink G-string was awarded a couple glances from the guys. Finally one man who was there with his friend got off his barstool and tucked my first dollar bills into my waistband. It was official. He punctuated the gift with a pat on my ass and a smile, which I returned.

When a few more people came into the bar, I started to loosen up, my elbows raised, fists clenched, hands doing a jackhammer motion. As small as my audience was, it was still dizzying and mortifying at the same time. There were about ten people in there now, which in that place felt like a crowd.

Seth walked in, saw me, and started laughing and pointing, doubled over with his hands over his mouth. I flipped him the bird. For a split second, I felt conned. Had he suggested this just to see if I would do it? He wiped his eyes. “I’m sorry, I can’t believe it. You’re a natural.” He stuffed a wad of cash under my belly button. “Honey, I’m afraid you’ve found your calling.”

The other dancer showed up. He was around my age with a similar body, not the sharpest knife in the drawer. The two of us rotated stations. I watched him for cues, still having only half an idea of what I was doing. As the night stretched, I saw him get semi-hard. And he was letting guys touch it. I tried following suit but was too nervous to get anything near resembling a boner. But I still let some of the guys touch me. By 2 a.m. the place had mostly cleared out, the music at a lower volume. I hopped down to have a drink at the bar with Seth, who had remained there with me to the end. I was relieved he’d stayed, because something in me felt awful.

“Well, you did it,” he tittered. “What’d you make?” I had retreated to the broom closet only once to pull the bills out of my G-string. It wasn’t much. Thirty bucks. “Ooh.” He winced. “Yeah, it’s a Tuesday. I wouldn’t worry.”

“No?” I looked at my sad stack of cash. “Do you think people will think I’m a hooker?”

He rolled his eyes. “And they’d be right, hooker. No one cares about that shit in New York.” I felt like I had done something shameful and cheap. I had let guys feel me up for dollar bills.

“I’m not sure that was my idea of a great time,” I said, folding the cash in half. That night I put the wad in an empty shoebox and slid it underneath my bed.

I did some serious thinking about whether I wanted to dance at IC Guys again. I loved the attention, entertaining a room, feeling desired. On a busy night, I could make enough money for it to be worth my while. But offering myself up like a goat in a petting zoo didn’t sit well. So I made a decision: Every time I danced, I would pretend that my mom was in the room watching. Not that she’d be thrilled at my new vocation—I told her I had gotten a part-time job bar-backing— but I never wanted to do anything that I’d be ashamed of doing in front of my mother. From then on that was my rule.

The crowds got bigger and so did the cash flow. I preferred dancing on the bar, where I couldn’t stand all the way up. But the ceiling gave me a place to put my hands. I could press upward and let my hips do all the work. There were a couple of exposed wires hanging above me. When I brushed up against them, I would feel a little electric zap. I tried to avoid them when I was dancing around in spilled beer.

The men sat at the bar, most of them alone and not saying much to each other. They just drank and stared straight ahead. Most of the time they wouldn’t even be looking at me. But every few minutes they’d glance up, expressionless, and stick the bills in my shorts like I was a jukebox about to run out of songs.

I always had a squirt gun on hand. It was a fun way to flirt with people, and if someone became too frisky I’d squirt him in the face. Everyone got the point and no one seemed to mind. It didn’t make me any less money, either.

I had a much better time if I didn’t drink any booze. The tiny bar could turn into an oven, rendering me drenched with sweat. A quick shake of my head and it would fall like rainwater onto the heads of men below. To avoid getting dehydrated, I kept a jug of melon-flavored Gatorade at my feet, and every fifteen minutes or so I would tip it back and chug, letting the sugary liquid trickle down my chest. It gave me the energy for my piston hips, which were like a machine with multiple settings. I would leave the bar only for the broom closet, scooping the huge handfuls of gamey-smelling cash accumulated. Each night, my jockeys would fill up faster than the last. I’d have to take off my shoes and socks, where the money had been crammed in. When I danced I’d feel the spirit of the room lift; people were more playful and exuberant. I began having fun, being an object of desire; people wanted to look at me, sleep with me, they were being entertained. But still, I was a boy – one without the body of those gods I saw every day at the gym.

Some guy named Tim approached me one night and asked if I would dance at a party called SqueezeBox at Don Hill’s. It was a queer rock and roll night that had been going on for years already. I had been a couple times and it was fun, but everyone groused that it used to be better and that its days were numbered. Rock bands would play between Miss Guy’s DJ sets. It was quite a change from IC Guys: The ceilings were high enough for me to stand, and there were actual dressing rooms to change in. One of my heroes, Sandra Bernhard, was singing the night I danced.

During a break in between sets I went down to my dressing room and was organizing my bills in front of an old-style theater vanity, the kind with the light bulbs surrounding it, when the door flew open. An older, bleached-blond woman sauntered in with a couple of the go-go boys and they plopped down at the dressing table next to mine.

“You want some blow, doll?” she said, chopping up lines on the table next to mine.

“No, thanks. I’m okay for now,” I replied. “Good,” she said. “Don’t touch the shit.”

Coke wasn’t my favorite drug. I had dated a guy briefly who had a taste for it. I found it to be pleasurable for at least a half hour. My confidence doubled and my head felt like it was bolted on a little more straight, the eloquence of my words elevated. I would feel a tingle of possibility and optimism in my center. Then, as fast as it had come on, I would become uncomfortable. Sadly, the only thing that could make you feel better was having some more.

I glanced at the woman in the mirror as she cut her lines with determination.

“It’s always wet, this stuff. Al. Ways. Wet. You’d think they’d have a microwave or something back here.” Her lips smacked when she spoke. I knew that voice. I knew that face, had seen it many times years before on record sleeves, at my not-boyfriend Pete’s apartment in Seattle.

“Are you Jayne County?” I couldn’t believe it.

“What’s it to you?” she replied, not looking up from her current project. Jayne County was formerly Wayne County, as in Wayne County and the Electric Chairs. My Pete had spent many an afternoon playing me the Wayne County records: loud, inspiring, grating stuff. And here I was, half-naked in a dressing room, watching her about to snort some lines. This is why I had fucking moved to New York. “Oh my God, what are you doing here?”

“What the hell does it look like I’m doing? This isn’t baking soda.” She blew a rail and fluttered her eyes, tapping her nostril. “I saw you dancing up there,” she said. “There’s a good time written all over that ass.”

“I just started. You think I’m all right?”

“You’re all right, doll.” She gave me a kind smile and laughed. “Keep it up and someday you might get a real job.”

Jake Shears, Boys Keep Swinging, is published by Omnibus Press