Showtime! Adele Bertei, From Cabaret To The Contortions

In an exclusive extract from her new book, *Twist: An American Girl*, Adele Bertei – of The Bloods and The Contortions – recalls the night that set her on the path to rock’n’roll

Adele Bertei

(The year is 1973.)

I’m on stage wearing a bow tie, suspenders, and a bowler hat, with every word to the songs of Cabaret! burned into my brain. I wish Kitty could see me singing the part of her old boyfriend. Mona made me up to perfection with what she calls a bee-stung lipstick line, and fake eyelashes that are incredibly uncomfortable. Even Bob looks happy tonight, beaming from the bar as he leans over and exchanges comments and hugs with his friends. Why shouldn’t he take some credit? If not for Bob, the show wouldn’t exist. The place is packed, and the girls are stunning. Breathtaking. It isn’t only about the costumes or the makeup; it’s about the glow. All the heartache they’ve endured melts away on stage. They are born again. Nothing matters but the lights, the music, and the adoring crowd. The rest of the ordinary world can go straight to Hell!

The crowd explodes as the Cabaret girls march out one by one, including Juanita (playing Helga) who got smashed before the show and started crying, on the pity-pot about how she is a lousy performer, nobody loves her, blah blah blah. Sure enough, when I’m introducing them in the opening number…

Texas, Frenchie, Fritzie, … Und Helga…

Guess Who prances out like a cute little suckling in a sausage casing, then proceeds to stumble right off the edge of the stage? Helga.

Mona is horrified, but she can’t exactly stop in mid-number. After all, she’s Sally Bowles, and the show must go on. The crowd roars with laughter, thinking it’s part of the act. A muscular guy dressed in sailor whites catches Juanita and rolls her back onto the stage. The ruckus occurs during the instrumental part of the song while all the queens dance around displaying their wares, so it couldn’t be a more perfectly timed mistake. Juanita’s face lights up like a firecracker. She’s become the hit of the number! I take advantage of the moment and escort her back to her place in the line-up, like it was all planned. She sucks in the adulation, glowing like a bride on a march up a wedding aisle.

With The Contortions in 1977

We all squeeze into a small dressing room next to Bob’s office to change our clothes and use the mirror, but the room is too tiny for such an entourage of superstars, high-pitched screeches, and Move over Mary!’s. I give up entirely and use the bathroom. There is no such thing as competing for a mirror with a flock of queens in wigs and high heels.

Mona and I hit the stage and launch straight into the song ‘Money’ from Cabaret. We are perfection, as she’d say, and the crowd is eating it up, howling in delight. Especially when we try to bump pelvises like Liza and Joel; in those heels, she’s so tall that her privates practically slap me in the face, which the crowd thinks is hilarious. Good thing she’s got her business tucked somewhere inside the pantyhose.

Midway through the song, I see a commotion in the back of the bar – two cops are escorting Nitty, Leroy, and Coco toward the door. Out they go on their sleazy cans. Future and Charlie push through to the front of the stage, giving me Everything’s cool! smiles while Mona and I pump our groins to the sound of coins hitting a slot. We’re triumphant! The crowd goes nuts for Joel and Liza.

After that night, Bob never growled at me again. I enjoyed all the vodka cranberries I desired, on the house. And Nitty and her friends never returned to The Change.

* * * * *

A real rock ‘n’ roll band is playing the Change tonight! The showgirls turn a bit catty when Bob asks if they’re excited about seeing a glitter band. Mona’s wearing her haughty, bored look.

“I guess your house performers are chopped liver now?” asks Mona.

Bob serves up a round of drinks on the house, assuring them that no skinny, drug-addled rocker will ever surpass the sheer beauty and extraordinary talents of his queens. They purr.

Mona is too proud to stand near the stage or show any interest in other performers, but Lola is thrilled to see a glitter band. She joins me at the front. We lean on the edge of the stage, acting cool, checking out the amplifiers, microphones, guitars, and drums. This is the first time I’ve seen rock ‘n’ roll instruments, close enough to touch. It gives me a fizzy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I down my vodka cranberry.

Adele by Nan Goldin

‘All the Young Dudes’ plays on the sound system as the band climbs the side stairs and onto the stage. That climb, like a holy ceremony. There’s a skinny guy with dark hair in a striped t-shirt – I think he’ll sing lead – strapping on a red electric guitar. Is he drug-addled? He’s wearing shades and tight black jeans, looking like a Warhol superstar. Oh my God, the whole band look fantastic. The drummer and the bass player have longish hair and mod clothes, and there’s another guitar player with a haircut like David Cassidy’s. A tall leggy blonde is singing background vocals. She has a wild mane of curly hair, like the girl on the cover of the Mott the Hoople album – it shines out like a halo in the stage light, but you can tell she’s no angel. Nope, this whole band is killer. Glitter on their eyelids, glittery platform shoes, glitter everywhere.

Blondie holds a tambourine and shakes it a little, looking confident and smart-assed. The musicians plug in, and the power of the guitar’s first notes scream through the amplifiers. The crack of the snare drum, bottom of the bass, rattling my stomach. I think I’m going to faint. Striped t-shirt man steps up to the microphone with a soft, hoarse voice says,

“Hey everybody, we’re Cinderella Backstreet… (strum strum)… and it’s a beautiful night. We’re gonna do a song that you might think was written by Mott the Hoople, but it was actually… (strum, with reverence) … the Great Mr. Lou Reed who penned it.”

He plays a few notes on his guitar alone. Then the band kicks in, and my guts fall out.

Sweet Jane! Sweet Jane!

I’m mesmerized… I can’t believe the rush, the vibrations of the music moving through me. Lola is across the room now, in the same kind of trance while the band sends electric shocks through the crowd. The blonde can’t sing – she sounds like a caterwauling animal – but who cares? This is real bonafide rock ‘n’ roll!

They go through a set of cover songs. Pretty raucous ones, and a song with a chorus that goes I Can’t Stand It Any Mo Mo. The crowd is eating this up, and you can tell that the lead guy, Peter, wants to keep everybody happy by playing up-tempo stuff. He introduces the band, then gets kind of quiet and says they’re about to do a ballad he wrote with the same name as the band. He’s trying to be funny, talking about Cinderella being a scullery maid. For some reason, it’s not coming off so funny. Then he starts singing an incredibly sad song. It reminds me of Bob Dylan.

“I wanna walk on down in the alley Down where the light shines so very dimly Out where the night is so complete With Miss Cinderella Backstreet.”

I reach in my pocket and squeeze the emerald, making a wish. The singer scans the crowd – his eyes land on me and stay there. That’s when it hits me – I want to be like him. I want to be a singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band.

Twist: An American Girl by Adele Bertei is published by Ze Books

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