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Straight Talk With Boy George

Boy George on Culture Club, bisexuality and the U.S. elections

October 18, 2000 12:00 AM ET

Maybe you know him mainly as a pretty and painted Eighties crooner. Or maybe you've followed his subsequent solo career and his work as a DJ (his first mix compilation will be out in the U.S. in January on London/Sire). Maybe you remember that the failure of his relationship with his band's drummer essentially led to the breakup of the group. Maybe "your" song is one of his. Whoever you are, and whatever your relationship to his career, Boy George -- currently on tour with a reunited Culture Club -- has something to tell you about fandom, inspirations, his bandmates and your own sexuality. We caught up with the world's most famous pseudo-drag performer in Pittsburgh, where the locals had welcomed him as one of their own by honoring him with his own day. "I think I'm gonna meet one of the counselors this evening and officially be knighted, or whatever it is," he says, genuinely delighted. Honestly, who would ever want to hurt this guy?

You're reunited with Culture Club and have a new album out overseas, Don't Mind If I Do, but you don't have a label in the States at the moment, right?
Basically, the reunion came about because of the VH-1 Behind the Music thing [in 1997]. We hadn't seen each other for years, and we hadn't really spoken. But doing that led to us doing a VH-1 concert in New York [for Storytellers], and that led to working together for the last two and a bit years. We had a "greatest hits" album out, which is why Virgin came on-board, and we did an album with them -- we had a top five album in the U.K. And then things got a bit complicated. We've been with Virgin from the beginning, and I think when you've had a real big history with a label, it's really difficult to try and move on within that same organization. They're always kind of waiting for you to do another "Karma Chameleon," and these things can't be forced. So at the moment we're kind of homeless, but that's a good thing, because we need to find someone to work with who isn't too fixated on what we did before.

What are your plans for after this tour?
If we make it through this tour without killing each other, we may work together. But if we don't, the band may hybrid into something else. We'll have to see how we all feel. I'm clear about how I would like things to go . . . I think at the moment, the dance arena is probably the most exciting. And from a DJing point of view, I love that I don't have to take any notice of what's in the charts. I can play what I like, so long as it works on the dance floor. I think that the whole dance thing is really gonna kind of blow up in America now, finally, after a long time. So I think it would be a good place for us to go. That's certainly where I'd like to drag us.

You cover David Bowie on the latest Culture Club album. Was he a big influence on you?
Bowie, when I was a kid, had a huge effect on me because he was so different. It was a complete package -- the way he looked, the songs. They were very different from a lot of the music that I was hearing around that time. But as a lyricist, I guess the person who inspires me the most is Joni Mitchell. Sometimes I listen to her lyrics and I just want to retire [laughs]. "Oh, I can't think of anything like that!" Somebody told me that at one of her gigs, someone was shouting out for her to do "Big Yellow Taxi," and she was like, "My God! I bet Van Gogh never got people shouting out, 'Paint another "Starry Night"!' Music is one of the few art forms where people are constantly demanding that you repeat yourself.

These songs had places in people's personal lives -- they want to hear them in order to go back to certain things and times.
I think I probably have a bigger problem, in the sense that who I am as a person has kind of eclipsed what I do musically. Sometimes I feel that people sort of are screaming at me, looking at me and not really listening to what I'm doing. But then, the other night I had a drag queen come up to me in Boston and say, "'Cold Shoulder'-- that's my song, that's my song!" And that kind of thing was really my intention, because I'm singing about my personal shit and sharing it with people.

That's one of the reasons why I've always found live performances really odd. For me, the best venues are people's bedrooms. You know, in the dark. Like when I was a kid, I used to sit and listen to Gladys Knight and the Pips with the lights out. Because I write such personal stuff, like stories, I always feel a bit awkward performing on stage.

You started your career as a sexually ambiguous figure, and now you're an active member of the gay community. How has coming out in a public setting changed your art, or your life?
Well, I don't really think of myself as an active member of the gay movement. I think of myself as a human being, and when I think about prejudice, I don't consider it from an exclusively gay point of view. One of the things I love about the world is variety, whether it's sexual, cultural, in age -- all those things make the world a really exciting place to live in. So I don't like the idea of being a spokesman or a role model. I think it's important to be proud of what you are, but as I've gotten older, I've come to the conclusion that we're all kind of particles of each other, anyway. And there really isn't a gay and straight -- it's all a bit of an optical illusion. I think we're all kind of made up of equal parts Rambo and Lucille Ball. I think we're all bisexual, really. I'm always having conversations with "straight" men, and I say playing with a penis is still playing with a penis, even if it's your own.

You've been touring the States for a few weeks now, so you're bound to have some kind of opinion on our presidential candidates. Care to share them?
Well, I don't think any of them are particularly nice. I think we have a similar problem in England; people are pretty pissed off with Tony Blair, but there's nothing to replace him. I guess Al Gore, if I had to choose anyone. I wouldn't go for the other one, the burning Bush. But I think that in politics and pop, you kind of get what you deserve. If you go back to Thatcherism, we created her, in a sense. We're all responsible for creating the culture we live in. It's ironic that if you go back to Thatcherism and Reaganism, a lot of cool things happened during that decade. A lot of sexual attitudes were loosened up a bit, and we had some interesting music. So sometimes, within these right wing climates, you have an artistic reaction. And sometimes if you've got nothing to rally against, it's like that saying that you can't sing the blues unless you have them.

How difficult is it to tour with your ex [Culture Club drummer Jon Moss]?
I find Roy Hay [guitar/keyboards] more annoying than Jon Moss. Roy is a redneck! Jon's actually fine. I mean, we have a history, and there are days when he gets on my nerves, and vice versa, but it's OK. Roy's a hound. It's a really bad Roy day today. Can you make sure the headline is, "Roy Hay is a Hound"? Make it "Roy Hay is Nothing But an Old Hound Dog."

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Song Stories

“Madame George”

Van Morrison | 1968

One of the first stream-of-consciousness epics to make it onto a Van Morrison record, his drawn-out farewell to the eccentric "Madame George" lasted nearly 10 minutes, combining ingredients from folk, jazz and classical music. The character that gave the song its title provoked speculation that it was about a drag queen, though Morrison denied this in Rolling Stone. "If you see it as a male or a female or whatever, it's your trip," he remarked. "I see it as a ... a Swiss cheese sandwich. Something like that."

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