Jake Shears Shares Bono’s Advice, David Bowie’s Cryptic Note of Support
It’s been almost six years since Scissor Sisters released their fourth album, Magic Hour, and now lead singer Jake Shears has gone solo. “Creep City,” the first single from his forthcoming album, hews close to his glam-rock roots. But that’s not enough for Shears, who is currently starring as Charlie Prince in Kinky Boots on Broadway and releasing Boys Keep Swinging, his memoir about how he went from being a shy Arizona teenager to performing in gay nightclubs in New York (and dating Anderson Cooper along the way), and eventually filling arenas with hits like “Take Your Mama,” “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin'” and a cult-hit cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” The following excerpt from the book details the height of Scissor Sisters’ success at the 2010 Glastonbury Festival, and his encounters with Bono and David Bowie in New York City.
By midnight at Glastonbury I was in a stupor, could barely feel myself walking on the wet grass. The second set had been a gorgeous assault on my own senses. Chris had stood there smiling with his camera in hand, waiting for me as I exited the side of the stage. It was all happening at once. We’d played on the main Pyramid stage in the afternoon, done hours of press afterward, and then played the Dance tent at 11.
The daytime set on the Pyramid stage had been lighthearted: We’d played as the crowd was bathed in a gentle, temporary rain. Ana had some great lines like “If you holler loud enough, a big sunny rainbow is going to shoot out of Jake’s ass!” There was nothing purer than us surprising one another with a quick joke or a look. Or sometimes we’d literally just fall on our asses, which was never not hilarious.
The Dance tent show had been almost the opposite. The crowd’s simmer had quickly turned into a boil from the top of the set, creating an energy so boisterous and electric, it almost felt devilish. We ended with absolute chaos, all of our freak friends and creatures joining us onstage. I wore a catsuit printed with hundred-dollar bills. It was the first time we’d had an audience that large, teeming with an expectation that we were fulfilling in front of their eyes. It was like I’d harnessed a new level of control, and the sensation was overwhelmingly satisfying. I got offstage and Chris and Christoph and I were ready to party.
We met up with my friends Kat and Will, traipsed across the entire festival to head to Lost Vagueness, a section of the festival that was known for its jaw-dropping installations and debauchery. I had a pocketful of MDMA, and even though I was completely spent, the exhilaration from the shows had me floating. I’d walk along crowded trails sticking my hands out behind me for Chris to hold.
As though some switch had been thrown, suddenly everyone knew who I was. Strangers were happy to see me at every step, screaming and hugging me like long-lost friends. It was my first taste of this kind of thing. It’s an incredible feeling, when people you’ve never met before are thrilled to just see you; when you walk into a party or stroll down the street and they just want to talk to you and hug you.
We ended up in some ’50s-style diner playing oldies on the jukebox and didn’t move from there the whole night. Little Richard screeched as salty waitresses walked around with pots of coffee. The place looked exactly like an old greasy spoon, down to the checkered floors and ketchup bottles. We danced well into the next day.
I fell in love with Chris that night. In a moment of absolute clarity and inspiration I asked him if he’d marry me. He said yes. It was our first date. I just inexplicably knew he was the one I would be spending my life with.
We sat in the grass by the stone circle monument, a popular gathering spot at Glastonbury with twenty standing stones, where people play drums and lie about in the grass. Fog rolled through, the silhouettes of festivalgoers just barely perceptible through the mist. I held Chris’s hand and kissed him again, both of us knowing that our lives had just dramatically changed in a matter of hours.
I thought about being alone on that beach in Barcelona, years before, dressed as a mime, knowing this moment would arrive. And here it was. I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced such pure, unadulterated happiness. Our album went to No.1 in the UK charts the following Tuesday and stayed there. It would be the highest-selling album in the country that year.
We were in New York for just one night. The band was performing at PS1 for a summer Warm Up party—the same party that had started when I lived at the Cake Factory, where I first saw Fischerspooner, where I spent so many wild and sweltering afternoons, slugging back beer and dancing. We were playing the steps of the museum. The turnout was in the thousands.
I asked Klaus Biesenbach, the director of the museum, if there was a place away from everyone that Chris and I could go spend a few minutes together. He took us to a sparsely furnished but airy room with a couch that overlooked the courtyard.We had a perfect view of the entire crowd.
It was the only time Chris and I would have alone that day. We put the hour to good use. Afterward I lay in his arms and gently dozed off. When I extracted myself from his naked limbs, my face bleary, I sat up on the couch. “I think it’s time. I need to go down and start getting dressed,” I said.
“Where’s your mom?” He looked around us, as if we had lost her in the room. I laughed.
“Oh, I’m sure she’s making new friends.” I reached over to the window and pulled back the shade. The courtyard was jammed with people waiting for the show. They spotted us and started cheering. We were shirtless, with our arms around each other, smiling in our post-sex glow. It was as if they were celebrating the fact we’d just found the loves of our lives.
I got down to the dressing room and Bono was there, wearing his sunglasses and perusing our looks for the day’s show. “There he is, the man of the hour.” He reached out and hugged me. My mom’s eyes bugged out as he gave her a hug as well.
“I didn’t know you would be here,” I said to him like an idiot.
“If you knew everything that was going to happen, then there would be no surprises,” he replied.
We played a killer show that day. I wore Vivienne Westwood shorts that tied all the way up on the side, half obscene, making me look naked, thin black suspenders, a leather cap, and a giant feather brooch. The stage was set up at the top of the front museum stairs, but behind a railing, so I spent most of the performance climbing it and standing on the edge, singing. The crowd was a sea, and I felt like I was crossing over it on the bow of my own party boat.
Afterward, in a James Turrell room called “Meeting” with no ceiling, only an unobstructed blue sky above us, Bono gave a toast. “To these times that we will never forget, to pop music, to family. One day we will all look back at this and realize how truly blessed we all are to get to experience such beautiful moments.” I sat holding Chris’s hand. “May the journey be long and fruitful.”
Bono then pulled me aside and gave me “the talk.”
“Jake, you have a road in front of you, you do realize that, yes?” His voice was serious. “You have decisions to make. Hey.” He splayed his hands. “This can be just a moment in time. And that’s fine. But it can be more than that, you see. This — music — can be your life. There’s two paths you can choose. One, you can go and get caught up in all the parties and attention, become interested in art. Or you can remain focused and just keep making music. Building something that lasts more than just now.” I’ve since heard that he gives this talk to a lot of younger artists, but his words stuck with me.
That night, Chris, my mom, and I got to my apartment and it turned out the roommate I had at the time hadn’t found another place to sleep, which he had agreed to do that night because he hadn’t been paying rent. My mom, such a trooper, ended up sleeping in his bed with him. She could see how excited Chris and I were just to be able to spend a few more hours together. “For God’s sake, please don’t tell your father,” she said. We were in such good spirits, someone could have robbed us at gunpoint and we would have thought it hilarious Chris and I got in bed together and laid our heads on the pillow, looked into each other’s faces horizontally. We both actually squealed as we embraced. That moment was the most in love with anyone that I had ever been.
The summer heat had stuck around that following fall in New York City. I stepped into a sunset-kissed Union Square in destroyed black cowboy boots and a Heatherette tie-dyed hoodie with Amanda Lepore’s face stenciled on the front. Waiting there to greet me was Chris, roses in hand. We were playing Irving Plaza that night. It was a show I’d been looking forward to—a homecoming of sorts. We’d received sad news that day about a friend’s child passing away. There was a dark pall over the dressing room. It turned out to be the first show in New York that we played where I looked out at the crowd and didn’t recognize a soul. Who are these people? I thought. Where were our friends? For the first time I felt homesick in my own city. That night I just didn’t connect with the audience.
After we said our final goodbye from the stage, I trod up the stairs back to the dressing room where Chris took my arm and said, “David Bowie watched the show.”
“What?” All the bustle of the room quickly tuned out, and all I could hear was the ringing in my ears.
“He was up in the balcony.” “Which side?”
I suddenly started babbling. “Is he still here? Why didn’t anybody say anything? How come no one told me? The show was fucking terrible! I was fucking terrible. . . .” I paced in a circle, feeling my throat closing up, trying to hold back tears. I stopped and pulled it together, put on a clean shirt, and prepared myself to meet him. He never came backstage. He was gone.
Growing up, no matter what I was doing—whether it was theater, tap dancing, or writing horror stories—his sounds and visions guided my way. And now he had seen my shitty show and left. I was inconsolable. They say never meet your idols. I guess the only thing worse than meeting your idols is not meeting them. The whole thing made me feel like a fraud.
Later that month, I received a somewhat cryptic email:
Hi. I came to your show a few weeks ago. It sounded very good from where I was sitting. db
I froze. What was this? As if I didn’t know he’d been there? From where he was sitting? As opposed to where everyone else was sitting? This just exacerbated my pain. Why did he even bother to write me an email at all? The black type on white just read to me as: “Dear Jake, though you may think yourself a rock star, you will never be me. David Bowie.”
My response took about three weeks to compose. I made sure that even if it was a little longer, at three sentences, I kept it equally terse:
Dear David Bowie,
You mean more to me than any artist on earth. My favorite song you’ve ever written is “Fantastic Voyage.” Thank you so much for coming to my show, but I really hope at this point that we never cross paths. There’s not a lot in this world I keep sacred, but I would rather you just stay imaginary.
Sincerely, Jake Shears
Now I realize that it was my insecurities that made me prickle. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be so close to what I knew to be greatness. David Bowie, the man who gave me the idea and inspiration to perform in the first place, sent me a note to just tell me he liked my show, and I couldn’t just see that for what it was. I wish I’d just replied with a simple “Thank you.”
Copyright © 2018 by Jason Sellards. From the forthcoming book BOYS KEEP SWINGING by Jake Shears, to be published by Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
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