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Cosmic Things 

The return of the B-52's

Wednesday, Jul 29 1998
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"Let your freak flag fly! Whatever you are, don't be afraid to let it come out. We support people's individualism . . . and freaky-deakyness." This proclamation comes not from Abbie Hoffman or Bill Clinton; instead, look to Kate Pierson, one-fourth of the most relentless group of revelers our millennium has ever known: the B-52's, regrouped and poised to party once more. On a stage resembling Tim Burton's Beetlejuice grafted onto Richard Elfman's Forbidden Zone, they'll be gallivanting about, freeform undulating to flashing strobes. Fans will also cheer the return of banshee-haired Cindy Wilson, who bowed out of action circa 1991, leaving Fred Schneider, Keith Strickland and Kate Pierson to fend for themselves. A best-of CD celebrating the band's return, titled Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation, includes two new odes, "Debbie" and "Hallucinating Pluto," making this reunion a bliss-out for followers of pop music's Goth Kryptonite.

Speaking of Goth, has this jolliest of combos considered delving into some misery-laced, suicidally despondent tunes - to be, you know, on the Manson tip? "No!" blasts mercilessly upbeat Kate Pierson. "I guess because we're not really despondently suicidal! We write in a kind of jamming party atmosphere, so our songs tend to be more upbeat - that's the mood we get into." The tallest B-52, guitarist Keith Strickland, offers a little hope for the black-greasepaint-smeared Doom Generation. "We used to have this one song called 'The River,' which was the most dismal, miserable song possible; it's something that could come out in a box set."

The B-52's sprang from Athens, Georgia's mid-'70s party scene ("People were streaking!" Kate fondly recollects. "We streaked, too!"). During high school, Keith met the Wilson siblings, precocious tunesmith Ricky and little sis Cindy, and ran into Fred at the University of Georgia. As for Kate, "She was friends with some other friend." A fivesome, the group rocked parties, but, unable to secure regular gigs at Athens clubs, they commenced frequent pilgrimages to New York, where new wave and punk had exploded. Successfully landing bookings at legendary venues CBGB's and Max's Kansas City, the band garnered bushels of press and, finally, bookings back in Athens.

Come 1979, our intrepid partiers packed up altogether, making New York their home while finding supportive friendships with Blondie, among others. Recalls Strickland, "We were blown away, because we were big fans of theirs, and they invited us over one afternoon. Debbie Harry - whom the new song 'Debbie' is about - was making daiquiris while we were hanging out." ("She makes fierce daiquiris," assures Kate.)

"Their gold records were, like, lying on the floor," Keith laughs, "and we thought, 'This is too cool!'" A string of successful albums and singles, including "Planet Claire" and "Quiche Lorraine," followed, cementing the B-52's' reputation as supreme happy-makers. Distressingly, in 1985, after recording the multidimensional Bouncing off the Satellites, Ricky Wilson died from AIDS.

A somber end to music's living party favors? "After Ricky passed away, I wasn't sure I could do it alone," says Strickland, who had written all the band's music with Ricky up to that point. "I think we feared it would be too painful without him. So we took some time off, and really thought that was the end. Later, I had moved up to Woodstock, and then in the Catskill Mountains began writing music on my own. Cindy and Kate came to visit, I played them some stuff, and then we began writing again and found it very healing." 1989's Cosmic Thing was the result, heralding a new era for the B-52's: effervescent fun combined with political awareness.

One of the B-52's' most significant statements exists in simple fact: Its male members are openly gay (Kate can't decide which is gayer - "I think they're just going to have to slap it out!"). Says Keith, "I went through this period where I resented the fact that I had to make a statement. If you're heterosexual you don't have to proclaim it - you just are. I wanted to just be, but I realized that's not the world I'm in, and in order for that day to come I'm gonna have to make this big statement. After I did it, I realized it wasn't a big deal - nobody cared anyway!"

Ricky's death wrought songwriting changes as well. Says Kate, "I think on Cosmic Thing we did happen into a more introspective, nostalgic and bittersweet thing. For instance, 'Deadbeat Club' is very autobiographical, about our early days in Athens. But I still don't think we're likely to be doing any suicidal songs." In 1991, Cindy went bye-bye, while Kate performed guest turns with other bands, including R.E.M. Good Stuff, the band's last full studio album to date, followed in 1992.

Fans may recall Fred Schneider's appallingly punk Just Fred solo effort of 1996. An abrasive, campy series of guitar roars and harsh vocal deliveries, the album took many B-52's followers by surprise - and they demand answers! Kate explains: "Fred really wanted to go in a different direction. Full-force energy, full-force Fred! I think we needed that, because by then Keith and Cindy and I were writing more 'songwriter' kinds of songs." Says Keith, "It was something that was very necessary for Fred to do. After doing the B-52's for 20 years, you get locked into something. You can find yourself becoming almost a self-parody, and in order to break out of that it's necessary to cut off completely and do something else, so when you come back to the B-52's, you're refreshed, recharged, and want to do it all again."

Nowadays, Fred's content hurling prop cakes, cowbells and minipianos into the audience during elaborate fits of spazzness. "On 'Quiche Lorraine,' he can really get carried away," beams Strickland. The other night we played a private party and Fred got quite out there, very melodramatic, rolling around on the floor in agony, miserable. I encourage that behavior in him!"

With his nasaly drama-queen delivery, Fred can easily be singled out on any B-52's track, though differentiating the gals ain't so easy - even longtime followers are often befuddled about who's mellifluously singing what. Says Kate, "We can't even tell sometimes! Reviewing our jam tapes, sometimes we'll go, 'It's me!' 'No, it's me!' But Cindy always says you have to not be too precious about these things - no Jerry Springer fights."

As for the tunes themselves, Keith concocts melodies with guitars, bass and keyboards. "They're sort of at my mercy with what I come up with musicwise," he says, "but I pretty much have a feel on what they'll respond to. All four of us wrote the two new songs. It's interesting - constructing the music is something I feel like I do best, but I can really only play what I write, unlike one of these guys who can pick up a guitar and do a Beatles cover."

Between musical pursuits, Strickland cooks and gardens with Mark, his boyfriend of two years. "We actually debate on what to call it," he says. "'Boyfriend' sounds kind of funny. I like 'companion,' but Mark says that sounds like we're an elderly couple on a bird-watching trip." All the B-52's are hitched, although, Kate chimes, "We encourage fantasy."

Livingwise, the B-52's divide their time between Georgia and New York. Says Keith, "We're like this sort of semidysfunctional family on a road trip. Underneath it all we're still great friends - that's how we started off. At this point in our lives, making a garden is really exciting; the more mundane pleasures of life become exotic."

As well as whipping up a frenzy with their forthcoming appearances, the band's got hopes for a box set containing rare tracks and jam material, and many studio albums to follow.

And should Cindy decide to flee to party out of bounds again? "Well, everyone has freedom in the band, but we might tie her up or something," Kate snickers diabolically. "We're still a tacky dance band from Georgia. You can move to New York, but you can't take Georgia out of the band. Tofu and iced tea!"

The B-52's appear at Universal Amphitheater, Tuesday and Wednesday, August 4 and 5.

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