Henry Rollins: I Went From a Sunn O))) Concert to RuPaul's DragCon
Sunn O))), the world's loudest drone band
Photo by Peter Beste
A couple of Fridays ago, I navigated my car downtown to the Regent Theater to get my brain slowed down and my DNA straightened out by the mighty Sunn O))). They are the Dronasaurus of drone music, and I have been a fan for years. The last time I saw them in Los Angeles, I was so disoriented after the show was over that I almost forgot where I had parked. I had high hopes for this evening.
As I walked toward the man who checks your ticket, a woman from security looked at me and said, “There are earplugs at the bar. You’re going to need them.” I got there just in time to get a glimpse of the robed and hooded members of the band onstage as they emerged and vanished in the thick smoke, which, besides the brain-liquefying volume and low end, is their trademark.
Sunn O))) live is either a great night of your life or a sonic apocalypse that will Heimlich you right back to the sidewalk. Every time I have seen them, there seem to be several people who were either uninformed, unprepared or ill-equipped for the high-decibel siege the band serves up.
About half an hour into the assault, right around the time I was reaching an almost meditative/paralytic state, I noticed people were leaving. The dazed and disoriented expressions on their faces as they weaved by was priceless. Their departure wasn’t so much a rejection of the band as an admission of defeat, an acknowledgment of their inability to exist in such a rarefied environment. Adieu, mon lightweights!
After the show was over, I staggered out into the crisp night and back to my ride. My eclectic weekend was just beginning.
Hours later, I was back in the car, once again heading downtown. RuPaul’s DragCon had asked me to be on a panel to discuss the intersections and similarities in punk and drag culture. I thought it was an interesting topic and that it would be a great experience to be in the midst of a scene that would surely offend millions of decent, upstanding bigots everywhere.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, my hometown of Washington, D.C., was racially tense, with sizable gay and military communities. Punk rock, being such a new phenomenon, was the latest possible tribe to the table.
Not everyone was friendly toward us spiky upstarts. The first time I heard the term “punk-rock faggot” was from amped-up jarheads who were, thankfully, too inebriated to catch up as they chased after me.
It was this melding of two groups into one epithet that was instructive. Punks and gays were seen as a single, indistinguishable pack of indecent lowlifes sorely in need of a tuneup by members of the world’s most capable fighting force.
If you get a chance, look up a legendary Californian named Bambi Lake. She was the first trans person I ever met on a regular basis. I have known her for more than 30 years. She would go on before Black Flag and lip-synch to Marlene Dietrich tapes. She got the respect because she was more punk than anyone in the building.
I always thought that LGBT folks and drag queens got roughly the same treatment as punks from law enforcement, bullies and crusading religious groups. Eventually, through years of taming and commercialization, punk secured mainstream acceptance, while LGBT and drag were largely left out in the cold.
Thanks to the efforts of brave people all over the world, things are changing, albeit slowly, for these alt cultures. One of the people on the forefront of that is RuPaul. He is as much a trendsetting culture creator as he is a true pillar for civil rights and social evolution.
The green-room atmosphere was pretty mind-blowing. I sat with fellow panelist Alice Bag from the old-school, Masque-era band The Bags. Hers was one of the first punk records I ever bought. Queens came in and out of the room, all dressed to the hilt. I met two whose performances I’d judged on an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race years ago, and we did photos together.
Soon enough, it was showtime. The panel included myself, Alice, the Boulet Brothers (who looked spectacular) and the ultra-charismatic Alaska Thunderfuck 5000.
The hour went quickly, and from stories and commentary from us panelists, I think there are several throughlines that connect these different cultures. Whatever dots were connected was for the benefit of people who were already on board, but the occasional galvanizing is not a bad thing. I would very much like to be part of next year’s DragCon in some capacity.
Maybe someday there won’t have to be a DragCon, or at least not such a designated time and place to freely flaunt oneself. From the way the Boulet Brothers described the club events they put on with great success right here in your city, it sounds as if it’s still an underground and marginalized scene they cater to.
Maybe down the road, we in the “land of the free” will become more so. These things take time. Until then, events such as DragCon are not only relevant but, I dare say, important.
You only have to look as far as North Carolina to see how the times aren’t a-changin’. The state was sued by the Department of Justice over House Bill 2. Governor McCrory, who will not be cowed by this wacky act of Northern aggression, not only ignored the deadline to quash the bill but also countersued the Department of Justice, causing simultaneous, shuddering, knee-weakening orgasms in Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter. The latter is welcome to be my date at DragCon 2017.
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