Various Artists - Blacklips Bar: Androgyns and Deviants - Industrial Romance for Bruised and Battered Angels, 1992–1995 Music Album Reviews

Various Artists - Blacklips Bar: Androgyns and Deviants - Industrial Romance for Bruised and Battered Angels, 1992–1995 Music Album Reviews
A new compilation looks back on the storied New York drag ensemble where ANOHNI got her start, placing the troupe in a lineage of queer artists who treated drag as a means of accessing selfhood.

New York is always dying, pricing out longtime residents and shuttering beloved haunts. One recent casualty is the iconic Pyramid Club, an East Village night spot that hosted RuPaul, Madonna, and Lydia Lunch in the 1980s and early ’90s. A jumble of drag personalities, hardcore kids, graffiti artists, and gay locals, the Pyramid community was decimated by AIDS, and the 2022 closure of their common ground marks a definitive rift with the past, dispatching the memory of the hub’s late habitués to oblivion. 

Even decades ago, the venue could function as a space for mourning, transforming the mood from debauched to lamentful over the course of a single evening. In 1992, elegiac auteur ANOHNI and kindred spirits Johanna Constantine and Psychotic Eve, all barely 20 at the time, formed Blacklips Performance Cult. Appearing at the Pyramid during the graveyard shift on Mondays, the troupe of 13 or so drag queens and fellow travelers wrote and performed short plays with irreverent names such as “The Swiss Family Donner Party” and “The Birth of Anne Frank.” The cast did all of its own make-up and costumes, relying on the genius of budding talents like future Michael Jackson and FKA twigs collaborator Kabuki Starshine. They used one microphone, to ragtag comedic effect, and straddled goth and drag cultures, reaching for both fabulous and macabre aesthetics. Troupe members vomited on the corpse of Jack the Ripper, pelted their audience with animal organs and tore a bloody fake fetus from the belly of cast member James F. Murphy. Then, they belted into song, and while the numbers could be as funny as the self-consciously inept acting, they were sometimes devastating and truthful, shot through with the inescapable horror of AIDS’ peak.

A new ANOHNI-curated compilation, Blacklips Bar: Androgyns and Deviants — Industrial Romance for Bruised and Battered Angels, 1992 - 1995, places Blacklips in a lineage of queer music, nightlife, and politics. Released in conjunction with a book of photographs, scripts, interviews, and essays, the 90-minute compilation coalesces around the group’s predecessors and some surprising documentation of their own songs, effectively showing how Blacklips laid the groundwork for ANOHNI’s subsequently skyward career. Original tracks by the cast—including an early version of ANOHNI’s “Rapture,” which would appear years later on her first record backed by the Johnsons—coexist with heartfelt covers of glam-rock forerunners such as Lou Reed. Vocal clips, which range from an interview excerpt with AIDS activist Vito Russo to a jokey advertisement for a Halloween show at the Limelight, play off selections from Blacklips DJ sets, chosen by Johanna Constantine. From the perspective of performance art, Blacklips seemed to arrive just after the peak of a polymathic Downtown scene that blurred drag, cabaret, theater, and activism. Musically, their capacity for earnestness separated them from precedent, imbuing their mourning with an openhearted, connective consonance that would become more common in the post-9/11 era. 

Of course, the album sets us in a much earlier period—one of punk, camp, and the fury of ACT UP. The record’s generous sprawl encompasses a couple of tracks by late players in John Waters’ Dreamlander ensemble, Divine and Edith Massey. The latter charms her way through “Punks, Get Off the Grass,” one of the spirited, magnetic singles she released with her novelty band the Eggs. There are club-kid acts from the influential 1988 film Mondo New York, which inspired ANOHNI and Johanna Constantine—these include ubiquitous drag artist Joey Arias and queercore pioneers Dean and the Weenies, whose defiant, sax-laden “Fuck You” is one of the record’s hilarious highlights. Inimitable frontman Dean Johnson insults an unnamed nemesis: “I wish you’d choke on a fashion accessory,” and later, “You’d look cooler if you wore a Frigidaire.” Other tracks harness the era’s agitprop energy, among them Diamanda Galás’ virus dirge “Double-Barrel Prayer” and Vito Russo’s exhortation for gays to take political action without worrying about appeasing straight people. Many of the selections seem like intimate moments in ANOHNI’s own tale of self-realization: Russo, for example, was a visiting professor at University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1990 while ANOHNI and Johanna Constantine were undergrads. Mere months before he died of AIDS, Russo encouraged ANOHNI to move to New York. 

The tracks by troupe members are often doleful, thanks to a considered curatorial agenda. ANOHNI dispenses with Blacklips’ parodies of songs from movies, recognizing that ironic takes on Hollywood weren’t their most singular contributions to the world of drag performance. Instead, we have Ebony Jet’s “Satellite of Love” and Sissy Fit’s “Sister Morphine,” two haunting covers that draw out real desperation from the outlaw perspectives of their source material. ANOHNI’s originals highlight her mature style, ignoring the haphazard spoofs for which one can find video evidence online. Her wordless humming elevates the Johanna Constantine duet “The Yellowing Angel” into a near-religious paean to finger-fucking, while the brief “People Are Small” is a virtuosic display of her upper range. Organ-driven “Love Letters,” a 1961 Ketty Lester hit that ANOHNI performed under her drag name Fiona Blue, rises out of camp’s confines, leaving familiar terrain behind. Her singing reminds us of how Blacklips, at their most progressive, treated drag: not as something humorous, arch, or pop cultural, but instead sincere and introspective, a means of accessing selfhood.

The group’s final play, 13 Ways to Die, produced on March 13, 1995, pushed their interior melancholy outward, connecting it to the AIDS pandemic and a changing city and world. Androgyns and Deviants impressively captures elements of the evening, sequencing them into a short suite near the compilation’s end. We hear an introduction from Dr. Clark Render, whose comic monologues opened the troupe’s shows for years; a soundtrack of Minty’s dance cut “Useless Man,” which features commanding vocals from the sensational Leigh Bowery; and lastly “My Final Moments,” a poignant soliloquy by Kabuki Starshine. “Dear X,” Kabuki recites: “You understand it’s nothing personal against you/and I must apologize if you feel abandoned/but we’ve all got to go some time or another,/so it may as well be now.” After, the entire cast staged their own deaths, and as the companion book shows in a series of images, “RIP NYC” was scrawled on one character’s buttocks. 

Back in 1995, the writing was on the wall. Later that year, ANOHNI brought a couple of her plays from the Pyramid to another East Village venue, PS122, where the vibe was a bit tamer and the programs started much earlier in the evening. But soon after, she began focusing on songwriting, and her comrades similarly dispersed into their own specialties, becoming make-up artists, DJs, and drag performers. The life of artists in New York, and the Downtown performance scene in particular, have only grown more imperiled in the years since. But Blacklips was the rare collective that understood exactly where they stood in relation to the history of their city and culture, and their pessimistic certitude rings as true today as ANOHNI’s searching, hopeful voice: This group of queer misfits was sure that they had arrived after everything and everyone was already dead. 
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Various Artists - Blacklips Bar: Androgyns and Deviants - Industrial Romance for Bruised and Battered Angels, 1992–1995 Music Album Reviews Various Artists - Blacklips Bar: Androgyns and Deviants - Industrial Romance for Bruised and Battered Angels, 1992–1995 Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on March 21, 2023 Rating: 5


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