Wednesday, July 30, 2008

diary of a t-shirt

This oldass t-shirt of Kate Bush is my latest acquisition, and to me, kinda like a Hope diamond: it’s a shirt promoting Kate’s 1982 album The Dreaming, rendering its cover image in glorious 80s xeroxy silkscreen. I’ve seen this shirt only once before—in a photograph, worn by that great femme Chloë Sevigny. I’ve been dying to get my hands on the t-shirt, and a few weeks ago, thanks to that old heroin dealer/ Indian casino known as ebay, I finally snagged it for $130 (I was willing to pay more! )!

In general, when I hunt for oldass rock t-shirts, I look for at least one of three main criteria:

1) the beauty of the artwork: this includes image or font, regardless of the band. For instance, I love Little Feat t-shirts with pictures of old-school pin-uppy ladies, even though I’ve never listened to their music.

2) the texture of the t-shirt fabric: I prefer 100% cotton that has just stopped fighting—which means it has to be aged at least 15 years and heavily worn by people with abrasive skin to get to that kleenex consistency. Although I will often like a good worn down 50-50 polyester/ cotton as well.

3) the band being promoted by the t- shirt: I can’t—or at least, couldn’t, at some point in my life—live without their music.

Each of these three qualities is important to me, but when I’m on ebay, it’s hard to browse for the first criterion (what kind of a keyword search do you do for “beautiful image”?) and impossible to gauge the second (sellers often claim shirts are “buttery soft” and then you get it and it’s more like I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter that’s been in the refrigerator too long). But you can do a pretty effective search of bands you like. So in my spare or bored time, I get on ebay and type into the search box, “kate bush shirt” or “courtney love shirt” or “siouxsie shirt” or “liz phair shirt” or “fleetwood mac shirt.” You get your gamut of unacceptable reproductions and homemade crap, but once in a while, you get some real beauts, like the Kate Bush shirt I just bought.

My mother wonders why I spend so much time, energy and money on what she calls “dishrag.” Well for one, I don’t disagree with her label, because I love dishrags—they are functional, no? An oldass t-shirt is for me an appliance. Every time I put one on, my body is changed in a way that allows me to move through the world in a different body than that old familiar bag of bones staring back at me every morning in the steamy mirror. In particular, an oldass rock t-shirt is like an i-pod to me—maybe we can call it a “tee-pod.” I use my i-pod (ok, really a 2GB Creative Zen mp3 player) not only as a portable music library, but as a part of my femme armor. I stick the headset into my ear canals, tuck the pebble-sized player in my bag, and I’m ready to face any hostile (racist, homophobic, femmephobic) human element on buses, trains, and sidewalks. You feel braver and more snug in your skin when the world’s atmosphere is suddenly transformed into the comforting intimacy of your own favorite songs. This is also how I use my favorite oldass rock t-shirts.

A few days ago, on Sunday, I used my “new” Kate Bush shirt in this way to go to the San Francisco Eagle, a bar I had frequented quite often back in the day. Sunday afternoons used to mean for me shots of Tequila between swigs of Red Hook or Johnnie Walker Red Label. My ex-husband and I would trot, arm-in-arm, down to the famous Sunday Beer Bust at the Eagle, get drunk, and mingle with/ ogle the multitude of boys in various shapes, sizes, ages who were lured out by the promise of cheap beer in clear plastic cups. This was many years ago. Since my divorce two years ago, I hadn’t been back to the Eagle on a Sunday afternoon. Partly, I’ve been afraid of running into my ex-husband. But more than that, I’ve been afraid to go in there as a single femme.

The Eagle is a Levi’s-and-leather place, which means that it is usually occupied by bears and leather queens—bearded/ hairy/ leather-clad boys—or just any manner of boys whose religion is traditional masculinity. Sunday afternoons, the back patio of the Eagle is so stuffed with people (men) that it is a triumph just to be able to step outside and maintain a literal toehold without getting burned by a stray cigar or drenched in someone’s Pabst Blue Ribbon or smashed to bits by a burly fag. With a large Irish husband to serve as your battering ram/ tarp, however, you simply feel safe...not to mention un-lonely. So without him, I’d been feeling extra vulnerable about walking into the Sunday Beer Bust, even though I knew that it would probably have the highest potential, numberwise, of the kind of scuzzy-alternative boys I prefer.

However, the Kate Bush shirt having finally arrived safely from Canada via standard air mail (about 6 days) I was ready to enter the Eagle. Here are some BlackBerry camera self-portraits of me among the bears:

Actually, the chain shoulder strap of my Lanvin bag is pretty S/M leather queeny. But I love seeing the various horrified facial contortions produced on “Kate” through my wearing the shirt and squeezing through the wall of males. I think about my wading through the bears that afternoon as Kate in bear-land: a lone femme plonked down in a fun snake pit of faggy testosterone.

Of course I got a couple of the reactions I anticipated and have long been used to: while some guy was trying to buy me a drink at the bar, another guy walks by and sneers, “Is that your girlfriend?” But the most surprising reaction was my own. I remembered feeling a lot more sexed up at the Eagle than I did this past Sunday—which was basically not at all. There was a time when I could scan around and find a good ten or so boys that got me all hot and bothered, but this time, none. Yes, there were some objective cuties with sweet faces and bodies, but this is not the same as feeling sexually inspired. The metallic stench of male pheromones, combined with booze, sweat, and my all-time-hated smell of cigars, did nothing for my sex drive; it only made me vaguely blanked out. I did have a good time, enjoyed watching bearded boys suck on beards, but I felt definitely out of place, alienated. But that alienation did not feel bad, it felt self-affirming of who I am--a girl (a lesbian?)--which is part of, but not defined by, who I desire sexually. The phone-camera pics tells the story: I AM A BUSH AMONG BEARS.

Wearing the Kate Bush t-shirt, I feel not like Kate Bush but a thing that Kate Bush made. I feel like the record that Kate Bush made. The Dreaming—the album—is a Virgo (September 13) like me (August 28). It is the first album that Kate produced alone, and one that moved her into harder territory—sonically and in terms of feminine persona. Goodbye to the late 70s rock-ballad ethereality of “Wuthering Heights” and hello spacewoman in a corset boned from respiratory tubing (worn in the video for the title track, an outfit which was subsequently knocked off by Nicolas Ghesquiere for Balenciaga some six years ago). Many Kate obsessives love The Dreaming for different reasons—DJ El Toro wrote an especially beautiful review of it for the KEXP Blog using an old album covered with a provenance of DJ commentary ( and rock journalist Ann Powers will be writing a great “33 ½” book about it. I love The Dreaming because it combines a slasher-film aesthetics of sound with a dreamy intimacy of lyric to produce a new, hard kind of material romanticism. Yes, the songs have references and inspirations as specific as Harry Houdini, Australian aborigines, the Vietnam War, Kubrick’s The Shining. But when you run all the track titles together from beginning to end—Sat In Your Lap There Goes a Tenner Pull Out the Pin Suspended in Gaffa Leave It Open The Dreaming Night Of the Swallow All the Love Houdini Get Out of My House—you get a portrait of a marriage.

The album begins with “Sat In Your Lap” and ends with “Get Out of My House.” This narrative arc marks for me the movement from the surprise of love—finding that unexpected sense of safety and comfort in the fat lap of your husband—to the inspiring-liberating anger of post-divorce independence. On the last track, that I think of as a Dario Argento-directed cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”—Kate keeps a man out of her “House” by mimicking a braying mule, and singing over and over “GET OUT OF MY HOUSE...With my key I LOCK IT!” But The Dreaming is not a bitter divorcee’s album, either; it’s about a woman who’s known love, lost love, and now knows to be as vigilant as an herbalist about the conditions needed for love’s survival.

My favorite song on the album, “Houdini,” the second-to-last track, inspired the album’s cover image: Kate, in a houndstooth suit, opens her mouth for a kiss which will pass a key to her Houdini husband. I know from reading about the album that the thing cushioned on her pre-kiss tongue is a key, but when I first saw the image as a teenager, the thing on her tongue looked, in its potassium-rich-urine gold tinting, like a wedding band.

Even after knowing the facts, I still think of Kate holding a wedding ring on her tongue. This is the nature of a woman’s aggressive romanticism: Kate grips the head of her Houdini-husband, the pomaded slickness of his hair broken up by her locking fingers, as tight as the chains and padlock that adorn his tuxedo. Romance is a struggle in which the man forever plays Houdini, trying to perform a trick of freedom, when in reality, it is Houdini’s wife who holds the literal key, and thus, sweet bondage. In the first chorus, Kate sings:

With a kiss
I'd pass the key
And feel your tongue
Teasing and receiving.
With your spit
Still on my lip,
You hit the water.

Doesn't the Houdini husband realize that that symbol of marital/ monogamous bondage, the wedding ring, is the key to his liberation? Kate sings the first four lines in her coquettish, romantically feminine voice. But when she gets to the seminal line, “WITH YOUR SPIT STILL ON MY LIP, YOU HIT THE WATER” she sings straight from the throat, an exaggeratedly growly rasp, as if she’s imitating a horror-film monster—or forehearing the voice of Courtney Love.

When I returned to the site of those drunken romantic married Sunday afternoons this past Sunday afternoon, wearing the cover of The Dreaming between my titties, I became the album itself. The rasp of “Houdini” becomes full-out slasher-film screams and satanic whinnying and braying in “Get Out Of My House.” The key that she’s ready to french kiss to her husband now becomes the key with which she locks him out of her hurt heart. In the song’s final lines, Kate duets with a male voice, and the image of the Houdini-husband hitting the water takes on a different meaning: hit the water, get out of my house, but I have your spit still on my lip: “I WILL NOT LET YOU IN/ DON’T YOU BRING BACK THE REVERIES!!”


uforik said...

I love you and your Kate Bush T Shirt! I am searching for this exact shirt!! I am a huge fan and The Dreaming is my bible. You have totally made my day.

Patrick said...

need one of these shirts

i can't find any that aren't just screened on crappy ones