Living in My Own Private Idaho: How The B-52s Taught Me To Let My Freak Flag Fly

My first day of high school wearing my Mesopotamia tour shirt.

My first day of high school wearing my Mesopotamia tour shirt.

My journey as a B-52s superfan began one afternoon in the early part of 1990. I was sitting in the living room, on the floor, in front of the couch. My dad was in his chair. I was watching the MTV video count down and anxiously awaiting the premiere of the next single from “that group who sang that song ‘Love Shack’.” I recently was acquainted with them, and I liked “Love Shack” well enough to ask for the cassingle for Christmas and apparently well enough to be excited about the band’s new release.
I remember holding my breath through parts of “Deadbeat Club”, once it finally aired. The sepia tones gave a sense of nostalgia. The song told a story. The blonde wore a boa. I was hooked. Hypnotized. It was like I caught some type of virus that could never be cured.

“This is my new favorite band,” I said to my dad.

The obsession grew, slowly at first. It started with borrowing “Cosmic Thing” on cassette, from the boy who sat in front of me in the sixth grade. The same boy my mom always referred to as the son of that guy she went to school with, “who everyone thought was gay”. I took his copy of “Cosmic Thing” home with me, dubbed it, and returned it promptly the next day. Then I proceeded to wear out my dubbed version of the album and needed to replace it with the real thing. When I was replacing it, I discovered that this was not a new band. They had been around for quite a while and there were several other albums available for purchase. I can still picture the cassettes all stacked on top of one another in the music department of Target.

That spring and summer I set about collecting every single thing I could get my hands on that was related to the B-52s, my new favorite band. I quickly learned that these people had a very rich past as a musical group, from long before I discovered them. I learned what it felt like to relate to something. I always knew that I was different, weird I suppose. But until I discovered these freaks flailing about on stage yelling about something called a “Rock Lobster” while wearing purses on their heads, I didn’t realize that being weird was totally okay. I was definitely different from the redneck jerks I was growing up with, but that was fine. It seemed there was hope for me. One day, if I left that terrible town, I might discover that there were “thousands of others like” me, to quote the band. They gave me that hope. These people were artists. Not freaks. Could I, too, be an artist?

The first time I heard the song “Strobe Light,” I nearly died from shock. I hit rewind over and over again that night, trying to confirm that these crazy people were truly singing about making love under a strobe light and kissing someone’s pineapple. I was twelve and found it both intriguing and hilarious that they were singing, comically, about sex. In the coming years, I would discover that nearly all of their songs are jokes about sex. Regardless of my innocence and immaturity, or perhaps because of it, a pineapple obsession was sparked, and I giggled whenever I wore my pineapple earrings to school. Because people didn’t know. And I wasn’t going to explain it. My pineapples were my little naughty secret.

By the time I entered seventh grade, I was a completely changed person. Middle School found me dressed head-to-toe in the freakiest thrift store garbage I could find during one of the treasure hunts I often went on with my mom. Every weekend we’d look for “B-ish” or “Kate-ish” items. It was me against the world. I hated my hometown and most of the people I went to school with. They were idiots who only cared about football and hunting. Why would I care if they hated me? I had this new identity as a weirdo, as an artist, and I was going to embrace it, bell bottoms and all. In October, I would wear black every day for a week to pay my respects to Ricky Wilson, the deceased member of the band. People made fun of me. Told me he was gay and died of AIDS, as if that should somehow make my mourning invalid. I didn’t care. Their ignorance just fueled my deep desire to get out of that town and find people who were more like me.

Thanks to the internet and a B-52s fan letter, it didn’t take me as long as I’d anticipated it would to find myself a few fellow freak-flag-fliers. Upon receiving fan letters from a woman who called herself Sue-52, to whom you had to send a SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope), I responded to several people advertising for pen pals. I was already writing to a few people, but I was happy to add more. Eventually I placed my own blurb in the newsletter and began writing to even more pen pals. Writing letters to pen pals would become my favorite hobby. I struggled to talk with people in real life, but I loved writing letters. Many were so kind, and one is still a dear friend of mine.

Then my dad bought us a computer and subscribed to an internet service called Prodigy, an online community which consisted of countless bulletin boards, similar to the Facebook groups of today. I found a bulletin board called “The Deadbeat Club” and it was a place for people just like me. I made several friends through that group, and interacting with the people who also loved the Bs helped me feel less alone. There were even sweet people who made copies of bootlegs and videos and articles and pictures and mailed them to me. One girl even sent me her 1983 Mesopotamia tour shirt which I wore for my first day of high school and I still have it today. Feeling less alone was amazing.

My pen pals also contributed to my becoming a gay rights activist. Until I met some gay people through the mail, I’d never known any openly homosexual individuals. Because of the band and some of the pen pals I made during that time in my life, there will always be a special place in my heart for gay people. It wasn’t a stretch for me, but finding the boldness to openly love the gay community was not an easy task considering I was being raised in Bigotville, USA. Thankfully, I learned at a young age to openly love gay people, as it was a skill which served me well once I reached high school. It continues to serve me well today. My parents were influenced by my acceptance and love of people in the gay community and this made our home a safe haven for folks who maybe didn’t have a soft place to fall in those difficult coming-out years. This is something I am particularly proud of about my family of origin.

This was one of my most "B-ish" outfits that I wore in seventh grade... the armor sweatshirt, the raspberry beret.

This was one of my most “B-ish” outfits that I wore in seventh grade… the armor sweatshirt, the raspberry beret.

In fact, my family learned to embrace the B-52s as if the band was a fourth family member. My dad was a woodworker and one time he built me a sign that said, “Kate” in flashing Christmas lights. My mom helped me make tons of fan art. This was before you could just go online and order merchandise, so a girl was given no choice but to get creative. We made this amazing sweatshirt using some of the first homemade transfers available in the craft aisle at Walmart. The shirt could double as armor, the picture on the front of it was so stiff and hard. You could literally knock on it. We made buttons and earrings and necklaces and decorated a jean jacket.

While I adored every member of the band, Kate Pierson held a very special place in my heart (and still does, actually). There was just something about that woman… she sucked me in, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. For years, I was consumed with the notion of having red hair. I began all of my journal entries from seventh grade to tenth grade, “Dear Kate”… she was so much easier to talk to than an arbitrary “diary” would have been. An article in an issue of “Sassy” magazine called “Kate Pierson is My Idol” filled me with a sense of belonging to know that other girls on this planet idolized her too. Maybe I was not entirely crazy.
In my early twenties, I joined a Yahoo group for women who were in love with Kate Pierson, and I even met a few of those ladies later on. And while I’ve seen the band in concert eight times, the best moment from any of those shows, by far, was when I was at the foot of the stage while Kate sang, “Revolution Earth” and she touched my outstretched fangirl hand. I watched her as I was growing up and knew that when I was older, I wanted to be like her, to look like her. Healthy, radiant, full of energy. I spent twelve years as a miserable vegetarian because of her influence. But I am thrilled to say that, thanks to Kate’s impact on me as a twelve-year old girl, I am turning out to be a perfectly healthy, radiant, and energy-filled middle-aged woman.

Meeting my idol, Kate Pierson.

Meeting my idol, Kate Pierson.

Today, I am married with three children. I’ve changed in many ways but the B-52s are still very important to me. My kids know them, know their music, see their record covers on the wall above our sofa. I’ve made sure that they are educated in all things Bs related because in order to know me, they must know the Bs. More recently, I’ve had reason to see the band’s impact on my world in a different light. In the past year, as I come to terms with the fact that my oldest son and I might have Asperger’s syndrome, I can more fully see how incredibly vital the B-52s have been to my well-being.

They gave me a sense of being understood and of being like others, when no one in my immediate world could do that. I’ve always felt like I was from another planet and, when I couldn’t understand why, the B-52s helped me feel like I wasn’t the only alien living among the earthlings. Because of them, their strange lyrics, their bizarre “musical instruments” and their quirky costume choices, I have felt a little less alone. Their fellow fans have helped me feel less alone as well. I am eternally grateful for the impact this band and their fandom has had on my life for the past twenty-five years. Without them, I’m not sure I would have come out alive.

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Living in My Own Private Idaho: How The B-52s Taught Me To Let My Freak Flag Fly

  1. Our passions inspire us. ❤ It is especially awesome when you can find like-minded people to share your passion with! Thank you for sharing your passion with us!

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