Jimi Hendrix, Noel Redding, Wayne Kramer, Dennis Thompson, Richard Lloyd, Jello Biafra are ‘members’ of Super Groupie Cynthia Plaster Caster’s special rock ‘n’ roll cast, as she looks back on her life in the fast lane
Introduced to hard rock the same year I discovered hardcore pornography, the two became inextricably linked for me. The summer before sixth grade I was writing pornographic fantasies about sexual romances with rock stars, especially the costumed and face-painted rock band, KISS. One of my favorite KISS songs was “Plaster Caster,” from 1977, and the woman mentioned in the song sounded interesting.
She was obviously ultracool because the band was singing about her. I joined the KISS Army, and I wondered if the guys in the band would like me the way they liked Plaster Caster. I wondered about her. Who was she? What did she look like? Did she date the guys in the band? Could we be friends?
I read magazines and books about rock stars. Sometimes (but not enough) girls and women were mentioned. The wives and girlfriends bored me – they reminded me of popular girls. I was more intrigued by the groupies. A few were mentioned most often: Lori ‘Lightning’ Mattix, Pamela Des Barres and…Cynthia Plaster Caster! The girl from the KISS song!
Then I found out what Plaster Casting actually meant: Cynthia Plaster Caster casted the members of the rock bands! I knew the double meaning of that word, “member,” from my reading of pornography—she made plaster casts of rock stars’ penises. I had to know more about this artist and groupie! I set out to learn all I could.
“Once they’re submerged in that mold, they…are kind of numb… I feel for them, and I’m very hopeful that they come out looking their prettiest.”
Born on the Day of the Beauty Lovers and in the sign of quick-thinking Gemini, Cynthia Albritton grew up in Chicago. An only child, shy by nature, she loved musicals but was suffocated by a conservative mother who read her diaries—Cynthia nicknamed her “The Warden”—and frightened by her alcoholic father. Her parents divorced when she was very young, but her father, she later said, “went off the sauce just in time for me to have a parent I really liked that I could be close with…We were like pals.”
Some schoolmates were pals, too; the more popular kids, “swells,” may have disliked her irreverence, but that irreverence—and another kind of swelling—eventually would shape her art. Feeling liberated by the British Invasion and a nascent Second Wave feminism in the late 1960s, Cynthia Plaster Caster took off for art school where music by the Beatles made her want to have sex. In art class she was assigned to plaster cast something solid that could retain its shape. She thought, “I know the perfect object.”
“Maybe Paul Revere and the Raiders would like to help me with my homework,” Cynthia mused. Her art instructor’s suggestion of sand and water did not work but sex and rock ‘n’ roll did. In fact, Cynthia lost her virginity to dreamy band member, Mark Lindsay, and that weekend the Plaster Casters of Chicago were born.
“The only way I could feel comfortable in anything as serious as sex was by both of us having a laugh,” she said. “I crafted an official-looking suitcase, with an official-looking logo, and tools with which I would experiment: a ruler, clay, an apron, some notes.”
With cohort Barbara, the Plaster Casters of Chicago went hotel to hotel, suitcase in hand, cultivating their professional traveling saleswomen personae. Cynthia formulated business cards: Plaster Casters of Chicago Life-like models of Hampton wicks.
“Hampton wick is Cockney rhyming slang for dick,” Cynthia told me. “We used Cockney rhyming slang because we wanted to have a secret code language with which to speak to rock stars for what we had in mind…Ears were pricked and eyebrows went up when they saw those calling cards.”
Roadies recognized the suitcase, and the Plaster Casters were escorted right away to the band.
Keith Moon, the drummer for The Who, was willing to try with melted wax. When Cynthia told him she needed an apron, he immediately tore off the pant leg of his bell-bottomed jeans. “Here, have an apron!” he enthused, handing it to her. She sewed Moon’s pant leg to her father’s post office shirt, and it’s the apron she’s casted in ever since.
The Plaster Casters soon learned by trial, error, and a tip from an insurance agent on the best way to concoct the mixing paste: Not wax, not aluminum foil, not oatmeal, not clay. What eventually worked was pink dental mold, with its alginate base. The Plaster Casters learned this in time for Jimi Hendrix, guitar god.
“I figured out how to do it and I was ready for Jimi when [his band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience] came into town,” Cynthia said. “And that was an unbelievable evening.”
In one skillfully playful swoop, she deftly integrated three of the most beautiful experiences in the process: Music, art, and sex. She also cast Noel Redding, the Experience bass player.
Cynthia has kept scrupulous records of her artistic process. She worked with different casters: Barbara, Dianne, and Harlow (who later joined The Cockettes). Cynthia, the art major, did the mold mixing, while one of the others did the plating (getting the man erect).
Cynthia calls her casts “sweet babies,” and refers to herself as their mama. She has no favorites; her democratizing of her artful casts reflects the egalitarian zeitgeist of the times. She says that the individual experience of crafting each one is equally exciting and weird and unique.
Frank Zappa was bowled over by Cynthia, and soon sponsored the 21-year-old, sending her to Los Angeles with the promise of opening a museum in her honor. “A normal girl like me, a plain girl, a key punch operator, moving to Hollywood, thanks to Frank Zappa?” she said. “Unbelievable.”
I ask what she means by “ordinary”. People tell her she’s an icon, Cynthia said, but she calls herself a “goofy groupie” with a Midwestern sense of humor. Ordinary.
Zappa was her patron, identifying her work as art, establishing Cynthia as an artist. When her Los Angeles home was burglarized, Zappa’s business manager, Herb Cohen, safeguarded her sculptures and had them bronzed. But then, he refused to return the art to the artist who made them. It took a lawsuit to award Cynthia ownership of both originals and bronzes. Another Super Groupie, the bestselling author Pamela Des Barres, flew to Cynthia’s side during much of the court case in 1993. The bronzes were returned to Cynthia; Cohen testified that he didn’t know the whereabouts of the originals.
Nowadays, Cynthia sells limited editions of select casts, including Jimi Hendrix, in reproductions of 30. They may be third generation, but the quality has not been lost. The sculptures suggest the sexy weight of bodies as well as their profound impermanence; sensual forms around space imply what—and who—was once there.
Baron Wolman has photographed Cynthia’s penis sculptures, showcasing them on Neoclassical pedestals. The Doric columns were her idea, the entasis evoking a slight curvature reminding me of the Greek admiration of the male form and Rome’s allegiance to the group—traits I recognize in Cynthia’s aesthetic philosophy.
When asked whether her art and work as a groupie was feminist, Cynthia said, “I wasn’t looking at it that way…it’s turning out that way… I’m still thinking about it in the world of Andy Warhol. Repetition, and variations on themes.”
I surmise that museums don’t honor her because she’s a woman. She said, no, it’s simply the fear of a life-like penis.
“Corporate sponsorship is afraid of the penis,” Cynthia said, explaining that the people with the most money are usually conservative. Rolling Stone was only the second publication to write up the Plaster Casters (in their 1969 groupie issue), and not long ago the magazine asked for some Hendrix plaster cast photos…but then the editors changed their minds. As sexually obsessed as our media is, we rarely see the form of a penis in art and films, which is ironic since we live in a patriarchy. This dichotomy makes Cynthia’s art seem radical.
Until the prestigious museums wise up and hold Cynthia’s art in their permanent collections, I will hold a few of her sweet babies—Jimi’s member and Cynthia’s breasts (which she cast on her 66th birthday)—in my own private and reverential collection of groupie art and literature.
Cynthia estimates that she completed 55 to 60 successful casts, out of the 70 attempts she has made. She began casting men in 1968, giving new meaning to the term “cock rock.” She charmingly confesses to failing on a few groovy people, such as Eric Burdon of the Animals and Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks.
In 2000, she began to cast women, choosing breasts for their bouncy goofiness. Her castees, male and female, span a range of musical textures, including: Wayne Kramer and Dennis Thompson (of MC5), Richard Lloyd (Television), Zal Yanovsky (Lovin’ Spoonful), Jello Biafra, Suzi Gardner, Peaches, Sally Timms, and Karen O. She has even cast such unlikely members as those owned by Anthony Newley and right-wing radio shouter Bob Grant.
How many men had the artistic courage to be cast? Not enough. She says a few rock stars disdain her art. But most of her castees are “sweet and supportive.” They get that it is play, which is the crux of art.
KISS members were never cast, and Cynthia would have liked if the band had asked her first before they wrote a song about her. That the band pretended to have been cast by Cynthia demonstrates her artistic influence. Cynthia Plaster Caster is not an unsung heroine – books such as Groupiesand Other Girls (1970) and Electric Ladyland: Women and Rock Culture (2005) feature her; there is the KISS song, which Evan Dando & The Lemonheads covered; Le Tigre’s “Nanny Nanny Boo Boo”; the documentaries Groupie (1970), and Plaster Caster: The Rock & Roll Adventures of Super-Groupie Cynthia Plaster Caster (2001); and the movie The Banger Sisters (2002) seems to draw from her life (though she was not credited).
Jim Croce, of all people, sung about the Plaster Casters:
Ed Sanders, on his classic 1969 Sanders’ Truckstop album, composed this hilarious parody of a country-westerners nightmare, “The Plaster Song”:
She told me that she learned from her bad experiences.
“It made me more apprehensive and cautious about going to a strange man’s hotel room, which I needed to learn,” she said. “And then I saw the human side, too, how fucked up a lot of them are.”
Those rock stars who stay out of the limelight or retire early or who have a support group are the ones who are sane. Superstardom, she says, is a crazy life. All the fawning. Being fucked up is the norm for the superstars, and she’s not talking about drugs or alcohol. Cynthia said it creates a demanding sense of entitlement in some people.
“So you have some compassion for rock stars who crossed some boundaries with you,” I say. She replies, “Their human flaws make them kind of attractive. But you have to keep some of those flaws at a distance. I was shocked and delighted to find that they were as insecure as I was. That kind of made me see them in a different light…They’re the same as us.”
It makes me think of something she said regarding her casting process about the guys being vulnerable. “Once they’re submerged in that mold, they…are kind of numb… I feel for them, and I’m very hopeful that they come out looking their prettiest.”
In our conversations, I told Cynthia about the things I most regret, and she reassured me that perspective has helped me be a better person. As it sounds like it has with her own experiences as an artist (and as a political activist; she ran for mayor of Chicago in 2010 under The Hard Party banner).
Cynthia is in the midst of composing her autobiography, a tell-all that reveals the tricks of the caster trade, as well as a few tricks that were played on her. Intrigue has intensified her artistic and Super Groupie legacy in the quintessentially American arena of rock ‘n’ roll. Taboos reveal power structures, and the penis is taboo—unless the showcase is porn. Casting about for an identity, individual artistic and sexual freedom are harder for women to sculpt. But Cynthia Plaster Caster has done just that.