Photographer and scene maker Leee Black Childers on his wild and woolly ride with Iggy, the Stooges, David Bowie, Andy Warhol, Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, Wayne/Jayne County, underage groupies, leather boys, and in the gay bars and bathhouses of NYC
By Yusuf Eckholm
Leee Black Childers (1945-2014) was an American writer and rock manager who took photographs of visiting celebrities, countercultural figures and musicians like Debbie Harry, Wayne (Jayne) County, and the Sex Pistols. He was a tour manager for David Bowie, the Heartbreakers, Levi and the Rockettes, among others, and the vice president of MainMan, David Bowie’s management company.
Childers died in April 2014, not long after the opening of his final photography exhibition at Lethal Amount in Los Angeles.
This phone interview was conducted by Yusuf Eckholm in early 2013.
Yusuf Eckholm: You recently published a photography book in the UK.
Leee Black Childers: I don’t have it right here. Hold on a second. Well as long as we are going to talk about it I should at least know the title of which I can’t ever remember. Here it is. Okay, it’s called Drag Queens, Rent Boys and Junkies.
LBC: It’s a story book. It’s not a historical book. I tell just one incident — one unusually amusing incident in various people’s lives — the people I have worked with and photographed. So I pair the story with a picture that I took of them…
YE: Well, there should be a photograph of the Stooges in there somewhere since you had to babysit the band, especially Iggy, when you were working for MainMan back in the early 1970’s.
LBC: The story I told about Iggy is how I learned to swim. It was when Iggy and I were living together. I was living with all the Stooges in North Hollywood — well, actually not North Hollywood but in the Hollywood Hills right off Mulholland Drive. The place had a big swimming pool and Iggy would get really stoned and fall into it face down. And, the band didn’t care and they would laugh at him. And I couldn’t swim so I would have to hang at the edge of the pool and try to fish him out. And eventually I had taught myself how to swim because it was easier than trying to hook him with an umbrella and things. So that’s how I learned to swim. So I told that story. And I told stories about Jayne County, Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, David Bowie, Cherry Vanilla, Rent Boys, Jackie Gleason, and Johnny Thunders (laughs).
YE: Oh, my God.
LBC: Of course we had to talk about his heroin addiction. But [nothing too] bad. I told about Sid & Nancy. I told about various people that I befriended and worked with over the years.
YE: You were like a chronicler or documentarian of the New York underground and early punk scene.
LBC: Well, I didn’t intend to be. It just turned out that way. Instead of just going around taking pictures of people, I always got involved in their lives. Like, for example, I lived with David Bowie, I lived with Aerosmith. I lived with the Stooges. I lived with Jayne County and Jackie Curtis. So, I got more involved in their personal adventures than you do just taking their picture and leaving.
YE: Unlike a great many rock photographers, you had the chance to see behind their mask and persona while becoming a true friend. This makes your photographs all the more personal instead of a studio session environment setting.
LBC: Yeah, that’s partly the reason why there is nothing really scandalous in the book. All of it I keep very light and amusing because when you are a friend you should remain a friend. It’s perfectly entertaining and also interesting to tell unknown stories as opposed to horrid stories. Some of the stories touched on how they were on stage and others were personal.
YE: How did you manage to fall in with this group of people?
LBC: Well, it was an accident.
YE: Well, that is the best way.
LBC: I was from Kentucky, which wasn’t going to be it for me (laughs). So I went off to San Francisco for the Summer of Love. I’d hang out in Golden Gate Park taking acid and things. So I got involved in that lifestyle with people outside of the law. Not necessarily criminals but people who lived outside the law. You know, they don’t follow the strict limits of the law…people who take drugs and have unsolicited sex. So then when the Summer of Love turned very unattractive, when people were dying and OD’ing and getting murdered, I left and came to New York. I naturally had gone with all the drag queens in Greenwich Village and from the drag queens, very immediately led me to Andy Warhol’s Factory.
Oh, in the old Factory days, you don’t remember the old suction cups that you could just put on the earpiece of the phone. I think they’re illegal now. They were great back then in the ‘60’s. Brigid Berlin and Andy Warhol — oh, everyone had them — they just look like a suction cup with a little cord coming out of it that attached to a cassette recorder. We didn’t have anything sophisticated like computers or anything like that. You just set it down with a tape recorder on a table or hook it to your belt and just put the suction cup on your receiver and you could record all your phone conversations. It was great.
YE: Yes, I had watched that Brigid Berlin documentary (Pie in the Sky) and there’s a section which mentioned both Andy and Brigid sharing each other’s tapes on the phone.
A scene from the documentary Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story:
LBC: Oh yes, that’s how the play, Pork, came about. It was actually Brigid who discovered all this technology before Andy. She was always out there finding things — it was all a game to her because she was — oh, you know, if you saw the documentary of Brigid Berlin you’d know that she was bored and she didn’t want to — well, we don’t need to do a biography of her but she didn’t want to live the lifestyle of her family. So she discovered the fun use of Polaroid [double exposure] and you know the Dick Book (Cock Book) and the use of tape recording. And she introduced Andy to all of that. Of course, Andy took it over like crazy. And that’s how Pork came into existence. Andy had given all those cassette tapes of phone conversations which [had] a great percentage of conversations [between] Brigid and Tony Ingrassia. He had to edit it down which he turned into a play called Pork.
YE: I was under the impression by Bob Colacello’s book Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up that Andy paid her $100 dollars for each tape that had her fighting with her parents [correction: upon reviewing Pie in the Sky documentary Colacello stated, “I think he (Andy) paid her $25.00 for each tape”]
LBC: What do you mean $100.00? Well, I don’t know if she did that because Andy was notorious for uh —
YE: being cheap (laughs).
LBC: Cheap. And that seems like a lot, especially when you consider the time. A hundred dollars then was a lot of money. And certainly it was to Andy. Plus, Brigid was rich anyway. And, plus honey, I worked on Pork so I heard all the tapes. Most of the tapes were with Andy — that [he himself] had recorded.
LBC: Now [the] play actually had conversations between Brigid and her mother. The performance was set up with a big bed in the middle of the stage and the Amanda Pork character was played by Cherry Vanilla. And so Cherry would sit on the bed with a phone and call all these people and that was the plot of the play – conversations with Andy and Brigid and all of the other people who were based on real conversations. It was very funny. But did you hear how that concept came about? It was definitely Brigid. Brigid and Café La Mama or Cafe Chin – I think it was Café La Mama way back before I ever got to New York. She set up a bed on stage and invited an audience to come. And she sat on the bed with a real telephone and it was hooked up to where you could hear the other side of the conversation as well if you were in the audience. And she called and baited her mother.
LBC: She’d just bait her mother and they both start arguing as they always did. And her mother, hearing the audience in the background, would say, “What’s going on!? “ Where are you!? I could hear people!”
LBC: Brigid said, “Well, I just called to tell you that I am pregnant.” Her mother said, “Pregnant!?” “And I need to get an abortion. I need the money from you to get it.” “Well, you can’t have anything from me!” And so she hung up on her. Brigid then turned to the audience and said, “Now watch me, I’ll get the money,” and she called Huntington Hartford who was this really rich guy. He was fabulous. He’s dead now. He inherited the A&P supermarket.
LC: She called him and said, “Hunt, I’m pregnant. I need $500 for an abortion “Well, of course. What do you want me to do?” She said, “You just stay there and I’ll come and get it.” So she hung up the phone and said “Okay, it’s intermission now, everybody. Smoke a cigarette. I’ll be right back.” And she gets into a taxi and goes up to Huntington Hartford’s place in the Upper East Side and gets the money. She came back and said “alright, intermission is over.” She showed everyone the money and went on with the show.
YE: (Laughs) That’s genius.
LC: Yeah, she was a genius. She was great. But she was the one who came up with all that tape recording conversations, including Polaroid’s – all those thing that were known for being done at the Factory in the late ‘60’s.
YE: Oh, fantastic. But what is Pork about really?
LC: Well, see, we were working then in underground theater. It was very popular. It was off-off Broadway.
YE: Like the theater of the Ridiculous and La Mama?
LC: It was totally outrageous. Generally we didn’t have much of a plot. There was a lot of simulated sex. They were all comedies. Everyone wore a lot of glitter and [our] hair [was] dyed outrageous colors. As you can tell, everything that eventually became rock ‘n’ roll started with underground theater in New York during the 60’s. Outrageous costumes — the huge shows — hair all teased into outrageous hairdos. The outrageous make up — clothes being held together with safety pins. Everything preceded Glam Rock and then eventually Punk. It all started there with those crazy drag queens in the underground theater. We were doing a show called World — a Birth of a Nation which had been written by–
YE: Jayne County.
LC: Wayne County. Eventually he became Jayne County. And there were all drag queens in it — all kinds of people — it had a huge cast. Andy Warhol would come to the show constantly. He loved it. And so when Andy went to Tony Ingrassia, the director, he said, “Hey, I got all these tapes and I think they’d made a nice play.” And Tony said ‘sure’. Tony was impressed by Andy Warhol. And so Andy had all the tapes delivered to Tony Ingrassia. [Tony managed to listen to them all and turned it into a funny play. Pork was staged in New York City and London].
YE: Where in New York and London?
LBC: Oh, at Café La Mama for a very short one — four weeks. A limited run because La Mama was just an art theater. But then it was picked up and played for the whole summer of 1971 in London at the Round House. And that’s when all the rock stars came: Rod Stewart, Marc Bolan — all those people came to every show and it became very much a thing in the rock community. The original Hard Rock Café had just opened in London on Park Lane and everyone after the show went there. So underground theater and rock ‘ roll began to mix together completely. And that’s when David Bowie started coming to the shows. After the show closed and we all went back to New York, he got here a year later and we were hired to work for David Bowie and MainMan, his new company, when he decided to come to America as Ziggy Stardust. That was how I got involved in rock ‘n’ roll.
YE: David did take a lot of notes during the evolution of Ziggy Stardust.
LBC: Oh, yeah, he picked up a lot of things like how far you can go. How outrageous you can get and still get away with it. The fantasy all came from us — the underground theater and Andy Warhol. Yes indeed when we first met him, [Bowie] had long blonde hair just like Joni Mitchell.
YE: Yeah, his style of dress and music leaned more on the folk side. When Bowie arrived in New York, you, Wayne County and Cherry Vanilla worked for him.
LBC: Yes. Tony Z. [Anthony Zanetta] who played Andy Warhol in Pork became the president of MainMan and I became vice president of MainMan and Cherry Vanilla became the office secretary. We were the officers of the company. Actually, the real person who ran it was Tony Defries, who was Bowie’s personal manager and CEO of MainMan. We ran the first 3 years of the Ziggy Stardust thing in America. It was fabulous. We toured everywhere. We had a ball. It’s fun when it’s in the beginning days, when you are shocking everyone. I remember my mother begging me not to tell anyone I was working for David Bowie.
YE: Why? (Laughs)
LC: Because of the press that was coming out about him being — in those days he’d say that he was gay and, of course, those pictures of him in those outrageous costumes and everything. My mother was living in Kentucky and she said, “Oh, what if your aunts and uncles find out that you’re mixed up with that queer!?”
LC: The story in Kentucky was that I went up North to become a school teacher.
YE: Around that time, you had people like Lori and Stable Starr, both of whom were under 15 years of age, having sex with people like Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and David Bowie.
LC: Those were different times. I was certainly around it. I’m not saying that it was right because we really didn’t know the difference.
YE: How so?
LC: Now, everyone is so careful about age and everything. Then, they didn’t know. Yes, when I was living with the Stooges, Stable Starr was 14 years old. She’d come up there every day and swim in the pool and help me clean up the house and went and got into bed with Iggy. Lori Lighting was 13 years, John Philips’ (lead singer of the Mamas and the Papas) daughter Mackenzie was 14 or 13. They were all hanging out at Rodney B. English Disco drinking beer and hanging with Led Zeppelin to which they would go home and have sex with them. It didn’t dawn on anyone that it was against the law. But, I don’t think any of us thought about it because remember that we only recently had been through the hippie and free love — do you think that all those people who were having sex on the grass at Golden Gate Park were “of age”?
YE: Well, I don’t know.
LBC: No, including me. You know, it was different — very recent thing to work up in people’s public consciousness now about the age of people — they were having sex back then when Rolling Stone had their big cover story on the groupies. In my opinion that was the issue that launched them into the public’s awareness because it was shocking and they featured the GTO’s — how old were the GTO’s — 16- 15 years old maybe… Miss Pamela was really young. I don’t know what she says now in her books. I have to actually check if she admits if she was under age and if she didn’t she’d actually be much older now (laughter).
All the GTO’s were under age. The Rolling Stone article had the Plaster Casters. How old was Cynthia Plaster…maybe 16 or so? The whole article was the lead story in the issue. I don’t think it touched on or even cared to mention or thought it should mention the age of these girls.
I remember my mother begging me not to tell anyone I was working for David Bowie.
YE: I have started to collect vintage ads of bath houses and porno theaters in various underground newspapers from the late ‘60’s and mid-‘70’s. I came across this ad from the Advocate circa ’76 that sold a Danish magazine called Boy which featured young boys between the ages of 9 and 15 years old. I thought that was strange since the heavy law restrictions and society’s attitudes in those days.
LBC: My older brother was fond of those magazines because we were from Kentucky. So when I was 8 years old, my brother was 5 years older, so he was like 12 or 13, he was ordering these magazines and getting them through the mail.
YE: Oh, my. Which magazines were these? I know that in the ‘50’s certain physique magazines featured younger boys.
LBC: The physique magazines were your entre. They were sold at newsstands in downtown Louisville. They were under the counter because they couldn’t be displayed. In that type of magazine, you could get on the mailing list. Oh, I remember my brother by the time he was 16 or 17, the mail box would be full of those circulars advertising photographs, films, and other magazines and fully 50% of them were of children.
YE: Oh, my.
LBC: Yeah, no one thought about it, you know what I mean? I often like to think about what it must have been like further back when my uncles were living in the hills of Kentucky and you know everyone makes that joke about hillbillies marrying their 12-year-old cousins? Well, it wasn’t a joke! (Laughs)
No one noticed that kind of stuff. I was having sex when I was 8 or 9 years old.
JR: With boys or girls?
LBC: Well, I tried both. And I found boys more interesting.
YE: (laughs). Why were boys more interesting?
LBC: You’re a kid in Kentucky like me and the most interesting sexual encounters were with boys who were normally older than myself but not by much, let’s see, I was 8 or 9 — they’d be 13 or 14 years old. So, it was very audacious and they take the initiative and teach me… Plus, to me they were cuter. See, now we’re getting into a Freudian area here.
YE: (laughs). We just got a little off track from talking about your photographs.
LBC: Yeah, now we’re talking about underage sex (laughs). I mean, look at Jerry Lee Lewis. He married — how old was Myra Brown?
YE: Myra Brown was 13 years old when she married her cousin Jerry Lee Lewis.
LBC: I met her only once. We shared a taxi…She was grown then. She didn’t say very nice things about Jerry Lee. But I found her charming. She was fabulous.
YE: But let’s steer back into your time with MainMan.
LBC: Tony Defries was hung up on the way the old movie studios worked back in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. They’d have a bunch of stars under contract. He would use one star to further another star’s career. That’s what he envisioned MainMan was supposed to become. He wanted all these artists to help each other, but of course it didn’t work. They were all jealous of each other. I am sure that in Hollywood they were jealous also, but that was different. The contracts were stronger — I don’t know – anyway, that’s how I got involved with the Stooges — see when I went to live with the Stooges I was being punished.
LBC: Because that’s the way Tony Defries and David Bowie kept the staff in line — the business side of it — and it was growing because by this time David was becoming really successful. There were 40 or 50 people on staff…every time we’d start to feel we were doing a good job, they’d do something to bring us down and wreck our self-esteem. They’d fire 10 people at once just to show that you were dispensable. So they kept everyone thinking like their job was never secure. At one point after a successful Ziggy Stardust tour, I was put on as road manager to Mott the Hoople and that was meant to be punishment. But the Mott the Hopple tour ended up being a huge success. It sold out everywhere — ran very smoothly. So when I go back to New York, I started to feel that I was hotter than when I was with the Ziggy Stardust stuff. So then it was really time to bring me down. The end of ’73, after Christmas, they said, “You have to go out to Los Angeles and find a place for the Stooges. You have to find a house for them. They can’t keep living at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Anyway, you get to live with them and take care of them.” So, that was supposed to have meant the ultimate punishment because I’d be out in California instead of where all the action was, in New York. And I would be with outrageous out-of-control horrible junkies in Never -Never Land — the outback of Los Angeles. That was supposed to be torture but was the greatest period of my life. I had a fabulous time. Of course that was when I met Stable Starr and Lori and had a great time with the Stooges. We lived in a fabulous house with a huge swimming pool — away from the all the backbiting and jealousy of MainMan. It was great for a while in California.
YE: What was so great?
LBC: As it turned out, Iggy was fabulous to work with and there were no problems at all. Sure, they were junkies but so was everyone. That wasn’t a big deal. My job was meant to spy on them and report how much drug use there was but, of course, I didn’t do that. I covered up for them. So, there I was in L.A. swimming in the pool. It was so easy to work in California. The record company … mostly booked hotels in those days. We’d have parties. Lots and lots of parties — you’re in Los Angeles and Led Zeppelin comes to town and the Who comes to town — you know, they had their parties and we had our parties so we just partied in a place where it never rains and the sun always shines.
YE: Oh, good.
LBC: Better than jail.
YE: Did you manage to photograph any concert appearances of the Stooges or the bands that came through?
LBC: During that period, they rarely were on stage. They were meant to be, but they were out in California and the MainMan offices were in New York City and they sort of forgot about them. So all we did was rehearse every day. They got us an old clap-trap of a Cadillac and my security would drive them downhill to Santa Monica Blvd. to some studio in Sherman Hills every afternoon and they’d rehearse all evening and then go to the English Disco at night and drink beer and go crazy. Suzie Ha-Ha. Suzie would drive them all up the hill including the girls, groupies, drug dealers, and everybody would come back to the house and hang around the swimming pool and sleep all day and go to rehearsal in the afternoon. That was our day. That’s when they booked a show at the Ford. Actually, I’ve photographed the Stooges since Danny Fields brought them to New York back in 1969. But that was the first I photographed them as being with MainMan at the Ford in 1974.
YE: Is that the one where he’s wearing those black leotards?
LBC: Yeah, little gypsy scarf tied around his hips and one hand painted silver.
YE: Yeah, where was the venue that you first photographed the Stooges?
LBC: Yeah, Danny Fields had imported the Stooges from Detroit to play in a place called Ungano’s in the Upper West Side of New York. And that’s the first time anyone in New York ever saw or heard them. Mostly nobody ever heard of them. Danny was working for Elektra. In those days, during the hippie days, record companies employed what was called the Company Freak. His job meant that since he was in the right age range he was the one who could understand young pot smoking-free-sex-loving-living people of what certain music they liked because the old record company executives had no idea at all. So they would send the Company Freak off to listen to bands and advise them if the bands were good or not. That’s how a lot of bands got signed. They sent him off to see the MC5 who were getting a lot of attention and their support band was the Stooges. Before he left, Danny had signed both the MC5 and the Stooges without the record company hearing so much as a note. Those were the days.
YE: How did you become a photographer?
LBC: Well, honey, I was a photographer — that’s what I was supposed be — all that work in A&R — all that routine of taking bands on the roads — being a road manager with Mott the Hopple —all made up as I went along. I had intended to be a photographer since I got to New York because I had a camera. I had an older brother who bought me a camera for one of my birthdays. Cameras were a very handy way of meeting people because you can walk up to someone with your camera and say ‘can I take your picture?’ and you become their friend. In some cases, you could take them home and have sex with them, whatever. That could break the ice and that’s why I became a photographer. I would take photographs of all the drag queens on Christopher Street. They loved being photographed! They’d invite me to come along with them to the Stonewall or various of the gay bars, especially the after-hours gay bars like the Sewer where I met Judy Garland and people like that. The drag queens took me to those things. That’s how I became a photographer because that was my trade. So when people ask ‘what do you do?’, you’d say, ‘I’m a photographer’. I was lucky. I went straight into the big time because I started to photograph the Velvet Underground because of the Factory and Andy Warhol. My pictures were picked up and they were very successful. And the next thing I knew I was in Rolling Stone.
As it turned out, Iggy was fabulous to work with and there were no problems at all. Sure, they were junkies but so was everyone. That wasn’t a big deal.
YE: You are one of the few witnesses alive who actually met and befriended the great Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis.
LBC: It was a world I was totally unaware of. When I was younger, I was aware of transvestites and female impersonators. I had relatives who had gone to New Orleans and San Francisco. In San Francisco there was a place called Pinocchio’s where if you were a tourist you’d go and drink cocktails and watch men dress up as women parade around. And the object was supposed to be that they looked like women. Not like secretaries, but like fabulous and glamorous. So that was what I thought a female impersonator was. So when I got to New York …in those days there were those underground newspapers and of course there would be pictures of Candy Darling and Andy Warhol. She fit what I thought a female impersonator was supposed to look like, at least in the photographs I saw in the papers. She always looked glamorous. That year I met her and I realized she was not really trying to look like a woman at all. She was trying to look like Candy Darling! And that was way behind what any woman would ever even want to look like. Drag queens on Christopher Street in New York were really outrageous. They wore huge platform boots and put on 12 pairs of false eyelashes so they had big thick black onions on top of their eyelids. When they’d bat their eyes, you could hear them click. They go to 14th Street where the wigs were cheap and buy 8 or 11 and kind of sew or pin them all together so they’d have these giant hairdos. They looked like men anyway with these giant hairdos and platform boots. And they were like giant floats in a Macy’s parade. They were 9 feet tall.
YE: My god.
LBC: And they wore glitter on their faces, glitter on their eyelids and lips. Nothing could convince anyone they were real women. So, I found them fascinating. When I first met Jackie Curtis, I went to see her in the play Cock Strong. And then, so I knew who she was when I used to hang out on Christopher Street as she did — now if you hang out on Christopher Street nowadays you could get your throat cut.
YE: (surprised) Oh, wow.
LBC: In those days, you could walk around in cutoff shorts and sit on the steps and cars would stroll down Christopher Street by the minutes and the cars would pick you up and they’d drive you to the dark side of the street or something. If they were brave they’d drive you down to the river where the trucks parked and you’d have sex. Some people did it for money but I never had a dollar because I didn’t think anyone would pay me. So I never did it for money. I would go there and sit and wait to be picked up and photograph whoever was there. So one day I was sitting there and this guy came and sat next to me and he was touching my leg — stuff like that. He said, “Do you want to go to a wedding tomorrow?” and I said, “A wedding?” He said, “Yes, Jackie Curtis is getting married on a rooftop.”
He said, “On the Lower East Side on 5th Ave — why don’t you go?” And I went — my camera went with me — so I agreed if I could take pictures because I already knew who Jackie Curtis was because I had seen her in that play. I was very excited to go. So I went on this rooftop and it was the night the men landed on the moon. That was in July 1969. It was all a fake wedding, as it turned out. Jackie, through her lifetime, had six weddings. This was her first one and she was in this fabulous gown by some famous designer and everyone was talking about it…Glitter on her eyelids, glitter on her lips, and her hair was teased up — she looked nothing like a woman.
LBC: You could easily see her beard and everything. And, this little cute girl came up to me. She had honey blonde hair and was wearing a blue dress. And she said, “Do you want to go up to the reception in Max’s Kanas City? Come with me. I’ll take you there.” As it turned out that little girl was Andrea Feldman.
LBC: She was a Warhol superstar in Trash and Heat. So she took me to Max’s and when I went into the back room Jackie came up to me and we became friendly.
YE: You had Holly, Jackie and Candy Darling living with you. What did you both absorb and did they leave any life lasting impression on how to really live a certain lifestyle that few can?
LBC: She was living with Bobby B. Meyer. She had to get some stuff from there because the lights had been turned off. They did not pay the bill. Anyway, about three days later, she showed up at my door. I had a little apartment at 13th St. between Ave A and 1st Ave. She stood up at my door and said, “I wanted everyone to think I had committed suicide. So I have to live with you because no one would think of looking here”.
LBC: I said, “Okay but it’s just one bedroom.” She went and looked at it and said, “Oh a double! We could sleep together.” But Wayne County was already living there.
LBC: And in no time, Holly Woodlawn showed up and said, “I have to live here.” And she moved in. And of course Jackie Curtis’ good friend Rita Red moved in. And various boys like Johnny Patton and Rio Grande. So in time there was like eight people all living in this one bedroom with a tub in the kitchen. There, on the Lower East Side, was when I began to learn about that type of drag queen. Their whole idea was to look outrageous. And get high every day — to constantly live in this version of Drag that hadn’t been invented which wasn’t meant to convince anyone that they were a woman. It was just meant to have fun with it — to be outrageous looking. I found out that this is far more fun, you know, than living as a man all day and dressing up at night as a woman. Instead, you’re a crazy drag freak all of the time. And they became very much part of my life and the [Underground] Theater. I learned a lot about how to face the world from Jackie and Holly. Holly would get her clothes out of garbage cans. She’d be walking along, look in and see a bit of cloth and pull it out. If it was decent, she’d put it on right there on the street. And by the time we’d gotten to Max’s, she’d have this whole outfit on: scarves, table cloths, and things that she’d just add. And you don’t care about anything at all of what people say. That’s what I mean by living outside the law. You just live outside the conventions and that’s what they did. I’ve been trying to live up to their standards, or down to their standards, ever since.
YE: That’s fantastic. They really left an impression on you.
LBC: Yes, indeed. I learned that there is no fun or point in living a double life. So I could never be blackmailed because there are no secrets. From the beginning, what you want is what you get. And if you want more of it, we got more!
YE: I am glad you photographed a part of history like the rent boys. What was the erotic aspect of these young male hustlers that inspired you enough to turn them into photographic subjects?
LC: I always like rent boys. In England, rent boys were usually skinheads. People were really scared of [them]. Back in the early days, rent boys were generally tough little Leather Boys.
YE: Oh, yes.
LC: You know, street boys. I always got along with rent boys. I admired and respected them. They took care of themselves and had a good code of honor. Well, I liked prostitutes. Anyway, male prostitutes, naturally, since I like men.
But way back when I lived in Kentucky, I was working for a while as an escort in this hotel in downtown Louisville. And on the ground floor were little old ladies who worked at Woolworth’s. On the 2nd floor was where salespeople were. The 3rd floor was where the prostitutes were. The 4th was where the soldiers and sailors stayed. They would walk down to the 3rd floor and patronize the prostitutes. I worked the front desk in the evenings. I had that switchboard like the one you see in cartoons with the plugs.
“Instead of just going around taking pictures of people, I always got involved in their lives. Like, for example, I lived with David Bowie, I lived with Aerosmith. I lived with the Stooges. I lived with Jayne County and Jackie Curtis. So, I got more involved in their personal adventures than you do just taking their picture and leaving.”
LBC: So when the police would come in, I’d madly plug all the prostitutes in and tell them that we were being raided. And in their rooms they had wigs that already had curlers in it. And they’d throw on an old housecoat so by the time the police got up to them; they looked as if they were just sitting around in their curlers watching TV. That was the system we had. Then, as drugs came along – I had a room in the hotel too — the police came and raided, they found some marijuana in my room. So they took me away to jail. I called my mother and she said, “Drugs?! Well, it serves you right! Stay in jail!”
YE: Oh, no.
LBC: She told my brother, who worked at the same hotel, and he told the prostitutes that I had been taken away to jail. So every time they turned a trick, they’d go downstairs and put a dollar in this fish bowl on top of the counter. In the morning one of the prostitutes gathered the money, went to the jail and bailed me out.
LBC: So I will always love prostitutes.
YE: They really looked after you.
LBC: Yes, and rent boys, of course, I find glamorous. They live in more of a fantasy world than any one of us could ever conjure up because they are real men and 99.9% of the time their girlfriends are transsexual or transvestites that they treat like women. And yet they have sex with men for money. They’re gorgeous and they’re gay. But it’s not that they say they’re gay. They’re just rent boys. It’s a different category.
YE: How so?
LBC: Yeah, well, they’re straight. It’s not like that horrible gay-for-pay. It’s just that money is the part of what turns them on. It validates how beautiful they are.
YE: Where does this fascination with the rent boys stem from?
LBC: Well, I was thrilled and tantalized by them in Kentucky although I never got involved with them. The rent boy area in Louisville was around the public library.
And they would hang out in the park where the cars would cruise [them]. They would be on the benches with their right hand over their crotch to signify to the passing car that the cost was $5 dollars.
So when I was in high school, one of my close friends, Philip, was the first one to get a car — I think it was actually getting to use his mother’s car. Anyway, we idolized them. [When] we were 16, [we would drive] around the library just looking at the rent boys because they were all so gorgeous. They all had those fabulous backsides, leather jackets, and tight jeans. It was so glamorous to be those boys that I knew they were going to get in that car and have some sort of sex.
YE: My god. Fantastic (laughs).
LBC: So those were the first rent boys that I was aware of. Of course, when I got to New York and the gay bars, the rent boys would come in there and dance with the drag queens. They would slow dance together, too. Oh, nobody cared about, you know, what we talked before about how old you were. The gay bars rarely carded. [. . . ] Once you’re messing with the small stuff, you’re breaking the law. I never got carded. In fact, those days, 18 [years old] was legal in New York. So I was actually legal by that time I was living in New York. But, there were a lot of people younger than me and nobody cared. The only people who got arrested were the drag queens. If you were 13, no one bothered with you. They just told you to go home.
YE: What drew you to photograph drag queens, rent boys and early glam and punk?
LBC: Oh, I did it because I loved it. I photographed people that I loved. High profile them. I can’t begin to tell you how many rock ‘n’ roll assignments that I turned down because I’d be miserable to go to Madison Square Garden and photograph bands that I didn’t like their music and I didn’t like them. Instead I’d go and photograph the punks that I did like. I am so glad I did and it worked out for me because now my most popular photography is most sought after by collectors. I mean there are thousands of pictures of Mick Jagger but a picture of a rent boy or a fabulous drag queen from the ‘70’s is rarer because I am a good photographer. [I took] good photographs of these people which are far more interesting. There was no money in it back then. I wasn’t doing it for that. And, just like you take pictures of your friends, I wanted to find pictures of them because I wanted to remember them. Now, they hang on the wall here and there.
YE: It’s similar to Allen Ginsberg’s decision to photograph his friends and also to capture them forever in their youth before any literary fame.
I learned that there is no fun or point in living a double life. So I could never be blackmailed because there are no secrets.
LBC: I sold one not long ago of Jackie Curtis to this guy who owned a bar in Dublin. He told me that he was going to hang it over his bar. I thought, wouldn’t Jackie just love the idea of hanging over a bar in Ireland —the Irish boys sitting drunk and looking at her in all her glamour. It’s so much better than being in a book somewhere in the library.
YE: (laughs) Exactly. But why do you think rock photography is now being considered fine art?
LBC: Oh, they always do that. They always have to turn everything into fine art. I just tell people my stuff is just snapshots but I’m good at it. I loved the subjects I was doing. You know it’s just like ah — the big deal with Ernest Hemingway — they were all trying to find all kinds of symbolism and stuff. And Ernest’s famous quote about The Old Man and the Sea: “It’s a book about an old man and the sea. The old man is an old man and the sea is the sea.” That’s it!
A photograph — really, turning that into an art is really a stretch. You just hold a little box up and you push a little button down. Now, if you’re talented at it, you’d get a good picture and people could see what you were taking a picture of. And if you love it, you accept it as your true love and make it into what you want it to look like. But other than that, what makes it art? Nothing. All of the photographers in the whole world would hate me for saying that, but you just point a little box at something and push a little button down. That’s photography. And now you don’t have to even do that. Now you just point your telephone at anything.
YE: Photography must have lost its magic, I suppose.
LBC: I don’t think photography will ever lose its magic. I love doing it. That’s it. Not that photography was magic, but I love doing it. You’re right [to say] that I was lucky. My camera was always pointing very privately at some very famous people but that was just my luck.
YE: You were lucky in the sense that you manage to befriend these people and not treat them as just another assignment.
LBC: That was why I got the great opportunity to take such great pictures because I was trusted. I wasn’t — well, look at the reputation of photographers and they have a very bad reputation: they could be such bullies and they don’t seem to care about their subjects. But I clearly cared about mine. That was part of the reason why I was successful because when people saw me they knew my goal was to make them look good because I liked them.
LBC: It wasn’t to get a picture of them drunk or drooling out of their mouth because the Enquirer would pay for it. I never took those pictures. And, I’m so glad I didn’t.