Presumably, Girl George would’ve enjoyed attending the premiere of Pre-Madonna, the feature-length documentary detailing her dalliances in 1970s Nashville. But alas, the East Bay open mic legend was indisposed.
Specifically, she was getting false teeth.
“Remember in the movie, my teeth were all fucked up?” she bellows, flashing an indeed impressive set of faux-pearly whites. “I’m gonna be sixty. I’m no young kid. Everyone else in the movie had already done their teeth. I can see. They all have false teeth. But I hadn’t done it till April Fool’s Day. My teeth started fuckin’ up, so I said, ‘Take ’em out,’ right when they were showing the premiere. Which I’m glad, ’cause it would’ve killed me. It killed me. I haven’t slept in three weeks.”
George’s alleged insomnia stems from the fact that though she missed Pre-Madonna‘s Nashville premiere, she did catch its public Berkeley debut late last month at the Starry Plough during her weekly Tuesday night open mic gig. Cool flick, weird subjects, and, if you’re one of those weird subjects, big problems.
“I thought it was great, except,” George thunders. “They didn’t put me playin’! Playin’ guitar. I’m a singer and songwriter. Have been for a hundred years. And they got my whole life story, from bein’ born to gettin’ married to gettin’ unmarried to topless dancer to ridin’ with the Hells Angels to bein’ pregnant — they got everything except my music.”
Then again, music has never been the most interesting thing about Girl George. She’s a Bay Area icon more by sheer force of personality, with her shock of white-blonde hair (a dark patch lurking at the back of her head); bombastically craggy voice; riveting pacing, flailing, and howling conversational habits; and patented mix of childlike exuberance and veteran disdain. Nothing she’ll ever do onstage will top the mesmerizing performances she puts on, as herself, offstage.
Which, Pre-Madonna asserts, is exactly what made George nominally famous. Except back then she had a little help.
Pre-Madonna is subtitled “The Anecdotal Adventures of George and the Arizona Star,” the latter being, depending on whom you ask, either George’s equal partner in crime or mere sideshow/sidekick. The gist: In ’70s Nashville, a halcyon time and place described as “Paris in the ’20s,” or, more to the point, “When the ’60s hit the South,” the fertile, talented, but decidedly boring scene is suddenly invaded and held hostage by two young ladies with moderate musical talents, but world-class scenester skills.
First there’s a young George, fresh from SF and a month-long failed marriage, with a waifish frame, a short blonde pixie cut and, on her belt, an actual sword, the total package an asexual mix of David Bowie and Prince Valiant. And then there’s Star, an Arizona-bred sexpot with a finely tuned sense of Marilyn Monroe melodrama.
Together, they destroyed Nashville and rebuilt it in their own fractured image. On-camera interviews with big-shot scenesters like Kris Kristofferson reveal earnest musicians thunderstruck by the duo’s nonmusical magnetism. “When they arrived they were bigger than everybody,” someone onscreen notes as, from the back of the Starry Plough, George violently giggles. “First day they got here.”
“They weren’t writers, they were images,” another worshipper declares. “Colorful images.”
The ninety-minute flick rolls by with the usual mix of still photos, archival video footage, present-day interviews, earnest narration, and incidental backing music. Anecdote after anecdote — the arrests, the scene-crashing public appearances, the various depravities and eccentricities — goes by, and then, about an hour in, you realize what you haven’t seen: footage of George and Star actually performing.
“Doesn’t exist,” explains Pre-Madonna director Demetria Kalodimos, a twenty-year Nashville vet and beloved TV newscaster who doubles as a greenhorn documentarian — “I’m sort of committed to underground Nashville tales,” she explains over the phone. Consumer video, she notes, wasn’t around back then, so the only onstage footage of George and Star that sneaks in — a few brief glimpses of a goofy play they wrote entitled The Lobotomy — required months of technical doctoring to salvage from an old reel-to-reel setup. “I’m sorry if she’s miffed,” Demetria notes. “But personally, I think I saved her a little bit.”
The flick also attempts to trace George and Star’s legit attempts to cut an album and get legitimately, artistically famous, but those efforts inevitably fell through and constantly paled in comparison to the duo’s walking-down-the-street aura. Eventually, the Behind the Music rancor begins, as George chafes at Star’s spotlight-grabbing: “I had a fuckin’ sword on,” George declares on-camera. “You couldn’t not see me.” At another point she lays it even plainer: “She forgot: Without me, there wasn’t her.”
George is even blunter one month after Pre-Madonna‘s Berkeley unveiling, as she paces outside the Starry Plough during her Tuesday-night open-mic extravaganza. “I’m sure Star told them, ‘Wooo, if you put her singin’, you don’t get me.’ Why else?” she howls. “The whole movie was about the yin and yang of us. How I’m hard — so maybe I’m punk and loud and sayin’ ‘fuck you’ and ‘Johnny Got Herpes’ and ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Whore’ — would be the perfect ending to her bein’ ‘Eeee eee eee look at me I’m Marilyn Monroe.’ ‘Cause that’s what we were, and we’re even more so now.”
Star and George haven’t spoken since the mid-’70s; even Pre-Madonna hasn’t reconciled them yet. Star did attend the Nashville premiere — “Signin’ autographs, takin’ bows,” George snorts, figuring her counterpart had stolen the spotlight once again. “I disagree,” Demetria says. “I think most of the people who saw the film here in Nashville thought George was the star of the show. I had more people tell me that they were endeared to George and curious about her. I think George as a character is one of the true originals.”
Demetria insists Star didn’t attempt to drive George or her music out of the picture, and she remains optimistic about a reunion: “I think they both want to contact one other,” she says. “I just heard from Star again, saying ‘I need to get George’s e-mail.’ I think there’s also a sort of a symbiosis going there that I don’t fully understand, but I think they both have very fond memories of one another, and speak very highly of one another, and I hope that’ll come to pass.”
Don’t count on it.
Pre-Madonna‘s waning moments open a huge divide between the modern-day Star and George: The former went on to a bizarre new wave torch singer career and now leads the camera through her opulent London apartment, while of all the qualities George still radiates, “glamour” ain’t one of ’em: “I’m just an old lady walkin’ around with dogs,” she says at film’s end. But that doesn’t mean she trifles with something as pedestrian as jealousy.
“You missed that part,” George hollers. “Didn’t you hear me say she’s everything I hated? Ha ha ha. That’s not what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a performer. I wanted to be Dylan. I wanted to be the Beatles. I wanted to be John Lennon. You take me seriously, not as a girl, I’m supposed to walk two feet behind — I won’t do that. It was her, which was as far over that way as you ever could get.”
What Pre-Madonna ultimately posits is that you can get famous without ever really being famous, and that you might be better off for it. Nostalgia isn’t the point, either. “It isn’t like, ‘Oh, I wish I were in the ’60s, I wish I were in the ’20s,” George mock-moans. “It’s always been there. Artists do that. That’s what artists do. They grow up and they grow old, or they O.D., or they grow out of it. I never did. Everyone’s half my age, a third my age, but I’m still there doing it. I’m playin’ every week.”
Indeed, her four-year death grip on the Starry Plough won’t loosen anytime soon, and her weekly fifteen-minute slot is plenty, thanks — “I’m an old lady,” George notes. But she is self-deprecating only to a point. “It’s not over,” she insists. “Art is forever. I’m doing it. I’m still doing it. If you get famous, then you can’t play anymore — so maybe I lucked out — and your kid’s all fucked up. My kid’s great. We get along great. She went to college, she likes me. So our kid turned out great, I get to play every week — what more can you ask? People get famous, they can’t play anymore. They play once a year, on tour. Rolling Stones get to play, what, once every five years? I like to play. This is what I enjoy. The rest is all, nothin’ to do with it. I’m a performer.”
For her part, Demetria is hawking Pre-Madonna DVDs at her Web site, GenuineHuman.com, and fantasizing about someone turning her film into a fictionalized feature. Someone, you know, famous. “I wanna slip it into the hands of Quentin Tarantino, who’s in town shooting a movie,” she notes. “He could always write a hell of a character based on George or Star.”
Nobody’s gonna dispute that. However unnerved Pre-Madonna left her — watching a documentary about yourself for the first time in public has gotta be disquieting — Girl George recovered admirably that night at the Starry Plough. After whisking away the projection screen, she leapt onstage, grabbed a microphone, lassoed the usual pack of backup singers, and launched into an original tune: “Perverts Everywhere.”