Twenty years ago, they were the kings of prepubescent pop. And the Duranettes were the queens of our ghetto junior high. Now, on the first night of the Fabulous Five's U.S. comeback tour, I've come to pay my respects.
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Eric, 35 and beaming, tall, well built, and dark haired, is jumping up and down and wringing his hands. Duran Duran’s first live U.S. show with all five members in 18 years has just ended, and the famed Roxy is emptying out. Eric is high as a kite, and in this case I suspect there are no drugs involved. Back in Oklahoma in the ’80s, Eric and his best friend turned her house into a “Duran Duran spotlight museum,” complete with a John room, a Nick room, a Simon Room, an Andy room and a Roger room, all decorated from top to bottom with posters of the band members. They charged younger kids from the neighborhood $1 to enter, and made a killing.
Eric — not his real name, and can you blame him? — is now a grad student in psychology in San Diego, but tonight he’s just a fan. He’s telling me what he wore to the band’s Oklahoma City show at the Lloyd Nobel Center in 1985: a black, floppy, knee-length jacket with wide lapels and buttons on the shoulders, acid-washed jeans ripped at the knee, folded in tight at the bottom and tucked into black pixie boots. Think Kajagoogoo, think Ducky in “Pretty in Pink,” think … Duran Duran. For the nymphets sliding by us in hot-pink pumps and off-the-shoulder shirts, it’s ’80s retro, but for people like Eric and yours truly, it’s a dream come true, because I’ve also scored a press pass to the after-party at the Chateau Marmont.
“Who was your favorite?” I ask, though he looks like the Nick Rhodes type to me.
“There was no favorite, really, it was just, you know, the whole experience!”
And then his ability to speak coherently collapses: “Oh, if anyone had told me, 20 years ago, that I would be here! At the Roxy! Just 20 feet away from them! I’d — I’d — Oh my God. I’d — wow.”
An experience, that’s what Duran Duran was, if you were a fan in the early ’80s. It wasn’t about just the music, or the crushes, or the clothes, or all those pretty videos shot in Sri Lanka. But the prettiness sure helped. They were all gorgeous: Simon Le Bon, the blond singer, with his obscure lyrics and histrionic head movements, relatively old at 25; Nick Rhodes, the effete keyboard player who could barely play a note; Roger Taylor, the dark and sullen drummer; Andy Taylor, the short guy who wanted to play hard rock. And John Taylor — John, he of the elegant black fedoras, high cheekbones and full-lipped pout — was my true love, but it was a secret one, which by virtue of being secret grew all the stronger in my junior high school heart.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
1983, Browns Mills, N.J. We were 12 years old, and sex was everywhere. We lived in a dreary, poor Bruce Springsteen song of a town, so desolate we didn’t have a movie theater, a mall, even a drug trade. There was no place to hang out, except the house of whoever’s parents weren’t around. But there were boys, oh yes there were boys: lounging in driveways, boys in tight jeans and concert shirts, their long, feathered hair catching the light in the late afternoon sun, calling tempting obscenities to us as they flew by on their three-speeds.
We were 12 years old and sex was everywhere. But my girlfriends and I kept it somewhere safe, we kept it on our walls. Wallpaper, really, because our rooms were covered, like Eric’s, ceiling to floor with posters of the Fabulous Five, the first real MTV supergroup, the 1984 band of the year (by Rolling Stone’s own begrudging admission), the biggest thing to happen to teenage girls since slim-fit Tampax. The two toughest girls in my junior high school, a lovely, dimpled Puerto Rican named Diana and a fiery, overweight redhead named Nikki, had claimed Simon and John, so I had to settle for Nick, and keep my inner yearnings for John to myself. I knew he would love me, though, one day. I wasn’t like the other fans, I understood him. I had important things to tell him.
We called ourselves the Duranettes. We three were the core, but there were a few other girls too, interchangeable satellites whom we would saddle with Andy, or Roger, and then all pore over the teen ‘zines every day on our front steps. We changed their lyrics to suit our world: “Please please fuck me now/ is there something I should blow?” and sang them top volume so the boys could hear. But when they slowed down on their bicycles, Nikki would sweep a red-taloned nail through her mane of red hair, toss it over her shoulder, and say, “Get out of here, fuckface — I’m saving myself for John Taylor.”
We were the No. 1 fans, and we were ready to fight for the crown we claimed. On weekends, we took the bus to the Pemberton County Mall, where Nikki and Diana would beat up any girl they found with the nerve to wear an “I love John Taylor” or “I love Simon Le Bon” pin on her bag. We wrote letters, we made dart targets out of the faces of the supermodels they dated, and late at night, after our parents fell asleep, we called each other on the phone and whispered long tales about the lives we would lead with our future husbands. There was lots of talk of sex, but mostly the stories would be about pursuit, about how they would recognize us for what we had to offer, about how they would whisk us away from the dead ends we saw in New Jersey, spirit us off in jets and bright cars.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
But that was many years ago, and both the boys and the Duranettes are a bit worse for wear. Since its heyday in the ’80s, the band has had offshoots (Power Station, anyone?), a hobbling series of releases under the name Duran Duran but without their guitarist or drummer, and a humiliating album of covers called “Thank You” in which Simon Le Bon performed Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” so embarrassingly that even the collectors of kitsch cringed and avoided the album. Now the band is back, and tonight is the first night of their reunion tour, a triumphant return gig at the 450-capacity Roxy Theater.
We are early. There are no more than 100 people in the room. My companion, Steven, buys me a beer, and as he hands it to me he sniffs, “This the fattest crowd I’ve ever seen in Hollywood.”
They look normal to me, but then I don’t live in L.A. It’s true that except for the celebrities — Gwen Stefani, Gavin Rossdale, Christina Applegate, Donovan Leitch, Jenna Elfman, as well as grizzled veterans such as Pamela and Michael Des Barres, who are all safely ensconced in a roped-off balcony to the side — the room seems full of mostly rock journalists, record label people and clusters of diehard fans in full DD regalia, some of whom have paid up to $500 for tickets. Many of the women in the room are in their early 30s, the dentures-and-arthritis set by L.A. standards.
Still, there are more than enough lovelies to distract, lounging in halter tops, tossing long, blond hair, flirting with the roadies. It’s a good thing I’m on the list. Twenty years after I first taped a Nick Rhodes 8-by-10 to my headboard, I’ve filled out a bit, lost the asymmetrical buzz cut and learned how to work a room; there are environments in which, at age 33, I’m considered attractive, nay, even farouche. Hollywood Boulevard is not one of them. I couldn’t blow my way backstage with a torch.
But I could resort to violence. I’m focused on a tiny Asian woman in a T-shirt that says, “I love Nick” on the front. Looking at her frail frame, a bit of the old spirit flares up: I could take her. Another girl, bigger, with dyed red hair and hard eyes, stands behind her in a tight black shirt with the glitter signature “Simon.” Her, I’m not so sure about. It was always the toughest ones who claimed Simon.
The lights dim and the crowd pushes to the front of the stage, but instead of anticipation, I’m suddenly battling a sudden sharp fear of disappointment. Last time I saw Duran Duran, from the highest and farthest balcony at the Philadelphia Spectrum, my 20s were ahead of me, not behind me, and I still thought the hierarchies of adolescence would end after high school graduation.
Then the curtain lifts, and it’s 1983 again. The speakers boom out a heavy Andy Taylor guitar lick I haven’t heard in almost 10 years, and from this distance, they all look the same. They launch thunderously into “Friends of Mine” — perhaps the hardest rocker on their first album, but one with no video on MTV; it’s a song that only a diehard fan would know. It’s no ballad, but in this room, it feels like a love song to the faithful.
A few people — very few, I’m gratified to see — pump their fists in the air and sing along:
“Friends of mine/ They said they were/ Friends of mine/ More like a waste of time!”
These are my people, the fist-pumpers, the VIP room of fandom: a tall handsome man — who will turn out to be Eric — is shouting along and stamping his feet. A delicate blond boy who looks just like Beck stands behind me, his eyes aglow, mouthing the words silently like prayer. A heavyset woman in a black dress with red fringes clutches her chest and rocks her head from side to side. Even the VIP balcony seems to be on its feet, and I can see Gwen Stefani pogoing with both arms in the air. These are my people. And we all agree on one thing and one thing only: Duran Duran rules!
Well, sort of.
Simon still dances like a fop, only now one senses that his disaffected slow-motion hip thrusts and head rolls are more about fatigue than ironic distance. John has thinning hair, looks like Macgyver, and at least twice I see Andy Taylor — short, dumpy, wearing sunglasses, a British John Mellencamp — try to sing backup with his mouth at least five feet from the microphone. They are wearing suits, updated, subdued versions of their delicious fashion mistakes of the ’80s. They look less like rock stars than the lawyers who represent them.
As they trudge through one of their newer songs, I push back from the stage and follow the big woman in the fringed black dress to the bathroom. Her name is Shyla, she does something I can’t quite follow in the record biz, and when I ask her why she’s here, she pats her rather stunning bosom and says, “Oh, Nick, Nick, Nick. I loved him. I loved him. I even chose my prom date because he won the Nick Rhodes lookalike contest. It was the closest thing I could get to the real thing.
“I actually met Nick at a Grammy party,” she breathes. “I told him he was why I entered the music business! He said he was happy he had been a part of my choices!”
Shyla is a fan, but there’s something crazed in her heavily mascara’d eye. I back out of the bathroom and return to the show where Simon is wailing the words to “Ordinary World,” a moderate hit from 1993. From there, they tear into “Notorious,” “Wild Boys,” “Rio,” “Careless Memories.” Even the audience members who don’t know this last song (a U.K. hit single off the first album) are rocking out. My notepad is covered with sweat. The band has finally woken up.
A lone woman rushes the stage. It’s fandemomemium, it’s people turning to each other and grinning for no reason. It’s why we go to rock shows in the first place.
And then it’s over. At least, for the hoi polloi. But not for me — I’m on the list. I bid Erik farewell, feeling a bit sorry for him, since all he got was an exhilarating concert and a flood of happy memories. Me, I’m off to find John Taylor. For real.
A few minutes later, in the lush rooms and fountains of the Marmont, where John Belushi OD’d and almost everyone else of note tried to, I find out just how many circles of exclusion there can be. The fans are gone, but the beautiful people/normal people ratio has tripled. It’s a happening party, and the nymphets are out in droves: glitter-covered strapless tops, shining hair, hip huggers, and every single woman an obstacle in my path to find John. I’m not like these fans, I understand him. I have things to tell him. If only Diana and Nikki were here.
Diana — Le Bon, as she dubbed herself — black-haired and beautiful, won a teen magazine model search and a scholarship to the Barbazon school of beauty when she was 11 years old, and started doing her blush in kidney shapes, the way the school taught her. By 12, she was losing interest in Simon, pinned up on her wall and useless; he couldn’t compete with the skinny boys in tight jeans and Led Zeppelin shirts who called out to her on the way to the school bus. When my mother noticed that Diana had hickeys between her thighs at the beach one day, she decided it was time for us to move.
At my new and better school, I played lacrosse, joined the yearbook committee and left both Duran Duran and Browns Mills behind. Nikki called occasionally over the years to keep me up to date. Things did not go well for Diana, nor for the boys on the bicycles, but Nikki was holding fast to her dream. She rebuffed every boy who tried to get her attention. Whatever, fuckface, I’m saving myself for John Taylor.
Now at the Chateau Marmont, I down a vodka cranberry, then down another, trying to work up my courage to head to the other side of the lobby, where the locus of stardom is concentrated. The band and its party are surrounded by girls, with stardust on their skin and sparkling eyes. I’m not worried, because I’m deeper than these girls. And when John sees me and looks up, we’ll wink. I have something real to say, important things to tell him.
Over by his pocket of the room, in a section cordoned off by a velvet rope no less definite for being invisible, his skin suspiciously tight from close-up, his frosted hair making him look, well, like a guy with frosted hair, he bounds over the chairs that have formed a sort of barrier between the riff-raff and the celebs. He hugs two friends, an outlandishly dressed, gorgeous young blond couple: Ken and Barbie after raiding Macy Gray’s closet, and the three strike up an animated conversation about the sound system at the Roxy.
I’m less than two feet away from them and gradually moving closer. As I edge in, I notice a tall muscular heavyset man, lurking in the corner, watching me. Hah, I haven’t lost it. I can still catch a man’s eye!
I can still feel his eyes on me, even as I sidle in closer to John. We are surrounded by other adoring fans, all with eyes boring into him. He ignores us all. Tired of being shunned, I reach out and gently touch his forearm.
Big mistake. The heavy set man lurches forward, and I realize he’s been trained for this — “potential nutjob who never got past high school, 3 o’clock. I’m movin’ in.”
As I immediately draw back, shamed, and the bodyguard resumes his spot by the wall, Shyla and a friend of hers spot me, from the opposite side of the bar, and torpedo through the line, greeting me with all the warmth and enthusiasm of long-lost sisters, and reluctantly, I return their attentions. I want to be polite, but I don’t want John to think I’m like them. We make an uneasy circle, me, Shyla, her friend, pretending to talk to each other, when really we’re just trying to catch the eye of the tall, middle-aged man next to us who, now that I look at him close-up, has most definitely had plastic surgery. He is 20 inches and 20 circles of importance away from us. He didn’t even flinch when I grazed his arm. I’m slowly realizing that his ability to out-ignore me is far greater than my ability to outwait him.
But I can’t leave; he’s so close, and there are things I want to say to him. I want to say, Dude, you just don’t know what you meant to me. Diana lost it all, her beauty, her hopes, her dreams, but Nikki saved herself for you. Or better — she used you to save herself. And she got out of that town, and she made it to high school still a virgin, and graduated, and now she’s married, and she has two kids and she’s a kindergarten teacher. We saved ourselves for you, and you saved us in return.
Simon is seated with his back to us, in a deep velvet chair, and Shyla’s friend leans up against it. “I’m sharing a chair with Simon Le Bon,” she stage whispers, “it’s like I’m sitting on him, and I must tell you, I am very excited.”
Now, that’s just creepy, and I am fast becoming one of the creeps. Suddenly my urgent message for John just seems tired. They must get it a thousand times a day: Dude, you don’t know what you meant to me.
I shrug off the girls, and turn to go. I’m farther from him now than I ever was, and Eric is the one who had the best night tonight. John will never know what he meant to us, and he probably doesn’t care. On the way out, I almost bump into the guy who looked like Beck. Turns out, it is Beck, but I don’t have the stomach for another steel brush with fame, and I pass by without returning his smile. I pick up a complimentary gift bag that holds a copy of the band’s first CD — the boys on the cover photo all have lined eyes, ruffled shirts and their biggest days ahead of them, and not a single one of them a day over 23 — along with a magazine and a black Duran Duran DKNY baby tee.
The shirt is, of course, too small.
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