Sunday, 13 February 2011

A Lipstick Killers' Valentine

article and illustration by Mrs. Tami Thirlwell-Nicol

the ineffably glam New York Dolls
Lipstick. It’s transformative and essential. It’s also our topic for this Valentine’s Day at the Skool.

The overwhelming selection of shade, texture, and opacity are enough to make your head spin and your lips chap. The joy of cracking open a new tube is unparalleled. As you twist up the stick, it shines and winks at you. But it’s not until you’ve swiped on a coat and surveyed the application that you are convinced you and your new shade are compatible. 

Do you remember your first, Skoolers? Not your mom’s natural looking frosty pale “Plutonium Pink” you covertly tested in the bathroom, or your dead grandma’s shade of “Tepid Flesh”, lovingly willed to you. Or cast-offs from your aunts, like “Vivid Livid Liver”, or “Colour Me Coli form”, with the ends are all rounded off-- impossible to contour one’s lips with, unless you’re going for a Ringling Brothers look. Or worse, it’s disappointingly worn down to just the inside edge of the tube -- only accessible by Q-tip. No, I’m talking about your very own handpicked lipstick, the color relevant to the year you were living in.

Prior to any sort of access to lipstick I admit that I resorted to the Smarties collection. That’s right. Wet two or three red Smarties and apply to lips. Discard Smarties by eating. Reapply as needed, usually every four to five minutes. For special occasions-- or if you’re feeling like taking a walk on the wild side-- try the purple or brown ones.

One of my earliest contacts with real lipstick involved my brother, his pal Clayton, and a bright white garage. At an age when you are first learning how to spell, say six or seven, you want to let the world know just how skilled you are. And there's no better way to spread the word than to commandeer your mom’s favorite coral lipstick, “Slammin’ Salmon” I think it was called, head across the lane to your neighbor’s freshly painted garage and attempt to spell the work ‘fuck’ in the largest lettering possible. (Take note, Skoolers: I was forming pre-punk expressive tendencies!) The fact that the garage was clearly visible from our kitchen window was hard to ignore, as was our neighbors’ disapproval. This did not dissuade me from pursuing my exploration of the Tao of lipstick. However, I now seem to have an aversion to all orangey shades.

Now, Skoolers, you may be asking “Mrs. Thirlwell-Nicol, yawn, what’s this got to do with Punk Rock?” Well, settle down and stop sniffing that nail polish remover, Avril, and I’ll tell you.

Does lipstick hold an esteemed position in the music scene? I would answer that by asking, “how could it not”? Lipstick, like rock’n’roll, pushed the boundaries of society’s love affair with conformity. In the olden days the forerunners of lip colour were primarily those living on the fringes, like actors and prostitutes. Even into the 1940s and 50s a bright red lipstick could colour one promiscuous. Demure soft pink lipstick-wearing singers such as the Lennon sisters contrast dramatically with, say, the Shangri-Las and their rebellious ruby shades. 

Now let’s skip over the 1960s (and all that white lipstick which only looks fabulous if you are willing to keep your mouth shut) to the early 1970s. This brings us to the predecessors of punk and the emergence of the lovingly crafted trash glam look. One band that stands out is the New York Dolls. But where would they have been if not for lipstick? And, okay, boas, sequins and platforms. I’m not saying that the New York Dolls were the mavens of male make-up in the rock arena. In fact, I’ll bet Little Richard could have taught them a thing or two. However, they did have their way with lipstick. Which begs the question: would David Johannsen’s pleas in the song "Looking For a Kiss" be heard if he hadn’t been all dolled up, complete with a scorching shade of lipstick? Furthermore, would bare-lipped Dolls singing about much-desired kisses have still caught the attention of one Malcolm McLaren? Who, in turn, absconded with their outrageous style and attitude, and then swiftly outfitted and thrust his Sex Pistols on to the stage. The Pistols, having bathed in global glory for their nasty uniqueness, showed their gratitude to the Dolls by recording the song “New York”. The song, anti-homage, makes fun of the Dolls’ look, need to find a kiss and, okay, their penchant for various ‘medications’.
The Sex Pistols: cream of the crop

Now Skoolers, if you’ll turn to page 104 in your “Lexicon of Legendary Lyrics” textbook you will see that the first line of the song “New York”, written by Mr. Lydon, reads: “An imitation from New York”. What?? Hold the phone! There must be some mistake. Wasn’t Johnny singing “An invitation from New York”? And I’ll be (a member of the) Damned if it didn’t warm my heart on a hot-plate to have thought that the Dolls had extended a brotherly welcome to the Pistols, inviting them to jump the pond and perhaps play some gigs together. Hmm. Not so.  It turns out Rotten was actually singing “an imitation from New York”-- which really isn’t very sporting, is it? Sure, maybe they rebuked the Dolls make-up aesthetic, but that’s no reason to get overly snotty.

It wasn’t too long before Johnny Thunders would have something to say about all this. His retaliation was neatly encapsulated in the song “London Boys”. While not exactly a chart-topper, it did include a few choice phrases like “you poor little puppet” in reference to Rotten dangling from McLaren’s orchestrated strings. Now Skoolers, don’t get me wrong-- I am not trying to create a case for who was the most punk rockiest first. Anyway, the Dolls pre-dated punk. They inspired a ‘do your own thing’ ethic and McLaren brought that sensibility back to London and found some lads with some seriously bad manners to fulfill his vision.

It would seem, however, that all had been forgiven, especially considering that Steve Jones and Paul Cook actually joined Thunders in the recording of "London Boys". Oh, except for some incriminating evidence that surfaced. That’s right class-- the real reason for all those musical missives was found stuffed in the depths of an old sock drawer after McLaren’s demise. Yes, these letters could possibly have been the inspiration that ignited this legendary melodious melodrama. Here are a few excerpts from some rather nasty back and forth telegrams between the boys. Valentines these are not.
Sweet Johnny Rotten

Letter dated January 10th 1977

Dear Mr. Rotten,

My bass player, Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane, was taking stock of his make up kit this morning and noticed that his Max Factor #2 is missing. He feels that one of the members of your band may have ‘borrowed’ it to cover up a few blemishes. Please return it promptly as we have a show in the next few days and Arthur refuses to play without it.


David J.

Response from Rotten dated January 30th 1977

Dear David,

Go fuck yourself. Just because both our bass players share the same sickly complexion doesn’t mean Sid nicked it. Besides, Sid wouldn’t wear make up. He may try to drink it or shoot it, but he don’t wear it.

Up yours,


P.S. Sid says Johnny Thunders stole one of Nancy’s best lippys, “Sugar-smacked” I think it’s called. She wants it back or else.

Response from the Dolls camp dated February 14th 1977

Happy Valentine’s Day Boys, 

You’re all so special to us in so many ways. Thunders is completely devastated to hear that you think he would pinch Spungeon’s lipstick--considering the number of sores she’s usually sporting. 

By the way, Steve Jones can keep the eyeliner he borrowed from Thunders, as well as the stage presence.



As you can see, Skoolers, things got more than a little salty and the accusations flew. It was a veritable compact powder dust-up! Fortunately for us, the songs exist as a reminder of the influence of make-up and its often times gritty and provocative effect. They are important historical insights, the equivalent of hieroglyphic storytelling.

No one is really sure if everyone kissed and made up. Or if anyone returned anyone’s make up. And even though you can’t put your arms around a memory, the songs and the lipstick killers live on.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Malcolm McLaren is dead. I did not know that. I must be really out of it. I have certainly never worn lipstick either. I have never even had the urge to wear lipstick. This is perhaps not a tragedy. Another great post T.