The Queer Story of Johnny and Josie
by Josie Cotton


I've never told the real story of Johnny Are You Queer before. I've been reluctant to talk about it because to tell you the truth, I don't know what happened. I have my theories but the only thing I'm really sure of is that it all came crashing down in the end. It was fast and furious, thrilling and heartbreaking. I had driven out from Texas in the late 70's to make it as a songwriter. I had my guitar, my demos and big dreams. The horizon reached far ahead. It was a new life. I didn't know yet about the firestorm of controversy and infamy that I was heading towards. Hello, Hollywood. This was going to be a wild ride.

The whole "Johnny Are You Queer" phenomena was much bigger than me but I didn't know it at the time. I was just the singer. It was really more about breaking down barriers, sex and politics, punk rock and corporate America, and prejudice that cut both ways. For the record, let me just say, that it was my supreme honor to be the girl who got to to stick it in the eye of the Establishment and all the small minded morons of the world.  They owned the Queer word back then lock, stock and barrel. They kept it in the back of their pick-ups, or in the locker room, to haul out when someone just didn't look right. "You just don't fit in around here, boy" Where I grew up, if a guy looked the slightest bit interesting, he was often called a queer. Even if they didn't say it out loud, there was this look they gave, you could see the pure hate in their eyes. It was chilling. That's how stupid it all was back then, and still is in many ways .

When "Johnny Are You Queer" was first released on Bomp Records in the early 80's, people just couldn't believe what they were hearing. They were actually shocked. Gay guys, straight guys, bi-girls, you name it... they gasped, they laughed uncontrollably, they jumped around. I'm sure the assholes were laughing too, but they were drowned out now. The queer word had mutated, and it was somehow liberating to hear it being used in this completely new way.

Johnny kind of had something for everybody. Girls could so relate to falling for some beautiful gayboy and I can't tell you how many of those same gayboys wrote to me, telling me over and over again that they had come out of the closet or realized they were gay because of "Johnny Are You Queer?", this so called homo-phobic joke song.

You know sometimes humor is the only way we have to wade through all the bullshit. One bemused look from Jon Stewart, Bill Maher's ' New Rules ', Stephen Colbert's deranged 'Word of the Day' ; has more visceral truth, more lazer-sharp insight in their perspective shows than anything you see on the network news for instance, where they robotically spew out the weekly talking points of the Whitehouse to a brain dead America, numbed from all the lies but they watch it anyway, because 'it's the news' . Maybe we need to replace our entire government with political satirists. They're the only ones who seem to really get it. Jon Stewart would have to be president. He could just host events. All the time. There would be so much hosting going on that all the world leaders and bad guys would be too busy going to Jon Stewart events to do anything really stupid. His comedy central writing staff could be his cabinet , Stephen Colbert would be vice -president . (That's where all the power is now, Stephen) And I would put Bill Maher, a personal hero of mine, in charge of the entire planet. "Just clean it up , Bill. And save all the animals while you're at it ." The Senate, Congress, the Supreme Court would be all comedians. They wouldn't give speeches, they would do stand-up routines and the whole country would vote on their performances like on American idol. And hey while we're at it, let's turn over the Department of Energy to Kinky Freedman !! Can I hear a hell yea?

But I digress...I think my problems really began when the religious right decided I was Satan, or to be more specific, Satan's trans-gender spawn thing . There were protests at KROQ , there were counter protests, there were fake protests, and fake counter protests. Everybody had their panties in a knot. I thought it was pretty funny myself but I just couldn't figure out why these religious types would even care. That is until one night I was watching television, skipping through the channels, when I came upon my record cover being held up to the camera. It was on that whack religious network that I would sometimes watch because of my extremely warped sense of humor. A lady evangelist with pink hair sobbing into the camera, begging for money, promising eternity, mascara running down, literally on a golden throne. It looked a lot more like a circle of hell from Dante's inferno than any place Jesus would step foot in. They were playing "Johnny Are You Queer?" at half speed and I remember thinking "How cool, I sound just like Brian Wilson." The guy ranting into the camera was actually the son of the lady evangelist and her leisure-suited evangelist husband who looked like a used car salesman time warped from the 1950's. He said there was no Josie Cotton. I didn't even exist. What a relief !... but I had suspected that for some time. What I hadn't known was that I was actually a gay man trying to convert unsuspecting straight men to my homosexual lifestyle. Wow ! This was a personal best.

By this time, Johnny Are You Queer had become a kind of anthem on the West Coast. I had a large gay following there, my first gig at a gay latino biker bar where I was presented with this enormous gold plated dildo. I loved them and they loved me. It was all good. Strangely, New York City was to be another matter all together. The reaction by the gay community there was unanticipated to say the least. The Advocate was furious with me. "Josie Are You a Bitch?" graced the cover of the Village Voice around this time. I vaguely remember them saying something about my voice sounding like a goat. I should have responded to that article but I didn't. I should have said something biting and clever and in their faces like "Somebody's got their kotex on backwards" or more to the point," What don't you don't understand about 'I'm on your side' ?" They had read me so utterly wrong that I was literally speechless. It wasn't until years later, after reading the biography of Robert Mapelthorpe, on a visit to New York ironically, that I realized how much the gay community had been struggling to find themselves during that time. The spectre of Aids had just begun to raise its ugly head in the general population and there was little room for humor or irony in those desperate times. They had rejected their own and if they were going to kick Robert Mapelthorpe to the curb, then I hadn't had a chance in hell. It seemed unreal. I don't think they ever knew they had positioned themselves shoulder to shoulder with my new Christian Broadcast buddies. What a Hallmark moment. How was it these 2 warring factions had come together, in one shining moment of absurd irony, and the world never knew ? But against me? Little me? You might as well have rammed an armadillo up my ass.
"Oh the horror" Apacolypse Now
Josie ( Can I quote myself ?) Cotton, "You've got to be fucking kidding me" .
How could this song have been so mis-construed by so many disparate factions, like some gigantic pop culture Roreshock test?

Forged in the punk rock underground of the Los Angeles club scene in the late 70's , the origins of "Johnny Are You Queer?" are murky at best. No one can seem to agree about the details but here's the story as I understand it. Punk band Fear was the first to perform a version of the song live. They made no mention of any Johnny character, there was just that sing- song melody in the verses to "You're a fuckin' queer boy " screamed over and over again in that jugular vein poppin' Fear kind of way. Filo, the guitar player, was credited with writing that original version, but there were rumors that his roommate had actually written it, some shadowy "cute blind guy" . And it probably all would have ended there....Enter the Paine Brothers.... Giant western guitars with too much reverb fade in ........

These were 2 guys straight out of Phily, kind of cowboys, kind of marketing genius types, who had discovered the GoGo's their first gig at the now legendary Masque. Then called MargoGo and the GoGos (before MargoGo, the founder of the band, was kicked out) drenched in spit and beer, crying as they played their songs when Larson first laid eyes on them, he told me it was the best thing he had ever seen. No more barbie dolls, he really believed it.

The Paine Brothers were already master song writers, old school, but also freakily dead- on when it came to predicting musical trends, like noone I ever encountered. They were simultaneously producing records for Fear and The Rockcats, but had also begun working with the GoGo's whom they groomed and produced and managed and anything else they could do for those girls. It was well known in the scene what a monumental role they played in the GoGo's formative careers and yet they were never mentioned in any interviews I ever read of them . It was the elephant in the room we never disussed and I was not allowed to bring it up to the press . It seemed so unfair to me, you give credit where credit is due, but everybody and their Mother were suing the GoGo's after they became famous, and I guess they were being advised to not acknowledge the very guys they knew would actually have a case.

The GoGo's had walked away from an extensive production contract with the Paine Brothers. In the middle of signing the papers, with a slew of lawyers standing by, Jane Weidlin (bass player for the GoGos) said in her little girl voice "What if we change our minds?" and Larson, in a grand gesture he would live to regret, instructed his now stunned lawyer to put an 'out' clause in the contract. "They would never betray us".

The GoGos didn't understood that the Paine Brothers were just too classy to go after them like all the rest. When the GoGo's went number 1, the Paine's sent flowers. I would go so far as to say that girl rockers everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to these unsung heros, who were so instrumental in paving the way for the first all girl band ever to go number one.

Bobby and Larson Paine knew exactly what the potential was that first night as they stood in the audience of the Masque, and they understand full well the cultural implications and how hard the world would make it for them. People forget that most guys had a huge problem with the idea of an all girl rock band then, even in punk rock. But the GoGo's were tough and talented and the Paine Brothers were going to walk them through it, like gunslingers at high noon.

One night in rehearsal, Jane had made the offhanded comment that all the cute boys were gay and a bomb went off in Larsons' mind. After they re-wrote "Johnny Are You Queer?" the Paine Brothers gave it to the GoGo's perform in their live shows and it became the band's big song, erupting in total anarchy at the end of the night. But more mundane issues would be festering backstage. At some point a meeting was arranged between Fear and Paine and when the Paine Brothers emerged from the smoke, they had won the publishing for "Johnny Are You Queer?" by default in a failed coin toss. (I have no idea what that means) But lives were going to change dramatically very soon. The GoGo's would decide to go on tour with Madness, against the Paine Brothers' strong objections. They just didn't think the girls were ready and basically parted ways because of this impasse. When the Paine's forbid the GoGo's from performing Johnny Are You Queer anymore , it was really the end of an era... the end of friendship.

I met Larson Paine in a bank line in Hollywood around the same time they had begun looking for the ' voice' to sing Johnny Are You Queer? Now for all practical purposes, I had just fallen off a potato truck from Texas and knew nothing about anything but I knew I loved that song from the second I heard it. I lobbied hard just to be able to sing on the the publishing demo the Paines had to make for Warner Brothers. Larson Paine , who had become my boyfriend by now, was the big holdout and it began effecting our relationship. I finally had to agree it would be a one time thing because they were going to find the perfect girl later. It was Bobby Paine who finally told Larson to just let me sing the damn thing. It was only a demo. What harm could it do? ( A lot !! ) And upon hearing me sing it that first day, he just shrugged his shoulders and walked out of the studio , the way he did when he was resigned to something. They had found their girl right under their noses. Now came the task of turning a publishing demo into a hit record. ( We dreamed big! )

The Paine Brothers had rented a live- in recording studio in the Hollywood Hills that included a 1 inch 8 track Stevens tape machine. Made famous in the late 70's when Roy Thomas Baker recorded Queen and The Cars exclusively on his 48 track 2 inch mobile Steven's tape machine, these machines dwelled in the realm of Valhalla to all esoteric gear heads, the bottom end outperforming any recording device at that time and to this day. Jon Stevens, its designer and engineer, was the eccentric genius who had revolutionized analog tape machines by re-designing them in an unprecedented construction using airplane parts.( He would later go on to prison for putting a little girl in a dryer but continued to supply tech support for his clients from jail). The Paine's version however had been the original prototype, a war weary battle horse that had recorded innumerable hits in the 1960's, truly in its death throws .

Everyday as we worked I would watch this growing pile of black oxide fluttering down from the tape machine as if everything we recorded was being un-recorded, like some Zen riddle. But we would listen back and we couldn't hear anything missing. Smoke would be pouring out it, growing so hot we were afraid the tapes would melt and we would have to wait for hours until it cooled down. We even hired Jon Stevens himself to repair his own creation but he informed us if he couldn't fix it, it couldn't be fixed. That brought us to a grinding halt until Larson remembered hearing about this punk rock electronics wizard, Geza X (who had already produced the Dead Kennedy's). We sent word through the bowels of Hollywood and soon he materialized at our door. By the time he had disassembled every nut and bolt and wire and laid them out on the floor of the entire studio, we were more than a little panicked as we watched him standing over this pile of parts like Peter Pan, hands on hips, "Come on !!! You better work now !!!". It went on for days. He became our engineer after that because periodically he would have to talk to the machine again, and it would only listen to him.

The local LA press in particular never quite forgave me for absconding with "Johnny Are You Queer?" and went after me like a pack of wounded hyenas at every given opportunity. There was a common misconception that I had somehow stolen the song from the Go Go's. I didn't. Or that I had cheated my way into a record contract. I hadn't. IRS was THE label to be on at the time( Police, GoGo's) and they had offered me a deal but only under the condition that I drop "Johnny Are You Queer?". I honestly didn't want to begin my career compromised, so I said no. We instead recorded an album for MSR records who ended up folding before the record even came out, graciously returning our masters to us. ( There should be a law ! )

The Paines knew they had a massive hit record on their hands but wanted to get the song out while it was still timely, so Larson called Greg Shaw over at Bomp Records. The song was so famous in the underground that all Larson had to say was that he had this song called Johnny Are you Queer. "I'll take it" was the reply. Greg, who recently passed away, was not only the nicest guy you could ever meet , was the one person really responsible for turning Johnny into an international phenomena, with publicity you couldn't have dreamed up. But we had made it clear from the beginning that we wanted to transition over to a "real" label. Just a single with Bomp, then the big boys would take it from there, take it all the way. We couldn't have been more mistaken.

On the day of my signing to Elektra Records, in fact on the way there, the Paine Brothers and I had stopped at Gil Turner's, a landmark liqour store on Sunset BouIevard right around the corner from where we all lived. We had driven there in the ancient Corvair whose emergency brake had long gone the way of the dinosaurs, having been replaced with an "emergency brick", as we liked to call it , as it was literally a brick that had to be wedged under the front tire when parking. Even on flat surfaces it had been known to move on its own. For some reason we all looked out the window of Gil's at the same moment, only to see our ride hurling backwards into traffic with noone at the wheel. If we hadn't been falling down laughing in the aisles, we might have taken it as an omen for the future. But we would never have believed it and the fates were not going to allow us such biting insight, not yet anyway.

As we were recording Convertible Music , the single for Johnny Are You Queer (which Elektra Records had taken over from Bomp) went to number 2 on Canadian radio right under Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll" . It was also in heavy rotation at KROQ and blowing up around the world in dance clubs. And in the US a national panel of radio programmers had given the OK for it be played on AM radio if we replaced the word queer with a 'beep'. This was great news for us but now there was extreme pressure from Elektra ( and ourselves ) to finish the record asap.

We ended up recording Convertible Music, in its entirety, 3 separate times because , unbeknownst to us, the tape machine at Goldstar Studios in Hollywood where we were recording ( Johnnette Napolitano was the receptionist there at the time ) was imperceptively speeding up and slowing down the entire time we were recording. At times we thought we were all going mad .The music would sound sharp one second and flat the next... to infintesimal degrees. The fighting escalated day by day between Larson and Bobby and I was somehow caught between 2 brothers in a war of shifting perceptions that would often revert back to unresolved childhood issues. Sometimes they thought it was my singing throwing every thing off and would have me re-sing my vocals over and over. "You're sharp Josie ", Larson would say . "No , she's flat," Bobby would say, "but only on the second and 5th word, but she's sharp on the 3rd word" etc etc. Then someone would notice it was the guitar, no it was the bass, but only on this one line or another. And the next day it would all sound different again and we would begin our futile march into sonic oblivion yet again, frantically detuning guitars and manually manipulating the tempos right on the tape machine . At the end of our stint with Goldstar, we were left with a record that had lost so much spontaneity and feel in the process of recording that we actually considered scrapping the whole thing and releasing the demos instead.

By the time we resurfaced from recording for a mind numbing 5 months ,Electra was in free fall and we had a hit record on our hands with no records in the stores. In fact the day Convertible Music was released noone was even answering the phones at Electra Records. The whole label had been fired from the CEO on down and as they scrambled to paste together a major corporation from scratch, we knew we were in serious trouble. We began to realize that our only chance to reach our fan base was going to be through MTV. Luckily our manager Randy Philips was best friends with Les Garland who was one of the main guys there in the early days ( 1982.) Everyone in the music business knew that MTV was going to blow up, that it was the future. All the sets had been built to shoot the video for Johhny and 2 other songs. It was all paid for, we were primed and ready. this was the moment and then without warning, the night before the shoot, the 'new and improved' Electra decided to pull the plug. "No future in MTV" they told us. Whether Electra Records caved to political pressure, I can only speculate but there is no arguing the point that someone had gotten cold feet and had made a corporate decision to make Johnny Are You Queer go away. I knew I should have signed with Jiffy Lube ...

The label proceeded ahead with my next single ( He Could Be the One" ) like nothing had happened at all. And we had to do the same. I began appearing on a lot of television shows, some for Merv Griffin Productions, a Halloween special with The Stray Cats and Oingo Boingo, Dance Fever, Square Pegs (Sarah Jessica Parker), Solid Gold and this hilarious show, Laugh Tracks. I was in a movie called Valley Girl around that time and ended up appearing in a series of odder and odder television pilots for variety shows, in which I would be the only white artist on stage with the likes of Rick James, Smokey Robinson, and Janet Jackson before an all black audience. I don't know what ever happened to those tapes but it was clear that television and film were much more open minded to the controversy than other media where the feedback we were getting was so mixed, so bizarre that it was impossible to interpret.

I wasn't famous, I was infamous, I wasn't the it girl, I was the too girl; too gay, too anti-gay, too straight , too ant- straight, too whack, too street, not street enough, too commercial, too serious, too lacking in seriousness, too controversial. On later records I would be called too cabaret for France and too quircky for Rhino Records. I was just too too and when my manager told me I had been banned in Amsterdam, I wondered, who or what exactly gets banned in Amsterdam? That would be me, at another epiphany.

The second record would hang over us like some portal out of Hellraiser, my career poised like a skinned lamb foetus propped up in a pink bassinette with the soundtrack from Eraserhead shooting through my cerebral cortex. But I was just being overly optimistic.

I wish I could say my tale is unique in terms of horror stories for recording artists but sadly there are much worse ones than mine. This is the dark side of the music business that no one wants to talk about. Artists don't want to be seen as problematic in the business or sound like sour grapes to their fans, so they remain mute. Even I debated about whether to speak out. Once in a while you might read about a lawsuit, like Bruce Springsteen's ordeal where Sony Records was robbing him blind for years... after he had made them a ridiculous amount of money . Or more recently Courtney Love, who I thought might be the bitch successful enough and crazy enough to stand up to these people, and really make a difference for the artist, but she settled out of court. ( Oh, Courtney )

I, like an untold number of songwriters, had all my publishing stolen and like so many recording artists never made a dime from my label. I could never even get an accounting from them (they can legally do that) and to this day have no idea how much money I still owe them. ( try getting an audit ) ) There are always exceptions but major record companies are not these magical kingdoms like musicians tend to believe, they're human meat grinders that decimate the most sensitive among us into Soylent Green patties for consumption by the masses and that's if you're lucky. ( If only I was kidding.) The very good news is that the internet has literally changed everything for recording artists. Even for someone who had her own private Chernobyl in a galaxy far, far away.

Near the end of my association with Electra Records, I had been assigned a female publicist who was always pushing me for "More T&A" as she so richly put it, which I thought was strange as she was such an avid feminist, repeatedly walking out of meetings when Bobby Paine would make an off color (and very funny) remark. When she approached me about doing a Penthouse spread, I declined and she was furious, storming out of the room as she often did. Being a huge Suicide Girls fan, I have nothing against nudity but no one was going to tell me when to take my clothes off and for whom. I was dropped from Electra almost immediately .There would be no follow up single for " From the Hip". In fact they were so afraid of a law suit they would never even release my records on CD , which of course made it impossible to ever pay them back. My fans didn't understand why they could never find my music anywhere and for years I tried to get my masters back only to find out they had been destroyed without any notification or chance to buy them back. I had truly been erased .

I wouldn't hear about the Paine Brother for years and they didn't speak to each other for even longer. I had the sense that I had gone through this terrible war, my comrades had fallen and I was alone behind enemy lines. Someone said I had been a casualty of friendly fire. Yea... I was friendly and they all open fired !! The words "You just don't fit in around here, boy had strangely
come back to me full circle. I ultimately walked away from the music business and all the politics but I never stopped striving to be an artist.

I would go on to record 5 more albums over the years but after finishing every project would come the awful question "Now what ?" I had many offers, from the likes of Jimmy Iovine and others, and many opportunities I walked away from, or ran from in some instances. Being an avowed studio rat who has always loved the creative process of writing and recording music, I decided to open a recording studio with my then boyfriend and life long friend, Geza X . We recorded everything from Meredith Brooks ('Bitch') to Elliot Smith's last record "Basement On A Hill" which he named after our studio, Satellite Park. And of course we recorded my 2006 record there as well, "Movie Disaster Music", not movies about disasters, movies that were disasters...kind of like my career !

This is the story I wanted to tell, if not " for the ages, Horatio" then at least to set the record straight in my own recollection of events as they occurred. In writing this piece I didn't know that I would find my own voice in the process or that in telling the tale I would walk away with the feeling that I had somehow changed the outcome, like that goofy kid in The Never Ending Story.

It was some years later, after the whole fiasco had pretty much been forgotten, that my girlfriend insisted I go to this famous psychic. She had no idea who I was and I never went back to her again, but as she walked towards me, she took my hands in hers with this wild look in her eyes, " Did you know that you are queen of the fairies in another dimension?" She waited for a reply but this was a funny moment. " No", I answered...." I hadn't known that."
So if my fairy throne awaits me in some other world, I can wait . The truth is, I wouldn't have missed this one for anything.
Oh and by the way, to finally answer that question once and for all..... he was flamin' . 

 

 

Punk Globe would like to thank Josie for writing the real story about "Johnny Are You Queer" and urge readers to buy her new release " INVASION OF THE B- GIRLS" on Scruffy Records  out this month...  A zesty, infectious romp that bridges the sexy cleverness of 1960s girl singer charm with the smoky cool of a James Bond theme......

Please also look for the release of the "Maneater's"  Video a take off of the Movie  "She Devils On Wheels"  that will coincide with her new CD....

 

Back to Articles

     
1 1