Pop music, particularly rock n' roll, had a habit of rewarding closeted gay men and ignoring or destroying the talents of those who dared to come out. Freddie Mercury and Rob Halford became stars despite the common but unspoken knowledge that they were gay; Jobraith and Klaus Nomi only succeeded posthumously. Luckily Smokey survived and is getting to enjoy a career resurrection at a time, finally, where gay is not shocking or career-killing.
John Condon had an eventful and very gay life. Born and raised in Baltimore, he was kicked out of his family home at 15 for being gay. He moved into an apartment, splitting the rent with a drag queen, over a nightclub, and began hanging out with the group forming around John Waters and Divine. He even dated David Lochary. Being a pretty boy pays off, and a romance with an unnamed actor in the cast of the original Broadway version of Hair, took him to New York. Another chance encounter took him on the road with The Doors for their first European tour, a journey during which he met both Jimi Hendrix and Tiny Tim.
Eventually he wound up in LA where he and recording engineer EJ Emmons formed Smokey. The gigs are remembered as outrageous, sexual and drug-fuelled but the band featured players as high-powered as Randy Rhodes (who became a legend playing with Ozzy Osbourne) and Adrian Belew. One night Smokey's opening act was the fledgling divas Van Halen who stalled so they could commandeer the main spot. Smokey's set was so smoking that Van Halen was forgotten for that evening.
Throughout it all they recorded but no record label would release the results. Condon was casually and happily gay and so were his lyrics. Songs like "Leather," "Miss Ray," and "Ballad of Butchie & Claudine" chronicled the gay underworld of Los Angeles and even the more ambigious material was blatantly sexual,
I've got a ton of steel between my legs
I'm hot, hard and ready
David Geffen did express an interest in attempting to craft the career of the first successful out gay pop star, but their first meeting did not go well. Condon had indulged in too many quaaludes and too much scotch, and vomited on Geffen concluding their business relationship.
Without a label to support them, they formed their own, S&M Records, and sold singles at gigs, by mail order and out of the trunk of their car. They sold every copy they pressed, thousands and thousands, and still the labels were leery. The turning point was a catchy dance tune entitled "Piss Slave." Emmons persuaded a DJ at a prestigious club to give it a spin and the dance floor cleared at the chanted and hooky choruses,
I wanna, I wanna, I wanna be your toilet
I wanna, I wanna, I wanna drink your piss
Condon got a day job working for a lighting company and began working his way up to becoming a major salesman. He drifted out of rock n' roll, fell in love, and settled down. Forty-odd years later, Emmons re-mastered the recordings and Chapter Music has released them as Smokey: How Far Will You Go? The S&M Recordings, 1973-81.
A lot of the press and hype has been built around how shocking and ahead of their time the recordings are lyrically. Your maiden aunt might "Tut tut" but the rules of the game have changed and while "Piss Slave" might not make it on the radio, much of the rest of the recordings would. Condon himself dismisses the controversy as hype, he claims he was just documenting the world he lived in. Musically How Far Would You Go? also fits in today's world as it is melodic rock n' roll with a lot of dance music influences. "DTNA" (Dance The Night Away) is not as disco or as hi-fi as Jimmy Somerville's Homage, but it is an attempt at crossover decades before genres began merging.
Smokey: How Far Will You Go? The S&M Recordings, 1973-81 is an important document in the history of gay in pop music. It compares and contrasts fascinatingly with the work of Carole Pope and Rough Trade, Peaches, The Doors, The Village People, and even flirts with the easy-listening Southern California vibe of Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks. It is a cultural loss that Smokey never continued recording and growing, but then it is also a shame that Jim Morrison and Klaus Nomi both died before reaching the height of their powers. Condon is considering re-forming a band and doing some touring. His partner died in January and there is now a system in place to promote music that just happens to be unabashedly gay. And he still looks hot, just in a daddy rather than a trade fashion. He and Colton Ford would be a great double bill.
I've found myself spinning How Far Will You Go? even more than I expected and there is nothing quite like finding yourself singing along with, "I wanna, I wanna, I wanna be your piss slave," while puttering around the house, it is pretty damn catchy. There are music samples below but the full CD is highly recommended, if only for the photos and the story/interview contained in the booklet that accompanies. Smokey may have been exaggerating when he claimed "a ton of steel" between his legs, but it is rock solid.