The Rise And Fall Of Red Wedding
Michael’s concept for Red Wedding was to blend ’60s psychedelia with ’70s glam rock, creating a sound that was anything but retro. He wanted to create a band of illusion in which nothing was what it appeared to be. The songs would all be love songs, but with a lyrical twist: lush and romantic on the surface, cynical and decadent underneath. This new “post punk” music would explode upon the scene and, under the banner “alternative rock,” continues to reverberate into the new millennium.
Red Wedding debuted at the Brave Dog on Saturday, June 13, 1981. Fans expecting a revamped Hey Taxi were in for a shock. Gone was the angry and fast-paced power punk, replaced with mysterious, trance-like electro-glam rock. Gone was Louie Dufau, replaced with a drum machine. Gone was the punk attire, replaced with ruffled tuxedo shirts, makeup and earrings. And in the biggest transformation of all, gone was Michael the hyperactive clown, replaced with Michael the dark and aloof doomed romantic.
Primarily because of their glamorous look and exotic apparel, Red Wedding was immediately labeled New Romantic, a term the band neither embraced nor rejected. It was only one of many incarnations the band would go through over the next few years. Also, because all the members of the band were openly gay, they were labeled a “gay band.” Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons”), back then, a struggling writer for the low-rent L.A. Reader, used this label to dismiss their music in a fairly derisive manner. The L.A. Weekly, meanwhile, referred to them several times as “the brides of red rock.” Although the band member’s sexuality played a part in their music and in Michael’s lyrics, it was not intended as gimmick. They did not want to make an issue out of their homosexuality, nor did they want to deny it. It was simply who they were.
Red Wedding performed many shows at the Brave Dog, sharing the stage with other post-punk bands and artists such as the Fibonaccis, Interpol, Kommunity FK, Wild Kingdom (Michael’s personal favorite) and Adore O’Hara. They occasionally played at other small clubs around town (Madame Wong’s, Al’s Bar, Cathay De Grand), but they regarded the Brave Dog, the setting for Andy Warhol’s 1982 “pictorial of punk” for Rolling Stone, as their homebase. Even when the band was not performing, they could always be seen hanging out at the Dog, often sharing a late night supper and some laughs with Jack and Clare at the Atomic Cafe right next door.
During that summer of 1981, a scene from the movie “I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can” was filmed inside the Brave Dog. If you look closely behind the actors, you can see the members of Red Wedding standing on the stage, flagged on each end by two girls (Belissa and Ann Marie) in red gowns. This was a kick for all concerned. Also that summer, record producer Kim Fowley approached the band about managing them. While the members were flattered, Fowley wanted too much artistic control and the band turned him down. Instead the band opted for Claudia Miles , a far less seasoned veteran but one more in sync with the band’s vision. Claudia was a young, gifted writer who had worked as a publicist and club booker in the music scene since the age of 18. She had done publicity for such diverse acts as Prince (doing publicity with Bobbi Cowan for his first album, “Dirty Mind,” on Warner Bros.); John Mayall (Regency Records/MCA); Fear, then managed by former lead singer of Three Dog Night, Danny Hutton; and the European pop-techno band Wet Picnic. She had booked local clubs including the hardcore punk club, The Vex in East L.A. and the more pop/new wave club The Arena in Culver City where The Go-Gos played some of their first gigs. She was smart, aggressive and eager to move Red Wedding into the larger venues.
Claudia quickly became part of the band gestalt. More than most bands, the members of Red Wedding were a tight-knit family. They seemingly spent all their time together, intimately involved in each other’s lives on every level. When they went to clubs or bars, it was usually as a group. They tended not to socialize with members of other bands, preferring to keep to their own small circle of friends.
Michael was by far the most antisocial of the group. He suffered severe panic attacks when out in public and often drank excessively to mask the fear. Although he loved the attention of being in a band, it was, at the same time, a curse. He was petrified when people would approach him, and both Spider and Claudia went to great lengths to protect him. In large part, his aloof and often intense onstage theatrics were a device designed to keep people at a distance. If people viewed him as cold and sinister, they would leave him alone (he hoped). Most people never saw the real Michael, who his close friends knew as sweet, funny and fragile.
After the Brave Dog closed down in November, Red Wedding ventured into larger venues. In early ’82, they changed their unconventional lineup (two guitars, synthesizer and drum machine) to a more traditional one. Drummer Brian Ford replaced the drum machine and John switched from guitar to bass. This gave the band a new energized, full-bodied sound, and after a stunning performance on New Wave Theater (filmed on March 9th, Michael’s birthday), audiences and critics began to take notice.
In June of 1982, Red Wedding recorded their first EP entitled “Up and Down the Aisle.” It was a disaster from start to finish, despite the talents of producer Thom Wilson (who has since achieved great success in the music business). Recorded on a shoe-string budget in the middle of the night (literally) in a studio out in the San Fernando Valley, the band was ill prepared to transfer their live sound onto vinyl, and there were technical problems with the band’s equipment, leaving less than three hours to record and mix the five songs. Michael’s vocals were recorded in less than 20 minutes, and his idea to leave his vocals completely raw and without effects did not work on vinyl. However, had it not been for Thom’s quick thinking ideas and studio savvy, things could have been much worse, and the experience of working with Thom (although brief) was a joy for the band.
The recordings were signed over to Bemisbrain Records, an extremely small punk/alternative label. Within minutes after signing, the band had regrets, but decided to move forward and learn from the experience.
In July, Red Wedding replaced drummer Brian Ford with drummer Brian Engel. Ford, who had been the only heterosexual in the band, was never comfortable with the “gay thing,” and had become increasingly difficult to work with. Engel, also heterosexual, was more than happy to join the band. His first performance with Red Wedding was to take place in a gay bar…..
Jim Van Tyne asked Red Wedding to play at the first Theoretical, a unique musical event. It took place on Sunday afternoon, July 25 at the One Way bar, less than a block from Spider and Michael’s apartment in Silverlake. The stage was built of beer cases and plywood. For this occasion, most of the band wore leather and Michael, a long peach-colored negligee. The show was a huge success, assuring there would be many, many more Theoreticals to follow.
Red Wedding continued to play at various clubs including The Whiskey, Club Lingerie, The Plant, The Anti-Club, Madame Wong’s West and The Lhasa Club, sharing the stage with bands such as the Ju Ju Hounds, Outer Circle, Mnemonic Devices, 45 Grave, Redd Kross and The Bangs (later renamed The Bangles). Down south in San Diego, Red Wedding played at the Spirit Club and the Bacchanal Club with such bands as Killing Joke, X, Nina Hagen, Romeo Void, The Gun Club and Bow Wow Wow.
In November, Bemisbrain Records released “Up and Down the Aisle.” To the band’s surprise, it was for the most part praised by the reviewers, but many fans of Red Wedding complained that the record didn’t sound anything like them, and the EP did poorly in sales. It was later released in Europe on a French label, New Rose, where it faired much better.
In January of 1983, Michael began to see a psychiatrist to help him overcome his panic disorder and bouts of severe depression. The psychiatrist told him his fears and depression were rooted in his homosexuality, and put him on a high dose of Lithium. Michael mixed the Lithium with street drugs and alcohol, causing his behavior to become erratic and irrational. While staying with friends down in San Diego one weekend, he went into convulsions and had to be held down under a cold shower. After this incident, he stopped seeing the psychiatrist.
As with most bands, drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll were a way of life with the members of Red Wedding. They worked hard and they played hard, often burning the candle on both ends, and took full advantage of the sex and drugs that are readily made available to those in bands. Of course, this fast-paced lifestyle eventually took its toll on all of them.
In February of 1983, Claudia announced she would no longer manage the band. She was dealing with her own personal demons and needed to focus her energies on recovery from drug and alcohol abuse as well as depression. This was a decision that was hard for her to make and harder to carry out; letting her best friends down was excruciating. Her departure also left the band devastated. Not only were they losing a manager, but a member of their family. It was a loss that they never fully recovered from.
In the spring of 1983, Red Wedding played their second Theoretical ( a special birthday bash for good friend Jim Van Tyne). Held in an 8,000-square-foot warehouse and using the back of a 30-foot flatbed truck as a stage, Red Wedding performed along with Age of Consent, Lotus Lame and John Fleck. Over 1,000 people showed up.
Throughout 1983 and into 1984, Red Wedding continued to play clubs in L.A., Orange County, San Diego and San Francisco. They began incorporating more and more diverse, and often conflicting elements into their music, combining psychedelia, punk, gloom, funk and pop all into one evening’s set. Accordingly, they began to change their look with every show. From ’60s mod to black leather, from pink suits to boots and trench coats, from choir robes to bathrobes, the band never seemed to repeat the same look twice. Michael bleached and dyed his hair so many times that it began to fall out, and in one memorable show at the Whiskey, he appeared wearing only a shower curtain, hooks and all.
This unpredictable approach to their music and attire both delighted and angered critics and fans. Always difficult to categorize, it was now virtually impossible to label Red Wedding. While some praised Red Wedding for refusing to follow any one trend, others criticized the band for having no clear direction.
In July of 1984, Red Wedding recorded their song “Swimming” for the “Radio Tokyo Tapes – Volume Two” compilation album, and music soundtracks for two Al Parker gay porn movies. That August, long time friend Billy Ingram became the band’s second manager, and bassist John Tagliavia was replaced with Warren Mansfield (due to John’s problems with excessive drug use).
In September, Red Wedding recorded their second EP, “Nails.” It was produced by Leslie St. James and recorded in both San Diego and L.A. For this EP, Red Wedding decided to focus on their darker, homo-erotic material, although it was decided to delete the most blatant homosexual passages used in the live version of the song “Bernardo.”
“Nails” was released in late October of 1984 on Important Records. Reviews were mixed, but the EP made it to number one on many collage radio stations across the country, and the song “Somewhere” won the 91 X people’s choice poll in San Diego.
In November of 1984, John (his problems now somewhat under control) rejoined Red Wedding, and in December, Marc O left the group to start his own band (one that never materialized). Marc left on friendly terms, and he and Michael continued to be best friends.
Without Marc’s domineering keyboards, the focus fell entirely on Spider’s guitar playing, allowing him to shine like never before. The band had a new, lean sound. For hardcore fans, this was Red Wedding at its best, but Red Wedding’s heyday was at an end. Audiences began to dwindle and bookings became scarce. The band began to lose heart, and Michael became more and more reclusive, often not showing up to rehearsals.
In March of 1985, Red Wedding recorded four songs (including “Fiction Theater,” the first song Spider and Michael had written together back in 1975) for their third untitled EP. Produced by Ed Grundman and Rick Hart, this was by far Red Wedding’s best and most important work, but the EP was never completed.
In May of 1985, Red Wedding gave its final performance playing at the Spirit Club down in San Diego. After four years with no interest from a major label, frustrated with having to deal with the jaded Hollywood scene, and burnt out from drugs and alcohol, Red Wedding called it quits. In 1987, Spider and Michael resurfaced briefly in a band called “Glass,” but Michael no longer wanted to perform, and he and Spider retired from music in 1988.
On January 5,1992, Marc O passed away due to AIDS complications. Michael and Spider were by his side to the end. Marc’s memorial service was held at the old Hollywood Cemetery (the same cemetery in which Red Wedding had posed for their first professional band photo 11 years earlier). John Tagliavia passed away from AIDS a year later. Sadly, he had been estranged from Spider and Michael since the band breakup.