arts and design

‘We got shot at’ – the outrageous life of Jayne County, the first trans rock’n’roller


Jayne County is explaining the term “wrecking”, which was a popular pastime among the more confrontational drag queens of Atlanta, Georgia, in the 60s. “Just deliberately trying to freak out the regular people, the solids as we called them,” she laughs. “Shaking people out of their normality, just trying to see what nerves we could push. They need their nerves twisted once in a while.

“We used to do things like go into department stores and ride up and down the elevators just screaming, you know, holding up women’s clothes and saying, ‘Look at this! He’s going to adore me in this!’ One of our big wrecks was going into the men’s room at the Greyhound bus station, a bunch of us queens, maybe four or five. The men were at the urinals with their you-know-whats out and we’d start screaming, ‘Ooh, look how big it is! Look at that one! Oh my God, I think I had that one last night! How is your wife in bed, darling? I’d be a lot better!’ The guys would be rushing to get their zippers up, so uncomfortable with us in there.”

Perhaps understandably, wrecking was not an activity without its risks in the deep south of the 60s. “It’s a wonder we didn’t get killed, a wonder we didn’t get in more trouble than we did,” she says, speaking by phone from Atlanta. “We did get shot at. They would actually come by in their trucks and shoot at us for the fun. You could hear the bullets flying past your head – shhhhhhw! Oh yeah, they wanted to kill us. But I think, because people were so shocked, they usually didn’t have time to think about hurting us. They were just too busy being shocked. By the time they got over it, we were gone and they’d be wondering what the fuck happened.”

It was all a long time ago, when Jayne County was still Wayne County, formerly Wayne Rogers, the son of working-class parents, who took to wearing makeup at school and graduated wearing lipstick. “I can’t really hide what I am very well,” she says. County’s story subsequently took her from Atlanta to New York; from the Stonewall riot to the transgressive demimonde that gathered around Andy Warhol’s Factory; from glam rock to punk, where Wayne eventually became Jayne, the world’s first transgender rock’n’roller. It’s one of the most extraordinary sagas in rock history: you read her recently republished autobiography Man Enough to Be a Woman with your mouth hanging open, not least because, throughout it all, County never really stopped wrecking. No matter where she fetches up, she somehow manages to end up shocking not just the solids, but the other people intent on shocking the solids.

Warning: explicit lyrics

It took some effort to emerge as the outrageous one in Warhol’s late-60s circle, but County managed it. New York’s absurdist fringe theatre company the Theatre of the Ridiculous had already staged plays featuring necrophiles and a character based on John Wayne who apparently “gave birth to a baby out of his asshole while doing poppers” – but even they balked at staging County’s play, which came with the thought-provoking title Wanker: Fascist Rhapsody. The glam scene was big on decadence and ambiguous sexuality, but it clearly wasn’t prepared for County singing You Gotta Get Laid to Stay Healthy (And I’m the Healthiest Girl in Town) while clad in a dress made of condoms.

Punk dealt in wilful offence, but at least some punks seemed to draw the line at County’s band the Electric Chairs and their signature song (If You Don’t Want to Fuck Me) Fuck Off. During a performance at CBGBs music club, one of County’s fellow musicians began shouting homophobic insults at her, an action he presumably regretted when County broke his shoulder with a microphone stand in response. Record companies, she sighs, “had no idea what to do with me at all. It was just too beyond their understanding.”

‘Miss Warhol was a troublemaker’ … with Andy and the cast of his play, Pork, in 1971.
‘Miss Warhol was a troublemaker’ … with Andy and the cast of his play, Pork, in 1971. Photograph: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

She arrived in New York penniless – her belongings were lost en route – surviving on “the kindness of strangers” until she got an apartment with fellow drag queens Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, later namechecked in Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side. Through her work with the Theatre of the Ridiculous, she attracted the attention of Andy Warhol (“Miss Warhol loved the wrecking; she was a troublemaker, she wrecked people with her art”) eventually ending up in the cast of his play Pork, as a character called Vulva Lips. It was a succès de scandale when it transferred to the Roundhouse in London in the summer of 1971, attracting both horrified reviews and the attention of David Bowie, then planning his reinvention as Ziggy Stardust.

County was signed to Bowie’s management company, Mainman, and began writing songs with her band Queen Elizabeth (named not after the monarch, but a fellow drag queen back in Atlanta), who frequently played with New York Dolls. But Queen Elizabeth’s live performances were so shocking, they succeeded in upsetting even New York’s burgeoning gay liberation movement. “They were horrified by me because they didn’t want people to think ‘gay’ meant being like me on stage, rolling around licking dildos and sitting on toilets and pretending to shit using dog food. It freaked them out so much, they pulled the plug on my shows. They said: ‘We will not have New York University turned into a 42nd Street smut show.’ They were afraid that someone was going to think that they liked that stuff, too.”

Demimonde … with David Johansen of New York Dolls.
Demimonde … with David Johansen of New York Dolls. Photograph: Leee Black Childers/Redferns

Mainman seemed equally baffled about what to do with County, funding and filming an extravagant 1974 live show – Wayne County at the Trucks, the title a reference to a notorious New York cruising area – then declining to release the film and album. The latter finally emerged in 2006, a startling document of glam at its most raw and confrontational. “They used to say, ‘You’ve seen David and you’ve seen the Dolls, but Wayne County is the real deal. He’s doing it out of real life, out of real creatures that live out there and are part of the undercurrent of our culture.’

“I couldn’t get anywhere for a long time because people were too freaked out by me. I wrecked them too much. They had no idea how to market me. I mean, my friend [photographer] Leee Black Childers used to say, ‘Just promote her as some kind of horror show!’ They promoted Alice Cooper as a horror show, so maybe I could have been promoted as a different kind of horror show.”

When punk arrived, says County, “it made a space for me”: not so much in America, but in Europe. Most visiting New York punks were horrified by the British interpretation of the movement, with its gobbing and violence, but County loved it. “It was more of a show, more visual. In London, they accepted me – the first time I played the Roxy, it was a mob scene, literally lines around the block. You were expected to be not just on the edge, but over the top, so it was a great space for me to do what I did, to get all the attention I needed. It was unbelievable.”

The Electric Chairs made three albums. Inevitably, a band whose oeuvre included Fuck Off, Toilet Love and Mean Motherfuckin’ Man never crossed over into the mainstream, with County’s influence only really becoming clear years later: whenever they played in Liverpool, a young Pete Burns – later to find fame as the frontman of Dead Or Alive – was “always right at the front, watching my every move”.

County toyed with the idea of gender reassignment surgery, but decided she was happier “being in between or being neither”. “A very modern concept,” she says. “It’s more accepted now, but back then it was considered extremely radical to want to be both sexes, to be a combination of both, or to be neither. You have so many identities now that seem to be growing … there’s so many in-betweens, so many different versions of what a man or a woman is. Anyone that tells you they’re all man or all male is lying.”

County last year at an exhibition, with Faith No More musician Roddy Bottum.
‘Happy old maid’ … County last year at an exhibition, with Faith No More musician Roddy Bottum. Photograph: PMC/Getty Images

After the Electric Chairs broke up, County moved to Berlin, working in theatre and films and, for a time, doing sex work. “That was a very off-the-cuff thing. Some of the girls were doing it, my friend Miss Alison was doing it, and I wanted to be cool and make a little extra money. It was quite a learning experience, really, about men and their take on things, how they react in certain sexual situations. Most of the men were married, wives and kids at home. It was their chance to kick up their heels.”

These days, she says, she has “become kind of mellow”, although her most recent musical output – a single with fellow Atlanta trans artist Am Taylor called I Don’t Fit in Anywhere, complete with a video that depicts County transforming a church congregation into a riot of boozing, smoking and oral sex – doesn’t really suggest as much. She moved back to Atlanta to look after her ailing parents and stayed, working as a visual artist – she’s exhibited in New York and London – and living the life of “a happy old maid, with no man to drive me crazy”.

Sometimes, County says, she looks back on the events recounted in Man Enough to Be a Woman and thinks: “It’s like I’ve got a kind of double and they did all that while I’m just sitting here, reading about it.” Other times, the old Jayne County makes herself known. “I still to this day do a little wrecking without even knowing I’m doing it.” She laughs. “I have a bad tendency to talk too much when I’m out shopping. Sometimes I’ll say something really outrageous to myself and make the person shopping next to me really nervous. I get a big thrill out of doing that.”



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