It seems I’ve remembered one of the most famous scenes in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ all wrong. Here’s what I recall. Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard are drifting around the famous jewellery store, gazing at cabinet after cabinet full of diamonds, determined to steal something. They pick up two masks – a dog and a cat – and hold them up to their faces in a pathetic attempt to disguise themselves. Security are watching. But the masks are a feint. Audrey and George glide out the door, mission accomplished right under the noses of the guards. It’s the masks they’ve stolen, you see. Clever. For some reason, that’s the only scene in the movie I can recall and it never happened. It’s been so long since I saw the film, my brain has muddled up two scenes. If you’re wondering why and when did Tiffany’s sell dog and cat masks, then, fair question. They never did. The scene I described happened in a Five & Dime, a super-cheap scrappy affair, as organised and appealing as if it had been set up by chickens, and selling all manner of junk. But the point stands. There’s something about masks. (That’s where I was going with this.)
It’s not just the twist; the idea that our heroine, all rakish elegance, could be a beautiful thief. It’s that masks allow us to do things we wouldn’t normally have the nerve to do. But even with masks, there’s still a lingering vulnerability because like any other piece of clothing, they can be removed. Make up, however, and I mean the heavy stuff not just a little eye-liner, transforms you. It changes how you act and react. In make-up, and I’ve proven this to myself numerous times, I’m dangerous. Not to innocent citizens who brush up against me on the street or dancefloor. Dangerous to myself.
I’ve spent a lifetime trying to make sense of this phenomenon. But I believe one very potent poster can claim to be the genesis of this scarlet thread through my life. Gene Simmons 1977. The contrast with my tender 7-year-old self couldn’t have been greater. It happened in a vast music store. I was in my school uniform, shirt tucked in and very shiny black shoes, looking for my new advanced clarinet booklet, accompanied by mother and with my hair nicely brushed and no blood on my face. Not a drop. Gene, on the other hand, was not in his school uniform. He was festooned with black leather and silver spikes. He was holding a massive axe with strings (I later learnt this was a bass guitar. A musical instrument inordinately more violent-looking than my domestic clarinet). His hair was massive and clearly not combed and his face was covered in blood. Oh, and nowhere did I see his mother. Maybe she was in the audience watching the performance. My mother would have been. She came to all my performances. I was mesmerised. I still remember that poster distinctly, so gripping was that image that I stopped and stared trying to comprehend how such a thing could exist.
On the whole, I feel my parents did a pretty good job raising my brother and me. Neither of us are in prison. But they took so many sure-footed wrong steps with regards to my subsequent encounters with Mr Simmons and his friends in the Kiss band. Surely any parent knows that the most certain way under the sun to excite a child is to tell them to notdo something. The music show Countdown was a Sunday night staple in our home (as long as I had finished my clarinet practice). One night, the host introduced Kiss and before I could widen my eyes, my father yelled, ‘Turn that off’ and we were sitting in silence (the moment befitted Mozart’s hauntingly sombre clarinet concerto in A Major, I’m thinking of the Adagio section particularly, but I wasn’t in the mood). This arbitrary prohibition had the opposite effect and from that moment on, every time I heard the name ‘Kiss’ I felt an intensely strong, slightly naughty desire to enter their world. And so I did.
The more I investigated this demon-bat-human, the more my eyes googled. 10,000, or was it 100,000, women he’d had the pleasure of ‘meeting’? I knew, even at that long-to-remain-virgin age, that such achievements were unlikely for me if I continued on my path as a clarinet player. I could count exactly zero offers to that date following my Mozart concertos (no matter how masterfully I kept my embouchure in check). I also knew that the count would remain at exactly zero unless I could arrange some gigs with a more aggressive instrument, and perhaps less neatly combed hair. You often hear tales of bands in their formative days all sleeping in the same squat, barely any food, no instruments. Well for me, that was all true. Except for the squat – I was in a comfortable suburban home and my bed was more than adequate. And food was never an issue, from memory. But I definitely had no instrument. My clarinet didn’t count – that was destined for a life of lying in the dust under my bed from now on. Years later, when I’d kick started my own rock and roll career and was trying to be Robbie Williams (before I knew there already was a Robbie Williams), I played in bands in Sydney and London and getting gigs was easy enough. There were pubs all over the place fit for purpose. All you needed was a half decent cassette tape and a promise that you’ll bring along 500 friends, all of whom would spend a fortune at the bar because they drink very, very heavily, and you could secure the last Monday of the month at 4pm. But trying to secure gigs in Canberra in the 80’s when you’re 12, it’s harder.
I built my axe guitar out of cardboard. The neck wobbled in a decidedly un-rock and rock manner, so I had to reinforce it. I tore up Dad’s old work shirts (the blackest ones I could find, but they were more 70’s brown paisley), scruffed up my hair (that was the least convincing part), painted my face and chewed about a dozen blood capsules (these were found in every newsagent in those days). Then I grabbed my brother, a hapless friend, and with my battery-powered cassette player began a walking tour of my friends’ front lawns. We’d done no marketing. There was no buzz on the streets before we turned up, unannounced, and began performing. I distinctly remember the ‘show’ at Iain McClellan’s place (35 Brand Street). Today it’s a sleepy suburban Canberra house. Unassuming. It was the same then. The steep lawn seemed the obvious place for us to let loose the rock and roll gates of hell as it was more prominent than the driveway (which was lower down the property and not visible from the bedroom windows). But the slope made performing tricky underfoot. Every roundhouse kick was a dicey affair. I was never certain I wouldn’t spin sideways and land twisting an ankle and interrupting the nascent tour.
The energy of the first set was broken by Iain’s mum who appeared midway through the guitar solo of ‘Love Gun,’ and asked, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ (I could just make out her words over the drone of the neighbour’s lawnmower. It was a Saturday.). She wasn’t a Kiss fan and Iain, inexplicably, had left early for his swimming lessons so with the lack of energy from the crowd beginning to get to me, I clicked off the cassette player more aggressively than necessary and marched on to Paul Anderson’s house. The tour ended shortly afterwards. Three gigs. The rest of my mates lived further afield, beyond sensible walking distance and, besides, it was getting hot in the sun. I’ve got a single blurred photo of that day. I look horrendous.
Older and ‘wiser’, the Gene thing relentlessly manifested itself on several more occasions. Once, I decided to dress up as Gene for a work weekend away. Someone, who perhaps later wished he hadn’t, gave me the Master of Ceremonies job and so, unprompted, I choose to don the now-familiar make-up, black cape, tussled hair and axe guitar. I even made some boots out of upturned buckets (which made walking hazardous, though the upside was I was now 7 feet tall). Then I proceeded to read out such awards as, ‘Employee of the Month,’ while splurting blood all over the microphone. In a particular highlight, which I thought genius, I pretended to haemorrhage at one point, apologising mid-torrent, as waves of blood gushed out of me onto the lecture. It was a charming affair that had half the audience mesmerised in awe and the other half mesmerised too. Those who hadn’t grown up with Kiss, and we had quite a few folk from cultures who’d not been blessed in their youth with the chaotic culture of New York glam rock, were particularly stunned by this double-barrel introduction. By the end of it all, there was more blood on the floor than in most hospital emergency wards. I thought at one point I’d gone too far when I walked across, blood still dripping from my chin, and stood towering over the diminutive Doris, our CEO’s Chinese PA, who was literally half my height. But rather than fainting, she found it fascinating. Perhaps I reminded her of the renowned painted Peking Opera Jing roles or the famed Japanese kabuki performers who date back to the 17th Century (and who were a part of the inspiration behind Gene’s make-up in any case). For years afterwards, she looked at me with deep reverence, like she was in the presence of a great artist.
All that to say, I have for a long time now wished to mark Mr Simmons’ birthday with a painted face swim. I view it as a cultural event. The lucky pool to be marked historically thus was MacCallum, Cremorne Point, Sydney. Being August (the great man was released/ejected from the pod of Satan on August 25th), it was mighty chilly in the water so I had the place to myself. MacCallum pool is as far from the gritty, dirty concrete of New York City that is the natural home of 70’s Kiss as could be imagined. It floats by the harbour like a blue barge with wooden rails, Federation mansions rising up on the hill behind, 200-year-old figs crowning the sky above. It’s far too charming a place to be visited by a glam rock demon so it was probably fortunate I had it to myself.
Oh, there’s one more thing you can see from this gorgeous spot that I couldn’t help noticing. The very epicentre of Sydney culture. A superb architectural statement in its own right. Separated by a mile of choppy water, sits the iconic Opera House. And separated it should be too from a nutcase wearing Kiss make-up. I’d have thought this gloriously refined venue would be the last place to welcome the progenitors of ‘I was made for lovin’ you’ and the adolescently cringeworthy, ‘Lick it up.’
But have you ever seen an opera? Blood, guts, fire and screaming. Before the advent of cinema this was where you went for such things. And have you seen who attends such spectacles? A good number would hail from Cremorne Point. It’s an age-old tradition stretching back to antiquity; the wealthy top precenters dressing up in their finest to watch musical actors marrying, stabbing, adulterising and making love to each other. Usually in make-up and extraordinary costume and always with an extraordinary soundtrack. I’m not going to get into a debate about the nature and fach (settle, it’s a German word, meaning classification) of singing and art and culture, but as an avid fan of both opera and Kiss, if it weren’t for the distinctly lacking libretto (that’s the story, Italian term, you’re learning a lot today) let me suggest the path between the two is linear, not quantumly tangential.
And so, while to a casual observer glancing down from their multi-million-dollar mansion that morning, the scene of Gene Simmons gliding like a black and white-faced shark across the blue oasis, a trail of blood staining the water behind, would have brought a gasp and an averting of the eyes, to a casual opera-going observer in their multi-million-dollar mansion, well, a knowing nod and a raising of the pulse would have been not only likely, but unavoidable. This is art, they knoweth.
There’s a shower at the far end of the pool and with no-one in sight, there I stood, post-swim, make-up and blood running down my face, staring across the water at the Opera House. And did I see, did I imagine it, maybe it was just the sunlight on the harbour, but I think she winked at me.
MacCallum pool was #535 on the author’s quest to swim 1000 pools around the world.