A local high school boy who's seen "...kiss," a video that's been popping up late at night on MTV, has kind words for its singer, Pussy Tourette. She's pretty cool, he says, and not bad-looking. And, he adds, she "has a nice bod. Real muscular for a chick, ya know?"
These are all valid observations, with one notable exception. Tourette, you see, is not a buff, hard-bodied gal. He's a man, a drag queen for the Nineties--and a fine singer-songwriter, too.
"I think that, first and foremost, I'm a musician who just sort of happens to do drag," Tourette explains. "The music came first. But--let's face it--I'm still a drag queen.
"There's a whole new breed of drag queens out there," he continues. "It was fine to do the Judy Garland stuff for a while--and the Liza Minnelli stuff, too. But there are also drag queens who want to be able to say something for themselves. And you can't do that by lip-synching songs that were written forty and fifty years ago."
Although Tourette never expected to become a leader in the lipstick brigade, his boyhood is filled with incidents that led to his present occupation. He was raised in Arkansas by three generations of Italian women: his mother, his grandmother and his great-grandmother. "I studied piano when I was little, and I've been writing songs as long as I can remember," he notes. "But I was sort of an unpopular child. I didn't really hang out with people who did the normal kid stuff. I tended to stay indoors a lot and lip-synch to the Supremes and plunk around with the piano."
After graduating from high school, Tourette won a gymnastics scholarship to Southern Arkansas University but lasted only one semester at the institution. He subsequently moved to Washington, D.C., came out of the closet and landed a part in Willy Stark, a Harold Prince production that played at the Kennedy Center. Next he earned a scholarship to the New York City Ballet, where he gained the skills that won him a slot with Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Ballet. His brief stint with the company was followed by a year spent studying dance in Brazil. "I came back to the States in '85," he divulges. "I thought it was time to settle down and get a real job and do something with my life. So I went to San Francisco State and studied nursing. On the side, I was taking classes at the conservatory and music classes at State."
Plans changed five years ago at a San Francisco club where Tourette was working as a go-go dancer. "They needed a drag queen one night to do this sort of performance-art thing, and I volunteered," he recalls. "I had such a good time that I went back every night in my little tube top and pumps. So I just kind of put two and two together and thought it would be fun to sing in drag. My music sort of lent itself to that camp aspect that just didn't work outside of pumps. I started doing a number here and there and added my back-up singers. And the rest is history."
As Tourette's act gained popularity, he thought it might be a good idea to peddle cassettes of his music at shows. He was right: He sold out his first 200 tapes during a pair of performances, and a second pressing of 500 was gone in two weeks. "I began to see that there was some potential here," he says, "so I decided to make some CDs. You don't get a price break until you order 10,000, so I did." The disc, Pussy Tourette in Hi-Fi! (released by Tourette's own Feather Boa Records), was popular in San Francisco, but it didn't begin to catch on outside the area until the Rock America service picked up the video he made for the tune "French Bitch." Soon, other video pools wanted in on the action, fueling sales. Tourette eventually moved all his copies of Hi-Fi!, and he has high hopes that his next Feather Boa release, Who Does She Think She Is?, set to appear this fall, will do even better.
That's a fair bet. After all, the vocalist's music is as strong as it is diverse. Tourette is a master of catchy, rhyming lyrics, which he fuses with tunes that draw upon blues, dance music, hip-hop, cabaret, pop and blue-eyed soul. The numbers are even better live, thanks to distinctive choreography that puts Madonna and her dance crew in the shade.
Still, Tourette knows that there are plenty of obstacles standing between him and mainstream success. For one, he believes that some straight listeners are put off by his name. "It's caused some problems," he acknowledges. "But it was chosen not knowing that it would ever get to this point. When I was a kid, I was constantly being called `pussy,' `femme-bot,' `queer' and `sissy boy,' so I thought I'd reclaim one of those words and make it my own.
"It doesn't mean `vagina,'" he goes on. "I can't stress that enough. I'm not Vagina Tourette, by any means. I don't have anything against vaginas, you know, but that's how some people interpret it. I've got my song `Pussy Boogie,' where it goes `Suck my pussy,' and people get insulted and say that I'm being misogynistic and stuff. But that's not true. I'm singing about myself. I'm singing about my pussy. I'm just calling it a different name. `Suck my asshole' just doesn't roll off the tongue as well."
In Tourette's view, "The music is fun--and I think it really is very sex-positive. It's also horribly politically incorrect. I tend to make fun of myself a lot up there. I happen to be a gay man, so I make fun of myself as a gay man. I make fun of my sexuality and my promiscuities, and some people just don't get it. But I've gotten fan mail from people who like my stance, and they thank me for not being so politically correct, because they think that would be boring."
Tourette is many things, but boring isn't one of them. As he says, "It's all about a party. Me and the girls, we get up on stage and try to have a party amongst ourselves. And everyone else just loves to join in."
Pussy Tourette. 8 p.m. Sunday, June 25, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $12/$14 day of show, 322-2308.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.