John Sex was a New York City-based performance artist, male stripper and disco singer who was a stand-out personality of the East Village art scene of the 1980s. He’d sing schmaltzy Vegas numbers in glittery smoking jackets, shiny Ziggy Stadust-esque zip-up jumpsuits, 10-inch platform heels, and assless leather pants. His trademark was his bleached blond hair which stood straight up on his head in an exaggerated pompadour which he said was held aloft by “a combination of Dippity-do, Aqua Net, egg whites, beer, and semen.” He also had a pet python, named “Delilah,” and a suit made of 500 light bulbs. In his X-rated version of the Sinatra standard “That’s Life,” he’d sing “I’ve been a hustler, a hooker, a honcho, a hero, a dike and a queen.”
The “character” of John Sex was not all that much off from the “real” John Sex, but more of a mythical version of himself as an omnisexual rockstar parody or phallocentric version of Tom Jones. He couldn’t turn it off if he wanted to, which I can assure you, he did not. He would often claim that his parents were immigrants who “Americanized” their original Irish surname “Sexton” to “Sex” so they would fit in better, then adding “and if you believe that one…” The real story is that during a period of “rampant promiscuity,” Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi renamed art student John McLaughlin, the nice Catholic boy from Long Island who was everything his mother never wanted him to be, “Sex” and for obvious reasons, I think the name just stuck!
John Sex with Ann Magnuson, early 1980s
John Sex was a smart, super creative, fun, funny and endlessly inventive guy. Everyone loved him. There was absolutely no reason not to. John was a total sweetheart, a great raconteur and he always had the best showbiz stories and gay gossip you ever heard. He is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. There was constant laughter when he was around. You can see a little bit of what John Sex was like in this clip shot by video artist Nelson Sullivan. John and his friend Craig Vandenberg (who often played John’s washed-up showbiz loser father in shows they’d do together) trade lines in the basement of the Pyramid Club, warming up before a performance there. His boyfriend, Willfredo, the guy with sunglasses, is seen taking pictures about 2:45 in. You can see the performance itself here.
With his female backing singers, The Bodacious TaTa’s (Wendy Wild, April Palmieri, Micki French, Myra Schiller and others) and wearing his exaggerated showbiz finery courtesy of his friend (and sometime TaTa) fashion designer Katy K, John Sex played to nightclub audiences at venues like Club 57, the Pyramid Club, Danceteria, Limelight, The Palladium and The Saint. Many of his shows would end with him stripping down to a glittery jock strap, or beyond, during a song called “Jet Set.” Some of his other notable numbers were “Hustle With My Muscle” (see clip below), “Sex Appeal,” “Bump and Grind It” and “Rock Your Body,” a song he did with noted hip hop producer Man Parrish, that I made a music video for in 1988 (see bottom clip).
“Hustle With My Muscle” directed by Tom Rubnitz, This was shot at the Area nightclub in 1986 when the theme of the decor was something like “rednecks” or “trailer trash.”
John Sex only released two records during his lifetime. His sole non local news or NYC cable access TV appearance might have been on the short-lived talkshow hosted by comedian/actor Richard Belzer in the 80s, but I could be wrong about that. He was in the Cars video for “Hello Again” directed by Andy Warhol. He did a notable ad for LA Eyeworks that was widely seen in a lot of magazines in the mid-80s. He was also included, with a very memorable performance of “Hustle With My Muscle” featuring ejaculating prop penises, in the underground film Mondo New York which is often still seen on IFC and the Sundance Channel late at night. This is how most people hear of him these days. There was not exactly a large body of work left behind when John died of AIDS related illnesses in 1990.
In 1982, I visited New York on a 36-hour long school trip to see Broadway plays. I bought an issue of the Village Voice that I *studied* for the next year, because the back pages and apartment rental listings told me everything I needed to know to be able to make my way from my hometown back to the Big Apple. In that issue was an Amy Arbus portrait of John Sex and Katy K that was really striking. I recall thinking “Hey it’s the guy in that picture” the first time I saw John in a nightclub. He was one of those people who was a celebrity, but only in lower Manhattan. The whole Warhol “Superstar” glamor also rubbed off on John, who was friends with the artist.
I don’t really recall how John and I met, but when his “Rock Your Body” record came out, I proposed that I direct a music video for it and he enthusiastically accepted. This was another of the videos I co-directed with my friend Alan Henderson, and in fact it was the first one we did togther. [I’ve posted about the one for Bongwater’s “Power of Pussy” here and the one for The Beme Seed’s “God Inside” here.]
John had a lot of fun ideas (surfing on the wave of his own hair, the flying carpet bit were his) and this spurred Alan and I on, too. Since we were shooting everything on “green screen” we were able to attempt many of these ideas, despite the budget essentially being pretty much nothing. It was shot and edited at Windsor Digital, the high tech video post production house where both Alan and I were employed at the time. We had a limited amount of time to shoot this, so certain things worked out better than others.
I can’t recall exactly what all of the late 80s video devices were that we used to edit it together, but at the time they were mostly newly introduced and the gear there cost way into the millions. Very few people would have had access to this stuff at the time and here we were two young guys (I was 22 at the time) who could get our hands on them, so we used ‘em. To record, one of us would have to run to the control room and hit record on two machines simultaneously and then run back into the studio. Alan basically taught himself effects editing on the project and now works for Fox Sports. We did all kinds of things, just experimenting, to see what would happen and what it would look like. A colleague and friend of ours there, Laurie Salladay helped out with some Paintbox work.
The peeling banana effect was achieved by taking a banana held in place by a nail and peeling it slowly and scooping out the meat as we pulled the skin away in a cheap and cheerful version of stop motion using frame by frame analog video animation (hardly optimal, to say the least). The digital video device known as the Quantel Mirage (everyone who knows what that was just smiled to themselves) wrapped the next scene in the shape of a peeled banana, tucked it in and then out it jumps, on the beat, in a cheesy jungle homage to the Velvet Underground! At least that is what I think we were thinking…
The bit where John is in the car, that car was taken from a still frame from a VHS tape of Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill and then colorized on a device called a Quatel Paintbox. It was layered like this: random footage we had shot out the window of a moving car; the back seat, John (who was supposed have have a prop steering wheel in his hand, but we forgot it and had to use a film reel); then the top layer of the car.
John’s hair gave us tons of trouble, as you can see in the final product, because the lights would go right through it, and fuck up the clean silhouette of the green screen footage (which was recorded on a separate reel of videotape as a black and white “keyhole” and then matted together later with a third video recorder). This wasn’t something that we counted on and we were often limited with what footage we could use because of this.
Today, you could do this all on After Effects with minimal effort, but in 1988, I can assure you that you’d have to have been a fucking maniac to attempt this stuff.
(The videos for Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance” and Boy George’s “No Clause 28” gay rights protest song were the first ones done on this equipment, as I recall, and you can see how similar they are if you follow the links). I’m not posting this because it’s so great or anything—this is a no budget video done by two young guys in their early 20s—I’m posting it because it’s of interest, hopefully, to a lot of people, who would have no exposure to John Sex otherwise, and who are interested in the East Village scene of the 1980s. John Sex was one of the seminal personalities of that era in New York City and it would be a shame if he’s forgotten.
Incidentally, we shot the video on the first day of the Tompkins Square Park Riot, August 6th, 1988 and as I returned home late that night, I fell asleep in the cab. When the driver stopped and told me he could go no further, I woke up to find my entire neighborhood on fire and cops everywhere. Good times!
When the video was finished, we were thrilled and shocked that MTV picked it up. They even did a story about it on MTV News. After a few months of the video circulating to nightclubs via the RockAmerica VJ tapes, John called me up one day to tell me that his asking price as a “track act” (i.e. nightclub performer with backing tapes) has risen to $3500 per gig and that he was getting offers to play in discotheques and gay clubs in places like Miami Beach and Atlanta.
Sadly, his newfound success was not to continue for much longer as John was diagnosed with HIV. I don’t think any of his friends were really that surprised—he was a pretty randy fellow—but boy were we all saddened. It just seemed colossally unfair. Someone blessed with such charisma, good looks, smarts… so funny and so sweet. I can still recall how numbed I was when I heard the news he was sick. AIDS was still terra incognita back then, the idea of John dying slowly was a depressing thing to contemplate. He wasn’t the first friend of mine to get sick and he wouldn’t be the last.
John Sex’s last public performance was at the Mars nightclub in New York in 1989. I was the doorman of the upstairs VIP room at the club—Vin Diesel worked the front door—and saw the show. He was still a high energy performer, but the medication he was taking made him puffy and his hair had started to fall out and so he was obliged to cut off his trademark hairdo, fashioning the hair that was left into a jeweled crown.
Whenever I was around John in the last year of his life, he always seemed to be in generally good spirits, all things considered and would even indulge in “gallows humor” at his own expense (like when he made me take about half of his record collection home with me, because he wasn’t going to be needing it). The last time I saw him, I stopped by his apartment (which always smelled heavily of curry because of the Indian restaurant downstairs) on St. Marks Place, with my then-girlfriend, Jesse (She is the blonde seen in the X-ray glasses bit of the “Rock Your Body” video). His tiny place at that point was set up like a hospital room and he looked terrible. His hair was nearly gone and he looked like a baby bird. Still, he was as mentally sharp as ever, and although it was obvious he was going to die soon, at least around me, he didn’t dwell much on it conversationally.
Jesse and I had a lot of shopping with us and John insisted that we leave it at his place so we didn’t have to carry it around all day. When we left him, he was full of energy and alert. When we came back about a bit later, he had an IV drip in his arm and seemed to have no idea who I was. I don’t recall how many weeks went by, before John passed, but it wasn’t too many. He died the day before my 24th birthday, on October 24, 1990.