Twenty-five years ago, I was in a group called The Shams. We were three women singing and playing together. Richard Hell called us “beauty shop soul” and it fit: the sound of a couple friends sitting around a kitchen table talking in harmony, with guitars. We’d just released our first album on Matador and the label gave us a small budget to make a music video. In the early nineties everyone was doing them, and it was another chance to play dress up and escape from dirty dishes and day jobs (I had a three-year old and temped in an office; Sue painted fancy apartments; Amanda designed clothes). A filmmaker fresh out of college stopped by Sue’s tiny studio on 10th Street and Avenue D to give us his pitch for “Dark Angel”, an eerie song from our album Quilt.
“I see the three of you, in lingerie. You’re in a bathroom, posed around a tub. In the tub is a naked man – he’s dead, and you’re all caressing him.” Pause. “Sort of like the Pieta?”
The three of us nodded, trying to hide stunned expressions. “That sounds…interesting,” one of us managed. “We’ll, uh, let you know.”
As soon as he left, we laughed for an hour. “Never!” we shrieked. “That is the worst, most ridiculous idea EVER! Can you imagine us in lacy underwear, trying to keep a straight face while some guy lies there with no clothes on, pretending to be dead?”
“Nuh-uh,” said Sue.
“He’s got to be kidding,” said Amanda.
“When hell freezes over!” I said.
Still, we all agreed it was the funniest thing we’d heard in ages.
Two weeks later at The Shams video shoot, the tub was now a bed for practical reasons. The dead guy left for another engagement midway through, so a lighting man with a different configuration of chest hair stepped in and laid down to take his place. Other than that, it was pretty close to what the filmmaker described.
A stylist friend of Amanda’s worked a trio of Todd Oldham suits in there, in addition to the lingerie – there was no escaping Todd’s odd mix of loud patterns, quirky details and classic tailoring in 1991. Did it work with the aesthetic of the video? Who cared, it was free clothes! We looked like Mildred Pierce on LSD.
We’d moved on to the lingerie portion of the shoot, the three of us sitting around in satin and lace, bare legs, hair finally starting to droop from the two hours of curling irons and freeze spray we’d subjected ourselves to that morning. Silly as it all was, we were having a blast. We always did. “Stop laughing at yourselves!” my daughter screamed at us once, but why would we do that? Wasn’t this supposed to be fun?
Then Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth came strolling through the gallery space where the video shoot was set up, just as a makeup artist friend pumped up our lip gloss and adjusted the straps of our old-fashioned slips.
“I think they live in the building,” Sue said. They seemed to be heading our way. Maybe they’d say hello – after all, they were on Matador, we were on Matador.
In their t-shirts and unkempt hair they looked raggedly perfect. Like they were in the middle of doing laundry. Only they went on stage looking the same way. I went on stage to get away from doing laundry.
We were never afraid to make fools of ourselves – that was one of the perks of being in a band. Sonic Youth were serious. I suddenly felt like a complete dork. Like the cool neighbor kid next door just walked in my room while I was singing in a hairbrush in front of the mirror.
Kim and Thurston said hi to the camera guy. Then kept gliding across the gallery floor, right past us, like their grubby sneakers had jet packs.
“We’re cool, too – honest!” I wanted to shout. But the lip brush was in the way.