All's Fair in Rock'n'Roll
Cherry Vanilla on Bowie, Max's & her memoirs

by Chris Parcellin
Rock'n'roll has always been about attitude and style as much as anything else. In the early 1970s no one embodied the outrageousness of the glam rock era like David Bowie. With his lost in space/unisex shtick--as well as genuinely great songwriting and vocals--mixed with the blazing, inventive guitarwork of the late Mick Ronson, Bowie had the goods on the talent and image fronts. On the business front, Bowie got the push he needed to conquer the States from people like his equally eccentric wife Angie, his management company, Main Man--run by frizzy-haired cigar-chomping Tony DeFries--who was straight out of the P.T. Barnum school of aesthetics. And quite possibly, most important of all--Cherry Vanilla, the preternaturally vivacious, candy apple redheaded dynamo from New York--who gave her all for the loopy British singer and helped hone his image until he was a megastar the equal of fellow Englishmen such as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. (Prior to that, Cherry had already started to make a name for herself by acting in Andy Warhol-backed plays such as "Pork" and DJing around Manhattan.)

Bowie and Cherry parted ways in the mid-'70s and the fiery lady decided to try her hand at a recording career of her own. She was quickly snapped-up by RCA Records and recorded two albums "Venus D'Vinyl" and "Bad Girl" that sported plenty of her trademark ballsiness, but failed to garner big sales. However--as an interesting aside--she was backed at gigs for a time by a fledgling version of the Police (not with Andy Summers, but original guitarist Henry Padavani and managed to get an honest night's work out of Sting and Stewart Copeland before they found fame and became the insufferably pretentious bores we know all too well.

Cherry now lives in California and has gone back to working in artist management--and with thirty-plus years in the music business, she's obviously damn good at her job. D-Filed was honored to have the chance to fire some questions at this rock goddess. And, as you'd expect, she did not disappoint.


You started out as a DJ in NYC clubs back in the '60s. What kind of music were you into?
At Aux Puces, where I spun, I played mostly Motown, Philly sound, soul, rhythm and blues. The Franklin girls--Aretha and Caroline--were always high on the list. Jr. Walker, Lee Dorsey, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Lorraine Ellison--and in my later years there, Janis, Jimi, Jim. It was the late 60's and what we know now as disco-music didn't really exist yet. I also mixed in French pop, US and UK rock, a waltz here and there--James Taylor, Leon Russell, Ken Nordine, some crazy stuff. It was a small club with fireplace and gourmet French food. I played "In-a-gadda-da-vida" by Iron Butterfly at least once a night, 'cause it was long enough for taking a joint-break! I played a lot of the same stuff at home, but also lots of Nina Simone, Tim Buckley, Duke Ellington, Neil Diamond, a pretty eclectic mix.

What was the best part of being David Bowie's publicist?
The adventure into the unknown. The fast-paced dada-esqueness of it all. The breaking of the rules, because I didn't know the rules. The rush of energy gathering like a rocket ship, as more and more people began to see what I was trying to tell 'em -- how great an entertainer Bowie was, how sexy, smart, playful, how much fun he was, how much he had to give. And making love to him wasn't too bad either.

Do you still speak to him or Angie?
I haven't heard from David in years, but I do stay in touch with Angie, though it's probably been a couple of years now since I've spoken with her.

You've been described as a groupie. Do you think that's fair since you've worked in the music biz as well being a recording artist?
You know, someone I know fairly well--someone loosely in my circle of friends--recently posted a picture of me on his website and captioned it, "Cherry Vanilla, former groupie." Now, that upset me! Not the groupie title, but the fact that a so-called friend would chose to describe me only as that. Otherwise, I understand human nature, publicity, spin, sound--bites, headlines, selling magazines, all of that too well to get upset over what people call me. They will usually pick the most sensational thing, and I guess to most people, being a groupie is a pretty sensational thing. For me, it was just a matter of loving music and sex so much. It was simply natural for me to be so drawn to musicians. My real friends know what I'm about. And you know the old saying that "all is fair in love and war," so I guess all is also fair in rock & roll too.

How would you desribe the Max's Kansas City scene of the early ''70s?
Yvonne Ruskin's book, "High On Rebellion" really relates that scene better than anything else done on it thus far. I was just interviewed for a documentary that Sam Erikson and Jojo Pennybaker are making in conjunction with Yvonne. I suspect it's going to capture a lot of good stuff. They've interviewed Taylor Meade and some others. Otherwise, I would have to go on and on, or just try to describe it in a word -- maybe "theatre," complete, improvisational, spontaneous 'theatre."

What did you think of "Velvet Goldmine?"
While the script and characters didn't really take be back so completely, the style, feeling, pace, color, sound -- all of that about it really made me feel all dreamy and nostalgic. And the aesthetics of a film can often entertain me just as much as the content. I always go to the movies to dream.

How do you feel about your two RCA albums in retrospect?
I feel that they are honest as to where I was at at the time. I think BAD GIRL is a raw, simple pop-rock album, the culmination of a couple of years of writing and performing. VENUS D'VINYL has some great tracks, but also some very underdeveloped and underproduced ones. And whereas, BAD GIRL tracks didn't need any more production than they had, I think some on VENUS did. BAD GIRL was more of a band album in feeling, VENUS was more about my boyfriend and me and more of a love feel than a punk feel. I often have wished that I would have had the chance to go on and really develop a sound, see where I would have gone once I had some more experience at it. But now I realize that I probably wouldn't have liked the life of a rock star forever. I love to dress in rags, be totally anonymous, relaxed, casual, free. So, maybe we all get what we really want in the end.

You were backed-up by the Police for a while. What was that like?
If I hadn't been so faithful to my guitarist/boyfriend and if he hadn't been such a jealous type, I might have gotten to know them better. They were good guys, did all the lugging of equipment, driving, played their sets and mine, slept on farmhouse floors with us, worked really hard. I paid them ten pounds each a night, which, after expenses, often meant the rest of us got nothing at all. They were embarrassed to sing some lyrics I wrote with Michael Kamen, "Cock-a-doodle-do" and so forth, but years later Sting and Michael wound up writing and recording hits together. They were fine by me, but my musicians from America were always bitching that Stewart's timing was not steady. I liked Henry Padavani the best as a person, but they got rid of him. After they went on to big fame, they never bothered to invite me to a show, send me a Christmas card, whatever. And they sort of erased me from their history in all of their PR and Stewart made some hurting remarks about me in the press. They weren't my most favorite musicians I ever played with, but we had some really hot moments on stage and they were, of course, good musicians and they went on to develop and make some great music. I get messages through friends now and then that Sting sends love, and he's given me credit here and there for giving them their first gigs. So, at least there is some acknowledgment. And I love all of Sting's efforts on behalf of the rain forest. I remember being at Stonehenge with them, just standing there in awe, in silence, with just the sound of the wind. That is my most vivid and cherished memory of them.

What kind of stuff are you going to have on your website?
Ha, if I ever get to that website! I have no idea! I just never have time for it. But it will be nice to correct some of the lies that have been written and repeated about me.

There's a rumor that Blondie's song "Rip Her To Shreds" is about you. What do you think?
I never believed that. Even Debbie (Harry) says it's not true. But I like it either way. It's a great little pop song.

What are you up to these days?
I run the American office for the composer, Vangelis. I deal with him, his lawyers, his record company, people who want him for this and that, the usual music biz management type of stuff. But I am not his manager. He manages himself. I just do what he asks of me, which keeps me pretty busy, sometimes crazy busy. He's a genius and an incredible human being. I consider it an honor to be in his inner-circle. Other than that, I hike up the canyon near my house once a day, I go to the movies a lot, I did a poetry show in March, I like to play rock & roll fairy godmother to my young friends: Rufus Wainwright, Dito Montiel, Burke Roberts, Julianna Raye and catch live shows by Spiritualized, Antony and the Johnsons, Van Morrison--all the good ones. I travel for Vangelis a lot, mostly to European cities. I collect cheap things from junk shops, cook and do a little dancing, yoga and pilates. I love living in Southern California. I always take time to appreciate the sunshine, flowers, birds, palm trees, the sea. All this nature in a major city of the world! I am very happy here. Though I still have a little Hawaiian dream.

Are you doing some poetry readings?
Well, the one I did March 1, 2002 was the first in a few years. I don't know when I'll do another. I like doing new material and using musicians and such, but I don't have much time for writing and rehearsing. And I feel I really don't have much to say right now.

What do you think of the current music scene?
Like I said, Rufus, Spiritualized, Chemical Brothers, Japancakes, Brad Meldau, Aimee Mann, the Eels... There's so much good music around. I wish I had time to keep up with it all. I listen to KCRW-FM on my computer and I love so much of what they play. I think the music scene is alive and healthy and full of incredible talent, as always.

Any chance that you'll publish your memoirs?
Well, I certainly want to. It's like the website though. I'm so busy working for Vangelis and enjoying life when I can, I haven't had time to make the necessary commitment for a really good book. And I've waited so long, I want to do a really good one, not just throw out some tell-all piece of trash. Hopefully, I will do something with some depth. In a way, I'm glad I haven't done it yet, because my perspective changes every day. And I think later is better than sooner for writing one's autobiography or publishing one's diaries.

What's your message for America's youth?
Balance is my message. I am a Libra. But balance over the course of one's hopefully long life can mean going to extremes at times. And youth is a time to go heavy on the fun. Yes, you must take care of business, be responsible, but you can only have the thrills of youth when you are young and you must have them to have happy memories later on. Stay away from pills and white powders. Stick to herbs. Use condoms. Drive carefully. Experiment with life. Have a good time without hurting anybody, including yourself.

© 2002 Chris Parcellin & D-Filed, All rights reserved.

 

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