Smokey Was Too Gay for the 70s, but They're the Perfect Amount of Gay for 2015
Adored by LA fans from Joan Jett to Elton John, and featuring members like James Williamson and Randy Rhoads (!), the guys who wrote “Piss Slave” were way ahead of their time.
John “Smokey” Condon was a Baltimore outcast with big dreams and a hankering for man meat. He didn’t try to hide it, either. Unlike so many of the closeted rock stars of the ’70s and ’80s, Condon was out and proud and didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought. He gave so few fucks that when he moved to Hollywood and hooked up with producer EJ Emmons, the two sides of their debut single were about NYC leather bars (“Leather”) and a 300-pound drag queen (“Miss Ray”), respectively. It was 1974, by the way. Condon and Emmons became an item, and dubbed their musical union Smokey after Condon’s family hand-me-down nickname. Before long, Smokey became the de facto house band at Rodney Bingenheimer’s legendary English Disco on the Sunset Strip, with such noted fabulons as Stooges guitarist James Williamson and future Quiet Riot/Ozzy guitarist Randy Rhoads cycling through their ranks. Elton John was said to be a big fan; a very teenage, pre-Runaways Joan Jett was definitely a big fan. Unable to land a record deal because their lyrics were “too gay,” Smokey released their own singles through their appropriately named S&M label while gigging around L.A. with the Motels, Berlin Brats and an unsigned Van Halen. Condon burnt out on playing live in ’77, but the pair continued to record boundary-pushing music like the rent-boy funk workout “Million Dollar Babies” and hilariously awesome nine-minute disco rave-up, “Piss Slave” into the early ’80s. We recently caught up with Condon and Emmons via conference call from Palm Springs.
NOISEY: John, you lived by yourself above a nightclub in Baltimore in the late ’60s when you were still just a teenager. What was that experience like?
John “Smokey” Condon: I lived on the third floor, and it was a nightclub called the Bluesette. I rented a room, I think it was $40 a month, and everyone used a common toilet. It was only musicians that lived there. I was still in high school at that point, and I washed dishes across the street. I went to school from quarter of two til two-thirty, and then I’d jam and watch bands. One of the groups that thought they were really gonna make it was called Grin. That was Nils Lofgren’s band before he started playing with Bruce Springsteen. So that was my living situation.
Why were you on your own? Had you run away from home?
I was asked to leave.
Because of your sexual preferences?
Well, I was a handful. It was decided that it would be best if I were a handful somewhere else. [Laughs] But I’m very proud of that part of my life. Looking back, it was a struggle. Like I said, I went to school for 45 minutes a day. I was expelled for being gay several times. I went to a really preppy school, and I’d wear a hot-pink tank top. I’d get beat up, but I worked and I paid my own rent.
So you were openly gay very early on.
Yeah, but it was the ’60s so it didn’t faze anybody I was hanging around with. It didn’t faze anybody until the late ’70s or early ’80s. Especially in Baltimore, people were just people. I hung out with all the John Waters people. It just didn’t seem to matter to anybody.
Except the folks at school.
Yeah. [Laughs] But they were living at home with their parents. They were being kids. I had to grow up and be an adult. But you know, I marched with Cesar Chavez and all the grape pickers from Baltimore to Washington. I was in all the Vietnam protests. It didn’t really matter if I was gay or straight. People didn’t care. They were hippies.
You mentioned the John Waters crowd. Did you ever hang out with John Waters himself?
Very seldom. I was at parties at his house, when they had a birthday party for Divine. I partied with Edith Massey. But most of those people hung out at a bar in downtown Baltimore called Leadbetter’s. But I haven’t seen John since the early ’70s. On Sunday, I was at a pool party here in Palm Springs and I met the guy who took the cover photos for John’s book. We were talking and I told him that John didn’t really pick the craziest people he had his choice of in Baltimore. There were some craaaazy people he overlooked.
At one point, you met the Doors’ tour manager, Vince Treanor, and you went to the UK with the Doors. That must’ve been an eye-opening experience.
Yeah, it was. They played the Isle Of Wight, so I got to meet a lot of people. I got to stand next to Jimi Hendrix. I met Ten Years After and Tiny Tim and Terry Reid. I saw Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s first gig. But I was hanging out with the Doors. Everyone remembers Jim Morrison as this sexy idol, but when I was with them he had a beer gut and a big beard and people threw shit at them when they were onstage because he wouldn’t talk between songs. We were supposed to go around the world, but the rest of the tour got canceled because he had his [obscenity] trial in Florida.
Then you ended up moving in with Vince in Los Angeles, which is where you met EJ.
EJ Emmons: Smokey was in my bed. That’s how I met him. [Laughs] Before that, I was sleeping on the floor of the studio I’d been working in. Then Vince called me up and said, “I’ve got this guy here from the East Coast, he’s really good-looking and he’s got a great voice. Maybe you can do something with him.” So I went over and met him and he was everything that Vince said he was. Next thing you know, we went in and made “Leather.” I don’t think there was much time between when we met and when we recorded because I was already working with [singer/songwriter] Gordon Alexander, and we had a band and a studio ready to go, so why not?
Smokey: And EJ worked with the Doors. That’s how he knew Vince.
Emmons: Yeah. I was a roadie on their last tour, which was without Jim.
“Leather” was inspired by hanging out in New York leather bars.
Smokey: Right. And I should stress that we recorded it on no money. Like, no money. We had no backing. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it.
Emmons: Wait a minute—I bought you a couple of drinks at Boardner’s before we recorded. I think that might’ve cost five bucks. [Laughs]
Were you guys a couple at this point?
Emmons: We became that right around that time. It just sorta happened.
Smokey: We were together eight years total. That was some kind of a record in those days. [Laughs]
The B-side of the “Leather” single was “Miss Ray,” which was inspired by a drag queen John had lived with back in Baltimore. What was her story?
Smokey: Christine was her name. I needed a place to live because I’d moved to New York briefly and lost my place above the Bluesette. So I moved in with my friend Larry and this woman named Christine who weighed about 300 pounds. She would turn tricks at night while Larry and I stayed out and partied. In the morning, she’d give us money and we’d go clothes shopping for her. I really thought she was a woman. [Laughs] I had no idea.
After you recorded the single, EJ shopped it around to the major labels. But nobody was really interested, right?
Emmons: We ran into the problem of being fags, unfortunately, in a time when fags were still not cool in Hollywood. Ben Edmonds from Capitol watched us for years. He liked it, but he thought it was too gay. It was kinda like that everywhere.
You guys must’ve been aware that you were pushing the boundaries as far as gay themes in pop music.
Smokey: Of course we knew, but the idea was that somebody had to be first. Somebody had to get in there and go, “Look, we’re just as valid as the rest of these motherfuckers.” That’s how music changes. If you don’t push boundaries, it stays stagnant. I mean, we were up against all this quiet California stuff like the Eagles or the English hard rockers, and we were just outrageous. We didn’t have any sense of “We have to belong” or “We have to fit in.” But I didn’t feel like I belonged or fit in anyway, so what better thing to do than make music that doesn’t belong or fit in? And people liked it.
You ended up releasing Smokey singles through your own label, S&M Records. Was the name a not-so-subtle dig at A&M Records?
Emmons: Not at all. I liked some of the stuff that A&M put out. The name was just to get attention. And the two sides, “Leather” and “Miss Ray” were more or less about S&M anyway, so it seemed natural enough. Smokey’s great at drawing, so he did the logo. People would see that logo and buy it because they thought, “This has gotta be something bizarre.” So whatever 45s cost at the time, 69 cents or 99 cents, they’d take a chance at the record store and then they’d start talking about it.
Smokey: We sold several thousand copies at Tower Records on Sunset Strip, and they made it around the world.
Then you recorded a song with James Williamson from the Stooges. How did you hook up with him?
Emmons: Well, we have to say that we don’t really know if he played on anything. But he was a friend of mine. I got him a job at Paramount, where I worked, because he and Iggy couldn’t get arrested at the time. So I hired him to work with me at the studio where I was chief engineer. We hung out a lot, jammed a whole bunch. There were some sessions and stuff, but we can’t say exactly who’s on what because there’s so many lawyers and legalities. So let’s just say all these people were around.
What about Randy Rhoads and Kelli Garner?
Emmons: They were definitely in the band, but they are definitely not on any of the records because those masters burned in the studio 25 or 30 years ago.
That was before they were even in Quiet Riot. They must’ve been little kids.
Smokey: Oh, they were. They were underage. They probably played eight or nine gigs with us. But they weren’t really mature enough to be in the band, so they got canned. We did work with them in the studio, but I hated the song we did together that Randy wrote, “Look Thru Any Window.” I remember singing it over and over and over.
Emmons: Fortunately, not a vestige of it remains!
To me, that’s a tragedy because I’m a massive Randy Rhoads fan.
Emmons: We didn’t like the song, but we liked the kid. He was a really, really cool guy.
Smokey: Randy was a great kid and a very talented musician. I recently posted some photos on my website from the time I cut his hair. I ran into him later when he was playing with Ozzy, and we got along great. I just talked to Kelli last Friday, too. We’re friends still. But like EJ said, they were just a little young for what we were doing.
Speaking of little kids, I understand that Joan Jett was a huge Smokey fan before she was even in the Runaways.
Smokey: She came over our house when we lived in Hollywood and begged to play with us. She must’ve been 14 at the time. I said, “Joanie, I love you, but you’re just too young.” But she’s another nice, nice person.
At one point you did a song called “Million Dollar Babies,” which was about male prostitutes. Was that a play on Alice Cooper’s “Billion Dollar Babies”?
Emmons: That’s interesting. I never thought about that. I liked that Alice Cooper record. Maybe we discussed it one day and thought, “Well, a million is a far cry from a billion, so it’s okay!” [Laughs]
Smokey: I saw Alice’s first tour—in 1969, I think it was—the Pretties For You tour. They were pretty amazing. Then I saw them open for Black Sabbath in Philadelphia.
Now you’re just making me jealous. But the song wasn’t just about male prostitutes in general right? It was about a very specific set of male prostitutes.
Smokey: Right. These big tractor-trailer trucks would park in the Village overnight. They’d open up the backs of the trucks and people would go in and do their thing.
Later on, you recorded a nine-minute disco track called “Piss Slave” that actually cleared the dance floor at the Odyssey nightclub in Los Angeles in 1979.
Emmons: Oh, that was funny. The DJ at the Odyssey, Chuck E. Starr, was a good friend of ours. I had just had an acetate cut for “Piss Slave” so I brought it down to the club one Saturday night. I handed it off to Chuck and asked him to play it. He didn’t care—he’d play anything. So he put it on and for the first two and a half minutes, everybody’s dancing, everybody’s smiling. Then it hits the minor chord, where it goes “I wanna drink yo’ piss!” and everyone’s face just turned into an O shape. [Laughs] Chuck let it go for another eight or twelve bars and then segued into something else because he felt like he needed to keep everybody dancing. So it was kind of a half-bomb, half-major-success because it really stopped them.
Smokey: We wrote that song in about five minutes. It was a one-take vocal. It was basically about a guy who I was living with at the time. [Laughs]
Emmons: We actually didn’t tell the band the name of that song when had them cut the music. We were working with this great band at the time and some of them were [Jehovah’s] Witnesses, so I couldn’t put a chart in front of them that said “Piss Slave.” So the title on the chart I gave them said “Fascinated Funque.”
Tell me about the time you opened for Van Halen.
Smokey: In 1976 we got booked into this roller rink in Norwalk, and we’d never played outside of L.A. before. So it’s out in the boonies outside of L.A., and Van Halen was supposed to open for us but they were real assholes. They insisted that we go on first because they had Warner Brothers executives looking at them. Most of the crowd was there to see them anyway, and didn’t know who we were. There was some drunk guy who was trying to electrocute himself in front of me. It was a real weird scene—just a horrible, horrible, experience. But we did our thing. Hester, the girl on our song “Dance The Night Away,” had on a purple parachute that you could see through, and no underwear. She squatted onstage and showed her pussy. She did the squat-and-gobble and the whole thing.
Emmons: [Laughs] She was a great gal.
Smokey: Van Halen did not do a song called “Dance The Night Away” at that time. So it really threw me over the edge when they came out with a song called “Dance The Night Away” a few years later.
Emmons: That was a bad couple of days at home there.
John, is it true that you once threw up on David Geffen?
Smokey: Yes. The story even makes me blush so I’m not going to tell it.
Emmons: You’ll have to imagine that one for yourself. [Laughs] I wasn’t there, either, thank god.
The last Smokey gig happened at the Cabaret Club in ’77, but you kept making music for a few more years. Why did you decide to stop performing?
Smokey: It was clear it was the end. New Wave was hitting, big hair bands were hitting, and we’d been doing it daily for years. I was living the lifestyle, too, you know? I was living in EJ’s garage with my motorcycle, no bathroom. I was a fuckin’ mess. The last gig we played, I just wore a t-shirt and blue jeans. It was like grunge before grunge happened. But people went fucking nuts. They were on the tables screaming. The place was so fucking packed, and I remember it was pouring rain outside. People were trying to tear at me. It was weird. All the hype around me had finally hit and we couldn’t get a fucking record deal.
Emmons: But we kept making records. We made “Piss Slave,” “I’ll Always Love You” and “Hot, Hard & Ready” and a few others after that. If you listen to “Hot, Hard & Ready,” that was kind of the direction we were going in if we had kept going. But who knows what we might have done or still might still yet do.
Are you planning to record new Smokey material?
Emmons: We’re thinking about it, but it’s really up to Smokey. I’ve got a studio, so that’s not a problem. There’s always musicians around. So we have that option. I believe “Piss Slave” is being remixed by several DJs, including myself. But I’d like to pick up where we left off.
Smokey: We always did a blues number in our set, but we never recorded any of them. I was always kinda sad about that. We were pretty good at that kind of thing.
Listening to this material in 2015, it’s pretty obvious that you guys were ahead of your time. Was that how you felt back in the ’70s when you were recording this stuff?
Smokey: Oh, yeah. We just got the numbers wrong. I thought we were about five years ahead. Turns out it was 35 years. [Laughs] Hitler was wrong, you know. I guess I can be wrong, too.
J. Bennett plays guitar in Ides Of Gemini. He’s been listening to “Piss Slave” on repeat for the last 48 hours.