“By the way, I have a new wig. I don’t think the reddish one will survive another concert.” Shelly called me to plan our get-ups for the next B-52s concert next Sunday night. “It’s a bob but I can tease it, cause it’s gotta be big. It can not be half-assed. It has to be awesome.”
Since 1977 you could probably catch The B-52s playing somewhere in America. In the last decade or so they’ve been touring almost every year. I know, because Shelly and I go, almost every year.
But when did we first put on the wigs?
It’s difficult to say.
In the beginning, we would fashion our real hair into sky-high beehives. She was Cindy. I was Kate. Always. I’d tease the hell out of my thick brown hair with a rat-tail comb, Shelly found either a cardboard toilet paper roll or a Styrofoam cone that she’d twirl her blonde hair around and up.
One of my dearest friends, Shelly and I both of hail from the Philly area and share an abiding love for music. Our conspiratorial fondness for vintage clothes, bad B movies and general ridiculousness waxes and wanes, but Shelly is better at keeping the faith. We even shared a couple of one-time boyfriends back in college. (Not at the same time… we don’t think).Now well into my 40s, I could give a shit about propriety. Like most things, this is more and more my life.
But it wasn’t always that way. When we first met, we both worked as DJs at East Halls radio station (WEHR) at Penn State and for some reason, kept our distance. A bleach-blonde with an intimidating, lumbering strut, Shelly was a year older and palled around with the punk crowd; I was friends with Chip, the music director, a.k.a. “the man” in her eyes. We thought the other would never EVER be our friend. A story we still love to tell each other, and quibble about.
“You were so preppy with your gold hoop earrings and striped turtlenecks,” she says, “and” she adds with a scowl, ”you listened to the Hunters and Collectors.”
One of many bands from the 80s “college rock era” that no one remembers.
“Come on, I wore that striped turtleneck maybe once, ” I rebut. “You had that Mohawk.”
“I never had a Mohawk! I just shaved one side of my head.”
Shelly and I worked in our own two-hour shifts, I’d put The Cure’s The Head on the Door back in the bin, she’d take it out. We side-eyed each other in passing like curious cats.
Until many semesters later — my junior year, her senior — when we both had an art class together, and I said “Hello.” Which sounds very Lionel Richie video, but you get the idea.
She looked up from her charcoal sketch, a little shocked, but responded back immediately. “Hey!”
From that day forward, we were inseparable. What had taken us so long? We’d spend weekends riding around in her red VW rabbit, snatching up pleather jackets and patterned house dresses in Bellefonte, PA., windows rolled down, screaming along to The Smiths, Public Image Ltd and occasionally The B-52s.
We weren’t yet B-52 diehards — I liked them a lot, owned and loved the underrated Whammy! and squirmed on the ground to “Rock Lobster” with everyone else at the high school dance. But when Love Shack was released, something clicked. This would be The B-52s most commercially successful album — and the first after band member Ricky Wilson, Cindy’s brother, passed away. There was something about the album that reintroduced us both to The B-52s and resonated with our lives.
We went back to the older catalog of B-52 songs — “Planet Claire,” “Song for a Future Generation,” “Mesopotamia.” Bouyant, retro-minded, ridiculously upbeat — these songs became the soundtrack of our friendship. Nevermind that the two women at the helm were the coolest we’d ever seen.
At a Halloween party at Penn State’s “punk” house, we dressed up as The B-52’s core duo, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson. To get the look right, I went to a long-defunct chain called Your Father’s Mustache (which sounds veritably hip now) and got a professional bouffant. I figured they’d get it right. Shelly discovered the aforementioned Styrofoam cone.
“I remember that party,” Shelly reminds me. “There was one of those punching dummies and sand had come out of it. Someone had baked a cake with the sand in it and I served it to people. They were like, “Ack!”’ I pretended I didn’t know. I was so bad.”
For a few years after college, now in the early 90s, we’d get together and “bouf” our hair, as we liked to say. And we’d sing “Love Shack” or “Bushfire” — to the eye-rolling entertainment and likely dismay of partygoers. One of Shelly’s friends from college, Greg, eventually joined us as our “Fred.” (He’s a really good Fred.)
So in the mid or late 90s, when we heard The B-52s were coming to play the Mann Music Center, we were all in. We decided to buy actual wigs at weird PA farm-animals-and-old-junk mecca, Zern’s, opting for these odd Beatles-like page boys which didn’t quite work, but whatever. We loaded up the car with handmade signs with random B-52 lyrics like, “I’ll meet you at the third pyramid!” and “I like Chihuahuas and Chinese noodles.”
But horror upon horrors, as we drove through driving rain to get to the concert, we arrived to find that the show was rained out and cancelled. After about 10 minutes of actual tears, we met a few other distraught fans by the side of Parkside Avenue, turned on Cosmic Thing and danced in the downpour, our wigs cockeyed and doused. “We’ll dance in the garden in torn sheets in the rain.” The song “Deadbeat Club” always makes me a little misty.
Funny thing is, I don’t remember the first time I actually saw them perform. I think it was a year later, back at the Mann. I’ve seen them play so many times since then — in Philly, in Atlantic City, at amusement parks— it’s a blur. Their set is kinda always the same: surf-and-kitsch pop-punk, heavy on the hits with a dose of whatever new album they’ve released. Always a party, hardly edgy anymore, but 100% fun.
Our wigs got better and bigger. “Go big or go home,” Shelly would say, a bright orange monstrosity perched atop her head. No more manual machinations, we bought Patti Duke flips and Marge Simpson-towers.
The only time she didn’t wear a wig was when she met the band in person in a Live Nation event in Charlotte. “I didn’t want to seem like a crazy stalker…”
In my mid 30s I moved to New York City, and Shelly and I didn’t see each other as much. When we did get together for a show, I decided I was too old to be wearing a wig, much to Shelly’s dismay. I had this big important job as an editorial director and I shouldn’t be acting a fool, right? I’d go as far as a semi-’60s dress. Shelly never gave up.
Now well into my 40s, I could give a shit about propriety. Like most things, this is more and more my life, how I want to live it — an approach to life Shelly always seemed to follow, from the day I saw her lumbering toward me in her combat boots.
Married with a teenage daughter, Shelly’s now a graphic designer, a jewelry designer and a roller derby enthusiast. She’s the first to email Greg and myself — “They are playing again, you guys in?” More often than not, I can make it — wig on.
Call it an obsession, but really it’s a definite time of year when we can have a kick-ass time with each other. Half the fun is the pre-game, helping Shelly paint on black liquid eyeliner and affixing those wigs which always, eventually, fall off.
Prepping to go to our gajillionth show this Sunday, Shelly reminds me, “There was a woman with a walker last time. We’re not the oldest fans — by far.”