Even as David Bowie publicly played with his own sexual identity in the early '70s, the idea of a truly gay rock star was too much for one record executive. Handed a single about the men who populate leather bars from a band named Smokey, the exec remarked: "We can't put this out, it's a fucking gay record, what's the matter with you." But he did admit to this: "it's really good though." Where Bowie, Lou Reed, and others were ambiguous, frontman John Condon, a Baltimore transplant, was direct, writing garage-y glam tunes about gay sex, including an eight-and-a-half-minute paean to watersports, 'Piss Slave.'
Despite having the backing of EJ Emmons, a burgeoning producer with access to big-deal studios in Los Angeles, and songs that featured cameos from Stooges guitarist James Williamson and Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Randy Rhoads, Smokey never got signed to a major label. Condon and Emmons released a few singles on their own label, S&M Records—the logo included a muscular bicep with "S&M" tattooed on it and a studded cuff—with modest success. But the music of Smokey was lost to time—until this year, when the heads of long-running Australian indie label Chapter Music decided to release a compilation of Smokey's music, including previously released material, called "How Far Will You Go?: The S&M Recordings, 1973-81" (see review: page TK).
We phoned Condon at his Palm Springs, California, home to talk about his days partying with John Waters and Baltimore's gay scene in the late '60s, palling around with The Doors, the renewed interest in his music, and more. (Brandon Weigel)
City Paper: Obviously, with the paper being from Baltimore, I'm a little more interested in talking about your upbringing here. What was it like growing up here? Where did you live and where did you go to school?
John Condon: I lived in a lot of different places. The primary places I lived the longest, I guess, were Woodbine and Catonsville. But I lived all over the place. I lived with my mom, my dad, my grandmother, that type of thing. The main schools I went to were—um, I guess Catonsville High School was the main school.
CP: What do you remember from that period?
JC: I remember being different. I remember getting beat up. I remember going to school from quarter-to-2 to 2:30 to complete English to graduate. That was the basic last requirement. I had done all the math and all the other things. My friends were still in school. I was managing a record store downtown, on Mulberry Street, Back of the Moon, and going to school for like 45 minutes a day. I was already living on my own above a nightclub downtown called The Bluesette, at 15. So I used to take the bus from downtown out to Catonsville and go to school. I got expelled for wearing a pink tank top to school. I wasn't allowed to take gym because I got beat up. It was pretty horrific, but it was important for me to graduate from high school.
CP: Did working at the record store influence the sound you would later put out with Smokey? What were some of the things you were listening to there?
JC: Well, I was actually playing in bands around town with a guy named Harold Flood, who was a guitar player, and John Wasky, who was a bass player. He lived in Arbutus and Harold lived not far from me in Catonsville. He was a black guy and great on guitar. We played a few gigs. And I used to gig at The Bluesette, I used to jam with different groups. That's when Nils Lofgren had Grin, and they were a local band at that point. But I was different. What can I say? I was just really different. It was the late '60s. It was hippies. It was John Waters.
CP: What was the scene like at the time?
JC: I lived on my own, above that nightclub. My rent was $40 a month for a single room, shared bathroom. Used to go out and party almost every night at a club called Leadbetter's in Fells Point. All the John Waters people were usually there, and we had a good time. Went to The Hippo and danced.
CP: Do you have specific memories from the Hippo?
JC: Oh sure. There was Elizabeth [Coffey], who was in the John Waters films. There was a guy named Todd, there was a guy named Benny. You know, dance, drink, have a good time. That's kind of what we did. Leadbetter's was more fun.
CP: So what was it like to be a gay man in Baltimore during that time?
JC: It was great. Nobody even questioned it. Just part of the scene. I don't know how else to describe it. So I hung out, like I said, with some of the John Waters people. [A friend] had a big apartment at the Marlborough. Went to New Year's Eve parties there, went to a birthday party for Glenn [Milstead]—Divine. You know, it wasn't a big thing. It just wasn't a big thing to be gay in those times.
CP: In your bio it says you went up to New York after the Stonewall Riots? Did you move up there or did you just go up there to march?
JC: No. I lived in Washington. Let me see. I was at a concert in Baltimore. A very famous group came through, and I went with them to Washington. And then went onto Philadelphia and hooked up with another group. And they didn't play Woodstock, but [I] traveled around the country with them. I wound up in New York, and I was there when Stonewall happened and [participated] in the first demonstration the night after Stonewall. From New York, I went back to Baltimore for a short time, and then I went to Europe with The Doors. And then went back to New York and said to The Doors' road manager, Vince Treanor, "I need to get out of New York," and so I came to California.
CP: Jumping back, you said you hooked up with two groups. What were those groups?
JC: I'm not going to say.
CP: Why not?
JC: Well one's world famous and I dated him for a while. You know, I don't get to tell.
CP: So that's still under wraps I guess.
JC: Big time. He's one of the top five guitar players in the world. I'm not going to say who he is.
CP: What kind of music were you playing at this time? Because this was before Smokey formed.
JC: I was playing rock 'n' roll and blues.
CP: Was the lyrical content as explicit? Or is that something you came to later?
JC: Well, no. When I came to Hollywood and met my producer EJ, we went to the studio within 10 days, and he had done the sound for The Doors and wanted always to make records. And he said, "Sing about something you know about," so I sang about leather bars and drag queens.
CP: There's a quote from a record executive that says, "We can't put this out, it's a fucking gay record, what's the matter with you." He later added, "it's really good though." How jarring was that for you to hear?
JC: It was pretty jarring, to be called a faggot in Hollywood. It wasn't as progressive as New York. They just wouldn't sign me, and I wasn't going to change the way I was. I was hanging at Rodney [Bingenheimer]'s English Disco and playing on the bill with The Motels and Van Halen, and then Berlin Brats. It was just anything goes at that point. Hollywood was very conservative—they had the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt, even though she was out doing the governor at that time. They just didn't want to take a chance on an artist like me. They just didn't want to.
CP: Did you find your music was well received in a live setting?
JC: Oh, big time. Big time. You know, everybody else put out demos on cassettes. So we'd go into a record executive's office and they would have a box of cassettes that they'd never listened to. So we started pressing records. Our first record we sold over 5,000 copies. We were on sale at Tower Records. Still, nobody would sign us. That's the way it was.
CP: A lot of the articles that have been written since the announcement have talked about how Bowie at the time and Lou Reed would play, in this ambiguous way, with this "is he or isn't he?" thing. What were your thoughts on that?
JC: You know, I really didn't have any thoughts on it. I was just who I was. I was looking for a sound. We were putting out, what, seven-minute records, eight-minute records. The Ramones were coming out with their two-minute versions. I just didn't have any thoughts on that, because I wasn't willing to copy somebody's style. Rodney used to play David Bowie a lot. They recorded some of their demos on EJ's speakers. He was around at the time, Elton [John] was around. But I didn't give it much thought as to who I was and what I was doing, to tell you the truth. I was kinda just living the life and doing it. It didn't really matter that I was going to be signed, it was evident I wasn't going to be.
CP: So you decided to write 'Piss Slave' as a "fuck you." Is that right?
JC: Yeah, that was one of the reasons. We just kept getting plagiarized. Every time we would play out somebody would—I mean, you see the many looks I went through. My looks kept changing, the music kept changing, the sound kept changing. And, you know, I saw Generation X when Billy Idol had a perm and blonde hair and was a pretty boy. The next thing you know he has spiked hair like mine and was singing "more, more, more," which is the end of 'Leather.' David Bowie singing "leather, leather everywhere, and/ Not a myth left from the ghetto" in 'Young Americans.' And I've told the story about Van Halen many times. Our big song at the time was 'DTNA.' They weren't signed, and they got signed and their first song they came out with was called 'Dance The Night Away.' It just kept happening over and over and over. So ['Piss Slave'] was like, "Try and take this, try and copy this. I don't think you can." That's why we did it. And I had a nine-piece backing band at that point, a black band called Rare Gems Odyssey, who were on Casablanca. They were great musicians. They were great, great musicians. Most of them have passed away now, but they were incredible.
CP: What is like for you now to have your music re-released, or some of it released for the first time, and to have a renewed interest in your work?
JC: It's weird and overwhelming and shocking. Every review, every interview I've done, it's just been ga-ga over the music. I've just been working over the last, what, 35 years doing a job. It's kind of crazy. I've done 15 interviews and two radio interviews. People want me to perform again. They did a big spread in the Sunday paper here in Palm Springs, so now I get recognized on the street. It's a weird scene. It's really a bizarre scene. I'm a whole different person than I used to be. It's unusual. They're talking about having 'Piss Slave' remixed by two pretty famous DJs. I can't wait to hear the remixes of that.
CP: Oh yeah? Can you say who they are?
JC: I don't know who they are yet. And then I sent a copy to a gentleman in Brazil who's a DJ, and he's playing San Diego, I think, on the 26th. I don't know if he'll do something with it or not. And then they're talking about making up T-shirts. I don't know. It's weird, you know? I have a lot of people hitting on me to play with me again. When you work, it's hard to devote all your time to music, so you either have to devote all your time to music or you have to devote your time to work. So I'm kinda torn. I don't know what to do. Because I don't want to do half-ass shows. That's not cool, that's not good.
CP: So have you been doing sessions again? Practicing?
JC: I did a vocal with EJ about three months before this came out, and my voice is still there. I imagine we're gonna cut some new music. But then once you cut the new music, then you gotta go out and perform it. I had an offer to headline some concert in Los Angeles in August, but the record label didn't feel it was the right venue for me. Some kind of punk festival. I'm a little old to be a punk. They'll figure something out for me. They have street festivals in Palm Springs, they block off the gay streets and then they have bands come in and play. That might be a good starting point for me.
CP: You said you've changed. How is it that you've changed since that time?
JC: I got my life together [laughs]. I had a partner for 21 years and he passed away suddenly overnight last year. So I had to sell our home and I moved into a small little apartment, it's very bohemian style. And people are really sweet to me. And you know, when I finally gave up singing, I was living in a garage with my motorcycle in Hollywood with a bed, no running water, and that's where that lifestyle had taken me. And I decided, well, I have to get my act together. So I moved out of Hollywood, because everywhere I went people knew who I was. We were playing bigger and bigger gigs, and people still wanted me to perform. It was either live or die, so I moved out of Hollywood and I got a job and I cleaned up my act and I gave up music. I couldn't be around it more. I mean, it was the late '70s, early '80s-there was drugs, there was all kinds of things around, and I just couldn't handle it anymore.