Basslines & Protest Signs Part 12: Jayne County

By | June 12, 2019 at 3:30 PM
Photo: AllNiteImages

We’ve briefly mentioned Jayne County in previous columns but she certainly deserves a deeper dive and this week, as all the wonderful Pride events are going on around us, it seems like the perfect time. Born in 1947, Jayne County came to public prominence as Wayne County with her band the Electric Chairs. Prior to that, she could often be found at the Stonewall Inn — she in fact took part in the Stonewall riots in ’69.

That same year, she appeared in the play Femme Fatale by Andy Warhol star Jackie Curtis (alongside a young Patti Smith). Understandably, County was enamoured by Curtis and the Warhol scene, with its gender fluidity and sense of artistic freedom. She had already fronted the band Queen Elizabeth (with a glitter-sleaze edge), and then Wayne County, and the Backstreet Boys (nothing to do with the ’90s boy band) before finally forming the Electric Chairs.

In his excellent 2017 book David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music, author Darryl W. Bullock wrote, “To label Jayne County an icon is to do her a massive disservice: she’s been part of the fabric of LGBT life in the United States since the late 1960s, but it’s for her outrageous stage antics and her punk anthem ‘Fuck Off’ that she will be forever venerated by punk fans… County is the embodiment of the whole punk ethos and, as such, is the godmother of queercore.”

There’s a good reason the song “Fuck Off” keeps raising its gloriously twisted head. Originally written while still with the Backstreet Boys and also known as “(If You Don’t Wanna Fuck Me, Baby) Fuck Off!!!”, it was eventually released by the Electric Chairs in ’77, and became a part of the rich tapestry of New York club Max’s Kansas City (which closed in ’81).

“If you don’t wanna f*** me baby,

Baby, f*** off.

I ain’t got time

For yesterday’s news

Don’t shoot me up or down

Bullshit news

If you don’t wanna piece of the action

Baby, take a walk.”

Jayne County — “Fuck Off”

The song was and is indicative of County’s general vibe and attitude. She wasn’t being coy and sweet with her gender-bending. She said and did exactly what she wanted, fuck the naysayers. That was true before transition and after. Jayne County has always played on her own terms.

Her 1995 autobiography Man Enough to Be a Woman is an exceptionally touching piece of work and everyone should at least borrow a copy — whether you’re familiar with her music or not. The book details her difficult upbringing in rural Georgia and the issues associated with dealing with her sexuality in ’50s Atlanta:

“By the age of sixteen I was dressing up just to walk around the streets. I had a geisha girl look, and my Cleopatra look, and my Babylonian queen look. I was really interested in ancient history at school, and I’d look at all the books in the library and then go home and try to make myself look like an Egyptian or Babylonian queen.”

Photo by David Shankbone

County also writes about the boys she had crushes on back then, and the fact that some of those crushes were clearly reciprocated but it was too dangerous to act on them. Life wasn’t easy. So as soon as she could, she got a Greyhound bus to New York and spent the summer of love in the Stonewall Inn.

That’s where County found her people. Though she arrived with no clothes or money (she left her bag on the wrong bus and lost it), she was taken in by the Stonewall crowd who would let her sleep on their sofas. That summer of ’69, though, she found herself taking part in the Stonewall riots.

“Something else happened in the Summer of 1969 that changed my life, although it wasn’t until years later that I recognized it as anything terribly important,” Country wrote in her book. “I was on my way to the Stonewall one Friday night in June, and when I got to Sheridan Square there was a bit of commotion on the street. One of the regulars came rushing over and told me that the police had raided the Stonewall, roughed up a lot of the queens, stuck them behind the bar and done sex searches on them to establish that they were men… More and more people arrived and started joining in… I was with a group of queens and we started walking up Christopher Street going ‘Gay Power! Gay Power! Gay Power!’.”

Over the years, County’s career has seen her performing in Warhol theater productions and, in the late ’70s/early ’80s, relocating to Berlin. She writes that it was in Germany that she seriously entertained the idea of a full sex change but decided against it.

“I’m happy in between the sexes,” she wrote. “I’m comfortable and I actually like the idea. The whole idea of being neither male nor female, of being a mixture of both — a hermaphrodite, a eunuch — pleases me. For some people, that’s too undefined and they have to be one or the other.”

So that’s our Jayne — she still doesn’t feel the need to adhere to conventional gender types, preferring to live her life the way she wants to. And we dare anyone to tell her that she’s wrong. Jayne County is fierce and fabulous, and always has been. Her 1995 album Deviation is one of her best, including the cover of the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” and the attitude-heavy “Everyone’s An Asshole But Me”. More recent material is worth a listen too. Her live performances are still staggering and she still stands as an inspiration to people from all walks of life. Don’t live your life the way people tell you should — life’s too short.

Be like Jayne.