Books

Culture Club's heyday was Britpop's last hurrah, a time when music wasn't so compartmentalized and U.K. street styles -- no matter how crazy or tacky -- became U.S. mass trends. Like Punk Never Happened read the title of a book with Boy George on the cover, but really, the New Romantic movement was punk gone burlesque: In fact, Boy George began his career as Malcolm McLaren's final Bow Wow Wow puppet, singing songs like "The Biological Phenomena of the Yellow Retina" (rapped like a racing commentary, with all the horses named after well-known or closeted homosexuals).

Of course, analysis isn't a big part of Take It Like a Man, Boy George's autobiography: The only reflection he knows involves a mirror. The tome is -- surprise! -- the musings of a gossipy queen, a gay man who treats other people as characters, fixating on their physical features and personality traits. The best way to read Take It is to scan the index and look for interesting names, because Boy George has an opinion on everyone. Running into Danny Bonaduce at a bar, an acid-tripping Boy quips, "You were much cuter when you were 5." When Brooke Shields tells the Boy smoking is bad for him, he replies, "So is getting fucked up the arse, but I do that every night."

It's a quick step from Icon to Joke in fame's alphabet: Boy George's drag persona was never threatening, and by the time he made a cameo on The A Team, mouthing lines like "Totally awesome, Mr. T," he'd become a circus clown. "Not knowing when to shut up was one of my greatest faults," Boy writes early on. A prophetic statement, seeing as his book is 500 pages long; often entertaining but rarely insightful and ultimately exhausting, it's like a whirlwind party that never stops. Stories about Boy's poor family, his inherent love of dressing up, and his pre-fame sexploits are interesting, but statements like "[Gays] all love a man in a uniform" suggest he's best off speaking only for himself.

Boy's two main addictions are "straight" boys who dabble and drugs. Of the former, Take It Like a Man fixates on Spear of Destiny singer Kirk Brandon (Boy's first love) and Culture Club drummer Jon Moss (who inspired most of the group's ridiculously coded lyrics). Drugs provide the book's dreariest moments: All substance-abuse stories are the same, and all Boy has to say upon kicking his smack habit is, "DRUGS ARE EVIL." Thanks for the insight. In the end, he's writing homages to India and seeking wisdom from Shirley MacLaine. Still, after surviving a Wilde-style crucifixion in the British court system and gutter press, he's hip to the fact that he was vilified for a practice -- heroin use -- straight rock stars routinely get away with.

Ultimately, the best character in Take It Like a Man isn't Boy George but his friend Philip Sallon, who tosses off bons mots like "That's about as interesting as your last chart position." Boy's new LP, Cheapness and Beauty, settles the same scores with greater flair and brevity. "There are very few Culture Club tracks I can listen to without cringing," Boy George notes; ironically, now that he's making better music, the American masses don't care to hear it.

The same problem faces the (far superior) Pet Shop Boys. Mistakenly branded as "yuppies" for their 1985 U.S. hit "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)," Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have grown artistically and shrunk commercially stateside with each release since. Chris Heath's Pet Shop Boys Versus America is a diary of the pair's 1991 U.S. tour, a theatrical extravaganza -- complete with dozens of dancers, even more wigs and masks, and no onstage musicians -- that seemingly thumbed its nose at rock-ist critics. Was the show fantastic? Yes. Did it "rock the house"? No (thank goodness).

If Take It Like a Man is Boy George's failed attempt to carry on Quentin Crisp's witty queen routine, Pet Shop Boys is Tennant and Lowe's successful attempt at matching, epigram for epigram, Oscar Wilde's infamous U.S. visit a century earlier (you know, the one where Wilde had nothing to declare but his genius). Neil: "L.A. is our lady." Chris: "It's about the only one."; Chris: "Did you see Living Colour on MTV? They were saying the message is just as important as the music." Neil: "So what is the message?" Chris: "They didn't say, of course."

Basically, the pair play their self-appointed roles: bookish Neil and sullen Chris. Mixed with photos by Clash photographer Pennie Smith, Heath's text records Tennant and Lowe's everyday public babble; both he and his subjects reap a fair amount of amusement from the banality of a life on the road. At a radio appearance, a DJ announces "Neil and Chris from the Pet Shop Boys getting down with Cox on the radio." "Is that meant to be a double-entendre?" Neil asks. Faced with surly German and goofy French interviewers, Chris talks of doing a musical called Cheese "where all the characters are different cheeses," and writing a song that strings together every pop clichŽ in the book (ex.: "We're going to find a higher ground if enough water passes under the bridge").

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