Three black beasts glide down 11th Street, taking their own sweet time. Badass red and yellow flames emblazon each sleek body; the lines are smooth, rounded, sinister — testimony to an age when style was more important than gas mileage. On either side of the street, more majestic machines bask in the afternoon sun: a 1950 purple Mercury, an aquamarine '51 Hudson, a lime-green '54 Chevy, a '59 Ford Apache pickup.
Cleanshaven men sporting white T-shirts and leather jackets recline on the hoods. With filterless cigarettes jutting from between their lips, they coolly watch the procession.
“They started arriving around 1, some of them from as far as L.A.,” says a clearly pleased August Ragone, DNA's barrel-chested rockabilly DJ.
“The cops have been pretty cool. They towed at least six non-vintage cars already.” He scans the street for any transgressions. “Most cops are automobile enthusiasts,” he explains with a wink.
The Grease Ball, a 12-hour extravaganza devoted exclusively to pomade, rockabilly music, and swirling skirts, officially began at 2 p.m. Sunday, but heavy attendance prompted an impromptu pre-party out in the street. At 15 bucks a head, the event is more successful than anyone could have hoped.
“Is this some sort of theme party?” asks a curious pedestrian.
I have to think about that for a minute. “No, I think this is a way of life.”
In the gloom of the nightclub, young ladies with glistening black bobs and powdered noses mill around sipping beer as the first of over a dozen rockabilly bands takes the stage. The bill includes local favorites Johnny Legend and His Rockabilly Bastards, the Sloe Gin Joes, the Bluebell Wranglers, and Russell Scott and His Red Hots, rounded off with hot out-of-towners like the greasy Billy Bacon and the Forbidden Pigs, the all-female Whistle Bait, psychobilly loons Deadbolt, and the legendary Paladins.
The first strains of music seduce the guys away from their shiny motors. These “tough guys,” anxious to show off well-rehearsed dance steps and recently purchased shoes, pair off with Mary Kay pinups and make a beeline for the dance floor. The DNA is transformed into a vortex of rustling skirts and milk-fortified grins as partners switch up without hesitation.
“A nice thing about these shows,” says one woman, “is that you can dance with half a dozen boys and that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get hit on.” A man with the collar of his denim jacket turned up at a perfect angle swaggers over and offers his hand. “Wanna dance?” he proposes, every inch the James Dean whom Natalie Wood was warned about.
Upstairs, duck's-ass maestro David Antony of the Cut Cut Parsley Club mans his barber chair. Averaging four cuts per hour under the blazing lights, Antony is dripping with sweat. “At this rate, I'll probably do 40 or 50 heads before the night's over,” he says with a smile.
A newly born rockabilly gent springs from the chair and slides Antony a bill. “I bought into the lifestyle for five bucks and a haircut,” he laughs.
Other participants take the scene much more seriously. “Most of these people are boneheads,” comments one suited spectator. “They don't have the car, they don't know how to dance, they just put on a leather jacket and think they're cool. There should be some amount of commitment involved.”
As for commitment, consider the buzz of a tattoo gun. In one corner, George Caprise of Man in the Moon Tattoos has Heavy Into Jeff bassist Scott Godfrey under the gun. Caprise is putting the finishing touches on the deranged, stogie-smoking Woody Woodpecker head that adorns Godfrey's left pec. “Tell people it hurts,” Godfrey pleads. “Put a stop to the madness.” But judging from the amount of work on the rest of his bod, stopping is not on his agenda.
Some telltale signs of the '90s — body piercings, dragon tattoos peeking from behind polka-dotted dress straps — aside, it's relatively easy to pretend we've gone back in time. Anton, a rockabilly construction worker from Brooklyn, gazes out a window at the commotion below.
“There are rockabilly shows at home, but it's limited,” he says wistfully. “Nothing like this.”
Despite the crisp night air, the greasers on the street have stripped down to their white “wife-beater” tank tops, the long afternoon of sun and beer still warming their blood. They strut down the center of the street admiring each other's hot rides and comparing stories. The landscape looks like a set for Rebel Without a Cause.
“I can sum up the rockabilly scene in one statement,” laughs a tall man with intense eyes and a goatee: “My girl is red hot/ Your girl ain't diddly squat.” He hops into a car that's easily my ultimate retro fantasy.
To sit shotgun in that machine would require a commitment too exacting for me — at the very least, high heels and clothes that call for pressing. Who needs dangerous-looking men with flashy cars, anyway?
By Silke Tudor