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Cover Story: The B-52s

| August 31, 2019 | 0 Comments

Cindy Wilson, Fred Schneider, and Kate Pierson

Kate Pierson may not have coined the suddenly-popular new portmanteau “glamping,” a mashup of glamorous and camping. Nor did she come up with its posh concept —experiencing the great outdoors, but through the comfortable buffer of the most modern of conveniences. No, the bouffant-haired B-52’s founder had nothing to do with any part of this evolving art’s origin story. But she sure as hell would appreciate some overdue kudos for perfecting it, thank you very much. Because when it comes to glamping, she’s quietly become the “hostess with the mostest.”

You would imagine that the lady has enough on her plate already, so many projects that there couldn’t possibly be any spare time for another. First, and most pressing, the annual shed-and-winery tour that keeps the B-52’s busy through most of the late summer and early fall — this one commemorating the lovably eccentric Athens, Georgia outfit’s — gasp! — 40th anniversary including a stop at Riot Fest in Douglas Park on September 15.

Think you can picture the typical crowd for “Rock Lobster,” truly one of the most unlikely, albeit otherworldly punk-era experiments ever released? Fuggedaboudit, chortles Pierson, a youthful 71. “We’ve played the wineries with Blondie, The Pretenders, Ziggy Marley — so many different people,” she relates. “And we don’t have some graying audience — we see a lot of young people now, and they’re really into it. They know all the words, and they’re dancing to every song, and they’re…they’re just joyous, really. It’s so much fun to see everyone just cutting loose like that.” Especially after four strenuous decades.

Ace archivists Rhino Records also just released a 30th-anniversary edition of the group’s 1989 commercial breakthrough Cosmic Thing (which includes smash-hits like “Roam” and “Love Shack,” plus assorted remix/B-side rarities and an entire Cosmic Tour concert from Texas in 1990). Additionally, an expansive box set is in the works, for which Pierson and co-vocalist Fred Schneider and Cindy Wilson are planning to record two new tracks. She’s not sure yet, but she knows that everyone even remotely connected to them is feeling disgusted by today’s vengeful, vitriolic state of affairs — where Mike Judge’s once-satirical film Idiocracy is coming true before our horrified gaze — so she reckons the songs might turn out somewhat political. Or not. They just haven’t had a minute to get together and collaborate yet.

But wait — there’s more. It’s just been announced that superfan Fred Armisen of Portlandia renown will be executive producing a full-length B-52’s documentary, to be helmed by Wilson/The Skeleton Twins director Craig Johnson. On a personal level, Pierson is releasing a new single with Mexican artist Aleks Syntek called “The Great Visible Wall.” “And even though it’s metaphorical, it’s most assuredly political,” she cautions. “And Aleks is very, very famous in Mexico. But then I’ve got a second solo record, ready to go, too (following her Sia Furler-assisted 2015 debut Guitars and Microphones) — I’ve got a bunch of great new songs, but I don’t know what to call it. Usually, I like to name the record after one of my songs, but nothing’s jumping out at me yet.” She pauses, takes a deep calming breath, then adds some clarity to the situation, in case it was still hazy to anyone: “So we’ve, uh, got a LOT going on right now.” True enough.

Then again, the Kate household is always bustling with business. You might aptly call it her base of operations. Her wife of four years, Monica Coleman, sells creepy, hand-painted Gothic glassware under the banner of monicanation.com, she’s been described as Morticia Addams meets Martha Stewart. But together, the couple quietly runs a little cottage industry. Quite literally. And with entrepreneurial ardor, Pierson bounds gleefully into a discussion of this three-pronged venture, obviously near and dear to her vagabond heart — Kate’s Lazy Desert in Landers, CA, Kate’s Lazy Meadow in Mount Tremper, N.Y., and Catskills-situated Kate’s Lazy Cabin, all appointed with vintage touches like turquoise Frigidaires and Boomerang Formica countertops. The tchotchkes adorning every room of these vacation destinations are John Waters-campy, and were carefully collected and curated by the Boss on countless B-52’s tours when she and Schneider would regularly disappear to go junking or antiquing.

What knickknacks caught Pierson’s vigilant eye? She sighs, openly admitting that “They’re just too numerous to mention.” But laying out her locations — especially Lazy Desert, which is all Airstream trailers — is like a dream come true for this Rutherford, NJ native, who would periodically box up her road acquisitions and ship them home to the missus, keeping the tour bus free from accumulating clutter. “Every time I go there – to any of my places — I just get a thrill, because I just love the decor,” she says. “Like the decor in my cabins, where each room is decked out with mid-century tchotchkes, representing both the high and the low, culturally. I had to stop buying for Lazy Meadow because it’s completely full now, and nobody ever breaks anything — everybody treats it with such respect. People used to tell me that I’d better glue everything down or people will steal it. But that never happens.”

Looking back on four decades of playful purchases, the singer confesses to still holding on to a few favorites. For instance, there’s a three-paneled triptych of big-eyed crying children that she adores, even though it may not be what it seems. “I think it’s a faux Keane,” she says.”It’s only a knockoff.” There’s a particular brand of wooden bears that she’s always on the lookout for, a few disparate types of pottery, “Be glad if your collection is small,” she adds. “Be glad you never got into furniture.” Other fronts demand constant scrutiny. There’s a brand of weatherproof German gnome that sells for roughly fifty bucks, and when she heard the company was splintering, she bought as many of the bearded statuettes as she could until Coleman put her foot down, snarling “none shall pass!’ Everywhere you stroll on the Lazy sites, there’s a wily gnome peeking out at you from the underbrush, or from behind a cottage cabinet indoors. Yes, there are that many Heissner gnomes, skulking around the property, distant cousins of that snippy Travelocity mascot.

Pierson enjoys parsing fandom and collecting, in general. And how every individual should have some personal passion that they’ll drive five states over just to obtains some rare collectible. It’s almost like a prime directive, although not all share the trait — you’ve just got to have an obsession that you’ll go to the mat for, as it were. And when you first get your hands on a said item? “There’s nothing like that thrill, right?” She gushes. “It makes a lot of things in life just that much more fun. And I mean, just look at the political climate, and then you think of (your collectible that makes you happy), and all is right with the world again.” This writer’s amazing recent find was a “Pussy Wagon” T-shirt, emblazoned with the keychain logo of Uma Thurman’s stolen pickup truck in Kill Bill; true collectors have probably already promo-only replicas of the keychain itself from e-Bay. “I actually have a pair of “Pussy Control” underwear from a Prince tour,” she chimes in, giggling. “It was given out during a Prince tour, and my friend got me a pair and gave them to me. And I, of course, had them framed.”

Pierson is known for some unusual — but incredibly cool collaborations over the years, like the Ramones single “Chop Suey,” the 1990 hit “Candy” with Iggy Pop, and the David Byrne/Fatboy Slim linkup “The Whole Man,” not to mention extensive work with R.E.M. (“Shiny Happy People”). But how, exactly, did she tumble into the hospitality business? The idea hit her while tooling down Route 28 late one night, as she began to notice the quaint little inns, motels and bed and breakfasts that dotted her path. Why couldn’t she and her wife open their own? How difficult could this glamping be? Now that she’s changed her own Lay septic system, she’s got a pretty good idea what the business entails.

In truth, Pierson elaborates, “It wasn’t a planned event, just like The B-52’s wasn’t a plan — we sort of started by spontaneous combustion one night.” And what a night, by all accounts! After downing a flaming volcano drink in their hometown of Athens, GA back in 1976, Pierson, poet Fred Schneider, percussionist Keith Strickland, singer Cindy Wilson, and her brilliant inventive guitarist brother Ricky Wilson (who would pass away in 1985 from AIDS-related causes, nearly ending the group) came up with a bare-bones, surf-echoey style that was like no other. With Island Records honcho Chris Blackwell producing, the band flew to the Bahamas in 1979 to track its eponymous debut, which featured such signature classics as a “Planet Claire” and “Rock Lobster,” which Family Guy auteur Seth MacFarlane still manages to incorporate into almost every new season. It’s a tribute to the ‘60s-inspired filigrees of Wilson — combined with Schneider’s charismatic barked vocal and the girl-group harmonies of Kate and Cindy — “The B-52’s” not only holds up today, it feels like it was conceived only yesterday.

Appearing Sunday, September 15th at Riot Fest Chicago

-Tom Lanham

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