from Confessions of a Motion Addict
Cowboys In London
Whip cracks across a cottony Novocain void...
Searing pain shoots from ear to ear then rockets up to the crown of my skull.
One eye snaps open on a tighty-whitey close-up: fabric...a pillow...saliva.
Down deep inside, the voice clangs again. “Wake up!”
Right, that’s me.
I register the sound of air sucking in, then resurface to the pounding glare of an unbearably bright morning. 1989. Awake again. My jaw is slack and my head throbs with the creeping half-memories of yesterday’s debauchery: coke (Charlie), E (ecstasy), endless chatter, shards of music (Bowie, Johnny Rotten, X-ray Spex, Morrissey) and violent dancing, belly laughs morphing into deep tongue kisses, massive amounts of Glenfiddich, then vodka w/white wine (Car Crash), ever growing mountain of fags (cigarettes), Charlie, alcohol, Charlie, alcohol, alcohol, Charlie, then sleepers; spiraling fuck into blackout.... “Artistic research” I slur to myself.
I shift on the bed and a hive of hornets stings my brain in unison. There’s a body next to me. Relief. He’s still there, tangled in the sheets. I lean into his monster-pouty lips (delectable) for a sign of breath. It’s detectable. Barely. He’s out cold. Suspended mode.
The body belongs to Michael Clark, notorious British choreographer with whom I’m spectacularly in love, a seismic affair. He’s deep in the coma I just emerged from. Through my haze I can decipher only one clear thought: “Coffee.”
London in the late ’80s means no real coffee in our flat in Shepherd’s Bush, or in any cupboard across the Commonwealth. It’s all about tea. I take an aching deep breath, then exhale; roll off the mattress and onto the floor, gingerly crawl my way up my legs, hand over fist. I achieve vertical sloooo—o—ooooow—ly, see-saw to the loo where I plunk a couple of fizzy Solpadeine in water and suck them down in a gulp. Solpadeine, the over-the-counter hangover cure I covet for its dose of legal codeine. “Civilized. I love London.” The throbbing fog hints that it might soften and lift.
Codeine aside, I’m in a honeymoon phase with London. A hopeless Anglophile, really, I love everything about it: the accent, the manners, the wonky English name equivalents of mundane things: crisps for potato chips and loo for toilet. My friends are my mates. I’m not exhausted, I’m dead knackered. I live for these linguistic twists.
And there’s comfort in the clear division between good and evil in the culture: establishment vs. underground. One stratum is so politely mannered and polished, queuing up (forming a line) eagerly without complaint, while another is roiling punk rock, anarchy destroy! The turf is clear as high school. There’s no “mincing about” concerning one’s place or class. Except for when one speaks. There’s nothing direct about social communication. It’s more of a minuet that’s downplayed, without emphasis: “Would you like some porridge?” comes the request to have some breakfast to a famished friend.
“I don’t mind,” comes the reply that translates to “Yes, I’m starving, heap it on.”
It’s the art of understatement—formal, polite, of not revealing what’s obvious. Discreet.
I’m a choreographer as well, a recent transplant from New York who’s received generous amounts of attention and support here. In London, this translates to cultural kudos of mainstream order. I also happen to be engaged to the most notorious dancer/punk icon London’s ever seen.(That’s him drooling in the other room.) The phrase “Bad Boy” comes up frequently in relation to us—the press seems to need it—and we’re drawn as counterparts from different sides of The Pond. The irreverent, quite queer, frank and open, fashion-fixated, velocity-addicted Angry Young Men.
In truth I’m a well-raised, well-intentioned guy who hopes for the best, expects it and assumes it for others. But I’m at a point where the politics of my sexuality are paramount, on the tip of my tongue, pressing a cultural moment of change. The ground shifts with Michael. The power of two is exponential and there’s considerable buzz around our union. Fabulosity.
It’s assumed. It’s easy. It’s the way it was meant to be. I throw on a fresh long-sleeved cotton tee from the neatly folded pile near the bed, long sleeves for propriety’s sake. The bruised crook of my arm is displayed less and less these days, though it’s balmy August. I vaguely notice what I’m putting on, the Ariel brand’s fresh laundry scent, the over-the-fingertip bondage sleeves that mark the shirt as one of Vivienne’s.
Vivienne Westwood, harbinger of punk, just won the Designer of the Year at The British Fashion Awards, after years of shaping what London’s youth wear, what they listen to, how they see the world as rotten to the core. She’s royally subversive and so much fun. My mind smudges out a little aside: “This’ll do for a quick coffee run.” Plus Michael and I love wearing each other’s clothes when we’re not pasted together at the hip.
Out the door and on to Shepherd’s Bush Green, the unusual crowd and blaring music remind me that Nottingham Carnival weekend is in motion. It’s a Caribbean cultural festival and a bank holiday, a chance for a long weekend, everything shut down and gone fishin’. Bank holidays are perpetually popping up in Britain. Civilized.
I snake my way through the crowd, make it as far as the local chippy (fish and chip shop) when without warning, the world jolts and screeches to an abrupt halt. There in the doorway he hovers, a magnificently sweet vision. He’s the blondest, squarest-jawed, sky-blue-eyed, translucent-skinned angel, an oasis in uniform. Standing before me is a perfectly hot Anglo-blond Bobby. He locks right on me, smiles into me; eyes shift down my body, then nods me over. I’m extremely loyal but Michael is asleep back at the flat and I see no harm in a little harmless flirtation.
We’re face to face when he tells me: “I like your shirt.”
I look down and clock the Wild-West cartoon cowboy erotica on my chest. I look up and thank him, a bit taken aback. Can Bobbies flirt in uniform? London is fabulous. When his Bobby buddy appears out of nowhere, it occurs to me...this is not going where I think it’s going. It all turns wrong as he orders: “Please come with me, mate.”
Bobbies don’t carry guns but it shocks me how much power they retain and I follow along sheepishly. He asks me my name as they escort me to the police van.
“Jack Peroni,” I blurt out in a flash of defensive panic that somehow morphs me instantly into the heir to an Italian beer empire (the brew I was drinking all night).
I’m inside their cub van—the wagons used for transporting the riffraff—driving around the crowded carnival streets, when I hear my perfect blond Bobby report to his station that he has a suspect with a “porno-graphic jumper” on and is awaiting instructions. It seems my T-shirt has an unseemly message on it. It’s not till then that I have a good look down at my chest and the upside-down image shifts planes and comes into focus. It is one of Vivienne’s extremely graphic cartoon cowboy/sex shirts with the slogan “Fuck Your Mother,” scrawled on the shoulder. A bit of punkish fun with fashion.
Bobby assures me we’re just going to drive around a bit, that his superior will have them drop me off eventually to pursue more fractious criminals. When the radio finally crackles back that they need to “’Ave a look at me,” my Bobby and his buddy are instructed to haul me in. He apologizes in a sheepish way and I realize that I am fucked. My steamy cop porno is suddenly titled Done by the Old Bill.
* * *
We arrive at Hammersmith Station, just next to the Hammersmith Apollo where every great band has taken a turn. Irony twists the blade as it hits me that we’re just blocks away from Dance Umbrella at Riverside Studios, the venue that was my first stage as a dancer in London, the home to my loyal producers and enthusiastic public. How could I be in such intimate proximity to my dancing glory, now standing hung-over and shirtless, looking up at a pasty officer, who is in turn looking down at me in disgust from his lofty perch? How can he not comprehend my entitlement, know I’m decent, intentions pure? Can’t he see? What he does see is the message in my outfit.
“That shirt is revolting. What would your mum say if she saw you in it?” he bellows in a cartoon British accent.
“She wouldn’t say much. My mother is dead,” I offer in a return that’s too abrupt (“Who said that?”). I mean to state a fact and separate my mother’s memory from his crusty mouth. It doesn’t seem to help matters. They remove my shirt and I’m forced to stand for ages, bare torso-ed and nipples at permanent attention, surrounded by a flock of London’s best-in-blue. Morning drags into afternoon. I demand my right for a phone call and he laughs: “You’re an American national and ’ave no rights ’ere in London.”
I’m at their disposal. I tell him I’m a well-known American dancer who performs here often, which just seems to deepen his pleasure at retaining me. I make a desperate attempt at release by mentioning I have severe asthma and need my medicine at home. This jostles him enough—I don’t think he wants a death on his hand and he arranges to have a police car to take me around to my flat.
Don’t know what I am doing here. (I mean really, right now, and in the big picture. I am a good guy, loyal friend of the underdog, kind to children, didn’t mean for it to...and yet here I stand, strung out, arrogant, arrested and in a sweat in a precinct in London. Alone.) I’m improvising like hell in hopes that I’ll see Michael to at least let him know where I am.
My arresting Bobbies fade out and then, replaced by a new team of mixed origin and sex, off we go for a nationally sponsored drug run. We get to the door of the flat and the officer knocks but no one is home. I see the state of the flat in the look of horror on her face. There are beer cans, pizza boxes, books on top of books, videos, sketches and mountains of trash everywhere. In one light “a good weekend,” in another, “mayhem.”
I go in to get my inhaler and look around to see if there’s any incriminating evidence, should they search the place later. Miraculously I don’t see any, though it was everywhere when I left.
We get into the van to return and I’m defeated. We start down the street and through the tiny back window in the rear compartment I spot Michael. I point him out and implore them to speak to him. I’m still concealed in the back as they ask him if he knows a Jack Peroni. He replies a definite and somewhat paranoid “No.”
As we pull away I see it dawn on him. Then Michael’s ballet-running after us, flailing at the van, but it’s too late for them to notice.”
* * *
They isolate me in a coffin-sized single cell because I tell them I have a compromised immune system (which I don’t) to keep myself apart from whatever else I’m certain I’ll want to avoid in the communal lockup. I’m hysterically claustrophobic, post-weekend run-down, depressed at the thought that no one knows my whereabouts. Hours crawl by. Finally Michael shows up to demand my release and gets a snicker at his claims of grandeur and fame. In a fit of giggles, the captain mentions the state of the flat. Michael promises to sort me out and I beg for swiftness.
He vanishes for another day. I am in prison—In Hammersmith—On a bank holiday weekend. It’s looking pretty grim.
The night is long, punctuated by waves of panic and indignation. Early next morning, I’m released unexpectedly into the custody of my Michael and Steve A, an American photographer and friend who’s dating George Michael. Steve called a friend at the American Embassy and had me liberated. The discharge form reads “Public behavior to incite civil unrest,” with a court date set for the following week.
For a few days my knickers are in a twist: paranoid, guilty, without my passport. It’s too overwhelming to enlist legal counsel, and then it all eventually begins to fade away. When my day in court approaches I realize I have but one choice. I get up in the morning, groom thoroughly, then dress myself from head to toe in my best Vivienne Westwood gear: jumbo white-on-pink polka-dot shirt and gray lightweight-wool bondage pants (complete with restraint strap connecting my knees) and de rigueur biker boots. Michael and his mum, Bessie (whom I adore), come for support and we all head off to for my day in court.
When my moment comes I’m cleaved from my family and led to the far end of a cavernous wood-paneled hall and up to what can only be described as a tiny pulpit, a perfect stage for the upcoming drama (or is it more like the plank I must walk and prepare to drop off of?). To my left on the main floor, against the wall and halfway down the room, is a rectangular box with the rest of the day’s accused waiting for their cases to be heard. At the opposite end of the courtroom, looming even higher and on grander display, is the magistrate, flanked by his minions on either side but slightly lower. Between us the stage is set with great sea of lawyers and an audience of our friends and family, support teams of the day’s defendants.
The magistrate asks for the charges to be read and the minion on his left begins:
“Said defendant was picked up on the on Shepherd’s Bush Green wearing a garment intended to incite civil unrest.... The shirt he was wearing was emblazoned with the text...”
He pauses. Murmurs and giggles.
“And there was depicted the drawing of two cowboys engaged in a lewd act: One cowboy had his fist...”
The whole courtroom seems to tip forward in their seats. “I—I— in...” he halts and stammers.
Then, like putrid gas that slips from twixt his pinched and puckered lips he decries: “Cowboy 1 is lording over Cowboy 2, who is reclining with his legs akimbo.
Cowboy 1 has his fist inserted to the forearm into the...anus of Cowboy 2.”
Up rises a great din of laughter and cheering from the crowded room that completely disrupts the proceedings in the most delightful way. I am now certain I forever love London.
When the court settles down, the magistrate asks me for a statement and I offer this: “Your Honor, it was an innocent mistake. I was quite hung over when I got up and threw the shirt on without a thought, to pop out for coffee. No malice at all was intended. And besides, Vivienne Westwood, London’s own beloved designer and cultural hero, has recently won fashion’s highest honor. As an American, I’m proud to wear her clothes. Pause here. And in my own small way, genuflect here, I’m doing my part to fuel the economy of the British Crown.” Pause 2, 3, 4.
The court breaks out in hysterics once again.
A barely discernible smile tempts his stern lips as he rules the charges “Overstated. Case dismissed.”
I shoot my hand up and urgently but politely ask, “Your Honor, Your Highness, sir...my shirt? It was quite expensive and one of my favorites. May I have it back?”
He looks back at me with a stony stare and proclaims in measured rhythm:
“The COURT will KEEP the SHIRT. You get the story.”
Stephen Petronio was born in Newark, NJ, and received a BA from Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, where he began his early training in improvisation and dance technique. He was greatly influenced by working with Steve Paxton as well as the dancing of Rudolf Nureyev and was the first male dancer of the Trisha Brown Company (1979 to 1986). He has gone on to build a unique career, receiving numerous accolades, including a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, awards from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, an American Choreographer Award, and a New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award. Petronio has created over 35 works for his company and has been commissioned by some of the world’s most prestigious modern and ballet companies. Petronio, whose training originated with leading figures of the Judson era, performed Man Walking Down the Side of a Building in 2010 for Trisha Brown Company at the Whitney Museum. In October 2012, Petronio received the distinction of being named the first Artist-in-Residence at The Joyce Theater in New York City. In 2014 he authored a memoir, Confessions of a Motion Addict. For more information on Stephen Petronio, visit his Web site at http://petron.io.
Portrait of Stephen Petronio by Sara Silver and used by permission of Stephen Petronio Dance Company.