collaborators Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye or Bryan Ferry
and Phil Manzanera, the combo of James ("Spider") Taylor
and Michael Ely became more than the sum of their parts. The
two met in the summer of 1971 to become not only lovers and soul mates
but musical collaborators. Spider
was 20, Michael was 18: To trace the history of Red Wedding, one must
Spider, who joined his first
band at the age of 12, played guitar in a variety of hard rock, glam
and country bands in Southern California throughout the '70s. He recorded
a single with the band Emperor for RCA, an album with Delaney Bramlett
and even performed as an entertainer at Barbra Streisand's
A Star Is Born premiere party in Westwood. A major talent, Spider's
masterful playing inspired many to compare him to Jimi Hendrix.
An amateur luthier to boot, he once made over a cheap Sears guitar
into an instrument evoking the envy (and offers to buy it) of many fellow
Michael spent most of the
'70s sitting on the sidelines like the faithful musician's wife he was.
Highly creative and in need of an outlet, he often wrote poetry and
song lyrics. He and Spider collaborated on their first song in 1975.
It was called "Fiction Theater."
Coming from an ultra-conservative
home in Orange County in which rock 'n' roll was banned, Michael grew
up listening to Broadway musicals and artists such as Tony Bennett
and Barbra Streisand. It was Spider who introduced him to
rock music. The lanky young Streisand fan quickly became obsessed with
avant-garde artists such as David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and
Patti Smith (though Babs always remained a favorite).
In the early '70s, Michael
was going to Rodney Bingenheimer's discotheque on Sunset Blvd.
to dance to "glitter music" with friends, and by the late '70s, he was
entrenched in the burgeoning punk rock scene. In 1979, he urged Spider
to leave the world of overblown rock and join a Pasadena-based punk
group, The Tracers, as a second guitarist. A frequent fixture
at band rehearsals, Michael did not go unnoticed. Lynn, the band's
singer, thought Michael had great presence and persuaded him to join
the group as a back-up vocalist. During that time, the band recorded
the single, "My My Girl" / "Itchy Bugs."
After a handful of shows,
animosity developed between Michael and lead singer Lynn, and so Spider
and Michael left the Tracers to form their own band, Hey Taxi.
Hey Taxi's lineup consisted
of Spider on guitar, Michael on vocals, George Hurly on drums
and Jim Kaiser on bass; the music was hardcore and angry. Michael's
idea was to keep all the songs at two minutes or under (an idea later
"borrowed" by The Minutemen). This allowed the band to play as many
as 15 songs in a fast and frenzied 30-minute set. The lyrics, written
by Michael and Spider's cousin Jeff Anderson, were both comical
and dark, detailing such topics as serial killers, cannibalism, torturing
dogs, and gay vampires. Hey Taxi's first performance was at the Hong
Kong Cafe in downtown Los Angeles on October 15, 1979. At first,
the band floundered, until another band, Party
Boys, took them under their wing and introduced them to the
Downtown art / loft scene. Soon Hey Taxi gained an enthusiastic and
hardcore following in the L.A. area, playing at Jacaranda's Place,
The Londoner, Blackies and Hong Kong Cafe with such bands as New
Marines, Fender Buddies, Why Nut, Vox Pop and their pals, Party
Boys. They also established a foothold in the burgeoning underground
East L.A. scene where they shared the stage with such bands as The
Brat and The Undertakers.
The highlight of Hey Taxi
was Spider's fierce guitar playing and Michael's over-the-top stage
antics: drenching himself in beer, dancing on table tops, pulling down
stage curtains and wearing them like dresses, stroking the microphone
stand between his legs and going down
on Spider's guitar ala David Bowie and Mick Ronson. One reviewer
referred to Michael as "a schizophrenic cartoon... likable and funny
one minute, dangerous and menacing the next."
In 1980, Hey Taxi recorded
one single for Mystic Records ("I Hate Dogs" / "War Is Hell"
/ "Queen Bee"). It was reviewed by only one magazine, Music Connection,
which described it as, "Raunchy with some fun, but as a Sex Pistols
rival, Hey Taxi turn the gun on themselves."
By the spring of 1980, Hey
Taxi was playing to packed houses every other Saturday night at the
Hong Kong Cafe. As the band became increasingly popular, Michael
became besieged by stage fright. Shy and insecure by nature, uncomfortable
in crowds, Hey Taxi's lead singer began to suffer from panic attacks.
By the beginning of summer, Michael would no longer perform and the
band broke up. George Hurly went on to play drums in the Minutemen;
Jim Kaiser joined Ray Campi and his Rockabilly Rebels.
Within a short couple of
months, and at Spider's urging, Michael felt relaxed enough to perform
again. The two set out to rebuilding Hey Taxi adding new members Louie
Dufau on drums and John Buccola on guitar (substituting guitar
rifts for bass). The new Hey Taxi debuted at the Hong Kong Cafe in September
of 1980. After a couple of shows, Buccola was replaced by John Tagliavia.
Soon after, Marc O joined the group on keyboards.
Spider, John and Marc were
all working at that time as doormen at a notorious gay gloryhole club,
very popular before AIDS became known. John and Marc became lovers for
a brief time, and Michael and Marc quickly became best friends.
Hey Taxi played a handful
of shows (including opening night at the Brave Dog, a small underground
club opened by Spider and Michael's good friends, Clare Glidden
and Jack Marquette), but Michael's heart was no longer in the
band. He was tired of punk rock, tired of singing silly lyrics, tired
of playing the part of a clown. It was time for a major change. In early
1981, Hey Taxi disappeared and Red Wedding was born. More than
Hey Taxi with a name change, Red Wedding was an entirely new band that
would soon take on a life of its own......
Michael's concept for Red
Wedding was to blend '60s psychedelia with '70s glam rock, creating
a sound that was anything but retro. He wanted to create a band of illusion
in which nothing was what it appeared to be. The songs would all be
love songs, but with a lyrical twist: lush and romantic on the surface,
cynical and decadent underneath. This new "post punk" music would explode
upon the scene and, under the banner "alternative rock," continues to
reverberate into the new millennium.
Red Wedding debuted at the
Brave Dog on Saturday, June 13, 1981. Fans expecting a revamped Hey
Taxi were in for a shock. Gone was the angry and fast-paced power punk,
replaced with mysterious, trance-like electro-glam rock. Gone was Louie
Dufau, replaced with a drum machine. Gone was the punk attire, replaced
with ruffled tuxedo shirts, makeup and earrings. And in the biggest
transformation of all, gone was Michael the hyperactive clown, replaced
with Michael the dark and aloof doomed romantic.
Primarily because of their
glamorous look and exotic apparel, Red Wedding was immediately labeled
New Romantic, a term the band neither embraced nor rejected.
It was only one of many incarnations the band would go through over
the next few years. Also, because all the members of the band were openly
gay, they were labeled a "gay band." Matt Groening, creator of
"The Simpsons"), back then, a struggling writer for the low-rent
L.A. Reader, used this label to dismiss their music in a fairly
derisive manner. The L.A. Weekly, meanwhile, referred to them several
times as "the brides of red rock." Although the band member's sexuality
played a part in their music and in Michael's lyrics, it was not intended
as gimmick. They did not want to make an issue out of their homosexuality,
nor did they want to deny it. It was simply who they were.
Red Wedding performed many
shows at the Brave Dog, sharing the stage with other post-punk bands
and artists such as the Fibonaccis, Interpol, Kommunity FK, Wild
Kingdom (Michael's personal favorite) and Adore
O'Hara. They occasionally played at other small clubs around
town (Madame Wong's, Al's Bar, Cathay De Grand), but they regarded
the Brave Dog, the setting for Andy Warhol's 1982 "pictorial
of punk" for Rolling Stone, as their homebase. Even when the
band was not performing, they could always be seen hanging out at the
Dog, often sharing a late night supper and some laughs with Jack and
Clare at the Atomic Cafe right next door.
During that summer of 1981,
a scene from the movie "I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can" was filmed
inside the Brave Dog. If you look closely behind the actors, you can
see the members of Red Wedding standing on the stage, flagged on each
end by two girls (Belissa and Ann Marie) in red gowns.
This was a kick for all concerned. Also that summer, record producer
Kim Fowley approached the band about managing them. While the
members were flattered, Fowley wanted too much artistic control and
the band turned him down. Instead the band opted for
, a far less seasoned veteran but one more in sync with
the band's vision. Claudia was a young, gifted writer who had worked
as a publicist and club booker in the music scene since the age of 18.
She had done publicity for such diverse acts as Prince (doing
publicity with Bobbi Cowan for his first album, "Dirty Mind,"
on Warner Bros.); John Mayall (Regency Records/MCA);
Fear, then managed by former lead singer of Three Dog Night, Danny
Hutton; and the European pop-techno band Wet Picnic. She
had booked local clubs including the hardcore punk club, The Vex
in East L.A. and the more pop/new wave club The Arena in Culver
City where The Go-Gos played some of their first gigs. She was
smart, aggressive and eager to move Red Wedding into the larger venues.
Claudia quickly became part
of the band gestalt. More than most bands, the members of Red Wedding
were a tight-knit family. They seemingly spent all their time together,
intimately involved in each other's lives on every level. When they
went to clubs or bars, it was usually as a group. They tended not to
socialize with members of other bands, preferring to keep to their own
small circle of friends.
Michael was by far the most
antisocial of the group. He suffered severe panic attacks when out in
public and often drank excessively to mask the fear. Although he loved
the attention of being in a band, it was, at the same time, a curse.
He was petrified when people would approach him, and both Spider and
Claudia went to great lengths to protect him. In large part, his aloof
and often intense onstage theatrics were a device designed to keep people
at a distance. If people viewed him as cold and sinister, they would
leave him alone (he hoped). Most people never saw the real Michael,
who his close friends knew as sweet, funny and fragile.
After the Brave Dog closed
down in November, Red Wedding ventured into larger venues. In early
'82, they changed their unconventional lineup (two guitars, synthesizer
and drum machine) to a more traditional one. Drummer Brian Ford replaced
the drum machine and John switched from guitar to bass. This gave the
band a new energized, full-bodied sound, and after a stunning performance
on New Wave Theater (filmed on March 9th, Michael's birthday),
audiences and critics began to take notice.
In June of 1982, Red Wedding
recorded their first EP entitled "Up and Down the Aisle."
It was a disaster from start to finish, despite the talents of producer
Thom Wilson (who has since achieved great success in
the music business). Recorded on a shoe-string budget in the middle
of the night (literally) in a studio out in the San Fernando Valley,
the band was ill prepared to transfer their live sound onto vinyl, and there
were technical problems with the band's equipment, leaving less than
three hours to record and mix the five songs. Michael's vocals were
recorded in less than 20 minutes, and his idea to leave his vocals completely
raw and without effects did not work on vinyl. However, had it not been
for Thom's quick thinking ideas and studio savvy, things could have
been much worse, and the experience of working with Thom (although brief)
was a joy for the band.
The recordings were signed
over to Bemisbrain Records, an extremely small punk/alternative
label. Within minutes after signing, the band had regrets, but decided
to move forward and learn from the experience.
In July, Red Wedding replaced
drummer Brian Ford with drummer Brian Engel. Ford, who had been
the only heterosexual in the band, was never comfortable with the "gay
thing," and had become increasingly difficult to work with. Engel, also
heterosexual, was more than happy to join the band. His first performance
with Red Wedding was to take place in a gay bar.....
Van Tyne asked Red Wedding to play at the first Theoretical,
a unique musical event. It took place on Sunday afternoon, July
25 at the One Way bar, less than a block from Spider and Michael's
apartment in Silverlake. The stage was built of beer cases and plywood.
For this occasion, most of the band wore leather and Michael, a long
peach-colored negligee. The show was a huge success, assuring there
would be many, many more Theoreticals to follow.
Red Wedding continued to
play at various clubs including The Whiskey, Club Lingerie, The Plant,
The Anti-Club, Madame Wong's West and The Lhasa Club, sharing the
stage with bands such as the Ju Ju Hounds, Outer Circle, Mnemonic
Devices, 45 Grave, Redd Kross and The Bangs (later renamed
The Bangles). Down south in San Diego, Red Wedding played
at the Spirit Club and the Bacchanal Club with such bands
as Killing Joke, X, Nina Hagen, Romeo Void, The Gun Club and
Bow Wow Wow.
In November, Bemisbrain
Records released "Up and Down the Aisle." To the band's
surprise, it was for the most part praised by the reviewers, but many
fans of Red Wedding complained that the record didn't sound anything
like them, and the EP did poorly in sales. It was later released in
Europe on a French label, New Rose, where it faired much better.
In January of 1983, Michael
began to see a psychiatrist to help him overcome his panic disorder
and bouts of severe depression. The psychiatrist told him his fears
and depression were rooted in his homosexuality, and put him on a high
dose of Lithium. Michael mixed the Lithium with street drugs and alcohol,
causing his behavior to become erratic and irrational. While staying
with friends down in San Diego one weekend, he went into convulsions
and had to be held down under a cold shower. After this incident, he
stopped seeing the psychiatrist.
As with most bands, drugs,
sex and rock 'n' roll were a way of life with the members of Red Wedding.
They worked hard and they played hard, often burning the candle on both
ends, and took full advantage of the sex and drugs that are readily
made available to those in bands. Of course, this fast-paced lifestyle
eventually took its toll on all of them.
In February of 1983, Claudia
announced she would no longer manage the band. She was dealing with
her own personal demons and needed to focus her energies on recovery
from drug and alcohol abuse as well as depression. This was a decision
that was hard for her to make and harder to carry out; letting her best
friends down was excruciating. Her departure also left the band devastated.
Not only were they losing a manager, but a member of their family. It
was a loss that they never fully recovered from.
In the spring of 1983, Red
Wedding played their second Theoretical ( a special birthday
bash for good friend Jim
Van Tyne). Held in an 8,000-square-foot warehouse and using
the back of a 30-foot flatbed truck as a stage, Red Wedding performed
along with Age of Consent, Lotus Lame and John Fleck.
Over 1,000 people showed up.
Throughout 1983 and into
1984, Red Wedding continued to play clubs in L.A., Orange County, San
Diego and San Francisco. They began incorporating more and more diverse,
and often conflicting elements into their music, combining psychedelia,
punk, gloom, funk and pop all into one evening's set. Accordingly, they
began to change their look with every show. From '60s mod to black leather,
from pink suits to boots and trench coats, from choir robes to bathrobes,
the band never seemed to repeat the same look twice. Michael bleached
and dyed his hair so many times that it began to fall out, and in one
memorable show at the Whiskey, he appeared wearing only a shower curtain,
hooks and all.
This unpredictable approach
to their music and attire both delighted and angered critics and fans.
Always difficult to categorize, it was now virtually impossible to label
Red Wedding. While some praised Red Wedding for refusing to follow any
one trend, others criticized the band for having no clear direction.
In July of 1984, Red Wedding
recorded their song "Swimming" for the "Radio Tokyo Tapes
- Volume Two" compilation album, and music soundtracks for two Al
Parker gay porn movies. That August, long time friend Billy Ingram
became the band's second manager, and bassist John Tagliavia was replaced
with Warren Mansfield (due to John's problems with excessive
In September, Red Wedding
recorded their second EP, "Nails." It was produced by Leslie
St. James and recorded in both San Diego and L.A. For this EP, Red
Wedding decided to focus on their darker, homo-erotic material, although
it was decided to delete the most blatant homosexual passages used in
the live version of the song "Bernardo."
"Nails" was released
in late October of 1984 on Important Records. Reviews were mixed,
but the EP made it to number one on many collage radio stations across
the country, and the song "Somewhere" won the 91 X people's choice poll
in San Diego.
In November of 1984, John
(his problems now somewhat under control) rejoined Red Wedding, and
in December, Marc O left the group to start his own band (one that never
materialized). Marc left on friendly terms, and he and Michael continued
to be best friends.
Without Marc's domineering
keyboards, the focus fell entirely on Spider's guitar playing, allowing
him to shine like never before. The band had a new, lean sound. For
hardcore fans, this was Red Wedding at its best, but Red Wedding's heyday
was at an end. Audiences began to dwindle and bookings became scarce.
The band began to lose heart, and Michael became more and more reclusive,
often not showing up to rehearsals.
In March of 1985, Red Wedding
recorded four songs (including "Fiction Theater," the first song
Spider and Michael had written together back in 1975) for their third
untitled EP. Produced by Ed Grundman and Rick Hart, this
was by far Red Wedding's best and most important work, but the EP was
In May of 1985, Red Wedding
gave its final performance playing at the Spirit Club down in San Diego.
After four years with no interest from a major label, frustrated with
having to deal with the jaded Hollywood scene, and burnt out from drugs
and alcohol, Red Wedding called it quits. In 1987, Spider and Michael
resurfaced briefly in a band called "Glass," but Michael no longer
wanted to perform, and he and Spider retired from music in 1988.
On January 5,1992, Marc O
passed away due to AIDS complications. Michael and Spider were by his
side to the end. Marc's memorial service was held at the old Hollywood
Cemetery (the same cemetery in which Red Wedding had posed for their
first professional band photo 11 years earlier). John Tagliavia passed
away from AIDS a year later. Sadly, he had been estranged from Spider
and Michael since the band breakup.