Cherry Vanilla is one of those people with a name super-familar to those close to the punk scene of the ’70s (both in the UK and New York), but still not nearly as familiar as it should be to enough people. The lady herself, as you’ll discover in this piece, doesn’t necessarily agree — she’s very sweet and humble, and happy with the way that she’s remembered.
She was, after all, one of the stars of Andy Warhol’s infamously, wonderfully outrageous musical PORK. Along with the likes of Jayne County (during County’s former life) and the New York Dolls, Vanilla was an early purveyor of glam-punk, and she was fucking great at it. Her debut Bad Girl album and “The Punk” single in particular are standard-bearers. But to most, it seemed like she all but disappeared. So what happened?
“I am not someone who had one overwhelming idea about what I wanted to be in this life,” Vanilla says. “Basically, I am a very curious child, and I was always wondering … ‘Gee, what must it feel like to be an ad exec on Madison Avenue, an underground actress, a DJ, a PR in the music biz, a punk rocker, a poet, etc.?’ I was always on a quest to demystify the real-life roles I saw as being glamorous, interesting, exciting, and fun. So, playing the title role in Andy Warhol’s play PORK on the London stage was just one of the many things I was hungry for and grateful to have experienced. Once I lived it though, I wanted to move on to something else, have a different adventure, try something challenging and new. Stardom was never the ultimate goal for me, demystifying was. The thing that I knew for sure that I was from the beginning, was a writer. And knowing somehow I would one day write about my life, I wanted to make sure it would be a most varied, entertaining, and interesting life. So, to answer your question: Nothing happened… at least not in the sense of something going wrong. I just moved on is all. Kept myself from getting locked into any one persona. Kept myself interesting to myself.”
As she mentions, Vanilla had a period as a publicist, notably for David Bowie at Mainman during the early ’70s. There’s a story oft-told that her approach during this time led to her later being buried as a musician and, let’s be honest, the misogyny that has infected the industry forever makes that story pretty believable. Not so, says Vanilla.
“With the team we had at Mainman (Bowie’s management company), we made it look like we were having nothing but fun,” Vanilla says. “So there were those who may have thought we were just taking an easy ride on the back of a super-talented phenomenon like Bowie. And they may have resented us for that. They didn’t see the hours of hard work that went into creating the illusion we were projecting, the personal sacrifices we were making with regard to our health, our finances, our love-lives, our families, etc. But as far as being buried goes, I have never felt that was happening to me. Jayne County has expressed such feelings about herself and her career in the press. But that’s her story, not mine. She was a Mainman artist. God bless her. And I was Mainman staff. If anything, being able to forever attach my name to Bowie’s, just like being able to forever attach my name to Warhol’s, was one of the most fortunate things that could have ever happened to me. Quite the opposite of being buried, my association with those artists is what elevated my myth to such dizzying heights.”
Unsurprisingly, Vanilla says that Bowie was a dream to work with.
“He was everything we were touting him to be and more,” she says. “So, as ebullient, gushy and over the top that we were being about him publicly, his talent was always well beyond our praise and PR-ing. He would always prove us right, and then some. He was observing, imagining, creating all of the time, but without ever making it feel like it was work. He had a way of being comfortable and productive just sitting on the floor like a child, playing with his crayons and his cassette deck. He had the most wonderful cynically-edged sense of humor, along with a trust in us that was total and remarkable, especially considering the fact that none of us were experienced professionals in the line of work we were taking on for him. And he was a great lover too. So it was magical, enjoyable, fulfilling and rewarding to work with him… a once in a lifetime collaboration for sure. I’ll always feel, Oh lucky me!”
Whether performing in New York or London, Vanilla was able to put together a great band to back her, including some star names.
“The musicians I attracted were usually convinced that they themselves would one day be signed independently as recording artists, so they wanted to be free for that, and not sign as a band,” she says. “That was fine by me, as I didn’t know if I wanted to be stuck with the same four musicians forever either. I had so many different bands before London, that at one point I simply promoted us as ‘Cherry Vanilla and This Week’s Band.’ Keeping a band together was such an enormous challenge. I knew lots of already famous musicians, and they would come to my shows and offer my band members more money than I could ever afford to pay them at the time. So, that would then mean more auditioning and rehearsal studio time, more mouths to feed, more egos to contend with, etc. When I first got to London in February of 1977, I used some temporary musicians for gigs and recordings. Two of them, of course, were Stewart [Copeland] and Sting of the Police. They also performed as my opening act. When RCA UK signed me, I brought over two of my NY musicians to replace them, Manny Mancuso and Howie Finkel. They, along with Louie Lepore and Zecca Esquibel, played on most of the tracks on my RCA albums, Bad Girl and Venus d’Vinyl. And I suppose that’s the line-up with which I became most comfortable over time. When I think of ‘my band’ nowadays, I suppose it’s those four musicians I mostly think of. And we were always just called Cherry Vanilla.”
Vanilla says that just to be a part of the New York proto-punk scene alongside the likes of County, the NY Dolls, and the Velvet Underground was a thrill.
“Not only did we recognize the international spotlight that was being focused on the raw, urban, streetwise aspects of rock & roll at the time; we were also well aware of the marriage that was taking place between the music scene and the underground theater — a blending that, in New York especially, included an abundance of unapologetic gender-bending misfits destined to become the new non-virtuoso anti-heroes of rock & roll,” she says. “We were rebels with a cause. It was our mission to bring rock — much of which had by then succumbed to massive over-production — back down to earth, or back down to the asphalt, so to speak. Drum machines and disco music? That was not rock & roll, not to our ears anyway. There’s a strength in numbers, and at that moment in time the gates were being flung open for all of us, musically accomplished or not, to join the punk rock/new wave movement. The punk banner gave us a kind of unifying identity, an image, a brand. There was the usual rock & roll competitiveness, but there was also a very sweet theatrical togetherness about the time. It was kind of like we were all in one big stage play, and it was gaining audiences like crazy.”
Vanilla arrived in London in February 1977 and found a “quite contradictory” scene.
“I think we did punk a bit more tongue-in-cheek in New York, while the UK punk bands, for the most part, took themselves quite seriously and for sure more politically,” she says. “Basic survival did seem genuinely a lot harder in the UK. But then that was an important part of their pose over there. They wanted to come off as really oppressed and complain about it. In reality, though, most of them were way more concerned with their haircuts, their drugs, and their studded boots than they were about the state of the world. In the end, we were all quite the same, I think — just a bunch of young punks with a pose. But the Brits were much better posers! And, of course, we Americans were the outsiders over there, so we found ourselves subjected to competitiveness more than to camaraderie. Also, New York audiences were much more mixed, gay and straight. If there was an abundance of gay punk fans and punk musicians over there, they must have been mostly still in the closet. And being glamorous and well-groomed was not considered punk either. I remember being criticized in the press for my ‘showgirl make-up and perfectly manicured red nails.’ I wanted to be a punk, but a pretty punk, a sexy punk, and not take myself too seriously either. And I think I may have lost some points over there because of that.”
We put it to Vanilla that history hasn’t done her justice, particularly her music, but she’s perfectly happy with her legacy.
“I just don’t have the desire or the energy to deal with the music industry anymore,” she says. “I figure someone will make a movie of my book, Lick Me at some point, probably after I’m dead. And then they can be the ones who will deal with the record labels regarding the licensing of the music and such. I’ve done that job for some filmmaker friends, and it’s not easy. Of course, if they would make it while the band and I are still alive (and we all still are at the moment), then we could just re-record the tracks. And that part could possibly be fun… or not! I’m open to some things, but I’m just not pushing. It’s not so much a case of being comfortably numb, but more a case of finally being truly comfortable with who I am, and about simply learning to relax with it a bit more. And I guess I’m kind of a fan of letting sleeping dogs lie.”
She had her own reasons for essentially quitting making music — she got tired of having to push her band into creating something new.
“I wanted to return to something I could do completely on my own, like story-telling and poetry,” she says. “I had experienced enough of fame to know that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. And I didn’t like having to be ON all of the time. I wanted to be okay with going weeks without wearing make-up, spending hours working in the garden, or in the kitchen trying out new recipes and such. I lived on and off along the Connecticut coast and in the Massachusetts Berkshires and gained a whole new love and appreciation of nature from just walking along the shore or through the woods. I wrote for some sophisticated Australian and European magazines, interviewing people like Lauren Hutton, Norma Kamali, David Lynch, Frank Morgan, Quentin Crisp, Marianne Faithfull, and more. I got to work on movie and music projects with Chet Baker, Tim Burton, Roger Waters, Man Parrish, and Vangelis. And I felt a quite fulfilling sense of accomplishment from all of that. I also gave up sex and drugs for long periods during that time. So, being on the road doing rock & roll without those things would have been strange, if not impossible for me.”
In 2010, Vanilla told her story her way in the book Lick Me: How I Became Cherry Vanilla. We would advise everyone reading this to get it.
“I wanted to document my early life, before I forgot all of the details of it,” she says. “The first question most people ask me is ‘How did you get your name?’ or ‘How did you become Cherry Vanilla?’ There are some short, simple answers to that, but they just don’t tell the whole story. I’ve had some unique life experiences and have been involved with some incredibly interesting people. I just wanted to share a bit of that with the younger generations. They will never experience the wonder and innocence of the world, good and bad, that we knew back then … back before the internet, before AIDS and MTV, before Auto-Tune and Spotify. Before Photoshop, legal pot, LGBTQ, and same-sex marriage. I just wanted to lend my voice to the history of that time, a history I myself made a bit of a mark in. I’d say the reception Lick Me got was okay. I went with a small Chicago publisher, so there wasn’t really much of a budget for promotion. But the readings and signings I did were really fun, and the audiences all seemed to be quite entertained and complimentary. And still, to this day, every letter and email I get from someone who has read and enjoyed the book thrills me no end. I love being a published author. I love that it was something I did on my own.”
So yeah, just because Vanilla quit music, doesn’t mean that she hasn’t been busy. There’s the book and plenty more besides.
“I wrote a one-act play, called Elaine Vouvray and the Crystal Dildos,” she says. “But then came COVID, and it suddenly seemed so obsolete. I’ve had thoughts about giving it a second act. We shall see. I don’t really feel pressured to do much of anything right now. As John Lennon said, “I’m just watching the wheels go round.” What’s going on in the world is all so fascinating. I spend a lot of time reading about it and watching TV. I write in my diary every day, but with no burning desire to publish any of it. I will leave that, like the LICK ME movie for someone else to memorialize after I’m gone. I like my life the way it is right now — private, quiet, simple. Fate brought me to Palm Springs, California. And I am forever grateful for that. It’s the perfect size city for me at my age. And the combination of snow-capped mountains and palm trees can’t be beat. So, I guess you could say I’m laying low, not doing much of anything career-wise. Although I did just do a shoot with photographer, Greg Gorman for a 2023 LA Eyeworks ad that will be out soon. And I’m thinking about cooking up something special to celebrate my 80th birthday in October. It’s mostly all about health now. I walk. I dance. I eat well. I take no prescription drugs, and I smoke and ingest some of the best legal California sativa. I am not, nor have I ever been on social media. I just don’t understand how people can spend so much time with what seems like nonsense to me. I continue to follow Abie Hoffman’s advice and always question authority, especially with the way we are being controlled and lied to these days. I think the vaccines are useless and are killing people’s natural immune systems, and big pharma is like totally about the almighty dollar. I am actually doing a lot of praying for the planet right now. I’ve been trying to make contact with the aliens for ages. They say it’s all done telepathically. And one day, I realized what I was doing was pretty much the same as praying. So, I just went back to calling it prayer. I guess you could also call it magic. It just seems like our only hope in this current Mad Max world in which we live is what we call the supernatural. And I’m now heavily cultivating my skills with that.”
Regardless of whether she has anything to promote, Cherry Vanilla lives her life her own way.
“Time to dance to my favorite track of the moment, ‘Stars at Noon’ by Tindersticks, from the movie by the same name,” she says. “Sexy, sad sexy. My favorite song of 2022 was “Memories” by Buju Banton and John Legend. My favorite TV show of all times — Ancient Aliens, of course.”
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