Long before the Material Girl claimed she had a dick in her brain, years before any of the grrls started rioting or Peaches donned a beard, there was Carole Pope. The former singer of Canadian band Rough Trade, self-described as “crude, lewd, rude and socially unacceptable,” has made a career from pushing, yanking and twisting our uneasy preoccupations with sexuality, art and music.
On Saturday night at The Marquee, Pope will reunite with former bandmate Kevan Staples, for a night of fan favourites, including “Crimes of Passion,” “Shaking the Foundations,” and of course, the roller-rink shocker “High School Confidential.” The raven-haired icon will also perform a few numbers from her new solo album Transcend, but the night is all about Rough Trade.
Although sexually explicit lyrics barely raise an eyebrow outside of the church set these days, things were slightly more repressive when Pope and Staples formed Rough Trade in 1974. Named after Pope’s fascination with gay iconography—“I loved the whole leather bondage image of big, butch, Tom of Finland-like gay boys,” she writes in her fun, name-dropping bonanza of a biography Anti Diva—Rough Trade fit the band’s sexually androgynous look like a tight leather glove.
Early (“eminently forgettable,” as Pope calls them) songs such as “I’m Getting Dry Humped in the Hall” and “Lipstick on your Dipstick,” along with a heady stage presence and bondage suits, caught the attention of Toronto hipsters. The audience at a Friday night show at Grossman’s Tavern might include artist collective General Idea (who designed the artwork for their Avoid Freud album), Alice Cooper and Second City pals such as Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Dan Akroyd and a bi-curious Andrea Martin, whom Pope had an affair with early on in her career.
By the time Pope and Staples teased the airwaves with their biggest hit “High School Confidential” in 1980, lines were forming around the block to hear the duo’s hard-edged new wave. Although most of the general public thought Pope was taking on the role of a horny young lad when she sang “She makes me cream my jeans when she comes my way,” it was actually the first time a woman sang about her lust for another on Canadian radio. (Although Toronto-based CHUM-FM did convince the band to record two radio-friendly versions: one which Pope sings “Mmmm” and one with the cryptic line “She makes me order Chinese food when she comes my way.”) In 2002, the sexy track hit the dance floor once again when it was remixed for Showcase’s Queer as Folk soundtrack.
Still, at that time, not everyone “got it,” including Toronto’s finest, who would occasionally show up at Rough Trade gigs on the hunt for lewd stage behaviour. (Apparently a preoccupation with Hogtown police; in 1990, officials threatened to arrest Madonna if she didn’t remove the mock masturbation scene from “Like a Virgin.”)
“It’s true,” says Pope, from her hotel room in New York, where the city’s baking under an asphalt-melting heat wave, her telephone voice as distinctive as her deep on-stage purr. “Some people got it and some people didn’t. We were an innovative band. Everything we did was tongue-in-cheek and I think that people interpreted what we did in different ways, which in many ways, is like making art.”
As Rough Trade’s popularity grew, so did Toronto’s underground music and art scene. Unrestricted by any one school of thought, artists experimented with forms, blurring the lines between performance, theatre and visual art, often with camp or over-the-top results.
“I guess it was more than just being a band because we embraced so many musical styles and we liked to have stage sets. Kevan liked to wrap the amps, wrap them in netting or black fabric, so in that way we were trying to be more than a band,” Pope recalls. “My lyrics are very theatrical and visual, and semi-intellectual. We were also funny.”
A humour that translated into several successful singles, a theatre performance with John Waters’ muse Divine (written by Pope’s sister Elaine, a talented writer for Seinfeld, Murphy Brown and the Jude Law remake of Alfie), four Junos and many, many packed concerts, including an opening set for David Bowie’s 1983 Serious Moonlight tour.
Meanwhile, like many other rising rock stars, Pope was looking for other forms of pleasure that didn’t involve a microphone stand. She writes: “I was on a secret mission to find out where the dykes were. I’d walk along Toronto’s garish Yonge Street strip, muttering under my breath, ‘Oh God, Oh God, where are they?’ I’d skulk past the foul-smelling bar called the St. Charles. I knew that’s where the boys went. I felt like a frustrated sexual freak.”
Pope translated her frustration into taboo-breaking lyrics and glam performances that attracted audiences both gay and straight. Although Rough Trade officially hung up the shoulder pads in 1986, Pope proved that honesty is her only policy in her 2002 autobiography. Anti Diva is filled with candid confessions of her life, including details of her affair with soulstress Dusty Springfield, and of terrible personal tragedy when she lost her brother Howard to AIDS in 1996—an international crisis she passionately feels we still ignore.
Writing is cathartic for Pope. She started a second book, not yet finished, about her experiences living in New York through 9/11, but most of her writing these days is as a journalist. Pope muses on celebrities, art, fashion and politics for The Advocate, The National Post, The Globe & Mail and Inside Entertainment, among other publications. She’s still excited about the Diane Arbus retrospective show that she covered for The Globe, and vitalized by Los Angeles’s art scene, where she now lives.
“I used to paint, but I stopped,” she says. In fact, one of Pope’s earliest jobs after dropping out of school was as a cel painter for the bizarro Rocket Robin Hood cartoon. “Maybe I’ll start when I’m 70. I think it would be a fun thing to do. I like painting but I can’t imagine doing that and singing and writing. It would be too much although I should be a Renaissance gal and do it all. But I’m not.”
There’s no time for that. She’s already been on the road for three months and is anxious to start work on a new album. Meanwhile there’s her current album Transcend, available at carolepope.com. There’s also Transcend: The Remixes—an album of (what else?) 16 DJ remixes from Noel Sanger, Myagi, Serious, Starchamber, Hemstock & Jennings, Roger Lyons and Luke McKeehan, among others. For those who stay up late on Thursday nights, a dance track of Pope’s “Love Strikes Hard” provides atmosphere for an episode of The L Word.
Back when Pope was singing about the “cool blonde scheming bitch,” the idea of a cable series about lesbians living the glamourous life in Los Angeles would have ended up in a pile of crumpled paper or as a political protest. Things have progressed since then, as have Pope’s motivations for writing songs.
“I’m doing it now for the sheer joy of making music. I don’t need to prove anything. I hope people like it, but I don’t really care.”
She laughs deeply. “You know, I’m always very funny live and I’m always making jokes. I still have that dark sense of humour. I don’t really care as long as I get off.”
Pope laughs again. “But I think that if you get off, if the audience sees you getting off, they get off too.”