"Well-behaved women seldom make history," Harvard history professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said. And that's why I say, "Get down with your cross-dressing, military self, Joan of Arc! Thanks for going to jail for my birth control, Margaret Sanger! Play that piano with your ginormous jugs, Candye Kane!"
OK, I'm a little ahead of myself. The foul-mouthed, sex-positive, blues-singing mama Candye Kane hasn't quite made history books. Yet.
The Backroom Blues Bar introduced me to the California diva on its website; I was a fan before I even saw her perform. Next to the photo of the singer with XXX-cup cleavage cradled in hot pink feathers, a blurb introduced her as "a former stripper who also did the occasional x-rated video shoot back in the '80s" and "the blues version of the Andrea True Connection, but for one vitally important fact, this woman can really sing!"
A former porn star in the whorehouse-chic Backroom? Count me in. No, I'm not a fan of spectator sports, including porn. And, yes, I appreciate lean rather than large bodies. But Candye appealed to me.
I particularly liked that, although she was part of the L.A. punk-rock scene, she'd been signed by CBS/Epic as a country act, and when the execs advised her to lose weight and renounce her past, she told them to shove it right up their narrow, corporate record holes. Since the blues has always been home to big women with even bigger mouths, that's where she headed too. Now, thanks to songs like "Who Do You Love? It's Alright," nominated for an Out Music Award, and "200 Pounds of Fun," a BBW (big, beautiful women) anthem featured in The Girl Next Door, Ms. Kane has been an enormous hit among the disenfranchised — drag queens, fat chicks, shameless sluts, and the people who love them.
Really, who doesn't love a Cinderella story? And this one has a niche market — history was practically writing itself.
It had been a while since I'd visited the Boca blues club near the tracks, where neither trains nor musical exertions have shaken the vintage portraits of nude beauties from their hellfire-red walls or the fringed bordello lamps from their perches. As the red light and mirrored ball worked together for a light show that looked like endless handfuls of glowing cherry skittles strewn counterclockwise across the casual crowd, I jockeyed for a glimpse of the plus-sized singer/songwriter. There she was in a baby pink dress fringed in black at the neck and hem, and cowboy boots.
Forget about finding a seat; I was having trouble just finding a place to set my beer. Debbie and Robert Teichner allowed me to co-opt the shelf around a support beam where these two South Florida Blues Society members were stationed. Robert told me he'd heard Candye Kane on AOL Blues. Robert noted that Candye Kane was important enough that other local blues legends — Jamie King Colton and Joey Gilmore — were in the house.
"Is it everything you expected?" I asked, hoping to be brought up to speed by the experts on whatever I'd missed.
"All that and more!" Debbie replied enthusiastically, in keeping with what was obviously a more-is-more philosophy on the part of the entertainer.
"When I say, 'all you can eat,' " Candye said, guiding the audience participation in a song allegedly about a barbecue restaurant, "you say, 'and you can eat it all night long'... and, really, guys," she interrupted with an important PSA, "it doesn't take all night. Just 15 to 20 minutes of consistency."
The show moved quickly among accessible blues riffs and naughty lyrics and funny observations and homespun stories — some truer than others. Pimping her eighth album, Guitared and Feathered — which lacks the shameless sexuality that, as the singer says, allows us to "celebrate our trashy sides" — she joked that profits would fund her grandmother's operation.
"Did I say grandfather before?" she said, laughing. "Well, they both need operations. Not the same ones as the last time in Florida."
But the true stories had poignancy to them — like the back story for "Toughest Girl Alive," a song inspired by the trauma of her divorce, which had inspired others. A woman in Iowa, she told us, was getting ready to kill herself after losing her four kids to her ex-husband.
"She was ready to drive her car into an aqueduct and take her life, but then she heard my song on the radio — a miracle in itself," Kane said. "When I go, I hope I am remembered for this song and not for 'Masturbation Blues.' "
Candye sure had a way with an audience, one she'd probably refined since her early days of coaxing dollars from pockets. It felt less manipulative than confessional when she told us: "I didn't get enough love from my mom when I was growing up, so I went into music to get the love and acceptance I needed. Music is the best thing I've ever done for money, so thanks for being here."
During the break, I headed to the hordes buying CDs to find a real fan. Jenny Winn, a Jacksonville nurse who'd previously seen the performer in Santa Cruz, fit the bill.
"She's really inspiring," the 30-something said, weighing in as a fellow "outsider and 200-pounder." "She's had several opportunities to sell out, and she's remained true to her roots."
I told Jenny what I'd read, which is that Candye Kane had begun questioning herself because, though she'd released eight albums and received critical acclaim and fan support, she still wasn't getting the recognition many felt she deserved. Unfortunately, the Blues Foundation won't deliver an award to someone who's widely known for a song like "Masturbation Blues."
"That's like my theme song right now," Jenny laughed.
It's sad that the singer doesn't get the respect she deserves. I mean, Candye Kane is to masturbators what Mother Teresa was to lepers — except that instead of comforting people with her own touch, Candye heals them with permission to touch themselves.
I spotted Kane's son, who's also been her drummer since 2000, when he was just 16. He told me the five-piece band spent most of the year touring to its 250 gigs not in a bus but in a Ford 350.
"Wow," I said. "It's hard to be glamorous in a van."
"No one's glamorous in a van," he assured me.
I poked around outside to see what the porch people had to offer. That's where I met print-shop operator Bobby Eaton and his sister-in-law Cindy Galiardo. Both were curious about tonight's talent. I relayed the porn-and-piano-playing background.
"God, Bobby, you'll hate that!" Cindy teased him.
I speculated how breast size would influence her musical stylings.
"Play me a note, play me a chord — either way, I'll love it," he laughed, and then he spotted the notepad and literally jumped for joy. "I print your paper!" he said. "We read you every week — right after Savage Love."
It felt good to have my work appreciated, even if by one lone, leaping, print-shop loon who was now headed inside with his sister-in-law to see the show, based on my recommendation. When I met them inside after deflecting the advances of a tugboat captain, Cindy had quickly formed an opinion. "She's good, but she's not all that."
"You would feel differently if you weren't so skinny," I ventured.
But Tony Armstrong Jr., a special-ed teacher named after her mother, wasn't buying the so-so assessment. "I really, really wanted to see her," said Tony, one of a group who'd arrived three hours early. "She's fat-positive, openly bisexual, funny, and she has a great voice. I'm from Chicago, and I went to blues clubs all the time, so for anyone to say 'She's not all that' — well, they're wrong."
After the show, I sat down with Candye Kane in the Backroom's back room. Somewhere, I forgot that it was my job merely to record history; I wanted to make sure it held its course.
I tried to feed her a softball question about her being an inspiration to so many women, but we were continually interrupted by fans asking for photos or autographs. The hippie waitress came over to suggest that, since Candye lived in San Diego, she should play on the Blues Cruise there. It was a sore point; despite being the city's number-one blues act seven years in a row, Candye had never been invited.
As a hula-girl lamp pumped her hips to the house music, Candye bemoaned the fact that journalists always focus on how she once played the piano with her boobs.
Hey, sex sells, sister. I had just corralled two paying customers outside with that same pitch.
"They always write about 'porn star turned singer,' " she said. "But I've always sang. It's not like one day I was giving a blowjob and all of a sudden I was like, 'I think I'd like to try singing!' "
I said that, as a smart-ass nightlife columnist, I understood what it was not to be taken seriously.
"I have no regrets about the things I've done," she assured me. She's given up a lot — including time with her boys — for her career, she added, and she'd like to see some return on her investment. "If I quit being nasty and lowdown, maybe they'll put me on the Blues Cruise or give me an award so I'll get the better gigs."
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I wanted to tell her that heroes have hard lives and usually get the worst gigs, but she probably would have dismissed me as a sycophantic idiot. So I left with a question.
"What if you don't get better gigs?"
"Well, that's OK, because I changed lives."
Hopefully, the Night Rider had helped put the course of history back on track.