General Lee and Me
My life and dirty times as a Jam & Jelly Girl with Dino Lee & the White Trash Revue
It's nearly 1am on a sweltering summer night in 1985. I'm lying on my back on the main stage of the Doll House, one of Austin's sleaziest titty bars. Straddling me is a 6-foot-5-inch man wearing a wrestler's mask, black leather, and a strap-on sex toy that rhymes with "Bilbo" but is better known as "General Lee."
Three of the club's dancers, all topless, join me and the other three Jam & Jelly Girls, who aren't topless. The packed house is cheering us on as I simulate oral sex with Dino Lee to the brassy punch of showstopper "Everybody Get Some." This has been a rough night because I've had a huge fight with my husband, Rollo Banks, over this show and its location. Right now, though, I'm afraid of getting splinters in my back.
"Put your feet on the rock!" Dino demands, and the Jam & Jelly Girls coo the line in response. Sweat stings my eyes so I can't see. I open them long enough to see Dino lowering himself on me as I'm wiggling. General Lee bounces, strapped on upside down.
Many rock critics hear the siren call of rock & roll, and too many have answered it. Of the ones who do, precious few ever achieve the status of, say, Lenny Kaye with the Patti Smith Group, in which the result was as visceral as it was musical, or Lester Bangs, whose musical career was more notable than substantial. True to legend, in most cases it's irresistible.
I certainly answered it. From early 1984 to late 1986, I was the longest-running Jam & Jelly Girl with Dino Lee & the White Trash Revue, the 12-plus-person shock-rock-funk-punk-Tex-Mex showband that ruled Austin. During those years, I performed at the then-premier music conference, New York's New Music Seminar, recorded background vocals on a real vinyl record, and was in the band that stole the show from Austin's New Sincerity acts on MTV.
We drove to NYC in a wreck of a rec vec and to L.A. in Asleep at the Wheel's tour bus. We were Band of the Year at the Austin Music Awards (I didn't tally the votes back then), beating out all kinds of local acts like Joe Ely, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eric Johnson. We were in Spin and Rolling Stone, and during that time, we became the bestselling nightclub act in town. Of course when White Trash met career crash, the neon dream became a nightmare of train-wreck proportions.
Still, if the public loves a train wreck, it loves a good homecoming more. Dino Lee was nearly indestructible, even when he was self-destructing, and he played it like The Terminator. Now, he's baaaaaaaaaack.
I don't really remember how I got to be a Jam & Jelly Girl. I met Dino when he moved here from Los Angeles with Los Whirlybirds in 1983, back when I wrote the Chronicle's gossip column. After the rockabilly quartet imploded, he began planting the seeds of White Trash.
When he invited me to be a Jam & Jelly Girl, I said yes. This was strange, since I'm not a musician, singer, or dancer, but Dino probably thought I'd be good publicity for the band. What he wanted was a group of chubby girls onstage who would shimmy and shake shamelessly while providing occasional vocals. What he got was me.
As it happened, he didn't need me for publicity, because within six months of our first show in 1984, we were selling out Liberty Lunch and the Ritz. That began a meteoric rise that made Dino and company the hottest draw in Austin. In the midst of the New Sincerity era, stocked with the likes of Michael Hall's Wild Seeds, the True Believers, and Doctors' Mob, WTR's music was rude, crude, and politically incorrect. There was something to offend everybody, including the band.
It was also unbelievably catchy and well-played. Early on, the band played material from Dino's Whirlybirds days, solid rockers like "Ultimately Bored" and spot-on Latin numbers "Rosa Maria" and "Cumbia de Sol" along with the hugely popular "Beer Party" and "Everybody Get Some." Very quickly, Dino developed a love for bottom-heavy funk, bringing about such songs as "Wayne Newton Is a Dyke?" and "Sex Change."
In a move that hinted at his future as Mr. Fabulous, Dino added Tom Jones' "What's New Pussycat?" We also covered Junior Walker's "Shotgun," Van Halen's "Jamie's Cryin'," KC & the Sunshine Band's "That's the Way (I Like It)," the Isley Brothers' "Fight the Power," and George Jones' "A Good Year for the Roses." In between came original oddities à la the punky "Live for the Flesh" and the "Bad Boys" rap. Somehow, all these disparate genres gelled together seamlessly.
WTR wasn't the first show-band on the Austin scene. Balcones Fault was to the Seventies what we were to the Eighties, and even the Uranium Savages qualified as antecedents, with their costumes and auxiliary members. Nevertheless, the Jam & Jelly Girls concept later shook its pompoms in Satan's Cheerleaders, while WTR echoed in Bob Schneider's horn-driven naughty boys the Scabs.
What helped make the band so powerful was the sheer number and variety of musicians who played with WTR during those years. Early guitarists included Big Guitars From Texas' Frankie Camaro and Joe Ely refugee David Grissom, later of Storyville. Poi Dog Pondering's Bruce Hughes, now of the Saxon Pub's Resentments, Joe Ely's Mike Robberson, D-Day's John Keller, Band From Hell's Troy Dillinger, and the Big Boys' Chris Gates numbered among the band's bassists. The Mothers of Invention's Jimmy Carl Black, Mike Navarro from Joe King Carrasco and 3 Balls of Fire, and Hector Muñoz from the True Believers and Alejandro Escovedo all held down the drummer's stool at one time or another.
Veteran accordionist Ponty Bone and Michael Ramos, who's put in time with both Paul Simon and John Mellencamp, played keyboards. The horn section was no less notable, from Austin stalwarts Mike Mordecai and John Mills to Mark Wilson (Burning Spear), Nathan Gates (Big Boys), and Smokey Joe Miller (Joe Ely). Unintentionally, WTR became a local all-star act.
Jammin' and Jellyin'
In a band that size, what's a few more bodies? The Jam & Jelly Girls were part of the original concept of WTR, our motto being "never underestimate the power of cleavage." I was a charter member, as was Alice Berry, my longtime friend and onetime roommate, who'd sung with the Trouble Boys and went on to Hillbilly Frankenstein, El Vez, and Clouseaux. Lisa Gamache from Max & the Makeups and Skank was also one of the early JJGirls and so too my friend Amy Bullwinkle. Yet another girlfriend, singer-songwriter Kim Miller stepped out of her folkie shoes to shake with us, as did Kari Puckett and Lisa Moore toward the end.
Every time a JJGirl left, I trained newcomers with steps and hand gestures lifted from old Shindig! and Hullabaloo videos. Toward the end, when there were but two JJGirls, we were completely coordinated in that old-school girl-group way. Never at any point had we been warned that we'd be expected to sing, dance, play percussion, and hold up 3-foot-tall letters spelling D-I-N-O, huge penises, and an 8-foot-high vagina as part of the show.
Part of the fun of being a JJGirl was that it was like Halloween all year round. Dino's theme shows offered us the chance to dress up like harem girls, schoolteachers, Roman wenches, cancan girls, Spanish dancers, pirate queens, cowgirls, nuns, slumber-party teens, torch singers, voodoo mamas, and cheerleaders among other looks, not to mention the array of lingerie items plus various and sundry nontheme outfits assembled.
Being a JJGirl taught me unexpected joys, such as learning to costume myself fully in the back seat of a car in the dark, put on stage make-up using streetlights and a rearview mirror when it was freezing outside, and don fishnets over sweaty legs in a gas-station bathroom in 100-degree heat. I learned to climb steep stairs in spike heels and navigate across muddy parking lots with those same heels sinking in. I gamely hoofed it on asphalt with potholes, unforgiving concrete dance floors, and wooden stages with uneven planks and ripped-up carpet.
We girls had a fabulous time together on tour, a rock & roll slumber party. There were pillow fights, late-night gossip and giggling after the lights went out, fixing one another's hair, trading of make-up and perfume, secret girl rituals, and teasing the boys. One glorious night in Los Angeles after the Club Lingerie show, where we'd opened for Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Alice stripped the "tee-tee pad" – one of those cheap, white, quilted mattress protectors – from her bed and threw it around the room as the rest of us gleefully joined in with ours.
The day we left SoCal, Dino ordered limousines to take us to the airport, because with so many of us, it was cheaper than individual van rides. We were thrilled: riding through Hollywood, driven by a chauffeur! We crammed into the stretch and began preening for whoever was looking at us rock stars. No one was. It dawned on us that we were in the one place where limos outnumbered civilian vehicles.
The JJGirls' biggest cheerleader was my ex-husband, the late Rollo Banks. In fact, the hardest aspect of Friday's reunion show is not being able to call Rollo to tease and cajole him into visiting Austin for the occasion. The JJGirls had their own groupies, especially in Houston, but Rollo used these shows as a way to court me. Later, when we were married, he loved to draw Dino and created several posters and ads for him, including the famous design of Dino as a skull face with outsize Woody Woodpecker hair. Yet, just when I thought he was gone, Rollo showed himself.
During a CD-release party two weeks ago at the South Austin Museum of Popular Culture for Dino's new Anthology, I went looking for the guest of honor. He was standing next to his van, turned the other way. Emblazoned across the back of his leather jacket was a painting of the classic Dino Lee skull face. Rollo had made it to the show after all.
The King of White Trash
We couldn't have gotten away with WTR had it not been for Dino's astonishing talent. His bandleading was on par with any orchestra. His singing was – and still is – almost matchless in Dino's ability to turn from Tom Jones to George Jones in a flash. And his songwriting remains remarkable, reflecting music rather than pushing its envelope.
Onstage, his effect on the audience astounded. Tall, handsome, charismatic, and hypnotizing, he was always ready with a quick retort that might sound astoundingly stupid and hilarious all at once, then follow it up with a riveting vocal performance. His very presence incited the spotlight-crazed, alcohol-fueled, Dino-possessed fans to climb up onstage to join in the fun. Drunk girls eager to show off their personal jam and jelly would grab our percussion instruments, and we'd have to snatch them back while they then ran to Dino and dry-humped him. The guys danced around in a frenzy, and sometimes we girls had to fend them off. Everyone wanted a piece of the show for themselves.
Dino's reinvention as Mr. Fabulous in the Nineties surprised those who remembered him for his outrageous Eighties stunts, like being carried out in a coffin or parading onstage with a flaming pig's head. It didn't surprise me. I'd met his mother, Joanne, an attractive brunette who once sang at Sneaky Pete's with the Art Graham Trio. I also met his father, a horse breeder who rushed backstage in Houston and tipped all the band members with $100 bills. I knew Dino had been singing Sinatra since he was 5. I knew that the "King of White Trash" was a persona, just as Mr. Fabulous is, and that behind both of them was a practicing Catholic with traditional values, who recently became a father.
Working with Dino, I was afforded the opportunity to think about music in a different way, like song-sequencing for live performances, how to make a stage entrance, and where to end a set. Dino is a master of this conceptualization, and watching him was a lesson for which there is no syllabus. Over the years and in these days of high-concept tours and stage shows, I look at the details – who thought of the gel colors on the lights, who decided on the set order, who picked the stage-wear, who hired the band – and I think of Dino.
It should go without saying that band dynamics involved friendship, flirting, fighting, playing, and sex. It's difficult describing the sexual tension that occurs when you cram a lot of men and a few women together for long periods of time in a vehicle, the "metal firecracker" Lucinda Williams appropriately dubbed tour buses. We spent a lot of time together in an atmosphere in which sex was celebrated with good humor through music. "Things" were bound to happen, and sometimes they did.
Not with me, though I will cop to covert couch snuggling while driving through the black Arkansas night on the way to New York. I also enjoyed the parties after the first few roadshows but soon tired of drunk talk. I noticed Ponty Bone usually excused himself and returned to the motel to relax and watch TV. I thought that sounded better than drinking myself stupid, so we began excusing ourselves after the shows, saying we were married. To other people, of course, but we thought it was funny and spent many an early morning watching TV and talking until the others straggled in.
Dino and I didn't flirt, either. We were dad and mom, boss and employee, and never did that twain meet. I listened to the band's relationship woes, counseled on career paths, and managed the band's publicity while he charted our course as the musical brains of the act. I was also de facto assistant road manager for the last year or so, making the motel arrangements. Performing with Dino Lee was an experience of monumental proportions.
And in the End
I probably should have quit the band much sooner than I did, but the truth was that being onstage with hundreds of people cheering was incredibly intoxicating. Okay, so they were cheering Dino, but we still took great pleasure in being part of the show. That was the ultimate lesson of WTR: that it wasn't about us as individuals. It was about the band as a whole, especially Dino.
Still, something had changed by 1986. Maybe the joke had worn thin. "Once you put the clown nose on," Rollo used to say, "it's hard to take it off." The fun of touring hadn't gone away, but it had diminished, and hotel fever set in. I remember a Dallas show so exhausting that Kim and I stumbled into our beds about 4am, wishing for hours of uninterrupted sleep. At 6:45am, the maids gathered outside our door and chattered noisily in Spanish, even after we asked them to be quiet, por favor.
Before the caravan rolled out back to Austin later that morning, Kim and I gathered packets of fast-food condiments – Taco Bell sauce, Chinese mustard, and ketchup – rolled back the covers of my bed and laid a dildo in the center. We covered it with the condiments, neatly folded the sheets and bedspread back over it and left it for the maids. That was my last show with the band in Dallas.
In May 1986, Rollo and I went to Las Vegas for a little jaunt. When I returned, the band was in complete chaos. Dino had played a set without the revue at the Ronnie Lane benefit at Steamboat, and all hell had broken loose. Amid reports of heckling, drinking, and insults, a scuffle ensued, a glass was thrown, and Dino was hit in the forehead to the tune of 27 stitches. When that glass shattered, the WTR magic went with it. He was Cinderella, and the clock had struck midnight.
I stayed with the JJGirls a couple more months – long enough to play the New Music Seminar in Manhattan. We had a prime showcase slot at a famous venue – the Cat Club – with a packed house. We Girls dressed like a punk version of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, with bushy black wigs, fringe vests, toy six-shooters, kids' cowboy hats and boots, and stick horses. We were a bigger hit than I knew. Rhino Records wanted to sign the girls but not the band.
Tension between Dino and me was pretty high at that point. I was the only remaining member of the original lineup, and all my girlfriends were gone. My husband now hated Dino as much as he hated my doing the shows, and that brought extra unwanted pressure. And what more could I do? I wasn't a singer. I wasn't a dancer. I was a complete ham, but that had been traded on as far as it could go.
Lisa Moore, the last JJGirl I trained, met a limo driver and had a date with him that last night in NYC. We also had the official NMS badges to go clubbing with and were on our way out when we ran into Dino and the band. Standing under the awning of the Mansfield Hotel near Times Square, Dino collected the band badge that Lisa had, which he had every right to do, but it left us without a way for her to get into clubs. Seething, I climbed into the back of the limo and opened the window. As the smoked glass receded with an electric purr, I stuck my head out.
"Fuck you, Dino! I quit!" The limo pulled away from the curb.
The next day, I packed my suitcases and flew home as planned. I'd hung up my Jam & Jelly fishnet hose for good and didn't care if I ever saw Dino Lee again.
One More Time
When Troy Dillinger floated the idea of a reunion in May, I didn't have to think twice about saying yes. It wasn't that the bad memories had faded but more that 20 years later, I counted the experience as one of the best of my life. Luring Kim and Alice back was no trouble. Trying to go through routines in high heels was frightening. And we made Dino swear he wouldn't make us dance around gigantic reproductive organs.
During a late-night rehearsal recently, Hector Muñoz and Mike Navarro beat the Dino jungle drums in pulsing tandem. David Beeson from Broken Teeth pointed his guitar neck at them and sprayed metal-heavy chords across the room toward Dino. I slouched beside Ponty Bone and Mark Wilson to listen. When the song was over, Dino grinned at me.
"Guess what, Margaret."
"I found General Lee."
The return of Dino Lee, his White Trash Revue, and the Jam & Jelly Girls hits Antone's, one night only, Friday, Oct. 26. And that ain't whistling Dixie.