It's a nippy night and the Majestic Café is full of life. Allied Media is throwing a bowling extravaganza a few doors down at the Garden Bowl in anticipation of their annual music conference set for the next day at MOCAD. They're also hosting an open mic for high school-aged poets in the café, and, while the performances are surprisingly engrossing and ambitious, the night's highlights are sure to be the performance by Detroit's "black-noise" duo Dark Red and the peculiarly named Duane, "the Teenaged Weirdo."
This Duane kid is set to go up first. Around midnight, the café's suddenly littered with small leaflets bearing the performer's name and a weirdly alluring androgynous face. Soon, a theme from the video game Pokémon plays over the P.A., serving as a prelude as a black-clad spindly frame in form-fitting spandex pants bursts through a cloud of stage fog. A kind of Rubenesque doll with a hard expression takes the stage with him and the pair begins to dance and sing to the backdrop of bouncy, dark synth pop. They run around the stage, slap each other, play fight and, at one climactic point in the set, indulge in wild simulated sex, in all of this raw energy. The set kills, musical injudiciousness covered by pure abandon, but reflections of his youth. There are no bored expressions tonight, no way. It is a total what-the fuck-did-I-just-see moment; folks are eyebrow-furrowing disgusted or jaw-drop impressed. Dark Red then goes up, rocks, but there's no way you could follow Duane, "the Teenaged Weirdo," after performing like he had a gun pointed to the back of his head, like there were 10,000 people in the room.
He's been called "the love child of Grace Jones and David Bowie" and, although he denies coining the phrase, lives in the tagline. Simon Cowell and Co. voted him off X-Factor (Duane performed "A Rolling Stone" by Grace Jones and Bowie's "Jean Genie"), but Jack White is a fan, as is local label Beehive Recording Co., which just released his first EP. His local fanbase so far is small — he debuted live 15 months ago — but growing ... exponentially.
Duane (born Michael Duane Gholston) is a hard kid to peg down; he's an outsider, to be sure, but his élan is born of a kind of inner confidence, not inferiority, or some kind of crippling insecurity — though he is self-deprecating as all hell. Usually decked out in ripped jeans and customized shirts with clothespins in classic punk rock style, the spindly, soft-spoken 19-year-old is a sartorial headfuck, even while he's strolling down some Detroit avenue, mid-afternoon. He likes it that way. His dyed-brown Afro explodes from his head, under which rests an array of scarves and jangling necklaces that'd rest easily on Steven Tyler. His face is colored ornately with shades of mascara and eyeliner, done with the skill of high school girl who's beyond the point of luring in her first boy. Dude lives up to his full moniker.
The Detroit-born Gholston lives with his mother, stepdad and his three sisters (two younger and one older) and little brother in the working-class old Redford neighborhood. He attended the Detroit School of Arts for high school, where he studied art, photography and music technology. Now, between doing multiple gigs a month and odd jobs such as volunteer work down at Eastern Market, he takes prerequisite classes at Marygrove College with no major in mind.
Despite what might be suggested by his appearance, Duane's life growing up was, in his words, "pretty normal." Until high school, that is. He came up blasting fluff such as the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears into his head, but as he moved through high school, he discovered, and emotionally connected to, '80s pop. Madonna, Culture Club, Grace Jones and Dead or Alive became his musical mainstays, instilling in him nostalgia for a decade he didn't live through.
Now, he listens to whatever he can, whether it's La Roux, Ting Tings or Ke$ha. "In the summer, after I graduated from high school, I just starting devouring everything," Gholston says.
And his music?
It's as if he cherry-picked Grace Jones and Let's Dance-era Bowie and infused it with a dark, almost Detroit-at-night feel and tone, a sort of fading city gothic. Armed with a keyboard and the music recording software Audition, his songs are tuneful and ambitious, ideas that extend beyond his reach, so far. "They're awesome ideas," he agrees. "But they're not executed well." He's a self-taught keyboardist who started playing in high school.
Gholston aligns simple driving beats — which purposely sound like drum machines — with thin keyboard licks and melodic lines. They're succinct, never lasting for more two minutes, leaving hardly a verse for Gholston's sneering bark. Some tunes, such as "Burn a Flag, Put Out a Fire," are punchy and danceable, boasting cheesy-but-groovy Casio bass lines. Others, such as "Chaos in Cairo," can nearly hypnotize with an endless drum loop and willowy synths. So far, all of Gholston's recorded tunes are lo-fi, bedroom quality. That fact doesn't detract; rather, it enhances the songs' appeal and feel — there's that strange nostalgia and sometimes you think you're listening to early demos of some long-lost '80s pop songwriter.
Gholston says the "Teenage Weirdo" bit is about a year old and he uses it as way to reflect who he is as a person in this life right now. "When I first started getting into performing outside of school, all of the acts were older than me," he says. "That set me apart. It's a good representation of where I'm at now. It's not really about high school or middle school — not that kind of teenager — it's about being on the verge of getting older, moving onward."
Will he still be calling himself a teenaged weirdo at the ripe old age of, say, 22?
"No, that'd be like KISS still wearing those awful outfits," he says, laughing. "I can't keep doing the same thing. I probably won't be using it a year from now, maybe even months. I'll stop using it, but I'll think of something else."
Sort of like killing off his own Ziggy Stardust? Maybe. The teen pop-star-in-waiting is a big Bowie nut, after all. (His stripped-down, synth-heavy "Jean Genie" cover is a highlight live.)
And what's up with the Pokémon fetishization at his shows? He's a Pokémon fanatic, and he uses the themes of various games in the series to introduce his shows — another reflection of who he is, though this piece of nostalgia is from an era when he was alive.
"I remember watching some Lady Gaga show and she used a Clockwork Orange intro [to open the show]. Come on, David Bowie did that years ago. I like A Clockwork Orange too, but it's not part of my life. I don't have a connection to it. It's cool to go back and pick up pop-culture references, but you should pick something that's closer to yourself. I was born in the '90s, so I use Pokémon."
Although he uses his 18-year-old stage partner, Amber Miller (aka Nikky Velvet) in nearly all of his shows, Gholston is a solo artist and not so fond of folks calling the duo a "band." He employed a guitar-playing friend for a few shows but sacked him.
"I don't want a live band," he says. "I don't like bands. A lot of the stuff I listen to is from solo artists. I don't like that whole 'band' thing. After shows people asking me: 'Oh, what's the name of your band?' I hated that. I don't have a big head, but the whole 'band' thing is not part of the whole setup."
That makes sense, seeing as Gholston's idiosyncratic music is born of his very singular vision; Duane the Teenage Weirdo knows what he wants, and he's learning how to get it. Plus, it has never been easier to write, record and produce your own music.
As he began to play out live, he booked his own shows. His first gig was at Detroit gay bar the R&R Saloon in spring of 2010. Not to stereotype, but his outward androgyny and sugar-high tunes went over well there, just like how Grace Jones won gay crowds in the '70s. Otherwise his music and image can polarize audiences and some of his early, more "rocky" gigs didn't help win over people. He knows that if you are going to shock aesthetically, you have to be really, really good musically.
Is he ever afraid to be dismissed as a drag-queen or, worse, a tranny? As Alice Cooper taught us years ago, and then Boy George, middle America can be pretty mean to kids who prefer to dress up.
"I've never been referred to and I don't consider what I do drag at all. I think there is a fine line between pretending to be some crude, loudmouth, overly glammed-up, make-believe woman and being a creative person who is comfortable with their own sexual identity, one who doesn't have to pretend to be something they aren't. I'm a boy, and I plan on keeping it that way. And, no; I'm not scared of anything. But, I do take caution when on the streets; everyone should, no matter what you look like."
The people who should pay attention are beginning to. After a few good shows, Gholston landed a guy named Cornelius Harris to manage him and book his local shows. Earlier this year, local rock star Steve Nawara (ex of Detroit Cobras, Electric Six) and his Beehive Recording Co., a premier Detroit indie, got wind of him. The name got Nawara first.
"I first heard of [Gholston] when Chris Turner from Dark Red told me they were playing a show together at Jumbo's," Nawara says. "As soon as he told me his name, my ears immediately perked up. The raw sound and the strange appearance reminded me of Klaus Nomi sparkled with glam. The music had me instantly."
Nawara released Gholston's first studio single, a three-song digital download only, a few weeks ago, and it's available on Beehive's website.
He may also record a vinyl single at that well-known record label down in Nashville, Tenn. — though everyone involved is pretty tight-lipped.
Gholston stays busy, whether it's gigs, school or work. He has to. He gets bored fast, and if he doesn't stay occupied, his attention wanders, and he'll do "stupid things." On one bored day back in the spring, one "stupid thing" happened to be his signing on to audition for the debut season of the hugely popular music contest show X-Factor (which averages about 12 million viewers weekly). Gholston trekked to Chicago to participate. He suffered a two-day audition process, and he eventually performed a Grace Jones tune in front of the judging panel, Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, L.A. Reid and Cheryl Cole. The reception was lukewarm. Cowell's only comment was, "Do you have any pets?" The footage aired a few weeks back and, though he didn't advance, Gholston doesn't consider the experience a humiliation exercise. He got to see pop celebrity through its own TV lens, in all of its deceptive insanity.
"You know when you see those people at the end of auditions on TV and they get mad when the judges say no? It's because they've been through all this crap to get there. They're not going to tell you that on TV because they want you to think they're crazy. But, they've been through a lot of crap and spent a lot of money to be there."
That experience didn't sour Gholston. He believes there's something deeper, and that he has it. Besides, people remember this guy and what he has to offer beyond the glam; his vastly improving musical sensibilities — as beautifully cockeyed as they are — see him cranking out one catchy tune off the end of another. He also wants to be famous, of course.
"I've been saying since high school that I want to be the most famous boy in the world," Gholston says. "I've been doubtful about my skills and talent up until, like, the 12th grade, when I first got into music and performing. Now that I've been out of high school for a while now and accomplished so much in such a short time, I have absolutely zero doubts that I can accomplish whatever I want. Under the circumstances, a lot of people are going to know me [from embarrassing myself on national TV]. It's not my intention to try and be some attention whore and exploit myself. I want them to see that I understand that I made a mistake auditioning for that show. Just because you can't make it in front of Simon Cowell and L.A. Reid doesn't mean you aren't any good; you're just not their kind of good."
Duane "the Teenage Weirdo" appears Nov. 5 at at the Painted Lady, 2930 Jacob St., Hamtramck; 313-874-2991. Eric Villa is also on the bill. Doors at 9 p.m.; $5.
Duane's personal faves:
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) RCA
In the Zone
Colour by Numbers
(2010) Dub Ditch Picnic
Please Please Me