Kate Pierson, perched atop bloodred shoes that would do justice to a wicked witch in Oz, is hungry.
She is one of four vegetarians in The B-52s, and in the past 48 hours -- traveling from Norfolk to Washington -- has had nothing to eat but a grilled cheese sandwich, omelette and Compli-mint. "We used to have a rider in our contract asking for vegetarian food -- though all we ever got was quiche Lorraine," she sighs, settling into a booth at Siddhartha, a vegetarian Indian restaurant.
Pierson is one-fifth of the successful New Wave dance band that got its start in Athens, Ga., and now lives in Python Valley, Putnam County, N.Y. ("right near where "That Girl" used to commute form," says the group's vocalist and organ player).
The B-52s, whose second album has recently climbed into the top third of the national charts, played their first gig in 1977. At the time, Pierson was working nights doing paste-up for a local Athens newspaper, "a real conservative daily," she says. The paper was less than pleased when she began putting white people in black cemeteries on the obituary pages. Bassist Fred Schneider was a waiter in a vegetarian restaurant; vocalist Cindy Wilson was a waitress at the Whirly-Q Luncheonette. "We're just plain, eccentric . . . very quirky . . . folks," laughs Pierson.
With guitarist Ricky Wilson (who plays various guitars with up to three missing strings) and drummer Keith Strickland, the group began as friends and party pals. "We'd go to dances, get dressed up. It was the rage in Athens to put on James Brown and dance like crazy," with high heels attached to heads, seven or eight wigs piled on, baskets hanging over their bodies. They'd all jump on the dance floor at discos, at which point the regular patrons would clear out. When they'd just dance and not drink, the club owners would clear them out. Eventually, they drifted into loose, late-hour jams. And then they started working at it. "I thought people would laugh at us," Pierson confesses. "They did laugh . . . and they danced . . . and they liked us."
The first gigs in Athens found the band performing on a kitchen table at a private party. A few gigs later, they gathered enough nerve to tackle New York. They drove all day in "Kroton" -- an ancient station wagon belonging to Ricky and Cindy Wilson's parents, played a 20-minute show at Max's Kansas City and drove home. They made $17, but also were invited back. Eventually, they caught the ears of the record companies, signed with Warner Bros. and saw their first album jump into the charts. At least part of their success, however, was attributable to the fact that, well, they looked different.
The name itself, B-52s, referred not to bombers but to the exquisite bouffant, beehive hairdos worn on stage by Pierson and Wilson. "We used to have HDAs in Athens . . . Hairdo Alerts," Pierson recalls. "We'd run and look whenever a great hairdo went by. It's an eternal style. But nobody realizes what it takes to maintain one of those bouffants -- they sag in the heat, fall down, have to be wrapped up in toilet paper at night." Pierson's four bouffant wigs are resting in an anvil-shaped wig case back at the hotel. When the group toured Japan, hundreds of fans wore identical bouffants -- kabuki style. They are so popular there at a Japanese fanzine ran a B-52s look-alike contest. Japan also provided the group's favorite culture-shock story. The Japanese translation to the song "Party Out of Bounds" took the line "try not to condemn" and rendered it as "This planet is condemned/OK -- Who ordered pizza?"
The group found that almost as funny as some critics' over-interpretations of their work.Like "52 Girls," which simply runs down the names of 52 girls. The pundits found meaning: the B-52s intended none. "They really worked hard on that one," laughs Pierson. "The critics keep us in stitches."
If the group's wardrobe is thriftshop simple, the music itself has a New Wave thriftiness. Psychedelic frat-band music that heats the feet while expounding a vague '60s obsession with sci-fi films and cusp of the decade dance music. "I love the Jerk, the Boogaloo, the Mashed Potato," says Pierson. "I also love to make up dances. The Pony is one of my favorites. It's a great exercise dance. Pony for 10 minutes, jump rope for 5, jog for 3 . . ."
The group dress in their costumes to go to the supermarket or to the disco laundromat. Their brief, accelerated career at times seems like a Jean-Luc Godard movie with an upbeat American ending. "I'd rather think of it as a Fellini movie," Pierson insists, who also claims that if the bottom fell out tomorrow, she'd crawl out and go back to raising goats on a farm. And listening to music.
"We used to go on picnics in the mountains with tapes of Aku pygmy music [by an African tribe], and carry it while walking through the woods. We haven't deliberately copied anything from it," she points out seriously, "but it makes you less inhibited about making any kind of sound. It's either that or listen to no music."