I am what some in the business refer to as a "ponce." That is, I'm the emasculated little man behind a famous female, from whom I derive my sense of self worth, and through whose stardom I live. Sound the trumpets: I am Bonnie Hector's boyfriend. Someday, I hope to be Mr. Bonnie Hector.
We are on tour, exiting the lobby of the Hilton, two blocks from the Hempstead Dinner Theatre. It's right before showtime. Bonnie and I rendezvous with her backup singers in the lobby. I personally pass out the girls' costumes from the one-hour French cleaners -- a standard poncely duty.
This is Bonnie's umpteenth backup duo since her original early-'60s girl group. These generic Bonettes are gorgeous Puerto Rican chicks, both 19, accompanied by their Italian boyfriends. Both guys have blow-dried coifs and three-piece vested suits, just like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, the top film out now. They, too, are disco princes, each with his own Corvette.
It's raining outside. Boyfriend No. 1 pulls up to the entrance in his Corvette. His girl squeals, jumps in. Then Boyfriend No. 2 screeches his wheels to a halt, popping open the passenger door for his chick, who proudly hops in. And I'm standing there with Bonnie, who's in sequins, heels, and stage makeup. I'm carrying this tiny foldup umbrella, barely big enough for one, which I pop open as I lead her out the door. It's the longest two-block walk of my life:
"You mean to say, I'm the fuckin' star, and I have to watch my backup singers get into expensive cars -- which their boyfriends are considerate enough to provide -- while I have to walk in the fuckin' rain to my own fuckin' concert, in front of my singers, in front of my fans, in front of the whole tour bus! Do you know how embarrassed I am, what this makes me look like? Couldn't you have at least rented a car?"
"It's only two blocks. I should rent a car to travel two blocks?"
"If you knew how to treat me like a lady -- which you don't have a clue -- you'd have rented a limo. I'm only the fuckin' star."
"I spent my last 20 bucks just to get here from the city. I am totally broke."
"You ain't broke. You cheap! Where the fuck you get that umbrella?"
"It's a travel umbrella."
"You cheap, baby, that's all there is to it, too cheap to get a regular size. Tellin' you to your teeth."
I don't exactly manage Bonnie, which is the province of pimps. Usually former garage mechanics who shack up with some rising beauty queen declare themselves "manager," then fancy themselves show-biz impresarios -- until their big plans glean nothing. No, I'm a drummer -- something Bonnie doesn't even consider to be a musician. Bonnie's never heard me play, and frankly, I think I'd freeze up.
Friends and employers have stopped calling; they know I'm pretty heavy into this relationship. She always insists I make more time for Us. Tonight's the first family Thanksgiving I ever missed. Bonnie called me a child for wanting to go home to the folks. Thanksgiving was just another work night on her Ray Hayden Vaudeville Tour itinerary.
We enter the theater wet. Sure enough, some of the performers in the show see us walk in. Bonnie, radiating smiles, chats a moment with Joe Frazier, former heavyweight champ. His nightly job is to walk onstage, amidst applause, and lift Eddie Fisher up over his head as he sings -- reminiscent of the film scene in which Mighty Joe Young rises from beneath the bandstand, Atlas-style, holding aloft the pianist.
"Joe Frazier thinks you a fuckin' mo-ron," Bonnie tells me.
"Whaddya mean? We never met."
"You wanna go argue with Joe Frazier? That's what he said when he walked by: 'Is that your boyfriend?' He called you a that and gave me a look, like, "What're you doin' with such a loser?"
"What? He stands onstage every night like a circus ape."
"I'm embarrassed to face him again."
"I have to tour with these people. Throw that fuckin' umbrella away!"
So now I pace the Hempstead Dinner Theatre dressing room as Bonnie Hector and the Bonettes take the stage. A ponce in shining armor. I dread walking her back to the hotel, while the two disco boyfriends anticipate whisking their doo-wop dates to Long Island dance clubs. Spoiled Mafia grandsons. Though they're polite -- I'm with the star who employs their girlfriends -- they don't chat much with me. I've yet to spot Hayden: I keep an eye out for anything resembling a disco Jack Ruby. The three of us sit chain-smoking, as we have numerous times, in locker rooms at high school gymnasiums, armories, or wherever rock-and-roll oldies shows are held. As a backstage entity, you might call us The Bonettes Boyfriends.
Bonnie shares the bill with seven other nostalgia acts. Only Eddie Fisher, the '50s crooner who dumped his wife Debbie Reynolds to marry Liz Taylor, gets his own dressing room. For all this hard travel, Bonnie does only two songs each night. Always the same two, at every rock-and-roll revival or disease telethon. The same two songs, which were hits 15 years ago. But damned if she doesn't belt 'em each time, pulling out all the vocal trills she's famous for. She gets her ovation.
But last week, during her adorable curtsy, Bonnie continued sinking and collapsed. She had to be carted offstage by the Drifters, on deck.
Bonnie insisted on her own limo for the three-week tour. "Only Eddie Fisher gets a limo," Ray Hayden decreed.
"So I have to ride the bus -- with the musicians," she complains with disgust. "Some of them told me that they had extra jobs -- like being a plumber. Ugh!"
Yesterday I received this paranoid call: "Honey, you better get up there," warns one of Bonnie's only two friends, a gay set designer. "Protect your woman if you love her."
"Of course I love her. From what?"
Hayden has the nostalgia circuit practically sewn up. He can't crack the movies or break a new act into disco radio. He weaves in and out of his tours in a limousine, while his "cavalcade of stars" rides coach.
"Ray will forcibly compromise her virtue."
"That's what Ray Hayden does. He books fading teen-queens on these shitty Vaudeville bus tours. When they're exhausted, depressed, and disoriented by the third week, he offers his limo, slips 'em champagne spiked with elephant tranquilizer or something. And baby, that's when they get discoed. They're never sure what happened. He's raped a few aging Beach Blanket Bingo bimbos and a Mouseketeer or two. He's a nostalgia rapist."
"A nostalgia rapist? I'll kill the bastard."
Although Bonnie is only 30, she claims -- a far cry from prehistoric, but 10 years older than me -- she is now labeled an Oldies Act. Her heyday of hits peaked when she was l7. That "oldies" tag riles her, so please don't say that word; she'll pitch a fit, and I'll be the one who has to sweep up the broken dishes. Being 30 is apparently so grotesque, it's turning her gray.
I grilled her this afternoon, as she made up for the show. "Have you been in Hayden's limo?"
"Did he do anything unusual?"
"Had me autograph an album."
"The Santa cover."
I shudder over the connotation of a wink from a nostalgia rapist. "Baby, I don't think you should get in there again. He's a bad-news motherfucker."
"At least he has class," snips Bonnie, chugging a cheap bottle of sherry upside down over her bee-stung lips as she struts around like a venomous Harlem street hooker. "The tour bus is da pits, babe, and Ray, well, he invited me to Philly tomorrow -- in that nice, warm limo."
"We'll ride the bus."
"What! Baby, my love's goin' down da toilet with you. Tellin' you to your teeth."
Bonnie was all borscht-belt charm during our first few months. After the Rock 'n' Roll Is Here to Stay concert at Madison Square Garden, she felt like the greatest toy in the world. A hoarse-voiced, 98-pound kewpie doll. My own little historical showpiece, spinning round like a giddy ballerina. I defended her questionable honor amongst balding, middle-aged doo-wop singers on the bill that night. Especially the aging Justice Brothers, our "blue-eyed soul brothers," who weren't even real brothers. Their behavior was less than righteous, as they rubbed up against each of her legs, like dogs. Bonnie introduced me, and they looked the other way when shaking hands with her lowly escort, a cock blocker, some young ponce, Mr. Nobody, in charge of fetching luggage and costumes. But it was my responsibility to take care of this toy, to hand-feed it milk and cookies before bed, to put it in its nightie and tuck it in.
She spent a whole night teaching me how to wink. "It's da sexiest thing a guy can do -- if done right." Her own wink was devastating. Then, with utter seriousness, she presented her nurse's diploma and took my blood pressure.
One night, Bonnie sat upon my lap and poleaxed me with Beatles yarns until dawn. How the Bonettes were invited up to their hotel suite in the Plaza. How Lennon tried to feel her up on the night of their first Ed Sullivan Show, seen by 73 million, the defining moment of rock music history.
"You denied John Lennon one measly feel of your tit?"
"He was a fuckin' musician."
For some reason, the Bonettes were aloof to musicians, frustrating the mightiest of rock stars. They swaggered like wet dreams onstage, but Bonnie, the leader and the youngest, was only 17 at the height of their fame. Mama protected the girls' virtue, Mama shooed away the Harlem musicians -- whom she considered as a whole class to be shit.
The Bonettes granted the British groups platonic dates, for publicity. Which was more than they ever did for any Motown group. "We never went out with black guys," Bonnie said. The Bonettes spurned the most clean-cut, church-going gospel singers -- who came abuzzin' round their beehives.
"Baby, we were a sensation downtown at the Peppermint Lounge. Got our 8x10 publicity shots from the Kriegsmann studio, where all da Broadway stars went." She handed me the famous photo. "That was da pose by which all girl groups were measured."
Bonnie's older sister and cousin flanked her, palms up in a come-hither gesture. Dueling beehives of voluptuous, teased black hair. They wore tight white bridesmaid skirts, slit above the knee, and Kleenex-stuffed bras. Three light-skinned, racially ambiguous, tough-lookin' Harlem chicks. "Fans thought we were Puerto Rican Polynesians. That was our gimmick, with Oriental eyeliner." Street fights between black and Hispanic gangs broke out, each claiming the Bonettes as their own ethnic group.
"My father, wherever the hell he is, was white and Irish. My mother, if you must know, was partly black -- but mostly Comanche Indian."
In bed, Bonnie blurts out that she loves me more than she ever loved her ex-husband. But the distant Tycoon of Teen sometimes calls in the wee hours. By the time Bonnie hangs up, she's catatonic. This trance is something Nadia the psychologist is working to break. He can sabotage any record deal she has going, making sure she remains a Golden Oldie.
I'd threaten to go after him, but for the fact that he pays her $750 a week in alimony and is raising their 8-year-old daughter. She chokes up whenever the kid is mentioned. Custody of Bonnie's child was awarded to a notoriously eccentric, reclusive nut. So she felt the court was saying -- in its own ironclad, heartbreaking little way -- that she was a Bad Mommy.
Bill Hector put his golden touch on the teenage Bonettes, producing a series of historically innovative smash records. He made Bonnie lead singer, and wrote lovingly childish nonsense lyrics like "Da Do Bon Bon" for background harmonies.
Then he slowly weaned possession of her from Mama, and married her. The last time her mother came from Harlem to visit, Bill led her into the catacombs of their Bel Air mansion. There he proudly presented an empty glass mausoleum he had built in Bonnie's honor, to enshrine her should she die before him. Mama was mortified.
Bill ended Bonnie's performing and recording career and kept her sequestered on the estate. Barbed wire and an electrified chain-link fence went up around the place.
"But he made me a star," she often repeated. This, she felt, excused anything, earned him a 10-year license to abuse.
No men, especially dogs in the music biz, were allowed near her. "Once we met Elvis in Vegas. He eyed me over real good. Then, my man orders me up to our room, alone, for the rest of the trip, says he's busy with business. But he had no business with Elvis; he knew the only business Elvis wanted was with me."
The only male she had contact with was their masseur. "I had a secret orgasm during each massage. If William knew, he'd have had the guy shot.
"When he left for London, we would sleep together over the phone -- not talking, but keeping the phone line open on our pillows all night, so he could hear me breathe. Once he paid off a doctor to put my leg in a cast, when nothin' was wrong, so I had to stay in a wheelchair for weeks. His jealousy got crazier as he became impotent. By then he had me in my little pixie Santa getup, crawling along the floor on a dog leash, makin' me bark on command."
No one would work with Hector, a pariah in the very business in which he was lionized. "William pulled a gun on Lennon, in the men's room at The Record Plant, and fired into his toilet stall, fed up that John was stoned. After that, John was finished with him, finally realized what a sick motherfucker he was. William always wanted to work with the Beatles. But he realized deep down, no matter what he did, he could never be as great as them. That's why Brian Wilson went crazy too. Anyway, John escorted me down to court, for protection, the day the divorce papers got signed."
"Lennon, the bodyguard and attorney?"
"He took me there in a cab."
"Maybe Lennon could write a song for your comeback album."
"That would be nice." She smiled, redoing her eyebrow pencil in a pocket mirror. "Could you call him?"
His number was not even in her phone book. Nobody's number was in her phone book. Her sister and cousin -- the original Bonettes -- were married, fat, raising kids, long out of the business. They never called. A million cousins never called. Bonnie had practically no friends, except for the gay set designer and this svengali shrink, Nadia.
But I worry about Nadia, the "psychologist." Is a psychologist licensed to dispense medicine? This one does. I accompanied Bonnie to Nadia's "office." The walls were covered with Bonettes photos, album covers, and mementos. Everything but a psychology diploma.
"She's a fan. Damn, baby, you just jealous 'cause you ain't got fans."
"And you ain't got friends. Just fans."
One night she gets that lost-her-mind-onstage look in her eyes, spouting disco lyrics: "'Stayin' alive, stayin' alive, uh, uh, uh.' John Travolta is a definite fox!"
"He looks like a monkey."
"He's a fuckin' star; he's on the cover of the Enquirer. And that's where it's at, babe. When they follow you just to report what clothes you wearin'. You could be my 'Mystery Man.' 'Cause nobody knows who you are. Mr. Nobody."
My idol of the rock-and-roll hipsters watches soaps, reads only gossip tabloids, and falls asleep smoking in bed. A mongrel Gidget. Her teddy bear was worn and chewed up. The first astonishing thing I noticed in her apartment was the absence of any music. No albums or stereo, not even her own records. Cassettes arrive from chick songwriters, pitching songs written just for her. Tapes from Deborah Harry or Patti Smith, who idolized her in junior high and still carry a torch.
"Leave it for the maid," Bonnie shrugs. Unplayed tapes end up in the trash, personal letters unanswered.
"Let's hear a few," I plead.
"What's da use? Nobody can write for me like William did. When he was your age, he was a millionaire, a hit-maker." Suddenly, she knocks cassettes, along with her take-out lo mein, off the counter and heaves her pink princess phone to the floor.
"Just leave it for the fuckin' maid."
Twice a week, an old black cleaning lady lets herself in, bringing fresh flowers then making her rounds until the whole place is orderly again. I never saw Bonnie pay her.
Then, during a drunken tantrum, she throws me and the maid out, and I'm shocked when the maid tearfully reveals that she is Bonnie's mother.
We hear Bonnie's old hits careening out of apartment windows, car radios, TV sets, in elevators. We never stop to acknowledge it. It's just part of the air, in perpetual frequency around the planet. But on some days, all of a sudden, it's an issue:
"I am not. I'm proud."
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"You ain't proud, it's killing you. You can't stand it, hearing my records all the time. You never say anything, never tell me I'm great."
"Baby, it's time for a new album. Show 'em you're still great, get off the oldies bus."
"Ugh! You said it again, goddamn you -- you said I'm old! Well, I may be the oldest woman -- and the biggest -- you'll ever fuckin' meet in this life. You young and stupid. Tellin' you to your teeth."
Hark -- The Bonettes Boyfriends hear applause. Our womenfolk are returning. Both studs share a hairbrush, slap on cologne, ready their gold cigarette lighters. But for me, the moment of truth approaches. It's storming outside as I clutch my pathetic umbrella. I worry how the fuck I'm going to walk her those two blocks back to the hotel.