"I can't decide if I'm the Rolling Stones and 'it's only rock and roll, but I like it,' or if I'm David Bowie, and 'I only do rock and roll so that I can do other things.'"
Tim Carroll is wearing a faux snakeskin codpiece as he says this, and nothing else above the knees. He looks into the mirror, pivoting on white vinyl, high-heeled nurse's boots, and squints, as if what he sees will help him choose between the famous Stones lyric and the Bowie quote.
"I think I'm the Stones," he says, finally. He flashes a jagged smile. "It's rock and roll, and I like it."
Tim Carroll is in a backroom of the Church, a studio art space in south Minneapolis, where his band, Faggot, is about to play a word-of-mouth concert on the night of May 26. The singer is a naked, pink tower of a man, with the beginnings of a gut and a salt-and-pepper buzz cut. He absently sings a Madonna song—"It's all an illusion/There's too much confusion"—and announces that he's a few months older than Madonna. Then he slaps his tummy. "I'm getting really fat," he says.
"Yeah, you are," says Jon Nielsen. The bearded drummer is a couple of decades younger than Carroll. So are the other two members of Faggot, frenetic guitarist Jason Wade and cool bassist Saira Huff, who have the lion-haired, pierced look of hardcore punk lifers. Everyone in Faggot plays in other bands except Carroll. "This was his first band, at 46," says Wade. "He's 48 now."
Carroll is eager to tell his story to City Pages, and as band members apply glitter and permanent marker, the frontman lobs random bits of information at this reporter.
"I was raised Catholic in Cleveland, Ohio," he begins. "We were nine generations of plumbers."
"Which is why he has the butt crack," says Wade, spanking him.
In the next 15 minutes, Carroll fires off the following "verifiable facts":
• "I sucked Henry Rollins's dick in 1981 on Vine and Selma, near Hollywood Boulevard."
• "I slapped Belinda Carlisle in the face before she was a Go-Go. She deserved it, though."
• "I don't have AIDS. I've tried. I've used IV drugs and sucked every AIDS homo I know. I don't get AIDS."
• "Our song 'You're Gay, You're Dead' is a true story. One morning in 2001, I woke up, and my lover of 17 years was dead on the couch."
• "See this scar right here? I took a razor blade to my arm one night. I was so high on meth, I thought the aliens were in there. I knew it. I was going to save the world."
The stories keep coming, and at least one requires a note of qualification here—Henry Rollins is on the record as saying he's never had a homosexual experience. As for the bouts of self-destruction and the tragic incident he mentions—
"That explains this," Carroll says, gesturing to his outfit. "Jon, do you think James would be pissed about the song ["You're Gay, You're Dead"]? I used to. But I'm sure he's laughing. He was such an egotist, he would have laughed."
Faggot take the stage of the deconsecrated chapel wearing very little and looking slightly like The Muppet Show band. Wade has whitened his mutton chop sideburns. Huff has reddened her skin and shredded her fishnets. Carroll has the word "faggot" written across his chest, with an arrow pointing to his crotch. "This is my song to America," he announces. "I love you, America. I was raised Irish Catholic in Cleveland, Ohio. Thank you." He has red makeup across his eyes, which makes him look like a Lakota warrior.
Then Faggot lunge forward with the song "Fuck You, Amerika!" and any hints of Muppetry evaporate. Wade and Huff relax into a Ramones stance, smiling at each other as they summon a monstrous, sensuous rock throb that assumes the shape of classic hairball rock, but with a skuzzy texture all its own—"heavy" rather than "metal," as Rollins once described Black Flag. Nielsen is a blur of arms, his long curls puffing into a near-Afro one minute into the song.
I have to admit, I've avoided seeing Faggot up to this show because of their name. Some classic punk bands such as the Buzzcocks and the Dicks were open about their homosexuality, and queercore has more recently made a genre of it. The word "punk" itself was once homophobic slang. Today, though, simply calling your band "Faggot" signals transgression for its own sake, artiness, or worse, a gag. Yet Carroll's hilarious provocation is no joke. Grabbing his crotch, flailing like a surfer in a wind tunnel, he preens like some bogey nelly queen, the spirit of Stonewall come back to haunt the age of gay marriage. He's fearless, which endears him to strangers in the audience.
"I've gotta go fuck my groupies," he growls after the first song, hugging and kissing the tank-topped young rockers at the front of the stage.
Behind the band, the group's only "dancer" tonight (sometimes they have up to nine) begins grabbing and lifting up the male musicians. He's Michael Gaughan (pronounced "gone") of the bands NOW and Brother and Sister, and is better known in hip-hop circles as battle champion Ice-Rod. During the next song, as he prances around in near nudity, I can't help thinking that Ice-Rod would call this guy a "faggot."
It's weird: All week long, I've been talking to friends about homophobia in hip hop, and here's one of the best freestyle rappers in town saying, essentially, "Who cares?"
Faggot have this effect on inhibitions. One fan bounds onstage to announce, "If anyone wants to take their clothes off, get up here and go fucking crazy!"
Carroll mockingly sings the Jermaine Stewart song: "We don't have to take our clothes off to have a good time/Oh, yea/We'll drink the cherry wine—get your fucking clothes off, faggot!" His persona is that of a drill sergeant for sexual liberation.
"I'm 48 years old and I'm up here doing this in front of all you shy little people," he thunders. Then he tears into "Mongolian Beef" ("retards need to be fucked, too, dammit!") No one streaks, but many dance around the band as Carroll humps a guitar amplifier.
The singer thanks the audience— "I hope you're cleaned out now"—and closes with "You're Gay, You're Dead," singing, "I woke up/I found you dead/You don't have AIDS/Why you so dead?" The song is idiotic, brilliant, funny, and sad:
You cannot breathe
When you are dead
You cannot breathe
When you are gay
If Carroll seems fearless, he's had more to fear than most people. "Do you want to know why I'm Faggot?" he asks me on the same night as the show, when we're alone. The humor has suddenly drained from his face.
"I'm Faggot because my friend was murdered in front of me in 1998. We were gay-bashed, and the whole time, the guy that was killing Brian was screaming at us, 'You want a piece of me, faggot? You want a piece of me, faggot?'
"Ever since then, I've thought, I'm not going to live the rest of my life with these nightmares of this man brutalizing me and killing my friend and screaming 'faggot' at us. For years, if I ever heard that word, I would cringe. I would even go into post-traumatic stress shock. So I'm not going to let him have the power. I'm going to take that word back."
According to news accounts, Edgard Mora, the man who caused the death of Brian Wilmes near a San Francisco leather bar in 1998, was convicted of a hate crime, adding two years to his three-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter. Carroll testified about the homophobic taunts at trial. Yet he had qualms about his role in the politics accompanying the case.
"I didn't ask to be the poster boy for hate crimes," he says. "I didn't even ask for this guy to come up and start beating us. I always felt weird about the whole thing. I felt like the city was trying to use me for an agenda."
Carroll is suspicious of anyone advocating on his behalf, and says he's never had anything handed to him. He was born in a farm town outside Cleveland, Ohio, and according to family lore, his father's response to the news that Mom was pregnant with him—her fifth child—was, "Jesus Christ, not again!" Faggot's "Have an Abortion" opens with the lines "Oh no/Not again/Have an abortion/I should have been."
With a few drinks in him, Carroll will call himself a "mook." He does a sort of hillbilly version of an Irish jig, and talks about his Catholic upbringing. "When I was 14, I got to suck the priest's dick," he says. "I'm not going to sue the church. I liked that guy's dick. I was in confession, it was great."
By the time he woke up to find his partner of 17 years, James Gilkison, dead on the couch in 2001, they had been through much together. Gilkison had given up acting in San Francisco to study law in Sacramento after learning that he had contracted a rare disease during a Peace Corps stint in the '80s, which would eventually rob him of sight. "He passes the California state bar, blind," says Carroll, "and we're thinking, 'Yay, we finally made it through all this hard work.' And I wake up one morning and he's dead." Carroll says the pharmacy mixed up Gilkison's prescriptions.
"The law said I couldn't sue the pharmaceutical company for killing my husband because I'm not his husband," says Carroll. "I had no rights. So fuck you, faggot, is what I feel like. You're all a bunch of faggots."
Carroll says he freaked out for a year and a half until he talked to his friend Molli Slade, who said, "Why don't you come to Minneapolis and just start over?" Carroll did just that in 2003. Nine months later he was in a band.
"I got in from San Francisco, and I was bored," says Carroll. "I called up Rainbow Cab, and I said, 'Take me to the Eagle, I guess.' I was trying to get a blowjob."
On the taxi ride, Carroll says he struck up a conversation with the driver, and played himself off as an art scout from California. The cabbie invited him to his studio in the Sexton Building, and, once there, pointed to a window visible from his own. "'See over there?' he says. 'There's a lesbian over there who makes clothes, and I always watch her and her girlfriend make out.' But it was Jason and Saira, not lesbians."
Carroll asked to meet the neighbors, and soon they were hanging out with Huff. "She's got Ziggy Stardust blaring on the stereo and she's sewing at the sewing machine," he says. (A fashion designer, Huff would go on to make all the band's clothes; she also organizes fashion events.) As the band tells it, the story of that night ends with the cabbie's car stalling on Washington Avenue, the driver puking out the passenger's side window, and Huff jumping out of the driver's seat as a police car rolled up. "I don't know what's going on," she cried.
"She had platform shoes, hair up to here, a sequin outfit," says Carroll. "She was this Burning Man punk goddess. And this poor dumb fuck Mr. Anderson the cop from Minneapolis comes up, looks at her tits, and goes, 'Well, yeah, you should just pull your car over.'"
Tim Carroll made as vivid an impression on Wade the first time they hung out, the night they were kicked out of the Front for nudity. "We're dancing around, and there's all these jocks," says Wade. "I look down, and there's Tim's pants around his ankles. And there's his butt hole looking up at me. The jocks were into it. They were like, 'Hey, dude, that was pretty cool.'"
Wade had booked shows for a decade back in Rapid City, South Dakota, fronting the thrash-metal band Resin and otherwise gaining a reputation as the sort of character who might one day play in a band called Faggot. "Jason is one of the most bizarre and interesting people I've ever met in my life," says alternative folk singer Haley Bonar, who knew Nielsen and Wade in Rapid City, and lived with Huff and Wade when she first moved to Minneapolis. "There were several times when I came home where Jason would just be buck naked, flailing his dick around. He'll greet people like, 'What's up, bitch?' He's making a violent experimental film called Stabber and got $10,000 to do it. They like to dress up pretty much every day. They find costumes they're going to wear."
While still living in "Rapid," Wade went on The Jerry Springer Show with two friends. "Jason was wearing makeup and his hair was really long and flowing," says Bonar. "They'd made up this total lie about a love triangle. I think it was Jason's idea, because he was like, 'Dude, they fly you to Chicago, you get food, and you stay in a hotel, and you go on TV.'
"When I played a show with Mason Jennings a couple years ago at the 400 Bar," she continues, "those guys all showed up dressed to the nines. They were like, 'Hey!' They missed my show, of course. And I went over to them and was talking to them by the door, and they're like, 'Who's this?' I was like, 'That's Mason Jennings.' The set started with that song from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, like [singing] 'as I went down to the river to pray,' and everyone was quiet. And Jason goes, 'Fuck this!' Like really loud."
Faggot enjoy pushing people, but only so far. They say they're the only band in their southeast Minneapolis building to take advantage of the glass bubble skylight above their practice space, which opens out onto the roof. On June 9, two weeks after the Church show, we walk across the gravel top under a clear night sky, peering down into somebody else's practice studio. "We once opened this window and threw rocks at the band while they were playing," says Nielsen. "They were like, 'What the fuck is going on?' They never looked up."
"Hey, did you tell him about the tattoos?" says Carroll.
"Hold on a second, let's finish this story," says Wade. He has been starting to say something about himself, Huff, and Nielsen getting baked and listening to a lot of Hawkwind, Judas Priest, and Mötley Crüe before they met Carroll.
"Beginnings, beginnings," says Huff. The musicians sit down at the edge of the building, gazing at the downtown skyline, and do "team shots" of tequila with lime.
"You can understand how we met Tim, and we're like, 'This guy has to be the singer of our band,'" says Wade.
They played together and talked about using the band name Faggot before, says Nielsen. "And there was pretty much no way we were going to use it." Though the other three members of Faggot profess ambisextrousness—"I'm just waiting for the right guy," says Wade—Carroll is the only one in a committed relationship with somebody of the same sex, and the only one not attracted to the opposite sex. Wade and Huff's relationship might be a source of a bizarre false rumor that nobody in Faggot is homosexual—a sort of modern twist on Prince's dilemma in "Controversy."
Last year, the group independently released an eight-song, self-titled demo cassette wrapped in a condom, and Carroll has kept up a sort of homosexual version of Ice Cube's "The Nigga Ya Love to Hate" act throughout Faggot's two years. Part of that project involves stage antics: Carroll has put any number of things into his ass onstage, from guitars to a pair of tighty-whities wrapped in a condom. He gave a male audience member fellatio at the Slipper Club in Madison, Wisconsin, last year. ("This may sound odd," says Carroll's boyfriend, actor Charles Schuminski, "but it quite honestly doesn't occur to me to be upset about it, to even really think of it as a true sexual act, because it's a persona.")
In January of this year, Carroll played a bullying police officer in the Sister Send Off scavenger hunt concert event put on by Michael Gaughan and his sibling, Katie Gaughan; and Faggot rocked an audience in the recently decommissioned Scott County jail—covering Thin Lizzy's "Jailbreak," naturally. The band has hosted a "Friday Faggot Fish Fry," and written on another poster, "Dress up like your favorite Mexican food!"
In a way, Faggot signal just how far the music scene and gay punk rock have come since the "don't advertise, don't worry" days of Hüsker Dü in the 1980s. Faggot's emergence last year coincided with the revival of Homocore Minneapolis, the DIY concert-booking organization started in the '90s by transgender punk fan Ed Varga. "It's a really queer-positive scene now," says Jim Ass, the screaming young frontman of the bands Ganglion and Ass, who dresses in drag onstage and performs songs about bashing back. "I'll have songs about abstract gender boundaries, and stuff like that, and kids will be singing along.
"Kids are also into Faggot," he adds. "There's more silliness now, and Faggot's part of that."
Faggot's playfulness can be cavalier. They once organized a "Dress to Get Raped" party at the legendary underground music venue MALA. And even allies, such as Michael Gaughan, are uneasy about the band's use of "AIDS" as a cheerful slogan. "I guess the joke is that, look at what AIDS has become, and how nothing has really stopped it," says Carroll. "I lost countless scores of friends in Chicago and L.A. and Phoenix and San Francisco to AIDS. I mean countless."
Faggot lack the maliciousness to make even a tasteless song such as "Mongolian Beef" sting, and claim that there's sympathy in their devilishness. "I used to be in a band with a person that was retarded," says Wade, remembering a female singer of one of his Rapid City bands, Kill Mosh Fuck Destroy. More recently, he says, he worked in a group home for adults with developmental disabilities. He says he was let go after one of his clients, a 50-year-old Elvis fan whom he taught to play guitar, asked other employees if he could start painting his fingernails black. "I still miss Bob," says Wade.
The guitarist doesn't worry about going too far. "I think people understand what's going on," he says. "How do you get too mad about something that's coming out of people that are wearing taco underwear? If anybody wanted to think that we were any of these '-ists,' that would be fine, because we would be making those prejudiced people look pretty stupid."
The story of the tattoos, which Carroll wanted me to hear, is that three of the four members of Faggot have gotten a tattoo of male genitals—with wings (taken from the Judas Priest logo) and one teardrop of semen. The only band member who hasn't gotten his tattoo is Carroll. "For Tim, it's an alter ego," says Gaughan. "Because he dresses really conservatively, and like a professional, and then he comes on dressed in ridiculous spandex outfits and stuff. But when you hang out with Jason or Saira, that's how they always look. I think that's really funny, that it's kind of this superhero transition for Tim."
The next day, at Gaughan's "Rock 'n' Roll Escape from Summer School" event, Carroll pulls me aside and apologizes for the night before. "I think I blacked out halfway through," he says.
In fact, after we came down from the roof and the band started practicing, Carroll had pulled his pants down and began shaking his penis to the music, his eyes closed, his body moving in spiral motion, possessed by the beat.
I tell him don't worry about it. Nothing seems to cause disharmony within Faggot besides the possibility of alienating the first reporter to take an interest in the band. At rehearsal, Nielsen forgot the microphones, yet instead of complaining at all, Carroll went ahead like a joyfully committed mime. Today, after smooth sets by Nielsen's two other bands during the mostly outdoors "Summer School" scavenger hunt (see "Highlights from Rock 'n' Roll Escape from Summer School," City Pages 6/14/06, in the article archive at citypages.com), Faggot face more than one logistical glitch.
The band is scheduled to play at a construction site under an I-394 overpass at 5:00 p.m., and Huff has designed special skimpy construction worker uniforms for the group and a number of dancers. At a distance, however, scavenger hunters mistake the orange helmets for the real thing, and a mass of hipster bicyclists passes right by the site until Wade, in his cowboy boots and white sideburns, runs their way waving a shovel over his head and shouting.
"This is the way all city workers are going to dress now," announces Carroll, modeling his new gear for the gathering audience—a yellow helmet that says "hot" on one side and "guys" on the other in red; "fag" written on the back of his top, and blue jean shorts so thin, they could be a belt. ("It looks like the Village People," says one onlooker.)
Before the music begins, Carroll climbs a mound of tar gravel to play boss man. "Get to work," he tells his dancers. They include two "hot girls" in tattered fishnets, as well as (inexplicably) a man in a full Batman Begins costume. A passing trucker honks at Carroll, to cheers from the crowd. Then the singer yells, "Break time!"
But Wade breaks a string on the first song, and Nielsen breaks his snare drum soon after. Forced to sing through the bass amp, Carroll is barely audible. Yet he's an instrument of the music, and a dramatic one. A dancer spanks him with a shovel. The group yells "AIDS." By the end of the band's set, at least a few fans are brought to a frenzy. Spotting a little girl in a faerie hat perched on top of one gravel mound with her parents, Carroll rushes up and says something to her that makes her giggle uncontrollably.
After the set, I learn that Annabel is the daughter of one of Carroll's best friends, Molli Slade, the one who suggested Carroll move here in the first place. As scavenger hunters bike on to the next stop, "Uncle Tim" teases the young faerie princess.
"Am I better than Madonna?" he asks.
Annabel thinks this over. "You're bigger than Madonna," she says. Then she wonders aloud who was dressed up as Batman.
"What do you mean? That was the real Batman," Carroll says.
"No it wasn't. That was not the real Batman," says Annabel.
This goes on for some time, as other members of Faggot load up the '82 Dodge van, and meanwhile I talk to Molli Slade, who smiles when I tell her that I'm writing about Carroll. "Did you get him to open up?" she says. She's joking, of course.
Slade did performance art with Carroll in Phoenix, so she knows what Faggot means to him. "I'm so glad," she says. "This is perfect for him."
"I don't want to leave!" yells Carroll from some distance away. "I love my dirt pit!"
"He's gone through some hard times," Slade continues. "And this is cathartic. He's been needing to be a rock star for a while."