Newsmakers — Arts & Icons

Women ROCK!

Richard Burnett

My favourite rock stars are women – Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, Janis Joplin, Joan Jett, Heart and Stevie Nicks – because their narratives speak to me, while few lyrics and life experiences of straight male rockers do.

Besides, I love my divas.

And their names usually end with a vowel: Divas like Judy! Bette! Liza! Etta, Eartha and Beyoncé! Dolly and Madonna! And guess what? I’ve interviewed, met or seen almost all of them perform live, from Celine Dion in Vegas to Lady Gaga in Atlantic City. Once, in New York City at the annual Night of a Thousand Stevies drag tribute to Stevie Nicks, I saw Debbie Harry — dressed à la Stevie — sing a scorching rendition of The Chain with punk-rock outfit Goon Squad.

I also never tire of seeing Stevie perform Landslide live, either with Fleetwood Mac or solo; I love that Diana Ross had at least six costume changes the last time I saw her in concert; and that ballerina-wannabe Aretha Franklin wore a pink tutu onstage when I saw her at the Montreal Forum in 1987!

I remember the time a disgruntled Roberta Flack stopped her band in the middle of a song to complain about the poor acoustics in Salle Wilfred-Pelletier and demanded the tech guys fix it immediately. And once, at the old Montreal Forum in 1982, Bette Midler was so raunchy, the older Jewish retirees literally fled for the exits as the gays whooped it up!

I have witnessed Mariah Carey’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Bell Centre in 2010 — when one of her breasts nearly flopped out — to Tina Turner at Le Spectrum de Montréal in 1984 where she learnt backstage (and it was a tiny dressing room) that What's Love Got to Do With It was going to be Number One on Billboard's Hot 100 chart.

Turner — whom I have since seen perform live some 30 times — then stormed the stage, launching her first of two scheduled concerts that night, with a torrid version of ZZ Top’s Legs. 

Just a few months later, when my friend Luba — in the 1980s no Canadian singer could touch her — when she performed at the 1985 Juno Awards at Toronto’s Harbour Castle Hilton Hotel, Tina spotted Luba from across the hotel lobby.

“She made a beeline straight for me,” Luba told me. “She had this aura, and she grabbed my hand and said, ‘You’re an amazing singer!’ She blew me away. Here was Tina Turner, who I grew up listening to on The Ed Sullivan Show, and she was paying ME a compliment?”

Luba also told me, “Many of my most devoted fans are gay and are not afraid to express their love. That is something I’m very pleased about because they always make me feel like, ‘Wow!’ The gay community also loves survivors with big voices, and I fit the bill.”

Cher pretty much told me the same thing when I interviewed her back in 1999. “I specifically recorded Strong Enough for my gay fans,” she said. “My gay fans have been so loyal and so great. Gay fans usually love you when you're in the dumps, in the toilet. They were there when other people weren’t. 

Chaka Khan also loves her gays fans back unconditionally. When she performed at Metropolis during the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal in 2007, I remember she demanded — onstage — that the technicians immediately change the spotlights because “green lighting looks terrible on Black skin.” 

Over the years — even when it was considered career suicide to do so — Chaka performed at innumerable Pride concerts, festivals and celebrations. In return, the LGBTQ community lavished their love on Chaka.

So I asked Chaka what it was about her that gay men most adore – The big hair? The big voice? The big heart?

“Maybe it’s the butch in me!” Chaka replied. “I dunno, I’ve been asked that question so many times. But I will say this: In a crunch, when I’ve been in need, when things weren’t going well, the gay community always bailed me out. They’re my most loyal friends and following and they have a special place in my heart.”

Another gay favourite is Cyndi Lauper. I’ll never forget the time the pop icon opened for Cher at Montreal’s Bell Centre back in 2002: Cyndi stole the show midway through her opening set when she walked centre stage draped in a massive Rainbow flag to sing True Colors with only Montreal musician Kat Dyson accompanying Cyndi on acoustic guitar. 

The sold-out house of 18,000 screaming fans gave Lauper a five-minute standing ovation before she even sang one note. I was so overwhelmed I had tears in my eyes.

“So did I,” Cyndi told me afterwards.

“I have friends and family who are gay,” Cyndi said. “When I became a mom (in 1997) I sat down and read all the letters I got from people who said when True Colors came out (in 1986) it was the one thing that kept them going because they were suicidal, afraid of being disenfranchised by their families. I always feel that it is wrong to be that depressed about who you are. I saw my (lesbian]) sister go through it. So when I stand there and sing True Colors, it's no longer my song. It’s everybody’s song.”

Meanwhile, the triumph of legendary dance diva Martha Wash (It’s Raining Men) over the mostly white and largely straight music establishment cemented her icon status in the LGBTQ community.

“Gay audiences love me because I began singing with Sylvester. It started there,” Martha told me the first time I interviewed her. “My philosophy is ‘Who so ever will, let him come.’ That’s scripture in the Bible. In other words, Jesus is love. He loves everybody, as I do. There is no difference to me whether you are gay or straight.”

Then in the wake of the homophobic "disco sucks" movement — disco, mainstream America made very clear, is cocksucker music — the disco backlash claimed many careers.

For Donna Summer, whom I was privileged to interview before she died of cancer in 2012, the attack was double-barreled: In the early 1980s an urban myth claimed Summer made anti-gay remarks, that AIDS was divine retribution from God, and many gay clubs banned her music.

“It was awful, especially since none of it was true,” Summer told me. “But I can’t hunt these people down. In this business people write stuff about you all the time and I can’t control everything.”

Summer continued to embrace her gay fans until the very end.

The last time I saw Summer perform live was at the Fallsview Casino in 2009. But my fave Donna moment was when she sang me Love to Love You Baby on the phone during an interview. I just about died and went to disco heaven.

Over in Philly, Patti Labelle also adores her gay fans. “Bless them. They're my glam squad,” she told me when she headlined the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal the day after another soul legend, Luther Vandross – onetime teenaged VP of Patti’s fan club – died on July 1, 2005.

Afterwards, Patti cried onstage when she sang a song for Luther. “They areall my children,” Patti told me. “They look to me as a mother, a sister or a real good girlfriend. Because I am strong and I fight for their rights. I fight when I see a gay person denied, like I fight for my children.”

I also love girls with guitars.

The amazing Joan Jett’s white Melody Maker guitar has been covered with various stickers over the years, including “Gender Fucker” and the black and blue Leather Pride flag. She may sing otherwise, but the truth is, Joan Jett does give a damn about her reputation. That’s why we know so little about her, and so much.

After she cemented her legend status with her 2006 comeback album Sinner, I remember my buddy Jamie and I were drinking beer in her tour bus at Montreal’s Parc Jean Drapeau during the Vans Warped tour that summer. Then Jett’s producer and business partner Kenny Laguna invited us to join Joan with her band The Blackhearts onstage.

So we did, with beers in hand. Baby, it was a pretty cool rock and roll moment!

“It’s very humbling that anybody will accept you at all,” Jett told me at the time. “It’s overwhelming. I tend to deflect it because I don’t know how to deal with it.”

In the 2010 film The Runaways, about Jett’s trailblazing all-female 1970s rock band whose other band members were Lita Ford, Sandy West, Jackie Fox and Cherie Currie, their famed sleazebag manager Kim Fowley drilled his teenaged protégés in his rock and roll boot camp.

“This is not about women’s liberation – it’s about women’s libido!” Fowley screamed.

What Fowley really meant, of course, is that it’s all about men’s libidos.

As Jett told me herself the summer I joined her onstage in Montreal, “I love rock and roll, but the business — it’s like any business. It definitely qualifies more and more under ‘show business’ as this ‘reality’ mentality takes over the world. It’s not great. They still don’t give girls in rock any recognition. All these years after The Runaways and the business still hasn’t changed.”

Ann Wilson of Heart told me the same thing: “There is still a pretty big boy’s club in rock and roll and it’s frustrating because we’re out there working really hard, just as deserving of an equal amount of credibility,” Wilson said. “That’s always been a problem. Look at Nancy: Journalists still ask her questions like, ‘Wow, you’re one good-looking rocking chick — is that guitar really plugged in?’ Nancy grits her teeth and says, ‘Yeah, it’s plugged in.’”

Take the ad campaign for Dreamboat Annie in 1976 by Vancouver’s now-defunct Mushroom Records. Wilson explained, “They took out this full-page ad in Rolling Stone and other magazines and laid it out like the front page of a tabloid with the byline (beneath a bare-shouldered photo of Nancy and I), ‘It was only our first time.’ The implication was clear. It was so gross to us – not because of the gay connotation – but because they were not going to even give us a chance to be credible.”

No record company would have dared pull the same stunt with brothers Liam or Noel Gallagher of Oasis or Ray and Dave Davies of The Kinks.

“That’s why we got so angry,” Wilson said. “They thought they could sell 500,000 more albums. I was so pissed off I wrote Barracuda.”

Another Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Bonnie Raitt, once told me she is proud of her women rock star friends who have blazed trails in our society.

“Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and I hung out together in L.A. in the ’70s,” Raitt said. “It was a great scene and community. Youth still matters and sex sells no matter what decade it is. But just because Chrissie Hynde and I are older doesn’t mean we’re less sexy.”

The last time I saw Bonnie perform live, at Théatre St-Denis in 2013, the hall was filled with many of her LGBTQ fans of all ages. The following year Bonnie headlined an Olivia cruise and she returns to headline Montreal’s Olympia Theatre on May 31.

“You know, my dad and so many jazz and blues artists played into their 60s and 70s,” Bonnie told me. “I figured if I kept my chops, maybe I’d be lucky to be an old blues broad.”

Of course, kick-ass chicks like Bonnie Raitt not only rock because they support the LGBTQ community, but because they are genuine role models for girls and boys, and not just gay boys.

“Big hair, a big voice and a nice vibrato is always good for the gay community,” Broadway diva Idina Menzel told me when she sold out Salle Wilfred-Pelletier in 2015. “I owe everything to my gay fans, ever since my Rent days. I am out there singing about empowerment and accepting who you are, and what makes you extraordinary in this world. So I make sure I do that for myself, as a 40-year-old woman. I don’t want to be hypocritical. It’s a big responsibility, not just to young girls, but also to young boys.”

This kickass-ness is a common theme among women in the world of rock and roll. When I asked Ann Wilson about it, she replied, without missing a beat, “When I’m gone, I will have broken enough rules loudly and proudly enough so that other women – and men for that matter – can say, ‘Yeah, I can do it too.’”

Bonnie Raitt headlines the Théatre Olympia de Montréal on May 31. For tickets, visit Lady Gaga headlines the Bell Centre on September 4. For tickets, visit evenko.caRead Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at