Queen of the Plough 

With Girl George emceeing the Berkeley venue's open mic, who needs performers?

The evening's highlight, indisputably, is "Fuckin' All the Sailors in Chinatown." Girl George bellows her bawdy ode to Asian-themed maritime fornication with a cheerleader's enthusiasm and a Baptist preacher's religious fervor. The sixty-year-old ingenue -- her shockingly blonde mane atom-bomb-bright, even within Berkeley's dimly lit Starry Plough -- just holds up a few gnarled fingers to explain why she doesn't play much guitar herself anymore. But she has lassoed a random dude into pounding out the punk-simple "Chinatown" chord progression for her, which leaves her free to stalk the stage like an overcaffeinated, magnificently coiffed sasquatch, lumbering into the crowd and manic-aggressively shoving the mic in various patrons' faces.

These patrons are universally delighted. George's doting disciples hoot joyfully throughout and join together en masse to extend the crucial note in the bombastic chorus: Fuckin' all the sail-orrrrrrrrrrs!!!!!

It's a profane, nonsensical, and absurdly exhilarating moment.

We have gathered to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Girl George's lordship over the Starry Plough's open mic, a duty she shares with booming-voiced singer-songwriter and emcee Joan Pez and a steady stream of surprisingly talented oddballs, weirdos, lovebirds, poets, comedians, and chowderheads -- a fascinating menagerie of scenesters and scene-stealers, many making their virgin voyages as public performers.

"It's given me much pleasure to get musicians onstage for the first time," Pez explains. "I feel like the Bay Area is so competitive, and I feel like this open mic is a place for people to go and feel really supported. Instead of getting attitude, they get a really good feeling -- they meet musicians and have a really good community. We're not about attitude. We're about supporting anybody in their creative art."

But whether she's cackling wildly from behind the soundboard or violently traipsing about onstage like some strange hybrid of Iggy Pop and Dolly Parton, Girl George is the Plough's undeniable Queen Bee. To celebrate the open mic's joyous birthday (along with the balloons and chocolate cake), performers are encouraged to cover each others' songs; wisely, most folks try their yet-ungnarled hands at a GG track. Thus, the evening begins with a very Berkeley-lookin' gent named Paul Pot -- wild gray hair, laid-back demeanor, sandals -- paying homage to "Like a Whore."

(Yeah, that's right: Paul Pot. I'll be sure and let you know when I start making things up.)

Sing it, Paul! Shout counterpoint from behind the soundboard, George!

Like a floozy (Like a floozy!!!)
Like a hustler (Like a hustler!!!)
Like a harlot (Like a harlot!!!)
Like a whore (Like a whore!!! Like a whore!!! Like a whore!!!)

George's compositions primarily address, shall we say, tough love. Case in point: "Beat Me Kick Me," performed by a nervous lass who stared straight down at the lyric sheet she'd taped to the mic stand, and coupled with "Only Lonely," a slightly more sensitive ditty about getting stoned and bringing chumpish dudes home from the club solely on the basis of their pants. But the evening's finest GG homage was "Pervs Everywhere," a cautionary tale only heightened by the fact that it was reinterpreted by the Danny Phartridge Expherience, a trio honoring the last remaining Partridge Family members (they claim Keith, Shirley, and Tracy were killed in a 1977 bus crash) who also blew through "I Think I Love You," "Doesn't Somebody Want to Be Wanted," and a spirited version of "Mr. Tambourine Man," in which they loaded the stage with tambourine-banging crowd members.

Other than that, it was a completely normal open-mic experience. Bill Clinton impressions. A white-funk ode to a partially disabled sex fiend (opening line: Baby's got a wooden leg/She knows just how to use it). A poet named Quiet Pen, dressed as though just back from Mass at a Southern Baptist church, introducing one piece with "I wrote this poem as gunfire shot over my head as I was on my stomach underneath a car." Mia & Jonah, young lovers who write coffeehouse folk tunes about their own loving relationship, ad-libbing Thank yous and Please don't stops as they compliment each other and announcing "We believe in love and shining and all that kinda stuff." (For some reason I'm compelled to write "SUPREMELY PUNCHABLE" in my notebook.) Some dude does an actual credible Elvis impersonation on "Love Me"; Joan Pez adds a credibly hostile version of the Carpenters' "Superstar." And three different performers (including the original songwriter) croon a country anthem entitled "Cold Beer, Hot Women, and Honky-Tonks."

Voilá. An enigmatic cult of personality in which the Kool-Aid takes the form of cackling laughter from the back of the room. Weird and wacky as these tunes are, they can't hold a candle to "Fuckin' All the Sailors in Chinatown," and Girl George knows it. "They scream and yell and I just looove it," she howls, hooting and pacing maniacally about outside the Plough as if she's guarding me in the low post. "It used to be when I was younger, my fans were boys. Now they're all girls, which is fine. They're all about 21." Furthermore, they'll stay that way: "My fans are always 21. They never change. They keep changing, but they're always 21, when I keep getting older. Because that's the age where you're lookin' for something new, and they find me and they think they discovered me. They don't know I've been doin' it for forty years, the same fuckin' thing, the same songs. I've been doin' the same thing, but to them it's new. Especially art students, because they're lookin' for something strange, bizarre, and wonderful and I'm loud and sparkly. It gives the girls hope, that a girl can do it."

George asserts that she'll keep doing this until she either dies or gets kicked out. "Because there's new people all the time," she explains. "There's fresh blood, and I'm a vampire. I live off all those youngsters in there. Those young kids? I live off their energy. Without that energy, I'd die. If I didn't go at least once a week, I'd die."

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