Freak Unique (2007)
I’d read about Dead or Alive’s Pete Burns’ time at Probe Records in Liverpool in other books (maybe even Boy George’s autobiography?) because his time selling clothes in the backroom and working the register for the record store are legendary. He would pass withering judgment on anyone buying albums he thought were “naff” and some customers would wait for him to go on break before they would dare to buy anything lest he loudly deem their choice uncool. I was rebellious as a teenager but I would’ve never had the moxie to be so sure of myself, so defiant, and so dismissive of others just for a laugh. Burns’ attitude was definitely punk and was shaped by his unusual childhood as much as it was by Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Sex Pistols. In his autobiography, Burns writes about the early days of punk with a lot of passion, though he’s more interested in recounting his fashion choices than in digging into his enthusiasm for punk rock. One of the difficulties I had with this autobiography is that Burns doesn’t really talk about music much at all – his or others’ – and the book eventually devolves into a discussion of his many plastic surgeries and his love affair with his husband, Michael (I don’t believe the relationship lasted very long. I suppose writing rhapsodically about one’s great love in a book is the equivalent of getting a tattoo of their name: bad juju). He talks about his time on the TV show Big Brother and about people he likes and hates. It isn’t very interesting after a while, and the detailed descriptions of the aftermaths of his many plastic surgeries proved unsavory reading at bedtime.
Burns does have informative things to say about fashion and identity, however. The earlier chapters could be helpful in thinking about how clothing changed from punk to New Romantic with the addition of some ruffles, a pirate hat, and some dreadlocks. I think it’s also an important story of someone who rejected a myriad of identity labels long before society was ready for such indeterminacy. The rest of this autobiography would really be for hardcore Burns fans only. If you’re looking for Dead or Alive insider information, though, it really isn’t here!
Burns died in 2016. I wish he’d left behind an autobiography that better captured his wit and his important contributions to fashion and New Pop/New Wave music. Here’s a taste of his thoughts about his very idiosyncratic approach to fashion:
What it [dressing up] ultimately taught me about the real freaks, the ones doing the shouting and giving the hassle, was just as important. It taught me why they shouted why they jeered. When they do this, it’s never really about me – it’s about them. Whatever I’m wearing, it’s not me they’re seeing. It’s themselves. A well-buried fear, a secret desire. ‘Look at him … what a freak!’ is what they think they’re saying. ‘Look at me, I’m here, too,’ is what I’m hearing. The louder they shout, the more they want the world to look at them. It’s almost like a competition for attention, a primal jealousy. And don’t try shouting me down as a drama queen who craves attention. I don’t dress or look the way I do to get attention. I did it to build walls and fend off attention. I do it to stop people approaching me, to keep me as isolated as I was back in Port Sunlight as a child. (53)