Lez Miserable: the teaches of Peaches

Eleanor Margolis meets the high-priestess of sexually charged punk electronica and singer of <em>Fuck the Pain Away</em>, <em>Diddle My Skittle</em> and <em>Tent in Your Pants</em>.

On stage, Peaches, the 46-year-old high priestess of sexually charged punk electronica, is wearing a ruff of oversized breasts with Barbie heads for nipples. She sits, open-legged, as two female dancers in their knickers, one sporting a goat mask, the other a unicorn, simulate cunnilingus on her. As the singer of Fuck the Pain Away, Diddle My Skittle and Tent in Your Pants, she is surprisingly reticent when I ask her, just the day before her gig at the O2, if she’s ever wondered what the most perverted act performed to her music might be. “No, I’ve never thought what it is. But I imagine it was pretty filthy,” she says, with an almost nervous laugh.

The artist who provided the soundtrack to my teenage sexual fumblings is sitting opposite me outside the BFI bar, dressed in black and looking unassuming. Her outsized sunglasses highlight her gamine, sparrow-like features and she reminds me of a riot grrrl Edith Piaf. Currently on tour, promoting her film – Peaches Does Herself – the musician/director is chatting excitedly about the autobiographical rock opera, which recently made its UK debut at London Sundance.

“I’d describe it as an anti-jukebox musical,” she says. A reaction against We Will Rock You-style musicals, Peaches Does Herself uses the artist’s music to tell her own life story, rather than a completely unrelated, irrelevant narrative. “I like the music of Queen, but once you put it in a jukebox musical, you have nothing to do with Freddie Mercury. It’s lame.”

“I am a fan of the style of opera where you can tell a complete story just through the music and through the songs,” she says. In making Peaches Does Herself, Peaches set herself the challenge using the songs from her four albums to create an autobiographical narrative. The result is a brilliantly freaky pornographic ballet. As it happens, one of the leading roles is played by trans porn star Danni Daniels, who used to be a professional ballet dancer. As you’d expect from a film heavily influenced by 70s musicals like Rocky Horror, Tommy and Phantom of the Paradise, it’s gender-bending, glam and utterly Dionysian. I ask Peaches if she was also inspired by cult director John Waters. “You’re probably referring to Sandy Kane as the quintessential John Waters character,” she says. Indeed I am. Stripper turned comedienne Sandy Kane plays Peaches’ foul-mouthed, slightly wicked, fairy godmother.

So how did a nice Jewish girl from Toronto become alternative music’s doyenne of dirty? After all, the only echo of Jewish culture I can find in Peaches’ music is the rhyming of “menorah” with “labia majora” in the song I’m The Kinda.“My parents were quite liberal people, but we did grow up with two sets of cutlery.” Peaches, who was born Merrill Beth Nisker, is referring to the Jewish kashrut rule about using separate cutlery for meat and dairy. But was she ever a “nice Jewish girl”? “No,” she says laughing, “I was spaced out, that’s for sure. I would deliberately space out in Hebrew class because I didn’t understand why I had to learn this language. I would occupy my mind with other things.” Peaches found little outlet for her creativity at school and disliked the fact that music and plays were used purely to impress the parents. “I didn’t get why we weren’t learning to sing – just told to sing and if you get it wrong, you’re dead in the bath.”

“I didn’t realise you could be a musician,” says Peaches, “And I didn’t really know about art. I have a great family and intelligent parents, but they weren’t passionate about art. They listened to Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond.” Originally drawn to theatre, rather than music, “That’s what creativity was to me,” Peaches studied theatre direction at university and began a career as a theatre director. “Then I took acid one day and said, ‘I don’t want to do this,’” Peaches explains, “I thought by the time I turned 30 I’d have a nervous breakdown or something. Working with actors and sets, and yelling at people – it just seemed like too much to handle.”

“I fell into music really,” she says of her sudden career change, “I started playing it. I had one gig with my girlfriend, we played acoustic guitar. They liked us in this club and asked us to play there every week.” Peaches, then still Merrill, started out as a folk singer in Toronto. Enjoying writing songs and the immediacy of music, compared to theatre, she broke away from folk, “I was playing acoustic guitar and I was like – why am I doing that?” and entered an experimental phase. Her first band was called Fancypants Hoodlum: “I would sing crazy. I knew a guy who played bongos, so I asked him to be my drummer, I knew another guy who played weird EBow guitar.” Her next band, The Shit, was formed when she began jamming with fellow Canadian musicians Mocky and Gonzales. “We’d just sing songs that we’d spontaneously write in the room, about each other, about wanting to fuck each other, or whatever.” Were these jamming sessions drug-fuelled? “Just pot,” she says.

Soon after forming The Shit, Merrill Nisker became Peaches. She named herself after a character in the song Four Women, by Nina Simone. So is Peaches her Ziggy Stardust-esque alter ego? “No, I’d say more an extension of me,” she says, “I love Bowie and I love everything that he’s done for culture and music… but I feel I relate more to someone like Iggy Pop.” Peaches collaborated with Iggy on her 2003 single, Kick It, which was the first song of hers I ever heard. As a sexually confused 14-year-old, Peaches’ clever, fiercely erotic lyrics scratched an itch. A very itchy itch. As an outsider at school, her music reminded me that being different was badass. So, how does she feel to be a role model to young queers? “I just feel responsibility to be myself and I hope I can inspire people to continue to be who they need to be.”

Since releasing her debut solo album, The Teaches of Peaches, in 2000, attitudes towards her brand of sexually-liberated electro-rock have certainly changed. With artists like Lady Gaga, arguably a diluted version of Peaches, hitting the mega-mainstream, has what Peaches does become less edgy? “I’m not trying to be shocking. I’m glad that I can be mainstream and still be who I am – I don’t have a problem with that.” But Peaches feels that attitudes are becoming simultaneously more open and more closed – “I think there are just more people,” she says, “There are Mormons. And they’re growing too. Everything’s growing.

I ask Peaches if she feels that women in music have a responsibility to push feminist ideals. What of mainstream female artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, who are openly ambivalent towards feminism? “I think that’s dangerous,” she says, “I mean, what do people think feminism is? Feminism means equal pay for men and women. I just think people should realise that all women are feminists and there’s no way around that.”

When members of that standard bearer for musical feminism, Pussy Riot, were jailed last year, Peaches quickly became a loud voice in the call for their release. I ask her what drew her to the cause. “It’s a suffocating, horrible situation for women and artists in Russia,” she says, “they’re bringing attention to it and by this they are the essence of art.” What’s more, Peaches, who lives in Berlin these days, feels that, had she been born in Russia, she would probably would have been involved in something like Pussy Riot: “I was like – I need to support this, because this could’ve been me.” She is still in contact with some of the band members and met up with Katya Samutsevich, who was released from prison in October last year, in Moscow earlier this year. “She’s just an incredibly brave person.”

“It’s grim,” she says of the situation of the two Pussy Riot members still in prison, “They don’t give you medicine if you’re sick. They have to get permission to get outside medication. And it’s inhuman labour work that they’re doing.” At the O2 the next day, Peaches ends her gig with the song she wrote for the band and has the crowd chanting, “free Pussy Riot!”

So what’s next for Peaches? Despite the release of the single Burst, last year, she tells me that there isn’t an album on the way. “I’m just making music and seeing what I like,” she says. She tells me about her recent collaboration with burlesque performer Empress Stah, a song called Light In Places You Didn’t Know It Could Shine, about a laser butt plug. Noticing my bewilderment, she explains that this is an object used in Empress Stah’s performances. Only Peaches could make me feel silly for not knowing why a person would want to shoot a laser out of their arse.

A still from the film Peaches Does Herself.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Picture: Bridgeman Images
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Herman Melville's mystery: was Billy Budd black?

A newly unearthed photograph identifies the African-American Trafalgar survivor who appears in Melville’s final novel. Could the book’s hero have been black, too?

The photograph below tells a remarkable tale. I discovered it in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle while researching my new book. The image, taken by John Havers, was acquired by Prince Albert in the 1850s and it portrays veterans of Trafalgar at the Royal Navy hospital in Greenwich in 1854. Sitting on a bench overlooking the Thames, these aged faces and bodies were a familiar sight in south London in their 18th-century-style frock coats and cocked hats, earning them the nickname “Greenwich geese”.

One figure in particular stands out. Using the hospital records, I identified the third man from the left as Richard Baker, an African American, born in Baltimore in 1770, who served at Trafalgar on HMS Leviathan; he entered the hospital in 1839. Seventeen men born in Africa fought for the British during the battle; 123 from the West Indies. There is a black man portrayed on the Westminster-facing bronze plaque on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. But the records show only one Trafalgar veteran from Baltimore: Baker, who is likely to have been a freed or even escaped slave.
Richard Baker (third from the left, with a cane) with fellow veterans of the Battle of Trafalgar in Greenwich in 1854. Photo: Royal Collection Trust

This is a powerful story. But this man also has a special literary significance. On his visit to London in 1849, Herman Melville visited Greenwich and met “an old pensioner in a cocked hat” on the river terrace. It was a vivid encounter that he recalled more than 40 years later in his last and most evocative book, Billy Budd, Sailor. This “Baltimore Negro, a Trafalgar man” was almost certainly Richard Baker. He told Melville how many men had been taken from jail to serve in the navy.

Billy Budd is impressed from a merchant ship that is symbolically named the Rights-of-Man. Melville had written with empathy of people of colour in Moby-Dick, including a scene in which the tattooed Pacific Islander Queequeg and his white bed-mate, Ishmael, declare themselves man and wife. In the opening of Billy Budd, Melville introduces the idea of the “Handsome Sailor”, who, flanked by his fellow mariners, is a “superior figure of their own class, moving along with them like Aldebaran among the lesser lights of his constellation”. One “remarkable instance” of this higher breed occurs to him – a black sailor he had seen in the Liverpool docks ten years earlier:

The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest; in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head. It was a hot noon in July; and his face, lustrous with perspiration, beamed with barbaric good humour. In jovial sallies right and left, his white teeth flashing into view, he rollicked along, the centre of a company of his shipmates.

Was Billy Budd, the Handsome Sailor at the heart of the book, black? Scholars such as John Bryant believe that there is internal evidence in the manuscript of the book – found in a bread tin after Melville’s death in 1891 and not published until 1924 – that the author had played with the idea of making his hero a man of African heritage. Billy is loved by all the crew and is described as blond and blue-eyed later in the story. Yet the sensuous descriptions of the Liverpool sailor and the Greenwich veteran elide to create a counterfactual version in which Billy becomes a black star at the centre of his constellation of shipmates.

Indeed, some critics – most notably, Cassandra Pybus at the University of Sydney – have suggested that another 19th-century anti-hero was a person of colour. In Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, two years before Melville’s visit, Heathcliff is described as a “regular black”, an orphan found in the Liverpool docks – an intriguing notion explored in Andrea Arnold’s brilliant 2011 film adaptation.

Melville witnessed great changes in the fortunes of black Americans. Moby-Dick is an allegory of the struggle against slavery in the run-up to the American Civil War; the Melville scholar Robert K Wallace believes that the writer heard the fugitive slave-turned-emancipationist Frederick Douglass speak in the 1840s and that they may have even met. Nor is it a coincidence that Captain Ahab goes in pursuit of a white whale. It is both the elusive other and the pallor that might appal: Melville suggests that whiteness does not necessarily represent the pure and the good. It’s also a fable that has since found resonance in George W Bush’s pursuit of Osama Bin Laden and the illusory weapons of mass destruction, and in Donald Trump’s crazed crusades.


Terence Stamp as Billy Budd in Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film. Photo: Alamy

Melville wrote vituperatively about the use of flogging in both the American and the British navies. Billy Budd’s back­story is the 1797 naval mutiny in the Thames Estuary, during which mutineers attempted to blockade London and set up a “Floating Republic”. All of these themes are played out in Melville’s parable. Billy, the Handsome Sailor, is beloved of all the ship’s crew, including the captain. But Claggart, the jealous master of arms, frames him as a potential mutineer. Faced with the charge, Billy instinctively hits out and accidentally kills the officer. The captain has no choice: the state demands the death of the “fated boy”. “Struck dead by an angel of God!” he says. “Yet the Angel must hang!”

Having served on whaling and navy ships, Melville knew intimately the hierarchies at sea and the way they echoed the abuse of imperial power. Many men were stolen twice over: as African slaves, then as impressed sailors. Living in Manhattan, he saw other casualties of a period of revolution and international disruption, the 1840s. In Redburn (1849) written as the Irish famine was creating a new trade in people, he records the impact of mass migration to the US. To those who ask whether “multitudes of foreign poor should be landed on our American shores”, he replies, “If they can get here, they have God’s right to come; though they bring all Ireland and her miseries with them. For the whole world is the patrimony of the whole world.”

Melville’s humanity shines across time and space. In 1953, when detained on Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay, the Trinidadian-born writer C L R James saw Ahab’s tyranny as a precursor of the modern cult of personality and an indictment of McCarthyite accusations. As Melville’s last, elegiac word on the subject – having exiled himself as a customs inspector in the same harbour – Billy Budd spoke out against injustice. In the image of Richard Baker, with his grey hair, cane and Trafalgar medal, we see that sensibility brought back to life. Isolated in the unfeeling city, Melville looked back to his lost past in his poem “John Marr”:

Ye float around me, form and feature;
Tattooings, ear-rings, love-locks curled;
Barbarians of man’s simpler nature,
Unworldly servers of the world.

He knew who the true barbarians were. And as his white whale resurfaced as an allegory for a nuclear age, so his Handsome Sailor became the embodiment of the alien, the beautiful and the wronged. His innocent body was hymned by E M Forster and Eric Crozier in their libretto for Britten’s Cold War opera in 1951. He was bleached blond for Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film starring Terence Stamp – a clip of which appears on the banks of TV screens watched by Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Budd’s sacrifice mirroring that of the character played by the flame-haired David Bowie. Newton, a refugee in time and space, falls to Earth like a comet to warn us of nuclear and environmental destruction – and is imprisoned for his sins. “This is modern America,” the authorities say, “and we’re going to keep it that way.”

If Moby-Dick acquired elements of science fiction (Andrew Delbanco, the author of Melville’s most recent major biography, describes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey as a “very Melvillean film”), then Billy Budd’s ritual continually reinvents itself. In 1999, the French director Claire Denis reset the story in northern Africa in her film Beau Travail – a kind of eroticised ballet of bare male bodies set to Britten’s music (and played out on the same shores from which new refugees now set off for western Europe). Through all these incarnations, the Handsome Sailor persists: from black star and hanged man to alien and avatar.

And at the centre of it all is Richard Baker. His ship, HMS Leviathan, had long since been consigned to the mud of Portsmouth Harbour as a prison hulk for convicts about to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then known. Baker, also stranded on a foreign shore, looks over the reflecting Thames as it reaches out to the sea – that same mutinous waterway that at the century’s end would lead to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. With his medal pinned proudly to his chest, he looks out of his past into our future, quietly aware of his power.

“RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” by Philip Hoare is published by Fourth Estate

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder