“This has no resemblance to how it usually looks, with all of this silt,” says front desk manager Carmon Deen about the plot normally reserved for the property’s fleet of vintage airstream guest trailers. “After the storm it was all under water.” And what about the motel’s namesake owner, Kate Pierson? Where was she when Irene ravaged the Hudson Valley? She was getting ready to go on tour with the band she’s performed with for nearly four decades—the B-52s.
“We moved the trailers off site because of the flooding that happened last year, thankfully,” says Pierson, who co-owns the business with her life partner Monica Coleman, via phone. “We’ve had to clean them up after flooding twice, and the airstream season the spring and fall. So we really lucked out this time. But everything else is all okay now, the motel’s totally up and running like usual.” Isn’t being a motel owner an unexpected sideline for the singer and keyboardist of one of the best-known bands of the New Wave era? “Not to me,” she says, adding with a laugh, “I’ve certainly stayed in enough hotels on tour to know what makes a cool one.”
At the time the B-52s hit the rock world in the late 1970s there was simply nothing else like them: Fred Schneider, an effeminate-voiced front man with a pencil moustache; Ricky Wilson, a guitarist playing spy-movie riffs on a beat-up Mosrite; Keith Strickland, an unwaveringly motorik drummer; and Pierson singing and squeezing out cheesy Farfisa lines next to her frugging, giddy-voiced bookend, Cindy Wilson (Ricky’s sister). The group’s fluorescent imagery was gleaned from B-grade sci-fi and beach flicks and cast-off Jet Age chic found in thrift stores. The records were a flawless match: gyrating, primitively played, alchemical pastiches of surf, garage rock, exotica, early soul, and other forgotten styles. Somehow it makes perfect sense that it all began with a cocktail known as a flaming volcano. But maybe what’s most surreal is this: The B-52s turn 35 this year.
“Of course none of us had any idea we’d still be doing this so many years later,” Pierson says. “At the beginning we were just hoping to get a gig in Athens [Georgia, where the group formed]. And then when we first came up to New York to play CBGB and Max’s Kansas City—well, we thought that was just the absolute pinnacle.”
Catherine Elizabeth Pierson was born in Weehawken, New Jersey, and later moved to nearby Rutherford.
Growing up next to New York had a cultural impact on little Kate, and so did her musical family: Her grandmother played piano and sang, her brother played cello, and her father was a working jazz guitarist who played in big bands. “My dad was hip, he was into a lot of modern jazz besides the big band stuff he played,” she says. “But he eventually he got out of the music business and worked for [aircraft manufacturer] Curtiss-Wright.” In her teens Pierson loved Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Joni Mitchell, and after high school she briefly attended Wheaton College in Illinois before graduating with a journalism degree from Boston University. “Those were the hippie days,” she recalls of her years in Boston, where she also worked as a nurse’s aide. “I was in sit-ins and got tear-gassed in Vietnam War protests. After [the shootings at] Kent State I felt like I had to get out of the US, so I travelled around Europe for a while.”
She returned to Boston with a friend she’d met in England, but, when another friend offered him a job in Athens, Georgia, the pair decided to move there. It was a different world. “At that time I was really into the whole back-to-the-land thing,” Pierson says. “I lived in a one-room tenant farmer shack with an outhouse for $15 a month outside of Athens. I’d ride my bike into town for work. It was great, because there was no one else for miles around and I could play guitar and write songs whenever I felt like it.”
In University of Georgia-dominated Athens, Pierson hooked up with an arty crowd that also contained locals Strickland and the Wilson siblings, and Schneider, a fellow New Jersey expatriate. The clique all loved quirky older sounds but by then most of the music that was around, especially locally, was far from exciting. “It was pretty much all Southern boogie rock," she remembers. “But we did get to hear records by Patti Smith and the Sex Pistols when they came out, and we were instant fans.” One night in 1976, after the five had shared the aforementioned flaming volcano (a tropical, rum-based drink with an ignited “crater” and sipped communally with long straws) at a Chinese restaurant, they held an impromptu jam session and as a joke decided to start a band. The name, Southern slang for a beehive hairdo—due to its resemblance to the nosecone of a B-52 bomber—came to Strickland in his sleep. “He had this dream where there was a lounge band playing, and their name was the B-52s,” Pierson explains. “He woke up and was, like, ‘That’s it!’” To underscore the point she and Cindy adopted ridiculous bouffant wigs as a stage trademark.
The quintet debuted at a Valentines Day house party the following year. Wilson, a highly original and underrated guitarist (“He invented all of these weird tunings because he’d break a string and wouldn’t have the money to replace it”), also came up with a now very familiar, nine-note lick. “Keith ran into Ricky one day and he was smiling,” Pierson recounts. “Keith asked him why and Ricky said, ‘I just made up the stupidest guitar riff ever!’”
That riff was the opening of “Rock Lobster,” which as the B-52s’ debut single sold over 2,000 copies—formidable for an independent 45 in 1978—and led to successful club dates on the East Coast punk circuit and a deal with Warner Brothers Records, which sent the outfit to the Bahamas to record its classic eponymous 1979 first album. “I saw the B-52s the first few times they played in Boston, at the Rat and the Paradise,” says Human Sexual Response vocalist Dini Lamot, who today himself owns and manages a local B&B, the Hudson Inn, with his partner and co-vocalist, Windle Davis. “Besides them having such fun, danceable songs what really hit me was their lineup and image, which were very different for the time.”
As The B-52’s turned platinum the band’s international star continued to rocket. “Rock Lobster” hit the Billboard Hot 100 and John Lennon declared it inspirational, comparing Pierson’s and Cindy Wilson’s voices to Yoko Ono’s. That track, along with “Planet Claire” and “Dance This Mess Around,” became Top Ten singles in Australia and the group blew up the charts in the UK and Canada, as well. No sophomore slumpers, the fivesome followed up with the likewise great, gold-selling Wild Planet (featuring “Private Idaho” and “Party Out of Bounds”) in 1980, and appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and in the Paul Simon film One Trick Pony. Over the next few years the band settled into becoming one of the world’s top live acts, releasing on Warner Brothers the EPs Party Mix! (1981) and Mesopotamia (1982) and the album Whammy! (1983). But while the group was working on its fourth full-length, 1986’s Bouncing off the Satellites (also Warner Brothers), something horrible and unforeseen happened.
Unbeknownst to his bandmates, Ricky Wilson had been very ill for some time. It turned out to be an AIDS-related virus. At only 32, he passed away on October 12, 1985. “Ricky was very shy and never wanted anyone to worry about him, so at first he didn’t tell any of us he was sick,” says Pierson. “Actually, I don’t think he really even grasped what AIDS was at the time. There was much less known about it then.” Thrust into deeply painful shock, the band decided to take time off. The future was uncertain.
During the lull Strickland put his drumsticks aside to learn guitar, and even began writing music. He played some of it for the others, and the four decided to try writing songs together again. The result was 1989’s Cosmic Thing (Warner Brothers), a worldwide smash and the B-52s’ biggest-selling album by far. Produced by Don Was and Nile Rodgers, the irresistible disc is both a contemporary dance club floor-filler and a classic pop tour-de-force, with the band’s Motown/girl group influences brought further to the fore. With the ubiquitous party anthem “Love Shack” the group had its first Top 10 single, and the cuts “Channel Z,” “Roam,” and “Deadbeat Club” (another reflection on the outfit’s Athens days) were huge hits as well. “[The album’s success] was too weird,” says Pierson. “We were out there playing and everywhere we went it just grew bigger and bigger. But it was wonderful, making Cosmic Thing was very much a healing process for us after Ricky died. And it felt like he was still right there with us.” Soon after, Cindy Wilson decided to take time out and the group waxed 1992’s Good Stuff (Warner Brothers) without her and toured with Julee Cruise filling in until she rejoined in 1998.
Pierson built a Hudson Valley home in 1987, and was looking for an investment property when she noticed a disused 1950s lodge-era motel nearby. “I fell in love with it, and asked Monica if she could work on getting it refinished while I was on tour—‘Piece of cake!’ I thought,” recalls Pierson, who with Coleman eventually opened Kate’s Lazy Meadow. “Of course, it needed way more work than I ever dreamed. But we finally got it opened in 2005. Most of the furniture and stuff are things I picked up on Route 28.”
The B-52s’ most recent album is Funplex (2008, Astralwerks), which debuted at number 11 on the Billboard charts. Although the group played Bethel Woods the year of the album’s release, its 2006 show at Kingston’s Ulster Performing Arts Center was mysteriously cancelled. “We still have no idea what happened with that, it was the only time we ever had a promoter cancel on us,” says Pierson, who’s obviously looking forward to the rescheduled homecoming at UPAC this month. “It’s the exact same bill we had originally booked, with Big Sister opening and [drag performer] Lady Esther Gin emceeing.”
With the B-52s, Pierson currently performs nearly 100 shows per year and makes no mention of stopping anytime soon. “People play ‘Love Shack’ at their weddings or tell me how our music got them through tough times,” she says in disbelief. And how would she like the band to be remembered? “Like it says on our website: ‘The World’s Greatest Party Band!’”
Clearly, after all this time for Pierson and the B-52s the party’s still gloriously out of bounds. Just what was in that flaming volcano?
The B-52s will perform at UPAC in Kingston on October 2 at 7pm. www.upac.org; (845) 339-6088. With the Wild Crowd! Live in Athens, GA is out October 11 on CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray on Eagle Records. www.theb52s.com; www.lazymeadow.com.
- Photo by Fionn Reilly.