King of Queens by George O'Dowd Review

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<i>King of Queens</i> by George O'Dowd Review

I collect stuff. Old report cards, concert ticket stubs, Playbills, gig flyers, maps, trip diaries, postcards, pieces I’ve published and songs I’ve made, letters (love and otherwise), photos from travels and of people I’ve known. I hang on to these scraps and wisps, the detritus of what I’ve seen and done. I have a vision of one day turning it all into a proper scrapbook.

Boy George collects stuff too.

King of Queens, a pictorial autobiography of the chameleonic performer George O’Dowd, is the official scrapbook of the Boy George phenomenon. BG, the KQ, offers it as a limited-edition vanity project of fine quality and high-blown grandiosity, nothing less than fans should expect from Boy George.

It’s all here and PG-rated, from O’Dowd’s infancy (which seems to have consumed much of his life—“I’ve only grown up in the last five years,” he writes, “so I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking I was really grown up and I wasn’t at all.”) to the present day. The book holds concert posters, cards, notes, letters and pix, the scraps and wisps that evidence the life of this pop star, cultural iconoclast, post-punk fashionista, Broadway librettist, acid house DJ and convicted felon. It’s 250 oversized, high-gloss pages crammed with photos of stuff just like I collect in my life.

Only it’s, you know, Boy George stuff.

By the early ‘80s, punk music had punched disco in the face and beaten the sensitive singer-songwriter senseless. Anarchic and nihilistic, punk left the old guard staggering, on the ropes. But punk music offered little to fill the musical void it created, and the masses grew restive. When the Boy George Culture Club supernova exploded, it found a world starved for feel-good, listenable pop music.

Culture Club offered an antidote to punk, a reaction against DIY austerity and anti-fashion. It came with hummable melodies, big choruses and over-the-top style. Culture Club seemed both of punk and apart from punk—strongly anti-status quo but keen to make music for the masses. Where punk nipped at the heels of mainstream music like a mad schnauzer, Culture Club came at the mainstream full-bore, a single-minded Rottweiler bent on world domination.

“I thought it would be more of a case of lock up your sons,” O’Dowd writes of his calculated grasp at fame, “I was going to be dangerously weird, on the edge, Bowiesque, a sort of marginalised freak. In a way my career was kind of like a beautiful accident.”

Culture Club truly was a culture club: a Jew (Jon Moss, drums); a black guy (Mikey Craig, bass); an ethnic Englishman (Roy Hay, guitar); and the androgynous, outré, fashion plate (Boy George, singer). All members share credit for the songs, though O’Dowd wrote the lyrics and became the voice and the face of the group.

In its heyday, Culture Club sold millions of records and cast an enormous cultural influence. Heroin, cocaine and internecine warfare then imploded the group in the late ‘80s.

O’Dowd spent the intervening years reinventing himself with some success, as a solo artist, as a DJ, as a playwright, as a fashion maven. But through the years he seemed to serve one master: outlandishness. Whether outlandish style or outlandish behavior (including drug addiction and criminal convictions), Boy George holds court in the realm of the outlandish.

King of Queens, page after page, parades the outlandish. We find a Boy George-centric demimonde of celebrities, freaks, queens, transvestites and cultural icons. See Boy George with Warhol, insouciant as always. See Stevie Wonder reading his face. See the many (expected) shots of Mister O’Dowd in any number of outrageous get-ups, which he invariably rocks. See the bric-a-brac about his apartment, including pix of his doll collection, each done-up in his image. The book includes spare annotation; the text is upbeat and honest.

After he hit rock bottom a few year ago, Boy George, it seems, has taken to post-rehab life. “I’m f*ing 50. Panic. It’s made me think about what I’m doing. So glad I’m sober. So glad I’m not f*ing around. I’ve got both feet on the ground now. I’m not winging it anymore.”

For the Boy George fan, this book will be the mother lode. For the collector, though, don’t expect a mere coffee table book. At a foot wide, a foot-and-a-half tall and two inches thick, this gargantuan brick could double as a coffee table, just add legs. It weighs more than fourteen pounds. Outlandish! George, do you really want to hurt me?

While the heft impresses enough in its own, the book turns out to be a Russian doll. The tome fits snugly inside a cloth-bound clamshell box, this wrapped in white gauze paper, this fit snugly inside a packing box. Peel back the layers and surprise! there’s Boy George on the cover, green eyes gazing at you through the slit of a black burka, his mask du jour. He seems to be daring you into his private life.

Cleave this monster open to the center, to a plastic sheet with the swirl of green felt tip marker, his autograph. Flip the pages. Marvel at the self-absorption. Isn’t every scrapbook a paean to its maker?

O’Dowd’s done what I mean to do one day. He organized the bits and memories of his life, represented in paper and things, and fixed them into a book. King of Queens may be overwrought and sumptuous, but it’s also collectible. The publisher says only 999 of them exist. (My copy is number 814). It also includes a vinyl picture-disc of eight previously unreleased tracks that span O’Dowd’s career.

All that excites, but what really makes this book so cool and collectible is the exceptionally fine-crafted feel of the object. It calls to our sense of luxury and elegance, of uniqueness and quality … exactly what Boy George represented in the day. “Hand-sewn and bound in Italy using only the finest materials, featuring embossed blocking and gold leaf finishing,” the promo proclaims.

“It’s lovely, to have and to hold,” I proclaim.

Mark Baker is an entertainment lawyer, musician, art dealer and collector, living in Atlanta. He last wrote for Paste in January 2014 on Eyemazing: The New Collectible Art Photography.