Helen of Boy
by Doug Wallen
"Do your fucking homework, people," says Jimi Mooney, aka drag-queen rocker Helen Back. "I'm honored to be considered as good as that, but why is that the standard comparison? Because it made an impact in general society? It just lumps two gay artists together because it's easy."
It's understandable why Mooney might be on the defensive, given that he's a relative iconoclast in a city he's repeatedly fled but always returned to. And after a decade of watching countless friendships, romances and musical projects come and go, Mooney has had to harden his heart and focus his creative energies on something he truly believes in, naysayers be damned.
"I learned the hard way what I didn't want and how to stick up for what I do want," says Mooney. "I lost some friends, but I hope we'll be able to mend all that one day."
So what does he want? "I don't want to be a novelty act," he says. "I really just want to be taken seriously as a singer/ songwriter/performer."
Which, of course, doesn't come easy when you assume a drag-queen persona and stock half your set list with recognizable covers. But since Helen Back is the product of a sprawling career that's included cabaret, punk, synth-pop and everything else under the sun, there's a certain sincerity and authenticity to the group that sneaks up on the listener.
"I started to feel confident about being in a band again and just going for what I always wanted, to front a rock band and be a larger-than-life, old-school rock star," says Mooney. "The classic sound--clean, simple, big and bold--is where my head is at now. I just want to be that 13-year-old kid in my bedroom playing air guitar to Kiss and live my fantasies out with abandon."
Inspiration for Helen Back and the Str8 Razors came from glam icons like T. Rex and the New York Dolls. The project became a reality, though, when Mooney's newly formed band got accepted into the Philadelphia Fringe Fest.
"We started rehearsing stuff, and in a couple months we played," he says. "I was intimidated and felt so stupid, but that's my own insecurity and fear."
You won't detect much insecurity when Helen Back and the Str8 Razors play live. The shows boast all the delirious showiness of cabaret but are anchored by the chops to transcend any shtick. On the band's self- titled debut, the cover songs may stick out first, but by the second or third listen, it's the originals that steal the show.
The album is bookended by theme songs. The opening "Homo Faux Pas" is a snotty proclamation of Back's basic paradox, while "Str8 Razor" is a triumphant anthem, the sound of Back coming to terms with his/her curses and gifts alike.
Fans and friends of Helen Back also fall into the blessings-or-curses category. Of his former supporters, Mooney says, "They generally started to think I was Helen 24/7--this jaded bitch diva."
One falling out he particularly regrets is with the filmmaker behind the mockumentary Helen Back: Under the Music, which debuted at last year's Gay and Lesbian Film Festival but came out too laughable for Mooney's tastes. But of his standing allies, he says, "If it wasn't for the support of these guys, I would still be alone in my bedroom with the Bowie records."
Mooney's first serious musical exposure came when his band Bottom landed a song on the Jim Carroll tribute Put Your Tongue to the Rail. That "weird honky-tonk version" of "Catholic Boy" garnered positive reviews and airplay on WXPN. After Bottom abruptly split, Mooney spent five months in Europe, and then returned to Philly, where he eventually released a solo EP of '80s-inspired synth-pop. Then Mooney formed the Str8 Razors with some of his Big Mess Orchestra colleagues and musicians from other local bands.
While fronting rock bands was nothing new to Mooney, doing so in drag was different. "I've been booed, heckled, attacked, worshipped, adored, stalked and paid to pee on someone," he says. "I really don't do drag or consider it drag anymore. I mean, it's rock 'n' roll drama and it's my real persona, not a campy thing, even though it certainly can be. It's whatever I want it to be."
Likewise, the Helen Back album--produced in Northern Liberties by unsung Philly player Chris Unrath--straddles half a dozen genres but answers to none. The Modern Lovers' "She Cracked" is transformed into a snide kiss-off, Brian Eno's "Needle in the Camel's Eye" is neatly replicated, and Blondie's "(I'm Always Touched by Your Presence) Dear" emerges as a lipstick-stained love letter.
The originals are even more resonant, exemplified by "Celebrity Killer," on which Mooney lustily coos and kisses over the band's loosest arrangement to date. Throughout the album, there are shades of the Sex Pistols, Queen, T. Rex and Spinal Tap--Mooney admires the operatic rock revival of Darkness and Turbonegro--but seeing just a few of the songs performed live will erase all those reference points. In fact, by the end of the set, you might even ask yourself, "Hedwig who?"