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About Cherry Vanilla

Actress, author, poetess, and rock star, Cherry Vanilla arguably ranks high among the most influential figures on the Anglo-American rock scene. As a cast member of Andy Warhol's taboo-shattering Pork stageshow, she figured in the formulation of David Bowie's flamboyant breakthrough during 1971-1972. As a lasciviously uninhibited rocker at Max's Kansas City, her performances had an unquestionable impact upon waitress Debbie Harry. And as author of the libidinous artbook Pop Tarts, she published the blueprint for Madonna's later Sex. Add to that her time spent fronting a then little-known band called the Police and two albums at the end of the 1970s which are still regarded in hushed tones of reverence and Vanilla's role in recent rock history isn't simply secured, it is sacred.

Born Kathy Dorritie, and also performing as Party Favor, Vanilla was a complete unknown when she was recruited to the cast of Pork, where she played a necrophiliac nurse alongside Lee Black Childers and Wayne County. Initially buoyed by the cachet of Warhol's name, but swiftly taking on a life of its own, Pork was one of the underground hits of 1971, both in New York and in London, where it ran for six months during 1971 and attracted notices from across the media spectrum. David Bowie was an especially rapt observer, all the more so after Vanilla and County bestowed their own patronage on him, adopting the hippy-haired folkie singer and projecting their own peculiar sense of glamor upon him. Within months of first catching sight of them, Bowie was Ziggy Stardust, and the Pork crew were working behind him; Vanilla was employed as his publicist, a role in which her own personal taste for outrage and controversy found acres of room for manouever.

Both Bowie and his wife Angie actively championed Vanilla's own artistic ambitions -- it was Angie, at the Springfield Rock Festival in Missouri (dedicated in its entirety to Bowie and his music), who persuaded Vanilla to present one of the performing bands with her own lyrics for inclusion in their set. And interviewed in 1974 by Penthouse, the couple were vociferous in their praise for Compositions, a recently published anthology of Vanilla's poetry. There were even plans for a full Vanilla album, to be produced by Bowie in 1975; it didn't happen, but much of the material scheduled for the set would be put on display in the end, as Vanilla formed her own group, the Staten Island Band, and began playing Max's Kansas City in New York.

The following year, Vanilla's "Shake Your Ashes" was a highlight on the first Live at Max's compilation album, with Vanilla's New York renown only heightened by the publication of the controversial, but so influential, Pop Tarts. By the end of the year, however, Vanilla had relocated to London, joining Wayne County and Johnny Thunders in the first wave of American bands who truly understood the then-emergent punk scene.

An immediate fixture at the famed Roxy club, Vanilla's regular live band featured bassist Gordon "Sting" Sumner, drummer Stewart Copeland, and guitarist Henry Padovani, a trio whose own career under the name the Police was then going nowhere extraordinarily quickly. Vanilla, contrarily was soaring. In mid-1977 she signed with RCA, coincidentally David Bowie's then-current label, and it was the Police's misfortune indeed that when Vanilla came to cut her debut album, her management elected to recruit a largely American band to back her. The Police had hitherto been scheduled to accompany her on the record.

Preceded by a single, "The Punk"/"Foxy Bitch," Bad Girl appeared in early 1978, a cross between punk, rock, and burlesque which should never have been as ignored, or abused, as it ultimately was. The music was primitive and the lyrics occasionally crass, but Vanilla had a genuinely seductive singing voice which made mincemeat of the more feted female vocalists of the period. A second album in 1979, Venus D'Vinyl, was equally noteworthy, but fared even more poorly, with further insult added by RCA's refusal to countenance Vanilla's own choice of cover art -- her disembodied head spinning on a record playing turntable, watching with curiosity as the stylus drew ever closer.

Utterly disillusioned by the entire experience, Vanilla retired from active performance that same year, moving back to the U.S. and ultimately returning to Puerto Rico, working for synthesizer wizard Vangelis. After two decades out of print, meanwhile, her RCA albums were finally reissued as a two-fer in 2000. ~ Dave Thompson


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