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Bettie Page And Psychobillly

Bettie Page And Psychobillly

By Mike Olszewski

A good part of the appeal of modern music is linked to imagery as well as sound. This goes back to day one with gyrations, clothing and hair styles and we may have seen every possible extreme since. But it comes to mind that a good number of songs are linked to someone who never recorded a note and has become one of the (for lack of a better term) “poster children” for certain genres of rock, especially punk and psychobilly. Her name is Bettie Page and she was born over a hundred years ago. First, a thumbnail bio.

Page was born in Nashville, tried teaching and was an aspiring actress. In the 1950s she ended up in New York and was a model for photographer Paula Klaw at her brother Irving Klaw’s studios. Page did legitimate modeling sessions, even some B-movies, but also did weird fetish stuff that today is seen as high art but back then drew the attention of Estes Kefauver’s Congressional hearings. That spooked Page and she moved out of New York and went underground. No one knew what became of her and that only added to her legend. She remained very popular, and it’s been said she was one of the three most photographed women of the 1950s along with Mamie Eisenhower and Marilyn Monroe. By the 1980s she was discovered by fanzines, Madonna and the punk crowd and when she resurfaced in California in the Nineties. Page started to appeal to larger mainstream audiences. Fueled in great part by comic artist Dave Stevens, who included her in his Rocketeer comic series, it resulted in a bio flick (The

Notorious Bettie Page), dozens of books, a theatrical documentary and millions of dollars to Page herself in unclaimed royalties for use of her image. Page died in 2008, but not before she especially won favor with the then emerging punk / psychobilly crowd.

She was often featured in posters that were sure to draw attention advertising shows for music she probably wouldn’t understand. Page was also mentioned in songs by a series of artists. Some of them, like Caterwaul of Sound’s “Bettie Page”, use some pretty extreme imagery that don’t hold up to current standards of good taste, but it’s a pretty sure bet the band knew that when they produced it. The Chevelles did an early song about Page with the same title that actually includes some photos and film segments from her heyday.

Suzanne Vega, probably best known for “Luka”, put out a song that mentions Page with the disturbing title “Pornographer’s Dream”. Not sure that title fits the music.

Not to be outdone, especially by artists in a genre he helped define, John Lydon’s Public Image Limited put out its own song celebrating Page’s legacy.

There are dozens of others from Wild the Coyote, Hellbound Glory, Kurtis Kantilla, Jerry Axson, Robbie Quine and plenty more. Now, as for my small role in this continuing story.

My father was a part time studio photographer, but I’m talking 1950s / early 60s vintage equipment like the old Rolleiflex cameras and the king of them all, the Speed Graphics. That’s the press camera that used plates instead of film and had blinding flashbulbs you used once and would give you a first degree burn if you picked up the used bulb too soon. It weighed a ton, you see it in a lot of old movies and was pretty much the standard for studio photographers. The old man also kept his photography

magazines and that’s where I knew about Bettie Page way before her resurgence to mainstream.

In the late eighties / early nineties I was doing some work for NBC’s young adult radio network hosting its weekly “Source Report” on a revolving basis. Sensing the rumble about Bettie Page I traveled to New York and tracked down photographer Paula Klaw. I was also working at WMMS at the time and brought her a “Gonzo Radio” t-shirt that she happily wore the next time I saw her. Klaw also gave me an autographed photo of her and Page. She desperately wanted to reunite with Page whom she hadn’t seen since the 1950s and recorded an appeal to meet up with her. There had been some contact twenty years before when out of nowhere Page contacted Klaw by phone and hesitantly agreed to meet her if she traveled to a shopping center near Miami, Florida. They agreed to catch up at a certain date and time at a fountain in the mall, with Page warning Klaw about the loose tiles. Klaw headed south, showed up early, sure enough there were the loose tiles, but Page never appeared and she never heard from her again.

The Source Network was a little skeptical running the piece pre “Page Mania” but did so anyway and a few years later Bettie Page emerged. I sent a copy to her attorney, they loved the program and he asked if they could include it on Page’s official website. Well, it was full of music that NBC was licensed to use, but we both agreed that it couldn’t run elsewhere so the attorney proposed I do a new piece, he’d set up the interviews and, “How much would you charge?” I didn’t want any money to redo the segments, but suggested I could send the photo I got from Klaw for a second autograph. No problem! He said to send it to his office, and let’s get this done. Sadly, Bettie Page was too ill to continue and couldn’t participate which was understandable. But something arrived in the mail that drew a smile. I called the attorney and he explained that, even though it took her most of the day to make the inscription, Bettie Page just wanted to say, “Thanks”.

No wonder people sing her praises!

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Mike Olszewski

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