Erstwhile St. Louis concept-rocker Kristeen Young could be many things -- pretentious, abrasive, shrill, sexy, scary -- but she was never boring. Even those benighted souls who mocked her were riveted: With her piercing coloratura, those hilarious costumes, the deranged-diva histrionics, Young was some kind of rare rainforest orchid that somehow sprouted in a field of dandelions. One guy we know dressed up as her on Halloween and was the life of the party. Rockdudes often heckled her, making such scintillating observations as "Lady, you're weird." Local music writers relied heavily on the phrase "over the top" and generally prepared their readers for a full-out galactic-hussy freakfest.
Granted, Young was kinda asking for it. Past sartorial triumphs include outfits contrived from such materials as bubble wrap, Wonder Bread bags and plastic soda bottles. She pulled her hair into funny little sculptures like some kind of crazy future geisha-robot. She used her four-octave range to sing about "life-stealing baby guns." In the grungecentric confines of the old Cicero's Basement Bar and the ancien-régime Side Door, Young provoked equal parts hostility, derision and fascination. But the flannel-clad fascists couldn't distract her from her singular vision. She banged her keys and carried on with her high-drama fanciness, even though it was the Age of Sincerity and everyone, onstage and off, was supposed to resemble a gas-station attendant after a double shift.
Young began performing in the early '90s, first fronting November 9th and Waterworks and then releasing a solo CD on World Domination Records, a subsidiary of London. Her experience with the label was disappointing, and soon she began to think she'd better leave St. Louis. "We thought we should move to a city where the entertainment industry is so we could get a little more notice," Young says by phone from her home in NYC. "I wanted to stay in my hometown and accomplish it from there badly. I tried it for years, but I just couldn't get the attention and exposure. In New York, it's just so much easier."
Far be it from us to encourage a musical brain-drain, but in Young's case the decision paid off. Since she relocated, she's been able to score regular high-profile gigs in the main room at CBGB's, and label types have started to sniff around. Most impressive, she's won over at least one very influential fan: Tony Visconti, her producer, who just happens to be the guy behind some of David Bowie's best albums (including his most recent one, Heathen, on which Young sings backup and plays piano). "We joke about it all the time because I actually didn't know who [Visconti] was," Young admits. "I saw in a magazine that he'd worked with Bowie, and there were people in my audience who really like Bowie a lot, so I thought, 'Well, maybe I'll fit in there.' He called me up before the CD even finished playing and told me it was the best thing he'd been sent in a really long time, that he really wanted to work with me."
Judging from the sampling of songs we heard from Young's next album, Breasticles, Visconti is an excellent fit. As one of the architects of glam, it's no wonder that he gets Young's brand of operatic shock-pop, the ironic theatricality, the edgy sexuality and off-putting come-ons. "I would say that he did influence some of my writing in the sense that I wasn't really that familiar with the glam rock of the '70s," Young says. "When I met him, I got introduced to that material and, I think, inspired. And as far as working with him, he's the most good-hearted man I've ever met. He has a way of letting you do your thing and creating this great creative atmosphere."
It was through Visconti that Young met Bowie, who came to a couple of her New York shows on Visconti's recommendation. Then, one day, while she was hanging around the studio, she was enlisted by the Thin White Duke himself to contribute some "high Star Trek vocals" and piano. "On one hand, [Bowie] is extremely charming and intelligent and dazzling. Then, on the other hand, he's funny in a very punny way, kind of like your uncle. He's very down to earth, and you forget completely who he is. So I hate the jerk!" Young laughs.
Kristeen Young and the Low Boys perform at the Way Out Club on Friday, August 16. St. Louis' only double-Casio-and-recorder outfit, the Jellycups, opens the show.