When I first heard them in the early 1980s, I was a teenager struggling to accept my own sexuality, and they were a beacon. Punk in their subversion of convention and celebration of the absurd, they were also defiantly fun at a time when President Ronald Reagan wouldn't so much as say the word “gay” or address the fact that AIDS was quickly becoming a pandemic -- one that would claim Ricky as one of its earliest high-profile casualties. At the time, the message that LGBTQ kids like me took from them felt urgent and necessary: Weird is good -- and it’s where the party’s at.
Four of the band’s five original members did, in fact, identify as LGBTQ: Ricky, Schneider and Strickland as gay men, and Pierson, who was involved with a man until the early 2000s, is now married to a woman. But Schneider says they didn't set out to explicitly write queer anthems, as later acts like Erasure would. “We just did our own thing,” he says now. “I guess subconsciously we were trying to say something. But it was sort of stream of consciousness, it was so out there.”
Much of that vibe came courtesy of Ricky’s writing. “I remember seeing him write some music and laughing to himself,” says Cindy. “I said, ‘What are you laughing at?’ He said, ‘I just wrote the stupidest riff.’” It was for “Rock Lobster,” their first single. Released in April 1978, it wouldn't peak on the Hot 100 until mid-1980 (at No. 56), but it instantly launched the band from house-party standby to college-radio staple. Borrowing the Wilsons’ parents’ station wagon, the band would drive up from Athens to New York to play Max’s Kansas City, then eventually CBGB and Mudd Club (where their performance inaugurated the venue’s opening in 1978), among acts like Talking Heads, Blondie, Patti Smith Group and The Ramones. “Somehow, punk fans really liked us,” says Schneider.
Surely, the band’s Day-Glo wigs and outfits were a sight to behold amid the sea of black-clad brooders, but The B-52s drew a diverse fan base, including Frank Zappa, William S. Burroughs and John Lennon. (Lennon famously said “Rock Lobster” pushed him to produce his final album, Double Fantasy, with Yoko Ono.) Their next three LPs steadily rose up the Billboard 200. But as they got to work on fourth album Bouncing Off the Satellites, Warner Bros. started pressuring them. “We laughed when they said ‘Go write a hit,’” recalls Pierson. “Ricky was nervous about that.” It was also apparent to everyone in the band that he wasn't well -- he was getting thinner. But Ricky had only confided to Strickland about his AIDS diagnosis.
It was a time when, as Schneider explains, people with AIDS were ashamed to mention it even among friends. “It was frightening,” he says. “Back then, it was called GRID [Gay-Related Immune Deficiency]. I don’t think they had the term ‘HIV.’ You’d see people with [the marks of] Kaposi’s sarcoma. No one knew if they had it or how you got it.” “I asked Ricky if he was sick,” says Cindy. “I tend to think now that maybe in some way he was trying to protect himself in not accepting it totally.”
“You wanted to keep it hidden, because people would just be weird to you,” says Schneider. And a few friends “backed away a bit,” adds Cindy. “I’ve wondered what Ricky was going through. It must have been horrific.” Pierson still remembers the call from Strickland saying Ricky was in the hospital; he died within a week, on Oct. 12, 1985, at age 32, from AIDS-related cancer.