The B-52s On a 40-Year Career as LGBTQ Pioneers, and the Tragedy That Almost Cut It Short

On a cool desert evening in late May, a crowd of men in baseball caps and women in cold-shoulder shirts mills around a makeshift stage by the pool at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand. The guests, beers in hand, have come to the hotel for a software conference, but they’re at this private party to see The B-52s -- Fred Schneider, 66; Cindy Wilson, 61; and Kate Pierson, 70, together with their four-piece band.

It’s at first jarring to see The B-52s here, but a pool party at a Vegas casino is, in a way, the perfect place for the “tacky little dance band from Athens, Ga.,” as The B-52s have always called themselves. In May -- a decade after their last studio album, Funplex, reached No. 11 on the Billboard 200, and nearly 30 years since their biggest Billboard Hot 100 hits, “Love Shack” and “Roam” (both went to No. 3) -- the band launched an extensive North American tour to celebrate its 40th anniversary.

The B-52s formed in 1976, with Wilson’s older brother, guitarist/principal songwriter Ricky (who died in 1985), and his best friend, drummer-guitarist Keith Strickland (who retired from touring with the band in 2012). Their brightly colored vintage ensembles (“We had no money and bought clothes that we liked,” explains Schneider), along with Cindy’s and Pierson’s epic beehive wigs and fake eyelashes, originated thrift-store chic, making Andy Warhol’s Factory habitues look like wallflowers by comparison. (In fact, people often mistook the two women for drag queens.) And at a time when an overwhelmingly straight, male punk scene ruled, The B-52s’ knowingly kooky aesthetic, along with their hilariously surreal lyrics in songs like “Quiche Lorraine,” read as queer to those with the eyes to see it.

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 HeadsBlondiePatti Smith Group and The Ramones. “Somehow, punk fans really liked us,” says Schneider.

Matt Cowan/Getty Images
From left: Schneider, Cindy Wilson and Pierson with their backup band in 2017.

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.

“It was just devastating to all of us, especially Cindy and Keith,” says Pierson. Shortly after his death, Ricky’s AIDS diagnosis became public -- a rarity at a time when most such deaths were attributed only to cancer or other diseases resulting from AIDS. Though over the next few years rap and dance artists started to address the virus in their lyrics, the rock world largely ignored it. “Even though Klaus Nomi, The B-52s’ Ricky Wilson and Hibiscus are well known to have died of AIDS,” Jim Fouratt wrote in Spin in 1988, “the rock industry continues to do nothing about AIDS. Why? Fear, I would say.”

The band took a break, finding the idea of playing without Ricky unimaginable. “We just couldn't handle it,” says Pierson. Two years later, Strickland reached out to the remaining trio to say he had coped with his grief by writing new songs. “We started realizing we had something so precious together,” says Pierson, “and Ricky’s spirit returned in a way. It was a real healing process. All this stuff started coming out, conjuring up our time in Athens.”

With the help of producers Nile Rodgers and Don Was, the band released Cosmic Thing in 1990. “We wound up becoming friends for life, instantly,” says Rodgers. “I’d always been a massive fan of the Bs. I wasn't sure how the public would feel, but I was sure about how we would feel -- good.” The album became their highest-charting, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard 200, on the strength of “Love Shack” and “Roam.” “It really is amazing that Cosmic Thing is such a happy album,” says Cindy, “because it came from grief and sadness.”

This summer, The B-52s will play arenas, amphitheaters and stadiums, joined by another queer pioneer, Boy George. Forty years on, the acts they’ve influenced -- from Athens pals R.E.M. to LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy -- are as varied as their fans. When they’re not touring, they live far from each other -- Pierson in Woodstock, N.Y., where she runs a rustic lodge called Kate’s Lazy Meadow; Cindy back in Athens; Schneider on New York’s Long Island, when he’s not DJ’ing around the country. But watching them in Vegas, as they swap glances and smiles, their familial symbiosis feels vital as ever.

“We still have a lot of fun onstage,” says Schneider. He’s less thrilled by the trappings of touring now -- arduous air travel, omnipresent iPhones in the crowd. “Now I don’t even look at the audience,” he says with a laugh. “I look over their heads.” What energizes The B-52s, all these years after the tragedy that almost ended them, is the revolutionary body of work they’ve created. Cindy finds herself digging into their catalog about once a year. Recently, “I took a day to listen to all of it,” she says. “It just blew me away. I was crying, because I was so amazed that we did this.”

This article originally appeared in the June 15 issue of Billboard.

Gay Pride Month 2018