The year 2016 must really hate us because another musical icon is gone. Pete Burns of Dead or Alive died of cardiac arrest this Sunday at age 57.
Pete never achieved the lasting fame of David Bowie or Prince, but he was a big deal to me and a lot of other 1980s kids. The ’80s were all about androgyny and in 1984, I wanted to date Pete Burns and/or be Pete Burns. In 2011, I wrote about how I used to sit by the record player listening to Dead or Alive’s first album, Sophisticated Boom Boom, while staring adoringly at Pete on the album cover.
Well, I stared at him when I wasn’t jumping up to carefully move the needle over the LP in order to play “I’d Do Anything” again.
I was just as in love with Pete’s then-wife Lynne Corlett, whose side-swept mane of hair matched Pete’s.
Their relationship gave me hope that someday I too would find the perfect man — my idea of the perfect man being one with whom I could share clothes and hair-styling products.
Pete and Lynne were married in 1978 or 1980, depending on which story you read. They separated in 2005, and Pete went on to marry Michael Simpson in 2006. Some stories indicate that Pete and Michael stayed married. This not-so-reliable source says the marriage ended quickly. Either way, it’s clear Pete remained close to Lynne and Michael. Both of their names were included on the tweeted announcement of Pete’s death, and according to the Sun, Lynne was with Pete when he collapsed in London.
Pete said he started experimenting with plastic surgery shortly after Dead or Live had a huge hit with “You Spin Me Round” in 1985. (Almost 25 years later, that same song made the rapper Flo Rida.) Later, he would say he had had 300 surgeries, some of which put him at risk of death or amputation.
He wound up with a face made for reality television and, indeed, he was on Britain’s Celebrity Big Brother in 2006. This year, he was on Celebrity Botched Up Bodies. He was unapologetic about his choices. The Telegraph’s obituary reads, in part:
“Burns defied categorisation and challenged those who pitied or sneered. The chaos, flamboyance and craven attention-seeking were matched by genuine eccentricity and intelligence. And despite bouts of depression and years of agony and ill health as the result of a botched lip filler operation, he appeared to be entirely lacking in self-pity.“
Weirdly, once I got over the shock of his first big changes, I didn’t pay much mind to the latest versions of Pete’s face. When I saw a photo of him, my mind’s eye took over and presented the whip-thin, glove-wearing Pete — surrounded by soaking-wet female bodybuilders — who writhed in Dead or Alive’s 1984 video for the band’s cover of “That’s the Way (I Like It).” This video gives me life!
They literally don’t make them like that anymore.
Speaking of people who are gone too soon, I have the late journalist Randy Shilts on my mind tonight. Shilts died of AIDS at age 42 in 1994. I’ve read and re-read And the Band Played On, his 1987 book about the identification of AIDS and the fight of the gay community for research and treatment. Parts of the book dealt with the late French-Canadian flight attendant Gaetan Dugas, who was known as one study’s “Patient Zero” because he was the link to various men — both on the East and West coasts — who had been diagnosed with the disease.
I wrote all about this in 2009, and I read my post again today in light of a new study published in Nature. The study used the HIV-1 genome to track early appearances of AIDS back to the 1970s and proved that Dugas could not be responsible for setting off the AIDS epidemic in North America later that decade. He didn’t have the early version of the genome. He had one that was common later. I thought, “Yeah, we all know that,” so I was a little shocked to see headlines saying things like Dugas was “exonerated” and that the researchers had managed to “clear” him. “Patient Zero” trended on Twitter. I guess no one knew this after all, but I don’t blame Randy Shilts, because he never said Dugas brought AIDS here. It was the coverage of Randy Shilts’s work that got it twisted. The Nature study says it bluntly (bold emphasis mine):
“… media coverage of Shilts’s book strongly insinuated that this individual was the source of the North American epidemic and an exemplar of dangerous disease transmission — ideas which found a global audience.”
In 2009, I compared the news reports about Patient Zero/Gaetan Dugas to the old child’s game of “Telephone,” where a secret word or phrase gets more and more garbled as it’s passed along in a whisper. I wrote:
“And the Band Played On is particularly memorable for Shilts’s outing of the late Gaetan Dugas, a French-Canadian flight attendant, as the “Patient Zero” of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. The study, which helped scientists determine that the new virus was sexually transmitted, connected Dugas to more than a dozen early AIDS cases. Unfortunately, people with poor reading comprehension have come away from Shilts’s book with the notion that Dugas was single-penisedly responsible for spreading AIDS around the U.S. That is not true nor did Shilts claim that it was true, though he did vividly portray Dugas, who died in 1984 and wasn’t around to defend himself, as horribly selfish. In fact, the first AIDS patient Shilts described, in the first chapter of the book, is Grethe Rask, a lesbian doctor from Denmark who was working in Zaire. It’s pretty obvious she and Dugas never did the deed.”
In that post, I also linked to a New York Times article from 1987. Twenty-nine years ago — almost to the day, coincidentally — Gina Kolata reported that there was evidence that indicated a St. Louis teenager had died of AIDS in 1969. At the time of the 15-year-old’s death, doctors had no idea what caused his health to deteriorate and why the then-rare cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma was found during his autopsy. Decades later, when Kaposi’s sarcoma was linked to AIDS, the boy’s frozen tissue samples were tested and came up positive for HIV.
The New York Times wasn’t the first or only publication that wrote about the boy, whose name was later revealed to be Robert Rayford. It appears the Chicago Tribune broke the story a couple of days before the Times, interviewing Robert’s doctors, including two women who saved the blood and tissue samples for years: microbiologist Memory Elvin-Lewis and surgeon Marlys Hearst Witte. The story pointed out that the discovery:
“… means the AIDS virus has existed in this country for at least two decades, a full 10 years before the first cases of AIDS-related Kaposi`s sarcoma began showing up in white, male homosexuals in New York City.”
Other news organizations followed, including the Washington Post and People magazine. Twenty years later, in 2007, St. Louis Magazine said that the story also ran on CNN, ABC World News, Time, Newsweek, and — belatedly — the Journal of the American Medical Association. (You can read about the earliest known case of AIDS in Europe here. Norwegian sailor Arne Vidar Røed developed symptoms in 1966 and died in 1976. He was diagnosed from saved tissue samples about 10 years later.)
So, while the new study is very interesting (and genomes are always fun) I’m irked by the way people are reporting on it, like they are shocked — SHOCKED! — that anyone could have incorrectly described Dugas decades ago. But they’re the culprits! It’s that cultural and historical amnesia that I’ve pointed out before: When we forget and/or misreport our history, we’re condemned to report it like it’s something brand-new.