Rock Capes, We Salute You

Photo courtesy of Ray Brown

Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.

There’s really no way to mentally prepare yourself for watching a video of a 62-year-old man in a gold cape perform an unnecessarily long keytar solo. Your brain, being a reasonable organ, will likely suspect that your eyes are just fucking with it. What other explanation could there be? Maybe, you tell yourself, it’s footage from a state fair in some middle-of-nowhere Midwestern town, where old men with capes playing keytars are a more common occurrence (I’m guessing). But then you realize, as I did, that the video in question was recorded in a real city (London) and at a real venue (the Hampton Court Palace) and the caped keytarist is not someone accustomed to being paid in concession stand coupons. He’s Rick Wakeman, a former keyboardist for Yes and Ozzy Osbourne, and a guy with a pretty distinguished music career. If I close my eyes, the music definitely reminds me of any random song from any random Yes album from the mid-70s, which I’ve never personally enjoyed but also never been especially revolted by. It’s pretty standard synth-rock jamming. But the moment I open my eyes again and see the music’s source — did I mention that Rick is also wearing a red jumpsuit? Because duh, what else accessorizes with a gold cape? — I feel like I’m witnessing something simultaneously awesome and horrible.

The bizarre part is, I only discovered this video because I was trolling YouTube for keytar footage. And I only bothered to do that because of Ke$ha.

I’m not sure what compelled me to ask Ke$ha about keytars in the first place. I don’t even remember why I was interviewing her at all, other than that she’s popular with people who like catchy pop songs about functional alcoholics. There’s a pretty good chance that I only brought up keytars because I was trying to make fun of her. I heard that she plays a keytar on her Get $leazy Tour (which, if you live in the Boston area, you can see tonight) and I naturally assumed it was meant with “ironic air-quotes.” But if she’s to be believed, there’s nothing insincere about it. She plays the keytar because keytars are dangerous and cool and phallic and not in any way a rock and roll punchline. “I am very, very serious about keytars,” she told me, without a hint of sarcasm. But then she went on to tell me how she shoots glitter out of her vagina during live shows, and she was equally as earnest about that. So what was I to believe?

When I mentioned Ke$ha’s ironic-posing-as-non-ironic appreciation of keytars to my friends, they were incredulous about my pop culture innocence. Keytars, they explained, have been ironically popular again for years. Was I living in a cave and missed the keytar revolution? Was I so out of touch that I hadn’t heard the keytar melodies of Them Crooked Vultures and the Black Eyed Peas and Frou Frou? They sent me grainy videos of Justin Timberlake playing the keytar in front of delirious teenage girls, and photos of Lady Gaga holding a keytar that wouldn’t look out of place in a GWAR concert. They rattled off the names of bands they claimed I should know if I even pretended to care about music, like Hello Stranger and Rocket and Cobra Starship, all of whom predominately feature keytar players.

I was so embarrassed by my flagrant lack of coolness that I spent a morning on YouTube, trying to catch up with the keytar awesomeness I’d apparently missed. But the moment I stumbled upon that video of Rick Wakeman, wearing a cape with the cool casualness of somebody who thinks he looks pretty amazing in a cape, I immediately lost all interest in keytars. Sure, a guy with a keyboard strapped around his chest is sublimely ridiculous and stupid, and it’s no wonder that today’s musical hipsters have embraced it as a perfect set-piece to demonstrate their cleverness. But put a rock star in a cape, and there is literally nothing else your eyes can focus on. Wakeman could’ve been strangling a baby to achieve the perfect audio squeal, and my first thought still would’ve been “What the fuck is that dude doing in a cape?”

It’s one of those weird staples of rock music that you probably weren’t consciously aware until I mentioned it right now was a staple of rock music. When you first look at Rick Wakeman in a cape, it seems conspicuous and cringeworthy, like a troubling symptom of advance stage dementia. But once capes are front and center in your mind, it’s easy to have what in psychotherapy they call a breakthrough moment. You start remembering just how staggeringly many people in the history of recorded music thought it was a good idea to put on a cape. There’s the lovable buffoonery of prog-rock, where even the roadies at a Yes or Edgar Winter concert were probably wearing capes. There’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who couldn’t have pulled off “I Put a Spell on You” with any credibility if it wasn’t for the cape. There’s James Brown, obviously, whose cape was like a member of the band. And don’t forget Jimi Hendrix. And Janis Joplin. And Gene Simmons. And Solomon Burke. And Elvis Presley and David Bowie and Sly Stone. You don’t even have to think that hard to come up with dozens of music icons who proudly wore capes during their careers. But what about recently? Or even the last ten years?

It’s surprisingly undifficult to get people to reminisce about capes. I tried contacting Glenn Gass, the author of A History of Rock Music and a rock historian at the Indiana University, and even though he was on vacation with his family and unable to comment, he couldn’t resist sending several emails with more rock cape suggestions. “David Crosby‘s cape in the Byrds was definitely the coolest,” he told me. And then, a few days later: “Thanks for your understanding. Wish I had more time. Oh, and the Beatles (Ringo especially) on the cover of Help. And OF COURSE James Brown‘s entire cape routine(!)”

But I wasn’t interested in just waxing nostalgic about rock capes’ greatest hits. I wanted to know if capes were just a relic of a bygone era or if, like keytars, there was hope for a cultural resurgence. In my search for answers, it sometimes felt like a wild goose chase, if the goose was well-versed in arcane rock trivia and never actually answered any of my questions. My editor at MTV Hive recommended that I track down an English band called Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly! — which I suppose, given the band’s cape-centric name, qualified as a “hot tip.” Their publicist informed me that the band’s name was not meant to be taken literally, and helpfully suggested that I talk to somebody called “Har Mar Superstar,” the R&B alter ego of Sean Tillmann (who wears “all sorts of capes,” the non-cape-wearing-band-with-the-cape-wearing-name’s publicist told me. “Tiger print, pink and fluffy, you name it!”) I reached out to the publicist for Har Mar Superstar, who wasn’t aware of Tillmann’s cape obsession but did suggest that I talk to Jim James of My Morning Jacket, who, I’m just learning now, has worn a cape in public on more than one occasion. As of this writing, my request to speak with Mr. James about capes has borne no fruit.

I thought I might get some insights on 21st century rock capes from Ray Brown, the legendary rock fashion designer who’s created whacked-out wardrobes for bands like Styx, Bon Jovi, Judas Priest and Mötley Crüe. But like almost everybody else I talked to, he’d completely forgotten that rock capes ever existed until I brought it up. “I did make a couple of capes for Ozzy Osbournec, which he wore as part of his tour sometime in the mid-80s,” he told me. But he couldn’t think of an artist in recent years who’d asked him to design a cape — except for David Arquette, and let’s be honest, that doesn’t really count.

I managed to finagle a phone interview with Jeff Nolan, the curator for the Hard Rock Café’s 40th Anniversary Memorabilia Tour, which has already visited 30-plus cities this summer, with more dates in the works. Nolan told me about some remarkable capes being displayed on his tour, like a James Brown cape with “Soul Brother Number One” embroidered on the back, and Janis Joplin’s cape from the Pearl album cover. But when it came to modern cape wearers, he drew a blank. “Marilyn Manson maybe?” he suggested. “It seems like he would’ve worn a cape, but I can’t picture it in my mind.” As somebody who spends all day traveling the country with rock clothing — and, for the record, has never tried any of it on when nobody was paying attention (or so he says) — he considers it a sad reflection on modern music that rock capes have gone the way of dinosaurs. “Some of the cats we’re talking about,” he says, referring to cape enthusiasts like Hendrix and Presley, “it wasn’t like they were wearing a costume. They just wore a goddamn cape. And it was fucking cool. Maybe modern acts just feel like there’s too much affectation attached to it. But capes used to be like a barometer. If you put on a cape and you weren’t self-conscious, then you were well on your way to being a rock star.”

Stephen Malkmus — who you probably only consider a rock star if, like me, you can name another Pavement song besides “Cut My Hair” — seems just un-self-conscious enough to be able to pull off a cape. But he’s not interested. “When I think of capes, I think of magicians and superheroes, not rock and roll for some reason,” he told me. But he also has a practical reason for not wanting to don a cape during his live shows. “It would get in the way of my windmill kicks,” he says. “I can throw the guitar around in a 360 and play behind my head and stuff like Hendrix. A cape might interfere with some of those moves.”

I guess there isn’t much point in bemoaning the death of rock capes. It’s just a matter of time before they’re plucked out of obscurity to become mainstream music’s latest not-so-inside joke. It happened to keytars, so why not rock capes? Today they’re a dusty artifact on the back of a Hard Rock memorabilia tour bus, but tomorrow Ke$ha will be explaining why she’s “very, very serious about rock capes,” and Kid Rock will be getting into fistfights with Cee Lo Green backstage at the MTV Awards for Whatever because they both showed up wearing the same designer-brand rock cape, and Dave Grohl will perform at Lollapalooza wearing a cape the size of a canopy, and we’ll all go blue in the face recounting how ironic-cool it was. And then rock capes, just like keytars, won’t be as much fun anymore.

Rock capes should be left to the Rick Wakemans of the world — who, I’m almost positive, has never done an ironic thing in this life. When he walks out of his house every morning, he’s like, “Okay, I’ve got my keys, I’ve got wallet, I’ve got my rock cape. Time to go to work.” An army of Ke$has could never compete with that.

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