Catching up with Jayne County and Am Taylor

Jayne County (left) and Am Taylor. Photo by Christy Parry.

Jayne County is an avatar of social and cultural change—a transgender trailblazer, and a rock ‘n’ roll provocateur. “I Don’t Fit In Anywhere,” her latest single and collaboration with former Sexual Side Effects guitar player and songwriter Am Taylor takes stock of her six decades-long journey, from growing up in rural Dallas, Georgia to performing for New York City, London and the world. She worked side-by-side with and inspired legions of groundbreaking artists including David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, the Kinks, Lou Reed, the Ramones, and too many others to name here (seriously, books have been written chronicling her fascinating story). She even acted in Andy Warhol’s theatre production titled Pork. Despite such a long and illustrious career, though, “I Don’t Fit In Anywhere” resonates as a mantra, and an anthem for a life spent perpetually on the leading edge of cultural change. Now, teamed up with Taylor, the two have forged a path into new frontiers of rock ‘n’ roll as religion, safe haven, and ammunition to keep fighting in a contemporary landscape.

County and Taylor sat down with me to talk about how they met, recording their first single for Cleopatra Records, and where it’s all going from here.

Chad Radford: What’s striking to me about the video is the chemistry between the two of you. How did you start playing music together?

Am Taylor: We’ve known each other for about 10 years. We met through our friend Jen Belgard at the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club in Little Five Points. Obviously everybody knows Jayne, and she knew of my old band the Sexual Side Effects. One day, Jayne messaged me on Facebook and asked if I wanted to get together and write some songs.

Jayne County: I had played a few shows at the Yacht Club and at the Star Bar. Amber was there, and once we started talking we clicked immediately. I was looking for someone to help me out with some songs I’d written. She volunteered, and she understood what I was saying when I talked about how I wanted a song to feel, how it was structured, and what a song said. She picks up on all sorts of stuff, and adds her ideas, and makes it better!

AT: When Jayne messaged me, I’d been a hermit for a while—a recluse in my home—and was burned out on playing music. I’d done a lot of art and writing—I was taking courses and waking up every morning and doing object writing. I was in songwriter mode, and it was cool to have a collaborator. Jayne would hum a melody to me, I would craft the chords around it, and we’d have a song. That’s literally what our writing process has been. 

JC: I don’t know where the songs come from. All of the sudden there’s a tune in my head. I’ll take it to Amber and say it goes like this [hums]. She picks up her guitar and plays what I hummed. Before long she’s playing the whole song!

Have songs always just come to you?

JC: Yes they have, they just descend down on me. Where do they come from? I’ve got that thing where there’s a constant humming in my ears—tinnitus. Sometimes that’s where the songs come from—my tinnitus hums a tune at me. I might be driving in my truck, feeding my cats, cooking, or doing anything, and a tune will come to me. If it disappears, it disappears. If it keeps coming back to me I know it’s catchy, and it will probably be a good song. I’ll record them into my phone. Then Amber works on them.

AT: I have my own process with my songs—I have a factory! I’ll sit down at the kitchen table or wherever, and write down an idea that comes to me, and that’s one session. Another phase: I’ll drive around in my car and rate the ideas that I have, one-through-five. Then I’ll have another session where I’ll piece the songs together. Then I’ll write a first draft. Then I’ll rewrite it and make it better. Then rewrite it again! I usually go through about four drafts. I spend a lot of time on my songs. With Jayne and it’s easy because she comes to me with ideas and it’s like boom, boom, boom, done. We’re a productive team.

JC: We can have one rehearsal session and come up with two or three songs.

AT: She’s into all of this ‘60s stuff and comes up with cool doo-wop and surf stuff that I wasn’t aware of. Working with producer and engineer Andy Reilly, we made our song sound really cool. He knows Jayne so it’s still rock ‘n’ roll. But with the new stuff we’re going to have a production that’s something like the Viagra Boys: loud drums, driving bass. But we’re adding some ‘60s elements. I’ve been playing through a Marshall, and I’ll have these Queens of the Stone Age sounds. With Jayne, I’ll play a Fender and get a James Bond surf rock sound.

JC: I like the folk-rock twangy kind of sound, too. You can hear it in “I Don’t Fit In Anywhere.” To me, the music of the ‘60s was great because it was taking rock ‘n’ roll but adding elements from Indian music, classical music, adding sitar, flute, harpsichord. There was a lot of experimentation with music going on back and then, and a lot of it stood out.

AT: I love Ennio Morricone who composed soundtracks for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Danger: Diabolik, Deep Down. The soundscapes that he created were so weird and different and even the soundtrack for Barbarella: I love the guitar tones. We play music the way we do, but I want to bring those production elements into it as well.

What did you have in mind when you wrote “I Don’t Fit In Anywhere?”

JC: I am a big fan of protest music: “Eve Of Destruction,” P.F. Sloan, the Byrds, early Bob Dylan when he was still a protest singer—before it became really boring. “I Don’t Fit In Anywhere” came from out of nowhere, and the tune came with it. It’s along the same line as the Kinks’ song, “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.” We have this structure called society that says there are certain things that you have to do, and certain things that you have to believe in. Anyone who can’t do it, just can’t do it. They stick out, and that’s what that song is about. By that I mean not fitting into the gay world, not fitting in with the trans world, the straight world. It’s about being one creature—on your own in the world—but not letting it get you down. Making it work for you.

Jayne, you were a teenager in Dallas, GA during the Civil Rights era, you moved to New York City and participated in the Stonewall riots, and you were there when punk rock was forming.

JC: I was a little before punk, they’ve often called me proto-punk.

You’ve been a harbinger of cultural and social change. Do you look at contemporary society and see the results of what you’ve been a part of? Do you still feel like you don’t fit in?

JC: I have thought about this before: How much of an impact did I really make? I have always been anti-establishment, or whatever the established norm is. I truly do not fit in, so I try to change things for the better for everyone. I can see that certain things have changed as the result of some people being on the frontlines, and not being afraid to make change. You can’t be afraid, or change won’t happen. People have to be on the frontlines to build the different kinds of roads to go down. I had to make my own road to go down.

And yes, I still feel like I don’t fit in. I built my own road to go down, and that road always leads back to me not fitting in. But that keeps me going and working harder. If I fit in I probably wouldn’t be Jayne Country anymore. 

Maybe that’s where the frontline is now: In the wake of social media, people need to find that road to embrace their identity.

JC: Yes, and younger people need to know more about history. People are really dumb about history now. I’m a history buff; people have done a lot of really shitty things in the past, but nobody seems to ever learn anything from it.

AT: I’m a history buff, too. The Roman Empire: I have a song about Julius Caesar called “Blood Moon,” and a song about Winston Churchill called “The Darkest Hour.” Instead of writing a song about how a boy or girl broke your heart, this was a different way of writing a song. I studied all of these eras and learned about their stories and pulled imagery from the locations and the people. One is Julius Caesar’s revenge as a ghost, which was cool. It was a lot like “Game of Thrones,” or something. Julius Caesar gets his revenge in the end.

JC: Ancient Egypt is my thing. If you look at the walls in my living room they’re covered with nothing but Egyptian stuff. Hundreds of statues of Bastet, Anubis, Tutankamon. I do a lot of painting with Egyptian themes, but my last two shows have been postponed because of the pandemic.

I have a three-legged cat named King Tut, but we just call him Tut. Most of my cats are rescues. Right now I have about 13 cats.

That’s a lot of mouths to feed!

JC: Oh I know it. My cat food bill is way too high, and I think I feed them too much. But they’re safe and they’re happy here. I leave dry food and water out for them, and I mix wet food with treats. All I have to do is shake the bag of treats and they come running!

Amber, when considering Jayne’s legacy, do you feel pressure to raise the bar for yourself?

AT: The way that I can raise the bar is by thinking about us together—making the songs the best that they can be. I think about how we work together, and respecting Jayne’s ideas, and giving her the space that she needs. I do a lot of rewriting of songs. Sometimes a great song isn’t complete. With “I Don’t Fit In Anywhere,” we didn’t have the hook at the beginning. We tried a bunch of different things, so that’s how I raise the bar.

There’s this trick that Radiohead and the Smiths do to make songs sound weird and cool and creepy, called using borrowed chords. You write out each note of the scale within a major scale and then pick the minor scale. For each one of those notes within that scale is a chord, and you create a chord progression. You can then swap out that chord—the fourth note in the scale is the fourth chord—and you could swap that out for the minor scale version. That’s what a lot of Beatles songs do, and you hear that in a lot of my songs. How can we make this cool as shit? How can we make it like the Smiths?

What would Johnny Marr do (WWJMD)?

AT: Yes! He does all of these inversions, and weird jazz shit. I want to add that into it as well. Make it go to an all new level of cool.

Have you revisited any of Jayne’s more well-known songs, like “Man Enough To Be A Woman,” “Paranoia Paradise,” or your version of the Barbarians’ “Are You A Boy Or A Girl?”?

JC: No. I’ve been thinking about updating “Man Enough To Be A Woman,” but we’re concentrating on writing new songs.

AT: We have about five songs, and we’re getting more together for an LP.

JC: Among those five songs there are still ideas that haven’t been pulled out and worked on yet. But when we get 10 songs together we’ll be in good shape for an album.

You did the new single with Cleopatra Records. Are they interested in releasing an album?

AT: Cleopatra said, “Let’s see how things go with this one, and we’ll figure out what to do from there.” We’re still learning the business side of things. From this go around we’ve learned that Jayne has a huge following in Germany, Scandinavia, and Sweden. People were Shazaming the song an awful lot over there.

JC: Iggy Pop played the song on his BBC show. He played “Paranoid Paradise” on the show, so I sent him the new video. His response was, “It’s good …” He didn’t say he was gonna play it or anything like that. But he did!

AT: He said I was a “shrewd rockin’ chic!” I’ve never been called shrewd before, but that has to be Iggy’s stamp of approval, right? 

Absolutely! You don’t want him to call you a goody two-shoes!

AT: I guess we did break into a church in the video, but at least we went to church, right?

It’s a long story, but our video turned into something much different from what we thought it would be. Initially we were going to go to all of these places and get kicked out. But since we didn’t have a lot of time or budget we shot it all there and at the Star Bar. As it turned out, he Star Bar had closed down a few days before we were supposed to shoot, but we got in touch with the new owners and got in there. Video Rahim is great, he had all of these ideas like “why don’t you smoke a joint in church, or somebody should grab this girl’s boob here.”

We were lucky to get Justin Welborn, who plays the preacher. He’s our friend, but he’s a TV star now. He was in The Signal, Unforgiven, the reboot of MacGuyver. He has a great look … Great priest! We just asked, “Hey, would you be in our video?” We have all this crazy extra footage of him freaking out and screaming about us going to hell. He’s such a great actor.

What’s next for you?

JC: When we recorded “I Don’t Fit In Anywhere” we also recorded another song called “Too Much Information.” We’ll make a video for that next.

AT: That song has extreme James Bond guitar in it, like spy hunter sounds.

JC: I talk about Facebook and Youtube on it: “Leave me alone/Youtube is on” … “Smart TV/MP3/Can you download your love for me?” Stuff like that.

Have the two of you played live together yet?

JC: Not yet. I’ve thought about doing an invitation show, where we play the songs in front of an audience. There’s a new song we’re working on that I’m excited about, called “She’s On A ‘60s Trip.” The lyrics are tongue-in-cheek, and the verses are constructed using titles from all of these ‘60s songs put together as verses, like “Come On Baby, light my fire, break on through to the other side,” ”Trapped in the house of the rising sun,” “I wanna hold your hand at the revolution.”

AT: We’ve only kind of worked out the acoustic part for it. It will start to morph a little more when we go into the studio and start doing demos. I’m big into creating soundscapes with music. I play a bunch of instruments, and I want to create these soundscapes behind things, so you know the ‘60s stuff that we keep talking about will be fun.

Ray (left) and Dave Davies of the Kinks. Photo by Karen Eyo.

One other item of note: We had a Christmas miracle! Jayne is friends with Dave Davies from the Kinks. We sent him some T-shirts. Dave and his wife Rebecca went to London to give one to Ray Davies. They took pictures and were thanking us, and the London Paparazzi caught it and had a whole article about it in The Daily Mirror.

JC: I met them at Max’s Kansas City years ago, and we’ve known each other for years. 

I get the impression that, in the mid-to-late ‘70s, you were either a Max’s Kansas City band or a CBGBs bands. Some groups played both, but there was a perceived loyalty to one or the other. What was the line in the sand?

JC: Max’s was more diverse. CBGBs got to a point where it was suburban kids driving in with their punk clothes in the car. They’d dress up in their punk clothes in the car and go to the show. Afterward they’d go change out of their punk clothes, and get back into their office gear for work the next day.

Max’s held up the real freak scene. The real artists scene. There was a big gay clientele there, but it wasn’t a gay club. Gay people were welcome; everyone was welcome. CBGBs became kind of homophobic after a while. A war between CBs and Max’s started in about 1976, because Dick Manitoba from the Dictators jumped up on my stage one night at CBGBs. He’d been in the audience calling me all kinds of names. He jumped onto the stage and I thought he was going to attack me, so I clocked with the mic stand. He fell over and hit a table and was hurt really badly. I felt absolutely terrible about it. That started a war: A lot of people at CBs were taking the wrestler’s side—Handsome Dick Manitoba. People Max’s took my side.

He pressed assault charges against me, but he wouldn’t show up in court so the case was thrown out. He was embarrassed because word hit the streets that poor ol’ Dick Manitoba got his ass kicked by a drag queen.

After that, for a time, Patti Smith talked about it in her shows, saying: “You can’t judge people by what they look like, or by the clothes they wear.” … All because I whooped him. I only did it because I felt like I needed to. He’d been yelling homophobic things at me—just saying horrible things. When he jumped up onto the stage it scared me to death. He had a beer mug in his hand, and he turned at me. I thought he was going to hit me with that beer mug. Later, he said, “Oh, I was just trying to get to the bathroom.”

You moved to London soon after that, correct?

JC: Yes, I moved to London in ‘76 and started playing the clubs there. In ‘77 I went on tour. The Police were my opening band!

When people talk about the golden era of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, they think about the Talking Heads, Ramones, Television, that era at CBGBs. Over at Max’s there was Cherry Vanilla and later came the Misfits, the Victims, the New York Dolls. You were there before those scenes took shape, but you are one of the artists who laid the groundwork for that whole era to begin …

JC: People say that, but it’s hard for me to judge things clearly. I’m so close to it all, and it’s hard to think that was really even me—the person—who was there.

You really were there, and you really did kick Handsome Dick Manitoba’s ass at CBGBs.

JC: He tried to make it make it out like “Oh, I was just going to the bathroom and this big ol’ mean drag queen attacked me, a poor little ol’ wrestler.”

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