Valley of the doll
Bowie-adoring, Pokémon-loving songster wants to be the most famous boy in the world, no matter what Simon Cowell tells him
Published: October 26, 2011
It's a nippy night and the Majestic Café is full of life. Allied Media is throwing a bowling extravaganza a few doors down at the Garden Bowl in anticipation of their annual music conference set for the next day at MOCAD. They're also hosting an open mic for high school-aged poets in the café, and, while the performances are surprisingly engrossing and ambitious, the night's highlights are sure to be the performance by Detroit's "black-noise" duo Dark Red and the peculiarly named Duane, "the Teenaged Weirdo."
This Duane kid is set to go up first. Around midnight, the café's suddenly littered with small leaflets bearing the performer's name and a weirdly alluring androgynous face. Soon, a theme from the video game Pokémon plays over the P.A., serving as a prelude as a black-clad spindly frame in form-fitting spandex pants bursts through a cloud of stage fog. A kind of Rubenesque doll with a hard expression takes the stage with him and the pair begins to dance and sing to the backdrop of bouncy, dark synth pop. They run around the stage, slap each other, play fight and, at one climactic point in the set, indulge in wild simulated sex, in all of this raw energy. The set kills, musical injudiciousness covered by pure abandon, but reflections of his youth. There are no bored expressions tonight, no way. It is a total what-the fuck-did-I-just-see moment; folks are eyebrow-furrowing disgusted or jaw-drop impressed. Dark Red then goes up, rocks, but there's no way you could follow Duane, "the Teenaged Weirdo," after performing like he had a gun pointed to the back of his head, like there were 10,000 people in the room.
He's been called "the love child of Grace Jones and David Bowie" and, although he denies coining the phrase, lives in the tagline. Simon Cowell and Co. voted him off X-Factor (Duane performed "A Rolling Stone" by Grace Jones and Bowie's "Jean Genie"), but Jack White is a fan, as is local label Beehive Recording Co., which just released his first EP. His local fanbase so far is small — he debuted live 15 months ago — but growing ... exponentially.
Duane (born Michael Duane Gholston) is a hard kid to peg down; he's an outsider, to be sure, but his élan is born of a kind of inner confidence, not inferiority, or some kind of crippling insecurity — though he is self-deprecating as all hell. Usually decked out in ripped jeans and customized shirts with clothespins in classic punk rock style, the spindly, soft-spoken 19-year-old is a sartorial headfuck, even while he's strolling down some Detroit avenue, mid-afternoon. He likes it that way. His dyed-brown Afro explodes from his head, under which rests an array of scarves and jangling necklaces that'd rest easily on Steven Tyler. His face is colored ornately with shades of mascara and eyeliner, done with the skill of high school girl who's beyond the point of luring in her first boy. Dude lives up to his full moniker.
The Detroit-born Gholston lives with his mother, stepdad and his three sisters (two younger and one older) and little brother in the working-class old Redford neighborhood. He attended the Detroit School of Arts for high school, where he studied art, photography and music technology. Now, between doing multiple gigs a month and odd jobs such as volunteer work down at Eastern Market, he takes prerequisite classes at Marygrove College with no major in mind.
Despite what might be suggested by his appearance, Duane's life growing up was, in his words, "pretty normal." Until high school, that is. He came up blasting fluff such as the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears into his head, but as he moved through high school, he discovered, and emotionally connected to, '80s pop. Madonna, Culture Club, Grace Jones and Dead or Alive became his musical mainstays, instilling in him nostalgia for a decade he didn't live through.
Now, he listens to whatever he can, whether it's La Roux, Ting Tings or Ke$ha. "In the summer, after I graduated from high school, I just starting devouring everything," Gholston says.
And his music?
It's as if he cherry-picked Grace Jones and Let's Dance-era Bowie and infused it with a dark, almost Detroit-at-night feel and tone, a sort of fading city gothic. Armed with a keyboard and the music recording software Audition, his songs are tuneful and ambitious, ideas that extend beyond his reach, so far. "They're awesome ideas," he agrees. "But they're not executed well." He's a self-taught keyboardist who started playing in high school.
Gholston aligns simple driving beats — which purposely sound like drum machines — with thin keyboard licks and melodic lines. They're succinct, never lasting for more two minutes, leaving hardly a verse for Gholston's sneering bark. Some tunes, such as "Burn a Flag, Put Out a Fire," are punchy and danceable, boasting cheesy-but-groovy Casio bass lines. Others, such as "Chaos in Cairo," can nearly hypnotize with an endless drum loop and willowy synths. So far, all of Gholston's recorded tunes are lo-fi, bedroom quality. That fact doesn't detract; rather, it enhances the songs' appeal and feel — there's that strange nostalgia and sometimes you think you're listening to early demos of some long-lost '80s pop songwriter.