The call probably couldn’t have come at a better time. Just as she emerged victorious from a Minnesota Department of Revenue audit that sidelined her career for two years — but sparked an outpouring of support from the Twin Cities arts community — transgender glam rocker Venus de Mars was invited on the biggest tour of her 20-year career.
“It made me feel validated,” she said of last year’s outing. “It was like, ‘You see? This is what I do.’ ”
The tour in question was with the long-celebrated Florida punk band Against Me!, which suddenly turned the rock ’n’ roll world’s eye toward transgenderism.
Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace (formerly Tom Gabel) made a very public coming-out as transgender in a 2012 Rolling Stone article and subsequent interviews, which led up to the release of one of last year’s most powerful rock albums. When the time came to hit the road for the first time as a transgender rocker, the Against Me! frontwoman turned to Venus to open some of the shows.
“I imagine when you’re making that kind of big decision in your music career, you look to see who else has done it,” Venus said. “I think I probably rise to the top in that case.”
After two decades of raising a little hell and a lot of eyebrows with her glam-metal band All the Pretty Horses, the Minneapolis rock vet landed new fans, new attention and new purpose on the Against Me! tour. She’s using the momentum to catapult her in a new musical direction, one that — in her case, at least — marks yet another bold artistic move.
“I’m used to being naked on stage, but not in the musical sense,” Venus quipped, referring to her new acoustic album, “Flesh and Wire,” which she’s promoting with a release party Sunday at Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis.
The record is Venus’ first big investment in her career since she and her wife of 32 years, poet and writer Lynette Reini-Grandell, won an appeal on their audit by the state’s tax collectors. They won, mind you, after shelling out $11,000 or so in attorney’s fees.
The auditors essentially said that the $20,000 or so that Venus averaged per year in her music career — her only source of income — was not enough for her to call herself a professional musician. She was to pay about $3,500 in back taxes based on performance-related expenses she deducted.
Included in her deductions was credit-card debt that she chalked up to the fact that “this was before crowdsourcing. I had to be my own record label and financier.
“Even though I had an explanation for all my losses, all business-related,” she explained, “they still said, ‘You’re not interested in profit. This isn’t a business. You’re a hobbyist.’ They kept that line of reasoning through the whole thing.”
She stops short of saying she was targeted because she was transgender, but said, “I think the arts community was singled out, and I probably looked like an easy target within that community.”
Venus went public with her fight, earning widespread local media coverage. That triggered a fundraising campaign behind her, which went so well that she had about $3,000 left after her legal fees. She donated the rest to the St. Paul arts booster organization Springboard for the Arts to create a fund for educating and assisting other artists on tax issues.
“I call that a pretty good victory,” Venus gloated.
In the ‘Flesh’
She feels even more victorious now that she’s able to put out as personal a project as “Flesh and Wire,” which was funded by fans and supporters through the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo.com.
The record strips away the loud guitars and heavy thrashing of All the Pretty Horses’ music for a purely raw sound. Its only instruments besides acoustic guitar are cello and violin. Against Me! singer Grace guests on the song “Take My Shoulder,” one of several older All the Pretty Horses songs reworked for the collection. The album also includes two new tunes and covers of the Roy Orbison/Nazareth hit “Love Hurts” and “5 Years” by one of Venus’ obvious heroes, David Bowie.
Her first experience playing acoustic was a few years ago when she joined the Mad Ripple Hootenanny, a songwriters round-robin series hosted by journalist/rocker Jim Walsh, who will open Venus’ “Flesh and Wire” release party Sunday at Bryant-Lake Bowl.
“I was scared to death,” she recalled with a laugh. Now, though, she’s excited about the prospects of performing solo.
“It’s an entirely new world, which is exciting for any artist. And it’s a world where it’s really only about the song and the singing, and nothing else.”
The loud guitars aren’t the only thing missing from the acoustic shows, in other words. So are the dominatrix attire and wild theatrics of All the Pretty Horses shows, where she usually performs topless with pasties on her breasts.
“I started doing that in the early ’90s just to show people you don’t need to be ashamed to be transgender,” she said.
“Back then, being transgender shut doors for me. A lot of doors. But now, I think it has actually opened doors for Laura [of Against Me!]. I’m happy about that, of course, but I also can’t help but think, ‘Dammit, I’ve been doing this a long time. What about me?’ ”
A 55-year-old Duluth native, Venus decided she wanted to be a rock star when metal’s great freak-show pioneer, Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics, played a small bar in Superior, Wis., in the late ’70s (on an off night from a Kiss tour). She released her first album in 1984 under her birth name, Steven Grandell.
Around her 30th birthday, Venus came out as transgender. It wasn’t just a daunting proposition socially at the time; it also was medically scary. She said her liver shut down at one point and she endured several other health scares.
Things are better now on several fronts, she happily reported.
“I’m thrilled with the attitude of young kids,” she said, describing scenes at the always all-ages Against Me! tour in which young transgender and gay fans stood side-by-side with older, brawnier fans of the band — and sometimes even with their own parents.
“For a long time, I was mostly just doing this for myself, to prove I could do it,” she said. “Somewhere along the way, that self-centered idea of wanting to be a rock star turned into the idea that I’m also doing this for other people.”