The boys in the band
Mark Lee on the road with the Village People
by Robert Julian
The fractious personal and professional relationships of the Village People began in the 1970s with original lead singer Victor Willis. As recently as 2006, Willis pleaded no contest to charges stemming from a Daly City arrest for possessing cocaine and carrying a loaded firearm. Mark Lee, who replaced the group's original construction worker in 1982, was aware of the history of problems.
"Victor Willis had a major drug problem, and left the group just before the film Can't Stop the Music was made. At the time, he was married to Phylicia Rashad, who would later play Bill Cosby's wife on television. In the 1970s, she would actually go on tour with the Village People. I remember being told of one instance in which Willis was high and pointing a gun at his wife in the middle of a casino hallway. I think that was the last straw."
Willis was replaced by Ray Simpson, brother of Valerie Simpson of Ashford and Simpson. Like Willis, Simpson was not gay, and Lee remembers him fondly.
"Ray Simpson was the nicest guy you could ever meet. He was the only thing that made life on the road tolerable. The group never got along. We always worked fine on stage, but there were major issues backstage. It was the 80s, and there was a lot of drugs and drinking."
The challenges of life on the road did not improve anyone's disposition.
"We were on a grueling schedule. You fly 22 hours to Australia, get off the plane and do one interview immediately. You get to sleep for a few hours, and if you're lucky, there's no show that night. Then you get up the next day for a 6 a.m. radio show, do press all day, go home, have a bite, and do the first show at 7:30 followed by a second show at 10:30 or 11 p.m. Do that for three months, like we did in Australia with no days off, and do it year after year, and your nerves are shot.
"Every song is choreographed, and you're singing and dancing for two solid hours, traveling with a band as well. You're around each other every moment of every day, and it's enough to drive anyone crazy. And if you're already crazy from drinking, cocaine, or personal jealousy, well. Then there were the stage-door Johnnies. There were all these fights about who was going to get who. Some of us got along better than others. But Felipe Rose [the Indian] and Glenn Hughes [the leatherman] hated each other. It was beyond normalcy.
"My favorite story was when we did the album Sex on the Phone. It was a one-year project recorded completely in Paris, and released in 1985. We promoted it in Europe to get a hit, then used that success to try and score a hit in the States. One Sunday afternoon, we pulled up to a roller rink and, sure enough, that's where we were booked. We're singing in the middle of a roller rink! We were not into it.
"The kids were little high school kids who had never even heard of us. While we're waiting to go on, the sound system is playing punk music. Then the music stops and our little cassette tape starts playing. I always came out first and started the show, and each guy would follow me out, one at a time, after I began.
"Well, Felipe was getting really, really fat, and he and Glenn are bickering just before I walk out. Glenn says something like, 'If you don't lose some weight, you're going to be the dancing whale, not the Indian.' The second he says that, Felipe picks up this glass pitcher full of water that is sitting backstage and cracks it over Glenn's he
"I walk out trying to be all hot and sexy in front of these teenagers on roller skates, and Jeff Olson, the cowboy, follows me on stage. The two of us are out there by ourselves, wondering if anyone else is coming out. At the last moment, Glenn comes out, but Felipe is nowhere to be found. When the lights go out, Jeff says to me, 'I don't care if we have another hit or not. This is it. I'm out.'"
When disco died, the deluxe treatment of individual limousines, live bands, and hotel suites transitioned to buses, cassette tapes, and motels. AIDS was also a complication for group members, who were required by founder Jacques Morali never to acknowledge their homosexuality.
"In the beginning, we were sort of in the dark about AIDS. We were out of the country so much, we would hear stuff, but it didn't impact us. When we came back to the States, I heard things but didn't believe them. Then, one year, we were home for a few months, and I started making a list. Within a year, I had 35 people on it that I knew, and probably had slept with, who were dead. It hit me in a huge way.
"The health crisis forced the gay community to say, 'Are you guys gay? You need to come out now, because this is AIDS, and we're dying.' All along, the group had been saying they weren't gay, and Jacques [Morali, the Village People creator] was very coy about that. When we played Trocadero in San Francisco, there were people out front with signs asking fans to boycott our performance because we wouldn't come out. I thought they were right, but we were pressured not to say a word. We really wanted to be honest, because we thought the policy was such bullshit."
In his years with the Village People, Lee played stadiums with over 50,000 screaming fans, closing night at Studio 54 in Manhattan, and hundreds of performances in Las Vegas, where the group's opening acts included Joan Rivers and Debbie Reynolds. One night in Miami, at the club Casablanca, the opening act was a girl with black and blond hair and two swishy back-up dancers, who performed a song called "Lucky Star."
"I thought, 'What a wreck. This girl is going nowhere.' The girl was Madonna. She was egotistical and bitchy, but the drive was there even then."
The Village People went on hiatus in 1986, and Lee worked for several years as project manager for an architectural firm. Five years ago, he settled in Palm Springs and returned to performing as a singer and pianist for local restaurants, private parties, and corporate engagements throughout California.
Single for the last decade, Lee says he would like a relationship again. "I don't need someone for company or because I don't want to be alone. I'm good alone. But I want to be in love. I want the big deal, the real thing."
Until the real thing comes along, Lee remains content with his work, and the relaxed pace and warm weather of the desert.