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10/01/2012 18:46 GMT | Updated 11/03/2012 05:12 GMT

Eva Tanguay - A Rock Star Before Rock Existed

Tanguay was the biggest star of the time. She died 65 years ago this week, but her highpoint was one hundred years ago, during the first two decades of the 20th Century. There had never been anyone like her before. Nor was there afterwards. Not until Madonna and Lady Gaga dug up her soul and re-inhabited it.

Personality, that's the thing that always makes a hit

Your nationality or your rationality doesn't help or hinder you one bit

That was Eva Tanguay - America's first superstar. Her philosophy would one day be embraced by rock stars everywhere, "the singer not the song".

Tanguay was the biggest star of the time. She died 65 years ago this week, but her highpoint was one hundred years ago, during the first two decades of the 20th Century. There had never been anyone like her before. Nor was there afterwards. Not until Madonna and Lady Gaga dug up her soul and re-inhabited it.

Onstage, Tanguay simulated sex. She slurred and screeched and punctuated her songs with cackles. She poured bottles of champagne over her head, flailed her arms, and shimmied her breasts. Her bra was just an encumbrance. The law said she had to wear one onstage, but she didn't much care if her breasts stayed inside it or flopped out.

Aleister Crowley, the English occultist, was besotted by her. "She cannot sing, as others sing; or dance, as others dance. She simply keeps on vibrating, both limbs and vocal chords... I could kill myself at this moment for the wild love of her."

Eva Tanguay was a provocateur. Her songs were outrageous and, like Lady Gaga, she was a plotter of new looks. Her costumes were manic - bells, leaves, feathers, seashells, and coins. After the Lincoln penny was issued, Tanguay appeared in a coat made from 4,000 of them. Her most outrageous dress was just a whisp. "I can fit the entire costume in my closed fist," she boasted.

At her peak, she earned the highest salary of her day, $3500 a week. Wads of $1000 bills were her stock in trade. She once threw a stagehand down the stairs. He sued her for $50 and when the judge found in his favour Tanguay pulled out a wad of $1000 bills and handed him one.

Hurrying to her dressing-room, someone accidentally stepped in front of her. She stabbed him in the belly with a hatpin and when the police arrived to arrest her she threw wads of cash in their faces, shouting, "Take it all and let me go, for it is now my dinner time."

If these things got into the papers, it was usually because Tanguay put them there. Anything that happened to her, she used for publicity. When her jewels were stolen, she kept it on the front pages for days.

Like Madonna, who watched her mother die when she was four, then never stopped seeking attention as a substitute for love, Tanguay sought constant attention after her father died. Left with a penniless mother, she started working in the theatre at eight. As a chorus girl, she upset the others with too much shimmying. When another girl criticised her, Tanguay choked her till she turned blue and lost consciousness. When it got into the papers, she fell in love with notoriety. They called her "cyclonic" and "volcanic", so she left the chorus and started on her own, incorporating those qualities into her act.

Whirling onstage like a dervish she got terrible cramps. After shows, to unknot her leg muscles, stagehands beat them with wooden staves. Her aim was to spin so fast "no one will be able to see my bare legs".

Tanguay was a rock star before they existed. She arranged her own coast-to-coast tours and broke box office records everywhere. She was a poor singer, an indelicate dancer, and her hair was piled up in a tangled mess, but it worked. Especially her trademark song, "I Don't Care."

If I'm never successful, it won't be distressful,
 'cos I don't care

No one can "phase" me by calling me crazy, 'cos I don't care

The song was long and wordy and perfectly defined her character - provocative, wild, sexual, and indifferent to society's opinon. In 1922, almost at the end of her stage career, she recorded it, the only record she ever made. It was at the time when record companies were just becoming an important part of the music industry. Staid and cautious, they would never invest in someone so controversial. Which is why no one else like her emerged until after the rock revolution in the sixties.

Tanguay married and divorced three times but kept the best part of her love for her dog. When it died, she kept its heart for years in a glass jar. In the Wall Street crash she lost everything - almost two million dollars, and in the 1930s she retired from show business with kidney disease and arthritis. She ended up broke, bedridden and blind, and died in 1947, aged 67.

In 1953 Mitzi Gaynor played her in a Hollywood biopic called The I Don't Care Girl. Madonna and Lady Gaga have been playing her ever since.