'Macho Man,' 'Y.M.C.A.' about straight fun: publicist
TORONTO - Victor Willis, the troubled ex-frontman for the Village People, is mounting a comeback with a tell-all book detailing his frustration with his flamboyant gay bandmates and why they ultimately caused him to leave the group in the early '80s.
Willis, best-known for portraying the cop and the naval admiral in the '70s disco group, also reveals "Y.M.C.A." was written in Vancouver and was never meant to refer to gay cruising, says his publicist Alice Wolf.
Wolf says the group was on tour when Willis wrote the lyrics at the behest of the band's French producer, Jacques Morali, who wrote the music. But Willis never intended the homosexual innuendo that many fans read into the song.
"Victor Willis wrote about the YMCA and having fun there, but the type of fun he was talking about was straight fun," insists Wolf, adding that Willis has nothing against homosexuality.
"When he says, 'Hang out with all the boys'... he's talking about the boys, the fellas.... But it's one of those ambiguous songs that was taken that way because of the gay association with Village People."
"Y.M.C.A." and its infectious refrain went on to become one the biggest hits of the era, but for Willis it came to represent one of the biggest insults to his career, Wolf says in a phone interview from San Diego.
As the main lyricist and vocalist, Willis was responsible for classics including "In the Navy," "Macho Man" and "Go West," but was appalled by the homosexual subtext they took on, fearing that catering to a "niche" market would doom the group to failure, she says.
The group won a dedicated gay following through suggestive dance moves and macho personas including a cowboy, a construction worker, a soldier, an American Indian chief, a leather man and a cop.
But when a deal to promote the U.S. navy with the song "In the Navy" collapsed in 1979, Willis blamed the band's gay image for spoiling a huge opportunity, says Wolf.
He quit in frustration in 1980, seeking a solo career that never materialized.
In recent years, Willis has made headlines for a string of drug-related arrests that landed him on "America's Most Wanted" in 2005.
But Wolf says the 56-year-old has been sober for a year and a half, completed a drug treatment program in April and is eager to reclaim the songs that continue to earn him nearly $1 million a year in royalties. Wolf says he has refused all interviews since 1979 and would not comment for this story.
A comeback show in Las Vegas on Aug. 31 will mark 30 years since Willis first recorded as the Village People, says Wolf.
The show will be followed by an extensive tour that Wolf says will begin in Australia and take him to Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto in the spring of 2008. The tell-all book is expected to be released at around the same time, she says.
Willis's return to the spotlight comes as the current incarnation of the Village People prepares to visit Toronto on Aug. 17.
Now led by vocalist Ray Simpson, the band maintains a busy touring schedule supported by a diverse fanbase of children, seniors, straight couples and, of course, gay men.
Simpson took pains to divert attention from the personal lives of his bandmates, noting that he, too, is frustrated when the Village People are described as a gay group.
"They're straight, they're gay, they're Catholic, Protestant... it's black, white, Indian, it's a very diverse group," Simpson says of the current lineup.
"Thanks goodness that we're embraced by a lot of different people and a lot of different groups. ... The only way that you can actually exist ... as long as we've been doing this is by having mutual respect for each other and respecting the differences."
Simpson, who worked as a background singer during Willis's term, says he wasn't aware of the impending book, but wished his former colleague the best.
"All I can say is: for every story, there's another story," Simpson says of the memoir.
"Hopefully, he's on track to take care of his life."
Wolf says Willis's stage performance will include all of his biggest hits with the Village People, and several costume changes involving the group's trademark personas.
She says Willis is also trying to obtain the master recordings of a solo album he recorded after leaving the group but never released, for possible release next year.