Margaret Cho Opens Up About How Joan Rivers and the Go-Go’s Changed Her Life

Lyndsey Parker

Strolling through the aisles of Hollywood’s Record Parlour store, sifting through bins crammed with more than 50,000 vintage vinyl albums, comedian/musician/TV host/rabid music fan Margaret Cho heads for the comedy section and excitedly grabs a copy of 1983’s What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most, by her comic idol and Fashion Police predecessor, Joan Rivers.

“This is the best. This is a classic. A classic!” Cho exclaims, clutching the album to her bosom. “This should belong in any comedy fan’s arsenal. This is very, very important and very influential. She was a huge inspiration. And then she became my friend, my mentor, and was always there for me — like if I had a bad night or a bad show or something. She was always very, very supportive.”

Some might be surprised to find out that barbed-tongued Rivers, who took no prisoners when it came to her comedy and harsh fashion critiques, was such a sweet mother figure in real life. But Cho got to see a softer side of Rivers, who passed away in 2014.

“It was a healing force that she had, this incredible softness to her that people just don’t really understand,” Cho recalls fondly. “People sort of think of her as hard and mean — this kind of very cruel, biting tongue. But she was so gentle and loving and warm. She was so generous to me. She would do absolutely anything I asked. She was always just incredible.”

Cho — who cites her childhood “imaginary friends” the Go-Go’s as the main musical influence that “changed the way I thought about feminism … they gave you confidence to do whatever you wanted to in life” — was up for a Best Comedy Album Grammy this year for her second full-length release, American Myth. Other nominees included fellow modern-day female comic trailblazers Tig Notaro and Amy Schumer, and Cho tells Yahoo Music, “I do think that the comedy industry has become much more female-centric. [Rolling Stone just put out] ‘The 50 Best Standup Comedians of All Time’ list, and Wanda Sykes and I were on it, along with a lot of other great, incredible women — which is really important.”

Cho didn’t win the Grammy, but since she hosted the Grammy Awards’ pre-telecast ceremony, she was able to give her acceptance speech anyway. It consisted of three words: “F*** Donald Trump!” And she says she “would love to do a political album” someday. “The time for it is now, certainly,” asserts Cho. “What I noticed growing up is that rock ’n’ roll really flourishes during difficult times. I was in the ’80s going to tons of ‘Rock Against Reagan’ shows, where you were seeing the Dead Kennedys, Flipper, Black Flag. And then later on, there was a lot of punk-rock stuff, like grunge was happening during the first President Bush. And during the second Bush, we saw more of a rise of hip-hop. So I feel like music is getting more politicized, especially last year, with the entire Black Lives Matter movement being really pushed up by musicians like Kendrick Lamar. So I would love to do a protest record, but also in the theme of great mighty protest songs from the ’60s.”

Take a journey through the record crates with Margaret’s vinyl shopping list, in which she reveals the other strong women, besides Joan Rivers and the Go-Go’s, who have rocked her world (Diana Ross, Juliana Hatfield, Tegan and Sara, the Human League, the Divinyls); her affection for other late legends (David Bowie, Prince, George Michael); that time Lady Gaga and Katy Perry opened for her in concert; and the fashion inspo she has taken from Marc Bolan and Bananarama.

The Go-Go’s, Beauty and the Beat

“These girls were my imaginary friends. I didn’t have a lot of friends in school. But when I got home and I could put this record on, I had friends. It showed me that women could rock out. This is the first concert I ever went to … it was like what I imagine what a Taylor Swift show would be today. Or even, let’s say, a Spice Girls show.

“This record, I mean, it changed everything. It really changed the way that I thought about rock ’n’ roll. It changed the way I even thought about feminism, you know? They were the first big girl group who played their own instruments, wrote their own songs.

“The Go-Go’s used to live at an apartment complex in L.A. they called Disgraceland — making ice cubes out of their own pee, throwing them at guys they didn’t like. This is a whole punk-rock legacy. The average bear would not necessarily know that they were rock stars from the very get-go, you know. But Led Zeppelin has nothing on them. Nor does Mötley Crüe. These girls were decadent. They lived really hard and were around really intensely male scenes, and still held their own.

“They gave you confidence to do whatever you wanted to in life — that if you wanted to go into this field that was male-dominated, it gave us all permission to do this and do our dream the way we wanted. And for that, I will be eternally grateful to the Go-Go’s.”

Wham!, Fantastic, and George Michael, Faith

“I love Andrew Ridgeley and of course, the mighty, mighty George Michael. The gorgeousness of this guy. It’s crazy how beautiful he was, how beautiful his voice was. [On Fantastic], they had this weird kind of shouty thing, kind of almost like a 1950s-James Dean look, but their songs were almost what we now know as hip-hop. There was a kind of a hip-hop fusion, melding genres. It’s very electric and poppy, but also there’s a soul element to it.

“My favorite George Michael song has gotta be ‘Father Figure.’ And I love ‘Freedom,’ I love ‘Too Funky’ — all of these songs that came out of a lot of angst. ‘I Want Your Sex,’ which I loved, when he was trying to be straight, when he had the Asian girl in the video, his girlfriend. Usually I think when you have an Asian girlfriend, that’s the last stop to gay. I’m serious! So many guys that I’ve been with have become gay!

“I remember, it was 1992 or something, and I had just done a movie. And I was at the premiere, and George Michael was there. I saw him from across the room. He saw me, because he had just seen me in the movie. And we had this moment of, like, looking at each other. And we started walking towards each other. And then somebody grabbed him and whisked him away. And I never got to meet him. I’ve met a lot of my heroes, like a lot of people I really, really admire and love. But I never got to meet him.”

Prince, Sign o’ the Times

“I’m actually in a Prince cover band called the Purple Ones. They’re so hard, these songs, like ‘Get Off,’ which is the hardest song to sing. I can’t even do it now, I’m so out of practice. I just can’t even say how much I love this record, Sign o’ the Times. I mean, this has got so many great songs, like ‘Ballad of Dorothy Parker,’ which is my second-favorite Prince song. My very, very favorite Prince song is off of 1999, it’s called ‘International Lover.’ I don’t do that one, but I do ‘17 Days’ and I do ‘Darling Nikki.’

“I never got to meet Prince either, because I was too afraid. I was always so intimidated when he was in the room. The last time I saw him was at the Golden Globes. I looked out in the audience and I saw him, and he had the big natural [hair] and his glasses, the third-eye glasses. And then I was backstage with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and he came around the side, and he was talking to them. I was so scared, I couldn’t say anything. I was so intimidated. I could have spoken to him. I just didn’t, out of sheer terror.

“I don’t even know what I’d say if I meant George Michael or Prince. It’s almost like too much to put into words. I think, just the way that they made me feel, the way that they helped me out, you know? And also the way that they colored the rest of my existence — through their voices, through their songs, their sound. I think my life became so much richer for their work.”

David Bowie, Best of Bowie

“I love David Bowie. I was able to meet him because I wrote his press releases. It wasn’t actually a press release; I had written blog posts all about David Bowie and his life and what he meant to me, and I had put them up on my blog. He didn’t like doing press, so for the Reality tour, he would take parts of my blog and just send them out, because he really loved it. So he invited me to come to a bunch of shows. He was such a great, beautiful man. We took pictures together and I was crying. This was before selfies.

“The most meaningful Bowie song is ‘Life on Mars,’ I think, because that’s a song that has been with me ever since I was a teenager. I think it’s just so beautiful, so majestic. It shows off the piano at its best. [I’ve covered] ‘Moonage Daydream,’ which is a great one, because it’s all over the place: ‘I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa coming for yooooou.’ You get this crazy alien thing happening. That’s a good song for me to cover; I actually have a similar register as him, so I can do some of his songs OK. So that’s one that I really love.”

Billy Joel, Glass Houses

“This is an incredible album. This is where Billy Joel was trying to break out — as you can see from the cover, he’s trying to break out — of sort of the ‘Piano Man’ ballad troubadour. He was gonna go into this very rock ’n’ roll thing. … You know, I think he was battling a lot with depression. I look back at this and I go, ‘Oh, this is a bipolar record.’ I don’t know if he is bipolar, but this is what it sounds like to me. Like it’s sort of got all of this obsessive sexuality. Like on ‘All for Leyna,’ he is so in love with this girl and he’s gonna stalk her, and he doesn’t care about how he’s doing in school or what anybody thinks; he just wants to be with Leyna. ‘Sometimes a Fantasy,’ I remember the video — it was him basically obscene-phone-calling this woman and her getting into it at the end.

“I remember getting this album and thinking, ‘Wow, like I understand. I understand music.’ I was probably 8. Half of my family live in Toronto, so I was there for the summer, and it was real trippy because it was like all these Korean kids speaking French. And we played this record to death, we just loved it so much. I even bought the complete sessions. This is one of those records where every song is perfectly curated. When I make albums now, I try to lay them out the way somebody would do like if they were putting it out in the ’70s.”

T. Rex, Tanx

“Marc Bolan from T. Rex, Tyrannosaurus Rex — he’s incredible. He was just such a beautiful man, so stylish. I love his hair. [Tyrannosaurus Rex band member] Steve Took was so glam too. He was so glam-rock that he died choking on a cherry pit. That’s true! He choked on a cherry pit and died, which is the most glam-rock way to go. I mean, it’s like the flip side of Mama Cass and the ham sandwich.

“I get a lot of fashion ideas from Marc Bolan. He had a television show on the BBC, and on the show there’s this one part where he’s actually onstage with David Bowie, and he’s so glam-rock, and then he falls offstage and disappears. It’s so funny, I love it! [The show] had these weird dancers, like the ‘Marc Bolan Dancers’ — they were almost like a precursor to the Solid Gold Dancers, but a little more tame and not as sexual, not as feline. But that’s a great show for fashion.”

Tegan and Sara, The Con

“This is my breakup soundtrack. I like the early stuff, and their later stuff too — but I love the album that has ‘Nineteen.’ It’s a healing song. That song has ibuprofen in it. I really think it does.”

The Human League, Dare/Fascination!

“I’m obsessed with the Human League. Like, I am crazy about them, because they do this weird thing where they have the girls establish a beat. All of their songs have these very strange, kind of somber tones, set by these girls, and then there’s this crazy, soaring male vocal on top. Phil Oakey and the Human League had been around for a long time, but they didn’t get to where they are until they had the two girls. The girls really brought them into another territory, and then they became so successful relatively overnight with this new formation of the band.

“Their makeup is so good. In the ‘Mirror Man’ video, you see them jooshing up their hair and their makeup, their little short haircuts. They’ve really got this Princess Diana thing going on, which is so fabulous. They all come up onstage with their fur coats and then they take them off, and they have their synthesizers sort of in a circle. It’s just so ’80s, and so cool.”

The Tubes, The Completion Backward Principle

“This is art rock. This is San Francisco rock, I think, at its best. You know, a lot of people say the San Francisco sound is Janis Joplin or Jefferson Airplane or the Grateful Dead. And all that is very important, of course. But I love the Tubes. Their sound is so clean and so not like the sort of prog-rock beginnings that they had. This is where they really shifted into high new-wave gear. Their sound is just so synthetic, in the very best way. Everything about this is curated so beautifully.

“They were super-weird. The closest band comparison would be when Peter Gabriel was still in Genesis. They were super-weird. They were sort of in the same league as the Residents, who are also from San Francisco. Very strange, very orchestral, not so pleasing to the ear, but I love this record. I actually have this on cassette and on vinyl.”

Divinyls, Divinyls

“It was really sad when [lead singer] Christina Amphlett died. The day she died, I was in Perth, Australia. The Divinyls are a very, very iconic, very important Australian band. Before I came out [onstage], I blasted ‘I Touch Myself,’ and people were screaming and crying and shouting out. It was phenomenal.”

Megadeth, Dystopia

“My favorite thing of the entire day hosting the Grammys pre-telecast this year was presenting Best Metal Album to Megadeth. This is their 13th nomination in this category, and they very much were the Susan Lucci of metal. And they were so excited. I know Dave Mustaine, and I know that this was something he had really wanted. And this is something they really deserved.”

Lady Gaga, The Fame

“I think I would love to sing karaoke with Lady Gaga. I think she’s great. I just think she’s an amazing singer, and she’s kind of fun. She’s in a weird sort of music box; she can do anything. I haven’t met her before, but you know, I did a show, and Katy Perry and Lady Gaga both opened for me. I was the headliner, oddly. This was many, many years ago, of course.”

Roxy Music, Roxy Music

“The one song that is my anthem is probably ‘Virginia Plain.’ I love that song. There’s something about it that is just so quirky and so interesting. I think of all the songs, I’ve listened to that song more than anything else. Bryan Ferry is a very nice man, too. I met him [backstage at a concert] … and he was so beautiful, just like you think he’s gonna be, just this majestic guy with his tuxedo tie untied, beautiful. I love him.”

Diana Ross, The Greatest

“Diana Ross is an icon. People forget all of her accomplishments. Like, you think about the Supremes, but there’s so much more. So much disco. So much rock ’n’ roll, actually. So much soul, so much R&B. She’s her own genre in a lot of ways. She’s also such a movie star. Her image and everything is so fabulous.”

M, New York · London · Paris · Munich

“This is pop, pop, pop music. It’s sort of in the vein of the Buggles’ ‘Video Killed the Radio Star.’ This is like when we were listening to synthesizers for the first time. This was around the same time as Tubeway Army and Gary Numan. So there was like this weird, robotic, sonic thing, like, ‘We’re gonna show our love of these weird giant computers and cars’ and all this stuff.”

Information Society, Information Society

“This is interesting, because this is when the ’80s were starting to fade into the ’90s. And so this is sort of like where they were using sampling, they were programming, using synthesizers, but they were much more aggressive-sounding. So you had a lot of these percussive textures that now you understand. This is a very influential band.”

Malcolm McLaren, Fans

“Malcolm McLaren, of course, is a very famous manager, a sort of impresario of the Sex Pistols and Adam and the Ants, Bow Wow Wow. This was opera, but it was also, I think, the very beginnings of electronica. I think the children of this record probably would be what Underworld does. And also, that horrible Enigma song. It’s like a Gregorian chant, but they turn it into some weird sex music, very ’80s sex music. This is what started all of that. And then the father to this would be ‘A Fifth of Beethoven,’ when they disco’d Beethoven up. But this is great. I love Malcolm’s track ‘Madam Butterfly’; it’s probably the one song that was used most during fashion shows in the ’80s and ’90s.”

The Belle Stars, The Belle Stars; Bananarama, Deep Sea Skiving; and Scandal, The Warrior

“I love the ’80s. Like, I love Scandal, with Patty Smyth. They really have that look of American Apparel: off the shoulder, a sweatshirt dress with a belt, leggings, pointy, pointy heels. It’s a very, very good look.

“I also love the way that the Belle Stars dressed. They were very New Romantic, like when Bananarama was New Romantic, that sort of Deep Sea Skiving look with the crazy hair and the big black hat and the paper-bag jeans and moccasins. The Belle Stars were like that, but amped up. They almost looked like they could be Prince protégés, but mixed with New Romantic.

“You know, I still do a huge giant hat. I’ll wear it towards the back, like Boy George, sometimes with another hat under it. Maybe a scarf and then a hat. It’s very Pete Burns, who I loved. I loved the eye patch. I would wear an eye patch, but it makes me have a headache. I also love the lace-over-the-eye look, like Prince Be in P.M. Dawn.”

The Afghan Whigs, Gentlemen; Blake Babies, Sunburn; The Lemonheads, It’s a Shame About Ray; Sugar, Copper Blue; and Failure, Fantastic Planet

“I am such a huge fan of bands like Blake Babies, Juliana Hatfield — all of Juliana Hatfield’s bands. I love the Lemonheads. I love Sugar. I was for a long time following the Afghan Whigs on tour, and I was also following Failure on tour. The ’90s to me were so important. The music at that point was so loud! Like, I feel I got the most of my hearing damage then — I can trace it back to a 311 show that I went to. [Laughs] And I went to so many Afghan Whigs shows and blew out my ears.”

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