Twist: An American Girl – musician Adele Bertei’s memoir details her troubled and triumphant early years in Cleveland’s underground counter-culture scene
Adele Bertei has sang backup vocals for Culture Club, Whitney Houston, Sandra Bernhard, and Matthew Sweet among others. She’s also released records as a solo artist, and has had international dance and pop hits with Thomas Dolby (“Hyperactive!”) and Jellybean (“Just a Mirage”), along with writing songs for artists as diverse as Sheena Easton, Arthur Baker, Lydia Lunch, and the Pointer Sisters.
In the ’70s, Adele fronted the punk band the Wolves in Cleveland, OH with Pere Ubu bandmate Peter Laughner, which became the basis of her first book, Peter and the Wolves. His sudden death prompted her move to NYC in 1977 where she immersed herself in the counter-cultural movements of art, film, music, and literature happening there at that time. A founding member of The Contortions (produced by none other than Brian Eno), she dove deep into the underground, having toured the world with her other band, The Bloods, America’s first out, queer, all-women-rock band. Her second book Why Labelle Matters was also extremely well-received, and it’s the only work of its kind, exploring the groundbreaking trio of Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash, and how their band Labelle revolutionized the way women in music were perceived.
The new Twist: An American Girl is a memoir about her troubled upbringing with her mother who suffered from undiagnosed schizophrenia, her subsequent placing in foster homes and reform schools, her discovery of her own queer identity, and her appreciation of music.
“Some names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty,” says Bertei: At times tragic, and other times triumphant, its told with a keenly observant eye and a wicked sense of humour, It’s a deeply personal story that takes place between 1965 through 1972, the formative years of Bertei’s youth in Cleveland, OH.
A bare, frank, and unflinching retelling of her life, TWIST is a first-person account told by “Maddie Twist,” a stand-in for Bertei herself. “I needed protection while taking the journey back through the war zones of my youth,” Bertei explains of her avatar, which helped her maintain journalistic integrity and a safe distance to relay experiences that might otherwise be too personal, harrowing or painful to reveal.
Bertei provided the following description on her Instagram page: “Schizophrenia. Italian mobsters. Women, crucified by misogyny. Imagination as savior. Racial prejudice and homophobia. Poverty. Abundance: books and music and Catholic saints. Poet killers. The abyss that is rape and violence. Sisters of the Good Shepherd, a U.S. Magdalene laundry. Teenage lesbian sex. Girl-gangsters and faux-pimps. The Disposables. Racial tensions, misconceived divides. The Holy Maudlins. Vietnam vets in dark and light. Rollerskating. Drag shows, and a fairy godmother. Cabaret. True family. Rock and roll. And the ultimate saving grace—Love.”
Through the eyes of Maddie Twist, Bertei threads together the tapestry of an extraordinary, troubled childhood, beginning with her mother, whose delusions of grandeur and undiagnosed schizophrenia bring both wonders and horrors to Maddie’s home. Once Maddie is removed by child protective services, she begins a wild journey through foster homes and reformatories with a band of outcast peers, learning about and eventually embracing her identity as a queer artist. As she ages out of the juvenile justice system and finds herself navigating the world alone, Maddie’s only constant is a ribbon of music that weaves itself around her heart. She can sing, and she is certain that her voice will be the beacon that guides her towards another life.
TWIST explores her life and world before her thrust into the spotlight, mining the origins of the stories and experiences that would propel her forward. In frank prose without an ounce of self-pity, Twist is an episodic survival of the fittest, navigating the crooked rivers of poverty, race, sexuality, and gender. It is a world of little girl gangsters, drag queen solidarity, wild roller-skating, and magical thinking. With Twist, Bertei gives us a story of violence and madness, of heartbreak and perseverance, and, ultimately, redemption.
“TWIST is true to the cultural time and how it felt to be me in 1965 through 1972; white, working-class, poor, queer, abandoned, and hungry for belonging,” Bertei writes. “I have remained faithful to the way people talked and how they acted. When I describe people and events, I’m expressing my teenage thoughts through the lens of memory. History is fact and cannot be whitewashed and put through a rinse cycle of lies and omissions to avoid triggering another’s feelings, group sensitivities, or collective guilt… Twist: An American Girl tells of my learning this truth; faith in the goodness of people—and having the courage to keep looking for and finding that goodness—is the antidote to suffering and the heart-song of communion.”
TWIST is part of a trilogy of memoirs by Adele Bertei. Peter and the Wolves recounts her time with seminal punk musician Peter Laughner of Pere Ubu, while Why LaBelle Matters is about her musical experiences once in New York. Check out this exclusive Spotify playlist that Berei put together to accompany the book. Also, be sure to check out her YouTube channel from some great flashback videos of her early music days.
Available from Ze Books.
ADELE BERTEI began playing music in Cleveland with Pere Ubu’s legendary Peter Laughner, and as an original member of the Contortions, produced by Brian Eno on No New York. She was lead singer of the first out, queer, all-women rock band, the Bloods. Her singing and songwriting career includes recording, performing live, and writing for such diverse acts as Thomas Dolby, Tears for Fears, Culture Club, Whitney Houston, Scritti Politti, Sheena Easton, Jellybean Benitez, Lydia Lunch, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, the Pointer Sisters, and John Lurie. Bertei played a lead role in Lizzie Borden’s seminal feminist sci-fi film Born in Flames. She is the author of two previous books: Peter and the Wolves, and Why Labelle Matters, a finalist for the 2022 Lambda Literary Awards. Twist is the story of how it all started. Read more here.
About the Author
Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist based in Toronto with a focus on tourism, lifestyle, entertainment and community issues. He has written several travel articles and has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He’s willing to take on any assignments of interest, attend parties with free booze, listen to rants, and travel the world in search of the great unknown. He’s eager to discover the new, remember the past, and look into the future.