On plaster, "manhood," and what it means to be a female artist AND fan.
Before I get into this one, I want to thank you all for the warm reception on In Defense of Greta Van Fleet. It’s the most love I’ve ever received on anything I’ve written. That really means a lot, seeing as it’s the first writing that’s really felt like me.
The night before that post went up, the rock-and-roll world got the news that legendary groupie Cynthia Plaster Caster had died. It’s been 3 weeks since her passing. Quite honestly, I feel like a let-down for not getting a tribute to her posted sooner.
What got me thinking about Ms. Plaster Caster’s legacy in detail was all the tributes that went up in the days immediately following her death. My god, they were all so cheap. Those articles reduced her immense legacy down to a salacious headline; as if all she did was make casts of rock stars’ penises. I don’t get twisted up over headlines often, but seeing a deeply revered groupie queen be reduced to...that...it pissed me off.
So here’s a real tribute to Cynthia Plaster Caster for you. Here’s the story of a “recovering groupie” who made a wholly original place for herself in rock-and-roll history.
Pictured: My favorite photo of Cynthia Plaster Caster, date and photographer unknown.
Cynthia Albritton was born May 24th, 1947 – a fellow Gemini woman! – and lived in Chicago nearly all her life. Her incredible legacy was born of a quest to complete an art school homework assignment. The prompt? Simply “make a mold of something hard.” Back then, Albritton was a “horny, teenage virgin” (her words!) obsessed with rock music. She was a Beatlemaniac in her youth and adored the British rock-and-rollers. It’s not hard to deduce the thought process that lead to her first plaster cast. Is it really so wrong to want to sleep with a rock star? Like all the great rock stars she took a stage name. Cynthia Albritton the shy art student became Cynthia Plaster Caster; groupie-artist extraordinaire. (It was sometimes stylized Cynthia P. Caster, which is just so sweet and funny to me.) Her duo with fellow caster Dianne was dubbed “The Plaster Casters of Chicago.”
Cynthia quickly became famous in the rock-and-roll scene for her plaster replicas of of select rock stars’ members. This will surprise many, but Plaster Caster’s artistic process was fairly un-sexy. There isn’t much that’s sexy about inserting your erection into a cold, pasty bucket of alginate. (That’s the medium that makes the mold, which the plaster gets poured into to make the replica.) Even less was the newspapers all over the floor, and the prospect of the alginate hardening before getting it all the way in. The latter happened more than once! She’s most famous for her cast of guitar god Jimi Hendrix; number 0004 of her works. In true Hendrix fashion he was the first rock star to agree to being cast! But I found out about Cynthia’s work from her casts of subjects 0010 and 0011: Dennis Thompson and Wayne Kramer of – WHO ELSE – the MC5. (I can and will bring that band up in any post I can, dammit!!)
Pictured: Cynthia (left) and Dianne (right) Plaster Caster for Rolling Stone, posing with select penis casts. (Photographed by Baron Wolman, 1969.)
Through the ’90s and 2000s she expanded her work to include female artists like Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and even herself. She’s been the subject of several documentaries including 2001’s Plaster Caster. Like all the other video content I need for my writing – A True Testimonial, the “Foxey Lady” video, I could go on – the Plaster Caster film is impossible to find! (Part of me is considering digging my external CD drive out of my old art school stuff and shelling out $20+ for a bootlegged DVD copy.) But from all the clips of her that are on YouTube and Vimeo, you can see how much fun she was. Her collection of penis-shaped things in her apartment (straws, strings of lights, a freakin’ Oscar Meyer weeniemobile hanging from the ceiling) was HILARIOUS. She had the sweetest smile, and she was so candid about her artistic process. She knew it was bonkers, and she owned it all.
Above: The Plaster Caster (2001) trailer. I’d be fanning myself sitting next to Wayne Kramer, too!!
Her relevance to the groupie canon is equally paramount as her art. Cynthia was good friends with fellow groupie queen Pamela Des Barres. They’d write each other letters back and forth from California to Chicago. If Cynthia hadn’t saved all of Pamela’s letters, I’m With The Band may not have been possible! Who got Pamela into Led Zeppelin, thereby indirectly facilitating her meeting Jimmy Page? It was Cynthia, of course!
Miss Pamela’s mentor, Frank Zappa, financed Cynthia’s brief move to LA. He introduced the Plaster Casters to the GTO’s over the phone. This meeting appears as spoken word tracks on the GTO’s Zappa-produced record, Permanent Damage. The late great Baron Wolman, another dear friend of Pamela’s, photographed the Plaster Casters for his Groupies series for Rolling Stone. Not to mention there’s several songs about Cynthia! Kiss’s “Plaster Caster” and Jim Croce’s “Five Short Minutes” come to mind. For a number of years she was trying to write a memoir called Plaster of Paradise; the title being a play on her medium of choice, plaster of Paris. Pamela will now be finishing Cynthia’s book.
Above: An adorable excerpt from Let’s Spend The Night Together (2010) of Cynthia Plaster Caster giving Miss Pamela a tour of her Chicago apartment. The two then go gallivanting around the city in search of Cynthia’s latest subject. Their friendship really was the sweetest.
One thing that almost none of the other Cynthia Plaster Caster tributes dig into is the Plaster Caster v. Cohen court case. And if those tributes have covered it, it’s a mere footnote to more “bizarre antics.” In the wake of a break-in at Plaster Caster’s apartment, Herb Cohen offered to hold onto her artwork. It was agreed that he’d keep her collection until his client Frank Zappa’s planned exhibition of her work. There was a 9-year lull in Cynthia’s artistic career and the exhibition fell through, but Cohen still wouldn’t turn her works over. This lead to Cynthia filing a court case to expedite their return in 1991. She was awarded all but 3: numbers 0017, 0019 and 0024.
There’s something to be said for Plaster Caster v. Cohen that I don’t think anyone else has put their finger on. Cynthia’s art is a personification of ownership of sexual freedom. In a lot of ways, making plaster replicas of penises WAS the sexual revolution of the ’60s. It celebrates manhood (no pun intended I swear!!) and feminism alike. Cynthia Plaster Caster winning most of her works back made a statement about ownership of art. Turns out that statement is intrinsically tied to bodily autonomy and free expression of sexuality. “Free love” at its finest. As an artist and a groupie, she did whatever she wanted with whoever she wanted to do it with. The outcomes of that artistic process belong to her, the artist; and that was clear from the get-go when these musicians agreed to be a part of her collection.
In 2000, she was finally able to stage her first gallery show. Damn, do I wish I could’ve attended one of her exhibitions. I would’ve been annoying with all my questions. What was art school like for you? Which of the guys smelled the best? Did you ever run out of something in the middle of a cast? What is being a female artist and a female fan to you? It’s a space very few women get to fill.
The recent “RIP Cynthia” headlines reduce her art to nothing more than sexy “groupie antics.” But what Cynthia did wasn’t about the shock value. Cynthia had this uncanny ability to sense exactly who embodied the essence of rock-and-roll. She immortalized them in the most intimate way through her art. As much as her artistic process worshipped rock-and-roll’s zenith, it was also humanizing. Let’s be frank: there’s nothing more human than genitals. Her art cemented a place for groupies in rock-and-roll history, for women in art, and for rock-and-roll in art history.
While yes, the shock value did propel her into the world of rock-and-roll, Cynthia’s art was perhaps the highest act of devotion. She was a lover of the music first. That’s what being a groupie is.
In the later half of her career, Cynthia called herself a “recovering groupie.” But what does that mean exactly? It implies being a groupie is something you can recover from. Like the stomach bug that kept you home from school.
From my (admittedly limited) perspective, I don’t feel being a groupie is ever something you truly “recover” from. I think you’re born with it. Either you love rock-and-roll and rock musicians like groupies do or you don’t. You can’t run from it and you can’t really rescind it. Like I’ve said, I was attracted to the sequins and the crooners and the guitar-wielding titans before I knew what rock-and-roll was. One day you become aware of the bug you’ve always had. That’s why you think you’ve “caught it.”
I’d loved to have asked Cynthia that big question: Were you born with it too?
If anything, Cynthia’s passing has lit a fire under my ass to meet my heroes. I’ve got one who's feasible to meet: Miss Pamela. I’ll be sure to ask her about Cynthia Plaster Caster when I do. Naïve as this may be, I hope to one day fill the role that groupies fill for us now. I don’t deify rock stars. That is a very slippery slope. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with immortalizing them; through plaster replicas of genitals or otherwise.
Cynthia Plaster Caster was a rare intersection of a true, old-school rock-and-roll groupie and an artist. A creator serious enough about her craft to legitimize it but joyous enough to see the humor and fun. She was the duality between female artist and female fan. There’s few things more quintessentially Gemini than duality. She was one of very few living links to a bygone era, now joining the canon of the greats in death. Dare I say she was a modern-day Michelangelo; the Michelangelo of rock-and-roll. In a lot of ways, she WAS “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.”
Insert terrible pun about “breaking the mold” here. Rest easy, Cynthia. From a wannabe groupie to a recovering one, you are already terribly missed. And I will be terribly, terribly disappointed if your memorial isn’t phallus-shaped.
Pictured: Cynthia posing in front of a projection of the film The Grasshopper (photographed by John Connors.)