Back in March, when Madonna told us from her rose-petal-filled bathtub that the novel coronavirus was the great equalizer, she wasn't kidding. In Ms. Ciccione's chosen profession, musicians great and small who would be touring the world this summer are now livestreaming from their living rooms.
Paisley Yankolovich's chosen profession is saving souls, and the musician who's described his ministry as "The Rocky Horror Jesus Show" has seen a bump in Sunday viewers since Arizonans started staying home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For better or worse, he's now on equal footing with the megachurch whose flock can no longer, well, flock together. And he's vying for the same salvation-hungry youths as the two Phoenix pastors whose church hosted a Trump rally in June and bore false witness to their air-filtration system that could kill "99 percent of COVID within 10 minutes."
Born Daniel Robert Glickman, Yankolovich changed his moniker two years after his conversion to Christianity at the age of 21. "God gave me a new name when He gave me a new heart," he says.
"Being gay, Jewish, and Christian," he adds, "whatever the next holocaust is, I’ve got my suitcase packed and ready to be rounded up."
The new dynamic of Yankolovich preaching every Sunday through Facebook since March has added an immediacy he hasn't enjoyed in a long time. People reach out 24/7. "The need for actual connection has grown immensely during the pandemic," he notes. "I'm glad I'm able to spend so many hours with people, but also to introduce them to others that are in the same boat."
Yankolovich, who calls himself the "Sinister Minister," livestreams from his kitchen. The room — currently bereft of tables, cooking islands, or the rows of chairs where pre-pandemic parishioners once sat — takes its decorating cues from the Christmas- and Halloween-themed houses you find in Glendale. The Kitchen is a medley of those two holidays, with Easter bunnies and Valentine's hearts thrown in for good measure.
On his July 5 livestream, Yankolovich started off with a rousing trilogy of acoustic songs, covers of The Cramps' "Sinners" and Blind Willie Johnson's "Nobody's Fault But Mine," plus "Bullshit," written by Barry Reynolds and Grace Jones, which he wrote new lyrics for: "I'm sick and tired of this bullshit / Jesus come down and save us." The roots of Yankolovich's DIY gospel music run from Broadway shows to Lou Reed and The New York Dolls to cowpunk. He once fronted a popular band called Jerry's Kids in L.A. in the early '80s.
With Black Lives Matter still on everyone's minds, Yankolovich's weekly sermon recounts how in the late '70s, he experienced being pulled over for driving while being Jewish to illustrate how long cops have enacted their rogue justice through racial profiling. When some people post on his Facebook page about "uppity Blacks," he quotes the Bible to show how everything they're saying flies in direct opposition of the New Testament. "Christians have become so lazy [about] knowing Jesus personally that they are sloths spiritually starving themselves," he says.
After ushering the Kitchen attendees off the feed with a final hymn, Yankolovich leaves the room to check today's comments and responds in kind, much the same way a priest would shake hands with everyone at the end of Mass. He seems surprised that no one ever posts anything mean. Even the crank who argued with him on Facebook about the notion of singing the Black National Anthem at sporting events has donated to the ministry.
Yankolovich has been doing house ministry for 38 years and supersized his Paisley persona to reach the growing number of suicidal gay teens disillusioned by the modern church.
"People dance around in chicken suits on the street to get you to go to their taco stand, and the dresses and combat boots were my chicken suit."
"You would think my ministry would be packed with punk kids, goth kids, queers," he continues, "but my ministry has always been financially supported by financially conservative Christians — a lot of times, married, straight white couples that hated queers until they met me and had an epiphany."
He's quick to point out that the money has never elevated him over the poverty line. He may have moved over 3 million copies of his 20-plus album discography but that doesn't mean he's sold 3 million copies.
And it's not like he hasn't mulled over the concept of a plague before. Back in 2013, when he still donning dresses, makeup, and combat boots, he recorded a concept album called Typhoid Mary.
"I always wanted to create something about a pandemic," he says. "I always said that there will be an after-AIDS, something that has no name, and evil, fake Christians would rise to power. I shamelessly call myself a prophet, and here's some proof."
People of all stripes who seek him for spiritual guidance know that they’re not going to be judged. "I‘ll say to people, 'Aww, honey if that’s the worst thing you can do, you’re in the right place,'" he beams. "The good news is I’ve left no stop unturned in this life. The only thing I haven’t done is murder someone, but I’m still young."
Which begs the question: What is the worst thing that Yankolovich has done? He reaches back to 1982 in Los Angeles, when he first became a Christian and tried fitting into the normal, white conservative church.
"I went to what is still considered to the most charismatic, respectable Holy Spirit churches on the planet and was recognized immediately as someone who had spiritual gifts and musical talent. So I was trained as a disciple by some amazing people. But we’re all guilty standing there knowing what we're seeing is wrong and not doing anything about it.
"I remember just sitting there thinking, 'This is all such bullshit, this is not real.' But I want this. I want the pulpit, I want the suit. And when it's my turn, I will fix this. That’s what politicians do, but by the time you get there, you’re so corrupt."
Worse, he subjected himself to the "pray away the gay" crowd.
He continues. "I went through the deprogramming groups and I slept with almost all the leaders. If I didn’t sleep with them, they came onto me or said, 'I just want to confess to you, brother, that I’m really attracted to you.' No kidding. I was 19. I was cute once."
A few years back, when he wore the dresses and combat boots, he had solid church bookings throughout the year, when churches wanted to show they were "gay-friendly" or in some cases, not so friendly.
"I did the Paisley hate tour and I had people walk out and even shove me off their pulpit," he laughs. "If you can hit a man in a dress in your church, well, you’re gonna get your ass kicked by a man in a dress in your church."
Since the Trump administration, this dynamic has disappeared. Yankolovich credits Vice President Mike Pence for being "literally our only politician that has actually changed a law in their state against gay people. Pence is a profoundly anti-gay advocate. He’s for shock therapy. He's the guy that created the gay wedding cake problem."
These troubled times provide seekers all the more incentive to find alternative places to worship, like The Kitchen.
"I want to believe that the universal thread of people that flock to Paisley and stay in the tribe are people who want to know what their own voice is," he says.
Paisley Yankolovich livestreams from The Kitchen every Sunday at 10:30 a.m. MST.