“She’s like the Michelangelo of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll,” Pamela Des Barres once said of her friend and peer in penis admiration, Cynthia Albritton. Better known as Cynthia Plaster Caster, the 74-year-old artist died last week after battling a long illness. She was one of the last living “supergroupies” of the 60s and 70s US music scene, who built a reputation on their famous bonks and tell-all tales. But Albritton went a step further, casting the privates of the musicians she admired and flipping the notion of woman as muse. “She’s the most notorious groupie of all of them because of her art form,” said Des Barres.
Albritton was born in Chicago in 1947 and discovered the power of plaster casting in her art class at the University of Illinois. When her teacher suggested that she could cast anything solid that could “retain its shape”, the shy but mischievous Albritton immediately thought of erect members, which would then conveniently go flaccid and avoid getting stuck in her moulds. She left home at 19 and teamed up with a younger friend, Dianne, who she had met at the Rolling Stones’ hotel in 1965. They called themselves “the Plaster Casters of Chicago” and set about breaking moulds of their own.
The two became notorious thanks to Rolling Stone magazine’s 1969 “groupie issue”, which profiled top shaggers like Des Barres, Miss Mercy, Trixie Merkin and a number of others that rocker Frank Zappa had assembled in a girl-band called the GTOs. Albritton was never ashamed of the term “groupie” – which characterised fans, and not the rock stars who willingly slept with them, as being loose – yet she also wanted to be different. It was plaster casting, she decided, that would make them stand out. She and Dianne dreamed of one day having their own exhibition – although Dianne dropped out of casting soon after.
Jimi Hendrix was Albritton’s first celeb client – and her best, she and Des Barres agreed in the 2010 VH1 documentary Let’s Spend the Night Together. “He was really laid back, relaxed, very quiet in the mould,” said Albritton, even though “his pubes got stuck.” He was also surely an impetus for vainglorious rock stars to attempt to one-up him by submitting themselves for casting. Among his successors were Jello Biafra, formerly of Dead Kennedys, Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley, Television’s Richard Lloyd and MC5’s Wayne Kramer.
There were, inevitably, mishaps. Peter Tork of the Monkees “didn’t get a chance to penetrate the mould”, Albritton once explained, so his cast comes up rather, er, short. As did Wayne Kramer from MC5: he encountered a premature plaster mix which, as Albritton put it in the Chicago Reader in 2002, “set before he could push his dick all the way into the mould – only the head got in”. In this way, Albritton’s art became a challenge, a knowing dare that might expose a certain male vulnerability. “I was shocked and delighted to find that they were as insecure as I was,” she has said of her subjects.
Zappa was among their biggest champions and wanted to give the Plaster Casters of Chicago their first exhibition. But a show never materialised. After an attempted burglary at Albritton’s apartment, Zappa’s manager Herb Cohen suggested keeping the casts in a vault for safekeeping. But Cohen refused to relinquish them and in 1993, the same year Zappa died, Albritton went to court to retrieve them: she got back all but three, and it’s not clear which celebrity dongs have been lost to rock lore.
But Albritton wouldn’t just cast anybody – not even Kiss, who wrote their 1977 song Plaster Caster about her. Sometimes, she would immortalise the musicians she slept with and get to “take home the world’s best groupie souvenir,” she once said – but only if she loved their music. In this way, she could be viewed as a tastemaker, especially at a time when women had little other agency in a male-dominated music industry. By all accounts, she considered her casts a “lasting monument” to the art of others.
Not everyone agreed. In the 2001 documentary Plaster Caster, the writer Camille Paglia describes how “feminists of the time took a very dim view of what she was doing … they assumed it was degrading”. And in the 1970 film Groupies, a snide member of the band Ten Years After can be seen mocking Albritton’s work and calling it “pathetic”; we also hear that members of Led Zeppelin once threw her into a swimming pool fully clothed. Female music fans were often treated with disregard, but in casting, Albritton was assuming a position of control, as well as asserting her own sexuality.
Like many aspects of 60s and 70s rock’n’roll, Albritton’s occupation is just one of many things you can’t imagine happening now. As the musician Ian Svenonius says in the Plaster Caster film, “all taboos have been crossed except for the penis is still unseen. I think most heterosexual men have only seen their own penis at this point.” Her work feels emblematic of the freedom of the era, concerned with that most elusive of things these days: having a laugh.
In later years, Albritton levelled the playing field and turned her talents to breasts, which she hung on the wall of her Chicago apartment – Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier among them. And in 2000, Albritton’s dream came true, and she was granted an exhibition in New York. While it’s unclear what will happen to her palace of phallus now she has died, she leaves behind a striking legacy: to quite literally grab life by the balls while you can.