Chuck Berry told Jim Crow to roll over

March 18, 2017

Many times over the last several years I’ve reminded my friends that we live in the same world as Chuck Berry. Like people who lived in the time of Beethoven, we lived in a world where Berry still walked among us. Now some kid will have to sing, “Roll over, Chuck Berry.”

0810_FEA_WATN_Dorothy-682e4d25

There are people (and one President) who think America was great in 1954. We call these people “racists.” America was in the wicked grip of Jim Crow, slavery’s bastard offspring. Then on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court decided the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case and institutional racism of “great” America lost one important pillar. And three years later, skinny Dorothy Counts would be escorted into a high school in North Carolina while white students spit on her. But the writing was on the wall.

The summer of 1955 Chess Records released a single by an R&B singer from St. Louis named Chuck Berry who played guitar and wrote his own songs. He sang confidently and black legs spread wide. “Mayballene” hit #1 on the R&B charts and was the #3 song for the year on the Billboard chart. The world BCB (before Chuck Berry) was over. White kids were buying “race” records like there was no caucasian tomorrow. The children of the Baby Boom were smashing the wall of American segregation and “Johnny B. Goode” was their battle cry. I bet even some of those kids in the “White Citzen Council” who spit on Dorothy Counts would, sooner or later, own some Berry records.

f26-1

And it it wasn’t just American kids. The lads in the Beatles and the Rolling Stones sold their Anglican souls to become like Chuck, so much more than Elvis. Both played sets heavy in Berry-penned songs, including his B-sides. Listen to the Beatles’ version of Chuck’s “Rock and Roll Music.” John Lennon slyly changes the line, “It’s got a backbeat” to “It’s got a black beat” as they played in places where promoters wanted their audience to be racially segregated. (They refused to play segregated shows. They were playing a black beat, after all.)

Without Chuck Berry, there would be no Beatles or Stones, and perhaps no 1960s as we know it. Those 1950s white teenyboppers who snuck copies of “Sweet Little Sixteen” on to their parents’ hi-fi became the countercultural rebels of the 1960s, listening to John Coltrane albums and heading to Mississippi to register black voters that “Freedom Summer” of 1964, and then on to join SNCC and the whole movement to deconstruct the immoral order. You don’t have Lennon singing “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969 without “Mayballene” in 1955. And you don’t have anything that comes after. It would be 60 more years of the same, Truman to Trump.

Unknown-1

I was reflecting on this shortly after I heard the news today that Chuck has left us. As I am sometimes compelled to do, I scratched out some words as his first 1957 album, After School Session, blasted on from my turntable.

Earth BCB

There was a wall

Created by slave traders and Indian killers

One drop plus

The world was black and white

White against black

There was a wall

A partition between the waltz,

even the hillbilly one

and the boogie woogie

and a midnight rendezvous out back

One nation

Two halves of a whole

One race

Two people trapped

Walled off in a divided land

Then a back beat came

and the wall cracked

It had a black beat

and the white kids saw him

A brown-eyed handsome man

Out of a St. Louis shack

Give me Memphis Tennessee

Down to the delta

Then across the nation

A sound as black as coal

The wall fell

There would be no more before

The century turned on a dime

dropped right into the slot

Hail, hail rock and roll

CLd1OAaWwAAmn1i

Chuck Berry goes back as far as I can remember.  My dad had a copy of “Johnny B. Goode” and I would visualize this strange character who could play a guitar just like ringing a bell. When I was 8, Chuck was back on the radio with his novelty hit, “My Ding-a-Ling,” but I already preferred his back catalog. I watched Chuck on the Mike Douglas Show with John Lennon, who said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” When NASA launched Voyager 1 into deep space forty years ago, I remember how smart they were to include a Chuck Berry record to demonstrate to some alien race that were an evolved species because we had Chuck Berry. (Leading to the hilarious Saturday Night Live Weekend Update tagline, “Send more Chuck Berry.) By the late seventies, Chuck’s music was rediscovered by punk rockers. His “School Days” was a favorite moment in the Ramones’ movie, Rock n Roll High School. And then in the 80s, thanks to Back to the Future, we learned that Chuck was first inspired my Michael J. Fox. Chuck Berry is the eternal time loop, up in the morning and off to school.

17352144_10155082556103480_2155155902282122597_n

It seems like he’s always been there. I was born in 1964 (shortly after his release from prison) so I guess he was. Anyone born after today will will have never shared the planet with Chuck Berry. How will they know that this wasn’t just a guy with a guitar? How will they know that his black beat changed a nation still chained in Jim Crow apartheid? How will they learn about the jukebox jumping with records back in the USA?

It’s not a tragedy to die at 90, especially if some of those years were spent locked up. There will be plenty of salacious details rehashed. Maybe they’re relevant. I just know this world would not be as it is if not for one brown-eyed handsome man named Charles Edward Anderson Berry. Hail, hail.

(Photo:  Jazz Fest, New Orleans 1994 by BP Fallon)

Note: This isn’t meant to a feminist analysis of Chuck Berry’s life or his music. That can come another day. The father of rock and roll is dead and the mother was never even named.

Father Randy’s Top 20 LPs for 2016: Back to Vinyl

December 27, 2016

Near the end of my tenure at Portland State University, the provost instituted her “challenge,” called reTHINK PSU, designed to encourage the growth of the use of technology to expand the university . She invited a speaker to get the faculty onboard the move to online education. He repeated the Nathan Harden line, that in fifty years half the brick and mortar colleges and universities in the country would be history, replaced by websites (probably run by some kid in India). The message was get on the train or get left at the station. He tried to make the point by claiming that CD technology had replaced vinyl records, so get ready for college professors to go the way of the Foghat album.

taylorswiftvinyl

Ironically I was listening to this talk sitting in my office in Cramer Hall as it streamed on the university server. If I had been in the room, I would have jumped up to say that CDs sales were tanking, but vinyl was making a massive comeback, growing even faster than downloads and streaming music. Fortune magazine reported in April that vinyl album sales were at a 28-year high. Turns our kids want their Taylor Swift on wax (and their teachers in the goddamn classroom). Sometimes the old way is the best.

I say this because I really fell off my hipness high horse this year. The arrival of the baby in 2014 got me out of the cavalcade of live shows and endless hours in record stores. In 2016, between a rampaging toddler, the effort to return to work, busting Trump’s tiny balls, and finishing my new novel, The Dream Police, I just abdicated my staples for side-lined music aficionadodom. My favorite podcasts,  All Songs Considered, Sound Opinions, and Alt Latino, went un-downloaded. Our local weeklies, Willamette Week and The Portland Mercury, remained in their boxes on NE Alberta Street. An occasional breeze or hip kid would blow in to let me know what was up, but I missed so much. Did you know that Radiohead put out an awesome album in 2016? Of course you did.

blonde

Where I kept things real was on the vinyl front. A large chunk of the new releases I bought this year were on vinyl (including a bootleg vinyl release of Frank Ocean’s long-awaited follow up to the brilliant 2012 release, Orange). I couldn’t stop buying vinyl, at Amoeba Music in LA and Peaches in New Orleans, and a dozen record stores in Portland. Old, new, kids’ records, 45’s, and even Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass from the 50 cent bin at Everyday Music. Solange just sounded better on vinyl and Bowie had to be experienced deep in the ruts. The ghost is the grooves, not the machine.

Andrea and I took our love of LPs into the sharing economy. Our basement just became an AirBNB called the Alberta Vinyl Den. Each guest lets me know his or her music tastes when they make a booking and I stock the room with a dozen albums from my massive collection. So guests get to feel like they are staying in the record store of their dreams, complete with a turntable and a refrigerator full of beer.

14332937_10155219233869307_4536520220130914375_n

2016 was a still a great year for music. With the blessing of babysitters we did manage to see some great shows, including some true classics; Patti Smith, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, and the Electric Light Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl (a double bucket list item). We saw some good world music, like Bomba Estereo and Bombino. We saw a wildly drunken gig by Greasy Alice in New Orleans and caught a show by old friend Chris Robinson that took us down a rabbit hole. I just caught Georgia underground pioneers Pylon at Mississippi Studios. (Last time I saw them was at the Agora Ballroom in 1983.) Earlier in the year we caught a barely attended show there by Sir Paul’s son, James McCartney and got to chat after the gig. Other than the Cuban band we saw every Sunday during our summer on Isla Mujeres, I think my favorite show of 2016 was Father John Misty at Edgefield in the pouring rain surrounded by a thousand other dudes with beards. It was perfectly Portland.

61w4yt5jonl-_sl1500_

So here is my Top 20 favorite albums of 2016, recognizing that I’m surely missing a ton I will discover in 2017 or 2027. (Nick Cave’s new one? Someone said it was killer.) I really think we’ll be talking about the Beyoncé and Solange albums 50 years from now.  A serious thanks to the gang at Music Millennium for pointing me in the right direction on some good stuff.

  1. David Bowie – Blackstar
  2. Beyoncé – Lemonade
  3. Y La Bamba – Ojos del Sol
  4. Solange – A Seat at the Table
  5. Drive-By-Truckers – American Band
  6. Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings
  7. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
  8. Frank Ocean – blond
  9. Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome
  10. Bombino – Azel
  11. Patti Smith – Horses: Live at Electric Ladyland Studios
  12. The Beatles – Live at Hollywood Bowl
  13. Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels
  14. Carla Morrison – Amor Supremo
  15. The Bangles – Ladies and Gentlemen…
  16. A Tribe Called Quest  – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
  17. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
  18. Chris Robley – The Great Make Believe
  19. Ages and Ages – Something to Ruin
  20. Cheap Trick – Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello

Here’s to more music on vinyl in 2017. And more professors in classrooms.

Writing to Live: The birth of the “rock novel”

December 14, 2016

The second edition of my 2011 novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart, just came out so I thought I’d write a little about the hell of writing it just in case you had a tortured artist on your gift-giving list.

The twentieth century ended not with a bang but a whimper. I was in the throes of a classic Randy heartbreak. (I hadn’t yet accurately identified the pattern or the appropriate response.) I was going through a divorce with a woman I had met in a poetry reading in Augusta, Georgia. We got married after the Atlanta Olympics and I brought her to Portland, mistakenly thinking that I was ready to be in a partnership and that she was ready to settle down.

I tried to comfort myself with the idea that it was just a “starter marriage” (A Gen X hot topic at the time), but there was a trip to Cannon Beach with the thought of hurling myself off an appropriately dramatic cliff. Long story short, I didn’t, but got into therapy and got on an anti-depressant called Zoloft. There was other suicidal behavior in my family so I began to wonder what that impulse was about and, more importantly, what was it that stopped most of us from actually doing it.

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-2-21-09-pm

Since I had been pretty successful as a spoken word artist in Atlanta, I thought it was time to write something longer than a poem. It was musician Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles who had given me a copy of Sophie’s Choice to encourage me to follow my fantasy of becoming a writer. Now I had the start of an idea for what might be an important book – Why is it so hard to kill yourself?

It’s not a rock opera

20161205170950elo_a_new_world_record

Someday I’ll write a whole thing about the joys of locking yourself in the room in the days before the internet and even MTV and listening to record albums. Suffice it to say, I did it a lot in the 1970s. When I was 13, one of my favorite albums was A New World Record by the Electric Light Orchestra. For those out of the loop, ELO’s schtick was that they played rock music with a string section (like how Chicago had a brass section). Very Beatle-inspired pop that infected the airwaves. This album had songs with compelling characters, like opera singers and a guy on a telephone and an alien, and a mother on a corner with a baby.

My teenage brain, alone in my room, strung all the songs together into one long narrative. Maybe I was listening to The Who’s Tommy too much but I believed I was listening to a “rock opera.” It all seemed to fit together to well.

When I got a CD version of the album 20 years later I realized it was just a bunch of songs, not a concept album. But then I thought, “What if someone were to write the story I first heard all those years ago? It could be a rock novel!” Adding a few contemporary themes, like homeless youth and turn-of-the century-depression, and you have a new genre!

Late night on the iMac

bondi-imac

Between preparing lectures, going to shows, occasionally sobbing, and inhabiting Portland dive bars like I was Sinatra with an ungodly thirst for Jack Daniels, I’d write away. I was translating my funk and the world it existed in, trying to find the answer to this question. The ELO album played over and over as I used it as a template for my story about a small group of Portland creatives, a gutter punk with a baby and a dude who may or may not be an alien. I’d bash away at my aqua iMac as I lived with these people; Zak, Lenny, Cozy, Telly, and Lucinda.

By the last chapter, I had the answer. Why we hold on. And a wonderful story about the power of music to move us through the tar pits of our lives. On December 31, 1999, I took a draft of the manuscript into the desert at the Warm Springs reservation and read it as the sun set on the century. I burned the pages to keep warm and hoped my hard drive back in Portland was safe from the Y2K bug.

It was really the writing of it that saved me. During that period I also co-authored a great book on suburban delinquency, bought a house, weened myself off the Zoloft, and took a visiting professorship at Emory University. I suddenly didn’t need the book, until I did again. That’s when I self-published it in 2011. It’s done pretty well, getting some amazing attention, and now it’s been optioned by a screenwriter in Hollywood for a future film project. And it all came out of a moment when I thought there might be something better to do than throw myself into the sea because my heart got beat up.

Why we stick around

The answer that I reached on the last page of The Mission of the Sacred Heart is that we stick around to see how things turn out. In our deepest moments of sorrow, sometimes it’s hard to see the countless moments of joy and lay ahead of us. If I had jumped I would have missed so many blissful moments; drives across the country, being inches away from Patti Smith as she sang “Gloria,” seeing Andrea walk into a room for the first time, hearing Cozy say, “I need to poop,” and more to come. Why walk out before the movie ends? Even Speed 2 had a pretty cool ending.

The sequel to Mission, The Dream Police, is now out and getting a positive response. I thought it was time to clean Mission up a bit, fix the cover, and take out a few less evolved terms in the story. (Sorry history, “retarded weathermen” and “big boobed Asians,” as funny as they sounded, have been revised.) Mission had an important impact on some folks who were going through the same thing I was, so it has served its purpose, but it’s still a timeless story about those moments and how we survive them with the power of a good song.

I’m not intending to write a trilogy. The Dream Police may be the last time we see Lenny, Zak, and Cozy. But who knows? I just want to get these books to people so they can be as good friends to them as they were to me.

The Mission of the Sacred Heart is available here on Amazon and Amazon Kindle.

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-2-24-21-pm

The Dream Police Are Inside My Head

October 6, 2016

How do you go back in time and fix a mistake to change the course of your life? How do you channel all the things you are passionate about into one story of redemption or escape?

41adhf4m9gl

These were the questions I faced when I sat down to write The Dream Police early last year. The follow up to The Mission of the Sacred Heart was published this week and the Kindle version is available today. Like Mission, it is rooted in the true events of my life. Like Mission, it is a “rock novel,” a work of musical fiction, inspired by a classic rock album from my youth. And like Mission, it is a complex piece of literature that can’t easy be described in a quick elevator speech. But I think it is an important work that emerged from the plasma in my veins and the neurons in my synapses. So let me try to share with you why you might be interested in this story.

10001313_10152654051049307_1156545696_n

First and foremost, anyone who reads this will probably be able to understand why I had to leave my tenured position at Portland State University last year. There is a sexual paranoia that has invaded college campuses. Disguised as the important and real work that is earnestly meant to stop sexual harassment and aggression in an institution that often turns a blind eye, it is a form of fake feminism that undermines actual feminism. It sees all women as victims and all men as aggressors and ignores the agency of women and the complexity of the sexual dance between consulting adults.

As a male feminist, I’ve wanted to write about this sticky swamp for years. Then it happened to me. I was the subject of a witch hunt that stopped cold the important work I was doing at the university, including raising awareness of the importance of dismantling patriarchal power. The question was what to do with my anger at the real villains in this true-life tale. I didn’t want to go on a workplace shooting spree (Who would the local media ask to comment on it?), so I chose to write this story.

sdp-page-lawn-sign-site

Second, as a Portland sociologist, there are a host of sociological issues I confront on a regular basis. Portland has been named the most gentrified city in America. My neighborhood tienda is being turned into an artisan salt shop as I write this. My first academic  publication in 1991 dealt with issue (although I called it “yupification”). Gentrification is changing the face of urban America and I feel like I’m in a good position to write about it. It becomes a metaphor for how are lives change around us in ways we both love and hate.

45499785-cached

My research on white supremacist groups began moving into prisons about ten years ago. White prison gangs, like the Aryan Brotherhood and European Kindred, have become a growing problem outside prisons, including a recent murder just outside of Portland. A former racist skinhead incarcerated in an Oregon prison instigated my nightmare at PSU, so it was a perfect opportunity to bring a bit of light to the issue.

There are plenty of other issues floating around, including how your favorite rock song becomes your least favorite commercial, the backlash against unionization, the grieving process following the death of loved ones, and the dangers of spending too much time online scrolling through your social media. All this gets folded into The Dream Police.

unknown

Then there is the unifying theme of lucid dreaming. If you could be conscious in your dreams, what would you do? My first thought is that I’d go see The Beatles play. Maybe I’d revisit the woods I played in as a child. How about a beer with Karl Marx and Halle Berry? It’s wide open. Some people lucid dream every night. Andrea and I practiced it while I was writing the book and had some cool experiences. Zak and Lenny, the central characters of The Dream Police, use lucid dreaming to visit some musical landmarks, but also revisit moments in their own lives to explore alternative paths. Zak’s pregnant wife was killed in a car crash, so he’s fixated on going back in time to change just one small thing.

cheap_trick_dream_police

Finally, this book is about music and how music moves us forward in life. When I was teenager, I spent a lot of time in my room listening to albums. This included Cheap Trick’s 1979 Dream Police LP. The record was a whole world to me and I constructed this book around that themes in that album and dozens of Cheap Trick songs. The book also deals with the growing voice of women in rock and the shrinking opportunities for musicians to capitalize on their own music.

I think it’s important to tackle the minefield of gender politics. I was honored to do it in the classroom for over twenty years. Social research and punditry are also forums for it and fiction is another. I was thrilled to be listed as one of the representatives of the new genre of musical fiction in Wikipedia. It’s a great opportunity to be like my teenage heroes, The Clash, and use a good backbeat to get people to think about big issues.

In the end, I just want to tell a good story and maybe take readers to some unexpected places. Author Brian Paone, in his review, wrote, “Blazak pushes the reader through an endless web of a chess game that every time you think you have checkmate, a pawn appears out of nowhere, sending everything you thought was real into a tailspin.” In the last few years I’ve been through a lot. I’ve also thought a lot and grown a lot. It all goes into a story that reflects the complexity and dream-like state of my own journey. It feels good to have created a piece of literary fiction that my daughter could read some day. I hope you will read it now.

NOTE: Because, as a parent I feel I have to do something about the children of Aleppo, 10% of all book sales are going to UNICEF’s Syrian relief fund.

dreaming

Ode to a Gay Bar

June 15, 2016

DC

On Monday afternoon I was walking along the Mall in Washington, DC, looking at all the flags at half mast in remembrance of the massacre in Orlando. It was powerful to see our nation’s capital honoring 49 people killed in a gay club. But I don’t think the weight of the thing really hit me until the following day. I was listening to a story on NPR about how the city had hired Spanish translators to explain to the parents of some of the victims, who had been killed at “Latin Night” at Pulse, the city’s biggest gay club, what had happened to their children. Many of the parents were confused at why their “straight” child had been at a gay bar. The fact that the victims had to come out after their murder was like an emotional sledgehammer. Such a common story.

I could talk all day about the shooter and the reactions from the bitterly gun-obsessed, Islam-hating right-wing narrative inventors. But I want to talk about the crime scene. More specifically, the importance of the gay bar in America.

150618191852-12-charleston-reax-0818-super-169

Friday will be the one year anniversary of the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina where another hate-filled man killed nine black worshipers. A black writer that admire (I can’t remember who), penned a piece about the meaning of the racist killer invading a space that was sacred to many African Americans in more ways than one. The black church is historically a sanctuary from the racism outside the church doors, a place to be in the majority and bond over common struggles. Dylan Roof invaded a safe space that had been invaded many times before.

Omar Mateen did the same thing.

As a kid in rural Georgia, there were stories about gay bars in places like San Francisco and New York City. (We didn’t know about the Stonewall Inn, just Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”) It wasn’t until, at age 16,  I started going into downtown Atlanta to hang out in punk rock clubs, like 688, that I discovered the thriving underground world of Atlanta’s gay bars. When the rock clubs closed at around 2 am we had a few options; Krispy Kreme on Ponce de Leon Avenue (“Hot Doughnuts Now”), the Majestic Diner, also on Ponce (“We never close but we’re often rude”) or the gay dance bars that seemed to serve drinks until dawn.

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 1.55.35 PM

In the early 1980s, that was mainly Backstreet in Midtown, set back far enough from Peachtree Street that it felt like a secret mission just to find the door to get in. I first went with a bunch of friends in 1981. I was 17 and still schooled in the homophobia of the South but also aware that I never fit in that Southern culture. It didn’t take long to learn that the “queers” were a part of my tribe of misfits. That was the beginning of the end of my homophobia.

All I knew was that the cool kids were at the gay bar, dancing to Two Tons of Fun or Grace Jones, smoking cigarettes and bitching about rednecks. That first night I was sure I was gonna get hit on as I entered the door with my crappy fake ID. By the time I left I wondered why I didn’t get hit on. Did I not rate? I felt insulted but welcomed at the same time. One one hand we were the straight crowd invading somebody else’s space but I always got the feeling that it was appreciated that we were loose enough to be there without starting some stupid shit.

It felt dirty and dangerous and liberating. It was clear people were risking life and limb to be there, to find a community in the shadows. There were cops and hustlers and straight thugs and repressed thugs all itching for a chance to play Smear the Queer right outside of the bar’s door. Just a block away, “straight” men from the suburbs and the sticks were cruising Juniper Street for a quick gay hook-up. (Georgia license plates have the county of registration on them so when you saw Mr. Coweta County on Juniper, you knew what was up. They just kept it on the down low.) There was an air of constant danger. And my mother always thought I was staying over at a friend’s.

Maybe most important was the simple fact that people there could be who they actually were. So many LGBT people are forced into double lives. Their true sexual selves and the persons their religion or community demands they must be. This was certainly true of the 1980s Bible belt and I am quite sure it was the case for Omar Mateen. For many, all they had or have is the gay bar on a Saturday night and then it’s back to the big lie Sunday morning. You felt like you were in an oasis of sanity and disco lights.

nenappy

But it was in those clubs that a movement from the fringe to the mainstream was born. Like at Stonewall in 1968 and Pulse in 2016. This was the flash before AIDS changed so much. It became the routine to see the Now Explosion (Atlanta’s even gayer B-52s) perform at 688 then follow the crowd, Ru Paul leading the way, to Backstreet or Weekends and dance until our legs gave out.

I’ve written about how I worked at the Turtles Records in Ansley Mall next to Piedmont Park (where it was more than rumored that gay men were having sex in the bushes). I thought I’d ask co-worker Ronnie Holland what those days were like. In many ways he my translator of Southern gay culture in the early 80s.

1927823_1064947352709_4220_n

Backstreet was a safe haven.  It didn’t feel safe getting there, in the early days of 79/80, we would park off site on the side streets cause we didn’t want the police to get our tag numbers and the streets weren’t particularly safe either, but once we got inside, it was total freedom.  You were accepted, regardless.  Now, that didn’t mean there wasn’t attitude and cattiness and cliques, but everyone just dealt.  To have grown up thinking you were different and strange and somehow wrong, and not ever being able to talk to anyone about it, to find a “tribe” of people who had similar experiences was “otherworldly”.  You didn’t have to explain the journey, it was a common one.

I would have to say that, for my group, the bonding was intense.  Drugs probably helped with that, but the experience of being in a group of people on the dance floor with the music building to a frenzy and everyone being a part of the same experience, was very similar to a sort of “religious” frenzy.  The music and the closeness of the bodies and people losing inhibitions and the lights and the joy……I can see how people would feel a comparison to a church like experience.  It became tribal and transcendental. You lose yourself into the group.

The gay club became an extension of our underground scene and it grew as the climate evolved. By the 1990s, Ru Paul was hosting events at Velvet, a club in the heart of downtown. But it was never completely safe. In 1973, a gay club in New Orleans was the target of an arson attack that killed 32 patrons. In Atlanta it was the bombing of The Otherside Lounge on Piedmont Road in 1997. The lesbian bar was the targeted by Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph, a “Christian patriot” who used a bomb full of nails to maximize the carnage. Fortunately, no one was killed but the terroristic message was clear. You can’t even feel safe in your safe spaces.

I was listening to Washington Post writer Justin Torres talk about the Orlando shooting two days afterwards. His first thought on seeing the news was, “Oh, my God. These are my people.” Then he spoke, in almost reverent terms, of the gay club severing as a “queer church” that rejuvenates souls. “So when you walk into the club, if you’re lucky, it feels expansive. Safe space is a cliche, overused and exhausted in our discourse, but the fact remains that a sense of safety transforms the body, transforms the spirit. So many of us walk through the world without it,” he said.

To have your church attacked by someone who had been welcomed into it with open arms, just like what happened in Charleston a year ago, is a deep wounding that cannot heal easily. Where can you feel safe if not there? And for every big city gay club with armed security (a lot of good that does) there is a small town gay bar hoping to survive a firebombing or having its patrons followed home and harassed. Can a brother and/or sister just have a drink in peace?

I have a friend named C. Ray Borck. Besides being a much loved sociology professor, he is transgender and came of age in the gay clubs. He posted a powerful homage on Facebook to those clubs less than 12 hours after the news about Orlando broke, writing:

13427812_10154369621153755_6180345703097365454_n

I have been remembering the countless nights I’ve spent in gay clubs, especially the Latinx ones, and I keep discovering moments of solace in the memories and magic of those places, as early as last week on Cherry Grove. A gay dance party is always a good time. The sexy lighting and incessant beats. Excessive drinking and cigarettes after everyone else had kids and quit. Loud fashion and incisive wit. Watching men be tender with each other and feeling like that’s the revolution. Sweating and yelling and laughing. Telling coming out stories, stories about our youths and our parents, our backwards communities and schools, having found each other in the city streets.

I didn’t need the gay bar because my heterosexuality was celebrated in every corner of my world. But I did need the gay bar for other reasons. Not because it was a “safe space” for “gender non-conforming” kids like me and my punk rock gang. Yes, we were the target of gay-bashings as well. (A guy once drove up next to my car on Piedmont Road and said, “You look like a fag from England,” and then started whacking my Gran Torino with a 2 X 4). We needed it for our friends so they could simply have a space to breath and dance and not be “gay,” but be human beings. Some were gay outside the club and some did their best performances of a “heterosexual lifestyle,” but the either way, their guard was always up. That must be why those clubs are open so late. Just one more dance, please. One more song before I have to again hear how gay people are going to burn in hell or that gay people need to be killed. And make it the extended disco mix.

Wherever your local gay bar is, you don’t have to patronize it but protect it. People you love need to be able to breathe.

myoldcatships-tumblr1

Prince Died for Your Sins: Prophecy and Phallacy

April 28, 2016

Dearly beloved, I want you to explore the infinite mystery in your own special way, the God power, the cosmic tick-tock, Yahweh, Science, Gaia, the Holy Trinity, the Hubble Array, whatever you want to call it. But I have a little story for you about the prince of paisley.

I had to listen to Prince records in silence. They were too dirty to play out loud. I worked in a record store in the fall of 1981 when Controversy came out. It was Georgia so we couldn’t play it in the store for fear of offending Bible Belt shoppers looking for the new REO Speedwagon album. But we took turns taking the store copy home so we could play “Do Me, Baby” in the privacy of our bedrooms, under the sheets.

daddy_love_me_ep66

There are a million Prince-related stories like that, always about sex and shame and how Prince didn’t give a fuck who or how you fucked. When he died last week, everyone who never saw Purple Rain talked about how much they loved Purple Rain. Somehow the sinful sexuality, the androgyny and the personal freedom that were so despised 30-years ago by the PMRC have become the property of the most uptight unsexy-MFers in the world. Did you know that Matt Lauer was a “big fan”? But I’m here to tell you something different.

Prince is a deity and he died for your sex sins.

How do I know this? Because I am his prophet. I first became aware of his divinity on October 13, 1988. That’s when I saw him in Atlanta on the Lovesexy tour. He arose out of the stage and ascended into the air in a red Corvette, bathed in a celestial purple light. I felt something stir deep inside me. There was a ringing in my ears after the show that said, “Don’t turn away from me. I am the purple light.” But I did just that. I forsook my sex lord.

musicology-4e7881eb3a24e

A few years later, after the Diamonds & Pearls (1991) album, I turned away from Prince and his message of sexual freedom. Oh, sure I’d check in once in a while, I even bought Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999) and Musicology (2004). But of his last twenty-four albums, those are the only ones I let into my world. And my life began to suffer. I experienced copious alcohol consumption, divorce, job loss, I even wore a goatee for many years. All because I let Prince out of my heart.

Then right after he died, a strange thing happened. I was in the laundry room, in the basement of my house, washing whites. Alone. Suddenly a fantastic bolt of light emerged out of the dryer and knocked me off my feet. Standing there was the angel Gabriel, bathed in a purple light, the same light I had seen emanating from Prince in 1988. I could barely breathe. Then, in a high-pitched yet genderless voice, Gabriel said,

“The New Power Generation is here and you will be its leader. I will provide you God’s 23 positions for sexual liberation on 39 golden plates. These verses will become known as The Book of Prince and will lead the rainbow children to the emancipation of Planet Earth and the golden experience of eternal joy.”

And I said, “Right on, Gabe! What do you want me to do?”

eGx5Z3Y2MTI=_o_the-cross-prince-lovesexy-tour-japan

The angel replied, “The new power age will have no churches. There are thieves in the temple. Set up a GoFundMe account and tell each person who sends you $19.99 that, when they die, their souls will be funked up by Lord Prince and they will get off for all eternity.”

The angel then dropped a purple sock into my load of whites, donned a raspberry-colored beret and zapped back into my dryer.

So if you want a funky eternal life, just send $19.99 to: gofundme.com/2chh6ftg

The moral of this story is…

watchtower-ny

All religions are created by people. Prophets are people who other people believe to be divine. Holy books are written by people that other people believe to be sacred. There is no religion without human invention. How do you know that Moses or Muhammad or Joseph Smith or me are or are not actual prophets? You don’t. That’s the value of faith. Prince was a Jehovah’s Witness, a religion started in the 1870s and run by a group of “Elders” (i.e. people) in Brooklyn who are in charge of telling followers what the Bible REALLY says. And apparently Armageddon is coming any minute, so get out your debit cards. Every single religion is a house of cards built on the work of human beings that claim they speak for God or gods. Religious followers faith is not in God, it’s in the people who invented the religion; faith that they are not con-men.

That does not mean there is no transcendent mystery in the universe that people have called, “God.” It is entirely possible that when you die you get to see your grandmother and your dead cat and get to jam with Jimi Hendrix (Poor dead Hendrix). There may be an intelligent design to this mess after all. Or it might be a lot of wishful thinking that some very clever people have capitalized on. I don’t know. I’m agnostic. Joseph Campbell, who spent his long life studying the thousands of religions in the world once said, “He who thinks he knows, doesn’t know. He who knows that he doesn’t know, knows.” I don’t know.

What I do know is that for the last 3000 years, the people who have been inventing religions are mostly men and conveniently created a god that looks like them, typically an old white guy. (For shits and giggles, Google Image “God.”) Jews, Christians, and Muslims learn that God has existed for all eternity and then suddenly created the entire universe in six days. Makes you wonder what God was doing before those six days. Did He Netflix and chill? With himself? Guys.

13000076_607245789426190_1748227186991889519_n

I totally respect whatever you want to worship, whatever your god or gods look like. If you want to pray to a lord that looks like Ewan McGreggor or a god that looks like an overly ripe avocado, I’ve got your back. Just know that unless your are a follower of some ancient pagan goddess, there is or was some dude behind a curtain pulling the levers. This is how we got patriarchy (and Melania Trump).

When you look at child marriage in Pakistan, the arrest of women for having abortions in Northern Ireland, the brothels of India, or Ted Cruz and the normality of rape culture in the United States it starts with the idea that God has a phallus and created MAN in HIS image. As Mary Daly so famously said, “If God is man than man is God.” There’s a ton of celebrated rape in the Old Testament of the Bible, in books written by men.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 11.42.39 PM

So the next time someone wants to use some “sacred scripture” to justify something, especially the oppression of some other group of people, ask who wrote that scripture. The answer is that is was a person, just like Prince. You are free to put your faith in the scribblings of some men from the Bronze Age, or the 1800s (or the 1950s if you are a Scientologist). Or you could put on Prince’s Sign o’ the Times album and find some great wisdom there. It’s pretty much the same thing. The men who wrote Leviticus, the Koran, 2 Corinthians and the Book of Mormon were built exactly the same way as the man who wrote, “Your face is jamming, your body’s heck-a-slamming, if love is good, let’s get to ramming.” So lovesexy. That’s what Lord Prince wants. Believe me, I’m a prophet.

How David Bowie Bent My Gender

January 11, 2016

This is a strange bifurcation point on our blue planet. From this point on there is no David Bowie to share the world with. Like people born after 1980 who claim John Lennon, or those born after 1959 who claim Billie Holiday (as they have a right to), every child born after today will never anticipate hearing David Bowie’s new song on the radio or changing their fashion to fit Bowie’s new style. It’s all just back catalog now. He can’t be truly their peer. Fortunately there’s enough there for future generations to mine for inspiration.

I awoke this morning to a message from my friend Roy in England that just said, “Sad day for music.” A sense of dread swelled up. I know that I am likely to witness the passing of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Patti Smith. What will the world be like without them? For the moment we share the same sunlight and oxygen supply. When there is a lunar eclipse, I know that Paul McCartney and Toni Morrison are looking at it, too. I know there is a chance that I could bump into Smokey Robinson or Elton John getting coffee in an airport somewhere in the world. We share this tiny globe together.

Screen-Shot-2015-11-13-at-11.27.27-AM

But not with Bowie. He is gone so unexpectedly. I was in New York City all weekend and was waiting for today to get Blackstar, his heralded new album. The beginning of the next phase of Bowie in our lives. Would there be a tour? Would I get a new haircut to look like him? Again? I should have found him on his deathbed there in Manhattan to thank him. A kiss on his alien eyelids.

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 6.05.13 PM

For those of us that came of age in the 1970s, David Bowie was more than a “rockstar.” He was an avatar of our awkward young selves as gangly beings who had just fallen to earth, genderless and omni-sexual. I was an Apollo kid so it started with “Space Oddity,” and imagining the astronauts circling our troubled planet. But when Ziggy Stardust arrived, I could see clues to a third path, somewhere between male and female that was beautiful and personal. Glam rock was liberation, even if was just the thought of it. “Rebel, rebel. You’ve got your mother in a whirl ’cause she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.”

That was the beginning of me wanting to grow my hair long. Endless battles with my mother (“Boys with long hair are all on drugs!”) and my father (“Why would you want to look like a girl?”). Each half inch it grew, you’d get called “fag,” and “queer,” in rural Georgia. (Of course, once Willie and Waylon grew their hair out all that ended.) If word got around you were a Bowie fan, that was like declaring your homosexuality. “You must be AC-DC like him!” I didn’t really care. The music came from some place magical. His self-declared bisexuality created a safe zone for us as we engaged in our own space exploration. My sexuality was never an issue. The sanity of the world I expressed it in was.

All us misfit kids had Bowie. Before punk roared in, we had Bowie to speak for us and to tell us we were wonderful. “Rock and Roll Suicide,” must be an anthem for so many young people, both then and now, who feel zero validation from the straight world. It’s a reason to reject suicide as an option.

You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair

You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care

Oh no love! you’re not alone

No matter what or who you’ve been

No matter when or where you’ve seen

All the knives seem to lacerate your brain

I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain

You’re not alone

716MR8ZpkkL._SL1300_

In fourth grade, when the other kids were obsessed with the Captain and Tennille, me and my little goon squad were memorizing “Young Americans,” and “Fame,” (listening for John Lennon’s voice). It was like a secret society. You had to say, “Oh yeah, Deep Purple rocks!” and then find out what kid in the neighborhood had a copy of Diamond Dogs you could borrow, being sure to hide it from your parents’ gaydar.

bowiePopOfTheCherry

Bowie always defined gender non-conformity. Wearing make-up, dying his hair, wearing a skirt on Saturday Night Live. In a culture obsessed with a simple gender binary, what could be more rebellious than that? Boys keep swinging! For all us kids that didn’t quite fit in the butch boy/femme girl box, we had permission to mix and match and create something completely new.

My first sociology professor at Oxford College who radicalized me in so many ways had a bit of blind spot around queer issues. I remember him trying to make the case that we are all sexual but socialized to be heterosexual and if that process gets messed up we end up confused, “like David Bowie.” I remember thinking, Wait, that’s not right. Bowie’s not “broken,” he is just free and rebelling against social constructions of gender. He knows exactly what he’s doing.

So, yeah, I have every piece of music that Bowie has released (except Blackstar, which is sold out all over the city). I have b-sides and oddities. Have you heard the soundtrack to The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)? You should. I’ve seen him in concert several times. My favorite moment was at Live Aid in London in 1985. I was right front for the global event. All my favorite stars were there. I should mention that I really hated Bowie’s Let’s Dance album when it came out in 1983. It was such a commercial piece of fluff compared to 1980’s Scary Monsters (although it has aged better than I have). So I was supremely bummed when he opened with “Modern Love,” my least favorite Bowie song. But then he played “Heroes,” and it could not have been more perfect. We were there trying to feed the world, just for one day. There were tears everywhere. Bowie transformed us.

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 6.17.22 PM

He transformed us many times. He loosened us from our moorings. He made being smart and aging into your 60s look really, really cool and never stopped playing with our weird obsession with gender roles. All the kids that got beat up for being “Bowie fags” can have the last laugh (the ones that weren’t murdered, at least). Now that he’s dead, everybody will claim him as their own.

He’s never not been with me. His ex-wife, Angie Bowie, was my first guest speaker at Emory, delighting my students with tales of Ziggy and Iggy and the glam explosion. I courted my wife, Andrea, with mix CDs that linked Bowie songs to Nina Simone songs. When Cozy was born, I sang “Little Wonder” to her repeatedly (and “Space Oddity” when I strapped her in her car seat). And she’s napping to Station To Station as I write this. I want her to have the sexual and gender freedom that was so hard for us over forty years ago. But for all the goon squads out there, Bowie made it a lot easier and cooler.

A lot will be written this week about the Thin White Duke as a “chameleon” and all the ch-ch-changes he went through, the movies he made and the fashions he inspired. I just think about us kids who didn’t fit in who got to feel that we had a very special space boy on our side.