Chris Cornell taught me something about sex.

May 18, 2017

I’m not sure what compels me to write when my favorite musicians die. I think it began when Miles Davis died in 1991 and I put on In a Silent Way wrote an ode. When Kurt Cobain blew his brains out in 1994, a local weekly in Atlanta asked me to write a poem in tribute. I had already written it. In this blog I have marked the sociological significance of the passings of David Bowie and Chuck Berry. But waking up this morning to the news that Chris Cornell had hung himself was particularly rough.

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Soundgarden is/was in the middle of a tour and, this morning their singer was found dead in his Detroit hotel room. Chris was may age. I might be biased, but I tend to think people born in 1964 are special. It was such an epic year (The Beatles, Dylan, MLK, my birth). This spring, Soundgarden was a booked for a big reunion tour bringing much needed rock to the kids, or at least their parents. He seemed to be back on top.

Others will write about his life or the “Seattle sound.” I was cold on the grunge thing at first because we were trying to carve out our own musical identity in Atlanta at the time and didn’t need the competiton. I was invited to contribute some spoken word to a local compilation in 1991 and I wrote a rant against Seattle that contained the line, “Riding on Tad’s log, lame as Temple of the Dog.” About five minutes later, I was all about Seattle. Turns out I smelled like teen spirit, too.

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Others will also write about suicide. I’ve written about my own past with the issue here in this blog and how it unfolded in my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart. The follow up, The Dream Police, ends in a grand climax with the Soundgarden song, “Black Hole Sun” playing. I couldn’t think of a better song to accompany the end of the world, so it’s there as a musical epitaph.

I wanted to write a sex, or more specifically, how one night in Atlanta with Soundgarden pried open my brain about the fluidity of sexuality.

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It was March, 1989 and Soundgarden was touring in support of their first album, Ultramega OK.  Neighbors in my North High Ridge apartment (the fabled Treehouse) were probably sick of me blasting it (and extra notch up on “Smokestack Lightning”), but the punk era was over and I was growing my hair long. It was time for bass guitars to rattle the building. Aspersions of the Seattle hype aside, I loved their monster sound that was an alternative to the hair metal that was ruling MTV at the time. This was our music, not theirs. For those of us that grew up on Kiss and The Ramones.

In those days, I went out to see bands play almost every night. So when Soungarden had a gig at the Cotton Club on Peachtree Street of course I would be there. And when they opened with the song, “Gun,” and Kim Thayil’s exploding guitar riff, it was on. I was 25-years-old and pressed against the front of the stage, because that’s the only place to be when a band is splitting the universe open. They were inches away from us and it was one throbbing sea of sweat and hair.

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Chris Cornell was shirtless, screaming like a banshee, his long brown hair cascading over his shoulders as he leaned back in his Jesus Christ pose. (I think you might guess where this is going.) The music sounded great but I was just captured by him and his charisma. Like the most iconic of iconic rock stars. Like if Ozzy Osbourne looked like Calvin Klein model instead of a puppy dog who had been hit in the head with a ball peon hammer. He was… beautiful.

Let me back up a space and say, at this point, at age 25, I was hyper-hetero. From the first Farrah Fawcett poster on my wall to my questionable antics on the road with the band I was working with, it was never not about being in a “girl-crazy” frenzy. Never even a crack. Sure, Tom Cruise was “good looking,” but I wouldn’t say it without the quotes. I would joke about homoerotic elements of skinhead and fraternity culture and even the mosh pit, and was still working out my own homophobic training. Gay was fine. I loved my gay friends and music idols. It just never was about me.

Chris Cornell cracked that. The memory is as clear as day. I thought, “I’m straight but I think I might make an exception for this guy.” It was the strangest feeling in the middle of a blasting rock show. What was my sexuality? Is he the only guy on the planet I would make an allowance for? He was just so, perfect. Should I try to meet him?

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I didn’t go backstage. Or write him love letters. I kinda forgot about it (at least until the next time I saw Soundgarden play). But I began to question the idea that anybody is exclusively anything as far as sex goes. Around that time I began teaching undergraduate sociology at Emory University and would lecture on the Kinsey Scale. In 1948, the famed sex researcher published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. His findings identified that only about the 10% of the male population was either exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. The other 80% are somewhere in the middle (or asexual). I would joke to my students, “If you haven’t at least one gay thought, you will!” And then I’d make some crack about the repressed sexuality of “brothers” in the “Greek” system. Holla!

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During my tenure at Portland State University, I became immersed in Queer Theory. Queer Theory seeks to break down these arbitrary binaries we place ourselves in. Gender is fluid. How butch are you today? (After blasting Soundgarden all morning, I feel pretty macho, except the moments when I start to sob.) Sexual orientation is also fluid. A lot of dudes like to play this game. – If there’s one guy you HAD to have sex with, who would it be? It’s permission to flirt with Kinsey’s scale. In my PSU classes, I began to utilize Gender Gumby. Gender Gumby is an exercise that allows a person to plot where, in that moment, they fit on a scale of assigned sex (opening the discussion for people who are born inter-sexed), gender identity, gender presentation, and sexual orientation. The beauty of the exercise is that, where you map your gender today may be completely different tomorrow. I would map mine for the students. On sexual orientation, I would make mark pretty close to the “Attracted to females” end of the spectrum, but not at the very end of it. Because of Chris Cornell.

I’m so sad about his passing. I also loved those Audioslave records, and, after some time, came to appreciate the Temple of the Dog album. I saw him many times over the years. Soundgarden played the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The city fenced off an area downtown and forced people to pay to get in. I watched the show, precariously perched on a newspaper box so I could see over a fence. Soundgarden was onstage blasting their wall of sound into the city and Chris saw me straining to see the band. He said something to someone, who came over and let me in so I could watch from inside, safe and fully rocking.  We shared this generation together.

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Gender and sex are complex things, far from black and white. And sexuality is like magma looking for a way to the surface. Horrible things happen when you try to suppress it. (Google “Afghanistan” or “Mississippi.”) It’s not surprising that people are fearful of all that hot lava. Even the most “100% certain” person can be surprised by their own sexuality and where it might take them. I got a lesson about that in 1989 thanks to a killer Soundgarden show and got to let go of that certainty. Thanks, Chris. You were never not really hot. Lava hot.

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That Pig is a She! Normality of normative maleness

March 22, 2017

My daughter, Cozy, is now 2 years and 7 months old. (I will not say she’s “31 months old.” I won’t.) Seven months ago she had a few words, in English and Spanish. Now she’s having full conversations and saying things like, “Dad, I want the vanilla yogurt” and “Let’s go up Montjuïc!” (Montjuïc is a steep hill in Barcelona and my nickname for the ungodly steep hill on our street.) While I was writing this, she said, “Daddy, you have a booger on your pants. Oh, no. It’s Honey Bunches!” (her favorite cereal). Then she ate it. She is a linguistic sponge. “What’s this? What’s this?” She can’t learn words fast enough.

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The feminist sociologist in me is reminded how language shapes our perceptions of the world. When little boys are told, “Don’t cry like a girl,” there are a bunch of negative messages packed into one little phrase. When I announce the arrival of the “mailman,” it means a “mailwoman” is something odd. (About 40% of letter carriers are female. Ours is named Anthony.) A big issue in language is normative maleness, something I’ve already written about. Male as norm.

One of the most obvious ways this plays out is the language binary around jobs. Actor and actress. Waiter and waitress. Poet and poetress. The female as less. I’ve tried to banish these gendered terms from my vocabulary. Meryl Streep is an actor, Mr. Trump. She’s not an actress. Not in this house. Cozy will hear enough about the “female as less” outside our home. Here, let the message be clear. Now, Dad’s gotta do some laundry.

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This concept was pioneered by French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir in her groundbreaking 1949 book, The Second Sex. Our general discussion of “mankind” is gendered. When we discuss people, we mean “men” with women as the exception. “There is an absolute human type, the masculine… Thus humanity is male,” de Beauvoir wrote. In academics, when it’s time to talk about gender, that’s often code for female stuff, as if men don’t have gender. (There’s a gang of us that specialize on research on masculinity as gender performance.) This filters into our everyday language. If we don’t know for sure that someone (or something) is female, we just assume that they are male. If somebody reads this he’ll learn about normative maleness. (See what I did there?)

This goes all the way to animals. We assume dogs, birds, and squirrels are all male. “Look at that squirrel in the tree. He must be looking for his nuts.” I grew up around horses, so you kinda know the sex of that one, but don’t ask me to tell you whether that sewer rat is male or female. And we all do this. Even radical feminists like me. Normative maleness has been so wired into my brain, I blurt out “he’s” without even thinking about it. We had a mouse in our bedroom this winter. My wife said, “You gotta kill him!” I didn’t even think to say, “Maybe it’s a her!”

How is hearing all these “he’s” impacting my word-sponge daughter? Is she learning that male is the norm and female is “weird”? The thought stops me in my tracks. It’s not a little thing. IT IS NOT A LITTLE THING. There is a massive ripple effect of hearing this little thing over and over again. Think about how both boys and girls process this repeated message about devaluing the feminine. “He” is normal. “She” is not. Seriously, think about it.

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Cozy and I went to Oregon Zoo this week and I tried to be mindful of this messed-up norm. I made a point of using feminine pronouns more than male ones. “Look at that hippo and how big her teeth are.” “That penguin looks like she’s doing a dance.” “Don’t bother that cougar. I think she’s taking a nap.” (OK, the last one was a lady on a bench.) Her main goal of the day the day was to commune with the flamingos but my main goal of the day was to normalize the feminine. We were looking at a parrot and I asked her if she thought it (I almost said, “he”) was a boy or girl. And she said “boy.” When I asked why she said, “Because he’s silly.” So I don’t know if I achieved my goal or not. It was a pretty silly parrot.

I had a professor at Emory who would switch pronouns each term. Fall semester he would use male pronouns and Spring semester he would use female pronouns. Nobody said anything during the fall class (or noticed it), but the guys really got upset in the spring. It was a brilliant way to make an important point. What were those male students so angry about? That they are also co-eds?

There’s a 50/50 chance that animal your looking at or that person you don’t know is a female. If saying “he or she” seems like too much damn work, why not just say “she” to make up for all the years you’ve said, “he.”  I just hope that if someone reads this, she’ll think about the infinite power of language.

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 4: She’s gotta be free!

Cozy has made it to 14 months. I was a little nervous about the 13 month spread because of the Stevie Wonder thing. (“Thirteen month old baby, broke the looking glass…”) So we’re at a year and two months and still no clear gendered behavior. I’m going to knock on wood before she walks in here with a picture of Barbie that she has uploaded on my smartphone. She is still just a person. Hooray!

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It’s funny how we think about gender in terms of opposites; that there are opposite sexes. A local rock club posted a noticed that “Opposite genders” were not allowed in their bathrooms. (The note came down after some trans-sensitive folks had a word with the owner.) Genders have no opposite and men and women have more in common than we acknowledge. It’s not like boys walk on their feet and girls walk on their hands. This is not Dr. Seus-land.

But the gender binary is a powerful idea. We do construct the idea of gender in this culture, at this time, in terms of opposites (although less so than previous generations). Men are active and strong while women are passive and weak. Men are stoic and women are emotional. Men are earners and women are spenders, and on and on. Of course there are a zillion examples of how this is not true and the core of the liberal feminist agenda is that women can do anything men can do, including fight wars. (Radical feminists have a different take on that, as discussed in the post on Second Wave.) But patriarchy establishes that men assert the desired quality and then the opposite is relegated to the feminine. Men are brave heroes and women are crazy bitches.

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One of the characteristics of this gender dichotomy is the idea of autonomy. Men are supposed to be free to come and go. High plains drifter. Papa was a rolling stone. The world is there for men to explore, block by block, continent by continent. Chart your own course, dude. Make your own dreams, homeboy. Hit the road, Jack Kerouac. In contrast females have a thick rule book to play by and are not supposed to be autonomous. They are supposed to be dependent little princesses, sitting around in their parents’ castle, singing, “Someday My Prince Will Come.” In my mom’s generation, women typically said yes to the first man that proposed to them because it was the only way to get out of the parents’ house. This was long before Sex and the City.

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Of course, any single mom now would laugh at this simple dichotomy but there are still vestiges of it around. When I was in college, there were plenty of women who would joke that their major was “pre-wed,” and they were in college to get their “Mrs. Degree.” There’s a Bible college south of Portland where the female students are still fond of saying, “Ring by spring or your money back.” For those women I would  require a viewing Mona Lisa Smile, the 2003 Julia Roberts movie. If your life is dedicated to finding a husband to take care of you, you are in for a sad awakening at around age 29.

I want Cozy to be autonomous. I want her to roam free and drive her own car, not sit in the passenger seat (or the backseat with the other guy’s wife). She roams the house and has only fallen down the stairs once. (Please don’t tell anybody.) Of course, as a parent I keep a close eye on her, but if she wants to play with her blocks or look at books, she can. We are trying to instill a sense of her own independence while keeping her safe from falling down a well. (Little girls falling down wells was a big fad in the late 1980s.)

Baby’s are generally the opposite of autonomous. If she’s headed for the street, I’m going to pick her up. If she’s munching on spilled coffee grounds, I’m washing her mouth out. If she’s trying to turn on the TV and it’s not Sesame Street time, I’m going to shut it off. And I am always taking something out of her hands. Sorry, kid, grown ups are in charge. But at the same time, she has to discover her own freedom. She can be a rolling stone as long as the door to the basement is closed.

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Andrea and I went to go see Madonna’s big Rebel Heart concert last week. At 57, she is a great example of what a woman can do when left to her own devices (and a dumptruck full of Botox). Madonna couldn’t have happened in the 1950s. She needed the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s saying that a material girl has the right to her own life and dreams, so go for it. Be like Susan in Desperately Seeking Susan, not Roberta. Or be like Roberta in the end of that movie. But get an education so you don’t have to keep all your belongings in a Port Authority locker in a bus station. (OK, there’s been way too much Madonna in this house since the concert.)

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Parenting is such a balancing act. The challenge of raising an independent child who doesn’t get mowed down by a drunk driver at a parade. It seems like our society is always trying to strike a balance between our freedom and our safety. On top of that, I don’t want Cozy to think she is some princess who’s singular dream is the arrival of Mr. Right to think for her once she leaves the nest. It’s nice to see the rejection of the princess thing by so many parents and girls. We don’t live in fucking medieval Europe. Unless she’s the mother of dragons, we are looking forward, babe. A rolling stone with roots, that’s what we want, not Repunzel. Besides, Cozy has already decided she is going to be a soccer star or a contractor. She can hire Prince Charming to manage her payroll.

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