Sunday, November 25, 2018

Cocteau Twins, Heaven or Las Vegas (Capitol Records/4AD, 1990)

Three of my favorite musical statements about motherhood in the pop music lexicon are Madonna’s Ray of Light (1998), Björk’s Vespertine (2001), and Tori Amos’ The Beekeeper (2005). The fourth is Cocteau Twins’ 1990 album Heaven or Las Vegas, which also remains among my very favorite albums nearly thirty years after its release. With bursts of lyrical intelligibility and swooning vocal flourishes that border on rhapsodic, Elizabeth Fraser celebrated throughout these ten songs the experience of giving birth to her first child, Lucy, with Cocteau Twins bandmate Robin Guthrie.

When I first heard Cocteau Twins back in August of 1990, I was still only a babe myself, a 16-year-old boy growing up in a condominium subdivision of suburban Cincinnati, Ohio. Somewhat embarrassingly, my introduction to the band was seeing the video for “Iceblink luck” on MTV. I’d never heard of Cocteau Twins before that, and I certainly had no idea who Jean Cocteau was at that time. As a gay kid who listened to pop radio constantly, I was, understandably, totally hypnotized by the song, which sounded to my unsophisticated ears as though it had landed from elsewhere in the galaxy. I felt about it the same way I felt about classical music: intrigued and reverent, without any need for a narrative through-line or explicitly logical connections. I just wanted that sound to surround me.

My job that summer was working at Camelot Records in Northgate Mall, so I purchased the cassette tape of Heaven or Las Vegas with my employee discount after my very next shift. (For me back in those days, every dollar that I earned was equivalent to one-seventh of a new cassette tape.) I remember listening to the album non-stop throughout that fall during my senior year of high school, my moods coasting along on Simon Raymonde’s swells of bass guitar. Even then, I felt that I’d tapped into something new and meaningful, and that I’d started to turn something of a corner, away from being interested in pure pop and toward something more obscure, though still in a similar realm.

That’s probably what’s most interesting to me about more obscure popular music, or any music that attempts to get closer to pop without ever fully wearing the traditional pop wardrobe. There’s a certain palpable friction when you can hear a band stretching to fit into pop attire, bending the sound down toward the three-minute mark, structures that the masses out in Radioland can respond to, as if the sound’s been reshaped by moving in the direction of applause. Who wouldn’t want to find a vaster listenership by creating music that’s more widely appreciated?

While Heaven or Las Vegas is often cited as a Cocteau Twins fan favorite and is easily considered their album with the greatest mainstream appeal and accessibility, the concessions in retrospect are minimal, while the dividends still seem high. Although some might feel this was an artistic compromise, even in a pop setting the album is a daring challenge. Elizabeth Fraser’s intonations of her own devising may be slightly more comprehensible here than elsewhere in Cocteau Twins’ catalog, but tiny islands of comprehensibility make the songs even more elusive in a way, tilting into bliss in order to escape the continual grasp of the listener, rushing into spaces of dazzling disorientation (and escorted there by Robin Guthrie’s ethereal guitars and synthesizers), the same way that having a newborn baby entirely revises one’s sense of focus and being in the world.

From the album's opening track, “Cherry-coloured funk,” the song’s title and darkness-to-light sonic shifts evoke the emotional extremes of new motherhood, feeling excited and overwhelmed by love, re-grounded by life, a more cheerful or “rose-tinted” view rising in the wake of postpartum depression or mere exhaustion. The noticeable trip-hoppy drum loop on “Pitch the baby” underscores its crystal-clear choral line, “I only want to love you.” Of course, “Iceblink luck” features the starkest set of lyrical fragments; semi-audible lines like “burn this whole madhouse down,” “you, yourself and your father,” and “thank you for mending me, baby” all lead into the quietly propulsive “Fifty-fifty clown.” Then, right at the midway point of the album, the glorious, neon-drenched title track pretty much permanently puts cheerfulness back into goth, never to be fully erased again.

Part of what made me want to write about this album was recently seeing the gay French director Christophe Honoré’s latest film, Sorry Angel, and being completely psyched to hear “I wear your ring” suddenly pop up on the movie’s soundtrack during a particularly gorgeous sex scene. What an inspired choice it was. The song’s sound is indelibly bound to dusk and twilight, to nighttime and romance, waltzing through dark waves of glitter “between the sunrise and sunset” to arrive at some kind of agreement or consolation in the presence of someone else in a silent room. “Fotzepolitic” (literally German for “vagina politics”) then takes over like an awakening for “I wear your ring,” both joyful and unbridled. The pulsing “Wolf in the breast” and contemplative “Road, river and rail” move from the intimate interiority of “my baby’s cries” to a sprawling exterior countryside or landscape, with a forlorn figure drifting gently across it in the distance. And finally, the album’s somber closing number, “Frou-frou foxes in midsummer fires,” slowly floats from netherworld to dream-world, which turns out, naturally, to have been the true resting place of Cocteau Twins all along.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

18th Annual New Hampshire Film Festival (October 11th - 14th, 2018)

This weekend was my first time attending the New Hampshire Film Festival, which was held at a diverse array of venues in the oceanfront city of Portsmouth. In a year when the political climate here in the United States has felt totally unstable, to say the least, two of the documentaries that I watched in the festival stood out for their intense and absorbing themes of social justice, and I also really loved one of the narrative foreign feature films that I saw in the festival. While both of the documentaries were made in similar styles that were fairly procedural, the serious depth of their powerful and urgent social messages felt so close to the surface that the injustice of the situations presented in them enraged me immediately. Although it’s hard to sit in a theater while feeling overwhelmed by our country’s glaring blind spots, the heroic individuals featured in both documentaries who are working to change things helped to redeem that feeling.

Capturing the Flag, directed by Anne de Mare, focuses on the very timely issue of voter suppression during the 2016 presidential election, when candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump faced off against one another. The film follows and reflects on a group of volunteers — friends and attorneys Laverne Berry and Steven Miller, along with Claire Wright, a recent U.S. citizen who immigrated from South Africa — as they worked to assist voters at the polling locations in North Carolina's Cumberland County on the day of the 2016 election. The film uncovers first-hand how large numbers of African-American and Latino voters were disenfranchised by the voting system and denied their right to vote because their names had been removed from voter registration rosters, or their addresses had been changed to place them in different voting districts. Early in the film, Steven Miller speaks movingly about the fragility of democracy in relation to his ancestors who had died in the Holocaust, and how easy it is for democratic systems to be dismantled and tossed aside by corrupt individuals in positions of power.

Berry, Miller, and Wright stationed themselves in front of separate polling buildings on election day, in order to ask the voters entering the polling stations to let them know if they encountered any problems while trying to cast their votes. At one polling station in North Carolina, over 1,200 people showed up to vote on election day in 2016, but shockingly, only 598 of them were able to cast their votes. When this statistic was revealed on screen late in the film, the entire audience watching the movie at the Portsmouth Music Hall gasped collectively. As election night wound down and the bewildering results of the election began to become clear (including the breaking news report that the state of North Carolina had gone to Trump), all three of the volunteers seemed to lose their sense of faith in a system that could appoint such a malign force to its highest governmental position, yet they all still stressed the importance of continuing their grassroots work to fight that corruption at every future opportunity.

I was equally impressed with the figures in Stephanie Wang-Breal’s documentary Blowin’ Up, which traces the struggles of women arrested for prostitution in Queens, New York, as they face the criminal justice system as victims of human trafficking. The film begins as a woman named Kandie explains that “blowin’ up” means making the decision to leave your pimp, the man who’s controlling your finances, your actions, and your entire life. She mentions that she would often earn over $1,200 on some nights, and that none of the money would be hers to keep, only meals from McDonald’s. In a tragic way, I feel like that’s an analogy for the entire capitalist system itself; as Karl Marx famously described, the secret of profit and wealth in capitalist societies is that workers are systematically underpaid and oppressed by those who exploit their labor. Many of the women arrested who are interviewed in the movie explain that they were trying to work their way out of crushing debt and other financial hardships. A number of women who appear in the film are immigrants from Asian countries who had arrived here with nothing and took jobs working in massage parlors, as a way to have food and shelter, and to try to help their families survive.

To counter these grim realities, Wang-Breal introduces a wide range of remarkable, diligent women working in the criminal justice system — from social workers to attorneys to judges like the Honorable Toko Serita — who have been successful in reforming how prostitution cases are handled in Queens, shifting the courts gradually from a system of diversion and punishment to one that focuses instead on intervention and rehabilitation. Why would a police officer or detective arrange to meet a sex worker at a hotel in order to entrap the woman and make an easy arrest, one legal representative asks, rather than investigating and attempting to intervene? One approach to rehabilitating some women in the community who’d been charged with prostitution was to connect them with an Asian women’s center. For me, the film’s most powerful footage included conversations between one of the arrested women and the director of the women’s center. When she asks the client if she feels that working as a prostitute had violated her human rights, they discuss how everyone should have the right to survive, the right not to be hurt, and the right to be informed. Blowin’ Up offers the viewer an interior, ground-level view of social justice and change related to all of these crucial human-rights issues.

As an admirer of the French director and screenwriter Christophe Honoré’s 2007 threesome-centered musical film Love Songs (Les Chansons d’Amour), I was very excited to see his new gay-themed Parisian movie Sorry Angel (Plaire, Aimer et Courir Vite), which is set in 1993, the year that I was halfway through college and just beginning to come out as gay myself. As a gay man who came of age in the 1980’s and early ’90s, I remember how the specter of HIV and AIDS lingered everywhere by the time 1993 arrived, shadowing every mood and thought and interaction with a sense of remote doom, whether you talked about it openly or not. All of this made watching the absolute wealth of true-to-life details in Sorry Angel feel like I’d lived through something historical, a time in gay life that can now legitimately be seen as history, even though I often felt like I’d have no history as a gay man at that time, as if any real future had already been foreclosed to me and to all of us young gay men back then. Despite having taught a college-level queer history course for nearly twenty years now, I was surprised to feel my own historical memories rising up through the layers of Christophe Honoré’s beautifully made and carefully modulated new film.

Sorry Angel is an ensemble movie that has the feel of an engrossing novel. That makes sense because its 39-year-old central character, Jacques Tondelli (played by Pierre Deladonchamps, who was so memorable in 2013’s Stranger by the Lake) is himself a novelist. Cruisingly, he meets a 22-year-old bisexual university student from Brittany who’s named Arthur (Vincent Lacoste), while the two are watching Jane Campion's The Piano at a movie theatre and wind up sitting beside each other, and then they haltingly move on to having sex and dating, all of the wonderful things that I recall quite well from 1993. During one of their early conversations (and these dialogue-based scenes in the film are among the best that I’ve encountered over the past several years), Arthur asks Jacques, “What do you do in life?” to which Jacques responds, “I head for ruin,” and then, after a beat: “I’m a writer.” Later, Jacques also gives some lessons in literary history to Arthur over the phone — on Whitman and Rimbaud, W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman — during which Arthur even takes notes … and in the middle of a taking a break from a hot hookup with one of his cute friends who’s his own age, no less.

Jacques, who is HIV-positive, sometimes lives with his young son, Louis (Tristan Farge), nicknamed Loulou, whom he had with a close female friend, Isabelle (Sophie Letourneur). Occasionally, Jacques shares his apartment with his friend and ex-lover, Marco (Thomas Gonzalez), who’s now living with full-blown AIDS and slipping downhill fast. The relationship between Jacques and Marco is an honest and heartbreaking one; a bathtub scene between the two, in which Marco admits, “I hurt too much to be in love with anyone,” is sure to become a classic of gay cinema. The same could be said of a much later scene between Jacques, Arthur, and their older gay friend Mathieu (Denis Podalydès), as they dance and drink in the living room, have a long and drunken late-night conversation, then end up humorously in bed together.

Although in this scene Arthur delivers a pointed monologue that comes off sounding a little scripted (as if Christophe Honoré is speaking, rather than the character), and although some of the HIV/AIDS plot elements in the film feel a bit too familiar at times, Sorry Angel is a realistically nuanced and deeply human movie that was also an arrow to the heart for me. I was psyched to hear such inspired and unexpected song choices from the late ’80s and early ’90s intelligently placed throughout the film’s soundtrack, from Cocteau Twins’ “I Wear Your Ring” during Jacques’ and Arthur’s gorgeous, blue-lit initial sex scene, to Prefab Sprout’s “Cars and Girls” during one of Arthur’s fun hookups on the side, to Cowboy Junkies’ slow-burning rendition of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” at one of the movie’s pivotal emotional moments. I also can’t understate my own emotional response to this film. During a scene in the final half-hour, when Arthur does an innocent striptease for Jacques at the foot of his hospital bed, then climbs in beside him and says, “We could make a good life together,” I suddenly started to cry, and I continued crying right through to the end of the film.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Tracy Chapman, Greatest Hits (Elektra Entertainment, 2015)

It’s hard to believe that thirty years have passed since Tracy Chapman released her self-titled debut album in 1988. Several songs on the album — “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution,” “Fast Car,” and “Baby Can I Hold You” — still sound as relevant and timely today as they did when they were recorded. Perhaps that album’s directness and simplicity is one reason why it was a global hit in fifteen countries internationally. The songs wear their messages plainly, delivered in Chapman’s strong yet delicate voice that sounds like nobody else’s, combining elements of old-school blues and contemporary folk with flourishes that approximate world music chants. Chapman got her start busking on the streets and subway platforms in Harvard Square in the mid-’80s, a few years before I arrived in Cambridge myself. Anytime I hear her music, I get the same feeling as when I see a sudden stand of unexpected sunflowers somewhere in the city.

Ever since Chapman’s remastered Greatest Hits compilation was released a few years ago in 2015, it’s the album that I’ve probably listened to most whenever I’m driving around on road trips here in New England. This selection of eighteen songs spans her entire career and distills what’s best about Chapman’s music: its consistency, diversity, and quality that somehow remains quietly outside of what’s typically expected of commercial artists. Her songs usually fall into one of two categories, with lyrics focused either on social consciousness or on love and intimate relationships. Chapman approaches these subjects in similar manners, emphasizing that human interactions in the wider world require a kind of close and caring attention just like romantic relationships do, a commentary on how love and the lack of it have an equal impact across both our public and private spheres.

“Baby Can I Hold You” is a perfect and plaintive example of that balancing act. Chapman’s lyrics straightforwardly take account of a one-way relationship, as the singer’s lover is told that words like “sorry,” “forgive me,” and “I love you” are “all that you can’t say,” even though “baby can I hold you” is spoken freely and frequently. The song’s gentle tone smartly coerces the listener into thinking that this is a love song (and one famously covered by the Irish boyband Boyzone, no less), but on closer inspection, it’s quite the opposite. In our current era, during which sexual and power imbalances have finally come under serious scrutiny, the song’s deeper meaning resonates more fully.

Similarly, I remember hearing Chapman perform her song “The Promise” in concert at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre when I was in college back in 1995. A meditation on lost love and remembrance and waiting for its return, “The Promise” was only the second song into Chapman’s set-list that night, but most of the people sitting around me in the audience were already in tears. It was the only time I ever saw Chapman perform live, and it’s also the last time that I witnessed an artist move listeners so swiftly and collectively. Chapman’s other love songs, like “Open Arms,” “Smoke and Ashes,” and “Sing for You,” still have that kind of effect on me when I hear them today. (There’s also a beautiful denouement on this compilation, Chapman’s solo rendition of “Stand by Me,” performed on The Late Show with David Letterman.)

Chapman’s more political songs, however, are the ones that she’s become best known for recording. She’s always been a protest singer in the classic sense, clear-eyed and fearless in her mission, as well as steadfast and disarming. How is it that her song “Bang Bang Bang” from 1992 isn’t a major anthem for gun control in the United States today? And furthermore, how is it that gun violence in our country has become so much more entrenched and devastating in the years since then? Tracing our culture’s terrible mistakes (“What you go and do / You go and give a boy a gun”), Chapman presciently examines the exploitation of masculinity and police brutality, then escalates her theme profoundly in the song’s final lyrics: “Before you can bridge the gulf between / And embrace him in your arms / Bang bang bang / He’ll shoot you down.”

That these social problems are no closer to being solved is the reason why Chapman sings, in the very first song on her first album, “Don’t you know / They’re talkin’ bout a revolution / It sounds like a whisper.” Nevertheless, such songs as “Subcity,” “Crossroads,” and “All That You Have Is Your Soul” remain potent critiques of the ravages of global capitalism, as well as point-blank takedowns of governmental ineffectuality and malice. No other mainstream songwriter has had the courage to sing, “I’d like to give Mr. President my honest regards / For disregarding me.” Clearly, and painfully, these lyrics have never been more true.

When I posted my list of fifty favorite songs here on my blog a few years ago, I included Chapman’s “Fast Car” on the list, of course. Because of its lyrical ambition and emotional complexity, I think it’s still one of the best folk songs ever recorded in a pop setting. (Some pop acts have done wonderful covers of it, too, like the electronica band Swimming with Dolphins and Mutya Buena of the British girl-group Sugababes.) The song is too close to me and also too legendary to say anything more about it, except that “Fast Car” has done exactly what its closing lines promised; it’s kept driving Tracy Chapman’s music and career through her artistic history, and it will keep doing so right up until pop music’s twilight years.

Monday, June 18, 2018

20th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 13th - 17th, 2018)

I was very excited to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Provincetown International Film Festival this year, and I did so over the past week by watching exactly 20 films in the festival, coincidentally. A number of the filmmakers and attendees whom I met throughout the festival mentioned how much they appreciated being in a peaceful place like Provincetown for a few days, enjoying the films and community, and how grateful they were to have a reason to tune out the ongoing noise of the current political climate in our country. It also makes sense, then, that the films I liked most in this year’s festival were movies with specific and important social justice messages shaping both their themes and aesthetics.

My favorite documentary in this year’s festival was The Gospel of Eureka, directed by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher. I loved its offbeat sensibility and its assured sense of humor, with a narrative voiceover from on high by the fabulous Justin Vivian Bond. The film takes place in the tiny Arkansas town of Eureka Springs, population 2,073, and its focus is as divided as the United States itself has been in recent years. It explores LGBTQ issues on small and large scales, while also detailing the town’s long-standing attraction, a religious theatrical spectacle called The Great Passion Play, which boasts the tallest statue of Jesus Christ in the entire nation. The filmmakers brilliantly intersplice footage of drag entertainers performing at the town’s small gay club with some hilariously eye-popping scenes from the passion play, in order to show the similarities between two seemingly different dramatic experiences and to highlight the inseparability of two apparently disparate ways of life in the Ozarks.

The gay and transgender subjects interviewed in the film are inspiringly down-to-earth, always funny and no-nonsense about their everyday endeavors. When their annual pride parade gets rained on halfway through the day by a thunderstorm of biblical proportions (divine intervention for the lucky filmmakers, no doubt), the participants wait patiently under umbrellas and porches until the rain moves on and the clouds have parted. And one older gay couple who met back in 1986 movingly share their photo album of memories, snapshots of friends who are mostly long gone, recalling their youthful energy and the community they forged against fairly steep odds.

I’d been looking forward to another documentary in the festival, Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers, the mind-blowing tale of triplet brothers Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland, and David Kellman, who were separated at birth when adopted by different families and reunited by total chance in 1980. Robert had started school at a community college where Eddy had been enrolled the previous year, so he was stunned as other students on campus kept walking up to him, saying hello, hugging and kissing him. When a friend of Eddy’s who knew he hadn’t returned to the school that year realized that Robert must be Eddy's long-lost identical twin, the pair were reunited at last, and the story was then picked up by local media. David was then amazed to see a photo of his two brothers together in the newspaper, realized he must be the third, and the triplets soon became a much bigger media sensation, even opening their own restaurant together in New York City and popping up as a cameo in a Madonna movie.

After the spirited first half of the documentary when the brothers re-discover each other, which an aunt describes by recounting how they ended up wrestling around on the living room floor like three playful puppies, the film takes a much darker turn at the midway point. As the brothers initiate a search for their birth mother, they also begin to piece together what might have actually occurred to bring about their separation as newborn infants. I don’t want to give too much away, but what follows would make any viewer deeply question the ethics of scientific inquiry, as well as the very nature of identity itself. Do we ever truly know who we are, and if so, how do we know? What role does family play in shaping our identities? How much trust and chance are involved in the process of becoming ourselves? Are there instances in which we shouldn’t trust so easily what the reality of any given situation appears to be?

Similar questions arise in Dawnland, a truly vital and heartbreaking documentary directed by Adam Mazo and Ben Pender-Cudlip. The film closely examines decades of injustice in Native American communities in Maine, where a staggering number of Indian children were forcibly separated from their families of origin and placed into foster care because the state’s social welfare system believed they would be better off raised by non-Indian families, beginning as early as 1940. By 1978, the filmmakers estimate that one in four Indian children in Maine had been placed into foster care. In middle American states like Minnesota, the ratio of Indian children separated from their families has been over 20 times higher than the percentage of non-Indian children placed into foster care.

Far from being surrounded by safer or more civilized upbringings, the reality is that many of the Indian children suffered from neglect, emotional abuse, and physical violence. The gradual revelation of these terrible wrongs prompted the state of Maine’s recent formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which seeks to address this tragic history by meeting with the adults, mostly women, who endured such abuse, formally hearing and recording their testimonies in person. The process of sharing these painful personal stories opens up a communal discussion surrounding massive historical issues like colonization, genocide, institutionalized racism, white privilege, and restorative justice. While the commission had compiled over 150 testimonies by the time the film had been completed, its members acknowledge in their final report that the healing process has only just begun and much more work remains to be done in the future.

Brutality in the world of underprivileged children is represented in an equally powerful and totally different context in Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals, one of my favorite narrative features from this year’s festival. The movie is an innovative and memorable adaptation of Justin Torres’ 2011 semi-autobiographical novel of the same title. Jeremiah is also a former student of mine from a multicultural literature class almost 20 years ago now, so I’m impressed seeing how imaginatively he’s rendered Torres’ prose while re-purposing it for the screen. Although the subject matter will inevitably prompt comparisons to Moonlight, this film’s gritty cinéma vérité style shares more in common with the films of Harmony Korine, augmented by plenty of fantastical moments throughout the movie and phenomenally kinetic hand-drawn animation by Mark Samsonovich.

The story follows three rambunctious young brothers from a Puerto Rican family who’ve moved from the Bronx to an unspecified suburban location outside of New York City. The brothers live as boys will do, roaming around their outer and inner realms, always skirting on the edge of violence, joking, and unconstrained rowdiness. Their parents, a bottling plant worker and night watchman known only as Ma and Paps (potently portrayed by Sheila Vand and Looking’s Raul Castillo, respectively), aren’t much less rowdy than their sons, flirting and fighting, falling out and making up. We see the action mostly through the eyes of Jonah, the youngest brother, in an astounding performance by Evan Rosado, who tags along with his brothers Manny and Joel, then writes about and draws pictures of their adventures in his secret notebook with a flashlight at night underneath the bed they share. There are ample amounts of freedom and danger, as Jonah becomes haltingly aware of his own early sexual awakening and his interest in other boys. Though restrained by class and borderline poverty, the brothers seem hardly aware of it; when their mother slips into a depression and they must fend for themselves, they ransack every last corner of their house until any edible crumbs and drops are gone, driven by sheer willpower to survive. Their house itself is one we also come to know in an almost mythical way, filmed in a golden, hazy light that lifts it far above any feelings of squalor or destitution.

Finally, I’d really anticipated all festival long watching Ondi Timoner’s new biopic Mapplethorpe, the closing night feature, and I was mostly satisfied with the outcome. Despite its reliance on some familiar biopic tropes and conventions, occasionally simplifying complex images and relationships for the sake of clarity, the film also doesn’t shy away from the blunt edges of Robert Mapplethorpe’s life and artwork. Nor does the commanding lead performance of British actor Matt Smith, which feels fully lived-in and completely invested throughout, alternating between toughness and tenderness, just like Mapplethorpe’s photographs themselves often do. Mapplethorpe’s tenacity in defining his renegade aesthetic before his death from AIDS at age 42 in 1989 is something that Matt Smith clearly understands and ably conveys. John Benjamin Hickey is also understatedly seductive and confident as Sam Wagstaff, the art collector who took Mapplethorpe under his wing when he was early in his photographic career. Their love for one another became the central romantic relationship in their lives, even while Mapplethorpe’s relationship with a young Patti Smith, depicted at the start of the film, never quite left him either.

My own relationship to the subject matter of Mapplethorpe has particular relevance for me. I grew up gay in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the curator of the contemporary art museum, Dennis Barrie, was indicted by the city’s government on pornographic charges for bringing Mapplethorpe’s exhibit to the public, including many nude male portraits and sadomasochistic images, a great number of which are fearlessly and fittingly featured in this new biopic. That court case, easily among the most grievous instances of art censorship in American history, unfolded in 1990, during my senior year of high school, and it always made me a little embarrassed thereafter to say that I was from Cincinnati, where such a notoriously conservative scandal had erupted. The most important element of Mapplethorpe himself that the film expertly captures is how he fiercely and artfully kicked down doors of sexual identity and expression that had remained firmly closed until he so courageously opened them.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Five Favorite Soul Albums of the 1980s

Two of the record shops that I frequented back in the 1980s while growing up in Cincinnati were both soul music stores. Just across the Ohio River from Kentucky, Cincinnati was still a somewhat segregated city in that era, even if people were a bit quieter about it in those days. Whenever I stopped in to browse at those two shops, my presence always earned me some interesting looks from the employees and other customers. “What is this skinny white gay kid doing in here?” they seemed to be thinking. But when they noticed over time the kinds of albums that I brought up to the cash register, I gradually earned their respect as someone who knew, even as a younger person, how to select good music from their record bins.

Probably my favorite soul album from the 1980s remains El DeBarge’s self-titled solo debut from 1986. Released by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy on his own Gordy Records imprint, the songs appealed to me for how precisely they rested on the border between R&B and pop, and because no other voice in the realm of pop music has ever sounded exactly like El DeBarge’s voice, a boyishly androgynous and effortlessly smooth croon that was equally at ease in classy ballads and upbeat dance numbers. The roster of production personnel and session players involved in the making of the album includes some of the most accomplished musicians of the day: Burt Bacharach, Michael McDonald, David Foster, Diane Warren, Robbie Nevil, Siedah Garrett, Peter Wolf, Jay Graydon, Robbie Buchanan, Richard Page … and that’s just a small sampling of the list.

The best-known song from the album is the huge radio hit “Who’s Johnny?” (which was featured in the ’80s movie Short Circuit, starring Ally Sheedy and Steve Guttenberg), yet most other songs on the album, like “Secrets of the Night,” “Someone,” and “Lost Without Her Love,” rise to a similar level of radio-readiness, even if hardly anybody else heard them back then. The album reaches its apex with the quiet-storm classic “Love Always,” written and produced by Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager, and Bruce Roberts. And the disc’s perfectly placed closing track, “Don’t Say It’s Over,” suggested that more great things would lay ahead for its songwriter, Diane Warren, back at the start of her career.

Perhaps nobody else was more important to me among ’80s soul singers than Alexander O’Neal and Cherrelle. Clarence Avant’s Tabu Records label was home to both artists, and their finest albums were conceived as full-fledged productions, almost like musicals, complete with spoken introductions and interludes between the songs, all produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the powerhouse duo behind Janet Jackson’s albums. Alexander O’Neal and Cherrelle also recorded two well-received duets together, “Saturday Love” and “Never Knew Love Like This.” I’ll never forget being at a summer block party in Harvard Square a few years ago and hearing “Saturday Love” drifting down the street. I walked over to the DJ booth and said, “You’re playing Alexander O’Neal and Cherrelle!” The DJ instantly smiled and lifted his hand in the air for a high five, as if we were brothers in a secret society.

While Alexander O’Neal’s 1987 LP Hearsay included funky club cuts like “Criticize,” “Fake,” and “The Lovers,” which transcended teenage pop to address more serious adult romantic issues, Cherrelle’s daring 1988 album Affair carried that idea to an entirely different level. Taking its focus of extramarital relations and drawing it out as the album’s lyrical and thematic thread, Affair accomplished something that no other album since then has ever quite matched. The refrain on its fierce title song (“I don’t need commitment, / I don’t need a man to tell me how to feel”) isn’t just a true feminist anthem; it’s also a line that almost every gay man on earth can easily relate to. Other tracks on the album, such as “Looks Aren’t Everything,” “Discreet,” and “Keep It Inside,” have no issue with telling women to pursue romantic and sexual pleasure on their own terms. “Everything I Miss at Home,” my favorite ’80s soul ballad to this day, flat-out celebrates finding contentment outside of a stifling, normative relationship.

Little-known here in the United States, sadly, Hot House’s 1988 album South also should have been more widely appreciated on its home terrain in the United Kingdom. The group’s vocalist, Heather Small, went on to become the frontwoman for dance hitmakers M People a few years later. As the singer for Hot House, she was supported by her co-writer Martin Colyer and co-writer/instrumentalist Mark Pringle. The result is a gorgeous collection of twelve R&B throwback tracks that faithfully resurrect the sonics and vibes of a much earlier time, mixing in elements of blues, country, and gospel. “The Way That We Walk,” “Don’t Come to Stay,” “The Jealous Kind,” and “Me and You” wouldn’t sound out of place in a ’60s jazz club in London’s Soho district or a piano bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. Their superb rendition of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” is also every bit as good as the original number.

Finally, Jermaine Stewart’s 1986 album Frantic Romantic spawned perhaps the catchiest song of that wonderful decade, the super-sweet and reverent “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off,” the lyrics of which gave all of us lots of room to breathe at the height of the AIDS epidemic (“Let’s get to know each other better, slow and easily … / We don’t have to take our clothes off to have a good time, / We can dance and party all night and drink some cherry wine”). I vividly remember hearing the song alongside an extended dance remix of Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” while dancing up in the balcony of the long-defunct London club G-A-Y at the Astoria Theatre by Tottenham Court Road. The massive, throbbing crowd of several thousand drunken, happy queer revelers went absolutely wild for both songs, which is my favorite dance club memory of all time and always will be, right up until the day I’m gone.

Of course, Frantic Romantic featured other up-tempo numbers like “Dance Floor,” “Jody” (inspired by fellow soul singer Jody Watley), and “Versatile,” as well as the tropically breezy “Moonlight Carnival.” Anyone who watches Jermaine’s choreography in his vintage videos online can delight in the pure class that he always put on display. Tragically, he died in 1997 of AIDS-related complications at age 39 in suburban Chicago, where he had spent his teenage years before his music career took him to many other places around the globe. His gravesite remained unmarked for 17 years until his mother placed a tombstone there in 2014. Etched into the stone are a musical note and staff, the phrase “forever in our hearts,” and beneath his full name and the dates of his birth and death, a single word appears: “BRILLIANCE.”

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Music of Tommy Page

I met Tommy Page back in 1990, when I was only 17. As the editor of my high school newspaper in suburban Cincinnati at that time, I possessed a youthful fearlessness and a love for pop music that convinced me it would be totally fine to call up music labels in New York and request to interview their artists on summer concert tours. To my surprise, it always worked. I went to a fairly large high school of about 1,500 students, the perfect audience of middle American teenagers to whom those record labels wanted to sell cassette tapes, concert tickets, and merchandise. I was curious enough about the careers of pop musicians to have scored interviews with acts like New Kids on the Block, Sweet Sensation, and Tiffany, something that might not happen as easily for a Midwestern high school student today.

My meeting with Tommy Page was a little more tense than my other interviews had been. Clearly, we were both gay, which made us slightly nervous I think, sitting alone together in a backstage room of Timberwolf amphitheater at Kings Island amusement park in 1990. After our interview was done, some radio guys from Q102, the big pop music station in Cincinnati, came in to record some on-air spots with Tommy. While the sound engineers were setting up the microphones, Tommy was just having fun with us, gossiping about stuff like Mariah Carey’s then-secret relationship with her boss, the label head of Columbia Records; this was just after Carey’s first single, “Vision of Love,” had been a huge radio hit. It all made such a lasting impression on me that I can vividly recall every detail in that backstage room to this day: the fluorescent lights, the faux-wood paneling, the gentle rasp in Tommy’s voice when he spoke, and the way his jet-black bangs fell to either side of his face.

A little less than a year ago now, on a cold Saturday morning in early March, I was stunned when I heard from a writer at Billboard magazine that Tommy Page had died from an apparent suicide the night before, alone at his country home in Pennsylvania. The former Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto, who’d been a close friend of Tommy’s when they were younger, broke the story online right after I found out. Following a string of albums and hit singles back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Tommy had forged a successful career as a music industry executive, and he’d also started a family with his husband Charlie, with whom he was raising three children. By coincidence, I would be in New York that next week on the day of Tommy’s funeral, so I took the hour-long bus ride from Port Authority down to his hometown of Caldwell, New Jersey, to attend the service that Wednesday morning.

It was heavy to carry my young memories from so long ago into the Presbyterian church there. Several women my age who were sitting together in the row in front of me, and who had known Tommy since childhood, cried throughout the entire service. The whole congregation wept when one of Tommy’s young sons spoke about his dad from the pulpit. Then one of Tommy’s brothers played a beautiful version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” which he said had been one of Tommy’s favorite songs. Most of the congregation quietly sang along. I think it came as a relief to us, in a time of grief and confusion, to share in the love of something simple like a pop song together.

Tommy released seven albums during the height of his recording career, with several songs that climbed up the pop and dance charts and enjoyed good runs there. By the mid-‘90s, his core audience had shifted from America to Asia, where he continued to perform annually to dedicated, appreciative audiences. Listening back through his discography over this past week, I was impressed by how diverse the styles of his albums are, ranging from Latin/freestyle club cuts to appealing pop ballads to some semi-classical numbers later in his oeuvre. My favorite of Tommy’s songs, 1990’s “I Break Down” (co-produced by Joe Mardin, son of legendary producer Arif Mardin), was re-recorded by Tommy in a gorgeous orchestral version in 2015; that new rendition was featured on his eighth and final album, a self-released compilation of songs hand-selected from his own catalog and simply titled My Favorites.

When Tommy Page’s eponymous debut album was released in 1988, I was working at Camelot Records in Northgate Mall, across the street from where I grew up in Cincinnati. I remember opening of a box of deliveries from Sire Records, Tommy’s label (and Madonna’s, too), then seeing Tommy’s Elvis-inspired cover photo starting up at me from a cassette near the top of the box. “Who’s that?” I thought. He had quietly arrived on the pop music scene with minimal fanfare, though that album did spawn his first radio hit, the ballad “A Shoulder to Cry On.” I was more drawn to the dance tracks on that album, like “A Zillion Kisses” and the endlessly fun, openly sexual “Turning Me On,” which are among the most club-ready songs that Tommy recorded. There’s also a pulsating number that he wrote and arranged with Grammy-nominated songwriter Shelly Peiken, “Love Takes Over,” as well as a catchy ode to non-conformity called “Hard to Be Normal.”

Tommy’s sophomore effort, Paintings in My Mind from 1990, would be his biggest commercial success, in part because of the involvement of New Kids on the Block, who were riding high on the wave of the boyband craze at the time. They shared credit for two songs on the album with Tommy: the bouncy “Turn on the Radio” and the heartfelt “I’ll Be Your Everything,” Tommy’s Billboard #1 single, the lyrics of which now poignantly sound like they could have been written for Tommy’s young daughter, Ruby. Tommy also sang the album’s duet “Don’t Give Up on Love” with Latin/freestyle artist Safire (aka Wilma Cosme), with whom he later formed a dance music partnership called Cosmic Page.

By the time his third album was released a year later, 1991’s From the Heart found Tommy Page reaching for a more mature sound. The record’s lead single, “Whenever You Close Your Eyes,” written by Michael Bolton and Diane Warren, with its soaring chorus and rousing gospel-choir backdrop, raised the bar for the next chapter of Tommy’s recording career. Songs such as the upbeat “Under the Rainbow” and a moving version of Eric Carmen’s “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” proved that he was capable of sustaining a more refined form of drama on his records, suggesting in a carefully considered way that he (and his audience) had moved past teenage years and into adulthood.

Tommy’s next few albums were released in markets throughout Asia. A Friend to Rely On from 1992 opens with an awesome cover of Nik Kershaw’s mid-‘80s hit “Wouldn’t It Be Good,” while 1994’s Time contains excellent, pensively danceable tracks like “Places in My Heart” and “If I Had a Wish.” Loving You from 1996, titled after a number from Stephen Sondheim’s 1994 musical Passion, includes some of Tommy’s accomplished renditions of songs by other artists, like Cyndi Lauper’s “That’s What I Think” and John Waite’s “Missing You,” as well as another superb track written by Diane Warren, “I Keep Hoping.” A smart handful of cover songs also appears on Tommy’s self-released album Ten til Midnight from 2000: a hardcore house version of Breakfast Club’s 1987 hit “Right on Track,” which sounds like the kind of dance track that Tommy always wanted to record, Ari Gold's wonderful "Dance to the Beat of My Heart," and a sensitive rendering of Nikki’s popular 1990 single “Notice Me.”

The final post and photograph on Tommy Page’s Twitter timeline in January of 2017 indicates that he was working on new songs, something that’s heartbreaking to consider now, of course. I’ve thought of Tommy and his music often throughout the past year, and even so, it took me nearly twelve months to feel enough clarity about his tragic death to be able to write this post. I’m fortunate that I had a chance to meet him years ago, and I can find some comfort in knowing that his music will last.