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 Gutenberg), 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.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Five Favorite Films of 2017

As popular cinema grew ever more mainstream and dominant throughout 2017, in a year when even the political realm became more corporate and corrupt (who thought that could be possible?), the small arthouse films that appealed to me the most also got riskier and more ambitious than usual. When the artistic stakes are higher, it makes sense that this type of counter-balancing would take place, a kind of aesthetic resistance and survival instinct, which is also a refusal to give in to market demands, saying that artful movies aren’t going anywhere, and saying it more demonstratively and provocatively than in prior years.

David Lowery’s A Ghost Story lingered with me longer than any other movie that I saw in 2017. Even while I was watching it at the cinema, I knew that would be the case. Framed in a square with rounded corners in the center of the screen, to evoke the look of old printed snapshots from photo albums, the movie is a valentine to the idea of time, as well as a bold and resonant excavation of the meaning of time. On its quiet and undisturbed surface, it’s a story of grief, and one that many people who chose not to see the film thought was driven by a gimmick. A ghost under a flowing white sheet with eye-holes cut out of it haunts the home that Casey Affleck’s unnamed character shares with Rooney Mara’s unnamed character after Affleck’s character dies in a car crash early in the film.

Long, silent scenes in which the camera doesn’t move at all set up the action of the tale, as it were. The body of Affleck’s character, seen from a distance across the room, lying under a white sheet at the hospital. Mara’s grief-stricken character, sitting alone on the floor of their dark kitchen, methodically devouring an entire pie over several minutes. These scenes are not meant to try the viewer’s patience, but to put us in the characters’ mindset, and to begin to ask what it means for minutes, hours, days, and years to pass, both in the presence of others and in the absence of others. And an image that might seem sentimental elsewhere — the ghost repeatedly attempting to scratch open a painted-over crack in a wooden doorframe, in which Mara’s character has slipped a secret note — felt perfectly logical and moving to me.

When the succession of humans isn’t in the house, the ghost is never alone for too long. It can see another ghost in a similar predicament in the house across the way, and the two ghosts can even communicate with one another, at least for the audience’s purposes. Because this is a film that’s better to watch knowing less than more, I’ll leave the movie’s other rich details and innovations unexplained, except to mention that the film’s ambitions deepen and quicken when the entire movie pivots and the ghost cascades through time and space, only for time and space to loop back on themselves until the experience of the film circles into a seamless whole and vanishes all at once. Few films work on poetic association and pull it off, but this one does.

God’s Own Country, a British debut directed by Francis Lee, was the best gay-themed movie that I watched over this past year, and not just because everything turns out fine for the two central characters in the end. Set in the austere and rolling hills of Yorkshire, it’s the first gay movie since Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake that’s so fully formed by its immersive landscape and atmosphere. The story follows Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), who’s become increasingly withdrawn and dissatisfied from living and feeling entrapped on his family’s remote sheep farm. A fast and discreet encounter with another young man after a livestock auction near the start of the film shows that Johnny’s not comfortable with anything more than casual sex, though a conversation with a female friend of Johnny’s outside of a pub also suggests that he has been somewhat openly gay, if also obviously self-stunted by his rural environment.

The appearance of Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a young Romanian man who comes to help out on Johnny’s farm, gradually changes all of that, and the film draws its intimate power from the slow dance of attraction in which the two men become entangled. It’s impossible not to compare the film to Brokeback Mountain, of course, and God’s Own Country alludes directly to its predecessor not only thorough sheep-herding, but also via articles of the men’s clothing that are shared and left behind. In a film whose dialogue is often spare, subtle and precise symbols convey more readily what the two men are feeling: repairing a stone wall together that they nonetheless remain on opposite sides of, an abandoned sweater that Johnny pulls over himself, echoing a riveting earlier scene in which Gheorghe protects a tiny lamb in a way that nudges harshness into tenderness. While I felt the screenplay ran out of road a bit by the end (an it’s an end that also seems a bit too easy to me), the film’s performances are beautifully calibrated, and Josh O’Connor’s transformation as Johnny struggles to re-emerge from himself is remarkable.

Unlike the two previous films, there’s very little that’s quiet in Darren Aronofsky’s mother! Starring his current real-life girlfriend Jennifer Lawrence, the movie has been almost universally lampooned and reviled, with just a brave handful of critics coming to its defense. It’s definitely the most demanding and artistically ambitious movie that I saw in 2017, as well as one of the funniest and most brutal films of this past year. The laughter and horror that I felt while watching mother! at the cinema were so close to each other that they sometimes almost coincided, and I haven’t experienced a film in a very long time which has accomplished that. Aronofsky also references everything from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Rosemary’s Baby, yet he still manages to create a film that’s rarely derivative and totally unique.

Most interpretations of mother! that I’ve read and heard since watching the film skitter along the allegorical surface of the movie; Jennifer Lawrence’s character represents Mother Nature, some viewers think, and how she’s been exploited by human beings. Others mention the biblical underpinnings of the farcical plot in the film’s first half, when Ed Harris’ character brings his wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, to visit the home where the god-like figure of Javier Bardem, a reclusive poet, resides with his young wife played by Jennifer Lawrence. It unfolds as a strange comedy of manners until the two sons of the visiting couple crash the party, setting the second half of the film into motion with an act of violence that’s clearly intended to be likened to the story of Cain and Abel.

Beyond that point is where the film gets interesting and the metaphors go deeper. Although I don’t think Bardem’s character is a stand-in for Aronofsky himself as director, the film certainly does transmit messages about authoritative male power in that creative context, alongside and in contrast to how women (and particularly Hollywood actresses) get treated by audiences and the publicity machine of moviemaking: adored, sexualized, worshipped, scrutinized, shunted aside as time passes, then brutalized by the cult of celebrity as they age. (I couldn’t help thinking how this movie was made just when Hillary Clinton was being savaged in the press, the ultimate misogynistic takedown of a woman in a position of power.) The film’s most brilliant stroke is that the cult of celebrity becomes an actual uncontrollable cult, a cult that dismantles the entire house piece by piece and utterly invades the central couple’s privacy, to put it mildly. All of this unfolds as the mass violence of the past century stampedes across the screen in ways I’ve never before seen on film, and in ways I’m not sure any other director could achieve.

My favorite documentary of 2017, and the easiest film to love this past year, was Faces Places (or Visages Villages in French), directed by filmmakers and street photographers Agnès Varda and JR. A smart combination of a road movie, odd-couple comedy, and public art project, the film traces the journey of JR’s traveling “photography truck,” which produces larger-than-life printed images directly from a slot on the side of the vehicle. The pair drive from town to town through the French countryside, finding everyday people to photograph and meaningful stories to tell, always with some sort of humanistic or political slant. Then, they wheat-paste their large-scale images onto particular surfaces for particular reasons, creating outdoor art installations that may last for years and attract widespread attention, or become ephemeral within a brief period of time.

Early in the movie, the filmmakers encounter an older woman in an industrial town, who staunchly refuses to move out of her home and vacate it for developers. Because she’s resided there for nearly her entire life and now lives alone, her story immediately resonates with viewers; we feel like we know her in only a matter of minutes, just in time for her face to be emblazoned across the front of the building that she has a right not to leave. Three wives of shipyard workers in a port city also see their images blown up to gigantic sizes after they pose before towering stacks of multicolored shipping containers; their stories are as just as significant as those of the men who surround them.

Agnès Varda herself is a legend of French New Wave cinema, a contemporary and close colleague of Jean-Luc Godard (who has a certain kind of unflattering cameo late in the film), so her own personal stories are equally important in the documentary. After sharing her recollections of friends and artists from her youth, she and JR undertake one of the most memorable photography projects of the film, affixing a long-ago image of one of her deceased friends to the side of a military bunker from World War II that fell from a cliffside to the beach below, only to become upended and permanently lodged in the sand. She remarks how her friend (the late fashion photographer Guy Bourdin) now appears as if he’s in a cradle, just like he belonged there.

On the same day (Thanksgiving) that I saw Faces Places for a noon matinee at The Quad cinema in New York City, I went back to see another excellent documentary later that night. I had stayed a bit longer in New York to watch a preview in Union Square of the much-anticipated gay movie Call Me by Your Name, which left me more than a little disappointed, so right afterwards I walked back over to The Quad to watch Brimstone & Glory, Viktor Jakovleski’s dazzling short documentary about the Mexican town of Tultepec’s annual National Pyrotechnics Festival fireworks extravaganza. To go from the relative lack of expected fireworks in Call Me by Your Name to the abundantly real fireworks of Brimstone & Glory provided me with exactly the boost that I needed, accompanied by an intense soundtrack of percussion that had me drumming away on my pant-legs in the otherwise empty theater.

In addition to showing how the residents of Tultepec spend many months of each year manufacturing their fireworks by hand, the documentary focuses on both parts of the fireworks festival: the Castles of Fire, and the Burning of the Bulls. The first part of the festival, attended by thousands of spectators annually, features enormous ten-story towers of fireworks with many spinning parts. We climb up these towers with workers (who are wearing tiny portable cameras on their hats) as they’re being constructed, and we even see one tower get struck by lightning in a storm and begin to go off prematurely. The second part of the festival is much more interactive, with spectators carrying and running with piñata-like bulls the size of trucks, packed with and trailing fireworks, which the onlookers all then chase and dance in the wake of. A team of medics treats the injured who’ve been burned or gotten hot cinders in their eyes, including young children, who then jump right back in to chase the bulls some more, a community ritual in which they want to partake. To be amazed by such daring footage captured so close up and wonder how the filmmakers did it lifted me out of the theater and into the sky.