Kurt Cobain: Beauty Born of Pain

Originally published in April 2015.

Load up on guns, bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s over bored and self assured
Oh no, I know a dirty word

Long before Kurt Cobain displayed the depth of his hopelessness to the world by taking his own life, his fans had known he was suffering. Anyone who has listened to Kurt Cobain sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has heard the pain in his voice. Every Nirvana song is built upon a platform of angst—the music, the lyrics, the growls and wails all make the turmoil and drama inside Cobain’s head quite clear and accessible for anyone to hear. This transparency of feeling is what makes Nirvana’s music great and greatly beloved: it taps into a primordial well of anxiety, anger, longing and disillusionment in listeners and makes us feel as if our own personal, raw feelings are being scooped up, wallowed in and worn like warpaint by a rock god for all the world to see.

The obviousness of Cobain’s extreme pain was so evident to millions of people years before his suicide in 1994, so it comes as a shock to watch interviews with his friends and family and see how many cries for help they ignored, how little aid they sought for him, how limited were their resources in guiding him toward hope even after he became one of the most famous people in the world. The very elements of his psyche that made his art so powerful and meaningful to others were the parts that caused him the most misery. His charisma, stubbornness, insularity and difficult personality seem to have paralyzed those who should have seen him clearly and helped him most directly. These same characteristics and his remarkable ability to build a bridge between himself and other disaffected souls brought him a level of scrutiny that made him feel trapped in a dangerous tidal wave of success that he was constantly trying to ignore and retreat from. It’s as if he was hiding in plain sight.

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us

All of this becomes devastatingly clear in Brett Morgen’s excellent new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck currently in limited theatrical release and soon to be shown on HBO. The first film about Cobain to have the support of his daughter Frances Bean Cobain (who is also one of the film’s executive producers) and her mother, Kurt’s widow Courtney Love, this documentary could never have been made without their treasure trove of audio recordings, videos, home movies, drawings and family photos and access to Cobain’s diaries and notebooks. All of these elements come to life in stunning animated montages that make us feel as if we’re in the room with Kurt, his mom, his wife, his baby and bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. Sometimes we feel as if we’re inside Kurt’s head as well.

Come as you are, as you were
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend
As an old enemy

His violent and disturbing drawings, his remembrances of distressing moments in his personal history and the pained, sad stories of those with whom he lived and worked make abundantly clear how lonely, frightened and angry he was from a very early age. But the home movies of him as a baby and child show a heartbreakingly sweet and pretty little boy with a beautiful voice. He was hungry for attention and constantly in need of deep soothing that he rarely received. It hurts to see him so fresh and so loved, and to know that his overwhelmed parents, stepmother, siblings and friends had no idea how to deal with his enormous kinetic energy, his destructive impulses or his lack of self-control. The things he needed most—stability, understanding, unconditional love and safe ways to soothe himself—seemed nearly always out of reach, so he went for one dangerous activity, addiction or relationship after another, and that resulted in self-loathing and mental disintegration.

kurt

Two interviews really stand out among those in the film. One was with his stepmother, with whom he had a very difficult relationship. She recognized how abandoned and unwanted he must have felt when he was kicked out of his parents’ houses and moved from one to the other, then went off to a grandparent and moved back around through the family again. She expressed regret that she hadn’t recognized his pain at the time but could only be frustrated by his acting out and worried about the effect of his behavior on his siblings. Bandmate Krist Novocelic, long his close friend, expressed great sadness that he was unaware of how serious Kurt’s problems were during his life even though he saw evidence of Kurt’s rage and watched him self-destruct. He says in hindsight it is obvious that Kurt was in extreme pain and that there were numerous red flags and cries for help, but he wasn’t able to recognize their seriousness at the time.

Novocelic also noted something crucial to an understanding of Kurt’s enormous antipathy toward fame and success: he said Kurt had a huge fear of being humiliated. As we watch Kurt in films and videos and hear his words, it becomes clear that he hid his fears with bravado, dark humor, dramatic performances, drugs and acting out. He derided establishment values and behaviors and deliberately set up barriers between himself and those who might have been best able to recognize and help him. And of course, it is that raw, urgent ugliness inside of him that sometimes comes out in gruesome drawings, in his bashing his guitar to smithereens on the battered wood floor of his own house, or in refusing to bathe or wash his hair for days, or living in squalor and backing out of major tours so he could go home to do little but play guitar, have sex and shoot up for days or weeks on end.

It is that very grunginess in his personal life that bled, sometimes almost literally, into his music, and made it so accessible, thrilling and fresh to a youthful audience tired of the smooth, highly produced technopop of the 1980s. Cobain’s squalor and literal stink combined with a vulnerability, a gritty poetic streak and a compulsion to create helped him build a dirtily sexy persona, but they also pushed him into a dangerously intense public world that made him endlessly terrified of being exposed, embarrassed, ridiculed, overadored and ultimately used up. So he used himself up in a hurry before life had a chance to do it to him.

I found it hard, it’s hard to find
Oh well, whatever, never mind

The urge to create and the urge to destroy, including the urge to self-destruct, were always living side by side within Kurt Cobain, and his overwhelmed family members shunted him back and forth among houses a number of times during his childhood, recognizing his neediness but experiencing it always as a destabilizing and dangerous force that they couldn’t control and couldn’t stand. He also had a long history of serious and excruciating abdominal pains that caused extreme and frequent pain and sometimes bloody vomiting, but there was little money available until the end of his life for psychological help or appropriate medical care. So he developed dangerous ways of self-medicating with food, drink and drugs that exacerbated his ill health. By the time he had the money for proper mental health support and medical care, his dangerous habits were well ingrained, and his beloved companion and wife Courtney Love was herself so drug-addled, angry and self-destructive that she could only feed into his addictions and his rejection of others’ attempts to offer help. When her eye started to wander and he recognized that even she, the partner whom he thought understood and loved him better than anyone, was on the verge of betraying him, he lost all hope, attempted suicide, and then successfully finished the job with a gun a few days later.

Hey, wait, I’ve got a new complaint
Forever in debt to your priceless advice

Why would someone want to sit through two hours of this dark story with so many regretful loved ones sitting stricken in front of the interviewer and recounting their memories with wringing hands and guilty eyes? Because the pain of his story, like the pain in his music, is compelling even as the details are sometimes repellent. Some of his memories, words and images are grim and disturbing, but watching the intimate dynamic between him and Courtney, drug-addled and gritty as it often was, shows why they were drawn to each other—admiration, understanding and humor are all evident, as is a certain pleasure in courting death and mayhem. It hurts to watch him hold his baby Frances with such loving tenderness and read and hear his words of devotion, then later  see him  barely able to hold her on his lap, so drugged-out and nearly incoherent is he in one awful scene. It is hard to watch knowing that Courtney, a friend filming the scene and another helping with the baby were all present, and, like everyone else in the film, they observed the clear self-destruction of the man but no one either would or perhaps could do anything to pull him back from the brink.

I saw the film in Seattle’s Egyptian Theater, which is right in the neighborhood where Cobain had his last meal. One block from the theater is Linda’s Tavern, where he was last seen alive on the night before he shot himself through the head. The film is currently in a few theaters around the U.S. and in the U.K., and is garnering high praise for its intimate portrayal of the man and his life and his ardent, nearly compulsive need to create. I’m glad to have enjoyed it in a cinema where the never-before-seen concert footage was especially powerful and immersive and the intimate moments felt even more immediate. I’m even gladder that it will be available to so many more via HBO television showings.

I’m so ugly, but that’s okay, cause so are you
We’ve broken our mirrors
Sunday morning is everyday for all I care
And I’m not scared

While the film has received mostly very good reviews, some have complained that it is uneven and a bit jumbled because of the lack of a narrator and the sometimes abrupt switches between interviews with those who knew him, private film footage, concert footage, images of his writing and art and montages of animation and recordings. Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film is “impressive in parts, but wildly uneven as a whole.” I found this unevenness and the montage style particularly appropriate for the story of a hyperkinetic, often drugged-out man with serious mental and emotional problems. I might have found the style more annoyingly disjointed had it been used to tell the story of a different subject, but in this case the style illustrates how overwhelming it must have felt to live inside of Cobain’s brain and body. The barrage of images and sounds approximate the cacophany of a grunge concert, a life of rock and roll excess and the disabling and endless waves of chronic and extreme physical and emotional pain he felt. All of that is shown amid reminders of how much love and admiration those around him felt and wanted to share with him alongside the frustration and confusion they felt over his extreme emotions and behaviors.

A denial, a denial, a denial, a denial.

The film, which gets its name from a musical collage made by Cobain with a four-track cassette recorder before Nirvana became famous, is no feel-good movie. It is often funny, sometimes darkly beautiful and occasionally mesmerizing, but it is also a very raw view of the life of a dangerously mentally ill and emotionally damaged human being. Even though it shows how difficult and ugly he and his life could be, it also helps us see his vulnerability, humanity and his hunger to create, and it makes clear his devotion to his wife and child.

This film helps to humanize Kurt Cobain without lionizing him. Seeing how far back his deep emotional illnesses went also helps us to empathize with him and feel sympathy along with the disgust his actions sometimes inspire. The film shows how off-puttingly, determinedly filthy, squalid and unhealthy his lifestyle often was (though he and Courtney did sometimes live in luxury hotels in Seattle and elsewhere once they became wealthy), and interviews with his mother and his widow give some glimpse into their own sometimes impaired ability to see how much of a part each of them played in his feeling unsupported and betrayed.

He’s the one
Who likes all the pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun

David Fear of Rolling Stone described the film as “the unfiltered Kurt experience,” noting that Cobain is shown “not [as] a spokesman for a generation,” but as “a human being, and a husband, and a father.” Frances Bean Cobain said at the documentary’s premiere in Los Angeles, “After seeing it, I thought I could only watch it once. But the film that [Morgen] made—I didn’t know Kurt, but he would be exceptionally proud of it. It touches some dark subjects, but it provides a basic understanding of who he was as a human, and that’s been lost.”

I agree.

I’m a Creep

I was talking with my daughter the other day about something I enjoyed that was a little creepy, and we laughed about that creepiness. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who doesn’t really DO creepy—I detest horror and zombies and vampires and gore. I loathe scaring people. I hate practical jokes and nasty surprises and causing people fear.

But then it dawned on me that I love The Twilight Zone, which I think of more as a source of slightly chilling campiness than creepiness. When I received a box set of every Twilight Zone episode as a Christmas gift a few years ago, I actually burst into tears, I found it such a touching and generous gesture.

I thought a little further about what constitutes creepiness and I realized that I love cemeteries, which I see as beautiful memorials to lost love. I seek them out in my travels and I have hundreds of photographs of headstones. Indeed, on the walls of my home hang several small casts of particularly lovely elements from New England’s grave markers.

Hmm.

I followed this train of thought a bit further down the track, and I had to admit to myself that I get a kick out of hiding weird disembodied hands and arms from antique baby dolls in my houseplants. I see them not as frightening but as absurd and laughable when they’re stuck randomly in nonsensical places. I also love them because I collect hand-related art—it reminds me of creativity and connecting with people and holding out one’s hand to others. To me, those creepy little hands are actually a mental shorthand for being willing to lead people toward something funnier, less expected, better. I don’t assemble them into horrific tableaux; I use them to accessorize my home and inspire me to stay close to those I love, to beauty, to my muses. My creepy baby hands also keep me from taking myself too seriously. They remind me to stay goofy, which I think is vital to staying human.

Then came the epiphany: Creepy people never think of themselves as creepy.

Uh-oh.

It turns out that I’m a creep. I’m a weirdo. But I’ll bet I’m the perkiest little creep you know.

Emotionally Scarring Toys

Pooduck

In December 2005 researchers at England’s University of Bath released the results of a study that found that children, especially girls, see torturing and mutilating their Barbies as a common and enjoyable form of play. An article in the London Times stated that “mutilation ranged from cutting off hair to decapitating and putting the dolls in microwaves.” Children ages seven to eleven were said to “see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity, and see the torture as a ‘cool’ activity,” according to the article. The children were aware that they were being exploited by “over-marketing and over-charging” and that rejecting the doll was a “rite of passage” engaged in by children who felt they’d outgrown their Barbies. “Barbies are not special,” said the researchers. “They are disposable, and are thrown away and rejected.”

I’ve thought about my history with Barbies, and my daughter’s, too, and I take issue with some of the article’s findings. Cutting Barbie’s hair isn’t really an act of mutilation in the way that putting her in the microwave is. Children know that cutting their own hair gets them in trouble, and cutting Barbie’s hair gives them the satisfaction of distorting her appearance and messing with the standard and approved way of viewing her, it’s true—it also lets them know what it feels like to cut hair without getting in trouble. The Barbies I grew up around often had missing toes; this is not because we wanted to bind their feet golden-lotus–style and further fetishize their sexual-fantasy-based bodies, but rather because chewing the rubbery plastic felt good. Gnawing away at them resulted in their coming off completely in the mouth in a pleasant if slightly disturbing fashion. Pulling Barbie heads off was common when I was a child, not because we were acting out scenes from Robespierre’s Reign of Terror but because we wanted to trade them around among dolls with different features and outfits. We also pierced our dolls’ ears (leaving them looking grey and infected) and bent their knees back and forth so much for the sheer pleasure of hearing the click click click of their joints that their skin tore.

But do people take pleasure in creating their own torture tableaux featuring Barbie, Ken and all their plastic molded-bodied friends? Of course. Their constantly perky expressions and injection-molded perfection do invite children to challenge their prefab poise. They look so inviting in the box, but take them out of the vivid fuchsia packaging and their clothes are hard to put on, and their hair gets bunched up and never lies flat again and gets permanently dull and stringy when Barbie is invited to play in the bathtub. Ken’s spray-painted hair wears off and he ends up with flesh coloring showing through in patches that have nothing to do with standard male-pattern baldness. Barbie is not only free of genitalia, but sometimes has molded skin-colored patterns simulating underwear built right into what would be her buttocks if she had any gluteal musculature.

Barbie’s original design was based on that of the Bild Lilli, a sexually suggestive German doll from the 1950s. A German brochure from the 1950s states that Lilli was “always discreet,” and that her wardrobe made her “the star of every bar.” When Barbie debuted in 1959, many parents found her obviously sexual nature disturbing. Of course, this aspect of her is partly what has always made her so alluring to children. She’s the premiere socially sanctioned sexualized plaything, and she allows young children to engage in pre-sexual roleplay and pretend to embody the roles they think are expected of them as they mature. Children live out stereotypes with Barbies, but they also challenge and laugh at them.

The widespread delight that children take in trashing their Barbies when they feel they’ve outgrown them might be a reaction to the stereotypes, the expectations and the mass-merchandizing overconsumption extravaganza that Barbie represents, at least in part. But often Barbie’s mutilation is an unintentional byproduct of trying to personalize her and make her more interesting and individual. When such an attempt results in a Barbie who is less appealing, her loss of allure and inability to be made into something uniquely appealing make Barbie a sorry remnant of a time of earlier naivete, as well as a reminder of failed attempts at creating more individualized beauty. Rather than feel bad every time we see what our attempts at beautification have done, it’s easier to dissociate her from her former status as beauty icon if we take her destruction even further. If she’s ugly and all the gloss and perfection that we once admired in her is gone, why not turn her into a doggy chew toy, or see what happens if we take nail polish remover to the paint on her face? If we turn her into a science experiment, we feel less disappointed in her lost glory.

Barbie’s reputation for mindlessness was bolstered by the 1992 release of Teen Talk Barbie. This talking Barbie spewed forth phrases like “Math is hard!” and “Will we ever have enough clothes?” A group calling itself the Barbie Liberation Organization soon became famous for engaging in acts of Barbie sabotage, exchanging Barbie’s talking guts for the voice hardware found in Mattel’s Talking G.I. Joe dolls. The BLO repackaged three hundred dolls and slid them back onto store shelves. When unsuspecting little girls tried their new Barbies at home, the fashion dolls grunted out “Vengeance is mine!” and “Dead men tell no tales,” while little boys’ new G.I. Joes cooed “Let’s plan our dream wedding!”

Of course, some toys are less than glorious to begin with, and only become more disturbing or ridiculous with time. Others begin attractively and grow frightening with disuse or misuse. Such are the toys found at DisturbingAuctions.com. The site’s home page states that Disturbing Auctions “is dedicated to the research and study of the most bizarre items found for sale on Internet auction sites. Not the obviously fake auctions, like the infamous human kidney, but truly tacky stuff that people really, honestly, believed that someone would (and in some cases did) buy.”

DisturbingAuctions.com features home furnishings including the velvet painting of Jesus blessing an 18-wheeler; accessories like the purse made of a bull’s scrotum; clothing like used gym shorts and a matching used jock strap; and haute cuisine, including 200 freeze-dried pork chops. But nothing can compare to discovering the hideous figurines, including the “Check Out My Ass Clown” (make sure to look at the optional magnified view for ultimate flamboyant clown perusing pleasure), the items classified as Terrifying Dolls, or, my favorites, the Emotionally Scarring Toys.

The Terrifying Dolls category features the pained, shriveled and body-part-challenged Puppet Assortment, the pinheaded Li’l Head Doll, and Baby Tears-Your-Flesh, a.k.a. Little Dolly No-Head. Big Hands Baby and the Saddam Hussein puppet also get honorable mention.

Clowns have a special place on Disturbing Auctions; here you’ll find a clown brooch, a clown ashtray and a vicious Cranky Clown Lava Lamp, among other items. Dead stuffed frogs also have their places, as does the stuffed and mounted genuine Deer Butt. The Clark Gable candle puts one in mind of a wax-covered severed head, and why the seller of the Inflatable Ladies’ Legs had to mention that they fit in the mouth when not inflated is anyone’s guess.

Still, the Emotionally Scarring Toys is the biggest, juiciest treasure trove of outrageous kitsch. From the Dean Martin Hand Puppet to our beloved Big-Ass Donkey, from Darth Small to the marvelously named Pooduck, it’s hard to find an entry that isn’t deeply, horribly, hideously wrong down to its very core.

While most of the site has stayed static for years, there is a related site, DisturbingAuctions.com/daily, where visitors can post their own horrific online auction discoveries and attach their own witty (or, more frequently, just vulgar) commentaries. There are occasional gems to be found here, but the older, original DisturbingAuctions.com site has the most consistently hideous and perfectly captioned offerings. All hail the Pooduck!

[Revised from an article which originally appeared on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Icelandic Warmth in a Heart-Shaped Box

Here’s some exquisite angst for you—a gorgeous cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” by Icelandic folksinger Ásgeir Trausti Einarsson. Ásgeir has toured the U.S. singing in English and Icelandic, and he now uses Ásgeir as a mononym. He also plays guitar in the Icelandic band The Lovely Lion.

Ásgeir’s spare piano arrangement, his high and softly plaintive voice, the careful but effective use of echo and percussion and the mounting layers of synthesized sound create something unique and lovely. This introverted, ethereal version has a very different energy than Nirvana’s original, but I find it every bit as captivating. In fact, it’s even more enthralling than the original for me; instead of pressing itself into my space insistently, it wraps its tendrils around me and pulls me slowly but inexorably into its dark heart.

[Originally published in December 2014]

The Boys in the Band

 

Boys in the Band

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Some years ago, while staying up till the wee hours while organizing something or other, I turned on the TV and flipped channels till I could find a good movie to keep me entertained while I worked. I happened to catch the beginning of a film that I’d never heard of before that night, and it turned out to be a milestone in gay-themed filmmaking, a cult classic that alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) delighted and appalled New York theatrical audiences in 1968 and then moved to the screen in 1970. That film was The Boys in the Band.

Written by gay playwright Mart Crowley, the play attracted celebrities and the New York in-crowd nearly instantly after it opened at a small off-Broadway theater workshop in 1968. The cast of nine male characters worked together so successfully that the whole bunch of them made the transition to the screen in 1970, which is nearly unheard of. Crowley had been a well-connected and respected but poor young writer when his play became a smash in 1968. While still a young man, he knew how the Hollywood game was played and how to jockey his success into control over the casting of the film. Working with producer Dominick Dunne he adapted his script into a screenplay and watched director William Friedkin, who also directed The French Connection and The Exorcist, lovingly keep the integrity of the play while opening it up and making it work on the screen.

It’s hard to believe that the play opened off-Broadway a year before the Stonewall riots that set off the modern-day gay rights movement in New York and then swept across the country. The characters in the play, and the whole play itself, are not incidentally gay—the characters’ behavior and the play’s content revolve around their homosexuality. For better or worse, the characters play out, argue over and bat around gay stereotypes: the drama queen, the ultra-effeminate “nelly” fairy, and the dimwitted cowboy hustler (a likely hommage to the cowboy gigolo Joe Buck in the 1965 novel Midnight Cowboy, which was made into a remarkable film by John Schlesinger in 1969). The play also features straight-seeming butch characters who can (and do) “pass” in the outside world, and a visitor to their world who may or may not be homosexual himself.

The action takes place at a birthday party attended only by gay men who let their hair down and camp it up with some very arch and witty dialog during the first third of the film, then the party is crashed by the married former college pal of Michael, the host. A pall settles over the festivities as Michael (played by musical theater star Kenneth Nelson) tries to hide the orientation of himself and his guests. That is, until the party crasher brings the bigotry of the straight world into the room, and Michael realizes he’s doing nobody any favors by keeping up the ruse. During the course of the evening he goes from someone who celebrates the superficial and who has spent all his time and money (and then some) on creating and maintaining a reputation and a public image, to a vindictive bully who lashes out at everyone and forces them all to scrutinize themselves with the same homophobic self-hatred he feels. He appears at first bold and unflinching in his insistence on brutal honesty, but he goes beyond honesty into verbal assault, while we see reserves of inner strength and dignity from characters we had underestimated earlier in the play. Though The Boys in the Band isn’t the masterpiece that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, I see similarities between the two in the lashing out, bullying and name-calling that alternates with total vulnerability and unexpected tenderness.

The self-loathing, high-camp hijinks, withering bitchiness and open ogling made many audience members uncomfortable, a number of homosexuals among them. Some felt the story and the characterizations were embarrassingly over-the-top and stereotyped. They thought that having the outside straight world peek in and see these characters up close would only make them disdain homosexuals even more. This is a legitimate criticism; the nasty jibes, pointed attacks, and gay-baiting that goes on among and against gay characters here is the sort of in-fighting that could encourage bigots to become more entrenched in their prejudices when seen out of the context of a full panorama of daily life for these characters.

However, the play and film were also groundbreaking in that they depicted homosexuals as realistic, three-dimensional men with good sides and bad. Even as we watch one character try to eviscerate the others by pointing out the supposedly gay characteristics that make them appear weak and offensive to the straight world at large, there is also a great deal of sympathy and empathy shown among the characters under attack, and even towards the bully at times. Sometimes this tenderness is seen in the characters’ interactions, and sometimes it is fostered in the hearts of the audience members by the playwright. He has us witness people behaving badly, but we recognize over time how fear and society’s hatefulness toward them has brought them to this state.

These characters may try to hold each other up as objects of ridicule, but the strength of the dialog is that we in the audience don’t buy it; with each fresh insult, we see further into the tortured souls of those who do the insulting. We see how, as modern-day sex columnist Dan Savage put it so beautifully in an audio essay on the public radio show This American Life in 2002, it is the “sissies” who are the bravest ones among us, for they are the ones who will not hide who they are, no matter how much scorn, derision and hate they must face as a result of their refusal to back down and play society’s games. Similarly, to use another theatrical example, it is Arnold Epstein, the effeminate new recruit in the Neil Simon 1940’s-era boot-camp play Biloxi Blues, who shows the greatest spine and the strongest backbone in the barracks when he does not hide who he is, and he willingly takes whatever punishment he is given stoically and silently so as not to diminish his honesty and integrity or let down his brothers in arms.

The situation and premise of The Boys in the Band are heightened and the campy drama is elevated for the purposes of building suspense, rather like the action in a Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill play, where the uglier side of each character is spotlighted and the flattering gauze and filters over the lenses are stripped away dramatically as characters brawl and wail. The emotional breakdowns are overblown and the bitchy catcalling is nearly constant for much of the second half of the film, which becomes tiresome. However, the play addresses major concerns of gay American males of the 1960s head-on: social acceptability, fear of attacks by angry or threatened straight men, how to balance a desire to be a part of a family with a desire to be true to one’s nature, monogamy versus promiscuity, accepting oneself and others even if they act “gayer” or “straighter” than one is comfortable with, etc.

It is startling to remember that, at the time the play was produced, just appearing to be effeminate or spending time in the company of assumed homosexuals was enough to get a person arrested, beaten, jailed or thrown into a mental institution, thrown out of his home or job, even lobotomized or given electroshock therapy in hopes of a “cure.” In 1969 the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village by gay men fighting back against police oppression was a rallying cry and gave homosexuals across the nation the strength to stand up for their rights and refuse to be beaten, threatened, intimidated, arrested or even killed just for being gay. However, anti-gay sentiment in retaliation for gays coming out of the closet and forcing the heterosexual mainstream to acknowledge that there were homosexuals with inherent civil rights living among them also grew.

Cities like San Francisco, Miami, New York and L.A. became gay meccas that attracted thousands of young men and women, many of whom were more comfortable with their sexuality than the average closeted American homosexual and who wanted to live more openly as the people they really were. There was an air of celebration in heavily gay districts of these cities in the 1970s and early 1980s in the heady years before AIDS. It was a time when a week’s worth of antibiotics could fight off most STDs, and exploring and enjoying the sexual aspects of one’s homosexuality (because being a homosexual isn’t all about sex) didn’t amount to playing Russian Roulette with one’s immune system, as it seemed to be by the early to mid-1980s. Indeed, of the nine men in the cast of the play and the film, I was shocked and disturbed to learn that five of them (Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Frederick Combs, Keith Prentice and Robert La Tourneaux) died of AIDS-related causes. This was not uncommon among gay male theatrical professionals who came of age in or before the 1980s. The numbers of brilliant Broadway and Hollywood actors, singers, dancers, directors and choreographers attacked by AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s is staggering.

When the film was made in 1970, all of the actors were warned by agents and others in the industry that they were committing professional suicide by playing openly gay characters, and indeed, several were typecast and did lose work as a result of their courageous choices. Of those nine men in the cast, the one who played the most overtly effeminate, campy queen of all (and who stole the show with his remarkable and endearing performance) was Cliff Gorman. He was a married heterosexual who later won a Tony playing comedian Lenny Bruce in the play “Lenny,” which went on to star Dustin Hoffman in the film version. Gorman was regularly accosted and accused of being a closeted gay on the streets of New York by both straights and gays, so believable and memorable was his performance in The Boys in the Band.

The play is very much an ensemble piece; some actors have smaller and more thankless roles with less scenery chewing, but it is clear that it was considered a collaborative effort by the cast and director and that the enormous mutual respect and comfort of the characters with each other enriched their performances and made the story resonate more with audiences than it would have otherwise. The actors saw the film and play as defining moments in their lives when they took a stand and came out (whether gay or straight) as being willing to associate themselves with gay issues by performing in such a celebrated (and among some, notorious) work of art. When one of the other actors in the play, Robert La Tourneaux, who played the cowboy gigolo, became ill with AIDS, Cliff Gorman and his wife took La Tourneaux in and looked after him in his last days.

In featurettes about the making of the play and the film on the newly released DVD of the movie,  affection and camaraderie among cast members are evident, as is a great respect for them by director William Friedkin. Those still alive to talk about it regard the show and the ensemble with great love. As Vito Russo noted in The Celluloid Closet, a fascinating documentary on gays in Hollywood which is sometimes available for streaming on Netflix, The Boys in the Band offered “the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form.”

According to Wikipedia, “Critical reaction was, for the most part, cautiously favorable. Variety said it ‘drags’ but thought it had ‘perverse interest.’ Time described it as a ‘humane, moving picture.’ The Los Angeles Times praised it as ‘unquestionably a milestone,’ but ironically refused to run its ads. Among the major critics, Pauline Kael, who disliked Friedkin and panned everything he made, was alone in finding absolutely nothing redeeming about it. She also never hesitated to use the word ‘fag’ in her writings about the film and its characters.”

Wikipedia goes on to say, “Vincent Canby of the New York Times observed, ‘There is something basically unpleasant . . . about a play that seems to have been created in an inspiration of love-hate and that finally does nothing more than exploit its (I assume) sincerely conceived stereotypes.'”

“In a San Francisco Chronicle review of a 1999 revival of the film, Edward Guthmann recalled, ‘By the time Boys was released in 1970 . . . it had already earned among gays the stain of Uncle Tomism.’ He called it ‘a genuine period piece but one that still has the power to sting. In one sense it’s aged surprisingly little — the language and physical gestures of camp are largely the same — but in the attitudes of its characters, and their self-lacerating vision of themselves, it belongs to another time. And that’s a good thing.'” Indeed it is.

 

[Originally published in August, 2014]

Lush Life

One of the most sophisticated and exquisite of all jazz standards was written by a black, gay, teenage boy over the course of five years in the 1930s. Billy Strayhorn, who later became famously close to his mentor and writing partner Duke Ellington, wrote the majority of the elegantly jaded lyrics, surprising internal rhyming schemes and beautiful, unusual melody that became “Lush Life” when he was just sixteen years old. The song begins:

“I used to visit all the very gay places / Those come-what-may places / Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life / To get the feel of life / From jazz and cocktails. / The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces / With distingué traces / That used to be there, you could see where / They’d been washed away / By too many through the day / Twelve o’clocktails.”

“Lush Life” became Strayhorn’s signature composition. Many fine musicians have recorded it, but velvet-voiced Johnny Hartman‘s version performed with saxophonist John Coltrane is generally considered the definitive performance. It’s certainly my favorite, though versions by Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Queen Latifah, Sammy Davis Jr. and Billy Eckstine (whose version was Strayhorn’s own favorite) are all notable, too.

 

[Originally published in November 2014]

Me Too

An incomplete but representative list of my experiences of sexual harrassment and assault:

• The obscene phone calls that started when I was 13.

• The coworker who stalked me from floor to floor in our Cupertino Apple building, cornered me, grabbed my hand and licked my wedding ring.

• The flasher at the park.

• The museum guard who followed me around the museum gallery in Washington DC and then came up to me to comment on my ass.

• The coworker in Menlo Park who moved his work station underneath the stairs so he could look up my dress when I went upstairs.

• The construction workers in Palo Alto who made loud bets about what I’d be like in bed.

• The bully sitting next to me in seventh-grade math who loudly accused me of stuffing my bra.

• The Livermore yahoos in pickup trucks who shouted obscenities and made kissing noises at me as they sped by me on the street when I was eleven years old and walking to the grocery store, the record store, the movies or just about anywhere. That kept up through high school, and a new crop did the same thing to me when I visited Livermore again in 2013.

• The San Jose coworker who asked about my breast size in front of my colleagues and referred to me as Sweet Buns until I made it clear that THAT wasn’t going to be tolerated.

• The coworker at a temp job who went to the lunch room when I did but brought no lunch, sat at the table next to mine and stared me down while I ate, refused to stop when I asked him to, and ultimately forced me to eat my lunches in my car for several months.

• Yet more, highly disturbing obscene phone calls that I received during my twenties, some of which included violent fantasy commentary and one of which incorporated a recording of my own voice taken from my outgoing work voicemail message.

• The supposedly liberal and forward-thinking Portland artist and friend of a friend who openly and blatantly assessed my body and spoke only to my breasts when introduced to me at a gallery opening.

• The man whom I supervised at Apple who announced that his wife was away for the weekend but that he had an open marriage, so I was welcome to come home with him.

• The beggar at the crowded Seattle bus stop who responded to my giving him bus fare by telling me what he’d like to do with me in the nearby building’s stairwell until I loudly told him to leave me alone, drawing the attention of 40 people or more, not one of whom spoke up or asked whether I was okay.

• The man in Rome who walked directly up to me on a very crowded sidewalk and grabbed both of my breasts hard before rushing away, which surprised not a single Roman.

• My daughter’s school bus driver who assumed that my daily “good morning” and the cookies I gave him at Christmastime constituted a come-on. This resulted in his grilling my neighbors about my marital status and hugging me close and hard against my will when he ran into me at my daughter’s school, resulting in my having to stop going to the bus stop and driving my daughter to school for the rest of the school year.

• The old man sitting behind me in the cinema in Nice, France, who stuck his hands through the gap in my seat and groped my ass when I was 16 and watching a movie with my friends.

• The Apple coworker for whom I babysat who suggested that the cure for his boredom was to have an affair with me.

• The harassing ex-boyfriend who texted and called endlessly to tell me that despite what I said, I actually loved and needed him, then stalked me, then wrote me to comment angrily on the book he saw me reading (in a city he had no business being in) and to tell me what my choice of book said about our defunct relationship, what my thoughts about him were, and why I was wrong.

And on and on and on.

So yeah. Me too.

Edward Hopper—Dark, Detached, Delicious

American painter Edward Hopper was born on this day in 1882. The spare, cool, detached way he depicts his subjects contrasts powerfully with his use of dramatic darkness, intense light and shadow and vivid colors. Hopper’s works are carefully composed to create interest and visual movement even though the subjects themselves are usually completely still.

Hopper painted many architecturally interesting exteriors, landscapes and interior scenes, and even his compositions involving human figures emphasize an architectural sense of balance, order and solidity. The compositions and settings are as much the subject of his paintings as the people portrayed in them are.

Most of Hopper’s masterwork, “Nighthawks,” was painted just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. was plunged into fear that there would be air attacks on the U.S. mainland. Americans began sewing blackout curtains for their windows as the people of Britain had been doing for years in efforts to make it harder for potential attackers to target their homes from the air. But while the country prepared for enemy attacks, Hopper continued to work into the evenings with his studio curtains wide open. Appropriately, “Nighthawks” featured four people awake late at night in an empty landscape, together yet somehow separated from each other in a bright but foreboding cafe.

In nature, nighthawks are nocturnal predators of the nightjar family. They, like the nighthawks of the painting, spend the night awake—restless, watching, waiting.

The contrast between still, calm, composed subjects and vibrant color surrounded by intense darkness makes his works visually exciting, but also inspires feelings of melancholy and alienation. Hopper has inspired many other visual artists, including filmmakers like Sam Mendes, Ridley Scott and the Coen Brothers. Mendes’s bleak and brilliant film “The Road to Perdition” in particular reads as a perfect visual homage to the painter, with each scene composed, colored and lit like a Hopper painting.

How Xenophobia Destroys Us from the Inside

A model member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology community, a hardworking go-getter who regularly works 16-hour days to support his family (which includes two daughters—both U.S. citizens—and a wife who is eight months into a high-risk pregnancy), is likely to be deported this summer. Does he have a criminal record? No. Is he a leech on the public welfare system? No. Francisco Rodriguez not only works full time as a custodian at MIT but also runs a carpet-cleaning company, and he pays income taxes on both jobs.

Did he lie to the government and try to sneak in? No; he applied for asylum when he moved here from El Salvador just over a decade ago. A mechanical engineer in his native country, his success made him a target of gangsters who shook him down and threatened him with murder if he didn’t pay them even more. He has been up-front with the Department of Homeland Security all along the way. The U.S. would not give him asylum, but until recently they would not begin deportation proceedings, either, since it was clear that Francisco was not a risk to our nation—indeed, he was a taxpayer and a job-creator, he supported his family and was active in his children’s school, his church and his union. But on July 13, he will meet with representatives of ICE, possibly for the last time before he is forced to leave his family, his job, his business—everything—behind in the U.S., the country he has served so well for over a decade.

So what changed? Our nation is now led by a man who sees all born outside of our borders as lesser beings, and he sees those who were born in countries below our southern border as especially dangerous and worthless, with inherent violent and immoral tendencies, no matter how clearly the facts prove otherwise.

Francisco Rodriguez wasn’t targeted for deportation because he’s a danger to society; he was chosen because his honesty made him easy to find, and his lack of criminality made him highly unlikely to cause a fuss when he was singled out for removal from his home, his family, his job and his community. If Francisco is deported, he and his wife will not be allowed to travel between the U.S. and El Salvador to visit each other for at least ten years.

The true cost of Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-refugee policy is this: families are torn apart; honest and hardworking people are forced to give up everything to go to countries where their safety is at risk; taxpayers are taken off the rolls, so the IRS loses out on revenue; and formerly independent families are forced to ask for assistance during and after family crises (in this case a high-risk birth with no father present—a crisis completely manufactured by the U.S. government).

The knock-on effect of sweeping deportations to families, businesses, tax rolls and our culture in general is enormous and devastating. It will soon be felt strongly in the business world and will result in lower income tax revenues as well. The service and construction sectors rely heavily on undocumented labor and are fearful of the increasing costs of hiring citizens who want greater income and shorter hours. The agriculture sector is already feeling the pinch and is worried about how they’ll manage to find enough farm workers to bring in their crops. They can’t find enough citizens willing to work long hours in seasonal agricultural jobs in the blistering harvest-season heat, even as wages rise. Produce will rot before it can be picked and distributed when there are not enough workers to go around. Will our supposedly business-savvy president recognize the folly of his fear and hate then? It is doubtful.

These misguided policies fuel our growing xenophobia and will take a huge economic and emotional toll on our nation. It is never in our country’s interests to treat good, honest, hardworking people like criminals because of an accident of birth. Our moralistic pronouncements about the greatness of our country are hollow when we use our might to destroy lives, to vilify honorable people and to dismantle our social compact out of unearned self-regard based on birth and not innate worth. We harm ourselves as well as others when we let our fears and prejudices overcome reason, mercy and human decency.

At Least

CalvinAndMom

From Bill Watterson’s classic comic strip, “Calvin and Hobbes”

“At least” is a mitigating phrase used to begin a response to another person’s expression of difficulty, distress or dissatisfaction. The phrase is often followed by a statement that minimizes the extent, importance or validity of another person’s unpleasant feelings: “At least you weren’t hurt when the hit-and-run driver totaled your car.” “At least you have insurance to pay for the things stolen from your apartment.” “At least you’ve got enough savings until you can find another job.” This is a phrase a listener uses when trying to discount the seriousness of another person’s concerns.

The phrase “at least” may also be used to try to lighten the tone when a listener is uncomfortable dealing with someone else’s difficulty. It may introduce a sentence about how someone else has had worse problems, or may lead to a joke about how much more awful the outcome could have been, both of which undercut the validity and depth of feeling held by the person who expressed dismay.

When a listener stays with the discomfort of the speaker for just a few more seconds and responds with an empathetic phrase like “Wow, that must have hurt!” or “That’s so frustrating,” or just “I’m sorry that happened to you,” the speaker feels respected and acknowledged. Allowing a person to sit with his or her discomfort for a few seconds and responding not by shutting the speaker down but by letting that person know that you wish things were different provides comfort, a sense of support and a validation that yeah, this is a cruddy thing and we all have a right to feel disappointment when things go badly. This fosters camaraderie and feelings of having been understood. This simple shift in response to another person’s difficulty can help those who express dismay to move forward feeling supported instead of thwarted or ignored.

People who use “at least” as a way to discount others’ feelings may believe they are lightening the load of others by being funny or by looking on the bright side. However, their unwillingness to acknowledge others’ pain without immediately providing a distraction acts as a distancing maneuver. Some feel that people who complain are weak or self-indulgent for expressing pain or disappointment. Those who find such honest expressions discomforting justify shutting down others’ expressions of difficulty or upset by telling them they’re lucky things weren’t worse. Those who are uncomfortable with honest expressions of disappointment say they’re just trying to get others to buck up and find their inner strength and move on instead of “wallowing,” by which they mean acknowledging and expressing true feelings. Some people who use “at least” to respond to bad situations with comic rejoinders may feel that providing comic relief will make others see that their problems aren’t as bad as they thought.

Either of these responses is inherently unsympathetic.

Sometimes those who rely on “at least” do so because they find sticking with their own discomfort too great, and they feel immediate awkwardness when others are suffering. Others’ complaints or hurts look to them like weakness, or remind them of their own vulnerability. Many people, our new president included, are terrified of looking weak, and they look down on those who embrace and acknowledge vulnerability in any form. Those who have difficulty showing empathy for others may feel scared of showing vulnerability, since for them empathy is a form of shared pain and thus shared weakness.

Instead of seeing that showing empathy is an essential element of diplomacy and building healthy relationships, and is something that leads to tolerance and peaceful negotiation in both private and public spheres, some believe that life is a zero-sum game and one can never let down one’s guard without risking defeat. They don’t understand that when we lend others our strength by being willing to help them shoulder their load, we build bonds and make others feel safer with and more trusting of us.

Those who lack empathy see vulnerability as a failing and sharing others’ pain as weakness. But true and lasting connection, whether between human beings or nations, comes from refusing to diminish the importance of others’ feelings, beliefs and experiences. And that means not belittling others by dismissing their concerns, whether on a national level or when speaking one-on-one. So please, no more “at least.”