Tag Archives: 80s

In With the Out Crowd: Remembering My 80s Youth

“I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints / I am frightened by the devil, and I’m drawn to those that ain’t afraid.” “A Case Of You,” Joni Mitchell

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King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut (latter day)

The SCOTUS ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states got me thinking about the so-called “queer” people who shaped my 80s youth. To my amazement, the memories posses an unexpected clarity, and I find myself welling up with happiness for people I have not seen in two decades, friends whose faces dance as if on a shimmery VHS tape whirring in my mind.

Many who shepherded me through some crucial years were – and are – what we now call LGBTQ, but that term was only just being concocted back then. In any case, more than anyone else, they showed me how to recognize family, love, forgiveness, grace, and courage. Both literally and figuratively, they taught me how to dance.

It took a village, indeed. An East Village. 

~

Like most people recall their college years, I recall my time with queer folk, and I’m glad. While my friends were enrolling in BFA programs, I threw myself into the wind, traveling with hope, heading north with a bass and an amp, landing in Manhattan to couch surf in the winter of ’85. The folks who caught me, cut me a break or two, had my back, and directed me toward my various destinies, were what we would now call the LGBTQ community. I learned more essential, useful life lessons from them, usually in a bar thick with beer-and-cigarette stank, than I ever learned in any classroom.

Playing bass in the East Village Orchestra, The Palladium, 1985

Playing bass in the East Village Orchestra, The Palladium, 1985

While none of my “scenes” had labels, distinctions can be helpful. To that end: my roots are in the New Wave Queer Underground of Atlanta, and the mid/late 80s post-punk/pre-Giuliani East Village scene. In each of these, it’s important to note, nobody delineated between “gay community” and “straight community.”

In my Atlanta years, bands, plays, art exhibits, and late-night hangouts teemed with all manner of sexual persuasions, and for the most part, it was all fine, our own brand of same-old same-old. I knew some disapproving parents, but no tyrannical parents. (Quite a few “old hippie” parents.) I also knew some kids who harbored secret nonhetero tendencies, but they weren’t tortured by the furtiveness in which they couched their desires; they actually kind of dug it.

These days, when I see modern, troubled kids who must be talked off the ledge with the “it gets better” movement, I realize how odd my scenes were, and how charmed. I wish with all my might that one of those shamed, disaffected kids could get a postcard from the Rocky Horror crew, circa 1981. It would make them brave and it would make them fight back.

Of course I see now that we were in a bubble, but at the time, it didn’t seem so, partly because, being kids, we were self-centered, and anything beyond our sphere did not warrant our attention. And the alphas among us were some of the most willful people I’ve ever known, to the point where the heteronormative standard (as we now say) was, quite frankly, effectively branded as insane. Being pretty heteronormative myself, I sometimes felt a little out of place, but not so much that I wanted to flee. On the contrary. I wanted to belong, I wanted to be brave like them.

~

Later, in Manhattan, at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, a bar on the corner of Avenue A and East 7th Street, a new set of offbeat characters welcomed me into another arty oasis. Together, in a lovingly tangled skein, we hung out, worked our money gigs, turned each other on to music, played in bands, and could not have cared less if he/she was intimate with their own sex, or whether he/she liked to wear, say, heels, or, say, combat boots, or dye their hair, or experiment. People uptight at our lack of concern – and of course, many of my peers had fled such folks – were the butts of our jokes, and we laughed our asses off at them.

Maggie and Doug, co-owners of King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, hired me a few months after I turned 20. I’d been working midnight to 8 AM at the Village Copier for $5 an hour, and washing glasses at 8BC (bar-club on East 8th between Avenues B and C). King Tut’s needed a non-heroin-using glass washer/bar back. and my brand new bandmates Mark and Keiko, who I’d met through impresario-activist Jim Fouratt, introduced me to Maggie and Doug, who hired me on the spot. I soon graduated to bartending and bar managing. (Not being a junkie came in handy.) From that connection, from Maggie and Doug taking me on, I can now trace every major event of my life.

I’d come to New York a few months previously, reeling from some heavy girlfriend drama and family issues, and even though I didn’t consciously realize it then, I see now I was eager to find a way to be alone and to enjoy a community. I’d bounced around apartments, was unhealthy and depressed, and very close to heading back to Atlanta, but with the kindness of a few strangers, I found my way.

With my East Village scene, I found that balance of aloneness and community for a couple years, especially when the aforementioned Mark and Keiko let me (illegally) sub-lease their Ave B. railroad apartment. Tisch School of the Arts actor-in-training Peter McCabe become my great friend and roommate, and I was set. I paid my bills from cash I kept in a Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee can, and on occasion, I was happier than a pig in shit.

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Bartending at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut on New Year’s Eve, 1989, with April Palmieri.

It was not wasted time. I played music, began to write, and spent many hours walking the streets of Alphabet City, often in the pre-dawn, adventuring with the Wah Wah Hut crew, breaking into the Pitt Street Pool to swim, watching many a sunrise over Tompkins Square Park, the last park in Manhattan with no curfew, where fires burned and kids a little less lucky than me camped.

Indeed I was lucky. In addition to being the recipient of the largesse of a few people, I was, unbeknownst to me, in the last wave of artists who could move to NYC and live cheaply. Within a decade, those days would be over.

As the 80s played out, AIDS ravaged my community. It still chills me to recall sick friends dying in their prime, to remember the feel of their wasting-away hands grip mine across a hospital bed. But when so many – including me – lived in fear of illness, or indeed, became ill, outsiderness remained a source of pride and power. We all hunkered down and embraced our outsiderness even more. Some of the braver ones marched on government buildings – the amazing ACT UP crew comes to mind – transforming grief and rage into action. Among other things, they shamed Burroughs-Wellcome into lowering the price of AZT by 20%. This was real, tough love. And it was a lesson.

There was so much love. In our little enclave, some of us at the Wah Wah Hut wished for stardom, but at the same time, we were loathe to leave the love we knew in our East Village obscurity. (Although one of two did achieve that stardom dream.) It was uncommon, this love, infused with, but sometimes beyond, sex; an amalgam of friendship, family, foxhole intimacy, erotic fascination, and besotted crushes, spiced with a healthy degree of disdain and pettiness, maybe a little bad behavior (OK, a lot) just to keep it lively. (We were kids, after all.) I think, in our hearts, we knew how special this all was, but we could not articulate it, and even if we could, we would not have done so because it would’ve been very uncool.

This era didn’t last, because these things never do, as this grumpy old man now knows. People eventually let go, or they fled; everyone, in their way, moved on, relinquishing apartments, turning the page on a life chapter lived with gusto and abandon. Some died, and we mourned them, and mourn them still.

When it was my time to go, I did, with my wife and son. My son was four when we left NYC for the Catskills, and he’s now seventeen and guess what? He’s finding his way among LGBTQ youths who are much less in the shadows than the queer kids I ran with when I was my boy’s age. That makes me smile. They shine, these kids, they make great art, they look after one another, and although I don’t say it aloud very much, lest I get a withering look, they take me back.

At age 50, my short term recollection is starting to go. Mostly, when I meet new people, I can’t remember their names. It is vexing. But part of my memory, apparently, is ironclad, at least for now: seems I will never forget the names of the queer and queer-friendly East Village denizens who took me in and/or steered me toward the better part of my life: Jim, Maggie, Doug, Brian, Jesse, Stacy, Kate, Richard, Byron, Byron, Luis, Itabora, Michael, Grace, Stan, Jo, Lucy, Annie, Paula, Denise, Monica, Effie, Ethyl, Wendy, Ida, Chuck, Curtis, Chris, Lady Bunny, Bob, Marleen, Baby, Mark, Keiko, Gerard, Bernard, Nick, George. They were all there as I became me. They helped. They emboldened me.

With the step forward that is the SCOTUS decision, my old friends who remain on this earthy plane who are gay, or LGBTQ, or whatever, have much to celebrate. That means anyone who loves them – that would be me – also has a lot to celebrate. And at this stage of the game, celebrating a good day is crucial. Not all days are good, that’s for damn sure, but even after everything, some definitely are.

~

(In this Nelson Sullivan video, shot in the Pyramid Club basement dressing room across from King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, I enter with my then-girlfriend Holly around 1:41. It’s 1988, and I’m twenty-two.)

Not A Misspent Youth, Part 7: Wee Wee Pole/RuPaul and me in Marietta, Ga., 1983

It happened again! An episode from my youth as part of the New Wave Queer Underground of Atlanta popped up online, thanks to YouTuber rottingtapes, who once managed the Marietta, Georgia-based band Guadalcanal Diary. My band Wee Wee Pole – featuring RuPaul – shared stages with Guadalcanal Diary several times, and I think this was one of them. It’s June of 1983, and my friend Todd (on guitar) and I are about to graduate high school. We’ve just acquired our new drum machine and percussionist David Klimchak. Back up singers/dancers the U-Hauls have quit in a huff. But we are in good form.

The venue is “new wave” club The Strand in Marietta. Marietta’s about 15 miles from where I grew up in Atlanta; it was more country then, but it’s now an Atlanta suburb. RuPaul is ON, and as you can see, the audience loves him. The song we’re playing is “Hips.” Most of the lyrics are indecipherable, but the tag line is, “her hips were made to kill!!!” Please enjoy. More to come.


More about my time in the New Wave Queer Underground HERE.

More about Todd and me HERE

More about My Life in Music HERE.

Southern Belles, Latchkey Kids, and Thrift Store Cross Dressers for The Bitter Southerner

I’ve posted several times about my time with RuPaul in the 80s, and I’ve written about my dear friend Todd Butler, whose courage and love shaped me at least as much as my own DNA. But it took Chuck Reece, editor of The Bitter Southerner to get me to go deep and find the sweet marrow details of a formative time in my life, a time when those two figures – Ru and Todd – and a third, my grandmother, enriched my life immeasurably.

The Bitter Southerner is a recently-launched webzine promising “a great new story from the South every week.” They’re doing gangbusters, acquiring new subscribers daily. I’d fallen in love with them when I read  Patterson Hood’s essay “The New (er) South.” Like his spoken word piece “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” from his band The Drive-By Truckers’ 2001 masterpiece Southern Rock Opera, Patterson’s musings on “the duality of the southern thing” resonated in my gut. Chuck and Co. launched The Bitter Southerner with “the duality of the southern thing” as a guiding principle. I sent Chuck a note and some blog posts, and we hit it off.

For my essay, Chuck, no stranger to grief and funk and duality, knew my work could be stronger if I knuckled down into the grievous stuff. He kept asking me questions, gently suggesting I amplify aspects of Todd; he wanted more about grandparents’ unusual stories; he suggested I remove RuPaul from the original opening, making him more a supporting character. I did all that, and sure enough, I got weepy. I’d been circling around the painful stuff, treading lightly, for years. But, as ever, that’s where the good stuff is.

As a bonus, sweet Clare Butler, aka Lady Clare, Todd’s widow, unearthed some great pix (a couple below) and my cousin scanned some classic shots of my grandparents from the 60s and 70s.

You can find my essay HERE.

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Lucille Ball with my grandmother, Gammie (glasses), and grandfather. Late 60s.

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Todd and me rocking at The Bistro, Atlanta, ’83, while RuPaul does a costume change. Pic by Clare Butler

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RuPaul rocking The Bistro with Todd and me, ’83. Pic by Clare Butler.

Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul & the U-Hauls (and opening comic David Cross) FIRST GIG, 1983

More Wee Wee Pole action.

Many thanks to Dick Richardson and James Bond (brother of Senator and Civil Rights icon Julian Bond), whose American Music Show captured much of the ’80s Atlanta New Wave Queer Underworld, and, it turns out, a crucial moment in my life. The clip above contains some entertaining segments of the very first “Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul and the U-Hauls” gig at the Nitery Club sometime in winter, late ’82 or early ’83. Trash funk combo The Now Explosion graciously invited us to open for them. They’d amassed a substantial fanbase, and Ru and the U-Hauls had performed with them as go-go dancers. The place was packed. Folks were mighty curious about the drummer-less band featuring the two high school kids who’d joined forces with scene-maker Ru. Even then, he was calling himself a “superstar in exile.”

I was 17, barely two years older than my son Jack is now. My dear friend Todd, the redhead Ru introduces as Yettiva Antoinette (or something) was 18. Ru was 22. I have no idea how old the U-Hauls were. They were easily fed up and quit a few months later.

My old friend David Cross, also 18, was on the bill, too. He’d just finished his set, which went great. He and Todd and I were drama majors at Northside School of the Performing Arts. (Todd and I minored in music. Northside was like a college, with a major and minor.) Todd, also a visual artist, had designed a poster that was all over the school. Drinking age in Atlanta was 18 at that time, so technically, high school seniors could get in. And they did.

I think this was David’s first official stand-up gig, although he’d braved some amateur nights. You can see him around the 1:15 mark, putting a cigarette in my mouth. Not long after this he would move to Boston to attend Emerson, then to L.A..

The clip begins backstage, and we’re all goofy and nervous. I’d played clubs with my first band The Latest, but we’d never generated the kind of excitement that was percolating on this night.

Apparently, Dick uploaded this last April. I only just came across it. I envision shelves in his home loaded with VHS (or maybe Beta) tapes. Occasionally he finds time to digitize and upload them, and every once in awhile, a scene from my not-misspent youth pops up on YouTube. These clips always astonish me, brightening the corners of my memory. I really hope he has more (at least I think I do). I recall him being everywhere back then, a huge video camera on his shoulder.

As you can see around 1:20, RuPaul jokes that I’m being “artsy fartsy Athens.” He had my number, that’s for sure. In the early days of the band, I tried to look like I was in R.E.M., while the rest of Wee Wee Pole went for a cross between Prince’s band and Bauhaus, with much attention paid to hair. Towards the end I capitulated, and started wearing a funky hat, which you can see in the video for our local hit “Tarzan.” I’m pretty sure it’s the lowest budget video ever.

The live section in the Nitery clip is our song, “I Gotcha.” The drum machine you hear belonged to Todd’s dad, Jack Butler, who’d had careers as a lounge pianist and writer of piano instruction books. It’s ancient, but distinctive. I retain a vivid memory of looking out during this song and seeing people dancing for the first time to music I was helping make. I was elated. Towards the end of the clip, Ru is backstage, changing costumes into “something sexy” so can re-emerge to sing “Love Hangover,” our one cover. I hope Dick or someone has footage of this. It was a show stopper.

If you want to read more about Wee Wee Pole and see more video, click HERE and HERE. We never released a record, sadly, but Ru used our 8-track demos as the B-side of his 1985 EP Sex Freak, which you you can buy on vinyl for $40.00 here.

You can read about Todd and me HERE.

Thanks again, Dick Richardson and James Bond, for the fun, albeit bittersweet, time travel.

Farewell to my Rabbi, Leonard Cohen

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September 10th, 2016

I originally wrote this in commemoration of Leonard’s birthday. I’ve edited it a little, but kept it in the present tense, where it will remain.

If it be your will that a voice be true

From this broken hill I will sing for you.

From this broken hill, all your praises they shall ring

If it be your will to let me sing.   

My rabbi Leonard Cohen passed away today. I am bereft and weeping.

Your rabbi? you say.

Let me explain: A couple decades ago, I was faltering, making a mess of my life. During this time, I awoke from a dream in which Leonard Cohen was my rabbi. I recall no images, but just before my waking reality and timeline clicked into place, I thought, “Leonard Cohen is my rabbi.”

I am not Jewish – I prefer the terms evangelical agnostic and/or possibilian – but, as a fatherless kid brought up with no particular spiritual discipline, I’ve sought out older male figures to help get me through life. Leonard occupies a significant place in that pantheon, especially since that dream. Prior to that, I was a fan, but the dream altered Lenny’s and my relationship, took it beyond mere fandom. He is my spiritual authority figure, his songs (well, a lot of them) are my sacred texts. Prayers. Affirmations. Codifications of gratitude or even vindictiveness. Yes, vindictiveness. There’s a lot of that in the Bible, too, FYI.

Leonard is also the man I consult over matters carnal and practical. And he has not let me down. Threaded throughout his greatness are some awful songs and some questionable decisions regarding presentation and production, but that’s fine. His imperfection – like Dylan’s, Neil Young’s and Patti Smith’s – humanizes him.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

I initially came to Leonard Cohen in his late-80s phase. Remarkably, my conversion happened when I was playing bass in garage rock titans The Fleshtones in 1988. I was 22. I’d heard “Suzanne,” and maybe a couple others from his 60s-70s period, but his dense lyrics, lecherous-hippie troubadour attitude, and keening, nasal voice annoyed me. I was a rocker, and his sensitivity made me feel vulnerable, embarrassed. 

The Fleshtones had finished our soundcheck at a roadhouse-type joint in New Jersey. It was springtime, and much was afoot in my fevered brain; I was considering leaving the band. I wanted to write songs, front my own group, play solo acoustic, not be a sideman. The prospect of actually doing these things made me both anxious and excited, a combo that most often manifested as inarticulate crankiness. Leonard arrived and gave me clarity.

If you want a lover, I’ll do anything you want me to

If you want another kind of love, I’ll wear a mask for you.

If you want a partner, take my hand

Or if you want to strike me down in anger, here I stand.

I’m your man.

The Fleshtones had dispersed after soundcheck – lots of time-killing between soundchecks and gigs in those days – and I wandered alone into a nearby cafe, in full-on Fleshtone mode: dyed black pompadour, skintight red twill jeans, Chelsea boots, and a biker jacket with Mardi Gras beads hanging from the epaulets. The TV over the bar was on PBS (!!) and a new Lenny documentary had just started. He was  playing “Bird On A Wire,” and suddenly I was a goner. I ordered a double espresso – perfect, right? – and sat, transfixed as the Bard of Montreal spoke at length of songs, poetry, and his remarkable life (which would only get more remarkable in the coming decades). He also sang live, songs both old and new, and I recognized him at last. It was a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment, one of only a few I’ve experienced. 

He’d just released his 8th album I’m Your Man. He’d not put out an album in four years, and the buzz was lively; I’m Your Man – one of the last LPs I bought – was radically different than anything he’d done before. It was brazenly synth-heavy, even occasionally Euro-disco; his baritone had dropped to the sub-basement, and slow-burned with a laid-back intensity. He’d forsaken his Spanish guitar for a drum machine and a cold keyboard, and all was digital crispness. The lyrics – pared down, concise koans of wit – were often mordant and funny, quite direct instead of the oblique, meandering, freeform stuff of the past. Those pithy, much hewed-at couplets, combined with a quiet swagger, comprised my entry point. And it was all sexy in a way that I’d not yet clocked. He was riffing on getting old(er), embracing darkness and loss, but also the glories of sensual life, with a kind of candor that struck me as particularly brave. “First We Take Manhattan” was – and remains –the finest revenge fantasy song ever written. 

Ah you loved me as a loser, but now you’re worried that I just might win

You know the way to stop me, but you don’t have the discipline

How many nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin

First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

What struck me was this: Lenny had been through some kind of shit, some full-grown-man drama, yet he’d come out the other side with a kind of ritual scarring, wrought into stark, tuneful art. Perhaps it finally hit me because I knew my own dark road lay ahead (I was right, and how) and this work offered a kind of emotional map, much more expansive than what I’d previously attached myself to. It wasn’t rock and roll, but I liked it. I walked out of that New Jersey establishment caffeinated and changed. I was a fan. He was my man, indeed. By the end of 1988, I’d staked out a new path.

Against the odds of time, commerce, and human frailty, he got even better. He would overcome addictions to alcohol and nicotine, and speak freely about his depression, anxiety, insomnia, etc., and he would joke about his dance with a vast array of pharmaceuticals, legal and otherwise. His song “Hallelujah” would become a standard, and, much to the chagrin of some fans, be mangled like “Stairway to Heaven” innumerable times, yet rise to be mangled anew. (Full disclosure: I am sick of that song. Still, it remains a marvel to me, technically speaking.) As you read this, it is being mangled –perhaps by me – around a campfire somewhere, and being referred to as “Jeff Buckley’s best song.”

After my conversion, Leonard would help me come to terms with loss, with getting older, feeling mean, being betrayed, betraying, making amends, and, if not making peace, then recognizing the road to reconciliation, even the sinful detours one may allow one’s self in the secret heart. His ability to crystallize moments has improved my ability to do the same. He has made me less afraid of death, but more importantly, less afraid of getting older, which is quite helpful.

My friends are gone and my hair is gray

I ache in the places that I used to play

And I’m crazy for love, but I’m not coming on

I’m just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song.

I’ve been to see him three times, and one of those shows – Madison Square Garden, just a couple years ago – was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. (And I’ve seen plenty.) He and his band cast a spell of open-mouthed amazement, then sent us on our way. His fortune had been stolen, so he went back out on the road like a yeoman, or a soldier, and turned his loss into a triumphant return to form, skipping onstage to rapturous applause, hushing thousands with the power of song. We swooned, hooted, and threw money at him with no regrets. 

He’s enriched my life deeply. I’ve learned a few of his songs, aped him shamelessly, even recited the poem “A Thousand Kisses Deep” at a gig.  I have no idea how he celebrated his last birthday, whether on Mount Baldy with his sensei, in a VIP lounge with his girlfriend, hanging out with his kids in Montreal (a big plus that he’s tight with his adult kids Adam and Lorca), or alone in the Hollywood Hills, breathing in the sage, sneaking a smoke, and laughing. The very fact than any one of those situations is highly plausible says a lot about why I’ve loved him so.

I loved you for a long, long time

I know this love is real

It don’t matter how it all went wrong

That don’t change the way I feel

And I can’t believe that time’s

Gonna heal this wound I’m speaking of

There ain’t no cure,
There ain’t no cure,
There ain’t no cure for love.


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