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Drew Daniel, a member of the electronica duo Matmos, a gay man, and a favorite contemporary philosopher of mine, posits in his essay “All Sound Is Queer” that sound itself is a connection we have to the multiverse, where our beings themselves exist to cocreate our identities and worlds—but because sound can live both above and below the limits of human frequency, sound lives both with us and in realms we cannot know. It is above and below our boundaries of perception. Just as with gaydar, some of us get glimpses of the sounds outside of our natural abilities, and we are drawn to the shadow, the gray area, the twilight. Here are just a few moments in which music allowed us to go into the back room and feel it.
(If this issue were the Salem show, we’d have several more pages so I could tell you about Gary Floyd from the Dicks, the Big Boys, Frankie Knuckles, Young M.A., Princess Nokia, Fanny, Team Dresch, and about the fight I got into in 1993 in Macomb, Illinois, at a Pansy Division show.)
1913: Igor Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes premiere The Rite of Spring
The Rite of Spring was composed for a ballet that depicts the pagan rituals of Russia, and the music seethes with percussive, masculine energy. Stravinsky’s longtime assistant Robert Craft claimed in his 2013 book Stravinsky: Discoveries and Memories (Naxos Books) that the long-married Stravinsky had several affairs with men, including torrid moments with Belgian composer Maurice Delage during the time that he was composing The Rite of Spring. It’s impossible for us to know what really happened under the covers at the Stravinsky house, but it’s hard to listen to the blasting timpani and insistent harsh downstrokes of the violas and cellos along with the frenzy that knocks in from the brass section in the last portion (“Sacrificial Dance”) without thinking of the most carnal thoughts of men. This was new, crazy music for its audiences, and it’s not hard to believe the legend that the first performance caused a riot.
1925: Ma Rainey is arrested for hosting an lesbian orgy
Ma Rainey was part of the first generation of professional African American blues singers in the late teens and early 20s. Many of her lyrics included the stories of tough women and thinly veiled references to bisexual or lesbian life. In 1925, Rainey was arrested here in Chicago for “running an indecent party” after the police were summoned by a neighbor’s noise complaint; CPD officers allegedly found Rainey and several of the women from her chorus and touring show in various states of undress. Legend says that fellow as-out-as-possible-at-the-time bisexual blues singer Bessie Smith paid Rainey’s bail. Rainey’s 1928 song “Prove It On Me Blues” seems to reference the scandal: “They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me / Sure got to prove it on me / Went out last night with a crowd of my friends / They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.”
Early 1950s: Little Richard meets Esquerita
Little Richard claimed in a 1985 episode of the British documentary series South BankShow that he first saw the amazing performer who dubbed himself Esquerita walking off a bus at the Greyhound station in Macon, Georgia, in the early 1950s. You can see and hear Esquerita’s direct influence on Little Richard’s subsequent hairstyle and piano playing: his pounding technique and flippant vocal attitude are directly lifted from Esquerita’s performances, though Little Richard’s most successful songs are the “radio clean” versions. Sadly, we’ll never know just how popular Esquerita’s music could have been because, up until his death in 1986, he always kept it too weird for the straights.
1969: Maxine Feldman writes “Angry Atthis”
Maxine Feldman began performing as an openly lesbian folk singer starting in 1964. (In later years, Feldman identified as transgender.) In a 2002 interview, she explained that her most famous song, “Angry Atthis,” was an explicit protest. Feldman wrote it in May 1969, and, while not directly connected, it anticipated the famous disruption at the Stonewall Inn that happened later that summer: “Feel like we’re animals in cages / And have you seen the lights in the gay bar / Not revealing wrinkles or rages / God forbid we reveal who we are.”
1983: Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s video for “Relax”
When asked on the television show Bands Reunited about the possibility of him getting back together with his 80s British dance-pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, singer Holly Johnson gustily said “I’m not a wedding singer!” One look at the original video for FGTH’s megahit “Relax,” and not even Martha Stewart would know what the proper gift would be to bring to that reception. This is the riot of sticky bolts of substance strewn across the dance hall that Stravinsky and his contemporaries might have imagined but never spoke aloud. MTV and the BBC banned airing this masterpiece, prompting a second video to be directed (by 10cc’s Godley and Creme), and because that video was stripped of S&M and gay context, the song entered the mainstream and eventually hit number ten on Billboard’s Hot 100 in March 1985.
1985: Wendy Carlos thrives in People magazine
The pioneer musician and composer and godmother of electronic music Wendy Carlos is a trans woman who had some of her earliest commercial success at a time when she was first receiving hormone treatments (for a “psychological condition known as gender dysphoria,” People helpfully explained). Carlos was anxious about making public appearances, but she began to feel more comfortable after she decided to come out in a 1979 interview in Playboy magazine. Carlos told People, “The public turned out to be amazingly tolerant or, if you wish, indifferent. . . . There had never been any need of this charade to have taken place. It had proven a monstrous waste of years of my life.”