Monday, May 21, 2012

someone left the cake out in the rain

An awkward, isolated, and fearful child - I comforted myself with music. I'd sequester myself for days on end; barricaded in my room listening to and singing along with records (remember records?). Show-tunes, rock, jazz, folk, disco, everything and everyone from Peggy Lee to Pink Floyd... and beyond. Along with a rich fantasy life, my isolation from the world allowed me an extensive and eclectic musical education. 

I've learned that my early experiences of finding comfort in music are not unique. Many people who've felt different or outcast as kids, or were socially awkward, seem to have had comparable experiences. Similarly, the relationships created with musical heroes, if at times delusional, have taken on deep personal meaning and intensity.

In addition to the ever-increasing, heterogeneous playlist in my own little corner of the world (my room), I was also very much aware of current popular music trends. As I entered my teens, found drugs, and dared to venture away from my self-imposed seclusion, my personal soundtrack began to intermingle with what was going on around me. Never able to fully commit to either end of the pop music spectrum, I'd bounce between the world of CBGBs punk and Studio 54 disco. While I always admired the revolutionary and in-your-face artistry of the punks (I was especially fond of Patti Smith's hard-driving, androgynous poetry), I eventually realized that dance floors, bathhouses, and the West Side piers were far more conducive to a hot-blooded, teenage gay-boy than the grimy rock clubs of the East Village. My coming out in a post-sexual-revolution, pre-AIDS New York City meshed perfectly with the hyper-sexual music of the dance floor and the Love to Love You Baby provocative beat that accompanied me as I humped my way through adolescence into a fully realized young adulthood.

As always, there is evidence everywhere of the passing of time and of my own aging. Last week, I walked through an exhibit called, The Piers: Art and Sex along the New York Waterfront; a collection of photographs at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. A beautiful visual reminder of days gone by. Long before gay rights was an issue of marriage equality or of serving openly in the armed forces, groups of men were hammering out the identity of their community through subversive art installations and clandestine sexual encounters in public spaces. The piers - these were my after school playgrounds. It was there that I simultaneously discovered my own sexuality, learned about sexual excitement and pleasure, and realized that I had a particular persuasive power over grown men; an intoxicating combination for a boy who had always felt isolated and ineffective. The piers were taken down years ago, and now, due to the success and tourist draw of The High Line, as well as the inevitable gentrification and evolution of Manhattan real estate, the neighborhoods that used to border the waterfront; meatpacking during the day and sex-clubbing at night, have given way to luxury living spaces, high-end designer boutiques, and chic eateries.

Four days ago, Donna Summer died. The queen of disco and the voice of a generation passed from cancer at the age of 63. Yesterday, Robin Gibb, one third of the sensational singing brothers that made up the Bee Gees, passed from cancer at the age of 62. These are the days that disco died. The pioneering, innovative orchestrators who helped shape the soundtrack of a generation have gone. Whatever one's musical tastes, the cultural significance of the disco phenomenon was inescapable - the legacy of these cultural icons has left an indelible impression on our collective psyche. However sweet and melancholic "Saturday Night Fever" was before last week, it now falls into the category of archival commemoration - not strictly because of the passing of any one particular singer or musician, but because of the distance and delineation between that era and this. There have never been any good old days - our modern understanding of poverty, civil rights inequities, and government corruption has deemed that concept a fallacy. Only imagine a pre-Reagan America, a pre-AIDS world; imagine boogieing with abandon in ignorant bliss to an unrelenting synthetic beat and an intoxicating promise that could only ever be fostered by youth and idyllic inexperience.

This week also saw the passing of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the brilliant German baritone, who is, perhaps, the most recorded man of all time. A gifted singer and dazzling musician, Fischer-Dieskau's recordings of Schubert and Wolf Lieder remain the standard of musical accuracy and taste. He'd retired over a decade ago, and died it his home in Upper Bavaria, ten days before his 87th birthday. Not sympathetic to the Nazi party, but forced to fight for the German army in World War II, Fischer-Dieskau's infirm brother was institutionalized and eventually put to death by the Nazis. Fischer-Dieskau, himself, spent two years as an American prisoner of war, singing lieder to homesick German soldiers until his release.

All three of these talented music-makers had a hand in shaping large swathes of the twentieth century experience. They brought joy to countless listeners. It's hard to make sense of a world that would take away these members of the family of music (two of them quite young), yet someone like Dick Cheney still marches on; indefatigable and malevolent.

But I digress.

1 comment:

Steven said...

Wonderful essay, Jeff. Really trenchant.