Sunday, March 28, 2010
On board the plane, I am not nervous, but filled with anticipation and desire. What is it about travel that allows one to imagine a different self than our everyday one? It can be a magical feeling of limitless possibility. I am off to London with the W____ family which includes my goddaughter N____. Since the beginning of February, I have been her Mary Poppins for 2 days a week in addition to my regular gig. It has been hard and a hoot; also, it has brought me the greatest joy in my life, caring for her and watching her grow, the incredible changes that happen from day to day. Since I started watching her she has learned to clap her hands and wave hello and goodbye with which she charms everyone, but I digress...
I have not been to London for 22 years; in 1988 I studied art history in Norwich for my semester abroad and then with great luck landed an internship at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, doing research for their exhibition entitled "A Nest of Nightingales". What a delicious title! It was pure heaven. But then later on in life, when you have depression your world gets very small, sometimes to just one room, and travel seems daunting and mostly impossible. But not today...
Besides revisiting my past, I will be seeing my dearest friend H____ whom I have known and loved for 30 years; We met in the horror filled days of junior high. She like N____'s mom are the sisters that I never had. And so I am sitting on the plane, waiting to take off, and wearing my Psychedelic Furs badge that is nearly as old as our friendship. H____ and I discovered The Furs together somewhat late in their game. For us they were cool, they were different. They were unlike any of the drones and worker bees we went to school with in M____-S____ H____. And we debated that their new toned down version of Pretty in Pink for the Molly Ringwald movie of the same name was not as raw and authentic as the original. We connected to their otherness and obsessively went to their shows on the Pier and in a scary, rundown theater in Passaic, New Jersey that I am sure was mostly a porn theater during the day with sticky floors and faded glamour. And Richard Butler, so sexy, so incongruously smooth with that raspy voice singing Love My Way and Imitation of Christ with his arms outspread as if he were on a cross. The sounds and images fill my head as I wait to see who will sit next to me on the plane.
There are a lot of cuties on board this flight. Thank god it is not the "ugly plane" to London. I would love an attractive English lad to be my seat mate...so pent up physically...think about C____ whom I have been having phone sex with for months. So hot, so connected, but the magic would end probably in the real world, fear of rejection. I am heavier now than I have ever been, but comfortable with it in one sense as long as I'm a eunuch in the Forbidden City or a retired concubine or a disembodied voice. Just not motivated to lose weight right now. When I was younger exercise, going out, having a "body" was my routine. What clothes to wear? How tight should the T-shirt be? I was never a muscle boy, but I was decently lean with some definition. Now I have gone to seed a bit, but I am content not living under the pressure (and I never was totally subsumed into the gay body paradigm) of looking a certain way, having a certain waist size, having the right look. And the boys that I was attracted to then were all shapes and sizes; no type limited me. What I would not accept on me, I readily found attractive on others. So now I try not to look in the mirror much.
But, I am happy now because of my goddaughter, my new Mary Poppins job taking care of her, my apartment in its tchotchke glory and my idea for an antique personal shopping business. Surrounded by my collection of silver, I experience great satisfaction especially when I use these sometimes archaic implements for entertaining friends at silver dessert soirees. I wonder if C____ would like my silver collection or would it just make me an old queen in his eyes, instead of a hot dad.
I often think of Quentin Crisp- his wit, his elegance, his sheer determination and self-possessed assurance of his own identity and his basically f*ck you attitude. I aspire to that way of being. Often I tell my friends jokingly, but with a bit of seriousness that when I turn 50, I am going to start wearing jumpsuits and elaborate 18th century powdered wigs. An antique monocle will be fashioned around my neck like the one worn by my great great aunt Margaret Timm who led a life of discernment and style. She had fresh violets delivered everyday to wear on her dress and when she came east from Seattle to visit the family (she was widowed young and never had children) she would rent a suite at the Gramercy Park Hotel and stroll with her nieces, nephews, grand nieces and grand nephews through the private park. For her, like me, the world was still an imaginary 19th century space, like in paintings, filled with the bright spirit of a new modern world untouched by the horror of The Great War, the Holocaust or World War II. And racism, slavery, imperialism, the medicalization of same-sex desire, misogyny, homophobia and so on.
So far, the seat next to me is still empty and the plane is fairly full. No cutie to admire or chat with during the flight. Well, at least I have more room- still a bridesmaid, still Mrs. Haversham on a Virgin Atlantic flight to London. Sitting there I admire my new key chain which I bought at the concession stand while waiting to get on the plane. It is a round matte silver disk engraved "I Love NY" with a ring of rhinestones around the edge. It just appealed to me and will go well with the jumpsuits and wigs. The sentiment "I Love NY" combined with traveling to London allows me to imagine I needed a NYC souvenir after I just spent some time in my pied-à-terre in the Big Apple. Now, I am returning to my real home in London. I'm a jet-setter, international traveller, a new millennium multi-city dweller. I'm 2010, but also 1979 collecting a complete set of Concorde china like Andy Warhol. I am Joan Collins and Joris-Karl Huysmans in an English pub near the Paris train station meant to deliver me to the coast.
I finally get a seat mate- a cute, very English hipster boy with blond, tussled hair slightly longer on top with the most amazing icy blue-green eyes like a pale turquoise stone without imperfections. My fantasy of an over the Atlantic romance is dashed when he mentions his wife and 2 kids. Did he realize I was a f*g so easily? Or was he a guy who had been on business in the USA in some hinterland of Pennsylvania looking forward to getting home to see his family after a week away? Probably so.
When he sits down in his window seat, his sweatshirt rises up a bit above his stylish, black pants and I catch a glimpse of the area above his ass, the lower back...my favorite part of a man's body especially when there is a smattering of light hair like my seat companion or dark hair. My airplane fantasy of love found is in full swing until of course a mere seconds later when he mentions his family. But I savor his pale blue-green eyes for the next 6 hours and know that this trip will be just swell.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
I will be away for a bit and won’t be posting again till early April. In the meantime, check out some of my older posts and look forward to new posts in April including one on Victorian Collage and a post regarding a photo assemblage by the artist Andrew Bush.
At first glance, a discussion of the musical performance duo of Kiki DuRane (Justin Bond) and Herb (Kenny Melman) and the comedy couple of Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley) from Absolutely Fabulous seems incongruous and perhaps an odd comparison. Yet, both of these biting cultural representations/deconstructions display and deploy the grotesque body in its baseness of aging, obesity, disease and private somatic functions in order to shatter notions of contemporary femininity which is constructed through fashion, advertising and celebrity. Furthermore, although Kiki and Herb and Absolutely Fabulous are hysterically funny, and satirical, they are also simultaneously frightening and bizarre through this exhibition of the grotesque feminine body. Within this oscillation between humorous and terrifying, this body disrupts and ultimately destroys the culturally sanctioned definition of femininity.
Kiki and Herb
The incomparable Justin Bond created and performs the character of Kiki DuRane , an aging, over the hill, boozy lounge singer with a rasping, yet powerful voice. She is a chanteuse who sings songs like Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill, Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart and Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.
Her covering of these songs goes beyond parody; Kiki makes them her own and brings new humor, pathos and feeling to them.
She is accompanied on keyboards by Herb played by the deft Kenny Melman. The musical pair has constructed an elaborate back-story for Kiki and Herb who were friends since childhood, growing up in an institution where they both were labeled “retards”. The duo has even suggested that this back-story is a meta-fiction and that Kiki and Herb have fantastically existed for all time, meeting famous and infamous personages like Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler.
But beyond this history, it is the performances of Kiki and Herb which are so riveting and magical. These performances are raw, visceral, tragic, poignant, funny and even horrific. Kiki’s singular appearance imbues and heightens the performance. It also serves to transform her singing and the songs chosen.
Kiki displays the grotesque body of an aging drunk. She slurs her words. Her singing is deep and grating. Sometimes she screams the lyrics, instead of singing them. Her hair is tussled and teased in a tangled mess with a bit of gray; it is usually accented with a large black bow or flower. Her wrinkles are emphasized by dark black lines drawn on Justin Bond’s face. The chanteuse wears a dress that proudly displays her sagging tits.
It is an image of a woman who has survived show business and femininity while simultaneously recalling its musty glamour of bygone days. She has experienced the horrors of life, succumbed to drink, but ultimately she endures. Kiki is a tragic and pathetic figure on one hand, a washed-up singer in the midst of a celebrity obsessed culture. But while her appearance and drunken demeanor suggests tragedy, pathos and rejection, she is simultaneously a Phallic Mother who wields the symbolic Phallus through the sheer rawness and physicality of her performance and the embracing of her outcast status.
A 2004 performance of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer which then segue ways into Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit is a good illustration of the visceral power of Kiki’s performance as well as a celebration of the notion of the outcast and of the grotesque. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is himself an “other” in the reindeer community because of his strange red glowing nose. He is not allowed to join in reindeer games with the other animals, but is shunned, just as Kiki and Herb were shunned as children because they were labeled “retards”. And now in their adult lives the otherness of Kiki and Herb continues. Herb is a gay Jew and Kiki is an old drunk.
The segue way into Smells Like Teen Spirit makes perfect sense. The teenager is often an outcast. It is a period of life when belonging and resisting are central to one’s life and bodily changes are unnerving and strange. Also, the use of the words “mulatto” and “albino” in the Nirvana song is a further illustration of the other and the outcast. All of these images, Rudolph, teenager, mulatto, albino are all representations of the grotesque body. These representations are displayed and presented by the grotesque body of Kiki herself.
In this performance of Smells Like Teen Spirit and countless others, Kiki undergoes a catharsis becoming more than she is (her back-st0ry), more than an aging drunk chanteuse. She becomes a fantastical, magical and grotesque creature. Indeed, where does the performance end? In other words, where does Justin Bond end and Kiki begin? What happens offstage before and after the show? Justin Bond himself suggests this notion of catharsis. He states that when it is a good performance, he has no recollection of it after the finale. He is totally transformed into Kiki and totally immersed in her narrative.
The audience sees and feels this cathartic transformation as well. The performance is in part funny- a old boozer sings Nirvana, but also terrifying as we experience this metamorphic change of Kiki before our eyes. Witness Kiki doing a Charleston-like dance step while singing the refrain, “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous/Here we are now, entertain us/I feel stupid contagious/Here we are now, entertain us.” It is frightening, funny and seemingly out of control, but transformative not only for Justin Bond, but for the audience too. This oscillation between the scary and the humorous is a central element of the grotesque.
Also, for example, is Kiki’s short monologue on “ass cancer” and her deconstruction of celebrity culture is which fact and fiction are combined with great wit and satire in a discussion of a disease as unsettling as cancer. Kiki expounds on how every celebrity needs to undergo a life threatening illness and cites how Ryan O’Neal was once all about leukemia because of Ali McGraw and Love Story, but now he has given that all up for ass cancer and taking care of Farrah Fawcett. Kiki ends her critique with the frightening line, “Breast cancer is just a drop in the bucket now I guess” and “No publicity is bad publicity.” The deployment of cancer in this monologue suggests the decay of the body, its eventual death and putrefaction all of which are elements of the grotesque.
Kiki, therefore, exhibits the grotesque body and deploys that body in its humor and terror in order to shatter traditional categories of femininity and how that femininity is constructed today in our culture of celebrity obsession and rampant consumerism. Through the use of the grotesque and the raw catharsis of her performance, Kiki is transformed into a powerful and magical creature, a Phallic mother, who satirically and frighteningly undermines accepted cultural notions of woman, celebrity and the other.
The focus on the more disturbing facts of the body such as disease, weight gain, addiction, aging, anorexia and other private somatic functions is a strong component of the bitterly satiric British comedy Absolutely Fabulous. The 2 main characters, Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone, are obsessed with achieving the ultimate degree of femininity and womanhood as prescribed by the consumer and celebrity-obsessed culture. They wholeheartedly believe in the dominant fiction and seemingly seek to live by its rules and strictures. They are fixated on the trendiest fashions in both clothing and home decor. They strive relentlessly to look young, lose weight and party like rock stars with drink and drugs.
In this obsession with femininity, they become grotesque. Patsy emerges from plastic surgery with her face horribly scarred. Edina dreams of her own cosmetic surgery and she is given huge, protruding collagen lips and a lower torso liposuctioned into almost nothing except small dangling atrophied legs. With this grotesque transformation, there is an oscillation between humor and horror.
In the episode “The End” from 1995, the narrative flashes forward of 25 years.
Patsy and Edina are still partying, still drinking, still drugging and still obsessed with femininity despite their age, despite the fact that Patsy wears a colostomy bag and knee high support hose and is hard of hearing. Edina is wrinkled with sagging tits and even more stuffed into her trendy clothes that are still too tight. In the end of the scene, Patsy sniffs a flower and inhales a bee through her nose. She then spits out the insect onto her hand, simultaneously dislodging her false teeth. The images and their narrative are piercingly satirical, yet also scary and unnerving. They are grotesque.
This pursuit of an ultimate Cosmo-constructed femininity (Cosmo sex quiz Sweetie…) implodes in upon itself and shatters the very category of femininity, the very goal Patsy and Edina hope to achieve with pills, champagne, clothes, diets, plastic surgery, body wraps and isolation tanks. Their rabid attempt to attain this (unattainable) gender position serves to severely critique and deconstruct that very position and reveal not only its perverse humor, but also its horror and ultimate folly. This disruption is achieved through an exhibition of the grotesque body of Patsy and Edina throughout the series.
In the episode “Birthday” from 1992 Patsy and Edina are in the bathroom ( a place of private bodily functions) smoking a joint and avoiding the celebration of Edina’s birthday going on downstairs which has been arranged by her harried daughter, Saffron. The 2 characters have an exchange which while within
the episode’s story, also exists outside of this narrative and becomes a commentary and a revelation on the Absolutely Fabulous series as a whole:
Eddie: God, I hate Morgan Fairchild.
Patsy: I hate Jane bloody Fonda.
Eddie: I hope all their old skin comes back to haunt them.
Patsy: I bought that bloody woman's tapes. I paid for those plastic domes on her chest. I want them when she dies.
Eddie: You know, there must be a moment, about a week after death, when all those women finally achieve the figure they desire.
Patsy: Skeleton thin with plastic bumps.
Eddie: The flesh will rot away, but the bumps will still be there. Little coffins full of bones and bumps.
Here again the series invokes another image of the grotesque body: the body rotting after death. In this extradiegetic moment the true nature of Cosmo-inspired femininity is revealed as unnatural and constructed by artificial means. The ultimate femininity that Patsy and Edina desire can only be really achieved after death when one becomes “skeleton thin with plastic bumps.” This surprising moment of self-awareness of the often unconscious main characters serves to disrupt traditional notions of the feminine and expose its deadly madness.
In this post I have tried to suggest the way in which both Kiki and Herb and Absolutely Fabulous exhibit and deploy the grotesque body for critical and satirical effect particularly in a repudiation of a traditional femininity constructed within a consumer and celebrity driven culture. Both the performances of Kiki and Herb and episodes of AbFab could be further examined to this effect. This post is only an initial discussion of the way in which these cultural productions function on both the level of satirical humor and terrifying display as well as how they present the grotesque.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
When I was young, I knew that I was different from other boys my age. I was not quite sure, however, of the meaning or nature of that difference, but clues began to emerge mainly through my relationship to images of the dominant culture. I distinctly remember at the age of 5 or 6 watching an episode of Star Trek in which Captain Kirk is shirtless. He displays the required smooth chest of the period. The episode revolves around an angry teenage boy named Charlie who has the habit of hurting people. No matter, the important point is not the episode’s particular narrative, but the scopophilic pleasure of a half-naked, young William Shatner. When I saw this image, I felt warm and tingly. Of course, I did not know what this sensation and feeling exactly meant. And even though I liked it, I did know that I should keep such an emotion secret and only relish it in private.
Captain Kirk was my first boy crush and my first queer experience that foreshadowed all the fabulousness that was yet to come. Now, don’t think I did not experience difficulty in coming to terms with my sexuality, but it never truly daunted or worried me, nor did I truly pretend to be something I was not. In many ways, I cherished my difference and queerness at first when it was just a private adventure and then after I came out at the age of 18.
In the summer of 1975, having just turned 8, my parents and I moved to suburban New Jersey from Brooklyn. That last summer in Flatbush, I discovered my second boy crush when I saw the maverick Chuck Heston as Colonel Taylor in Planet of the Apes. The film was playing at a revival house along with the last movie in the Ape series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The first Ape film is an amazing science fiction story which holds up well even today. But for me, beyond the narrative of Earth’s future, it was the spectacle of Mr. Heston with his beard and hairy torso that engaged me. He became my new object of desire- a desire that has continued until today despite Chuck’s unfortunate “From my cold dead hands” remark about guns and gun control soon after the Columbine tragedy.
Needless to say, my fixation on Captain Kirk/William Shatner waned when confronted by the awesome image of Chuck Heston in Planet of the Apes, sweaty and naked, jumping into a lake near Ape City. Captain Kirk cannot top Chuck either physically or in terms of acting ability. Heston’s other films like the historical epic Ben-Hur and the film noir Touch of Evil along with his other scifi masterpieces besides Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and The Omega Man are all intriguing, good films. And lucky for me as a young, queer boy Chuck’s films usually featured him shirtless at one moment or another. His rugged handsomeness continued throughout his life unlike Shatner who got a bit pudgy and had that unfortunate hairdo, perhaps real, perhaps not. But I digress…
Besides fostering my lifelong love of Chuck Heston, Planet of the Apes became one of my favorite movies because of the narrative and the impeccable ape makeup. I had all the Planet of the Apes dolls, I mean action figures, and play sets that were produced. With the dolls Cornelius and Zira, I could not only reenact the story of Earth’s future, but also play house because of their humanity and the fact that they were married. Playing house with dolls is a decidedly non-boy thing to do, but I was able to do it with my non-human, scifi couple.
To achieve this end I built a 5 room doll house out of old cardboard boxes and scraps of fabric, wood, linoleum, wallpaper and carpet in order to shelter my simian lovebirds. My parents to their credit did nothing to dissuade me from constructing my chimpanzee love nest and even helped out. My mother assisted with the decor providing scraps of fabric, wallpaper and so on from the decorating of her own house. My father who worked in office furnishing at the time brought home pieces of leather and commercial carpet samples. Cornelius and Zira’s living room featured an L-shaped sofa in a tan leather with burgundy leather trim. While such a decorating aesthetic horrifies my current 19th century sensibilities, it was the late 70’s and I was only 9 or so and had not yet developed my own sense of style and taste. There was also faux wood paneling in Cornelius and Zira’s bedroom, a linoleum floor in the kitchen and every room had paintings and a clock on the wall cut out from magazines and catalogs. This doll house was a testament to my queer ingenuity and creating it was a symbol of my secret life where Chuck wandered around bare-chested.
Also in 1975, I experienced a pivotal TV moment of my young life: the debut of Wonder Woman starring Lynda Carter. It is fascinating to me now how I constructed my queer identity through the images of the dominant culture such as Captain Kirk, Chuck Heston, Planet of the Apes and Wonder Woman. But, I also redeployed these representations, giving them new meanings that directly allowed me to form a positive relationship to my own same-sex desire.
Of course, I was not conscious of this process at the time, but I now recognize that these ideological representations hailed me as a queer subject as did negative images of homosexuality. But the images I felt connected to were redeployed and refashioned for my own use. This redeployment enabled me to construct a positive queer identity. In other words, my chimpanzee dollhouse was not a source of shame, but pride even while I was conscious of the fact that it should remain a private pleasure while I was young and vulnerable.
When I first watched Wonder Woman, I loved when Diana Prince (the superhero’s alter-ego) transformed into Wonder Woman by spinning around in the midst of a big explosion and then emerging in her sexy red, white and blue patriotic outfit. I would spin around in the backyard of my parent’s house and become dizzy.
On one level, my obsession with Wonder Woman could be understood as adhering me to the dominant model of homosexuality current at the time in terms of gender inversion. Yet, it also resonates with other social and cultural definitions of homosexuality, particularly the ideology of the closet. Wonder Woman had an alter-ego, Diana Prince, who is normal in terms of physical strength and power and who conforms to prescribed norms of gender. Her true identity of Wonder Woman is her most closely guarded secret just as my desire (my true identity) to have sex with men was the secret of my childhood and adolescence. In a sense, Wonder Woman and I were both in the closet.
However, this closet was not occupied by guilt and shame. My fascination with Wonder Woman did not suture me to the prevailing ideology of the closet. In choosing Wonder Woman as a role model, I picked a figure who disrupted traditional notions of gender and proudly, powerfully and spectacularly displayed her difference.
For me, the figure of Wonder Woman allowed me to participate in dominant definitions of homosexuality, yet simultaneously she provided a figure for the conceptualization of my own desire and identity which was indeed positive and disrupted the negative discourse of same-sex desire operating at the time. It became in the words of Foucault a “reverse discourse”.
In my obsession with Wonder Woman, I desperately wanted a doll of the superhero. When I was growing up, Christmas gifts revolved around the big Sears catalog which had a large toy section. When it arrived, I would peruse it for hours, deciding on what I would like for the holiday. I would mark off items and then give the catalog to my parents who would select my presents from the things that I noted. That year I marked off the Wonder Woman doll. It was a small step outside my spectacular closet, but I did not get the doll that holiday. Either my parents missed it because it was in the girl’s section of the catalog or getting me a Wonder Woman doll was crossing a boundary they wanted to maintain. I guess a doll house made out of old scraps was okay, but a brand new toy meant for little girls was too obvious, too telling, too much.
Disappointed, but not defeated I was determined to have my own Wonder Woman action figure. And that is when it occurred to me- ZIRA! She was the only female doll I had, so she would become my Wonder Woman. It was not a difficult conversion. My mother and I had previously made some outfits for Zira out of old pieces of fabric. The mauve dress cut shorter with the wide blue belt tied at the waist would suffice for her costume even though it was not as fabulous or patriotic as the original. A little tinfoil at the wrists became her bullet repelling bracelets. Tinfoil also fashioned her headband and a piece of thin gold cording became her magic lasso. And Zira already had knee high boots in tan which worked just fine.
The transformation was complete. Zira became Wonder Woman of the Planet of the Apes, a simian superhero fighting injustice with her strength and fabulousness. Zira would spin around complete with explosion sound effects and emerge from her drab olive green outfit into her spectacular mauve and blue ensemble with bullet proof bracelets, headband and golden lasso.
My deployment of Zira in the Wonder Woman narrative rather than the original story of Earth’s future was an example of the strength and resilience of my own queer identity in the face of the dominant fiction. The dominant fiction does not allow boys to play with girl dolls and I had found a way to transgress that law. The Planet of the Apes figure was repurposed in order to fulfill my own desire and thereby contributed to my growing up queer.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
It’s 2:30am on a Sunday morning in 2001 or maybe 2002. (These memories are a conglomeration of many “nights out” and not just one.) I’m standing in a bar subtly called The Cock then located on Avenue A in the East Village, New York City. I am sipping a Maker’s Mark and soda, watching cute boys moving through the large crowd and listening to music being played by the expert DJ whose name now escapes me. The music is amazing and partly why I come to this bar. It is a mix of rock, punk, 80’s, old skool, New Wave and rap. I also come to The Cock because it is a liminal space of desire, sexuality, sex, queerness and debauchery.
The bar is somewhat sleazy, but not too much and in a good way: trashy go-g0 boys, some groping as you attempt to move through the crowd, boys kissing and boys flirting both sweetly and aggressively. At one time, there was a dark backroom at the bar which increased the sleaze factor, but that was never to my taste- too impersonal, too anonymous and a bit dangerous. Flirting, meeting a handsome boy, having a chat with him, sharing a drink, followed by some old fashioned kissing was always my thing that could lead to time alone with him or not. If it were up to me, I would bring back the dance cards and cards of introduction from the 19th century: “Kelly T. Keating QUEER”
Drinking my strong bourbon and soda, I am watching the go-go boy who is dancing on top of the bar. I gaze at him with disinterest. He is a prop to occupy my time between bouts of flirting and changing my location in the bar. He’s cute, toned and punky, but he’s really just a mover, not a dancer. Yet, there is always a throng of boys who seem enthralled by his performance, no matter his skill of movement or what he looks like. I guess they are responding to the myth (and sometimes reality) of the go-go boy: his apparent sexual rapaciousness, his seeming willingness to have sex with you for the right price or the right drug, his local celebrity status and the sheer spectacle of an almost nude guy dancing on a bar above your head, his crotch in your face, accepting your dollar bills in his sweaty jockstrap.
At some point in this bacchanal towards its inevitable end at 4am, the master DJ plays “Fuck the Pain Away” by Peaches. It was one of my favorite songs then and is now in its combination of dance, rock, rap, humor and brazen, raw sexuality. There is a vulgarity to it that is delicious; it resonates perfectly with the sexual liminality of The Cock.
The song begins with a hard beat and a prominent, dominating, almost distorted bass line which I feel in my body when the volume is turned up. The song is both sparse and dense in both its music and lyrics. But, it is its angry almost desperate refrain of “fuck the pain away” which kicks me every time. It is repeated over and over again like a mantra (It becomes form and/over content) needed to survive modern life and its inevitable cruelty.
Looking back, I went to The Cock to escape the sado-masochism of everyday life, its petty cruelties, disappointments and loses that have always greatly troubled me. And of course I went to this bar to have fun, get a little tipsy, hear great music, flirt with boys and kiss them. Both reasons are not exclusive of one another; one folds into the other. Going there, was to suspend my daily existence and revel in a space of desire and freedom, not available elsewhere. Even when there was rejection and disappointment at The Cock, it existed alongside and was ultimately superseded by feelings of abandon. I never wanted it to end at 4am. For me, it is the closest I will ever come to heaven. Many years ago, then, that bar was a moment of joy and a rejection of the pain and drudgery of my daily journey.
All of us there to some degree or another wanted to “fuck the pain away”, to experience the “little death” of orgasm when one is momentarily free, released, completely embodied in pleasure, beyond language, society and culture, beyond pain. It is an instance of ultimate bliss.
Now, in 2010, there does not seem anywhere to go for me to fuck the pain away. The Cock now on Second Avenue near Houston Street is still in existence, but it’s not the same for me. I went once maybe 2 or 3 years ago and the guy getting fucked bareback in the corner was disturbing, upsetting and rifled my 19th century sensibilities. No one there was looking to bring back dance cards or cards of introduction. For me, the space was no longer queer, just filthy and not in a playful or transgressive way. As the cliché says, “You can never go home again” or apparently to that bar that used to be my weekly joy and my respite from the horror of daily life.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
L.H. stands awkwardly almost embarrassed aboard the ship on which he serves as he poses for this photo postcard in 1912. (A handwritten note on the reverse of the card tells me his name and the relative date the image was produced.) Behind him are his shipmates, the huge chains of the ship's anchors and the sizable double barrels of a large gun turret. It is unknown which ship he is on, but judging from the details of the photograph, it is a large vessel, probably a battleship or a cruiser.
On board this mighty warship, L.H, a cute, skinny seamen with prominent ears, is wearing a white middy blouse with a black kerchief, white bell bottom pants and a sailor hat worn high on his head and pushed slightly off to the right side. He looks incredibly young, 17 or 18 perhaps. He seems unsure exactly how to pose for the photographer although his face seems relaxed with a warm, friendly smile. It's his body that looks uncomfortable.
What do I do with my arms? I have never had my picture taken. I wonder what I will look like. Did he take the picture yet?
And perhaps unconsciously or consciously feeling slightly ill at ease in front of the camera, he instinctively clasps his hands together in front of his genitals in order to protect them or hide them as if he were actually naked. It is an appealing pose. L.H. looks approachable, sweet and unthreatening in contrast to the deadly firepower that is located behind him.
As a sailor, he expresses and embodies all the myths and realities of the SAILOR: his strong sexual appetite, his girl in every port, the homosocial and homoerotic nature of his life aboard ship, his position as an object of homosexual desire, the sexual and commercial fetishization of his uniform and not in contradiction to all of this sexiness, his friendly appeal and approachable nature. Herman Melville states eloquently the nature of the sailor in his novel White Jacket from 1850:
Like pears closely packed, the crowded crew mutually decay through close contact…Still more, from this same close confinement- so far as it affects the common sailors- arise other evils, so direful that they will hardly bear even so much as an allusion. What too many seamen are when ashore is very well known; but what some of them become when completely cut off from shore indulgences can hardly be imagined by landsmen. The sins for which the cities of the plain were overthrown still linger in some of these wooden-walled Gomorrahs of the deep.
Melville condemns the sailor’s actions, but simultaneously he seems to relish his nature, his sexual rapaciousness both on shore and at sea. Though the sailors may “decay” according to Melville, the author wants to know what goes on in the “wooden walled Gomorrahs of the deep.” He is intrigued. The White Jacket passage expresses not only Melville’s personal feelings, but also completely indicates all the denotations and connotations of the SAILOR in the 19th century, in 1912 and even today.
Therefore, myth and history with a long past swirl around L.H. as he poses on the deck of a great warship for the camera. Intriguing and lucky for me and you, he wrote a short, fascinating yet cryptic note on the back of the postcard of his own photographic image:
Dear friend, This is not a very good picture of myself but it is the best I have at present. We have no expert photographer on the ship so that these are the only kind we get. Hope that this wont scare you out of sending me one of yourself. We expect to get to (unreadable) sometime next week. Hope to hear from you before then. Yours sincerely, L.H.
This note enhances the visual awkwardness of the sailor’s stance. L.H. does not think this picture really represents him very well. He is afraid that the photograph (and his appearance) will “scare” his friend and cause him not to reciprocate with a picture of his own. L.H. also informs his friend that the photographer is no expert, so don’t expect much and this is the only photo of himself that he has available to send.
Who is L.H. writing to in his note? Who is his “friend”? Is it a man or a woman? Is it another sailor, a lover whom he met on shore leave while wandering through Riverside Park in New York City? In the early 20th century American naval ships dropped anchor on the upper Hudson River and sailors would therefore frequent Riverside Park. Simultaneously in the park, homosexual men cruised for se(a)men who often prostituted themselves at this time in order to make extra money to supplement their dismal income.
Was L.H. rough trade? Or was he young and inexperienced and amidst the trees of the park he discovered his true self, his true desire? Is this just my fantasy? Is the note on the back of the photograph and attempt to develop a new relationship that began in the park?
The note is at once impersonal, “friend”, “yours sincerely” and apologetic, “Hope that this wont scare you”, but also intimate and full of desire, “Hope to here from you before then.” It is not written to a family member or someone L.H. knows very well. The note is tentative, yet hopeful and secretive. He signs it only with his initials.
Even though this 1912 artifact is a photo postcard, L.H. wrote on the entire back of the image and must have mailed it in an envelope to his friend. But why? To hide the note? To hide his feelings and true identity from himself and others?
I’ll keep the note short and formal and not show my desire, how much I want him, how I covet him and his touch on my body. Does my picture look okay? Will he still want me? It’s not my fault if I don’t look good…that damn crap photographer…He’ll understand won’t he? But, will he remember me? Will he send me a photograph of himself? I want him so badly, but no one can know…I’ll just use my initials, he’ll know it’s me…
This small, seemingly insignificant piece of 1912 ephemera arouses my desire, just as L.H. on some level desires his friend. It speaks to my own love of soldiers-of-the-sea and the way they look, so handsome and dead sexy in their middy blouse, crotch tight bell bottom pants cramped together aboard ship, men all alone at sea. It is both a fantasy and a reality for me and them.
When I look at this photograph of L.H. I wonder what became of him and his life. Did he spend all of his working life in the US Navy? Did his ship see action in The Great War? Did his friend send him a photograph? Did he find love with this friend or someone else or was his life a series of assignations in Riverside Park or a girl in every port? Did he endure? Did he survive? The photograph is opaque on all of these questions. Still, it gives me a small glimpse of L.H.’s life and in that instance I enjoy a moment of bliss.
Thursday, March 4, 2010
Cops Raid Ring Selling Lewd Male Photos, January 30, 1959, Courtesy of Vintage Male Physique
Recently on Tumblr, I came across a January 1959 newspaper article about a police raid on a “pornography ring that peddled photos and lewd sketches of nude men”. The article is a fascinating artifact of (gay) history and indicates how a mere 50 years ago the state sought to control homosexuality in part by sanctioning and criminalizing its images of desire. In the article seven suspects were “booked on pornography charges.” I wonder whatever happened to these unjustly prosecuted men: John P. Palatinus, Leonard Dunn, Walter Lowenthal, Frank Lowell, Gerard Finberg, Harry Krebs and Sidney Corn. Through an internet search, I was able to find out information about only John P. Palatinus who produced some wonderful photographs such as this depiction of Jimmy Hale.
Jimmy Hale by John Palatinus, Courtesy of Vintage Male Physique
The illegal status of photographs of nude men as well as their producers and distributors in 1959 stands in marked contrast to today. With the advent of the internet there has been an infinite explosion of both amateur and professional pictures of naked men alone and engaged in sexual acts with other men. This astounding proliferation demonstrates how pornography which is as old as picture making itself adapts with great ease to the rise of a new technology. Even with the development of photography in the early 19th century pornographic images quickly appeared along side more staid subjects from the very beginning.
But, has this ubiquity of pictures of naked men on the internet and elsewhere done anything to disrupt the dominant fiction and its representational system? Turning men into sexual objects for the visual pleasure of other men and women has, I believe, done virtually nothing to change or challenge the prevailing ideology. We all still live under a system in which there is a rigid binary opposition of male and female which ensures a compulsory heterosexuality. This binary and its concomitant sexuality is enacted in part through the representational system of the dominant ideology, its phallic images and sounds within which a traditional male subject can find himself and assert his authority. The presence and nature of these images of naked men alone and together represent a symmetrical discourse in image making that upholds the laws of gender and its heterosexual norm. So while these depictions are now completely legal, the prevailing ideology still seeks to contain and domesticate them by adhering them to the rule of male (hetero)sexuality.
In my last blog post, “Same-sex Desire in the New Millennium: Identity, Assimilation and Subversion, I argued against gay assimilation as the only or most productive strategy for the Gay Rights Movement because in the end it does nothing to subvert the dominant fiction and works as a symmetrical dynamic much like the images of nude men on the internet. (There are of course photographs and pictures that challenge the dominant fiction. See my post on this photograph by Ben Bale.) I had hoped that this recent post on integration and subversion would foster some greater discussion. I think such a consideration is lacking today in the gay community- a community often fractured by gender, race, class and sometimes sexual practice. I do believe in marriage equality and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, but what troubles me is the presentation of the gay community and its goals as monolithic. And often this presentation is carried out by rich white men. We all need to ask ourselves what does assimilation mean? What are its ramifications? Who benefits from it? Who does it leave out? How does it work to continue the boundaries and rules of the dominant culture?
Unfortunately, my recent post on these questions did not cause an increase in my blog traffic which is disappointing not only to my vanity (I want more people to read my blog), but also because I wanted to spark some debate. Furthermore, although I already knew this fact, I was disheartened that often images of naked men alone and together (and women and women as well as men and women) is the prevailing currency of the internet. Sites such as www.seancody.com and www.corbinfisher.com are just 2 examples of a particular type, the hot college boy, of the myriad of sites available to the spectator no matter your taste. If I wanted a ton of blog hits quickly and easily, my blog at the start could have been a spectacular display of pornographic and semi-pornographic images of hot men.
But as with all pornographic depictions, interest in them (especially for me) lasts until the cumshot and then it is discarded and forgotten or if you are lucky it survives, is hot, for another round or two. Hence, in part, the continual need for ever more, ever newer images that are in the end more of the same. This guy is hot, has a big cock, a tight, round ass and a nice smile, but so does the next guy and so on and so on. (This photograph is different. It is erotic. It endures beyond ejaculation.) This almost desperate and infinite need to depict the body, male or otherwise (for example amateur sites like www.guyswithiphones.com) is on some level an attempt to concretize the body, to demonstrate its “realness” despite its continual effacement by the technology which proliferates it. It is a strange dynamic, an endless stream of electronic phantoms.
Moreover, sites like www.queerty.com and www.kennethinthe212.com while provide interesting and necessary gay news, issues and commentary always include a regular feature of “pin-up” images of men. On Queerty there is a section called “Morning Goods” and on Kenneth in the 212 there is “Morning Wood”. Even on www.towleroad.com, a site which I admire for its persistent and strong coverage of stories important to gays and lesbians as well as its other eclectic posts, has its “Male Model Fix”, “Sportrait”, and other beefcake shots. News and commentary are offered on these sites, but there is always a side of hot meat.
I, of course, enjoy looking at pictures of naked men alone as well as men having sex with one another. I had pornographic magazines in ages past and even porn on that ancient image artifact VHS. I don’t think pornography should be limited or sanctioned, but simultaneously for me most porn is ultimately boring and is simply a means to an end.
What does annoy me is how pornographic, semi-pornographic and beefcake images as well as sexual objectification are at times the lowest common denominator on the internet, driving it, making it spin, even on such sites like Queerty and Towleroad which I like and read daily. So when my recent post, Same-sex Desire in the New Millennium... did not get more than average traffic I was honestly irritated. My pride suffered a bit. I wanted to encourage discussion about assimilation, subversion and same-sex identity in the 21st century and perhaps that will occur in the future. (The post will exist forever.) In the meantime, I will not be adding an all male live nude revue to The Great Within anytime soon.