Pop culture treasure, high culture trash.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Aliens in our midst

Various Artists
Queer Noises, 1961-1978: From the Closet to the Charts [Trikont]

When Jose Sarris's droll sprechstimme sidles up to a piano melody on the first track of this compilation of queer anti-hits, the time travel effect is instantaneous and intense. It's 1960 at San Francisco's Black Cat Club, police are routinely rounding up gay bar-goers on charges of "indecency" and no one has ever heard of Rufus Wainwright. The recording, which barely but tantalizingly captures audience reaction, is suffused with the rich, bittersweet flavor of the underground--with an emphasis here on the bitter over the sweet. This holds true for much of Queer Noises' first half, dominated as it is by textbook examples of the "bitch/butch" musical dyad, in which a camped-up, breathy falsetto chimes in to comment on the warblings of a hunky baritone, if not spar with a rival Mary. It's the sound of a community mired in self-loathing, but also resolved to survive, and even thrive, on its own terms. Rod McKuen's spoken word track "Eros" is close to unlistenable, if only because its description of pre-Stonewall cruising is so desperate, humiliated and squeeze-your-heart real; likewise, the satirical "I'd Rather Fight than Swish" sacrifices some of its wry humor to out-and-out hostility. But Noises is an historical document, not a pride parade, and the collection's greatest strength is its preservation of queer musical histories, however regretful or problematic, that are often obscured by larger narratives of LGBT assimilation and "progress."

Still, there's no shortage of fist-pumper anthems here, from Zebedy's torch song stunner "The Man I Love" to Harrison Kennedy's adorable "Closet Queen" and Valentino's "I Was Born This Way." On "I'm a Man," forgotten 70s legend Jobriath wields an astounding voice that is equal parts Begees and Bowie, all the better for wailing, "I will love you the way a man loves a woman" over plush harpsichord accompaniment. Elsewhere, genres range from cabaret, novelty, and music hall sing-a-long to country, disco, and punk. Dead Fingers Talk roll up the Stooges, New York Dolls, Television and Lou Reed around a gorgeously rusty weedwacker guitar and come up with "Nobody Loves You When You're Old and Gay," a slice of glam rock at its sugary finest. The inclusion of the Ramones is especially apt, since it proves both the multiplicity of queer lived experience and its reach beyond opera and musicals. Even the word "punk" itself is inextricable from queer subculture, since one of its meanings originally refered to a male prostitute, or the passive partner in sex between men.

In spite of having some of the most comprehensive and well-researched liner notes this side of a Supremes anthology, there's a big, sad hole at the center of Queer Noises, and it's lady-shaped. Of its 24 tracks, only one is performed by a woman--Polly Perkins' shocking "Coochy Coo." This seems partly a reflection of historical realities and partly an indication of the compiler's interests. The women's music movement of the 70s could certainly fill up a compilation of its own, and it's a shame to see another example of "queer" used as shorthand for "gay male." Still, Queer Noises is an astonishing journey into a not-so-distant sonic past, and a reminder of what bent pop was like before Frankie went to Hollywood.

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