As our annual celebrations of gay pride approach, you might give some thought to what pride means to you. I recently participated in a group meeting of gay professionals who asked if there even was such a thing as gay pride, and if so, what was it? Though we celebrate pride in group festivals and parades, what pride means to each person is often very personal.
In 2011, I toured the Midwest as a gay rock and roll solo artist. I performed at six pride festivals in five weeks. Just me, my electric guitar and backing tracks, and high energy rock and roll songs I had written and collected about pride, self-esteem, fun and hot men. It is reputed that Led Zeppelin got their name after being told their sound would go over like a lead balloon. In that sense, I had the delivery down pat because that was exactly how my sets went down. Audiences, to quote Iron Maiden, ran to the hills.
I had expected a reaction like this after years of observing bar after bar, festival after festival, showcase the latest in lip-synching drag performers, and DJ’s mixing it up in 4/4 time. More power to them, but tres cliché for a community that celebrates diversity. So I was ready to play out loud to the empty sidewalk, to deliver my stage banter to blades of grass and crickets (though the crickets would not be heard over the tones of a Marshall amp). Was this defeatist attitude setting me up for failure? Not at all.
When I was a kid playing vinyl records of KISS, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Van Halen, and the Rolling Stones among others, I wanted the ability to create the kind of sonic power they had. At the same time, a new wave of hard rock dominated the music scene simultaneously with my passage into puberty and the subsequent realization of my attraction to the fairer sex — which for me was the samer sex. My inner urges did not align with the gratuitous flaunting of “girls, girls, girls” in the hard rock I loved.
Besides my inner urges, my outer self could not pull off being in a band. With glasses, braces, a gangly frame and no access to an electric guitar or lessons, I couldn’t yet imagine a world outside of my rural Florida hometown where I could pursue a life in the world of rock music. I had very little in the way of self-esteem or self-assurance. A campaign promising “it gets better” might have given me a glimmer of hope, but that was for another generation yet to come.
What I realize today is that the sonic qualities of the music I loved evoked a sense of power that was very entrancing to someone who felt powerless. When I came of age and went to the bars, I could not relate to the robotic repetition of the dance music beats in the clubs, which for me elicited a detached trance rather than the gutsy, ballsy swagger of rock and roll derived from the blues. Psychologically, it could be translated as the difference between archetypal masculine and feminine energies. I was absolutely attracted to the masculine, as someone seeking outer empowerment might be.
To many people, it’s enough to buy your favorite music and listen to it. For me, I was totally engaged and connected to the sound, and wanted to create it with my own hands. This might be what made the overblown caricatures of rock hetero-sexism so unnerving for me. It’s at least no wonder that finding other gay guys who liked this music could be so difficult. However, I had entrained to the sound, not unlike how the blues moved the souls of oppressed slaves in the American south.
With the advent of the internet, the search was on to find any signs of gay musical life that could exist off of the dance floor. Indeed there was hope, though nothing that resembled the bombast I was seeking. One true inspiration was a handsome gentleman from Oklahoma. Sid Spencer had three classic country albums under his giant belt buckle. Here was someone flying the rainbow flag in what was another hostile musical landscape at the time. Sid was doing it, and so could I. It was my job, indeed my birthright, to create my music my way. My sound: guitars and more electric guitars. My songs: men loving men in all possible ways. My tagline: a double-entendre to horrify the moral establishment.
Over three years, I recorded an album in my basement that reflected my experience of having each foot in two worlds that no one thought could reconcile. I was laughed at for being gay by the rock and roll crowd. I was laughed at by gays for being rock and roll. Now, no one’s opinion mattered except mine. With this album, I would stand in my own skin, my own identity, and my own power.
Like most artists, I’m probably the most critical of the finished product. I did the best that as I was able to the time, money, resources and skill that I had. Apparently, that was good enough to get six festival bookings: something my teenaged-self would have never thought possible. Detroit, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Columbus, Minneapolis, Cincinnati: I was a rock and roll road show!
Whether or not you attend a pride festival this summer, give a thought to how you show up with pride in the world. Pride can be the hubris to flip off the people who said you were nothing, the courage to stand in your own shoes, the passion for expressing your greatest truth, or the coming together of strong people in camaraderie. All of the above put me on the road to being a big gay rock star, even if I’m the only one who ever noticed. I didn’t matter if no one else showed up. What matters is that I showed up.