Queer — like everyone else

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It was supposed to be a cool night. August is grueling but not brutal—a tropical climate’s nod to an impeding change of season that is itself more nominal than real. In the AOL chatroom, he wondered if I was sure about the weather. This was charming—a nineteen-year-old Ohio transplant worrying about rain. I’ve got this, I thought. I could hide my inexperience. Then he gave explicit directions about how to enter the University of Miami and on which block to collect him. In the year when cell phones hovered at the point of ubiquity, we had to explain things to each other once (college students still had phones in their dorm rooms: he didn’t want his roommate to answer). I was disappointed. Four years my junior, and he wasn’t new to this sort of thing after all.

For readers who didn’t mature before the advent of OKCupid, Grindr, and Match.com, AOL chatrooms marked the Triassic Period of dating/hookup sites. You’d join an “m4m” chat, watch the chaos, and hope someone noticed your stats fast enough to send an instant message. The way stats and greetings and exhortations to join some dude who wanted “to get some fuckin groove on in South Pointe Park!!!” hurled across cyberspace reminded me of the bit in the Inferno when Dante and Virgil watch the illicit lovers hurtle past each other in an unceasing storm. If you were lucky, you spoke on the phone (there was no texting). If it worked, you arranged to meet, although in the pre-Grindr days you could end up, as friends learned, driving to a bar several miles away and no one showing up.

I don’t remember who responded first. I don’t remember his name. I’ll call him Chris. A sophomore history major at UM, he owned no car and didn’t work. We spoke on the phone, not the first conversation since my coming out to friends a month earlier but the first whose momentum and my desperation made deciding easy. I tried to discuss interests—bands, movies, shit like that. He was polite, but I heard silent fingers tapping impatiently on the receiver.

“Wanna meet later?”

“Sure. Where?”

“We can decide. And you’ll have to pick me up.”

An adventure! My friend Raquel, worried, offered to follow me. Nah—I could handle a punk-ass Ohioan. When I showed up at the UM entrance as per the instructions, a scrawny punk-ass is what I saw: smaller than I by a couple inches, wearing a long-sleeved flannel shirt, round wire-rimmed glasses, and a cap. Turns out he was green—about Miami. A fair trade for polite trade. Ignorant of gay bars, terrified of exhibiting Chris in straight ones, I suggested Miami’s lookout point: a pine-covered spit of land on the Rickenbacker Causeway called Hobie Beach. As a kid we made several desultory attempts to meet family; guests could bring pets, and dog paws were tough enough to withstand the broken beer bottles, jagged rock, and mud that substituted for sand (as a four-year-old I waded into the water in sneakers). But with its view of Biscayne Bay and downtown, it was a good place to do drugs or neck with a girlfriend, or, if it was your fancy, pick a fight with a dude whom you thought was checking out your girlfriend.

As for Chris, his sangfroid was impressive—readers who think I cut an impassive figure should have seen this dog-sized iceberg. He thawed when I explained Hobie. A beach! Northerners love beaches like Freddie Mercury loved sex. But he refroze when it looked like I had no idea where the hell I was going. I missed the turnoff into Hobie, which meant a mile drive into Key Biscayne for the first legal U-turn. By the time we reached the beach it was nine o’ clock: too early but for the die-hards, their dark cars an expectation I wanted fulfilled. We sat on the pine-needle-covered not-beach, our backs against the wheels of my Escort. Refuse, old barbeque, drying sea salt, and sex created mephitic fumes. About twelve feet from our feet a water rat rustled the needles. I chattered like a fool in the tone I’d come to recognize over the years: the out of body detachment of a distracted soul listening to his pharynx recite words as practiced as a Kiwanis Club speech, in this case a description of my personal history with Hobie. Chris stared—curious? bored? My detachment didn’t fade even when we kissed. I allowed myself to think, I am a man, tasting another man. What did another man taste like? Upper lip hair.

Not much happened—and everything. The groping was so predictable as to demystify homosexuality for good. This is what I’d been afraid of: a balding undergraduate disappointed by a diffident older dude who’d confused Three Mile Island for Fire Island. It had taken longer to reach Hobie than to reach our idle climax. He refused my offer of a drink; as punishment he listened to a C-90 mix of that summer’s Madonna, Missy Elliott, and Chemical Brothers songs, speckled with a couple tunes from Wire’s 154, new to me (I love that tape). We exchanged phone numbers and goodbyes with the blitheness and excitement of men grateful they’d never see other again.

Unfazed after rejecting her offer, Raquel had gathered the posse at a Denny’s close to home. When I entered twenty-five minutes later, the crew burst out laughing. I laughed too—who didn’t want to be part of a joke? “Go to the bathroom, bro,” she said. Good advice. My collar was fucked up, hair unsorted, lips like smushed rose petals.

As redundant as a birthday card, gratitude doesn’t encompass what happened that August night. Gratitude requires indebtedness. If it hadn’t been Chris, it would’ve been another balding undergrad. Interchangeability was the point. And so I went, relieved that banality of experience was the point too. I was queer like everyone else.

The fascinating badness of ‘Mary of Scotland’

In 2016 we can chuckle at monikers as casual in their misogyny as “box office poison” (why not call these actresses in flop movies the Wicked Witches of the West?). Katherine Hepburn joined Joan Crawford in this category when she stumbled after winning an Oscar for 1933’s Morning Glory. But that movie and 1932’s A Bill of Divorcement, in which she played opposite John Barrymore, made it clear that Hepburn was going to be an actress to whom audiences had to warm up. I’m not sure she’s acting in those movies; with her high voice, fussy diction, and herky jerk movements she’s like auditioning for a part in a verse drama, where human gestures and controlled shows of feeling matter less than projecting the lines. Fortunately Break of Hearts, A Woman Rebels, and Quality Street are terrible films: creaky, hobbled by RKO’s idea of prestige.

John Ford’s specialties were westerns, but early in his nearly five-decade career German Expressionism got to him; like 1935’s The Informer, Mary of Scotland boasts plenty of star profile shots and swanky mood lighting. Indeed, Mary of Scotland has the pace and pitch of a silent film, albeit released seven years too late.

Based on a drama by Maxwell Anderson, the thirties’ most popular “important” playwright, Mary of Scotland at last gave Hepburn the chance to chew on real blank verse, which Dudley Nichols bowdlerizes into an illiterate’s idea of tony English. The first mistake in this 1936 picture is the casting. Actresses as mannered as Bette Davis, Glenda Jackson, and Cate Blanchett have played Elizabeth I; instead, Hepburn plays Mary Stuart, the Catholic claimant to the English throne who lost her freedom and eventually her head. None of this matters in the RKO production. Playing Mary as if she were a lovestruck college girl who’d bumped into several trees once too often, Hepburn is at her flightiest and most overwrought. It isn’t merely that Nichols and the direction vulgarize Mary Stuart: I’m all for shaking the cobwebs from historical dramas. To believe, however, that Katherine Hepburn could deliver a ponderous speech asserting her right to love as she pleases is to believe Hepburn could also play Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The performance has a fascinating badness. Frederic March as third husband Bothwell is right there with her. With his wavering command of an acting coach’s interesting conception of a Scottish accent, March and his streetwise intonations keep interrupting the proceedings. Just when I think he’s had it he drops a “meself” into a sentence.

Scales fall from Disney’s eyes

My oldest niece and I play a game we call Farmer John, involving a Fisher Price barn and action figures, plus two dozen animals. The villain is an alligator, who with his allies Rhino and Brown Bear scheme to break into the barn and steal ducklings, lambs, and calves. Often a deux ex machina named the Bear of Snow Mountain intervenes. I suspect comparable sorcery bewitched Walt Disney World administrators into purging alligators and crocodiles from attractions:

Louis, the trumpet-playing alligator from the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog, was supposed to be a part of the Friendship Faire castle show at Magic Kingdom, but got pulled just days before the show premiered on June 23, according to a Disney employee, who asked to remain anonymous because of job security. The alligator was supposed to play trumpet during the show.

The Tic Toc Croc from Peter Pan, known for hunting villain Captain Hook, was also removed from the Festival of Fantasy parade at Magic Kingdom, park guests reported.

The Jungle Cruise has also changed its scripts, stopping employees from making jokes like “but remember, folks, if you don’t watch your children, the crocodiles will,” as they narrate an adventure ride through rivers across the world, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The script, known for its puns, has been in place since 1962.

Guides on the Kilimanjaro Safari ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom have also removed references to the predators, the Daily Mail reported. Staff no longer claim the tour bridge could dump them into the crocodile pit below.

I know Disney worries about so-called emotional distress lawsuits, but it strikes me, a WDW veteran whose parents honeymooned at the Contemporary Resort, as better economics, not to mention psychology, to demystify the fucking things.

She makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up: Best of 2006

1. Ne-Yo – Sexy Love
2. T.I. – What You Know
3. Mary J. Blige – Be Without You
4. Justin Timberlake ft. T.I. – My Love
5. Lupe Fiasco – Kick, Push
6. The Killers – When You Were Young
7. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Gold Lion
8. Prince – Black Sweat
9. Ciara – Get Up
10. Brad Paisley – The World
11. Hot Chip – Over and Over
12. Toby Keith – Crash Here Tonight
13. Shakira ft. Wyclef – Hips Don’t Lie
14. Alan Jackson – Like Red on a Rose
15. Madonna – Sorry
16. The Knife – We Share Our Mother’s Health
17. Dierks Bentley – Settle for a Slowdown
18. Yung Joc – It’s Going Down
19. Beyonce ft. Jay-Z – Deja Vu
20. Basement Jaxx- Hush Boy
21. Robbie Williams – She’s Madonna
22. Rihanna – SOS
23. Pet Shop Boys – Minimal
24. Mariah Carey – Don’t Forget About Us
25. Carrie Underwood – Jesus, Take the Wheel
26. Keyshia Cole – Love
27. Gary Allan – Life Ain’t Always Beautiful
28. Beyonce – Irreplaceable
29. Kanye West – Touch the Sky

‘We steal pieces of our emotional selves from the music we love’

When Bowie died in January, I mourned the death of a teacher who’d shaped my college years as much as a musician .He taught me to pose. He taught me to accept and flaunt my influences, most of whom were literary. It was okay to be affected. Rob Sheffield, in an interview promoting his new book on Bowie, gets at the same phenomenon:

That’s one thing about David Bowie: He was always upfront about being a fan in a way that was radical and unprecedented for rock stars in the ‘70s. He was very upfront about the fact that he was stealing ideas from everything he liked. In the book I talk about that interview with Dinah Shore on her morning talk show in 1976, where he says, I’m very flirty and very faddy and I get easily saturated by things. I’m a big fan of different artists and I just steal things from them. And Dinah Shore basically says, I can’t believe you’re admitting this on TV. His response was, I steal things. That’s what I do. That’s what it really means to be a fan. We steal pieces of our emotional selves from the music we love. There are aspects of my personality that I have modeled on Bowie and aspects that I based on Aretha Franklin and aspects that I modeled on Janet Jackson and Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney and Lou Reed—all these different artists who have been so inspiring to me in different ways. That’s the thing about being a fan: You steal things from the artists you love.

One of the more difficult tasks I assign myself as an instructor is to impress on students the importance of influence. So pounded is plagiarism into their heads that the good ones recoil and the bad ones look as if I gave them license to cut and paste Livejournal material into a story. Steal ideas about sentence structure, paragraph composition, the use of introductory phrases and clauses — whatever you think excites those sentences. A skilled synthesis of those thefts is the mark of a crafty writer.

Maxwell’s androgynous and aqueous forms

Slow to warm to a voice that was comfortable with mediocre songwriting, I didn’t like Maxwell until the “Lifetime” single in late fall 2001 (I wasn’t even much impressed with the Kate Bush cover: a vacant show of virtuosity). But I yielded with 2009’s BLACKsummers’night, one of the new century’s most fleet-footed of R&B albums — also coolest, as in temperature, body heat, shows of passion. In my review of blackSUMMERS’night at SPIN, I note how he’s mastered this reserve:

Evolving from an inchoate and rhythmically lethargic R&B simulacrum to structures that, like a good poet’s command of the sonnet, gave him liberties within the affirmations of form, Maxwell has nevertheless sculpted an aqueous and often androgynous sound. He pledges his troth to Woman while letting the listeners worry about specifics (by contrast, D’Angelo’s fetid, knottier funk is never in doubt about whom it’s addressing). Thank Sade Adu for the tips.

The Kate Bush cover was the tip-off: Maxwell is one of the few contemporary R&B artists who counts women as influences. Maxwell’s worked with Sade’s sonic architect Stuart Matthewman for twenty years. It’s taken a long time for fans to catch up to a male Sade enthusiast who records music.

American justice: ‘perpetually bent towards prosecution’

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaks about her best-selling memoir, "My Beloved World," during an appearance at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del., Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

After last week’s dissent in the Strieff case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor looked like she was dusting the Wise Latina modifier-noun construction that Senate Republicans and their allies turned into an opprobrium during her 2009 confirmation hearings. Columnists have focused on the peroration, in which she explains the humiliations faced by people of color for something as dangerous as crossing the street. I want to focus on this passage in Section Three:

The Court sees things differently. To the Court, the fact that a warrant gives an officer cause to arrest a person severs the connection between illegal policing and the resulting discovery of evidence. Ante, at 7. This is a re­ markable proposition: The mere existence of a warrant not only gives an officer legal cause to arrest and search a person, it also forgives an officer who, with no knowledge of the warrant at all, unlawfully stops that person on a whim or hunch.

No weasel words here – this is clear, clean prose. With dissents like this and her designation as the Court’s most liberal member, she’s looking to reclaim the cause of righteousness fought by the late Thurgood Marshall, according to Nancy LeTourneau, especially in Fourth Amendment cases:

One of the problems with our current criminal justice system is the way it is perpetually bent towards prosecution – especially when it comes to upholding the rights of poor people. That is evident when we look at everything from the amount of money we invest in prosecutors (as opposed to public defenders) to the way our court system is stacked with those who have prosecutorial experience. The latter is also true of Sotomayor’s background. But perhaps this is what she meant when she said she “would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

I can’t think of ways to explain to skeptics on the right, but often, regrettably, on the left, how identity colors in subtle tints; to hear these skeptics tell it, the only truly objective judge and critic, color blind and impartial, is a white man, or, better, a sourness towards individual rights and a penchant for giving institutions the benefit of the doubt. Clarence Thomas benefitted from affirmative action and promotions from Republican presidents, which enraged him; he didn’t feel qualified enough. But conservatives don’t mention how this posture influenced his decision making.

An ole familiar invitation: Best of 2005

1. Killers – Mr. Brightside (Jacques Lu Cont’s Thin White Duke Remix)
2. Kelly Clarkson – Since U Been Gone
3. Mario – Let Me Love You
4. Kanye West – Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)
5. LCD Soundsystem – Daft Punk is Playing in Your House
6. Miranda Lambert – Kerosene
7. Madonna – Hung Up
8. Lindstrøm – I Feel Space
9. Mariah Carey – We Belong Together
10. Amerie – 1 Thing
11. Usher – Caught Up
12. Kelly Osborne – One Word
13. T.I. – U Don’t Know Me
14. Alicia Keys – Unbreakable
15. The Game – Hate It or Love It
16. Three 6 Mafia – Stay Fly
17. Bloc Party – Banquet
18. Brad Paisley – Alcohol
19. Ciara ft. Missy Elliott – 1, 2 Step
20. Gwen Stefani – Cool
21. Toby Keith – As Good As I Once Was
22. Kate Bush – King of the Mountain
23. Fat Joe ft. Nelly – Get Poppin’
24. Willie Nelson – He Was a Friend of Mine
25. 50 Cent – Outta Control (Remix)
26. M.I.A. – Bucky Done Gun
27. Ray J – One Wish
28. Gretchen Wilson – All Jacked Up
29. Missy Elliott featuring Ciara and Fatman Scoop – Lose Control
30. Lee Ann Womack – I May Hate Myself in the Morning
31. New Order – Krafty
32. Basement Jaxx – Oh My Gosh
33. Depeche Mode – Precious
34. Mary J. Blige – MJB Da MVP
35. Rob Thomas – Lonely No More
36. Daft Punk – Robot Rock
36. MF Doom ft. Ghostface – The Mask
37. The Mountain Goats – This Year
38. Ashanti – Only U
39. Franz Ferdinand – Do You Wanna

You have never been in love: Best of 2004

2004 feels as distant as Trollope’s London. A farewell to many ideas: after Usher and before Adele, the album as cultural commodity/sales force; a pallid iteration of the Democratic Party; heterosexuality as monolith of chic; the alternative crowd sampling the likes of Big & Rich and Loretta Lynn. As for the third item in my list, check out my singles. The lickiest number is Franz Ferdinand’s best song, a valentine to straight friends looking hot through the ecumenical prism of beer goggles. But The Libertines’ number shakes the subtext out of the Jagger-Richards text and the Killers began a half decade of chasing an audience with a weaker fondness for eyeliner and loose hips than their front man. Even Martina McBride’s sisterly anthem gains from the company.

Warm, surprising, sententious, and fraught, The College Dropout still persuades fans that Kanye West deserves scrutiny. These days I’m more partial to Usher’s Confessions, the second half in particular, with the likes of “That’s What It’s Made For,” “Simple Things,” and “Do It to Me” the kind of assured R&B that would disappear from the Billboard Hot 100 soon enough.

1. Ciara – Goodies
2. Franz Ferdinand – Michael
3. Kanye West – Through the Wire
4. The Libertines – Can’t Stand Me Now
5. Jay-Z – 99 Problems
6. Dizzee Rascal – Stand Up Tall
7. Morrissey – The First of the Gang to Die
8. Martina McBride – This One’s For the Girls
9. Kelis – Milkshake
10. Ghosface ft. Jadakiss – Run
11. Brad Paisley ft. Alison Krauss – Whiskey Lullaby
12. Usher – Confessions Part II
13. Killers – Somebody Told Me
14. Destiny’s Child – Lose My Breath
15. Gretchen Wilson – Redneck Woman
16. Snoop Dogg ft. Pharrell – Drop It Like It’s Hot
17. Ashlee Simpson – Pieces of Me
18. Janet Jackson – Just a Little While
19. Toby Keith – Whiskey Girl
20.LL Cool J – Headsprung
21. Big & Rich – Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)
22. Prince – Cinnamon Girl
23. Mobb Deep – Got It Twisted
24. Modest Mouse – Float On
25. M.I.A. – Galang

I want it to be perfect like before: The Cure in Miami

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“Hello, good to see you again,” Robert Smith chirped early into the set, and while he wasn’t fulsome it was five more words than Bob Dylan croaked the last time I saw him live. Catalogs like his need no further introduction. Observing the patterns noted by critics across the land, The Cure’s show at Bayfront Amphitheater was the deepest of dives into the deep green sea of their material. Let me put it this way: when Robert and the Smiths played more tunes from Wish than Disintegration, I knew they were serious. An unspoken word became flesh when the candy-colored guitar and keyboard swirl auguring 1992-era b-side “This Twilight Garden” briefly perfumed the thick, fetid June air. They played “A Night Like This.” They played “Cold.” They played “Closedown.” They played a post-peak track I didn’t recognize but whose chorus went “sleep when I’m dead” (The Cure covering Zevon? That’s perversity). When my friend and I left just after the second encore* they hadn’t even played “Let’s Go to Bed” or “Boys Don’t Cry” (they did, forty minutes later).

Except for the briefest of foulups during “In-between Days” – Roger O’Donnell played the synth fanfare too early and guitarist Reeves Gabrels appeared to drop his pick and thus entered the piece too late – the show was a model of professional comportment: trim, efficient, sprinkled with the occasional filigree that in the corporate world would move Smith’s bosses to praise him in evaluations for “creativity” and “innovation.” I heard unfamiliar fills in “Pictures of You,” at least unfamiliar to this affectionate non-fan who hadn’t seen them since Ross Perot dropped out of a presidential race he would reenter a couple months later. Close listening confirmed my suspicion that Simon Gallup and Jason Cooper (a member longer than the much-missed Boris Williams) lay down identikit rhythms. Gabrels, more restrained than when he was spraying buckshot over David Bowie’s material, not to mention The Cure’s own “Wrong Number,” followed the paces. From “Kyoto Song” to “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep” Smith’s idea of absorbing supposed Third World Sounds is to choose the chintziest of presets – I knew it twenty-five years ago but the literalism of the performances made those synths especially gauche, as if I were hearing a cover band. I noted only one tasteless move: the footage of No Man’s Land, famine, and nuclear holocaust broadcast while the band lumbered through “One Hundred Years.” Whether it’s Sylvia Plath or Robert Smith, I recoil when artists conflate personal turmoil with genocide.

But these were flyspecks on a solid evening. Robert Smith looked like the happiest lesbian aunt in America. I saw no one under thirty. A quartet of Brickell Avenue Venezuelans in front of us showed more interest in selfies and debating last Friday night’s bar tab at Finnegan’s than the show. My friend and I guzzled a frozen lemonade like kittens with a bowl of milk. And we exited to the accompaniment of “Burn,” an obscurity buried on The Crow soundtrack. The temperature reading was 86 at 11 p.m.

* We both work early, and moreover Downtown Miami is a hellish place when ten thousand people connect to Uber at the same time.

Best of 2003

I’ve found the list of ten songs I submitted to the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll, my first trip to that rodeo. I hadn’t included “Dance With My Father,” which I then thought treacle but now regard as a brave and rather lovely veiled admission of same sex desires Luther Vandross may or may not have had.

1. Dizzee Rascal – I Lov U
2. Justin Timberlake – Rock Your Body
3. Missy Eliott – Pass That Dutch
4. Jay-Z – Excuse Me Miss
5. The New Pornographers – The Laws Have Changed
6. Dandy Warhols – We Used to Be Friends
7. Toby Keith – I Love This Bar
8. The Strokes – 12:51
9. Erykah Badu – Danger
10. R. Kelly – Step in the Name of Love
11. Matchbox 20 – Unwell
12. Outkast – Hey Ya
13. Radiohead – There There
14. Brad Paisley – Mud on Your Tires
15. Lil Kim ft. 50 Cent – Magic Stick
16. Monica – So Gone
17. Floetry – Say Yes
18. 50 Cent – In Da Club
19. Alan Jackson ft. Jimmy Buffett – It's Five O'Clock Somewhere
20. Lumidee – Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh)
21. Luther Vandross – Dance With My Father

Singles 6/24

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Notes:

— We’re fond of Australian rapper Tkay Maidza, and this bit of cowbell-inflected dance pop is a good vehicle.

— We’re not fond of Shawn Mendes and his cricket-sized voice, but he knows his way around but not through a hook.

— Add Oh My Girl’s “Windy Day” to your summer mix.

Click on links for full reviews.

Martin Solveig ft. Tkay Maidza – Do It Right (8)
Oh My Girl – Windy Day (7)
Amine Aminux – #Makayen_Ma (5)
Andy Black – We Don’t Have to Dance (5)
Shawn Mendes – Treat You Better (4)
Kiss Daniel – Mama (4)
Galantis – No Money (3)
Charlie Puth ft. Selena Gomez – We Don’t Talk Anymore (3)
J Balvin – Bobo (3)
Mike Will Made-It x Rihanna – Nothing is Promised (2)
Joey Montana ft. Akon & Mohombi – Picky (Remix) (1)