Growing Up Gay to a Glam Rock Soundtrack

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Rites of Passage

In early 1976, I saw Freddie Mercury stage one of the greatest charades in rock history. He was appearing with his band Queen at the Beacon Theater at a pivotal time, just three months after the release of “Bohemian Rhapsody” but a season before the song entranced the pop mainstream.

In that sliver of time, tough teenage boys dominated the band’s demographic. Despite all the testosterone coursing through the music and the crowd that night, Mercury took it upon himself to repeatedly mince up to the lip to the stage, sometimes pirouetting on the way, before lobbing bon mots like, “And for our next number, my little bathing beauties!”

For me — an 18-year-old gay kid, out only to my hippest friends — this crossed a line. Freddie Mercury was luxuriating in every gesture I spent years studying to edit. Even during glam rock, an era ruled by high androgyny, his unfiltered presentation threatened to reveal something too genuine behind the usual campy shenanigans.

Luckily, for me and for Freddie, the stupefying naïveté of the ’70s provided cover for even the most flagrant acts of effeminacy. Mercury’s true sexuality sailed right over those rough boys’ shag haircuts.

Apparently, there’s no need for a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when no one will listen, no matter what. To my hemming-and-hawing gay teenage self of the ’70s, this came as a tender mercy. It provided breathing room for me to accept a sexual identity that, for many people back then, had roughly the same level of acceptability as child molestation.

Meanwhile, glam’s unassailable cool allowed me to find a solid male identity within the rock aesthetic I already loved.

Lately, I’ve had repeated reasons to travel back to that time, two of them sad. David Bowie’s out-of-nowhere death in January brought a unique pain to original “Young Dudes” like me. We weren’t just Bowie fans. We felt we owed him our very identities.

Three months after his death, we lost Prince, a star whose doe-eyed persona extended glam’s androgyny into the ’80s.

And a more positive reminder of the time has just arrived with “Shock & Awe,” written by the British music critic Simon Reynolds. At a door-stopping 700 pages, “Shock” offers the first scholarly, comprehensive view of the whole glam-rock shebang. (There’s just one drawback: It lacks humor, a drag considering it’s addressing a movement founded on a riot of irony.)

Glam sent enough mixed messages to make a semiologist go cross-eyed. In its brash riffs and blunt beats, it revived the punch of ’50s rock ’n’ roll. It also fashioned a snide rebuke to the arty excesses of late-period psychedelia.

At the same time, glam’s vocals had a fruity theatricality, supporting lyrics that presented as a boast: “Your mother can’t tell if you’re a boy or a girl.” Glam was butch and femme at once: bisexuality in sound.

It was also a major con. Bowie may have declared himself gay on the cover of Melody Maker in 1972, but the writer of the article smelled a put-on. So did most fans when Alice Cooper delivered teasing whoppers like “I never made it with a guy, but that doesn’t mean I won’t.”

Even as a teenager, I sensed this was sissy minstrelsy. But that served my semi-closeted agenda just as surely as did the stars out for a headline. Better, its trendiness made my 27-inch waist, haystack shag and soft features the height of hip. In a world later made hypermasculine by hip-hop, it’s hard to fully appreciate the social power wielded by rock-star-thin pretty things in the ’70s.

Small wonder that even the burliest jocks in high school looked to me for fashion tips. This, despite the fact that I sported black and yellow striped platforms, which made my feet look like hives for bees.

Glam fashion was an almost literal scream, an embrace of the grotesque that somehow made men dressed as space aliens the new sex symbols. It used color as a weapon against hippie drabness. At the same time, its artificiality sneered at ’60s rock sincerity. “A good lie is better than a dull truth,” Alice Cooper said at the time.

The freshness of it all gave glam a marketing coup. The trend tapped a new demographic, which Mr. Reynolds labels “the third wave” of rock fan. The bands solidified their turf by sticking the word “teenage” into as many of their song titles as possible.

To rub it in, the lyrics in songs like “All the Young Dudes” positioned second wave, ’60s rock fans, then barely into their 20s, as irrelevant geezers.

It’s hard to overstate the emotional payback for any fan lucky enough to land smack in the marketers’ cross hairs. In exchange for your dollars and your worship, you get to belong. The identification that glam gave me wasn’t to gay culture, then deep into disco, but to the throbbing new heart of rock ’n’ roll.

The result reflected a double con: A movement created overwhelmingly by straight people, out to stoke attention by “acting gay,” had special meaning for gay youth who felt the need to pass for straight.

Even after I fully came out, late into my 18th year, I never left those contradictions behind. My first gay bar, and the only one I ever truly loved — the Ninth Circle — promoted a parallel subversion. Though hugely popular in the mid- to late-1970s, the Circle defied the era’s common gay-bar markets: leather men or clones.

Instead, it embraced something mangier and more tethered to general youth culture. Weekends found the place teeming with teenage runaways, smart-ass college students, rough-trade hustlers and their collective admirers, serenaded by a jukebox with the Stones, Bowie and the Ramones.

For a bonus, many of my teenage role models hung there: Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Edward Albee and Wayne County, along with newcomers like Richard Sohl, of the Patti Smith Band, and Robert Mapplethorpe. The bowling-alley-tight space meant you could mingle with all of them, creating a kind of queer-idol petting zoo.

The Circle was for gay people who didn’t aspire to join the movement’s advancing orthodoxy of the ’70s. We were outsiders within a world of outsiders, and proud to be.

Navigating glam’s mix of messages had prepared me for that contrary life. By coming up a real queer kid, amid the fake kind, while absorbing the genre’s accent on individual style, I learned glam’s broadest lesson. Not how to be gay, but how to be myself.