When you’re seventeen and somebody offers you a wine cooler while you watch a 300 pound drag queen do a version of “Rhythm Nation”, you take it. And if you’re me at age seventeen, not only do you take that wine cooler but you’ve already taken nearly everything else anyone has ever offered you. I’d like to say it was because 1990 was a freer, wilder time but if we’re being real here I would have been a drunken teen delinquent in even during the Revolutionary War. Getting lit with Paul Revere, y’all! Yet 1990 was unique for me because it was the year that I went to my first gay bar.
Down by the railroad track in an area of Denver that’s now filled with stoned bros stumbling towards sporting events, was a 3.2 gay bar called Stars. In my mind, it was Stars with a Z but when it comes to details from the late eighties and early nineties, I am admittedly an unreliable narrator. Whatever it was, it looked a lot like liberation in that moment. Already a fixture on the teen goth and alternative nightlife scene, I was always in search of new spots to dance, be loaded and be my snarky, bitchy little self. I was also in my coming out phase which officially wouldn’t really happen until later but at seventeen I knew I liked boys, I hated my parents and I loved to dance. That was enough. I was, as our dear Janet says in the aforementioned song, “looking for a better way of life” and I was pretty sure that included kissing boys and getting wasted.
The bar itself was nothing to speak of really. Kind of a hole in the wall and filled with a mix of lesbians, creepy older dudes, drag queens and lots of queer youngsters like myself. Allegedly the bar, was supposed to be 18 and up but my shady ass always found a way in. I remember this curvy, gorgeous biracial girl named Shanni who helped sneak me into a club through a fence on the patio. She seemed like the disco unicorn of my dreams and like a girl I’d never met before. Little did I know that all the gay clubs were filled with awesome chicks like her but I was thankful for her assistance. 1990 lent itself to a “look the other way” type of attitude about underage people hanging out and drinking in bars. Plus, Denver had that whole weird ass 3.2 drinking thing which was basically, let’s face it, a preview for the hardcore boozing coming attractions. The humble trappings and colorfully sketchy regulars didn’t scare me off. I was in love with the place. It blew my brain open to see gays of all sizes and colors being themselves and having a really good time doing it.
The song of the summer was certainly “Vogue” by Madonna. It was that song that gave every homo a chance to be flamingly gay on the dance floor and be as over the top as possible. It was our anthem and the moment that solidified Madonna’s role in my coming out. I remember sipping wine coolers with a friend watching a pimpled, discount version of Madonna lip synch the song and him saying of the performer, “Well, bacne certainly isn’t very vogue.” I had entered the realm of gay nightclub cuntiness and it came with drag queens and a dance floor. I truly belonged.
Other songs like “Everybody, Everybody” by Black Box, “Two to Make it Right” by Seduction and “Hold On” by En Vogue were also deep in the gay club rotation. Although I worshipped (and still do) at the Church of Madonna, what my mind kept coming back to when I sat down to write this was Janet Jackson. The songs we were hearing in the club that summer were from Rhythm Nation, 1814 which was released in the fall of 1989 but still getting tons of airplay. The children today would definitely describe that record, with its political undertones and brutally honest outlook, as “woke AF.” The mind-blowing thing about that record is that it has a mere three songwriters for the entire album. Doesn’t sound that impressive but when you consider that most of today’s “deeply personal” pop records boast upwards of 50 songwriters it at least proves we were dealing with a different caliber of artist on the radio back then. Sorry, but with 50 writers, nothing can be deeply personal. That’s a group assignment. Anyway, while not overtly gay and far from her all-out-sexual phase of her career, the songs of that record like “Miss You Much”, “The Knowledge” and “Black Cat” had a self-awareness and strength that on some level as a gay man in the making I must have needed to hear.
Ms. Jackson aside, my inner personal dealings with people my age or older weren’t all that amazing. Pretty disastrous, in fact. I mean, I was seventeen and just coming out so I was an asshole. I wanted boys to like me but had zero game. There was always some dramatic falling out with a group of friends that I knew from the club which I was usually smack dab in the middle of it. So thank god there was alcohol. The wine coolers made dancing and talking to boys easier. They made meeting new people easier. They made me easier. Tasting like Kool-Aid’s more ghetto sister, wine coolers were what I secretly really looked forward to the most about those evenings. Not too harsh and grown up in their 80’s appearance, wine coolers made underage drinking feel more normal. They also unshackled me from any other fears I had. That summer, I did cocaine for the first time, had my first three-way and basically checked off all the “I’ll never do that!” boxes off my list. And again, I was only seventeen. No wonder I felt like a Sheen family member by the time I turned 20.
At age 44 as I write this with Janet Jackson videos in the background, I feel for kid with the wine cooler. As if coming out wasn’t enough of a mindfuck, the poor dude had to wrestle with addiction that was already proving to be unmanagable.He had no idea the ride he was in for. Yet I wouldn’t change a moment of it. I wouldn’t go back in time to warn him about his future. Mainly, because that’s impossible and even if I could go back in time, the bitch wouldn’t listen anyway.
Instead what I’m left with is some amazing music, some hilarious fuzzy memories and some times that I loved but don’t really miss. Well, much, anyway.