A Little Respect

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Part wood nymph, part rock star, the mere sight of Andy Bell in short shorts and wearing a flower crown undoubtedly changed me. Throughout the concert, he was flanked by two fierce black backup signers also covered in glitter and flowers. It was like a Renaissance painting did ecstasy while watching Little Shop of Horrors and decided to put on a show. And what a show it was. I was 16 years old and here was this rare, gay man out and proud and having a huge musical career in 1990 while I was a closeted, burgeoning drug addict who didn’t even know who I was. Bell was almost too much to look at. So in-your-face, so sweet, so charming and so out of fucks to give, it seemed like the me that could be but a me that was totally out of reach.  I mean Andy Bell was the lead singer of Erasure and I was just some effeminate teenager in Golden, Colorado.

Bullied, beaten up and black and blue, I ran towards anything that looked shinier and more beautiful than the existence I had as a teenager. It wasn’t just music like Erasure’s but Bowie, Sinead O’Connor, Deee-Lite, Madonna and anything else I could dance to and forget who I was. Drugs fit fabulously into this plan too. When I was high, I didn’t have to feel the pains of growing up gay and from an alcoholic home. When I was with the kids I used with I was cool, not just some kid that got routinely called faggot as he walked down the hall. I wasn’t the kid you pushed in the cafeteria because he wouldn’t push back, I was a smart ass drunk and drug addict and who could drink you under the table. I was cool or at the very least cool adjacent. I knew who to hang out with to at least give the appearance of being cool. I was also a kid with an incredible taste in music.

Drinking, drugs and listening to cassette tapes or going to teen alternative clubs was basically my whole life. Smoking cloves dancing to “Personal Jesus”, drinking Big Gulps spiked with whiskey and watching Book of Love in concert, taking drugs and seeing Love and Rockets, smoking weed and singing Madonna at Burger King instead of being in class. I had no use for traditional school, a place where I was regularly fucked with for being who I was. Instead, I sought out personal enrichment through drugs, pop culture and music. Like why go to biology when you can take acid, listen to New Order and go to the mall? Perpetually in peril and in over my head with a life out of control, most anybody who knew me who didn’t do drugs with me was probably concerned about me. People of all kinds tried to help or tried to figure out what was wrong but to no avail. After all, I was a nice kid, a creative kid and a kid who couldn’t if fit with everybody else no matter who hard he tried. I couldn’t even be invisible which was a real bitch. Okay, fine. I’ll be the gayest child that Colorado ever saw in 1989 but can I at least camouflage into the background?

Yet that was not my story. I was extra before we even started saying extra. Therefore the “extra” artists of that era– Erasure, Cyndi Lauper, Pete Burns, Boy George– forged the path for me to walk down. But what did I do when I wasn’t listening to music or dancing or going to concerts? It’s not like Andy Bell could magically appear like the fairy from Pinocchio and perform Blue Savannah every time I felt horrible. Likewise, giving myself platinum blonde hair like Madonna wasn’t a real substitution for self-esteem although it didn’t stop me from trying. Drugs and alcohol, thank god, gave me the ability to not give a fuck, like Mr.Bell himself. After spending my junior year harassed and pushed around, I emerged my senior year of high school as some kind of faux phoenix. The kids who fucked with me the most had graduated and now I could smoke cigarettes, talk shit, get high and listen to music in my friends cars without caring who hated me. Sure, I was still teased but after a summer of going to gay clubs, doing acid and dancing all night long, as directed by Miss Cathy Dennis, I had developed a swagger that sort of looked like self-esteem. I tried my best to own who I was but without actually being out of the closet or actually liking myself, it was just a performance.

A long running performance, at that. A tough exterior of joke cracking gay best friend who knew all the cool kids served me well and even well into my thirties. But the thing about that kid who knows all the good bands and has gossipy stories about celebrities and bitchy take downs of coworkers is that’s all there is to him. My inability to get real about the hurt, sadness, shame and self-hate that I felt inside 24 hours a day was killing me. Towards the end, drugs and alcohol didn’t just loosen up the act and make life more comfortable, they were vital for even leaving the house. I hated myself and no amount of  male pop stars in hot pants could make that go away.

At age 45 and counting, I am now unable to suppress a deep sigh or at the bare minimum a low-key eye roll when people flippantly say, “Love yourself.” Undoubtedly catchy for some other generation to enjoy in a Justin Bieber song, the idea of loving yourself to a person like me sounds downright puzzling. “Love yourself!” and while you’re at it solve world hunger. Love yourself. Please. As if someone merely telling us to love ourselves is enough. In fact, a lot of times when people say “They need to love themselves” it’s a way to comment on the perceived low self-esteem of others. Love yourself, you pathetic mess. Even Rupaul’s well-intended and much quoted,”If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”is a loaded shortcut to something that I’ve found very hard to do. Trying to love myself sounds a little easier while liking myself more than I did before is sometimes really the best I can muster.

In 2010, a good 20 years after I had the magical gay epiphany of seeing Andy Bell and Erasure on stage, the band once again entered my conscience. A year and a half sober, I was visiting my sister and her kids in Colorado. The place I had grew up in had changed too– thanks marijuana! It was no longer the deep red state steeped in homophobia and hatred. It had come around a little and so had I. My niece and nephew, who possess not just great sets of eyelashes but incredible senses of humor, were obsessed with the video game “Robot Unicorn Attack.” The ridiculous game had its moment in the sun as sort of viral obsession and along with it came an Erasure reemergence. The band’s song “Always” is winkingly featured as game’s theme song. Quick to pick up on anything amazing, my niece and nephew loved the song too. They’d giggle uncontrollably when Bell would dramatically sing, “Open your eyes. Your eyes are open.”  It seemed all too perfect that this band and this song would show back up at a point where I was starting to like myself.

Now aged 50-something with his hot pants days behind him,  Andy Bell is sober too. He’s talked openly, like we would expect anything less, about his battle with drugs and alcohol. There’s something comforting about knowing that this gay icon who was utterly 100% himself maybe hated himself too and that makes his role in who I grew up to be even more profound. It makes the beautiful angel I whose music I loved in on friends cassette tapes relatable and real, Perhaps Andy Bell, like the rest of us, faked loving himself, until he could get close to the real thing.

Maybe that’s the best any of us can do? Maybe we should take this ultimatum of “love yourself or fail at life” off the table completely. Because what I know is all of this–this feeling better, this trying to stop killing myself, this path to even tolerating myself, much less loving myself– is that it’s a lot of fucking work. No amount of Bieber songs or stickers or mugs or even Drag Race episodes can make me love myself. It’s a long road I have to walk (and occasionally fall of) everyday. Being the good drug addict that I am it’s unfortunate to discover I can’t snort self-esteem like I used to snort cocaine. Instead, it self-esteem and yeah even loving myself comes in little doses through small efforts. Just not being a dick to people at the grocery store. Holding the door open for someone and not expecting a round of applause. And not using drugs or alcohol one day at a goddamn time get me closer. Closer to a little more happiness, a little more self-esteem and a little respect.

George

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I would like to take a moment to toot my own horn: I’m really great at remembering names. Irene Cara’s command of “baby remember my name (FAME!)” isn’t much of one for person like me. I mean I remembered Irene Cara. The names of people from 6th grade, people I used to work with in the 90’s, people my friends dated and of course most anyone from the world of pop culture I can usually remember. But in classic alcoholic lack of follow through, I don’t always remember their whole name.

Take for example, my friend Marcia. Now, Marcia was a friend in the sense that we went to nightclubs together at age 19, not like a person I could call if I needed a kidney. I mean maybe I could. I don’t remember her drinking as much as I did but I do remember dancing to “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred with her. Anyway, I don’t need a kidney (remarkably) or more specifically I don’t need Marcia’s kidney. This is a good thing seeing as I don’t know her last name. But did I ever know her last name? That’s kind of the deal with friend you meet in nightclubs: you don’t always get the details. Therefore entering “Marcia from Westminster Colorado who had PM Dawn on cassette” into a Facebook search wouldn’t be successful. Trust me, I’ve tried. Further details like her friend Beverly who worked at a salon and their gay friend Brad are also of no help. I do remember that she could vogue, had an amazing Swing Out Sister style bob and once competed in a junior beauty pageant and performed Debbie Gibson’s “Lost in Your Eyes” for the talent competition. And really who needs a last name when you have those details?

I also remember that she loved George Michael. One night as she was dropping me off after going to an all ages alternative night in Boulder she said, “Are you going to George Michael on Thursday? Everybody’s going!” By everybody I’m sure she meant Beverly, Brad, that one girl who might have been named Kristen and maybe that other gay kid who I would later sleep with randomly in Los Angeles. I told her I wasn’t. I’m sure I wanted to but sometimes details like getting tickets or showing up to places or sleeping slipped through the cracks after several nights spent on the dance floor.  Lots of friends were going to that show and while I would have loved to, seeing as the record he was touring with at the time, “Listen without prejudice Vol 1.” changed my entire life, I didn’t get it together. Mainly because on some level I must have thought, “I’ll probably get the chance to see him again.”

Flash forward to 2008, I’d been in L.A. for 13 years and George Michael came back through town. Again, nearly everyone I knew was going. Having risen from the ashes of scandal and rehab, George was on something of a global victory lap. Gays and their girls of all ages made seeing him at the LA forum a top priority. The teen girls who loved him back in the day were now middle-aged and Michael himself was 45. The timing and the moment were just right for him to be back and should have been right for me too. But honey in the summer of 2008 when Miss George Michael blew into town, I had bigger fish to fry. While my beloved George was on presumably an upswing, yours truly was on a catastrophic slide into alcoholic hell. After patching together five months sober without help of any kind, my life got difficult, so I reached for bottle of wine in May 2008. That bottle of wine made life even more difficult and I found myself scrambling to find a way to make my broken life, broken relationship and broken self work. My journal from that timeframe is filled with sad ass pep talks about how maybe I’ve found a way to manage drinking and that maybe it wasn’t that bad and maybe I wasn’t that bad. But the reality was shit was bad. I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert and the Twilight books. Clearly, I wasn’t okay.

On the night of his show at the Forum, a performance the Times dubbed him a “waggish showman”, I was drunk and on a friend’s patio. Mutual friends had gone and we were prying them for details. It was a conversation I couldn’t really be fully vested in however. I wanted to be happy that my friends got to see George Michael, the gay musical icon who meant so much to so many of us of that era, but I couldn’t. Not because I was jealous, although I’m sure I was but because my life was a shit show. Evicted, couch crashing and trying keep drinking under control, being happy for anybody about anything was at tall order. Over the next 5 months, things would get even worse for me. Another eviction, cocaine induced panic attacks and a relationship in shambles is what it took for my story to change.

George Michael’s story however, if we are to believe all reports, got sadder. Like myself, Michael had a lifelong battle with addiction, one he lost on Christmas Day 2016. A person I love who loved George Michael as much I do broke the news to me via text. We were devastated but also? I was the happiest I’d ever been. About to turn 8 years sober and to embark on a new adventure moving to Portland, life was really fucking good. And primarily because I had gotten sober. Reading reports of how dear sweet generous George Michael died alone were almost too much to bear. The thought that this icon that people like me and Marcia whats-her-name and millions of others loved died alone and addicted was a heartbreak of another level. Millions of articles, tweets and blog posts spilled onto the internet all of them proclaiming how George Michael changed their lives, just like he did mine.

Still destroyed by the losses of Bowie and Prince, this one felt extremely personal. A gay addict who I looked up to since my teen years was gone and that was it. While I couldn’t change that, I could stay sober, I could still dance to his  music and I could remember his name.

For more of my thoughts on George Michael listen to episode 1 of The Seanologues, now available on Anchor! 

 

every second of the night, I live another life

C9QqL74All I know was I was with people I work with and we had to jump off a bridge onto a moving train. It was all very dramatic in an early 1990’s way. Like Sandra Bullock could have sped by in an out of control bus at any moment. Anyway, I jumped and completely missed the platform I was supposed to land on. For a split second (which when we talk about really dramatic near plummets to our deaths, are the only kind of seconds allowed. Take your normal second elsewhere, pal.) I thought well I’m screwed. Guess I should have been nicer to people but now I’m fucked because my brain is going to splatter all over the pavement. Meanwhile, my coworkers had landed successfully and ran off to the next dramatic challenge, I’m assuming. But instead of my brain splattering, I floated. I just kind of hovered like one of those dumb looking seagulls that flies in place during an ocean breeze. I was out of breath and terrified and then I woke up. I rolled back over and fell asleep and started dreaming again quickly. I was immediately greeted by a creature who was part bear and part armadillo. And not greeted like he was gonna give me a hug. But in the way the he was standing in the path I was walking down and looked like he didn’t want to move nor did he want to be fucked with.  I woke up again with my heart pounding and decided that maybe my subconscious was telling mine it was time to get up.

I’ve had pretty intense dreams my entire life. Granted, this sounds like one of those conversations your  dramatic friend in college would have right before she launched into a confession that she might be psychic or at the very least an empath. But it’s true. This imagination runs on overdrive when I close my eyes.  I used to have awful nightmares as a child, primarily dealing with getting attacked by wild animals thus why I knew better than to tangle with bearmadillo. No more than 10 years old, I would wake up screaming and drenched in sweat. Once after a really terrible nightmare, my two brothers stood above my bed with worried faces. While I don’t remember the dream, I remember it was freaky enough to startle me and everyone in my house. I was even given a dream journal at a young age hoping that would help. I can’t say for sure that it did but it certainly helped me start exploring dreams as a gateway to something else and a window into possibilities, regardless of how ridiculous they were.

Through some of the things I read, I learned tricks and ways to wake from nightmares or to shift the narrative if shit got too real, too fast. I learned if I floated above myself, like I recently did as I was falling, I was actually having an out-of-body experience. I learned if I scribbled three words down when I first woke up, I had a better chance of remembering the entire dream later.  It was very much in line with the psychology of the 1980’s and even pop culture. The hot garbage 1984 classic Dreamscape with Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid explored the idea of being able to project yourself into the dreams of others. With the aid of shifty scientists and terrible government officials, as was the case in all of these films. I must have watched that stupid movie 178 times on HBO but the idea really appealed to me: leave my own thoughts and go somewhere else. The last scary “attacked by an animal dream” as a child I really remember was a large bird trying to rip my arm off as I floated alone on a raft in the middle of a calm lake. No wonder my mind wanted to be somewhere else. One of my dream books from that era said that my dreams of being attacked by animals meant that something was eating me on a subconscious level. As a gay kid not out of the closet or even in the remotest sense sexually awakened, this analysis was a little too on the nose.

With a recent death in my family and about 6 days of the worst sleep ever, let’s just say my current dreams have been off the chain. Non-linear, dramatic snippets of life crammed together with nonsensical narratives of political, sexual and psychological nature. The Heart song quoted in the title of this essay isn’t just to remind you that I’m old and that the 1980’s is my only point of reference. It also sums up what I like about dreams: to live another life, to be someone else. That’s what I liked about drugs too. Dreams, however, are even harder to control and more unpredictable than substances. Especially dreams about substances. My last cocaine dream was about three weeks ago. I snorted cocaine at a party and then spent the remainder of the dream trying to come up with an elaborate lie so that no one in my  life would ever find out I relapsed. Even asleep, I’m a scheming bitch. When I wake from using and drinking dreams, I always travel from being panicked that it actually happened, to disappointed in myself to ultimately relieved that it was just a dream. It’s quite a journey to take when you just open your eyes, honey.

This morning when I woke up, after a dream I don’t really remember, I forced myself to stay in bed as long as I could. I am the lucky owner of a bladder and two cats all of whom want me to get up around 5am. I try my damnedest on my days off to fight the urge to sit in the pre-sunrise stillness of my living room. I try to roll over and go back to sleep, back to dreaming. But this morning it was a no go. There was coffee to be had and internet to be read, cats to pet and so on. I told my therapist I’d been having fucked up dreams and sleeping horribly and he said, “Let’s monitor those and check in next week.” Seems like a solid plan. Treat my subconscious like a recently repaired air conditioning unit.

While there’s no bridges to jump off or wild creatures to battle in my waking life, there’s this brain I get to walk around with. It’s the brain of an addict. It’s the brain of a person with depression. It’s the brain with a whole goody bag of mental health challenges. But mainly, it’s a brain that likes to dream. And dream a lot! Lately, I have a slew of dreams suddenly taking shape and morphing into a real world things, all by themselves. When I think about the people I’ve lost recently and think about their dreams that got interrupted and cut short, I know it’s a brain I’m lucky to have.

 

 

 

a path to the rainbow’s end

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So long ago
It’s a certain time
It’s a certain place

Not everybody I know who got sober drank at work. Not everybody I know who got sober did drugs at work. But I certainly did. As did my favorite rock goddess Stevie Nicks. Stevie also slept with Tom Petty and wore shawls to work, things I did not do–yet! I mean there’s still time! Actually, the shawls are more likely to go down than the Petty moment(shudder). Still, Stevie is such a longstanding influence on me that I wouldn’t count anything out. In fact, I’m a little shocked that I haven’t blogged about her here after nearly a year in business. She certainly came up multiple times at urtheinspiration. The thing I love about Stevie is that her songwriting has such layers. Beneath the witchy, lace and leather trappings are some real complex, emotional words. Her writing is unapologetic and truthful while always peppered with a little sadness just to round out the flavor.  Yet the song on my mind lately is “Seven Wonders” a song she didn’t even write for Fleetwood Mac.

The song comes from Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night, two albums after their flawless in every sense of the word classic Rumors. Celebrating 30 years in release this spring, Tango in the Night has a spattering of memorable songs and is notable for being the last album the Fleetwood-Nicks-Buckingham-McVie-McVie lineup ever recorded together. Tracks like “Big Love,” the still solid “Everywhere,” “Little Lies”  and the aforementioned “Seven Wonders” were radio hits for a reason. Lushly produced by Lindsey Buckingham, each song is pure Fleetwood Mac and signs of a band who could pretty much phone it in after 14 albums together. This must-read Pitchfork review of the re-issue nails all the delights and disasters of Tango In The Night but let’s just say, as always with Fleetwood Mac, the back story nearly eclipses the record itself.

Knee-deep in a spiraling cocaine addiction co-founder Mick Fleetwood could barely be counted on during the recording of Tango In The Night while Nicks was out of rehab for her own coke problem but now filled to the brim with opiates. In a move that pre-dates the current opioid crisis, Nicks claims her doctor prescribed her Klonopin as a form of treatment for cocaine addiction. Per an article she wrote for Newsweek in 2011:

What this man said was: “In order to keep you off cocaine we should put you on the drug that we’re using a lot these days called Klonopin.” Stupidly, I said, “All right.” And the next eight years of my life were destroyed.

Naturally, Tango in the Night suffered. “I started not being able to get to Lindsey Buckingham’s house on time, and I would get there and everybody was drinking, so I’d have a glass of wine,” she writes. “Don’t mix tranquilizers and wine. Then I’d sing horrific parts on his songs, and he would take the parts off. I was hardly on Tango of the Night, which I happen to love.” Buckingham himself says of Nicks’ performance on the record, “Stevie was the worse she’s ever been.” Reports of Nicks being too drunk to record and having to have vocals patched together by Buckingham are now part of Tango in the Night’s legend.

Yet for all the drug soaked disasters on Tango in the Night, Stevie Nicks and “Seven Wonders” survives. The song had a major resurgence recently when it was featured on American Horror Story, catapulting it back on the Billboard charts. When you hear today in 2017, its pure Nicks. Written by her backup singer and collaborator Sandy Stewart, Nicks receives co-writing credit by default. According to SongMeanings, “While listening to the demo by Stewart (who did not provide any written lyrics), Nicks misunderstood the phrase “All the way down you held the line” as ‘All the way down to Emmeline’, which is what she sang and led to Nicks’ credit as co-writer of the song.” Classic Stevie. Like what the hell does her version even mean but wait who cares? It’s Stevie. We mere mortals are not meant to understand. Clearly, Stewart was well-versed in the mysticism and imagery of Stevie as the track features lines like “I’ll make a path to the rainbow’s end.” As far as Stevie Nicks Fleetwood Mac songs, it’s not one of the iconic greats. It’s no “Landslide” or “Gypsy.” But I love it for the shawl-twirling late 80’s rock sensibility. Plus, it’s catchy as hell. 1987 was the pinnacle for pop song earworms and “Seven Wonders” holds its own among them.  Knowing we what we know now about Stevie during the time the song was recorded, it’s impossible not to view it as a survival anthem.

So long ago
It’s a certain time
It’s a certain place
You touched my hand and you smiled
All the way back you held out your hand
If I hope and I pray
Ooh it might work out someday
If I live to see the seven wonders
I’ll make a path to the rainbow’s end
I’ll never live to match the beauty again

Rich in the theme of a missed opportunity of fleeting love and happiness, you’d be hard pressed not to see how this relates to a person struggling with addiction. I can’t speak for Stevie but I know for me there were long stretches in my drinking and using and even in early sobriety, where I thought I’d never be happy again.  Love and happiness seem like fantasies when you’re just trying to stay alive. “Seven Wonders” taps into the this sentiment while hiding under the (presumably lace) veil of unrequited love. Plus, the legacy of the song is one of an artist in shambles, barely keeping it together. I certainly identify with wanting to show up but being too wasted to actually be any good. Equally profound is that Nicks has re-claimed the song in recent years and made it her own by performing it live. Talk about not regretting the past or shutting the door on it.

Upon the recent re-release of Tango in the Night, Rolling Stone posted the stripped down original version of the song. In it, you hear an artist fighting for her life but still absolutely killing it. She sounds determined, fierce and broken. It’s a stunning performance that proves that maybe the 8th wonder of the world is being able to escape our demons and survive ourselves. If it isn’t, than Stevie Nicks certainly is.

Bartles & Gays

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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.

I See You On The Street & You Walk On By: 30 Years Of True Blue

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30 years ago today, True Blue by Madonna was released which makes it official: It was a really long ass time ago when I was a teenager and there’s no turning back. I was 13 that summer. If I seem spastic and kinda wacky to you now, multiply that by 80 and you’ll get me at 13. Awkward, effeminate and a neon glitter crayon in the box of Crayola primary colors. I hadn’t really started to think about sex and I’m sure on some level I knew I was gay but at 13 I was still holding out for the possibility that I might develop magical powers and would be able to forgo life’s more difficult moments. I was always a realist.  Thankfully, the music of the era facilitated escape while being properly dramatic in a way that 13-year-old me could really identify with. True Blue fit that prerequisite like a lace fingerless glove.

Take the first single off the record, “Live to Tell”, for example. As kids we honestly wondered, “What the hell is she talking about?” The song didn’t make sense but by the music video but by her dowdy appearance, we knew it was serious. Don’t take my gay card/Madonna card (active duel member since 1991!) when I tell you I don’t always love Madonna ballads. There often too mopey. Her vocals grating. The lyrics goofy. And I felt that way about “Live to Tell”. However, the song’s legacy has endured. Madonna said,”I thought about my relationship with my parents and the lying that went on. The song is about being strong, and questioning whether you can be that strong but ultimately surviving.” Definitely the kind of stuff “the kids” who were buying records at the time could relate to. Later, Madonna used the song for people with HIV and AIDS and to represent political oppression. When I listened to it for this piece, I still don’t love it. It’s still melodramatic. It’s still kinda silly and way too long but I can appreciate it for what it is.

The song we were all really talking about that summer was “Papa Don’t Preach”. An upbeat dance number about teen pregnancy (only in the 80’s). The song was escandalo for me and my group of catholic school friends. Just hearing it on the radio, I worried about going to hell. But to be honest, I didn’t worry too much about it. I thought just being a Culture Club fan had sort of sealed the deal on that end, not to mention the whole being in love with boys thing. The song, in 2016, is harmless but the moxie and attitude Madonna was cultivating at the time still blasts through the speakers at full force. Plus, who doesn’t love those strings in the intro?

For me, the song that captures the isolation and invisibility of being a thirteen year-old is “Open Your Heart”. Despite the stripper-peep show-dancing with a child video, the lyrics of the song as well as her delivery just nail that feeling of wanting to be noticed and paid attention to. Lyrics like, “I follow you around but you can’t see. You’re too wrapped up in yourself to notice”describe my relationship with pretty much every older kid I wanted to pay attention to me or boy I wanted to be friends with. Although nearly 28 at the time, Madonna got it and knew that my 1980’s tween struggle was real. The song describes wanting to loved by someone emotionally unavailable and given what we know now about her then relationship with Sean Penn, the tune might be more autobiographical than we gave it credit for back in 1986. “Open Your Heart” is a peek at the songwriter Madonna was on the way to becoming that speaks to the loneliness and desperation of teens everywhere.

True Blue is often called Madonna’s most girly album. The title track certainly reinforces that label. Bouncy, poppy and sugary, it’s the musical equivalent of a jelly donut. By the way, peep actress Debi Mazar in the video above! Ditto for two other songs on the record “White Heat” and “Jimmy Jimmy”respectively which show Madonna’s love of old movies. “White Heat” features Jimmy Cagney samples while “Jimmy Jimmy” tells the imaginary tale of a teen romance with James Dean. Keeping in line with femininity and high drama, “La Isla Bonita” was a huge hit. The sing predates latin pop songs by the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin by over a decade and remain a karaoke favorite by white girls everywhere. As she twirls her dress around in the video by all of those candles, you worry about her safety (Stop, drop and roll Madonna!) but the song is still a spicy guilty pleasure.

Like thousands of gay kids from the 80’s, Madonna was big part of growing up and coming out of the closet.True Blue predates those two things by a few years but at the age of thirteen spoke to my soul. Today, in my forties, It’s still a solid listen. It serves as timecapsule for sure. Hearing the lyrics and watching the videos, I was transported back to those awkward 13 year old days. As an artist, her best days were ahead of her (Like A Prayer, Ray of Light and Confessions on a Dancefloor being my top three albums were yet to come.) and as a teenager, my tastes would shift to the darker and even more emotional (the Smiths, Siouxsie, Bowie) but I always came back to Madonna.

While researching this piece, Orlando was all over the news. These silly songs didn’t feel so silly. But then again nothing did. I’m lucky to have grown up and come out in an era where artists like Madonna were saying “Be who you are and love who you are and fuck anyone who doesn’t get it.” So for all it’s dated synthy pleasures and theatrical lyrics, True Blue and message of its artist, might be something we need now more than ever.