A Little Respect

wild1

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

9055378-3x4-700x933.jpg

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! 

 

time heals everything (but loving you)

IMG_3447

Time, a British drag queen with hit records once told me, is like a clock of the heart. Meaning, or at least this is how my 10-year-old self interrupted those words, time passes and feelings along with it. But love?  I don’t know if love ever passes. If all of this seems rather sad and confusing like that girl you sat next to in 10th grade art class, that isn’t my intention. It’s just that I think a lot about time and loving someone forever during the summer. I think about all of this and I think about Bernadette Peters.

In 1997, I had returned to Los Angeles from a jaunt around South America. I was 24 with no job and no apartment. So I couch crashed, went to clubs 7 nights a week, did extra work in movies and somehow found a way to drink and party every night with no money. Oh to be 24 in the 90’s in LA. I gathered a group of good gal pals and a boyfriend so I lived my life-like some flapper song about a party girl who danced her cares away. Of course it was way messier than that and always problematic. It was particularly troublesome when real life interrupted my Playboy-gayboy lifestyle. In June of that year, I received a voicemail (on a real-life answering machine!) that my grandfather had died. All of the sudden, the gin joint darkened. The record playing “Anything Goes” stopped. The lights went out. I was numb for the first time in my life not due to drugs or alcohol but because of real, deal category 5 grief. I fell into a black hole and didn’t feel shit until I was able to get on the plane and go the funeral in Denver. Except for about two hours with Bernadette Peters. La Peters in 1997 was touring with an album called Sondheim Etc. wherein the Broadway songstress performed, you guessed it, Sondheim songs as well as songs from the zillions of musicals she starred in. My roommate at the time who worked at a big time talent agency scored tickets to her show in Los Angeles. The timing was shitty. Just a few days after my grandfather died and the night before I went home for the funeral. But timing, schiming. It was Bernadette Peters. A legend. A goddess. An icon. Especially to musical theatre nerds like myself. So we went. The grief of the time coupled with my 90’s drug induced memory loss has made the exact details of the show fuzzy. However, I do remember seeing 80’s stars like Joan Van Ark in the audience. I do remember feeling special because we got VIP parking and entered backstage. Most importantly, I remember Bernadette Peters blowing the roof of the place with her voice, warmth and personality. Each song was an education in Broadway, Sondheim and her career. And I lapped it up.Music,in the eye of that grief hurricane, delivered as it always had. Music took me outside of myself. Music let me know it was all gonna be okay. It never mattered the genre or where it came from. In this case, it came from Bernadette Peters. I’ll be forever grateful to her for providing light in what was about to become really dark period of my life.

Even though he was in his seventies, I naively thought my grandfather would always be around. Because up until that terrible fucking voicemail, he always had. In fact, I had talked to him just days before. According to family lore, I was the last grandchild to speak to him, a distinction that should have made me feel better but somehow always made me feel worse. This guy, Bob, my grandfather and my grandmother lived around the corner from us when I was growing up. They cheerfully showed up to every lame sporting thing I miserably participated in, cheered me on whenever I was on stage and most profoundly, read everything I ever wrote and loved it. Needless to say, I was heartbroken. I discovered many years later that I was so heartbroken in fact that I drank myself silly in hopes of forgetting how heartbroken I truly was. What I didn’t realize at age 24 was this guy Bob taught me much of what I knew about compassion, about helping people and about love.  He did all of those things seamlessly and without condition, without wanting applause. He, although not an alcoholic himself, was instrumental in helping my dad get sober some 30 years ago. This wasn’t unusual for him. His funeral was filled with people he helped. People he helped at work. People he helped at church. People he helped learn how to read. And people like me who he helped simply by being himself.

Flash forward some 19 years later and I still can’t help thinking of him every summer. Except now it’s different. Now, it’s not this throbbing pain I’ve ignored and allowed to fester and getting worse due to neglect. That pain has been healed by time. Well, time and a fuck ton of personal growth. Today, I’m left with love. At age 43, I woke up on the anniversary of his death and I felt lucky to have loved him and to be by loved by him. I feel even luckier to have been shown how to love by him. I even feel lucky to have grieved him, as crazy as that might sound. I have healed and changed. Since getting sober in 2009, my life has been turned on its head and for the better. I’ve even seen Bernadette Peters again too. The last time was on Broadway in Sondheim’s Follies, the day before I married Michael in Central Park.

As I sit here with coffee in hand, on a hot summer morning, I remember something else from that show some 19 years ago. Bernadette Peters sang a song that night. A song that made a promise. A promise that time healed everything. It sounded lofty yet I clung to that promise. for the most part it’s turned out to be true.  What I hadn’t heard in that song until recently, however,was the caveat.”Time heals everything”,the lyrics tell us, “but loving you.” That “but” in the song has also turned out to be true. Maybe hurt can go away. Maybe pain can dissipate. But love? I don’t think love ever passes. Thankfully.