Monday, November 10, 2014

Fag Music

At my high school, the auto shop boys referred to what I liked as "fag music."

I’d actually loved a fair amount of the pre-Elvis pop I’d been exposed to around the time I started  school. I was a sucker for melody from around six, when I regarded "Where Is Your Heart (The Theme from Moulin Rouge)" as the most beautiful song in the world. When rock and roll came along, it wasn’t Elvis whose music spoke to me  most eloquently, but that of the prettier-voiced Jimmie Rodgers, who had a lot more in common with Burl Ives than with Big Bill Broonzy, let’s say — not, of course, that Elvis himself didn’t occasionally evoke the universally reviled Perry Como more than Arthur Crudup.

Half a dozen years later, all the British Invasion artists I loved most had started out playing black music, which was typically a thousand times more exciting than white music, passionate and, just as it said on the tin, soulful. The problem was that a fair amount of it was a little too passionate for my taste. I thought James Brown’s live show was breathtaking, but had no interest in his records. The words often seemed even more puerile than those in white pop. (I feel nice like sugar and spice, indeed, and he liked it so much he sang it twice!), and his screaming put me off.

There used to be a black radio station in Los Angeles. I stuck with the white channels. Better, I thought, to endure something as defiantly insipid as Chad & Jeremy’s "Willow Weep for Me" than to take a chance of hearing someone shrieking as though just lowered into a tub of boiling oil. And to be fair, there was lots of black stuff in the white Top 40 (or, in KHJ's case, Boss 30) — Sam & Dave, Percy Sledge, The Impressions, Motown, even Slim Harpo at one point.

(I am well aware of the argument that Motown wasn’t really black music. But there was Motown, and Motown. The Supremes’ "Baby Love" might have been only marginally less treacly than Patience & Prudence’s "Tonight You Belong to Me," but don’t tell me that "Bernadette," for instance, with Levi Stubbs hollering as though in church and James Jamerson redefining the electric bass guitar, wasn't great black music.)

I have wondered, in my old age, especially after getting wind of Pete Townshend’s admission that he once lusted after Mick Jagger, if there might have been a homoerotic component of my preferences. I didn’t specifically want to put my procreative organ into any particular English boy, and God knows I didn’t want them to put theirs into me, and it was invariably someone like Brigitte Bardot or Elke Sommer I envisioned when I restored by hormonal equilibrium in the only way available to me in my pre-girlfriend days, but I see now that I had something resembling a crush on The Beatles and The Who — or at least wanted to be them, very much more than I wanted to be Wilson Pickett, say. In my first semi-serious group, the 15-year-old wunderkind guitarist would want to do Ray’s "Unchain My Heart," while I’d push for "Ferry Cross the Mersey." The great irony being that the groups I loved would have opted for "Unchain My Heart" without a millisecond’s hesitation.

All these years later, I notice that Jimmie Rodgers' guitar was open-tuned, and that he played barre chords with his thumb. I wonder if Richie Havens got it from him. I know I didn't. I got it from Dennis Castañares, and don't use my thumb. There's such a thing as dignity. 


  1. I don't even get James Brown live. Overdone posturing. If I never hear I Feel Good again, it will be too soon. Thanks for giving me an outlet to say this out loud.

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