“i’maman” – jobriath (1973)

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June is Pride month.  During this time, cities and communities around the country hold festivals and parades to commemorate the struggles and achievements within the LGBT community.  It is an occasion to celebrate love and freedom.  In recent years, major events have positively impacted and progressed the rights of gay, lesbian, and transgender people including the elimination of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the dismantling of the Defense of Marriage Act, and the Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex marriage be recognized as constitutional.

The fight for these freedoms has not been easy, but the people still soldier on to fight for their way to express themselves.  Religious and political groups find legal loopholes to undermine their efforts.  Terrorists and crazed gunmen murder innocent people living their lives freely and normally.  All manner of hate and greed manifested into confused people who only feel joy by taking it away from other people.  It all is incredibly sad, but the feeling doesn’t last.  These people are on their way out and their influence is shrinking as the majority of those who support the rights and freedoms of our LGBT brothers and sisters continues to grow.

Pride in Chicago extends over two weekends.  The first weekend kicks off with a two-day street festival along Halsted Street in the Boystown neighborhood.  Food and shop vendors, music, and other festivities line the street.  It is sweaty, loud, and chaotic.  However, it is spirited and the feeling of joy and community is intoxicating.  The next weekend on Sunday is the parade.  My favorite parade of the year, it is a two hour plus force of movement and color.  It is almost impossible not to have a good time.  People are dancing and hugging and waving signs of support.  And you even have candy thrown at you!  It is so great to see people of all different backgrounds get together to support love and unity; causes that are bigger than any of our individual selves.  However, it wasn’t always like that.

Jobriath is a name very few people know.  However, his impact on LGBT in music in pioneering primarily because he was the first openly gay rock star.  Born Bruce Wayne Campbell, Jobriath was destined for greatness.  Early on his musical career, he worked on stage productions of Hair.  During that time through the early 1970s, he was also working on demo tapes and crafting his own musical persona.  In 1972, Jerry Brandt signed on his Jobriath’s manager and secured a $500,000 recording contract; one of the biggest ever up to that point.  Before the release of his eponymous debut album in 1973, Jobriath’s face was plastered everywhere; on buses, full-page ads in Rolling Stone, and even a massive billboard in the middle of Times Square.

With that kind of marketing and publicity, Jobriath was to become the next big thing in music.  But the reason why he didn’t was because people could not accept him as feminine and openly gay.  The LGBT community during the late 1960s and early 1970s tried to find their footing after years of violence and threats to their community.  Many felt that the only way to not draw attention to themselves in the form of violence was to not contribute to the stereotypes they were associated with.  For men, the stereotype was that homosexuals were feminine, limp-wristed perverts who acted like woman instead of adhering to the masculine identity associated with men.  As a result, many gay men took on masculine features, dressed in masculine clothing, and projected a manly attitude and persona.  Jobriath was the antithesis to that identity and that didn’t sit well with the gay community.  They felt this person who looked feminine and vaguely human would continue to give their community a bad name.

This cultural backlash severely impacted Jobriath’s career.  Neither his debut album nor the 1974 follow-up Creatures on the Street sold well.  After the failure of those albums and problems from his manager, Jobriath went into seclusion.  After a few years, he changed his name to Cole Berlin and adopted a new look and performance persona.  As Berlin, he would play cabaret and piano music for local clubs.  He also tried to get back into acting which he hadn’t done since Hair.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t successful in either his music or acting.  He was often poor and would resort to prostituting himself.  Within a few years, Bruce Wayne Campbell died of AIDs in his apartment becoming one of the first famous musicians to have done so.  He was there for several days before he was discovered.

In recent years, Jobriath has become a cult musical icon.  A documentary released in 2014 has contributed to that and to tell his story.  What people find when they listen to him is glam rock in its early stages.  The track “I’maman” is one of Jobriath’s signature songs and pioneering glam rock track.  While his contemporaries like David Bowie or Marc Bolan were also making major strides in developing glam rock, Jobriath was crafting a unique voice.  His influence has grown over the years, sometimes in weird ways.  When Morrissey was touring to promote his 1992 album Your Arsenal, he wanted Jobriath to serve as the opening act unaware that he had been dead for a decade at that point.

I think it is a shame of how unknown Jobriath is today despite his contributions to the LGBT influence and identity in popular music.  Being the first openly gay rock artist in a time where being gay could get you killed is a heavy burden, but he did it.  Even though his cost him a lucrative career as a rock musician, he wasn’t going to hide his identity when others around him were doing so.  Now, we celebrate people and all the different identities that make up this great society of ours.  However, we mustn’t forget about the people who came before us and sacrificed so much just to be themselves.

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“goodtime romeo” – price jones (1985)

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There is musical treasure everywhere and a lot of different ways to find it.  Some ways are easier than others.  A lot of people now find new music online through streaming services like Spotify or Pandora where sophisticated algorithms can recommend you music based on certain criteria that interests you most.  In the days before the Internet, you had to order albums from catalogues or thumb through bins at your local record store.  What was once the norm has become a bit of a novelty today.  Sure, vinyl sales have been increasing and the role of the record store in the community has been enhanced with events like Record Store Day.  However, the physical act of looking through the bins past the more popular releases is still a niche one.  It requires a level of patience that is harder to find given all of the conveniences computers and mobile phones provide us to find music instantly.

Whenever I go into a record store and see people looking, it mostly consists of people grabbing the new releases or older copies of well-established bands that have been around for decades.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with that.  Life isn’t a contest and not having been exposed to certain popular artists is no measure of one’s love of music.  It is about the journey and there are many paths to take.

I have had my share of interesting record store hunts.  Living in Chicago, there are several great record stores in the area with their own unique charm and stock.  I may be in the mood for one store one day, and in the mood for a different one on another.  On a warm day, I enjoy walking around the neighborhoods, stopping by, and perusing even if I don’t intend to buy anything.  My vinyl shopping habits are specific.  I rarely buy new records, I rarely buy new releases because they were recorded digitally, and I prefer an obscure compilation album over any other type of release. I have found a lot of cool, obscure releases by looking where others typically don’t often look. These obscure compilations have obscure artists, interesting cover art, and were cheap. Many of these are still in heavy rotation on my player years later.

I never really shopped for vinyl records until I left college.  Growing up, I didn’t live in places where music stores were readily available.  I lived in Alaska where they had an FYE, a store with overpriced music and nothing incredibly obscure, or Wal-Mart, where everything they sell is commonplace.  There was no cool, niche music store.  Even when I was in high school in Kentucky, I didn’t have anything nearby like I would have now.

In college, there was one record store.  But, I was a broke college kid and not exactly interested in spending money.  Though, it didn’t stop me from trying new things and listening to people who had more access to music growing up than I did.  I spent all four years in college actively involved at the college radio station.  It was great because I got to discover things that were outside of my wheelhouse.  I was expanding my tastes and it allowed me to become more open and accepting of less mainstream and less accessible types of sounds.  I was a bit envious of everyone because they knew about all this stuff for a while.  It was all new and exciting to me.  I’m sure it was for them when they were younger, but they didn’t know what it was like to not have much access in the first place.

Released in 1985, “Goodtime Romeo” by Price Jones was something played for my by a college radio colleague that still stands as one of favorite tracks from my collegiate years.  It was a cool electronic pop song about this woman hooking up with this awesome guy.  Nothing was particularly spectacular or groundbreaking about the song.  The lyrics are fine and the arrangement is on par for the style at that time.  However, it is a fun pop song and it doesn’t have to be deep or shatter listening norms.

What made this track really exciting was that my colleague had found it in a record store in Nashville. He didn’t know the artist, but liked the cover.  As it turns out, he was blown away by the track.  Since then, he hasn’t found out anything about Price Jones.  He believed this was just a home-pressing with only a few copies in existence.  He also suggested that Jones could’ve been a successful pop star if the record would have been given to the right people.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

I like the fact this is a really unknown song.  It kind of makes things a little more special when I listen to it; like I’m in an elite music club with only a handful of members.  In a time before I was a record shopper myself, I tended to gravitate to the fringe and indulge in the obscure.  Now, I do that on my own in my leisure time and have found some amazing material.  Sometimes, the most valuable treasure isn’t what is shiny and glitters the most; it can be the small, inconspicuous coin at the bottom of the pile.  Happy hunting.

 

“close to me” – the cure (1985)

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My mother and stepdad flew to Chicago to visit me for the weekend.  I always enjoy their visits.  While they normally visit over Labor Day weekend, they decided to switch things up and come in June instead.  Why?  Because the legendary band the Cure were playing at UIC Pavilion!  My mother has been a fan of the Cure for over 35 years, really since their inception.  Yet she had never seen them perform live.  This was not only an excellent time to spend time with family, but also check off a band on her bucket list.  Win-win.

I saw the Cure for the first time at Riot Fest during the fall of 2014.  For those not savvy on music festivals or the big to dos of Chicago, Riot Fest is a punky alternative to other music festivals like Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza.  That year, the Cure were headlining.  I had been listening to them since I started high school, but had never seen them live.  This is primarily for two reasons; 1) I didn’t live in or near areas that regularly got large acts, and 2) the Cure didn’t tour often and when they did, it was to go to major metropolitan areas.

When it comes to outdoor music festivals, I’m not a fan.  The weather can be bad, the crowd can be unruly, and the prices can be unjustifiable considering I would typically only know a handful of bands.  However, more and more festivals are popping and up and they’re getting bigger every year.  Business models for bands have changed drastically in the last decade or so.  With many larger acts, they can actually make more money by only playing a handful of festivals as opposed to going out on a proper tour.  The Cure has been doing that for years and I figured that was the only way I could’ve seen them.  So, I sucked it up and paid approximately $70 for a single-day pass to Riot Fest just to see the Cure.

That day at Riot Fest was long and boring for the most part.  I’m a punctual person, so I arrived early anticipating long lines.  Upon arrival, the lines weren’t that long, but I waited in them for over an hour listening to the war stories of the previous few days including torrential downpours and awesome rock shows.  I spent some time reviewing the line-up for the day.  And really, there was no one I really cared about seeing until Patti Smith took the stage at around 5 PM.  When the gates opened, I walked around for a bit to get a layout of the vendors and stages and other happenings at the festival.

I checked out a few bands briefly, but they really weren’t my thing.  The whole experience for the first half of the day was boring.  I was alone, didn’t care about the bands that were playing, and dealing with some personal issues that had happened within the last two weeks; I had moved out of an ex-girlfriend’s place and lost of my job the same week.  Though, I could see how things could be fun.  However, it wasn’t clicking for me at the time.

Patti Smith was playing right before the Cure on the same stage.  I had seen her the previous year at the Vic.  And if I wanted a good spot, I would need to be in the area to see the band before her which was Tegan & Sara.  I wasn’t quite familiar with their songs, but I really dug them.  Most importantly, I got to get a spot that was good for that show and when it would be over, squeeze a little closer to the front for Patti Smith and then repeat for the Cure.

Patti put on an excellent and raucous rock and roll show, but I had to go to the bathroom really bad.  So, I left my amazing spot to go use the restroom.  I hurried back to the stage and settled in.  I would have to wait for over an hour for the show.  While my spot wasn’t as great as it was before, it wasn’t bad.  It was adequate.

I was so ready for the Cure to play because they were the only band I had to see and the only reason why I came to Riot Fest.  The closer is came to time for them the play, the crowd got bigger and more packed.  I was squished, hot, hungry, thirsty, a little lonely, but I didn’t care.  I was going to see an amazing band forget about my recent troubles for a few hours.

There were a group of guys standing behind me acting like jackasses before the show, but I did my best to ignore them.  One of them was complaining about having to pee.  The crowd was so huge and compact that movement was extremely limited.  You couldn’t move your arms let alone dance.  In a desperate move not to lose his place and awkwardly swim through the sea of sweaty bodies, he decided to pee into a water bottle.  Not a bad move.  I couldn’t blame him given the situation, though it still really annoyed me because some guy was peeing a foot behind me.  When he was done, he dropped the bottle onto the ground.  First of all, I hate litter bugs and I’ve had moments where I confront someone for their blatant disregard for the planet.  However, this situation was made even worse because he forgot to put the cap back on the bottle thus splashing piss on the back of my leg.  To say I went nuclear was an understatement.  I had spent all day dealing with festival bullshit only to see this one band and I wasn’t going to let this one jackass ruin it.  I turned around and angrily confronted him in a way only someone so tired, miserable, and heartbroken could do.  His friends didn’t even support him as he took a few steps back stuttering some excuse about how he didn’t pee in that bottle.  To see the fear and embarrassment in his eyes was extremely cathartic.

When the band took the stage, it was one of the best shows I had ever seen.  The melancholy lyrics and new wave instrumentals were exactly what I needed to salve my wounds. Robert Smith wasn’t very personable and didn’t address the audience.  It was strictly business.  One song after another without missing a beat. At the end of the day, it was worth it.

Fast forward two years later and I’m at UIC Pavilion sitting in a seat which was a comfortable change of pace from the last time I saw the band.  It was great seeing them in an actual venue because I didn’t think they would go on a proper tour outside of a festival.  Smith and the crew played a lot of hits, several deep cuts from Bloodflowers, and even played a new song that hasn’t been released. My mother was extremely excited and yelling when her favorite songs came on and screaming requests for others.  It made me happy to see her so excited to finally see one of her favorite bands.

Though not my favorite song of the Cure’s, I’ve always been partial to “Close to Me” from 1985’s The Head On the Door.  It has a playful melody and a cool bassline.  It stands out for me most of all for the music video.  It is one of my favorite music videos of all time.  In it, there is an armoire on the edge of a cliff.  The band is inside playing the music on found objects; the bass is being plucked on a comb.  Eventually, the armoire falls over into the sea.  The water is filling up inside and the band is struggling to not drown.  It is delightfully playful and visually interesting.

Things have greatly improved for me since the fall of 2014, but I’ll never forget that show for being an escape.  This show was fantastic as well, but for different reasons.  Sitting comfortably in a seat in a building has it’s advantages.  But I earned the show last time.  I was on a mission and had put up with so much to complete it.  Though, I still don’t like large music festivals.

 

Note:  the proper video isn’t on Youtube, so you’ll have to just settle with this one with a weird picture-in-picture effect

 

“like a ship” – pastor t. l. barrett & the youth for christ choir (1971)

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Like most people, I have a smartphone.  Most of the time, I’m using my smartphone to stream music.  It could be on apps like Pandora or even a curated playlist in my iTunes.  Sometimes, I’ll listen to what I know because it is familiar and I already enjoy it.  Other times, I’ll branch out.  Either way, I’m listening to something.

Experiencing music on a device or through a streaming music site can grow tiresome sometimes.  There is too much control in the listening process.  While it is great I can sift through things and find whatever I want to match whatever mood I have wherever I am at, there is something missing from the experience.  That control gives way to experiencing music in a way that is closed-minded.  I’m approaching the content with something in mind already and crafting it to my needs.  That is important, but it can be exhausting.  No amount of control or unlimited access in how I manipulate music to my needs will ever match the experience of hearing the right song at the right time and without the listener’s interference.  The feeling you get when you’re driving down the road listening you favorite FM station not knowing what is next and then getting blown away when it happens.  That spontaneity is everything.

I had an experience like that a few weeks ago.  The Chicago Critics Film Festival was being held at the Music Box Theatre.  The festival was showing more than two dozen movies and I had won pairs of tickets to five movies.  These movies were scheduled over the course of 6 days.  The problem was that if I didn’t pick up the tickets, I would be banned from future contests by the film blog that awarded me the tickets.  I didn’t expect to win a single pair let alone five.  So, I wasn’t excited about seeing the movies because now it felt like an obligation; a chore even.  I even entertained the idea of just picking up the tickets, but not going into the theater just so I wouldn’t get banned.  The idea of being in a theater 5 times in a week was a little much for me.

I did stick through the movies and I’m glad I did.  Of all five movies, one stuck out with me the most.  Starring Thomas Middleditch and Nick Kroll, Joshy was an emotional viewing.  Within the first five minutes, the girlfriend of Middleditch’s character commits suicide on his birthday.  They were engaged and scheduled to be married four months later.  Middleditch’s character had a cabin in the words where he was going to host a big bachelor party.  Considering the recent change in his relationship status, there wasn’t going to be a bachelor party.  However, the space was already paid for and he was determined to use it.  While most people cancelled after the death, a few friends joined him.  The weekend was going to be a bonding experience where a group of guys would have fun and enjoy their lives together.  Amidst all the drinking and partying, there was still a fog of sadness and depression hanging in the air.  The movie was incredibly tense at times and awkward.  Of course it was.  That is a situation that isn’t taken lightly no matter how hard you try to drown it with drugs and alcohol.

I went with a friend and the movie evoked a powerful reaction from both of us.  We were both anxious at what we just saw because of the reality of the situation.  It was all very uncomfortable and emotionally taxing.  Shortly before the end credits played, a few bars of an organ start playing.  And as the text appeared on the screen, the song came in at full volume.  Music used in movies can certainly elevate a scene or another part of the cinematic experience.  When it works, it works well.  However, it can be very hard to enjoy a song outside of the context of a movie.  Sometimes, you cannot separate the two and when you do, both suffer.  The song that played at the end of Joshy was a huge release after 90 plus minutes of awkwardness and depression.  But, even beyond the movie, the song has stuck with me since and has become one of the most powerful songs I have heard in recent years.

Pastor T. L. Barrett has been a significant figure in Chicago for more than four decades.  Residing on the South Side of the city, Barrett has lead social and activist campaigns to improve the lives of his community and it’s inhabitants.  His programs and message to promote social welfare amongst the black community have been extremely influential and far-reaching.  Barrett is also well-known as a radio host and a skilled musician.  Working with various church choirs in New York and Chicago, Barret established himself as a cultural and spiritual force promoting his message of peace through music.

I had some interaction with Barrett a few years ago through an old job, but I wasn’t aware of his music at the time.  If I was, I would’ve loved to have talked with him about it.  When I heard “Like a Ship” play in that theater, it was a life-changing experience.  I had felt something powerful in that song.

Self-published in 1971, “Like a Ship” is the opening track on Barrett’s debut album.  Backed by the Youth For Christ Choir of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Chicago, the entire album is a collection of raw gospel soul.  Full of charisma and bravado, Barrett turns his legendary preaching into a spiritual hymn that is uplifting and musically funky.  The backing track has a gritty production and is arranged by Gene Barge, most notable for being a session musician for Chess Records.  The choir of children sound heavenly and it is so hard to not be moved by their energy that to not be meant you were made of stone.  Barrett’s vocals sound improvisational as if the Holy Spirit is moving right through at that moment and directing him where to go.  He sounds like he is giving a sermon right in front of you.

In the last few weeks, I have listened to this song dozens of times.  Simply put, I just feel better when I hear it.  It is one of the most powerful songs I have ever heard.  While I am a big fan of independent and obscure soul music, I had never heard it before.  And if I didn’t hear it in the movie, I’m not sure if I ever would.  Gospel music gets a bad rap because of the perceptions of those who are fundamentally religious.  I won’t validate that sentiment, but a lot of gospel and Christian music is fairly hokey; when the message is laid so thick and the music takes a back seat or if it is done to maximize profit while exploiting it’s listener base.  However, there is a lot of great gospel music out there.  I learned that I should be a bit more open-minded when I actively seek music because a label can be misleading. 

“street rock” – kurtis blow (1986)

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Last week, Bob Dylan turned 75 years old.  That whole week, tributes were pouring in celebrating his nearly six decade contribution to popular music.  I even wrote my own tribute in last week’s blog entry.  However, I’m still not done talking about Dylan, though this entry isn’t really about Dylan.

One of my favorite podcasts is Sound Opinions.  Broadcasting out of WBEZ in Chicago, Sound Opinions is hosted by Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis, music critics for the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times respectively.  Commemorating Dylan’s 75th birthday, they dedicated an entire episode on his life up through the 1965 release of Highway 61 Revisited. However, that isn’t enough to cover Dylan’s expansive career.  They are doing a second episode dedicated to Dylan and covering the monumental album Blonde on Blonde and his career through now.

After Blond on Blonde was released in 1966, Dylan released some really great and underrated material.  But, he also released some questionable and downright terrible material.  Dylan has this mythology associated with him that everything he has done has been on his own terms and planned according to what exactly he wanted to do at the time regardless of critical or commercial backlash.  I don’t quite believe that.  I think Dylan has occasionally set out on a project he truly devoted himself to but resulted in poorly calculated misfires.

The 1980s weren’t a great time for Dylan.  During that time, he was regarded as a relic.  He even starred in a movie called Hearts of Fire alongside Rupert Everett and musician Fiona where he played a formerly famous musician who stepped away from the spotlight, but was trying to make a comeback in a big way.  I guess life was imitating art in that case.  The 1980s weren’t all bad for Dylan though.  Oh Mercy in 1989 was a critical success and 1983’s Infidels is an underrated classic.  But 1986 saw one of my favorite of Dylan’s more questionable career choices.  In 1986, Dylan rapped.

Kurtis Blow is one of the more underrated pioneers of hip-hop.  His debut album in 1980 spawned “The Breaks,” one of the best hip-hop tracks of all time.  “Basketball,” released in 1984, was another classic and one of my favorite songs by Blow.  Blow’s career didn’t last long after that, but he was undeniably one of the most important figures in hip-hop whose influences are still being felt today.

By 1986, Blow’s career was winding down.  That year, he released his second to last studio album entitled Kingdom Blow.  Opening up the album was a track called “Street Rock;” 9-minutes of fierce beats seamlessly blending rock and hip-hop.  This track feels incredibly lively with moments of anger at the state of urban decay and the struggle communities within it face daily.  Blow is rapping about being mad as hell, but finding solace in the music that helps him get by day to day.  He raps about what he knows and what he see going on around him relying on the music to serve as some spiritual salvation that is both cathartic and cleansing for him.

Blow also pays respects to the pioneers of hip-hop that have helped him get to where he is now.  Interestingly enough, some of those heroes don’t really come from hip-hop but from rock.  Opening up the track as a guest vocalist is Bob Dylan.  Rapping about his frustration with the news media and the rich stealing from the poor, Dylan sounds incredibly confident with his flow.  Rumor has it he performed his contribution in one take.  Regardless of the spirit and ferocity of the track, the novelty of Dylan rapping is incredibly funny almost to the point where it is distracting.  “Street Rock” is a stellar track that some listeners may not truly appreciate on novelty factor alone.

Some people associate Dylan as being a contributor to the development of hip-hop based on songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”  I tend to go back and forth on my thoughts on that matter, but I certainly don’t subscribe to the idea some people do that Dylan invented hip-hop.  That’s a silly exaggeration.  However, there’s no denying Blow and other hip-hop artists at the time were drawing on rock influences in their music.  Hip-hop was gaining critical and commercial ground.  What many people thought was a fad was only getting bigger.  And hip-hop artists wanted be taken as seriously as rock music was.  They were the new rock and they wanted the same respect rock had garnered for decades.

Blow’s career is worthy of respect, but doesn’t get the same attention as his contemporaries like Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five or Run-D.M.C.  He isn’t even in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame yet despite having been featured in some exhibits.  I think that’s a shame because Blow had such a significant impact on hip-hop and modern day rap.  There is also something undeniably cool about his style and ability as a vocalist.  It may be a long time before Blow gets the credit he truly deserves, but the material he has given the world will stand the test of time.