Monday, September 24, 2007

Long Tall Glasses

Photograph courtesy of Dr. Jeff by way of Tom (who thought it would be alright if I used it).

I couldn't dance.

This fact in itself was enough to drive my sister insane. Here I was, a newly minted teenager, and I really couldn't dance to save my life. Early in the 60's, I had mastered the twist, but here it was some five years later, and it was clear that I could not Frug, Jerk, Pony, Swim, Monkey, Mashed Potato, Watusi or Boogaloo. I had years of opportunity to learn by watching the gyrating dancers on the Clay Cole show and Where The Action Is. But I didn't. Given the chance to move different parts of my body in diametrically opposed directions, I'd melt into a flailing mess. My sister and her friends would giggle, roll their eyes and bemoan my future.

Thank heavens for Archie Bell & The Drells, who released their seminal recording "Tighten Up" that spring. In addition to a spoken introduction, relentless beats and a great horn chart, there apparently was a dance that accompanied it. I think my sister felt that this was her last chance to save me from a life of wallflower hell, and she decided I would have to learn the rather basic steps that was...The Tighten Up . If I remember correctly, it consisted of a semi-graceful shrugging gesture combined with mild hip thrusting and some alternating foot extensions. There might have been some finger-snapping involved. Simple. Any 13 year old could do it. In fact, it took me much of that Spring, my sister marshaling me much like Velma Von Tussle, inciting me to dance faster and get on the beat. Or off the beat, as was the case here. For that was just one of my problems; I was dancing on the beat. In hindsight, I've come to realize that my basic issue was executing the pelvic thrust necessary to successfully master the dance. I'd had little opportunity at that age to practice that particular movement. I've since learned. Eventually, I got the knack of it, and was able to Tighten Up to any song that came out.

It took a while, and a whole lot of Rolling Stones records to learn how to move my body in some sort of semblance of dancing, and eventually I learned to love it, dancing where ever I could; at summer camp socials, college mixers and finally gay bars. I actually entered my very first gay bar, The Ninth Circle, under the pretext of going dancing with two female high school buddies. Apparently, they could dance there and not get hit on by guys. I thought I could do the same, plus get a some of their unwanted attention paid to me. My thought process turned out to be entirely correct.

From there, I moved on to the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse, where I spent a couple of seasons dancing on cobblestones in platform shoes. Friendships were made on dance floors all over town. We danced wherever we could to whatever was playing, a live band, a jukebox full of 45's or some young man mixing magic before our eyes. We danced at the Mercer Arts Center to the New York Dolls, before it collapsed into a heap in the middle of Broadway one afternoon. We danced at Cheetah, listening to Eric Emerson & the Magic Tramps. A bit later, we danced at the discos of the day, commencing with Flamingo, 12West and the Loft, with visits to Paradise Garage, Les Mouches, Infinity, The Sandpiper, and many, many, yes, many more. We learned to arrive late and stay until the next afternoon, fueled by no end of Mother's Little Helpers. We'd stay on the dance floor for hours at a time, taking short breaks to rehydrate and re-energize. We'd leave, our clothes completely saturated with sweat. Even our leather belts and shoes were salt stained. Eventually we would dance under the dome at The Saint, and then we didn't dance again for several years to come.

So I pretty much haven't been on a dance floor in well over a decade until a few weeks ago. Tim is not from the dancing stock I am, and has a limited attention span for this sort of thing. I, on the other hand, will get up and dance around my living room, should the spirit move me. But those marathons just aren't quite the same without the various requisite party favors, and I'm of an age where I no longer indulge in most of them. We have danced here and there; at a friend's big 40th birthday celebration, when the DJ played Jimmy Ruffin's "Hold On To My Love" and all of us old Saint boys hit that dance floor real hard. Or the time I dragged Tim onto the crowded dance floor at the Boatslip to dance up a sweaty storm. Exiting up Commercial Street, I realized that I no longer looked good dripping wet, just haggard, and that, as they say, was that.

That is, until September 8th, when the whole bunch of us attending Blowoff NYC. Now, I'd read and heard so much about Blowoff in DC, and greatly admired the men responsible for the music. I bought tickets, figuring if we changed our minds, we could always blow off Blowoff, but as the date drew near, I grew excited. We arrived en masse, meeting the rest of our party in the mostly empty HighLine Ballroom. I was a bit dismayed to find no one dancing, and the room vibe not unlike the dance in the gym in West Side Story. But the room was lovely, and the music was intriguing and insistent. I downed a couple of cocktails and talked to friends, inadvertently twitching to the beats. Eventually, I could stand it no more, and heading to a slightly secluded corner near the DJ where I could begin the dance.

There, in the shadows of the alternating DJ's I started moving my body, joined by Tim and an assortment of friends. It took a few moments to see if everything worked, and in fact everything did. My body seemed to have a few new gestures it had acquired, God knows where, and was insistent about trying them out. We danced in various configurations, merging and focusing our attentions elsewhere. I noticed a friend or two nudging each other and gesturing towards me, and thought, Ah, they're just pointing out their wacky old uncle Mark...all that's missing is the fringed lampshade on his head. I was having too much fun to mind.

Study the picture above and you'll see Tim and Joe and Little Tim and Jerry and Lars and possibly Tom and maybe Glenn. A holy host of others. I'm half hidden, partially obscured by a shaft of light, lost in music. Lost in thought, as well. I marvelled at how I pretty much dance exactly the same way I did back in 1975 at Flamingo. Not much has changed. The same sort of men dance their way over to me, communing for a few endless minutes on the dance floor. The same wordless energy is exchanged. I thought of the long line of men I had danced with over the past 35 years, most gone, some missing. For a moment, I entertained the idea that I might be acting as a sort of museum installation, a hazy time capsule view into the dance and mating mores of that long lost age. I jettisoned that thought completely, happy as I was to be right there, among my friends, back in the tribe.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Spell Check

If you are one of the many people who has been steered to this site looking for information on that new documentary about Russian prison tattoos, please note: it's The Mark of Cain.

Biblically, Cain was a son of Adam and Eve. Cain appears to have been a rather lackadaisical farmer, while his brother Abel was quite the cattleman.

Apparently, the good Lord accepted Abel's sacrifice of prime meat, while spurning Cain's offering of so-so grains and leafy things.

I understand this every time I dine at Peter Luger.

It seems that this put Cain crazy, as we used to say down south. He killed his brother, and then lied about it. When asked about Abel's whereabouts, he said: "Am I my brother's keeper?". This caused the Lord to get mightily pissed at him.

He forced Cain to wander the earth, and marked him with a sign, as a warning to others that Cain was not to be meddled or interfered with, but left to suffer in his endless punishment.

The Bible makes no mention of what form this mark took.

You can all see the name of this blog up there in the left corner. Can you guess what my name is? I don't have a brother and I have very few outwardly discernible markings. I am partially of Russian descent, but I am not inked. The name Kane is derived from Gaelic, and seems to mean Little Battle, which seems to suit me just fine. How my family came to that name is another story for another time. When you combine it with my given name, which means war-like, it seems I must be quite a handful.

If you stick around, you'll be party to sporadic tales of long forgotten days (and nights), travels to our gay capitals, some whining about my impending dotage and the occasional rant.

But that's probably not why you came here, is it?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Mark

I wrote this a couple of years ago to commemorate a guy I'm thinking a lot about today.

I met him on a Saturday night at Ty's a few years ago.

He was tall; quite a few inches more than me. Now I'm normally not much interested in people taller than me. I don't like looking up. He was nice looking, just a regular guy, but he had a killer smile, which he turned on me like a klieg light.

"I'm talking to you because you're the most handsome man in this bar", he said, with a wolfish grin.

Oh, jeez, I thought. That old chestnut. I tossed him back one of my own.

"I bet you say that to every guy you meet".

In fact I learned later that he did exactly that. That he had learned that flattery would disarm a person long enough to drop their guard and talk with him. I was to prove no exception.

So we talked. He was new in town that winter, having just re-located from San Francisco. He was flying back and forth, setting up his dot-com PR firm here in New York. He wanted a chance to play in the major leagues, he said. He pumped me for information, all the while flirting outrageously. What did guys like me do for fun around here? Where did we hang out? So...I obliged and filled him in as best I could. I told him that we all tended to assemble at around 5 or so on a Sunday afternoon at the Dugout. That it he'd find people much better looking than me to work that line on. He asked about various neighborhoods and such. In the course of our first meeting, many friends came up, drawn to his animated features and begged introductions. I explained my situation with Tim, got a big kiss anyway. I knew he'd fit in just fine. When Tim collected me to go home, Mark said:

"I owe you dinner. Do you like Nobu?"

Well, in point of fact, I can take it or leave it, but I said yes, and we exchanged cards. I knew I'd probably never see him again.

The following night I was in the coat check line at the Dugout. Remember how insanely crowded that bar used to be at 5:30 on a Sunday? It was moving slowly and I was impatient. Suddenly I felt someone rubbing against my butt. I turned around and it was Mark, right on schedule. I showed him around and made a few introductions. Mark worked the room like a pro, grinning like a madman, introducing himself and buying many shots for any takers. He had a small fan club swarming around him. I was sure he would do fine. My friends and I watched him in amazement.

He came over at the end of the evening and thanked me.

"I owe you dinner".

"I know" I said, "Nobu".

One evening Mark had one of our more psychotic bears pinned against the bar, and was moving in for the kill. Tim caught my eye from his place behind the bar and bit his lip. This looked like trouble brewing. I shook my head. Tim grabbed a Sharpie and a cocktail napkin. He jotted something down on it and held it up behind psycho-bear's head so Mark could read it. Mark laughed and broke up the clinch, smiled and moved on. I walked over and asked to see the note. Tim had written "FLEE!!!"

Mark came over later and said "I owe you dinner; both of you!".

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

That summer, Mark crept up behind me and stuck his hand down the back of my jeans. If you know me, you'll know this doesn't happen all that often. I jumped sky-high. He just laughed. While he played with my butt, I brought up the famous dinner. We both laughed. Business was kind of shaky, I knew. Dot-coms were dropping like flies...the boom seemed over. He was going back to San Francisco in a couple of days to hustle up what business he could find.

The last time I saw Mark was on TV. September 12th, 2001. His mom, Alice was talking about him and all the other men Flight 93, and there was a picture of Mark in his baseball cap, flashing that lunatic grin.

I'm thinking Tim and I are going to finally have that dinner this week. We'll drink to him.

The morning of September 12th, I woke with Tim at 5:40 AM, and looked out my terrace windows at the column of smoke rising from the pile of rubble where the Trade Center towers had been just the day before. Tim and I were not sure how this day would play out. He went to work, not knowing if he'd be able to get back to Jersey City that night. I sat down in front of the television to see if and how our city would be running. My neighborhood had been cordoned off the previous afternoon, and it would be weeks before I'd be allowed to venture about without showing ID. My office was closed that day, like so many others in NY, and I wondered what fresh new horrors the day would bring. I watched the news reports, almost numb. Within minutes of Mark and Alice appearing on the TV screen, my phone started ringing. People had recognized Mark and wanted to know if this man was my friend. After a very short time I turned off the TV, got dressed and walked the deserted streets to my equally deserted office. My plan was to bury myself in work for a few hours and get away from the mounting horror story.

I didn't realize there would be no escaping it.

I still come across Mark's name in my contacts and his card still resides in the ancient Rolodex on my desk. I keep them there, just as I'm keep a small part of Mark's spirit alive in this rememberance of the fun we had. I had a small laugh this grey, grim morning, thinking of all the bearded "Bingham Widows" that appeared as the news became widespread. I think Mark would have been mightily amused and bought them all a shot, if not dinner at Nobu.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Song Remains The Same

I've spent the better part of the last week pondering the notion of Gay Music.

There are so many possibilities, so many sensibilities that makes it almost impossible for me to quantify music into such a category. Do artists of the 40's and 50's like Chris Connor and Billy Strayhorn qualify? Would the work of the Velvet Underground be somehow considered gay?How about 70's singer/songwriters like Steven Grossman and Michael Cohen? Was Glam gay? Is dance music other than Disco gay? What about Laura Nyro? Or Blowoff?

Or is it just that so-called thumpa-thumpa music, with or without vocals, that qualifies as Gay Music? The collected canons of Kylie, Madge & Donna?

I simply am not qualified to answer this.

Tim has bartended every Sunday for very nearly ten years at one of our local bars. Perhaps you know it. He has a regular job that he works at diligently five to six days a week. This bar gig started out as a just a way for him to earn a little extra beer money. At one point he was working every other Friday night and every Sunday, but we were younger then. If you're there, you've probably seen me. Yes, I'm that big guy by the jukebox. Always have been. Tim and I have seen people come and go. We've seen crowds assemble to overflowing, and ebb to a point where it's just me, him and the bar backs. We've been a popular hangout, and then, not so much. We've stuck it out through 5 different management teams, each with very different ideas of how to run the joint. The point is, the joint seems to run itself. I'm not sure why people come and hang on Sundays, but they do.

Years ago, we would listen to the same old and crusty dance mixes gleaned from the piles of sticky cassettes stashed under the bar. The jukebox was not turned on, and when it was, contained many of the selection were remnants of the days when one could two-step upstairs one night a week.

In our travels, I'd listen to the music at bars like the SF Eagle or the Lone Star and ask Tim why we didn't have many bars in New York that played a mixture of dance, rock and obscurities and classics. Tim likened the idea of playing that sort of thing to a house party on your dorm floor. You know, great loud music and a bunch of sexy guys getting drunk. I know...the Boiler Room and the Phoenix did start doing just that, but these were rooms filled with actual college kids, and we weren't looking for that.

I asked the manager if it was possible to add some CD's to the jukebox, and he said: "Sure, give me a list!". Which I did. Because I'm that sort of person. Read about it here. The first list added Radiohead, Iggy Pop, Roxy Music and Prince to the mix. There were to be new lists every couple of months, and I took great pleasure in spending my five bucks to hear a more varied mix of music. Many, many people liked it. A few did not. I remember clearly having a currently popular DJ come up to me as I was feeding the machine and say: "So, you're the one who plays the music we hate!" I had to admit that I was.

Management changed. The jukebox was removed. Management changed. A new jukebox showed up, and I was asked once again for programming suggestions. I made lists. The jukebox died. I got a call, simply asking me to bring a pile of CD's from home. I did. Management changed. I was asked to make a few CD's for the bar. I wound up making 15 or so. Many people liked them. A few did not. A new digital jukebox with an on-line library was installed. One could select just about any genre of music. I'd walk into the bar on a bright Sunday afternoon to a sad round of tunes by Willie Nelson, or a selection from the Josh Groban catalog. Management would beg me to please commandeer the jukebox and play something upbeat. I know how to do that, and was obliging. Since then, I've dropped a few dollars in every Sunday and played some drinking songs for the two hour window that everyone seems to show for these days.

Within the ofttimes difficult constraints of what is actually available, I've managed to find things to play. I've played songs that remind Tim of his college days. I've played songs that call back the years Robert and I got high in our Living Room with our big Koss headphones listening to the latest British import synth bands. I play songs that make Joe sing, and I try not to play songs that make him sad. I play songs that Damian and I laugh (or cry) about. I play songs that remind me of a dear friend who used to stand beside me every week and has since moved away. I miss him. I play songs that cause Tim to look up from his work and smile at me. I play songs that Aaron can rock out to! I play songs we can sing all together, or I can dance in place to. Many, many people like it. A few do not.

Last week, I was approached by someone I hadn't seen at the bar in quite some time. He looked over the jukebox while I talked with his partner. He came back to us angry and red-faced.

"What gives you the right to program the jukebox like that?", he asked.

I put my arm around his shoulder and gave him my usual line: "I'm just trying to avoid a Madonnathon".

Furious, he asked me his question again, as he shoved me off him. I straightened up and told him that when his boyfriend was the bartender, he could play what he wanted. I know, it was a dumb thing to say, and I sincerely regretted it.

"We're gay men. Why should we have to listen to this shit?"

It was then that I started pondering the concept of gay music.

He continued.

"You're the reason everyone left this bar and went to the Eagle!"

I looked around the currently packed room, and gave some thought to the that perhaps the three floors, the cheaper drinks, the proximity of all those hot men and a roof-deck might have had something to do with that decision on their part, but decided not to say anything.

"I put money in that jukebox, and I won't hear it for hours! I'm leaving and it's because of you, and your shitty music!".

He stormed out as I turned and walked away.

I have to say that I was floored, and filled with doubt. Perhaps, I thought, I should stop. I'd surely save a shit load of money. Some friends saw the change in my demeanor and inquired as to what was going on. They were supportive, but still. I told Tim, who said "Screw it!".

A bit later, the gentleman's four selections finally played. Three of them were tunes I'd played earlier in the evening and the fourth was from Madonna's Erotica album.

I just wonder why it is that many, many people can be so supportive and encouraging to me, but all it takes is one negative comment to send me into a tailspin.

Then I think, maybe next week, I'll play "Heroin".