Hold On, Wait a Moment … JK Rowling and the Natives
Something is going on in the media and the blogosphere that as a native man I have to comment on. We’re talking about an author who has had tremendous success (and rightfully so – this post does not debate that) who has written a new work in the much beloved Potterverse world.
A recent letter from an academic, a Native American woman, has written, what I believe to be, a rather important letter to JK Rowling about the responsibility as an author to “get it right” when writing about a cultural/societal community.
You can read the initial letter to her here.
This has been picked up by the media – of which the Guardian in the UK has had an uproar from Potter fans coming to Jo’s defense. Yet, I say to you, they are woefully off the mark as to what is really in play here. They are blindly defending her (by and large) and attempting to obviate her from any culpability in writing about a specific Native American nation (yes, NATION – we still have some modicum of sovereignty in play here, folks). There is a growing concern from within the Native populace that something is sadly amiss here. Now, no one has seen the work, so it’s speculation at this point. But even so, the letter to Jo wasn’t accusatory (to my mind) but rather a – please tread carefully and consider what you, and your powerful writers voice, are saying to the world about any indigenous population.
For I’ll grant you, no matter where they are – what continent they exist on, ALL native populations are watching this.
Here is my two cents on the matter as a member of that community – I find I can’t sit by and NOT say something (this was my response at the Guardian UK website to those who were blindly defending Jo without considering what was really at play here):
Sorry I disagree with those that think writing fiction is some sort of “get out of jail free card” – the tone of the “letter” to Jo was not in a accusatory manner at all, rather a plea to be sensitive to another culture. How can anyone state that she did NOT do anything to misrepresent Native Americans or their culture? Just the broad use of Native Americans carries a disingenuous tone as we are a collective of various sovereign nations each with our own beliefs and societal mores. Are you from that culture to speak to what is offensive or not? As a native man, I interact with my community (both from my own nation/confederacy and others from abroad). I see the signs of continued oppression from within.
Authors are in the business of communication. Even Jo acknowledges this point herself in that documentary that was about her. When she was writing something new the documentary filmmaker prods her about it. She doesn’t want to say much under the point of “it’s still my world.” She knows the moment it is released it is no longer hers. The world’s readership has the right to absorb and reject what the work as to say. It’s all about communication.
I grant you as an author you can write whatever you want BUT be prepared for how others will perceive and respond. That is THEIR right to take in the works and respond to them. If there is a legitimate concern as to representation then that community has every right to say so. Authors are not immune to responsibility in what they write. They can surely stand by it, but at what cost? Alienating a community who feels misrepresented? Breaking down trust that an author sees them with disrespect?
When it comes to my community remember that #whiteprivilege has been the edict that has oppressed us and misrepresented us in all manner of writings – not just “academically” but in fictional literature (Hiawatha, much?).
Case in point: I am writing a story that involves my own native community. It is a story that on the surface looks like it is magic/witchcraft but it in reality is quantum mechanics in play. Yet because of the witchcraft metaphor, I am off-worlding it to an alternate universe because I am fully cognizant of how my people view witchcraft. To be respectful, I am alt-history and alt-universing it in a LIKE universe to divorce myself from our own reality. That is respectful of my own nation and its core beliefs. EVEN THOUGH IT IS FICTION. I wanted to represent the community and give them heroes that they could see beyond the trappings and identify with the characters.
Just because an author writes fiction, it does not obviate that the community you are writing about doesn’t have the right to say “hold on, wait a minute …” because while even Americans (and I realize I am giving them far too much credit here) may know the barest whispers about individual cultural systems in play with each nation, a kid in Romania may think that what’s there is an extrapolation of how it truly is. Why? Because Jo has rooted whatever she’s concocted in the real world (muggle vs. wizard). Therefore, the reality does play a factor (reality is a “character” in the stories she creates) so the “letter” to Jo from this community is merely reminding her that as a people we still are here, and we watch what’s being written about us (whether in fictional form or not).
Until Next Time …
When Worlds Collide
Writing is a funny business. And by funny, I mean peculiar.
The reason I say this is that what any given writer writes about has to come from a place of either economics (wanting to survive by your writings), passion (a story that just won’t let its author go), or as a means of vindication (having your opinion heard on a given topic – a reasoning and establishing your point of view in a debate).
But therein is where it gets peculiar (at least to my way of thinking). I am solidly in the middle camp. I write from passion. I don’t give a fuck if it’s embraced. I’d like it to be, but it is not a requirement. I’ve said this before. I am a successful writer because I complete a project. I see it through. It may not find its audience until I am well and truly gone. But it’s out there – my voice among the collective. For all time, as they say, because nothing in the internet really goes away (save a cataclysmic alien invasion that wipes out our tech in favor of their own). Right?
I recently had such an experience come to light with my works. I am writing to explore the institutionalized forms of homophobia in competitive sports – in the case of Angels of Mercy, American high school football. It’s done fairly well, given I don’t expect it to be the next Friday Night Lights or something of that sort. For one, I don’t concentrate on the hetero-centrist bullshit that permeates nearly all of literature and media out there. Jesus, how our straight counterparts are so weak that they have to have so many stories written about them. True, there is a burgeoning interest in our stories, but let’s be honest, it’s still small by comparison. Given the latest study on the GLBT impression in media – we are still in the single digits by way of exposure in the mainstream.
Part of that I lay fully at the feet of my own queer community. A large swath of queer men don’t partake of books, TV or movies that focus on our lives to really make their financial impact heard in the mainstream. And when we do have something that speaks to us, about our lives as we live them (*cough* LOOKING *cough*), it is bashed by its own community for not being representational of the whole.
“We don’t live like that. Not everyone is in the bushes looking for a hook-up.”
True on both counts. Yet, it was bashed so harshly by those of us in the queer community that now it’s gone. Now we’re relegated to tongue-in-cheek facades of Ryan Murphy’s worlds (Glee took a major leap off the cliff after the third season, American Horror Story, while great, is definitely over the top, and if AHS was out there, then Scream Queens left the planet for queer representation years before it aired). Yet with Looking gone, another of our voices became stamped out. And we did it to ourselves. Rather than engage the producers and creatives behind that show (a show I happened to have loved) it was torn apart at the seams.
What is HBO or Showtimes take away? Queer storytelling that focuses on the queer characters don’t sell. Even to our own community.
(Read that last part again, in case you missed just how cutting that is to our own stories.)
That’s beyond pathetic. It’s self-annihilation, or a fucked up internalized homophobia to the nth degree, if you ask me. Self-inflicted. How fucked up is that?
I just recently watched, with my husband, Andrew Haigh’s Weekend.
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It was a brilliant and intense queer story. It opened up so many reasons why I loved Looking as I did. It did NOT have a happy ending. It just ended – leaving you to ponder what happened next. Did the boy left behind pursue his lover to the US? Or did he just simply give up? I LOVED that. I loved the not knowing. Allowing me to decide for myself how it all ended.
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I also want to see Lilting.
Jesus, that one looks like it will emotively crush me. I live for those works. I recently watched Ben Whishaw in London Spy. That one also rattled me a great deal. It was queer storytelling that was epic in how brilliant it twist and turned on a dime. Ben Whishaw was brilliant in that work as well. I love my queer men and their simple complicated lives. I love talking to other queer men about their lives and loves and losses. They hold me spellbound. They truly do. Their stories are far more potent or powerful because they exist in the face of often monumental adversity. I admire them. They are my romance. Every single one of them. Even when we don’t agree. I still love and admire them. How could I not? They are from different mothers, but they are my brothers nonetheless.
This is partially why I rail at romance tropes. Not enough is being done to write about us as we are. It’s why I can’t write those things. Not when there is so much more to talk about. I get that it’s writing to “hope” – well, romance as a genre doesn’t have the lock on hope. It’s also why I can’t get all gushy about Disney fairy tales (though I will say I was pleasantly surprised by Maleficent). Because they’ve applied solid romantic tropes to stories that had none of that in it. Look at all the works those sweet retellings are based on – there’s none of that happy ever after in the original works. Mother Goose and Brothers Grim were outright scare monsters of fictional storytelling. Nothing short of it.
But I’m a bit off topic here.
What I wanted to get to with this post, is that the crossroads of queer fiction (or as I’d like to now call it – just plain literary fiction – because I am all about the equality) and romance. Somehow the works that take a solid look at our lives as they are get bashed because there is an automatic assumption that anything queer MUST have a HEA. Yes, there are genre and sub-genre works out there, but let’s be honest, their sales probably would do a helluva lot better if that HEA albatross wasn’t out there ready to sack any fictional work that has a queer protagonist/hero doing their damnedest to get to the last page of the story.
This came home to roost with a new reader who found my works and seemed to enjoy what I was writing. Or so I thought. I’ve since learned that no matter how much you put out there that the work is NOT romance, the prevailing winds are if it is queer then it MUST BE romance. Another reason why I rail at that genre. It’s poisoning the coffers of other works out there. I don’t fucking care if it sells. It still should not myopically mar the other stories that need to be told.
I write what I like to read, and what I like to watch. To give you context, I like heightened drama – Downton Abbey, ANYTHING by Shondaland (How To Get Away With Murder, Scandal, etc), things of that nature. I like it when characters are pushed to their absolute limits of what they think they can handle. Then we get to see some real character development. Why? Because humans grow from adversity. It’s built into who we are. Whether we choose to collapse and withdraw (which is a choice) or to fight and press on. We evolve to one end of the human spectrum or another. THAT’S powerful storytelling. Safe stories with safe endings don’t provide that. They just provide the candy like feel good moment before it’s dropped and moved onto the next sweet morsel of storytelling. Police procedurals don’t interest me. Mostly because they are formulaic to a great degree. I have Sherlock (the Cumberbatch edition, if you please) that satisfies that far better than any NCIS or procedural out there. I’m a solid card carrying Cumberbitch, and proud of it!
I also come from the world of professional opera. I write operatic pieces set against the normality of life. I like watching my safe characters who, as its author, I want them to find happiness just as much as the next guy, struggle like hell to get there – whatever their HEA is (and it definitely doesn’t have to involve romance or a romantic theme). But in my worlds, as in life, none of it is guaranteed. I’ve said I am a pantser, in that I have tentpoles up that mark where I want the story to go, but I also let the characters drive the drama. Sometimes they’ve even surprised me. Actually, they surprise me a helluva lot.
So this new reader seemed to like what I was doing. But I thought, because I was careful to explain in ALL of my blurbs and marketing about the works, that they are NOT romance reads, that I was covered by that simple statement. I’ve never professed them to be romance in any stretch of the imagination. I don’t do romance. I can’t. I want to push my characters into very, VERY, uncomfortable places. I like watching them squirm and rationalize their own fucked up viewpoints, I want them to explore why they are doing what they are doing. I want my readers to see the dangers of their thinking. They are very, very specific works. Not for everyone.
But again, that is my passion. That’s what I write. Heavily influenced by my years in the opera world telling those types of stories to the masses.
I was once in the wings about to go on for the final tableau setting of Cavalleria Rusticana when one of my opera singing gay buddy besties came along side me. We loved to quietly crack jokes and goad one another backstage before we had to go on and be over the top dramatic. Keeping the balance, ya know? Humor before tragedy and all that rot. So I turned to him and said, just before the ear shattering scream one of our cast members was tasked with when the hero is killed in a duel:
“Why can’t we do a happy opera sometime?”
To which he replied:
“Who’d come to see it?”
He had a very valid point. His response is what’s guided my hand while I write what I write. I write opera. I write drama. No automatics in those works. In fact, it’s expected that shit won’t work out. That the ending will be cataclysmic and disastrous. If I can pull a rabbit out of my hat and give my characters a happy ending that works, then yay me. But I don’t do automatics. Hell, sometimes I only vaguely know how it’s going to end when I start. And even then, that ending is ALWAYS a moving target as I see it finally in my sight at the end of the work.
*Series Spoiler Alert*
Well, I asked this new reader to preview the next release – Angels of Mercy: Phoenix in the Fire. He said he’d love to read it and provide feedback. This book is dark. It’s not a happy book by any stretch of the imagination. How could it be? It is about being the victim of a very horrific beating by your boyfriend’s teammates. That is going to do a number on how you see your world, despite which avenue you choose to crawl out from that terrifying hole: to survive and become stronger (the hardest of the two) or to collapse inwardly and withdraw from everyone you know (sadly, the usual tract most take). I wanted to explore the former rather than the latter. It’s easier to implode from that sort of homophobic beat down. I wanted Elliot to climb out of that hole and find an inner strength to himself. Elliot struggles to accept the love that is freely given to him by many in his life. He thinks he’s not worth it. Many gay men have this struggle for one reason or another. I wanted to have that as part of his inner monologue.
Well, suffice to say that my new enthusiastic reader wasn’t very taken with the new book. In fact, when I asked him what he found that didn’t work (because I truly wanted to explore that) it became very clear to me he was reading it as a romance read. I tried to explain that I wasn’t writing that. It was too late. Phoenix had soured the work for him. I haven’t heard anything since my last email that tried to explain what the works truly are. Other betas advised me to leave it – to distance myself from that situation. But I’ve toiled with it in my head. It’s stuck in my craw, so to speak.
But it did point out why my ire at the romance trope exists. It is poisoning other works. The expectation that ALL stories must have romance tropic happy endings is destroying proper storytelling. It is also setting expectations out there for works that are nowhere near that form of writing.
I don’t do romance. I probably never will. I write us as we are.
There. I’ve stated it once again. Not that anyone is really paying any attention. Those tropic bullshit expectations will still be there. I’ll still rail against them and flip them the big ol’ bird and purposefully write darker works that put a magnifying glass on our community as we are just to spite those Disneyesque saccharine laden pieces of fiction.
I write drama. Operatic drama. Period. Deal with it, or move on. I’ll continue to write either way.
Until Next Time …
The Pen IS Mightier …
Truly. Who knew? I always thought that was a cliché. Guess not. That shit’s for realz, y’all!
So here’s the dealio … I’ve started this thing over a the Violet Quill Redux, another blog site. Yeah, I know, I KNOW. I barely keep up with this one. But ya see, this blog site is very different. It’s my blank canvas for a new work I am starting to form. This one is very close to the bone. So close that it’s about me. My life – with all it’s beauty, and inherent warts, too.
Totes Clamath Boy.
And that’s the scary part – the whimsy of it all.
I’m really bearing my soul here. Artistic endeavors aside, this is the real deal, kids: a no-holds-barred, unflinching look at where I’ve been and what I’ve done.
Make no mistake, this is terrifying. It’s also rather liberating. I find that I am resonating with readers, too. I’ve already had more than one person pull me aside (either through email or private message or what have you) and tell me things about their own lives, how what I wrote pulled memories almost forgotten or set aside from their darkened pasts.
Truly epic and deeply felt stories have been brought to me. So it seems I’ve struck a nerve.
But as with all things when it comes to my writings, I think this one will be a slow burn. I think it’ll catch fire though. I’ve led a colorful life. Well, let’s put it this way, there are some thing’s in my past I’ve had to quietly research to see if legal statutes of limitations still apply or not. Yeah, I wasn’t always the good guy I made myself out to be. Love, or rather lust, can make you do some very stupid shit. Sex was the greatest form of self-expression in my youth. I suppose for most gayboys that’s a very true statement. Sex is pure pleasure in our worlds.
But way I figure it, why not put it out there? There are Reddit exposés being released all the time that catch fire. So why not mine, eh?
What good is living all this stuff if you can’t relay it all?
I mean, how many of us live, love and die and our histories are lost the moment we take our last breath? Sure some family members or friends might recount some odd exploit of yours, but really, the bulk of your life fades away, doesn’t it? Those smaller details of every damned thing you’ve gone through simply slip into the ether. But it doesn’t have to, that’s the thing. You just gotta have the courage of your convictions (as they say) to get it out there.
I found I can’t have that; the losing myself to the ether after I am gone. I know I am not a celebrity. Yet, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the stage as a professional actor and classically trained singer, so I’ve had my time in the sun where that’s concerned. But why not a “common man” tale? I think I am worthy of relating to. Might give some insight for those who aren’t queer to see what it’s like from the inside. But I realized that my thoughts, my impressions and perceptions will be lost the moment I let go of this mortal coil, as it were.
Who will speak for me then? I will, that’s who.
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And I’ve had rocky parts to my life, too. It hasn’t all been a bed of roses, ya know. Not by a bloody long shot, actually. Let’s just say that a few times I didn’t know if I’d make it out in one piece. I’ve been quite lucky. Probably why I haven’t won the lottery. I think I used up all my luck on my fool-hearty twenties and have now lived to tell the tale, as it were.
But that’s part of the challenge, isn’t it? To face what I’ve accomplished, what I’ve failed, where I’ve gone along with, who I’ve done. Make no mistake, and it’s not like you haven’t heard it before, but sex sells.
I just need to put it all out there – to write it all down. They’re not chronological in how they’re presented over on VQR. They need to waffle up from the pit of my belly and demand their time in the sun. Hedonistic weekends that I have to not only face, but write about or else none of it is worth putting out there. I can’t hide from it this time. I have to detail it all.
Because I am truly embracing my queerness. I am totally reclaiming what that means for myself. My life is queer. Those jocks who teased me back in high school were 110% correct. I am queer. But what I didn’t get, what I was too naive and green to see, was that I shouldn’t be shamed by it. I needed to embrace it. To take hold and ride that bitch into the night.
The thing is, it’s going to hit a fair number of people I know. No man is an island, as they say. Truer words and all that rot. I don’t think most of my friends and family realize that. I mean, it’s not going to be loaded with salacious tidbits of stuff left and right with them. They’re my friends and family. But I led a double-life back then. One way with them, another when I was alone or with my then boyfriend. My twenties and early thirties were somewhat of a voracious sexual rompfest. I was careless, I was brash and unthinking. And I was extremely lucky. But before anyone goes off the deep end with rantings about “self love” and “self respect” – fuck off, will ya? This is MY queer life, not yours. Yes, to a great degree while I didn’t go running off into the night to mimic Rechy’s characters in The Sexual Outlaw, or Numbers, while I was a teenager, I did my fair share of it in my twenties. Two completely different aspects to myself. One the loyal, front and center kind of friend and family member, the other? Yeah, let’s just say I’m amazed beyond belief I am still standing here. With a negative HIV status, no less. ‘Cause muthafucking shit got wild. A form of Russian Roulette that I some how came out unscathed on the other side.
But that’s the thing, I’ve got to put it all down. What was totally euphoric as well as the horrific. I’ve certainly had both. And great heaping spoonfuls of it, too.
And I’ll tell ya this much: I’ve never felt more alive then when I am writing out my past. It’s like a character in my book, like Elliot Donahey or Marco Sforza in Angels of Mercy, except I know this guy intimately. He can’t hide from me, because he is me.
There’s a part of me that is grateful that I severed my ties with my birth name entity across social media. Now only SA Collins exists. I’ve killed the other me. He’s history, well, as much as anyone can be in this day and age. Nothing ever truly disappears when it’s been on the net does it? But in that, he lives on in the posts on Violet Quill Redux.
But that’s cool, too. It’s definitely going to be interesting, that’s for dayum sure!
Scared (’cause Mom’s gonna read this shit).
But feelin’ so fucking alive …
Until next time –
Words and Errata – The Vocal Edition Ep 003
So yeah, I know I haven’t written on the blog much lately. I’ve been busy trying to keep all of this podcasting stuff sorted. It’s a slight learning curve to get things recorded, edited and posted to SoundCloud and iTunes.
Say nothing of actually writing anything in my novels either. Though I did spend the majority of the day yesterday concentrating on one of my books that has lingered for far too long on the back burner – The Cove Chronicles.
So yeah, I am finally getting into the game of writing on all fronts again. Finally! Whilst you wait for my next written missive here on the blog – give a listen to my random thoughts and musings after recording Brandon Witt’s interview and podcast recording. I found him to be a lovely and very thought provoking man to engage and discover his perspective on his works and the creative process he goes through in creating the worlds he has published though Dreamspinner.
So enjoy my little ramble until I can get around to WRITING one! HA!
Until next time …
A Boy and His Wings – To and Fro …
An Album Review for a Modern Day Bard – Adam Ray
Before I begin, I want to tell you a story – it’s what I do.
You see, I get caught up with other artists. Having lived my life trotting the boards of the stage myself as a singer and actor, I have been enamored with those who see life through an artist’s eyes. To hear or see their interpretation of things is truly magical. And I am not one of those “it has to be about me or nothing” types. I so hate those divas. It only shows the pettiness and the inner-frailty of what they do. Like the bullies in high school, they carry bravado like armor and will bash anyone who isn’t as great as they see themselves. No, I’m not one of those.
But I’ve been around enough of them to know it when I see it.
Having done this for almost the entire half-centennial time I’ve occupied space on the planet, I’ve had the pleasure to work with some truly amazing people. Some were the biggest names in the biz, others not so much though their talents certainly warranted a greater audience. I am the type of performer that actually cheers others on because I know what they do doesn’t take anything away from me. I’ve learned that by watching others who can’t handle it. So instead I love to champion my fellow artists (especially if they’re queer) because the life of an artist, regardless of medium, isn’t an easy one. And those who carry true genius in their craft often come with inner demons and frailties that they work very hard to mask from others. Sort of like we put on makeup, painting ourselves into you want others to see you, rather than embracing what you were given.
Anyway, to my little story (and it does have a bearing on this review – so I beg a little patience). You see, last week I was caught up in the euphoria of Steve Grand‘s pre-release momentum for his debut album (of which I was a Kickstarter supporter). So I wanted to do my part. I wrote a track-by-track review and informed Steve I was going to post it. He was generous and encouraged me to “go for it.” I got his blessing to use the tracks (as sound clips – not the full tracks) so people could get a sampling of the album that so many supporters and fans have been waiting for. For me, and my humble blog site, it was rather heady – like a pre-pre-release party, albeit digitally.
It’s been a fairly rousing success for everyone involved. Steve loved the review and told me so. It got retweeted between Steve and others to about 80K Twitterites (my term for it). That was rather amazing. My stats went through the roof. So in a way it was a party of sorts – well, in my head if not physically.
So why am I telling you all of this? It’s quite simple really. But to answer that I want to ask you a question (and be honest in your reply – no one is really gonna know but you).
Have you ever had one of those moments when you’re caught up with something that is so enthralling or exciting and then someone – usually a stranger – taps you on the shoulder and in the midst of everything they whisper into your ear something that truly resets your emotive clock?
Yeah, well, that’s what happened to me …
It was in the height of that euphoria that Adam Ray, who I hadn’t been aware of (looking back I began to think: Jesus, what rock was I under?) before he sent me a simple tweet in the midst of all the tweets going to and fro in the Twitterverse.
It was simply this (my moment of Adam digitally whispering in my ear):
So to my question: have you ever had one of those moments?
… Because for me, this was one.
Things were swimming along with people checking out my review for All-American Boy so I thought: why not click it and check it out? Little did I know what I was about to experience.
This review hopes to capture how like Dorothy stepping from the sentimental sepia of Kansas into a kaleidoscope of Oz, Adam’s offering to me to sample his song “To and Fro” was a moment where everything in the party came to a stop. The rush of that emotive river, stilled by the plaintive strings and guitar that demanded my attention in the quietest of manners. By the end of the video, which shows a simple picture of Adam (from what I can tell) as a boy, the song poured out of my headphones and cleaved its way into my heart – I wasn’t merely hearing it, this was a consumption that went to my soul – it burnished its way there.
You see, Adam writes about what I write about: the journey of what it is to be a gay man and discover what that means for ourselves. To shed what society puts onto us to be one of them, not to define our own masculinity by what the accepted (if two-dimensional) norm is. Sadly, some of us don’t make it. To and Fro is about that. I went from giddy about All-American Boy to tears within the span of a little over four minutes. But since that song is toward the end of this album, I’ll save my full commentary on it when I get to that song in the track listing.
So, as with Steve’s review, I’ll give my final summation first:
BOTTOM LINE –
The Clown Parade isn’t a good album of songs. It just isn’t – and bear with me here – you see, what Mr. Ray has gifted us with (and I do mean GIFTED), is a schooling in how to be a modern day bard. This album isn’t good; it’s not even great. It is so damned superlative that, as a wordsmith, I’ve been wracking my brain to come up with a word that truly encapsulates how fucking brilliant the work truly is.
Monumental? Stellar? Right magnitude, but they’re so overused.
Stupendous? Astounding? So 1960s, don’t you think?
Fantastic, Incomparable, Virtuoso? – yeah, all easily applicable here, but still not on the mark.
Clown Parade is more of an emotive musical journal of a gay man’s journey – in this case Adam’s own. But really, so many gay men can relate to it on so many levels because there is so much here that I’ve learned over the years we all pretty much have in common. He presents songs that are soul shatteringly explosive and revealing (The Painter), all the while self-deprecating (Loaded Gun), often bordering at times on self-loathing (Battle). To a very great degree it’s what we, as gay men, are taught by those who are not one of us. But that’s not to say this is a downer album. Because it’s not. It may seem that at first blush, but like the Wizard of that grand emerald colored city, Adam has many layers to the curtain he’s now chosen to throw aside. What Clown Parade is I can tell you best using Mr. Ray’s own words from the song “Wendy“:
You were the light that made the shadows run and hide
You took the mirrors off my walls and made me look inside
It is this light that is prevalent (whether metaphorically or by calling it outright (as above)) that he shines defiantly at himself, and by extension he dares us to do so and challenges who we are and what life has dealt us and how well we may (or may not) have done with it all. All of this as his brilliant and well-crafted prose, like dousing us with turpentine, the colors of our lives running into a myriad of emotive paints, he dips his fingers into them and paints us in alternating pain-ridden hues, cracked with lost loves – abusive relationships both internal and external, and forces that put us at odds with ourselves. But as I say, this is not a downer of an album. Actually, it is quite liberating to let this album emotively wash over you and cleanse your soul. Every word may be from Adam’s own past, but damn it if they didn’t have direct correlations to my own. In this way it has an immediacy to it, a base truth, that as gay men, we pretty much all share. We can’t truly escape it. The mainstream heteronormative establishment works very hard, despite growing acceptance in equality, that we are still not part of the “real” club.
But that isn’t to say that the mainstream won’t get something from it as well. And they should.
Nashville, are you listening?
THIS MAN IS YOUR FUTURE.
BECAUSE HE’S SO REMINISCENT OF YOUR PAST.
Listen up to your roots coming back at you and take heed. Adam brings Country truly home by taking it to its historic roots. And I am not talking as we know it today. I am talking its real roots – those men from centuries ago who were true storytellers. Men who went from town to town to tell these musical stories. They were our form of social construct – morality tales, tales of strife and of overcoming obstacles. Sounds kinda like what Adam has here, if you ask me. Bards of ages old. Musical tales of the human condition.
The kind of Country music before patriotism and nationalism became a commodity. When being an American actually had some sincerity to it. Where it was about the story that was being woven before an audience that was the point of it all. In a very real way, it’s theater of the most popular kind. This is what Adam truly is, no matter what genre of music he uses, he is a storyteller first and foremost. His musical talents are undeniable, but it would be a gorgeous instrument with nothing to play were it not for his incredible deep-diving often revelatory compositions.
Yet, it is this very thread of truth, of self-discovery that is truly an awesome thing to move about you as you listen to these tracks. And while they may be a gay man’s tale, it is human to its core in ways that I have found sorely lacking in today’s musical “pre-fab” offerings – something Mr. Ray and I share. I used to think that I was just getting old, that music had moved beyond me. Instead, I see with brilliant men like Adam Ray and Jay Brannan (the only other person on my list who I consider a true bard), that it is the music industry that has lost its way. Indie is where it’s at.
That Adam does so from a Country format is really no surprise. As I said in Steve Grand’s review, while my own musical journey is from the world of Opera (as well as musical theatre), I grew up listening to and being exposed to musicians from all facets of the musical spectrum. Country was fully present in our house. I grew up listening to the greats of the past: Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn, Lynn Anderson, Freddie Fender, Glen Campbell to Hank Williams (Sr.), Patsy Cline and Skeeter Davis. I knew all of their songs and would join in whenever we were with my dad’s side of the family in upstate Washington, or in Wisconsin and one of my many uncles (Dad had 23 brothers and sisters) picked up a guitar and the country songs started to fly. So, like Adam, I get that. It’s in my blood too.
And as a sidebar, while I do listen and appreciate musicians from every genre, I have to say what keeps me rooted in Country music is that the male singers sound like men. I don’t know why that is. I don’t think it’s a gay thing; I don’t. It may be one of the reasons I navigated to the world of Opera – because I loved the sound of male voices. I’ll take a tenor (like myself), baritone or bass anytime over the ladies. Sorry, just the way I roll, I guess. Maybe that is a little gay, but I seem to favor the lower registers. Not to say I don’t love soaring vocal inflections that rise, like Superman, into the vocal stratosphere. Adam has that and they rise with such vocal clarity and emotive resonance that it rattles my own understanding of the world as I’ve come to know it musically. I appreciate dexterity when it’s done correctly. Adam has that naturally. These words and his vocals are my own heartstrings being played back to me, like he’d been watching me all of these years.
I am no fool; I know that isn’t remotely true. But I’d be hard-pressed to find a song where I can’t relate to it in some very direct way. This journal could be my own, my husband’s, or any one of my friends.
Adam is truly one of the most gifted singers (and songwriters) I’ve encountered that had me rooted in what he was all about from the moment he took his first breath in To and Fro. He had me; I was hooked. This is not merely a country offering either. Mr. Ray works in musical theater (he is currently touring with “The Book of Mormon” around the country – even stops by in my own neighborhood of San Francisco next month (April) – and after hearing this album, you bet your sweet ass, my butt will be in one of those seats cheering him on, even from a distance, in the dark, with the rest of the fans who came for the show) so his reach is broad and make no mistake, he is adept at it all. But for me, this album has cemented something more lasting: it is the words that he writes, the absolute truth he offers, with all of its flaws and imperfections that will have me clamoring for more. I dare you to listen to this and not find something in it for you. Words and music alone can’t always sway, but Adam’s vocal prowess is undeniable. It is meteoric and blazing – a much needed hug after a long hard day that will lift you up in that you will not feel quite so alone. For me, Clown Parade has already joined my very short Desert Island Discs list (music I couldn’t live without if I had to choose); it is simply that good.
Oh, and can I just mention A FUCKING STRING QUARTET nearly throughout the work! I had a musical orgasm over that one, I can tell you! Who does that any more? Class act, Mr. R. Just sayin’ …
So I don’t have an all-encapsulating word that applies. But I do have a word that I love that completely captures what I went through listening to this album: obtenebration. It is an archaic word but it means the absolute point of darkness before you see the light. Adam’s album is that light – piercing and radiant. His vocals rise and descend with such confidence that you can’t help but be caught up in the journey. The music is so gorgeously arranged and executed by the brilliant artisans Adam chose for the project. He told me in an early email exchange that it was the hardest thing he has ever worked on and one of the things he is most proud of in his life. There is no doubt about the quality and care that is burnished and lovingly presented in this offering. So while I can’t give you a word that truly says everything I love about this man and his works, I can give you that singular archaic word that describes where, even with all of my vast experiences over the half-centennial years of existence on this planet, this work adequately gave me personally, a real-life example of what obtenebration means.
And from the first note, it brought me light.
This is the type of voice my confused 16 year old self would’ve loved to have in my life. Warning me of emotive pitfalls, encouraging me that I am loved, that I do matter. That my journey is a shared one even if it doesn’t appear that way in my day-to-day travels. Gay men’s voices about their lives, about their accomplishments, their foibles, follies and incredible emotional highs. Men who live their lives courageously when the world at large tries to knock us down. You are one of those men, Adam. Far stronger and more brave than you know. Or maybe by now you do? I’d like to think so at any rate.
And just so we’re clear, Adam. You can tap my shoulder and let me know what you’re up to any old time. I’d be all the richer for it. I know that now, you’ve convinced me of such with this brilliant light that is The Clown Parade.
The track by track listing:
01 Intro –
Like a soft Copland-esque opener, this is Americana. It is a lovely and meandering musical roll across your mind, painting pictures of picturesque landscapes and broad vistas. I listened to it several times before Adam sent the lyrics to me for this review. There was something that kept gnawing at me about it though. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on that was so eerily familiar. Then the lyrics arrived and just before the words to Missouri (the first vocal track) were the words to the chorus of “Oh Shenandoah”. My husband laughed. He’s from the classical world as well (pianist who trained under George Szell of the Cleveland Orchestra) and he just said why didn’t I ask him because he caught the first few notes as they played from my speakers and though they weave the melody between alternating instruments the theme is there. He’s used to playing with melodies buried in compositions – even as trained as I am in it all, this one was so brilliantly arranged that I ended up smirking, thinking: well, fuck me. Score one for #TeamRay. This piece moves from the intro right into the first vocal track when you get to the word Missouri in the Shenandoah melody. A subtle, lovely and brilliant touch. Americana beautifully threaded in a work that only grows and expands on this with each track that follows.
02 Missouri –
The folly of youth and young love. This one definitely picks up the tempo from the somber opening. It is a tightly arranged and beautiful segue from the intro to give us the gift that is Adam’s vocal talent. His voice is warm and inviting, enticing us with its opening lines that anyone could identify with –
Do you remember/ that night under the stars
When love was innocent/ and forever didn’t seem so far
Laying there side by side/ in the dew covered grass
Holding each others hand and wondering if true love lasts
These are thoughts we’ve all entertained with a heady romantic encounter – even if we’ve never really distilled them into actual words. I personally love the way that the subject of this fleeting declarations of attraction are stilled by the knowledge that it was but a moment in time when they both needed some healing before moving on. It is the slight sentimental leaning to lamenting a road not pursued that makes this one golden. This story is left wanting … and that’s a good thing.
It is notable from the start that the title of this song is Battle and not War. The first denotes that it is one step, even if a backward one, that may be lost, but it is certainly not the war – why? Because obviously the singer is still around to tell us the tale. The war is not over. To my way of thinking, so you’ve lost a few battles? Hopefully, you’re a smarter warrior for it. What doesn’t kill us, and all that rot.
I’m not a good man, baby, I’m not a good man
I’m did my best, baby, I’m doin’ the best that I can
But it’s a battle putting out the fires within
I wrestle demons, baby, but they’re strong and they win
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After inquiring with Adam on the back-story of this piece, he told me that it has less to do with him directly and is more about family history. In a way I was heartened by this. Not because I require him to be the center of each piece, but because it speaks to the eagle-like vision he has over what intrigues him to write about – in this case, pain someone close to him went through, though not his own front and center journey. I love how he deftly imbues the pain of an abusive relationship and the devastation it can bring to anyone involved. It is something that has touched us or someone close to us so we all know the havoc it can cause – leaving everyone in pain and wallowing in self-doubt and denial. A brilliant cautionary and emotive tale. This is what a bard does best. Adam has it in spades.
05 My Love is the Best
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You drive me crazy and you push every single button
You pick a daisy and you wear it in your hair
You flirt with all the guys just to see if I’ll get jealous
I try and play it cool and say that I don’t really care
But you know that I do
And you love to watch me sweat
See you what you can put me through
And I’ll ace all your tests
Until the day you realize that, baby
My love is the best
Lover’s games. Nothing is sweeter, nothing more gratifying than the confidence between two committed people who are so confident in their love for one another that playfulness ensues, bringing a new round of desire to spark between them. This is decidedly where Adam takes a diversion into the playfulness life has to offer. The chant is infectious, and the vibe is gentle as a lover’s caress or a subtle nuzzle behind the ear. There are doubts on display within the context of the song, but hey, we all have them no matter how strong you think your relationship is – but the rewards are well worth any doubting demons who rear their ugly heads. Love for one another – yeah, that’s what’s best.
Another review compared this song to something that was alliterative to Sir Elton John’s classics (Daniel, for one, comes to mind). And certainly, I can see the similarity. But I counter with something I love more about this particular offering by Adam. This is a boy’s tune, regardless of your sexual orientation.
Men are taught in modern society that our emotions are not to be expressed. Somehow doing so is seen as womanly – which being the father and grandfather to two smart women I find utterly appalling as if that was something to be despised. I think this does my gender a great disservice. It promotes a disconnectedness to those around us and to the world at large. And that doesn’t mean we have to go soft either. So like Pan in this song, I think Wendy is an allusion to the loss of innocence, of not wanting to grow up, of hiding what we, as men, truly feel but aren’t permitted by society to express – fear, abandonment, resentment, rejection. Every boy is Pan.
Wendy, whether in fully personified form as a girl, or for us gay men, as a metaphorical manifestation of our connection to our emotive center, our willingness to be fragile, caring and empathetic, men are by and large being done a huge disservice in connecting as men to each other, irrespective of their sexual orientation, to being a father (should the situation arise), and certainly to women (misogyny is still alive – even amongst gay men (yeah, I said it)). Men need to heal as a gender. For me this was the take-away for this piece. What do you come up with?
Pssst! Here’s a hint: I pinged Adam about who “Wendy” was and I found I wasn’t far off the mark. See, he really is a bard. Message received: loud and clear.
And there’s so many songs I didn’t write for you
Before the storm before the fall before our tragedy in blue
Never knew how to be a man tried to stay a boy like peter pan
I flew away and hid my heart from you in never ever land
You tried so hard to understand
So, If you hear me now I hope that I’m not out of line
And If you have found someone to love I hope that he is kind, that’s fine
But if you look up and smile at the moon tonight
Then maybe singing this song for you was the first thing I’ve done right
This is your song
What the heart wants and what it needs aren’t always on the same page. Hurricane for me is about this. Those bad relationships that are all consuming but in it you realize what they burn most aside from passion, is a bit of your soul – a piece at a time.
Hurricane you broke me down again
Just when I thought I thought you were finally moving on
You kissed my lips and left a frown again
And like a storm you made a mess, and now you’re gone
But I’m the fool who stood out in your rain
Who found sick pleasure in your pain
We danced a circle ’round the drain
08 The Fall
Here Adam reaches a bit esoterically – and it is done to brilliant effect. The sparseness of the arrangement (both vocally and musically) gives you the utter devastation that warrants the mood of this biting piece.
You cut me but I supplied the sharpest blade
I gave you a ring but I pulled it from a hand grenade
You kept me safe inside barbed wire fences
I kept you warm but you got burned and left defenseless
In the fire
In the fire
09 The Painter
I truly loved this piece. That it was the first piece Adam wrote late one night/very early morning in the theater after a night of performing only speaks to the dedication he has to his craft that goes well beyond a simple paycheck (something else he and I share). It is also indicative of what sort of game Mr. Ray brings to the table – FULL-ON “A” GAME. It is clear from the prose of this work that it is the message that is driving Adam to push at our comfort zone and look at how we view our own intimate relationships. I’ve certainly been there in my past – though thankfully my 20 year (legal) relationship with my husband puts that squarely in the past. But yeah, this one brought it back home for me.
Find a crack in the wall of this castle we built
Drive a nail in and hang me to cover your guilt
You gave me a brush but said, “Paint in the lines”
And we’d paint in the dark hidden from smaller minds
Oh, but you were the painter and I was the muse
You were a hammer and I was a bruise
I’ll be your palate which colors you choose
A tragedy painted in blues
10 Loaded Gun
I drink too much and, baby, I’ve had some one night stands
I get lonely that I need someone to hold my hand
There’s a hole in my heart that nobody can fill
I keep on searching every bed, and every bottle, and pill
Loaded Gun is a fucked up mess of a song. Once you hear it you’ll know what I mean. It’s pretty straight up honky-tonk/juke joint material. Here Adam brings out all the vocal bag of tricks. He may be singing about how fucked up he is and where his fuckedupness has led him, but damn it all if it don’t have a catchy finesse to it that makes you wanna bounce in your seat or tap your hand on the steering wheel while you’re grooving to it. Sometimes being fucked up, or at least writing about it, can be a hot mess in a good way.
The subject matter is far darker than the tune lets on. There is some really fucked up shit going on in that song, bro.
11 A Single Word
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Roll me in sugar and wrap me up in shiny colored plastic
.99 cents gets you sweet cliche pump the bass lets really blast it
But can the truth ever set us free or is that word too fucking dirty
In these sterile rooms where dreams are manicured
You said listen up boy if you want you ever wanna be heard
But I don’t wanna change a single word
A broken music industry where you sell your soul to Satan himself to grant your every desire for success and fame. Seems slightly reminiscent of Damned Yankees – only that was about baseball, wasn’t it? Well, I think (and apparently so does Adam) that the pre-fab shit that is being marketed and sold as bona fide Country (or really any genre, let’s be honest) with auto-tune so prevalent that the youth of today have no idea what a real honest-to-God good singer truly sounds like. All that’s needed is the proper image and everything else can be fabricated to elevate the “dreamer” into superstar status.
Oh, and don’t offer up that “they have to perform live, though” – yeah see, auto-tune works in that arena too. And there are articles that point how rampant its use is within the industry. Talent is not nearly as required as a sexy look or a nice rack of tits to promote something to be sold. Hell, even Paris Hilton had a song out – so obviously anyone can do it. Thankfully, I get none of that from Adam’s work. There are subtle vocal inflections that are purely human in nature that would be a huge target for auto-tune to correct. Not because Adam sings off key; I wouldn’t imply that for a fucking second. No, because what it does is remove those rustic human qualities that give us that Stradivarius quality that makes Adam’s voice so distinctive from my own. Opera and Musical Theatre, if done traditionally, is predicated on its artisans being a good tunesmith and vocalist. Adam makes a very strong case for why that is needed now more than ever with this song.
Of course, the “fucking dirty” word in this case, is gay, how the construct of Country music as an industry won’t allow someone, no matter how talented or vociferous in his positive message of acceptance and inclusion, won’t invite his dreams to the dream machine factory. Sterile walls and beautifully manicured halls are, in fact, riddled with bigotry and exclusion. The plastic only covers the blackness that lies underneath a broken construct and the withering heart masking its dark exclusionary secret in patriotism and conservative values as if they are the true keepers of the dream.
Adam, you’re absolutely right about not changing a fucking single word.
12 To and Fro
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From Verse 3:
Small town USA
A tough break if you are gay
A little boy climbs
Up a big oak tree
Because the harder they pushed
The less he could fight
Tied a knot round his neck
Whispered “mama don’t cry”
And let go
the rope swings to and fro
Sometimes sticks and stones
They bury bones, they bury bones
And sometimes words alone
They bury bones
You told him he’s going to hell
You told him he’s wrong
You told him he’s going to hell
And now he’s gone
Small town USA
Home of the “free and brave”
Okay, time for the waterworks and nothing short of it. In Adam’s own words (from Broadway World):
One of the songs that is most precious to me, “To and Fro” was inspired by the stories of a couple of my cast members who grew up gay in an ultra-religious and unsupportive environment (even enduring religious therapy to “heal” them). We were in Kentucky at the time, and I read an article about yet another LGBT youth committing suicide because of bullying. I was bullied relentlessly growing up so the topic is one I feel extremely passionate about. I remember I was so angry and sad I was literally shaking when I wrote it.
Yeah, I am with Adam on this one, too. As an older gay man, I am all about protecting our queer youth. I can’t imagine being thrown out by the family you were born into. Those type of people confound me. So fucking selfish beyond all measure. So many of our queer youth are in absolute danger and I feel so helpless when all I want to do is find some way for them to be all right and know someone cares about what will happen to them. I was lucky in that even back in the 70s and 80s when I was growing up, I had incredibly supportive and loving parents who loved me no matter what. I didn’t have to live through that hell. But you can bet your sweet ass I was ever so thankful I had who I had as parents. I never took it for granted. I knew I was one of the lucky ones. But it didn’t mean I didn’t live through the horrors of it with my friends in the gay community as I grew up. I saw it with my own eyes.
13 The Clown Parade
While I could wax poetic myself on this one what I will say before I leave you with Adam’s words on it, is that while I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t paint things to make people happy or comfortable being around me – you see what you get, case closed, move along if there’s nothing to see – then now I have a theme song for it. This song begs you to root for those of us who have to deal with image issues. And yeah, even the people who appear beautiful on the outside can have some pretty ugly demons going on inside – book by its cover and all that, you know?
What do you want them to take away from The Clown Parade?
You are enough. Your “imperfections” or “mistakes” make you beautiful. Don’t EVER paint yourself a clown just to march in their parade. Don’t ever subscribe to the damaging and regressive definitions of ‘normalcy’ and beauty that are widely accepted in this world. I marched for years in circles and found myself nearly 30 staring at a stranger in the mirror. Music gave me the courage to wash off my ridiculous make-up. I made a decision to trust my heart and discovered that truth will only set us free…if we face it head on. I just hope my journey can inspire people to simply be themselves and go for their dreams. Don’t limit yourself. Men don’t have to be tough and buff and strong. Women aren’t catty, weak, objects of desire. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the toughness and strength of intelligent women like my Mom, and I wouldn’t write they way I do if I didn’t have father who was sensitive and supportive. An LGBT individual can be a country music artist, a Christian, a mother/father, a role-model…anything he/she wants to be. The parade is over. Let’s march to the beat of our own drums.
The Clown Parade is about that. It is a song worthy of its own musical.
Actually Adam, I was thinking that a book needs to be written to go along with your score. It’d make one helluva musical, don’tcha think?
Hmmm … (tapping finger to chin)
Until Next Time …
Musician and Engineering Team Credits
ADAM’S SOCIAL LINKS