AllRomance/OmniLit (Best Seller Status)
On the cusp of his senior year at Mercy High, Elliot Donahey, an out but terminally shy gay young man who keeps to the shadows – never wanting to be seen or noticed – suddenly finds himself in the arms of the highest profile jock on campus, local star quarterback, Marco Sforza. Their lives, and those closest to them will never be the same.
Set against the backdrop of competitive sports, this character study work deep dives into the lives of these young men who each must “play the game” so Marco can continue to play the game he loves. They are just trying to find some small slice of happiness to call their own amidst their hellish final year of high school.
Author’s Note: Angels of Mercy is first and foremost, a character study. A great deal of it is inner-monologue. Elliot will pause the action, will break momentum as he grapples with his world – all the while flipping a finger to the fourth wall. He knows you’re there. It was far more important to me as its author (and a gay man) that the reader come away with the whys of Elliot’s choices in how he navigates his often tumultuous world. The same can be said of Marco (his jock boyfriend) who will pick up the tale with Volume Two (due summer of 2015).
I’ve read much queer literature and what I find rather interesting is that for the majority of it, very little is written about the character’s headspace. When you live in a world where you constantly have to be vigilant as you navigate through, it can make for some very powerful storytelling. That is my goal in writing these boys’ lives. I want the reader who may not be queer themselves to come away with what it might be like to be in a gayboy’s shoes – constantly polling and pulse-checking your world because your very survival depends upon it. All of that while you hope, you secretly pray, that you’ll find someone who will see you too and find they can’t live without you in their world. A small slice of happiness to call your own. And though you do everything to keep to yourself, you may still run into those who find your very existence threatens who they are and how they think the world should run. I pull no punches with this work. They are hormonally charged eighteen year old young men who are sexually active. While the sex is present in the work it is not gratuitous in that the main character does evolve from his physical intimacy with his high-profile boyfriend. It is not a genre romance read either, though it has a very strong romance threaded in the work. These elements bring a light to their world that attracts all the wrong attention.
In a time where more queer youth are coming out to their teammates and their loved ones, I find that work of this nature is both timely and necessary to tell. I hope you’ll find it as interesting and provocative a read as I believe it is.
A BIG THANK YOU to Jay Brannan who was my musical muse for the project. Rob Me Blind is such a truly brilliant album and I couldn’t have my boys as deeply and emotively rooted were it not for this musical inspiration that came from the brilliant and talented bard of Jay Brannan. Please do search him out on the web and on iTunes. You will NOT be sorry you did!
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).
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 –
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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 …
Music is truly the universal language. As a word-smith and a former opera singer myself, I often use music as the inspirational source of my own works. Steve has already been there for me once with my werewolves of Sparrows Hollow. With the release of his first complete album, I think I may have found a musical landscape that I can root the main character of another work of mine – Angels of Mercy.
So onto the review:
Is it possible to produce a seminal work on a first offering? Without a doubt this offering by Steve Grand makes a very strong case for it.
Mr. Grand hasn’t just delivered on his promise to produce an album worthy of crowd sourcing; he’s set a very high bar for those who follow. All-American Boy is not only a brilliant artistic offering, but it is also worthy of going down in the annals of gay history as truly emblematic of what we, as gay people, can bring to the table – both creatively and emotively. Steve hasn’t only amassed a brilliant and often times hypnotic work, his lyrics are purposeful and thought provoking. There is a strong emotive core through the work from the first track to the last.
Simply put: there isn’t a single weak track in the lot.
There is an infectious and emotive quality here that transcends the work – a positivity of what living honestly can bring out in a person. All-American Boy is a work that we should all be proud of, whether you were a part of his dream or not, because the prose and melodies will resonate for some time to come – he has captured what is core to us all, no matter what orientation you may be or how you self-identify. All-American Boy is at times bold (We Are The Night – FINALLY we gays have a quality anthem of our own), unapologetically audacious (Run), reflective (Back to California), to outright sexy (Soakin’ Wet).
The songs here are indicative of our hopes, our fears, our loves and our losses. They represent the many facets that make up the rich and vibrant tapestry of our community – an often times well-worn with feelings of euphoria of first/new love (STAY), crushing blows of unrequited love (All-American Boy) or somewhere in-between (Lovin’ Again) that we immediately connect with the work. Steve is a master wordsmith and a wizard with pop hooks that deep dive into who we are as gay men, or by distilling it even further, as people within the scope of humanity.
In one breath he will flash the honesty of how we live our lives as gay men but then as quickly as it comes, he moves onto an emotion or visualization that anyone can connect with. Why this is so important is that Steve is drawing a line to how being gay is merely a facet of who we are, that it is only one element that makes each of us as priceless as a Stradivarius. He deftly speaks to both, while wrapping you in a wall of sound that is instantly reminiscent of the classic sound of Philly from the sixties as it is fresh and modern of today. I think this is Steve’s strongest suit – he clearly knows what threads to pull on within ourselves, within our shared human context and emotive cores and he weaves a wondrous musical tapestry that belongs along other monumental offerings throughout the ages (Carole King’s Tapestry, immediately comes to mind). That this is his first official offering is truly awesome to hear and speaks to a journey that only shows a bright future ahead.
The collection of production talent Steve has entrusted his baby to are all to be commended on a vibrant and engaging effort. The band is spot on and never lets up emotively even if they do so musically for effect.
I, for one, cannot think of a better way to have spent my money than on Steve’s project. Truly the emotive dividends it will repay me over the years have no measure or value you can place upon them. They are immediately priceless as they are unabashedly presented – honest, true, and adeptly woven. This is music that draws upon nearly every facet of the collective American songbook. As an older cat in the gayborhood, and a writer and musician myself, I am grateful that as I see my golden years before me that we are leaving our future stories in such capable and loving hands. I am honored to have been a small part of his dream. The project has exceeded every hope I could have for it and Steve’s generosity and sheer brilliance of spirit bubbles to the surface of each song like luxurious cream in a good cup of joe – both familiar and inviting all at the same time. This is a brilliant and defining moment for Steve and crew. I hope they are truly proud of their effort, because the effort couldn’t be brighter than 10 or 10 million supernovas in the heavens above.
The only draw back? I want more.
So why do you think I have any reason to post this sort of track-by-track review? Well, as I’ve stated above in my summation, I was a Kickstarter backer to the project. So in a manner of speaking, I was a producer. Certainly not a high-roller, mind you, but a producer of sorts, nonetheless.
Additionally, I was a DJ during the 80s and 90s and have a massive vinyl and digital music collection. I followed the music rags religiously (back then), am a classically trained (union card carrying member – under a different name) opera singer, and I am a novelist/author. Word-smithing is my game. I am also an honest, out gay man who writes about our lives in a literature format. So I think that gives me a certain degree of cred to speak to this work.
Oh, and sidebar – can I just say “YAY!” for an album that doesn’t FADE OUT at the end of each song? I LOVE that about this album! Ready-made for live performance. Bang on brilliant in my book!
But enough about me. This is about Steve’s offering – so let’s get to it shall we?
Admittedly, while I am generally beyond pleased with the entire offering on this album I was a bit surprised that this was the first track (initially, that is). Not that it is a bad song. As I’ve said already there really isn’t a weak track in the work. But Say You’ll Love Me does do one thing from nearly the first note – it hooks – instantly bringing to me those long car drives that you instantly want to sing along with. The beat is infectious and begs rapping your hand on the steering wheel (not that I advocate being distracted while driving – just to be clear). But the lyrics hit you square in the face with the opening line:
“Close the door,” he says,
“This will only be a minute.”
But sometimes minutes can get
caught in suspension.
Immediately you’re caught up in the moment. He’s put you square in the central character of the song, a place many of us have been before – love of a good friend that goes unrequited (in this instance because the guy in question is straight – and so many gay men have been in this exact position (sometimes more than we want to admit)). Where the title track of this album wallows a bit in the pain of unrequited love, Say You’ll Love Me speaks clearly of the promise of the road not taken. This song is straight up novella – it is short, concise but never wavers in deep diving into those painful and complicated moments we all have had when a love isn’t returned. The licking of wounds to make things last, even if it isn’t the outcome you’d like.
Musically, this one is a roller-coaster ride of the wonderment that can be if the road were taken – if societal conditioning and norms didn’t preclude honest conversation between two caring adults. So you get the dreamlike state of being when Steve soars with the possibilities of what could be if the guy in question would say yes. But like Icarus, the dream dies during flight and we’re cast back down to the reality of it all and the soaring chords and drums are quelled so Steve can rebuild his case to offer something else. It’s all for naught, but the vibrancy and soaring dream is a lasting one long after the final chord is struck.
In the end, I realized after listening to the whole album, there really couldn’t be any other choice as the opener. The intimacy of his friend telling him to “close the door” is like a deep musical journey we’re all about to begin. So you schooled me on that one, Steve. Excellent choice – I stand corrected.
The pain of love on the rocks rings true here. The melodies and musical choices are reminiscent of classic Mellencamp, with a smattering of The Knack, INXS or Springfield while bubbling along with the sort of songs that were prevalent during the eighties. This is music that is timely as it is timeless. The hand-claps are a brilliant touch that connects us all to our collective musical and emotive pasts where being in bad relationships that flashed and burned ruled our hearts only to find ourselves trying to hang onto something that probably shouldn’t be but we can’t help ourselves. I mean, c’mon – haven’t we all had those bad boy relationships? Yeah, well pour another whiskey and let this one play – this is our new theme song.
Okay, sidebar here – I played this for my granddaughter who recently had a boy in her school tell her he’s gay. They’re thirteen. Now, to be honest, I’ve told her that she should get herself a GBF because they can both get through the hellish years of high school together. Told her that’s how I did it, and she could too. So when her friend at school in her class, who knew she had two gay granddads as we are quite active at her school, came out to her she was ecstatic that she had her GBF. They’ve sort of been inseparable since then. It’s a lovely thing to watch. So that’s the setting for what I am about to say with this song.
WE QUEERS FINALLY HAVE AN ANTHEM TO CALL OUR OWN! (Yeah, I am sorta screaming that to the sky).
And let’s not mince words here: this is for ALL the queer youth/community out there that need EVERY ONE OF OUR VOICES of support and love. Well, Steve has definitively laid down the gauntlet on the best way to proclaim we’re here and we have to really support one another. This is a fantastic song for reasons that go way beyond the scope of just being gay, or bi or whatever. It is for all the kids and adults who have always felt on the outside. This is a song for the rest of us. This is the song I would have cried over coming back to me from my headphones (okay, I teared up a little just remembering my hellish teen years that happened so long ago). This song would’ve been so welcome in my small insular world back then. I know it was a different era, but Steve, this song healed that young, confused 16 year old me who was trying to sort out what it all meant. You’ve gone a long way to putting those terrifying and lingering feelings to rest. I can’t thank you enough for these healing words. That you include the spoken part that addresses and includes the trans community at a time when tolerance, understanding and most of all, support and love is desperately needed for these amazing and vibrant people is truly a lovely thing to behold.
Aces in my book. Nothing short of it. This is a song for the ages.
Easily, with one exception, my absolute favorite track on the album (which I’ll come to anon in this review – just keep my granddaughter and her GBF in mind when I get there, okay?).
Now we’ve come to the track that started it all.
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There isn’t much to add here other than this one is a classic already just because it is firmly entrenched in the collective musical consciousness of those who were deeply affected by the song and the powerfully drawn and produced video that began this journey for everyone involved.
No words can adequately express the importance of this song in this album. There was no other way to bring this project to life without giving this titular song its well-deserved and proper due.
It has an infused church-like gospel quality that speaks to the soul and spirit of love, whether accepted or left unrequited. It is what we all strive for and whether successful or not, we strive to carry it forward despite the wins or losses along the way.
Rick Springfield, much? Okay, but you know what? Unlike that classic rock song, this one reeks of sexiness that tosses caution to the wind and just revels in the euphoria of the moment. The way the second verse comes back to you from the raucous and driving chorus is like a memory that has been lingering too long in the dust of time only to slam you in the face with memories and feelings you thought you forgot about until (in the case of this song) “he’s” back. Yeah, this is full-on clothes off time folks. Water, wet exposed bodies and heartfelt memories that goad you to do something completely rash and in the moment that you can’t help yourself and just runaway with it all – this song captures that moment wonderfully without crossing the line to being too pop or schmaltzy. It’s infectious and brings a little summer fun in the dead of winter. A bright and bouncing beat and melody that will have you humming and singing along like you knew this song from way back and like the memories of the two characters in the song, you might even find that you think Steve had planted this in our heads a long time ago and only now just pulled it to the fore and we all go – “Oh yeah! I remember this one…” It’s eerily that familiar.
Classic and new in one package. Full-on awesome-sauce.
This one was a delightful surprise. It has a subtle jazz influenced verse line that exhibits Steve’s broad and adept reach into different aspects of our collective American songbook. It has all the impact of classic Billy Joel and those classic rock anthems of love gone awry and how the heart will have what the heart wants even if it is the worst thing for us. The backing vocals are a lovely if simplistic element that give it that rock anthem feel.
Okay, so before I got to this rustic gem I was sensing that Steve had a theme going here. Does the guy get a kickback from every time he mentions whiskey? Seriously, bro – wtf? I mean I like Diet Coke (sorry don’t imbibe here as it is a serious issue with Native Americans) but I don’t think I would set so many songs with it. But hey, that’s just me, I suppose.
That being said, I have to say I love this track, mostly because of its rustic honky-tonk feel. It lends itself to the bar-back doubling as your psychiatrist. The only downside? I am not sure the mix with the backing vocals is where it needs to be. I think a little more forward with them would have balanced the mix a bit better. I am willing to concede that not having heard it but I think they are getting lost in the mix – especially since they are shown to brilliant effect as the opening to the song.
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Well, now he’s gone and done it. This one is the best example of what Steve does so well. He calls up so many elements of our rich musical past and gives us something for everyone – no matter what your musical tastes have been to this point. This is a full-on party song about the discovery of new love. I loved this song so much I mention it in one of my books (Angels of Mercy – Volume 2: Marco (shameless plug below, so sue me: it’s my blog)). The reason for including it in my own works? Well, it’s mostly because this one was released shortly after the viral video storm that was All-American Boy. Everyone was expecting country again and when it first starts with the mandolins you think – okay, yeah. But then we get horns and claps and all sorts of elements from differing walks of our musical life.
It captures how that wow factor moment of being caught up in someone new to where you don’t see much beyond them because they shine so brightly is what drives this song home emotively. Unlike Whiskey Crime the backing vocals here are spot on and are fully present in the mix. They immediately call up the exuberance of youth and of new love – where everything is just amazing and wonderful. It beckons you to stomp your feet, clap along and join in the chorus. You can’t help yourself – it’s simply that good. My summer song is set – for this year or any other.
It made such an indelible impression that I mention it in my own work. Stay will do just that – STAY.
While not a weak number, this one is a small diversion from the other tracks in that it is rather light on the lyrical element and plays to our baser desires – which isn’t a bad thing. It’s a fun song that will no doubt be a crowd-pleaser when performed live. This song begs for live performance – a crowd stirrer of the highest order. I can already see the audience jumpin’ around in a happy frenzy as Steve calls the shots from the stage.
Titillatingly Magical …
Nothing hits closer to home for an audience than story-telling songs. They are part of the collective consciousness and are easily the most enduring. Here the lyrics take on a poetic quality – descriptive from the heart. This isn’t headspace talking here; it’s what the heart wants. It’s what the heart remembers. It’s what we want to remember most – even after a breakup. You want to hold onto those things that made it all worthwhile.
The mix of this song is really quite lovely. The balance is spot-on. I even loved the synth keyboard string arrangements (thank God the mix held it back from sounding like synths playing strings! Coming from a classical background I am all about REAL string sections but understand when budgets won’t allow for it. I just can’t stand synth strings that scream: hey, I’m playing fake strings here! It’s like nails on a chalk board for me. This mix carefully avoids that mishap).
Love lost. Yeah, we’ve all pretty much got our war stories there. This is very much like an ethereal ode to the death of love, the parting of ways, the rising above the mean and harsh words that often accompany a break up. It’s often a foolish exercise in how petty we can be in life. Nothing hurts more than love gone sour – no matter where the source of that love springs from. Steve sets this poetic ode to love-lost in the cosmos because it is a collective story that we can all relate to. It is expertly drawn and deftly executed. The mix of the song gifts you with an aural layering that the song requires to drive the expansive emotive message home.
I read somewhere that Steve wrote this on the porch of a friend’s house one morning with a bottle of whiskey (would it be anything else? I mean, c’mon, really?). This one is where the inexperience of youth rears its often ugly head. Where the “I don’t give a shit” rises and tries desperately to drown out the noise that surrounds them to the point of going bat-shit cray-cray. What else is there to do but Run? (Like how I worked that in? *cue rim shot* Okay, I agree. It’s smarmy – I’ll stop now).
The song is driving from the moment the first notes are struck and it never lets up. Like the flash in the pan a youngster can go through (James Dean, River Phoenix or Heath Ledger are just a few well-known instances that come to mind) where that mentality can also lead to a tragic and oft times untimely end. It is as much a cautionary tale as it is an anthem to the audacity of youth. It’s brash, it’s harsh and totally in your face unapologetic. But we were all there at one time. I look back now and think – what the fuck was I thinking? Yeah, some truly monumental moments of epic fucked-upness in my closet. This song brought all of that to the fore. Gee, thanks Steve! (<— Just Kidding)
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Okay, remember that little side story I told you about my granddaughter and her new GBF? Yeah well this afternoon I played her the video for it. The song took on a whole new meaning for me (and by extension for her). I’d seen the video before but it didn’t distill itself with such clarity and soul cutting bite as it did this afternoon.
I put it on for her to let her see how a story played out between a teen girl and her GBF. Whether this was an auto or semi-biographical moment that Steve actually went through or not is almost beside the point (no disrespect to the author – I am all about your words, Steve – as an author I sincerely mean that in ways you just don’t know). No, what was of import here was that as she watched it, she began to draw her own conclusions of what the possibilities for her and her new GBF have in store for them both.
She’s spending the night over at his house as I write this. So while I commend Steve for putting this together (maybe even from his own past) I found I used to think about the girl in my life that was my bestie back in the day and how we did everything we could to keep each other sane throughout high school. Only now, having watched my granddaughter watch the video and its message and watching her eyes lighting up with where it could go for the both of them, I saw something truly magical take root. The torch was being passed to another generation of gay boys finding a girl they can confide in and hold close. I am truly proud of her for being there for him. He’ll need her loyalty more than he knows. Thankfully, his family is fully supportive, so no danger there.
So yeah, out of all the songs on this album this song means the most. It is the most sentimental for reasons that transcend the offering here. But that’s what makes the whole project so brilliant and all-encompassing. It is a body of work that stands individually but when combined is a powerhouse of creative spirit and musical expression.
So are there any drawbacks to the album? It can’t ALL be positive, right?
Okay, I’ll grant you. Some of the mixes weren’t what I would’ve done but those are creative choices by the team that Steve surrounds himself with. I have to respect that – and I do. Deeply. As a content creator myself I am all about respecting the craft of others.
There is a single thing I thought was missing though – a simple piano and voice piece. Back to California is a truly lovely piece, my favorite as I’ve explained earlier, but there is something so gripping about a singer and a solitary instrument that was lacking from this album. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, I just found I would’ve liked this one pit-stop somewhere to quiet things down a bit. The wall of sound can be overbearing at times – despite the masterful musical breaths the songs take within themselves. A simplistic element, letting Steve shine as solo, was something I found wanting from the work. Perhaps next time he’ll grace us with such an offering.
The studio musicians (whether they are Steve’s actual performing band or not) were all expertly chosen which only elevates the work to a prominent level, easily putting it on par with larger studio offerings and in my opinion, easily exceeding the miasma of over-processed work that is flooding the market. Steve is a brilliant and engaging personality. He is thoughtful and respectful of our collective gay history, he has a steady eye to his future but knows that there is no sense of entitlement, he is all too aware that his current rise is on the backs of those who were courageous before him. This is why I respect this man and his dream so much. Our lives and loves, the efforts we put into reaching our own equality are in very capable hands with Mr. Grand and his crew.
At the time I wrote my (soon to be released – 4/1/15) first epic work, I reached out to my other musical muse, Jay Brannan who allowed me to quote from his works in my novel Angels of Mercy Volume One – Elliot (it’s about an out but terminally shy artistic gay young man in his senior year who does everything he can not to be seen, suddenly finds himself in the arms of the highest profile jock on campus). Jay was kind enough to allow me to quote a line or two of his songs in the book as my main character is emotively rooted in Jay’s darker aspects of gay life (he’s a gay fanboy for Jay).
So on balance I wanted Marco (his jock boyfriend) to have someone else to root himself in. With All-American Boy, I think I’ve found that album. Marco is a quarterback at the high school and I could totally see him digging what Steve’s message is all about. I already have him mentioning the song STAY in the work. But now he too can root himself in a musically emotive core. So thanks Steve. I know you were an inspiration for my werewolves of Sparrows Hollow (my first release) but now you’ve given me a broad canvas to emotively write about a jock who never wavers in his love of the boy who always questions if what they have is real. Is it true? Because gay boys often have to do that to stay safe. The world is changing; we are evolving (even if, at times, it appears we take just as many steps back as we do forward). But I write from the same source as Steve and Jay do: about our collective experiences, about our lives as we live them, with an eye to our future but mindfully respectful of our shared past.
Until next time …
I’ve waffled enough on this. To release it or not. Look for a lit agent or not. Traditional pub or not. I went back and forth so many times I started to see myself coming. I’ve tugged on my beta readers like you can’t imagine – trying to think through every permutation I could come up with to getting it out there. The print edition is a whopping 540 pages! I just came to the conclusion that no traditional publisher was going to touch the work because I am so new, so untested in the market place.
And ultimately, I knew I wouldn’t compromise too much on the work as it is. I’ve edited the hell out of it, shaving close to 60K words from the original version and it is still a large book. But others have previewed it and said they can’t think of a single thing to cut/edit. Everything in it is relevant to Elliot’s voice and the story he has to tell.
And it is Elliot’s voice in this book that I must honor! <— (You’ve no idea how much I need to defend that last line.)
Elliot and Marco’s story is a deeply personal one. It was one of the fastest works I’ve written (just over several months). Yet the torture I put myself through on whether or not to release it was mind-numbingly overwhelming at times. I knew it was edited and is a very clean manuscript.
But it has so many things that several people who’ve been self-pubbing told me were no-no’s: it ends on a cliff-hanger. It isn’t a M/M romance genre read. It doesn’t fit the mold even though it is one of the strongest stories about two men loving one another with all the trials, tribulations and utter euphoria of first (and in their case) lasting love that I believe is out there.
Will it ever find a readership (the one I know it deserves)? Who knows? I know that my debating it has got to stop because that is what will ultimately kill it before it has a chance to fly. Elliot must see the light for himself now. My boys must fly.
On the wings of Angels …
So without any more waffling – I give you the print cover release as it stands right now with CreateSpace (Amazon). I hope to release it late this month or early in April. Fingers crossed. The work might cost a small fortune in printed form. So yeah, there’s that to consider. I just don’t want to compromise what my boys have to say. It is what it is.