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 …