Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache – Martin Aston (2016) – A Rainbow Read

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Treading similar ground to Darryl W Bullock’s “David Bowie Made Me Gay” (2017) this was published first and is subtitled “How Music Came Out”.  It’s an exhaustive study of LGBTQ+ music and musicians from the 1920s to the present day.  Martin Aston, who was written books on Pulp and Bjork is a celebrated music journalist and has certainly carried out his research here.  I chose to read it to give an alternative viewpoint to Bullock’s study and it does feel more global in its outlook as we move to the present day where you can sense Aston’s greater enthusiasm for the subject matter and an attempt not to leave anyone out which can make it feel, at times, sketchy.

 Although in this work there are probably far more names and the scope is wider I did prefer the Bullock book which feels more of a celebration.  There’s more of the author  within that work right from the title onwards, Aston’s feels more objective throughout and makes little comment on the quality of the music- good or bad.  Whereas I finished the first publication with a strong sense of wanting to discover some of these trail-blazing artists I finished this one with a sense of being overwhelmed and being bombarded with too many names.  Also oddly, Aston’s title references a Northern Soul favourite by Johnny Johnson and The Bandwagon who have no part to play within the text.  I’m sure there could have been more relevant song titles to use.

 But, and as the more academic work, this has a significant part to play in the recording of LGBTQ+ history.  Aston seems stronger on trans artists and in unearthing the obscure from a 50s lesbian Rockabilly Group the Roc-A-Jets who barely made it out of Baltimore, to 60s Brit-pop singer Polly Perkins, touted as a rival to the Dusty/Cilla/Sandie triumvirate but now best remembered for her role in ill-fated BBC soap El Dorado.  I may be wrong but I don’t recall these artists getting as much focus in Bullock’s book and there are many others like this.

Thinking about the two books I considered which would be the one I would most likely read again for pleasure and the Bullock work has the edge.  I think some kind of playlist suggestions or select discography from what really excited Aston or what he thought most significant would have made this seem more personal, especially as in this age of Spotify it would be so easy for readers to rediscover the obscure.  This is, however, a valuable examination of the development of an important aspect of LGBTQ+ culture.

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  Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache was published by Constable in 2016.

David Bowie Made Me Gay – Darryl W Bullock (2017) – A Rainbow Read

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Subtitled “100 Years Of LGBT Music” Darryl W Bullock does a thorough job with his overview of popular music and the role played by LGBT artists.  If there is a central character then that is David Bowie whose “otherness” struck a chord with a whole generation who felt they didn’t fit in.  I was a little too young to comprehend the seismic shift which occurred in popular culture when Bowie appeared on the scene. Viewers who saw him put his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson on early evening “Top Of The Pops” (we obviously were not used to men touching then) were instantly divided into those who “got Bowie” and those (largely but far from exclusively split along generational lines) who most certainly didn’t. 

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In 1972 Bowie interviewed in “Melody Maker” said “I’m gay and always have been even when I was David Jones”.  How much of this was the fame-hungry Bowie looking for headlines?  This statement was revised over the years and we know enough about him to understand that his sexuality was not as defined as he suggested at the start of his career but these words ensured the music world would never be the same again.

 But the questioning of sexuality did not begin in 1972 and Bullock provides a largely chronological study. He begins in early twentieth century New Orleans with its ethnic mix, red-light districts, poverty and party atmosphere which saw blues, ragtime and jazz emerging from the dives and honky-tonks.  Gay pianist Tony Jackson was a leading light and blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith led the way in hitting the big-time often with female lovers in tow.

 As the music business got more profitable and big fortunes were to be made record label executives did not want to do anything to rock the boat and so closet doors shut firmly on artists such as Liberace, Johnny Ray and Johnny Mathis and in the UK, Noel Coward and Ivor Novello.

 By the 60’s and 70’s the sexuality of big stars became a tabloid newspaper obsession and artists such as Dusty Springfield, Elton John and Freddie Mercury were hounded waiting for them to be caught out.  Closet doors creaked open a little and then shut.  Dusty left the UK, Elton married a woman and Freddie died of AIDS.  By the late 90’s another much-hounded performer George Michael was able to turn the whole thing on its head when he was outed following a “lewd act” arrest (something which had more or less killed the career of Johnny Ray in the US decades earlier) and he came out unapologetically with the celebratory, joyous “Outside” single and video.

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Bullock does not just focus on the stars who made it and is perhaps even more illuminating on those who were unable to find success because of their sexuality.  Some forms of music opened doors (Disco, British 80’s pop, Folk music, New Romantics and Punk) and some did what they could to ensure LGBT artists would not succeed (Country, Hip hop, Reggae, Christian Rock).  Bullock examine these artists who have tried to change attitudes but it is a slow process in some areas.  In 2016 Trey Pearson of Christian Rock band Everyday Sunday’s coming out led to immediate axing from festivals and with the US veering more towards conservatism things might not change that quickly. 

In the UK more positive attitudes have ensured that an artist’s sexuality is not a kiss of death career-wise and this has meant that LGBT artists are now amongst our best loved stars – Elton, Freddie and George Michael have been joined as household names by Boy George, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, Morrissey, Jimmy Somerville, Marc Almond, Andy Bell of Erasure, Tom Robinson, Will Young, Sia, Sam Smith etc.  That etc. suggests that we are hopefully fast approaching the point where sexuality does not matter. Since the 1980’s the British pop charts have been fuelled by the sound of gay and gay-friendly acts (Stock Aitken and Waterman had a significant part to play in this) but in other parts of the world this is not the case.  I like very much the scope of Bullock’s work and his ability to document the past and project into the future.  This made “David Bowie Made Me Gay” both a celebration and highly thought-provoking.

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“David Bowie Made Me Gay” was published in 2017 by Duckworth Overlook

When We Rise – Cleve Jones (Constable 2017) – A Real Life Review

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Cleve Jones is an important figure in the fight for equality for the LGBT community in the USA.  He is also a survivor who lost hundreds of friends during the most horrific years of the AIDS pandemic.

This is his memoir and as a record of life in 70’s/80’s San Francisco this is about as good as it gets.  So much so that a six part TV series has been made of this book which has recently been shown in America.  On board for direction duties is Gus Van Sant and the screenplay has been written by Dustin Lance Black.  Both these were Oscar nominated (Black won) for their work on “Milk” (2008) about another very notable San Franciscan activist and politician, Harvey Milk who was murdered in 1978 and was very much a mentor for Jones.  Dustin Lance Black appears in the later years of Jones’ memoir and is well known in the UK as the partner of Olympic diver Tom Daley.  This promises to be a major television event and is currently apparently available to view on Netflix.  (I don’t have a Netflix subscription but am considering it on the strength of this alone).

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Dustin Lance Black, author Cleve Jones and Tom Daley

Jones is now 62, which makes him part of the generation who grew up with few acceptable gay role models leading to isolation and a belief that no-one else was like them.  Moving to the larger cities, especially in the USA, they developed a sense of community which, by strength of numbers, saw a beginning to challenge unfair laws and attitudes.  There were the short-lived decadent days of disco followed by the decimation of those communities by AIDS.  Jones is ten years younger than Armistead Maupin, this memoir feels contemporaneous to the novelist’s “Tales Of The City” series and those who relish Maupin’s San Francisco will want to explore Jones’ factual examination.

What I liked about this book is its celebration of Jones as a survivor and his unassuming approach to playing such a significant part in American Gay History.  The workings of US politics is somewhat of a mystery to me but Cleve the activist details his achievements in stopping a law prohibiting gay people working in schools, improvements in the access of medical treatments and wider issues affecting those working in the hospitality industry.  These achievements were largely brought about by mobilising the community. There is an awareness throughout of what else is going on in the world and he comes across as intelligent, impassioned and strong even when the odds are very much stacked against him socially, politically, economically and medically.  Cleve Jones also originated the NAMES Quilt Project which provided the first real memorial to those lost to AIDS, one of the most touching and sobering things I have ever seen.  Cleve was also around when the Rainbow Flag became adopted as a symbol, the relating of this being another high spot in his memoir.

At the end of “When We Rise” Jones states; “My generation is disappearing; I want the new generation to know what our lives were like, what we fought for, what we lost and what we won.” So much was lost but finishing this book leaves this reader with a great sense of how much was won.

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When We Rise was published by Constable in 2017