Well, here we are. One year later and still no physical Pride events, here or elsewhere for that matter, thanks to COVID-19 and the state of the world these days <boo, hiss….>.
Regardless, I’ve been thinking about how I could mark this year’s non-event. I could pout and rage (which I feel like doing), but it would be more productive and positive to put together some little tribute to Pride and celebrate in my own way. (By the way, if you’d like to see my Pride retrospective from last year, you can check it out here.)
Rainbow Flag Raising at City Hall
On June 1st this year, the City of Toronto proclaimed Pride Month and raised the Rainbow and Transgender flags at City Hall. Due to current COVID-19 restrictions, this year’s ceremony was pre-recorded and held virtually. In the video below, Mayor John Tory is joined by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Toronto Centre), Grant Gonzales and Yuri Hernandez from Pride Toronto’s Board of Directors, and Pride Toronto Executive Director Sherwin Modeste. They share messages of solidarity and reflect on milestones being marked this year by Toronto’s 2SLGBTQ+ community, including the 40th anniversary of Pride Toronto and the 30th anniversary of the City proclaiming Pride Day.
YouTube Livestream Virtual Parade
On Sunday, June 27, 2021 from 2:00-3:00PM, there will a live “Virtual Pride Parade”. Personally, I can’t imagine it, but if interested, it can be found here. Myself, I’m waiting for the real thing next year.
Toronto Pride: Looking Back Once More
So after touching on a couple of things from our current, grotesquely hobbled Pride (and no, I won’t go off on my usual rant), I’ll go back in time as I’m wont to do, to Toronto Pride weekends of the past. Specifically, I thought I’d reminisce a bit about those wonderful GCDC (Gay Community Dance Committee) dances at The Masonic Temple, aka The Concert Hall, at 888 Yonge Street (corner of Yonge and Davenport).
Those dances were great. From roughly 1981 until 1992, they went from 9:00 PM to 5:00AM; there weren’t that many after-hours gay clubs at the time, so it felt slightly radical to be able to dance almost until dawn. There was a major GCDC dance event (and they truly were Events with a capital E) at least a couple of times a year, and the Toronto Pride GCDC dances, especially, were the highlight of the year. The GCDC dances eventually attracted up to 2,000 party-minded people, raking in up to $10,000 each time. As I understand it, the money was split among community groups who gave back to the gay community.
Gay Liberation on the Dance Floor
Our gay community was quite different at the time; it wasn’t the diverse cultural melting pot we see on Church Street today. Even so, the dances were incredible as they brought together so many segments of our community at the same time. Those dance parties were galvanizing, unifying and liberating: they consisted of gay men and lesbians who simply wanted – and loved – to come together to dance.
The dances were apolitical and simply all about fun, dancing and good times, yet they also helped shape Toronto’s gay and lesbian community into what we enjoy today. At the Masonic Hall/Temple, men had the main floor of the Hall, which was massive (I well remember the towering speakers, pulsing lights and lasers), and the lesbians had their own DJs, bar and party in the lower level. There was, and still is, a second floor balcony where you could climb up to get out of the mass of people, and just observe the goings-on on the dance floor below:
The music at those GCDC dances was great. Personally I’ll never forget sweating to Jimmy Somerville’s cover of Never Can Say Goodbye at more than a couple of the events. Here’s a sound sampler on Mixcloud from the November 1, 1986 GCDC Dance at the Masonic Temple, themedI Never Touched The Witch:
As an aside, Mixcloud is a great site if you want to hear what was actually being played in Toronto’s gay clubs at the time. On the Mixcloud page above, there’s two October 14, 1995 sets by DJ Allan Kaufman at Club Colby’s (formerly Katrina’s), and a June 1983 set by DJ Greg Howlett at Club Mystique (after-hours club behind the Manatee on Phipps Street). Oh, I do remember dancing in those clubs back in the day <heaves heavy sigh>… but I digress…
I still remember so well, sadly, when the GCDC dances came to an end once and for all. Appropriately themed The Last Dance, the Masonic Hall played host one last time to the very last GCDC dance at Pride, June 1992. And, of course, I shouldn’t have to tell you what the very last song on the setlist was that night: queue Miss Donna and Last Dance:
I’ll never forget walking back home at 4:30 in the morning after The Last Dance, up Park Road to our place on Huntley Street, my mind and body still electrified and energized by 6 hours of 130 beats per minute. I remember having a bittersweet mixture of afterglow from the great party combined with the knowledge that a GCDC dance would never happen again.
This weekend I have again proudly hung my Rainbow Flags on the balcony, and will try to get in to the spirit of things. I can’t help looking ahead to next year, though, when things should get back to relative normality. If that’s the case, we’ll have a Pride unlike any other… it will be a hell of a party. Until then, I remain waiting in anticipation… 🙂
As someone with a keen interest in 1970s pop/gay San Francisco culture, one of the characters I admire from that era is Harvey Milk. He is one of my heroes and has inspired me in so many ways. As a gay man living in the 21st century, many of the unprecedented gay rights I now enjoy can be linked back, directly or indirectly, to the work and struggle of Harvey Milk in San Francisco during the late 1970s.
For those not familiar with Harvey Milk, he was a gay rights activist and politician in 1970s San Francisco. He was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Harvey served almost eleven months in office, during which he sponsored a bill banning discrimination in public accommodations, housing, and employment on the basis of sexual orientation. The San Francisco City Supervisors passed the bill by a vote of 11–1, and it was signed into law by Mayor George Moscone. On November 23, 1978 Harvey Milk was assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone, inside San Francisco City Hall by disgruntled and mentally disturbed fellow City Supervisor, Dan White. There is still so much more to this story as a whole, which you can read here if you’d like to learn more.
There was a Hollywood biographical feature film (Milk) of Harvey Milk’s life released in 2008 featuring Sean Penn in the starring role. The film was released to much acclaim and earned numerous accolades from film critics and guilds for Sean Penn’s performance, Gus Van Sant’s directing, and Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay. Milk received 8 Oscar nominations at the 81st Academy Awards, including Best Picture and went on to win two: Best Actor for Sean Penn and Best Original Screenplay for Dustin Lance Black.
For perhaps a little more realistic insight into Harvey Milk’s life, I think the 1984 documentary film The Times of Harvey Milk is far and away the better film; it’s considerably less “Hollywood” in nature, for one thing. The Times of Harvey Milk won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1985, and also took the Special Jury Prize at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. Randy Shilts’s 1982 biography of Harvey Milk – The Mayor of Castro Street – is also a worthy read.
Harvey Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 from President Obama; the award was accepted by Harvey Milk’s nephew Stuart Milk.
Below is Harvey Milk’s famous “Hope Speech” in its entirety, delivered at 1978’s Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco. He was assassinated in November that same year.
My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you. I’ve been saying this one for years. It’s a political joke. I can’t help it. I’ve got to tell it. I’ve never been able to talk to this many political people before, so if I tell you nothing else, you may be able to go home laughing a bit.
This ocean liner was going across the ocean, and it sank. And there was one little piece of wood floating. And three people swam to it. And they realized only one person could hold onto it. So they had a little debate about which was the person.
It so happened that the three people were the Pope, the President and Mayor Daley. The Pope said he was the titular head of one of the greatest religions of the world, and he was spiritual adviser to many, many millions. And he went on and pontificated. And they thought it was a good argument.
Then the President said he was the leader of the largest and most powerful nation of the world. What takes place in this country affects the whole world. And they thought that was a good argument.
And Mayor Daley said he was the mayor of the backbone of the United States. And what took place in Chicago affected the world. And what took place in the Archdiocese of Chicago affected Catholicism. And they thought that was a good argument. So they did it the democratic way and voted. And Daley won seven to two.
About six months ago, Anita Bryant, in her speaking to God, said that the drought in California was because of the gay people. On November 9, the day after I got elected, it started to rain. On the day I got sworn in, we walked to City Hall. And it was kind of nice. And as soon as I said the word “I do,” it started to rain again. It’s been raining since then. And the people of San Francisco figure the only way to stop it is to do a recall petition. That’s the local joke.
So much for that. Why are we here? Why are gay people here? And what’s happening? What’s happening to me is the antithesis of what you read about in the papers and what you hear about on the radio. You hear about and read about this movement to the right, that we must band together and fight back this movement to the right. And I’m here to go ahead and say that what you hear and read is what they want you to think.
Because it’s not happening. The major media in this country has talked about the movement to the right, so the legislators think that there is indeed a movement to the right and that the Congress and the legislators and the City Council will start to move to the right and the way the major media want them. So they keep on talking about this move to the right.
So let’s look at 1977, and see if there was indeed a movement to the right. In 1977, gay people had their rights taken away from them in Miami. But you must remember, that in the week before Miami and the week after that, the word “homosexual” or “gay” appeared in every single newspaper in this nation in articles both pro and con. And every radio station and every TV station and every household, for the first time in the history of the world, everybody was talking about it, good or bad.
Unless you have dialogue, unless you open the walls of dialogue, you can never reach to change people’s opinion. In those two weeks, more good and bad, but more about the word homosexual and gay was written than probably in the history of mankind. Once you have dialogue starting, you know you can break down prejudice.
In 1977, we saw a dialogue start. In 1977, we saw a gay person elected in San Francisco. In 1977, we saw the state of Mississippi decriminalize marijuana. In 1977, we saw the convention of conventions in Houston. And I want to know where the movement to the right was happening.
What that is is a record of what happened last year. What we must do is make sure that 1978 continues the movement that is really happening and that the media don’t want you to know about. That is the movement to the left. It is up to CDC to put the pressures on Sacramento, but to break down the walls and the barriers so the movement to the left continues and progress continues in the nation.
We have before us coming up several issues we must speak out on. Probably the most important issue outside the Briggs which we will come to, but we do know what will take place this June. We know that there’s an issue on the ballot called Jarvis-Gann. We hear the taxpayers talk about it on both sides. But what you don’t hear is that it’s probably the most racist issue on the ballot in a long time.
In the city and the county of San Francisco, if it passes and we indeed have to lay off people, who will they be? The last in and the first in and who are the last in but the minorities. Jarvis-Gann is a racist issue. We must address that issue. We must not talk away from it. We must not allow them to talk about the money it’s going to save, because look at who’s going to save the money and look at who’s going to get hurt.
We also have another issue that we have started in some of the north counties. And I hope in some of the south counties, it continues. In San Francisco, elections were asking– at least we hope to ask– that the US government put pressure on the closing of the South African consulate. That must happen.
There is a major difference between an embassy in Washington, which is a diplomatic borough and a consulate in major cities. A consulate is there for one reason only, to promote business, economic gains, tourism, investment. And every time you have a business going to South Africa, you’re promoting a regime that’s offensive.
In the city of San Francisco, if every one of 51% of that city were to go to South Africa, they would be treated as second class citizens. That is an offense to the people of San Francisco. And I hope all my colleagues up there will take every step we can to close down that consulate and hope that people in other parts of the state follow us in that lead.
The battles must be started someplace. And CDC is a great place to start the battles. I know we are pressed for time, so I’m going to cover just one more little point. That is, to understand why it’s important that gay people run for office, and that gay people get elected. I know there are many people in this room who are gay who are running for a central committee. And I encourage you.
There’s a major reason why. If my non-gay friends and supporters in this room understand it, they’ll probably understand why I’ve run so often before I finally made it. You see right now, there’s a controversy going on in this convention about the gay governor. Is he speaking out enough? Is her strong enough for gay rights? And there is controversy. And for us to say that there is not would be foolish. Some people are satisfied. And some people are not.
You see there is a major difference — and it remains a vital difference — between a friend and a gay person, a friend in office and a gay person in office. Gay people have been slandered nationwide. We’ve been tarred and we’ve been brushed with the picture of pornography. In Dade County, we were accused of child molestation. It is not enough anymore just to have friends represent us, no matter how good that friend may be.
The black community made up its mind to that a long time ago. The myths against blacks can only be dispelled by electing black leaders so the black community could be judged by its leaders and not by the myths or the black criminals. The Spanish community must not be judged by Latin criminals or myths. The Asian community must not be judged by Asian criminals or myths. The Italian community must not be judged by the mafia–myths.
And the time has come when the gay community must not be judged for our criminals and our myths. Like every other group, we must be judged by our leaders and by those who are themselves gay, those who are visible. For invisible, we remain in limbo. A myth. A person with no parents, no brothers, no sisters, no friends who are straight, no important positions in employment.
A tenth of the nation’s supposedly composed of stereotypes and would-be seducers of children. And no offense meant to those stereotypes but today, the black community is not judged by its friends but by its black legislators and leaders. And we must give people the chance to judge us by our leaders and legislators.
A gay person in office can set a tone, can command respect, not only from the larger community, but from the young people in our own community who need both examples and hope. The first gay people we elect must be strong. They must not be content to sit in the back of the bus. They must not be content to accept pabulum. They must be above wheeling and dealing. They must be, for the good of all of us, independent, unbought.
The anger and the frustrations that some of us feel is because we are misunderstood. And friends can’t feel that anger and frustration. They can sense it in us, but they can’t feel it. Because a friend has never gone through what is known as “coming out.” I will never forget what it was like coming out and having nobody to look up toward.
I remember the lack of hope, and our friends can’t fulfill it. I can’t forget the looks on faces of people who have lost hope, be they gay, be they seniors, be they blacks looking for an almost impossible job, be they Latins trying to explain their problems and aspirations in a tongue that’s foreign to them. I Personally will never forget that people are more important than buildings.
I use the word “I” because I am proud. I stand here tonight in front of my gay sisters, brothers and friends, because I’m proud of you. I think it’s time that we have many legislators who are gay and proud of that fact and do not have to remain in the closet. I think a gay person upfront will not walk away a responsibility and be afraid of being tossed out of office.
After Dade County, I walked among the angry and frustrated night after night. And I looked at their faces. And in San Francisco, three days before Gay Pride Day, a person was killed just because he was gay. And that night I walked among the sad and the frustrated at City Hall in San Francisco, and later that night, as they lit candles on Castro Street and stood in silence, reaching out for some symbolic thing that would give them hope. These were strong people whose faces I knew from the shop, the streets, meetings, and people who I never saw before but I knew. They were strong, but even they needed hope.
And the young gay people in Altoona, Pennsylvanias, and the Richmond, Minnesotas, who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant on television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only are the gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the “us-es.” The “us-es” will give up.
And if you help elect the Central Committee and other offices, more gay people — that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone. So if there’s a message I have to give, it is that I found one overriding thing about my personal election. It’s the fact that if a gay person can be elected, it’s a green light. And you and you and you — you have to give people hope.
As we all know, COVID-19 has squatted over Toronto Pride this summer of 2020 and taken a huge dump. When it was announced that all large events – or any event for that matter – in the City of Toronto would be cancelled this year, including my beloved Pride, I was crushed beyond measure. Toronto Pride will be celebrated this year with “Virtual Pride” which, to me anyway, defies logic. Virtual Pride?? How exactly does one do a Virtual Pride, for God’s sake? No thanks… I want the real thing.
Pride week in Toronto has always meant so much to me and, as a gay man, is an essential experience in my life. In my world, Pride is more important than Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving all rolled into one. No other event brings such happiness, energy, enthusiasm, celebration, vitality and warmth than those few days in late June every year. Even though time and tide have scaled back my activities considerably from Pride weekends past, I still celebrate the occasion and feel joy in my own way on that special weekend.
I believe my first “Pride Day” (as it was then called) was 1985. I have wonderful memories of those early Pride events when they were just a half-day long (always on a Sunday afternoon) and held in Cawthra Park (now the Barbara Hall Park, which has become a haven for junkies, crackheads, crime, muggings and harassment from street trash who have overtaken the place… but I digress…).
Those days, Pride was held within the boundaries of Cawthra Park, if you can imagine. In the late 80s/very early 90s the event spilled into a small section of Church Street above Wellesley, with the epicentre being the 519 Church Street Community Centre. Across from the 519 was the only stage, set up in the parking lot of The Beer Store. At about 9:00 PM that night (at the latest), the police would reopen Church Street to traffic, and cars would resume their usual pace down Church Street as if nothing had happened that day.
I remember those Pride Days as being pretty much a white, male, middle-class event, long before global inclusion and the alphabet soup that now describes our community (LGBTIQA+ or whatever the hell it currently is). From those early Pride Days, I have memories of local gay hero Harold Desmarais singing a personally-penned protest song to Art Eggleton, the then-mayor of Toronto who had refused to proclaim, or even acknowledge, Pride Day (as it was then called). Harold served as the Master of Ceremonies for Pride Day festivities from 1986 through 1989. I also have memories of Jack Layton acting as auctioneer, auctioning local goods and services from a little makeshift stage behind the 519.
As for some of the Pride Day music I remember, local alternative band The Nancy Sinatras played a set for a couple of years at Pride, where they belted out some wonderfully tacky, kitschy and downright rude songs from the stage set up for the day in the Church Street Beer Store parking lot. The Nancy Sinatras were about as “Queen Street West” as you could get in the late ’80s; they were awesome.
In those days, the AIDS Memorial behind the 519 Church Street Community Centre did not exist. I remember the temporary AIDS memorial that would go up for Pride Day each year before the permanent one became a reality. This was a terrible time in our gay history, with AIDS claiming so many men in those early days.
For this post I had desperately hoped to find some photos I had taken of those early Pride events that took place on Church Street and in Cawthra Park. I slowly perused my carefully curated photo albums (physical pictures… remember those?), but alas could not find any shots of Toronto Pride street scenes from the 1980s, at least none that were of any interest. I do, though, have extensive shots of almost every Pride Parade from 1986 to 2006.
Sooooooo, as to not totally lose the Pride spirit this year, in lieu of a physical Toronto Pride 2020, I offer some good bits from years past to put us in the mood and lift our spirits.
I now present to you Toronto Pride, warts and all. Let’s go back…
On Church Street…
I Love A Parade…
Ah, the memories…
This year I’ll skip “Virtual Pride” but will still proudly fly my rainbow flags from the balcony, trying my best to resurrect the spirit of Pride.
I’d like to end this post with a positive, feel-good message from our Ward 13 City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam; I couldn’t have said it better myself:
When the pandemic is behind us, we will come together again. We will fill the streets, the restaurants, the bars, the civic spaces, the dance floors. And when we do it will be the loudest, most colourful, most fabulous Pride celebration in this city’s history. I look forward to joining you on that day.
I’ve had this article on my hard drive for many years. I can’t recall exactly where or when I found the essay but I do know who the author is – it’s written by a man named Patrick Runkle. I couldn’t find too much about him on the Internet, other than he is a music producer/composer from the U.S. and is a founder of Cohaagen Music. He is also a member of the electropop group Ganymede. Patrick has written this interesting but sad and wistful article about the electronic music scene of the late 70s/early 80s in San Francisco, its effect on gay liberation and culture, and the toll AIDS has taken on many of the performers.
In the dusty back rooms of dance music stores and in cardboard boxes stored in attics all over San Francisco, there are indigenous records in worn sleeves with titles like Menergy, Cruisin’ the Streets and Die Hard Lover. These records — like their creators — had short, brilliant, tragic lives.
The names on these records are unknown to most people, even those who follow San Francisco music. To others, the names are fading memories from a dead era. But to a few people, like music lawyer and former nightclub owner Steven Ames Brown, the disco stars who made records in San Francisco during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were friends who died too young.
Brown sits in his Franklin D. Israel-designed modern mansion on Grand View Avenue overlooking the city. “At 49, I’m an elder statesman of San Francisco dance music. It’s an eerie feeling,” he says.
He pages through Tribal Rites, a book from 1987 by David Diebold containing first-person remembrances of the gay music scene in San Francisco, and finds a picture of himself from 1981 posing with drag queen Sylvester.
“Look, I had brown hair. And I was thin,” he says, even though he’s currently in incredible shape.
Brown pages through the book some more and then closes it.
“God, all these people are dead.”
The cover of Tribal Rites is a collage of faces from the era. The men are buff, young and virile, all with full, perfectly trimmed mustaches and huge smiles. They seem to be frozen forever in the blinding afternoon sun of Castro Street.
“Every night was another party,” Brown said. “It was an incredible time to be a jet-setting homo. The music was fun; life was fun. There was someone for everyone to go home with.”
“People don’t remember why there were thousands of men marching in the gay pride parades. Nobody gave a shit about the political speeches,” Brown said. “The music was the glue that brought the community together. It was because people like Sylvester were on the floats that we marched behind them.”
Sylvester, San Francisco’s first breakout disco star, was a soul singer who enjoyed success in the early ’70s as a member of the Bay Area transvestite group the Cockettes. His outrageous performances won him a large local following and a solo contract on the Fantasy label. A series of hit disco tracks followed, including “Dance (Disco Heat)” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” both from 1978.
Members of the same nightclub and disco culture from which Sylvester emerged started to see the possibilities for the gay community to produce its own music without the interference of major labels.
“It became possible because of advances in recording technology in the disco era to produce tracks for a lot less money than before,” Brown said. “Also, and most important, the music didn’t need enormous distribution to be popular.”
Brown came to the city in 1974 to study law at Hastings after working as a disc jockey for a Michigan radio station and studying film at USC in Los Angeles.
“I happened to acquire some property in South of Market in one of my first cases here as a lawyer,” Brown said. “Because of my experience in the music industry, I decided to open a nightclub. And it did so well that I opened another.”
“Disco music had re-invigorated dancing and nightclubs, and the clubs went from being dirty, back-room swill holes to being fun, bright, gay places. After pressing only a few thousand records and playing them in the right clubs, you could have a major hit.”
Musicians in San Francisco’s gay nightclubs started to make music of their own. Bill Motley was a charismatic but frustrated disc jockey in the Castro who had big dreams.
“Bill was a man whose inside didn’t match his outside,” Brown said. “On the outside, he was a large, burly guy who looked like the kind of person you wouldn’t want to run into in a back alley.”
“But on the inside, he was Diana Ross.”
Motley’s experience was mostly as a lighting consultant for local nightclubs, but his musical intuition was sharp. Although he wanted desperately to be a star, he knew his talent was for production.
His idea was to record a disco version of the Ashford-Simpson soul classics “Remember Me” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” He borrowed money to do it from his friend Victor Swedosh, owner of the Moby Dick bar at 18th & Hartford in the Castro.
Taking inspiration from the Village People, which was essentially a front band for producers Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo, Motley created a fictitious band called The Boys Town Gang to realize his vision.
“Bill found some kids in the city who could sing,” Brown said. “He designed a stage show for them, and started recording with them in the studio.”
The track that resulted was a 6-minute suite, “Remember Me/Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Motley, Swedosh, and another friend from the Castro, Stan Moriss, formed Moby Dick Records in 1980 to release and distribute the Boys Town Gang recordings.
The first track went out on a 12-inch EP called Cruisin’ the Streets, which hit #5 on Billboard’s dance music chart and made enough money for the fun to continue.
“Remember Me/Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is a joyous burst of soulful disco that, while not incredibly progressive, shows an incredible ear for production. It was a great answer to all the vapid, soulless corporate disco albums that caused the national ‘disco sucks’ backlash in 1980.
Elsewhere in the Castro at the same time, Patrick Cowley, a synthesizer player and former nightclub lighting technician, was preparing his first solo release.
Cowley had studied music and synthesizers at City College before landing a spot in Sylvester’s band in the late ‘70s.
“We didn’t even know Patrick could play music when we met him,” Sylvester recalled before his death in 1988. “He was designing the lighting for some of our shows, and he played us a tape of his music. I asked him to join us.”
Indeed, Cowley’s unique analog synthesizer flourishes showed up first on Sylvester’s Step II album in 1978, and he contributed two songs to Sylvester’s Stars album a year later.
But Cowley had personal problems with some members of Sylvester’s band, and decided to go solo in 1980. Cowley became friends with the owners of the Automatt studios at 11th & Harrison, and they would let him use the studio during off hours.
“Patrick was a short guy, very passive,” Brown recalls. “All he did was make music, get screwed, and do drugs.”
Cowley and business partner Marty Blecman, a former disc jockey, put together an album of electronic disco music, heavily influenced by the European synth sounds of Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis and Giorgio Moroder, which was to feature a title track called “Energy.”
“One day, while we were recording,” Blecman wrote before his death in 1991, “We got high and I added an ‘M’ in front of ‘Energy,’ and we came up with all these completely gay lyrics for it. In the end, that’s what we used.”
The song “Menergy” was born. The album Menergy, released on the Fusion label, became an international dance smash in early 1981. It went to number one on Billboard’s dance charts and set a new high-water mark for electronic music.
The title track owes a great debt to Giorgio Moroder’s production of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” Like Cowley’s best work, it makes no apologies for its sexual orientation, but maintains an eye-winking charm, without being explicitly about sex. “The boys in the back room are lovin’ it up / Shootin’ off menergy,” the joyous female chorus sings. What exactly this menergy is that the boys are shooting off is left to the fertile imagination of the listener.
Moreover, Cowley’s electronic arrangements had a fantastic, almost sci-fi quality that tied into the drug-induced club experience of the time.
The success of Menergy allowed Blecman and Cowley to form a company of their own, Megatone Records. In the same way, sales of the Boys Town Gang’s first record ensured more recordings from the Moby Dick label.
The two companies were run from Victorian homes in the Castro, and the performing stars that the labels created enjoyed notoriety both in San Francisco and throughout the worldwide cosmopolitan gay community.
“There was a point where you could fly to any city in the world, and the gay bars and nightclubs were playing the same songs.” said Brown.
People loved “something which was homegrown. It wasn’t marketed to you by faceless corporations. It was the allure of quality music from the community.”
“They were producing a cultural commodity, if I can put those two words together,” Brown said. “They created a business that was both self-sufficient and gay, an underground economy. This was also around the time that we saw an explosion of gay lawyers serving gay clients, gay doctors serving gay patients, and so on.”
In mid-1981, Megatone Records had its first official release, Patrick Cowley’s Megatron Man LP, the title track from which was another huge hit for the company.
Meanwhile, Moby Dick put out a Boys Town Gang LP, Disc Charge, as the follow-up to Cruisin’ the Streets. That album’s disco cover of the Gaudio-Crewe standard “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” was a monstrous worldwide hit.
The parties lit up the city every weekend. Thousands of men converged on dozens of nightclubs to hear the latest tracks and see the stars perform.
But it wasn’t to last.
After Megatron Man was released in 1981, Cowley fell ill with a mysterious illness.
The disease, first called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) or the AID Syndrome, would soon put an end to it all. Cowley was among the first victims in San Francisco.
“Patrick was the first person I saw who was really sick,” Brown said. “They wheeled him onto the balcony of the Palladium. It was too upsetting to watch.”
After fighting the disease for a year, Cowley died on Nov. 12, 1982.
“In the year leading up to his death, Patrick was either in the studio or the hospital,” Blecman told the San Francisco Chronicle upon Cowley’s death. “He left his legacy on tape.”
After Cowley’s death, but before panic over AIDS spread throughout the nation, the two Castro-based labels remained profitable.
Megatone released posthumous Cowley-produced material throughout 1983, including vocalist Paul Parker’s #1 hit “Right On Target” from his LP Too Much To Dream, and Cowley’s reunion with Sylvester, another #1 single, “Do Ya Wanna Funk?”
Moby Dick released another Boys Town Gang album, as well as a huge hit single from vocalist Frank Loverde, “Die Hard Lover,” which was a collaboration between Cowley and Motley.
But everyone knew the end was near. “By late ’83, HIV had scared everyone out of the nightclubs, especially the straight suburban kids who spent so much money,” Brown said. “People thought it might be transmitted through the air.”
“After that, they didn’t have any hits.”
Other problems plagued the fledgling companies. In-fighting among the personalities in the scene over performances, disappearing royalties, and record sales stunted their growth.
“None of these people knew how to run a record company. They created an overhead that they couldn’t possibly maintain,” Brown said. “They had to pay for marketing, pressing, packaging, administration, everything. When their sales started to slip, it was all over.”
“These guys didn’t want day jobs, and they were attracted to the allure of show business.”
“Their lives were bleak. These guys didn’t have any stage presence whatsoever, they couldn’t perform,” Brown said.
Michael Garrett, a disc jockey from the era and current owner of the CD Record Rack, a Castro district dance music store, remembers a performance from artist Frank Loverde:
“Loverde had a hit record in ’82 with ‘Die Hard Lover.’ There was a show at one of the clubs downtown where he was supposed to perform. He came out on stage and saw all the men in the audience, and he fainted. They had to carry him off, and I don’t think his career ever recovered.”
The years of the AIDS crisis destroyed the San Francisco disco community. As the artists watched their friends and colleagues die, the music changed.
“The mood was different,” Brown said. “It was about mechanical sex.”
Moby Dick dissolved soon after Bill Motley left the company in 1984. He retained the rights to the Boys Town Gang, but got sick soon after and died in 1986. Brown was in charge of selling the company’s assets.
“The only they had that was worth anything were the Boys Town Gang masters,” he said. “I still have those, and I won’t part with them.”
Megatone sputtered along under Blecman throughout the ’80s, releasing regurgitated hits, unremarkable dance music and pathetic aerobics compilations. When Blecman got sick in 1990, Brown brokered the company’s sale to a Canadian company, Unidisc.
Patrick Cowley, Marty Blecman and Sylvester share square number 2795 of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Frank Loverde, who died in 1987, is memorialized on square 1791. Bill Motley, who died in 1986, is on square 4152.
“This music was part of a transcendent force of gay liberation,” Brown says. “The community has lost the memory of how important this music was. I think these artists won’t ever, ever get their due.”
First published in 1978, Dancer From The Dance is Andrew Holleran’s highly acclaimed first novel. The title is taken from the last few lines of W.B. Yeats’s Among School Children:
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer, Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole? O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Widely considered a gay classic and must-read, it’s been reissued yet again, this time in eBook format. A couple of years ago we did a massive purge of physical books at our house, and this novel was one of the ones that got accidentally tossed. So, with the reissue finally in eBook format, I felt the time was right to re-add it to my collection.
This is the third time in my life I’d read this book. After a re-read, I now remember the mixed feelings I had about it: the novel is extremely intelligent and beautifully written but also depressing and self-loathing (mostly the latter). To over-simplify the plot, the story follows the life of Malone, a physically beautiful man from an upper-class background. Initially Malone does not realize he’s gay but has an awakening and eventually comes to terms with his new life. After coming out, he falls in love with a possessive and jealous married Italian man but their relationship sours and they become enemies. Malone then becomes extremely promiscuous, having sex with men of every physical description, and forms a curious friendship with a man called Sutherland (a Queen with a capital Q, if ever there was).
The story is set in New York City and Fire Island in the early-to-mid 1970s, post-Stonewall, long before AIDS became the devastating force that forever changed our world. There is very little plot other than Malone’s tortured seeking of love and Sutherland’s excessive drug consumption, indulgent lifestyle and solipsism.
It’s not an uplifting tale and not a book I’d recommend to a young gay man looking for a positive literary experience. Dancer From The Dance is quite pessimistic and without hope. The lives of the two main characters, especially, lack any spiritual depth; the “dance” of the novel’s title becomes a metaphor for the life they lead. The portrayal of gay people is rather stereotypical and for this reason I am lukewarm on this novel; I am very content with being gay and have no remorse or self-pity about it. It may be possible to identify with our hero Malone and his hopes for romance but his gay world differs so massively from mine. The idolatry of youth and beauty leave little option for the novel’s characters: they either become the old guy at the club, leave New York City, or go out in a blaze of glory – the characters of this book do all three.
Many of the characters are racist and antisemitic but this is the early 70s after all, well before our current PC status quo. The book is written from the viewpoint of an unnamed narrator.
I never really connected with any of the characters and I think the book’s unusual narrative style is one of the reasons. Dancer From The Dance is quite similar in tone, content and era to Larry Kramer’s Faggots, and I sometimes get the plot lines of these two novels slightly mixed up because of this.
Dancer From The Dance has been released numerous times over the last 40 years, each reissue having a different cover:
A few years ago it was announced that gay Hollywood directer Alan Poul would direct the film version of the novel. As far as I can tell this film project never came to pass; I can find very little about it on the Internet except that production was slated for the summer of 2016.
I’ll close with a few quotes from the novel:
Now of all the bonds between homosexual friends, none was greater than that between friends who danced together. The friend you danced with, when you had no lover, was the most important person in your life; and for people who went without lovers for years, that was all they had.
Try not to be self-conscious or so critical. Don’t mope around looking for someone else to make you happy, and remember that the vast majority of homosexuals are looking for a superman to love and find it very difficult to love anyone merely human, which we unfortunately happen to be.
You are doomed to a life that will repeat itself again and again, as do all lives—for lives are static things, readings of already written papers—but whereas some men are fortunate to repeat a good pattern, others have the opposite luck—and you can surely see by now that your life is doomed to this same humiliation, endlessly repeated.
Dancer From The Dance (1978)
Andrew Holleran’s other novels are: Nights in Aruba (1983), Ground Zero (essays) (1988), The Beauty of Men (1996), In September, The Light Changes (stories) (1999), Grief: a Novel (2006), Chronicles of a Plague, Revisited: AIDS and Its Aftermath (2008)
One of the most moving moments in Armistead Maupin’s brilliant Tales of the City, is when one of the main characters, Michael, comes out to his mother in a letter. His coming out at this point in the narrative is prompted by the news that his mother has joined Anita Bryant’s hateful and anti-gay “Save The Children” campaign, which was launched in the late 1970s.
This is an incredibly moving and inspirational piece which has been recited countless times by gay choruses, actors and those just coming out. Here, then, is the full text of the letter:
I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write. Every time I try to write you and Papa I realize I’m not saying the things that are in my heart. That would be OK, if I loved you any less than I do, but you are still my parents and I am still your child.
I have friends who think I’m foolish to write this letter. I hope they’re wrong. I hope their doubts are based on parents who love and trust them less than mine do. I hope especially that you’ll see this as an act of love on my part, a sign of my continuing need to share my life with you. I wouldn’t have written, I guess, if you hadn’t told me about your involvement in the Save Our Children campaign. That, more than anything, made it clear that my responsibility was to tell you the truth, that your own child is homosexual, and that I never needed saving from anything except the cruel and ignorant piety of people like Anita Bryant.
I’m sorry, Mama. Not for what I am, but for how you must feel at this moment. I know what that feeling is, for I felt it for most of my life. Revulsion, shame, disbelief — rejection through fear of something I knew, even as a child, was as basic to my nature as the color of my eyes.
No, Mama, I wasn’t “recruited.” No seasoned homosexual ever served as my mentor. But you know what? I wish someone had. I wish someone older than me and wiser than the people in Orlando had taken me aside and said, “You’re all right, kid. You can grow up to be a doctor or a teacher just like anyone else. You’re not crazy or sick or evil. You can succeed and be happy and find peace with friends — all kinds of friends — who don’t give a damn who you go to bed with. Most of all, though, you can love and be loved, without hating yourself for it.”
But no one ever said that to me, Mama. I had to find it out on my own, with the help of the city that has become my home. I know this may be hard for you to believe, but San Francisco is full of men and women, both straight and gay, who don’t consider sexuality in measuring the worth of another human being.
These aren’t radicals or weirdos, Mama. They are shop clerks and bankers and little old ladies and people who nod and smile to you when you meet them on the bus. Their attitude is neither patronizing nor pitying. And their message is so simple: Yes, you are a person. Yes, I like you. Yes, it’s all right for you to like me, too.
I know what you must be thinking now. You’re asking yourself: What did we do wrong? How did we let this happen? Which one of us made him that way?
I can’t answer that, Mama. In the long run, I guess I really don’t care. All I know is this: If you and Papa are responsible for the way I am, then I thank you with all my heart, for it’s the light and the joy of my life.
I know I can’t tell you what it is to be gay. But I can tell you what it’s not.
It’s not hiding behind words, Mama. Like family and decency and Christianity. It’s not fearing your body, or the pleasures that God made for it. It’s not judging your neighbor, except when he’s crass or unkind.
Being gay has taught me tolerance, compassion and humility. It has shown me the limitless possibilities of living. It has given me people whose passion and kindness and sensitivity have provided a constant source of strength.
It has brought me into the family of man, Mama, and I like it here. I like it.
There’s not much else I can say, except that I’m the same Michael you’ve always known. You just know me better now. I have never consciously done anything to hurt you. I never will.
Please don’t feel you have to answer this right away. It’s enough for me to know that I no longer have to lie to the people who taught me to value truth.
Mary Ann sends her love.
Everything is fine at 28 Barbary Lane.
Your loving son,
If you’d like to hear this letter being read, I’ve embedded a couple of outstanding clips below. Ian McKellan and several of the cast from Netflix’s Tales of the City are moved to tears by the reading:
For much of this year I’d been seeing posters in the subway platforms and cars depicting a healthy-looking, hot guy (or guys) staring dreamily into the camera with captions reading I’m on PrEP, or Ask your doctor about PrEP or some such verbiage involving something called “PrEP”.
I had no idea exactly what PrEP is, other than it obviously being a product strategically aimed at a gay male audience, so a little Googling was in order.
I found out that PrEP stands for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis. Using the brand name Truvada, it is a drug to prevent the contraction of HIV in people who have not yet been exposed to the virus. Taken daily, it is a medication which reportedly reduces the risk of contracting HIV by 92% (ideally, for total prevention against HIV transmission, PrEP should be accompanied with the use of condoms). So, basically, the miracle of modern medicine has given us protection from something as horrific as HIV/AIDS in pill form – at last.
Please don’t misunderstand the intentions of this post – I am neither for or against PrEP; to be honest, I’m not sure where I stand on the issue. On the one hand, I marvel how the advances of modern science can at last give us protection against the dreaded disease that has wreaked such devastation on the world. On the other hand, I’m a little shocked at how the advertising/media world imply that if we take PrEP we should throw all caution to the wind and go at it like mad bunnies.
I confess the whole thing makes me slightly uneasy because I remember the past very well. I can’t help thinking of those early, awful, fearful, devastating years of AIDS my generation witnessed and lived through. We were the next generation of potential AIDS patients after the initial onslaught claimed men from the fallout of late 70s and early 80s sexual hedonism. My age group became very used to seeing the miles of obituaries – in our bi-weekly Toronto gay rag, Xtra! – of the beautiful, young men we’d see in the Village, taken from us far too early in life. We’d wonder who’s next? as we checked ourselves, yet again, for swollen lymph nodes, weight loss or any fresh and mysterious spots on our skin. I remember very well the Act Up! demonstrations and “die-ins” during the Toronto Pride Parades of the 80s and early 90s, the AIDS candlelight vigils and memorials in Cawthra Park (now Barbara Hall Park) just off Church Street, the protest marches and gatherings at Queen’s Park where everyone shouted for more AIDS research funding. Over the years I’ve seen acquaintances and work colleagues succumb to this horrible disease and have felt the fear and loss.
I guess I’m simply old school and still have contagion issues and fears, remembering how history unfolded over the past 30 or so years. I don’t know – I guess time will tell how effective these new meds are. If proven effective over the long term, they truly are a marvel of modern science and will change our lives.
By way of Matt Baume’s fascinating YouTube channel, where he takes a light-hearted look at issues affecting and involving the LGBT community, we recently discovered the British TV comedy series Vicious.
The primary stars of Vicious are Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi. With a core cast like that, how can you lose? There’s not a lot of characters throughout the episodes; the regular cast never goes beyond six members. There are the two central characters Freddie Thornhill (Ian McKellen) and Stuart Bixby (Derek Jacobi), their friend Violet Crosby (brilliantly played by Frances de la Tour) and younger upstairs friend/neighbour Ash Weston (Iwan Rheon). Occasionally we see the mostly-senile but lovable, long-time family friend Penelope (Marcia Warren), and Mason (Philip Voss) as Freddie’s acid-tongued brother who is also gay but disapproves of Freddie and Stuart’s relationship.
Vicious is very British with its sly insult-humour, a genre the English do especially well. The plot centres around the love-hate relationship of gay male couple Freddie and Stuart (played by our two aforementioned knighted actors) who have been together just shy of fifty years. Each episode’s plot also includes their circle of friends – Violet, Ash, Penelope and Mason – each generating their own form of lunacy. The two seasons weave the characters in and out of various hilarious predicaments, ending in Freddie and Stuart’s wedding (after fifty years of being together) in the final episode of the second season. This wedding episode is not to be missed.
Only two seasons of Vicious plus a Finale were shot and each season has only six or seven episodes, which is very typical of a British television series. The series premiered in April 2013 but was cancelled by ITV in the U.K. in 2016, with the Finale special airing in December of that year. The series was panned by British critics but, nevertheless, did well during its run. PBS in North America carried the show in 2014 but I’m not sure what the success rate was on this side of the Atlantic. The humour in Vicious does not appeal to everyone, and you have to approach the series with an appreciation of camp, gay humour, comedic put-downs, dark humour and a general love/appreciation of British comedy (which is interpreted somewhat differently by our North American sensibilities).
The series was twice nominated for the GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Award for Outstanding Comedy Series, while the finale was nominated for Outstanding TV Movie or Limited Series.
If you do find the series somewhere online (i.e. streaming services, YouTube, etc.) and begin watching, my advice is to stick with it through the first season. I found the first two episodes of the first season, especially, just plain mean-spirited and cruel, and I felt quite uncomfortable watching them; I just about gave up on the series at that point but I’m so glad I stayed with it. The script, characters and tone does soften, however, and the series becomes much more enjoyable and hilarious with each episode. By the end of Season One I was howling with laughter! I read somewhere that Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi had a hand in rewriting some of the script and making the dialog a little “softer” and the characters more empathic.
The opening and closing theme is an abridged version of The Communards version of Never Can Say Goodbye (which is on my list of Desert Island Songs by the way); this scored big points with me.
You may love Vicious or you may hate it – everyone’s mileage will vary. I’ll leave you with a clip of Season One’s “Best Of”:
Created in 1988, World AIDS Day takes place on December 1st of each year. The Day is an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness.
World AIDS Day is important because it reminds the public and government that HIV has not gone away – there is still a vital need to raise money, increase awareness, fight prejudice and improve education.
I recently found this 90s essay on my hard drive while browsing for inspiration and ideas for new blog posts. I’m not sure where the piece came from and it dates quite badly, but what the heck… here it is anyway.
By a certain age, you should:
Know the three meanings of the word “chicken”.
Know something about Anita Bryant, Pierre Trudeau, Harvey Milk, and Svend Robinson.
Have danced all night and shared a sunrise with someone you never want to see again.
Have had a one night stand you really regret, and haven’t confessed it to your therapist.
Have tried on some women’s clothing and hummed a drag number.
Have tried a designer drug and had a really bad trip.
Have been to fifteen pride days in four different cities.
Know what Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, and Mae West have in common.
Be gracious enough to offer a trick breakfast in the morning.
Know the significance of Stonewall, Bill 167, bathhouse raids and Bill 7.
Know when to hold him, when to walk away, and when to run.
Have stopped giving attitude and being self-absorbed.
Own a piece of original art (not including something given to you by a boyfriend).
Know who Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde and Armistead Maupin are.
Be able to name twelve famous gay people, and fantasize about sleeping with two of them.
Have been to the Gay Games, or the March on Washington, or ten circuit parties.
Have stopped dressing like some sort of clone.
Have tried makeup to cover a skin blemish.
Be able to go out on the town with a skin blemish.
Be able to fix an unplugged drain or be able to afford someone who can.
Have worn pearls or a “pearl necklace”.
Know the difference between a “Prince Albert”, a cock ring and a guichet.
Know the difference between a Warhol, a Haring and a Lichtenstein.
Have spent a night in one of the following places: police station, park, bus station, casino or hotel lobby.
Know a trick which always gets a laugh from a nephew or friend’s kid.
Have become proficient in something other than in your field, excluding card games.
Have participated in a political demonstration and have been roughed up by the police, or lost a shoe.
Have had sex 2,345 times.
And 23 different partners.
Know a short verse or prayer to say in a moment of sadness.
Be able to visit your parents without cutting up the place by pointing out all the tacky things.
Be able to spend a day alone with a parent or sibling and actually enjoy it.
Have stopped pursuing unrequited love.
Have tasted some exotic meat and not commented “it tastes like chicken”.
Have made up a toast that rhymes and used it at various parties.
Have experienced a supernatural phenomenon, not including deja vu or losing a sock in the dryer.
Be able to turn on a man without touching him.
Be able to cook one dish you are proud of.
Have stopped saying you spent the night in a bathhouse because you needed a place to sleep.
Have said things to both a partner and a boss that you’ll regret for the rest of your life.
Know what the words “shrimping,” “spooning” and “rimming” mean.
Have gone home with someone who has a fetish that you sort of enjoyed but are ashamed of.
Be able to catch a mouse and get rid of it.
Have stayed with a friend at a critical moment in life or death.
Have been a good Samaritan without expecting anything in return.
Have been in the newspaper or on the TV or radio.
Have gotten rid of all clothing you owned before you were twenty.
Collect something that you enjoy (other than boyfriends).
Have given up getting drunk and stumbling around, but have four nights in which you can’t remember what happened.
Know what the words “bump,” “buffed” and “bear” mean.
Be able to admit you enjoy being a bottom without giggling.
Have stopped saying you’re versatile when you’re not.
Be comfortable about arriving at events or parties alone.
Have lied about your age to pick up.
Have stopped lying about your age to pick up.
Know everything there is to know about safer sex and have told it to a younger friend.
Have stopped voguing on the dance floor.
Know what the words “trade,” “troll” and “trick” mean.
Have shaved off all your body hair for fun.
Have had crabs.
Have a straight friend whom you spend time with on a regular basis, whose company you actually enjoy.
Have said at least once: “I understand, but I’m just not ready for a relationship”.
Have said at least once: “I can’t understand, why are you not ready for a relationship?”
Have deep regrets that that you don’t play an instrument.
Have no furniture made of pressboard, crates or bricks.
Have been to Provincetown, Saugatuck, or Fire Island.
Have gone to a movie not intending to pick someone up.