When I broke up with my last ex-BF about 12 years ago, it took me a long ass time to get over him. I don’t think I really am; it’s just a feeling I’ve learned to put into a different compartment. But, the concussive effects of that first wave of emotion were very new to me. I never understood why people would lose their shit after a breakup, but I learned quickly. My friend John sent me a mix CD labeled “Music for a Bottle of Merlot and a Razor Blade,” featuring such sad singleton hits as “Alone,” “All By Myself,” “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” etc. We laughed, but I found myself spiraling out of control shortly after.
I kept this little Moleskin notebook during those first months, which I hid a few years later. It reappeared during my Pandemic-induced decluttering of my home when we shut our office doors until further notice. That was about two years ago. (We’ve reopened them since, by the way.) Finding it was like the surprise you feel when you run into an old school friend’s mother during a Target run where you’re not looking your best, gussied up in chanclas and a chorizo-stained hoodie. Reading and revisiting the version of yourself that penned each entry was like being hit by a car driven by a deranged doctor’s wife from Texas seeking revenge. How do we all turn into Janis Ian or Phoebe Snow when boys break out hearts? I was surprised I even was capable of such maudlin displays in the first place, but how could I not? After years of favoring telenovelas and Douglas Sirk films, turning into Natalie Wood in “Splendor in the Grass” shouldn’t be a stretch, right?
So, I am willing to share one choice bit of writing, appropriately titled “Alone.” Put on your favorite heartbreak ballad, wrap yourself up in that warm comforter known as nostalgia, and see if this hits a few emotional notes you recognize!
There’s a strange void in my heart as I look out the window from an empty house. I feel the start of a dream, always the day you first came into my life. I came to you first, though, searching for a gentle man.
You were that dream come true, and I was your saving grace. How did we get to this place?
The first years were unlike any happiness I’d known, yet in the last months, we’ve become strangers, barely able to see face to face. How did we get to this place?
This isn’t about fault. You loved me, then loved another. I can’t believe I’d be so easily replaced. How did we get to this place?
We can count the memories, but that’s just wasted sentiment. We can count our blessings, but that’s just wasted destiny. What I would give to make this day turn a different way. They say time heals everything, but I still can’t stand the thought of losing you.
I didn’t want to tell you how I felt or what I thought I should do. But that won’t stop me from crying an emotion or two.
You walked out the door for the last time. I hope he treats you fine. It isn’t the loss that hurts so much. It’s the silence of this space. How did I get to this place they call “being alone.”
Reading it back now, I think it is safe to say Taylor Swift has nothing to worry about here. (Cue laughter.) But I’m not ashamed about displaying my red scarf in this context. (Swifties will know what I mean by that reference.). If anything, I’m proud of what that experience taught me. I stopped romanticizing the past, choosing to live in the present while respecting the lessons learned from being in a relationship. Whenever that miracle happens again, I’ll be ready.
“I’m interested in the theater because I’m interested in communication with audiences.”
Otherwise, I would be in concert music. I’d be in another kind of profession. I love the theater as much as music, and the whole idea of getting across to an audience and making them laugh, making them cry — just making them feel — is paramount to me.
The process of putting something down on paper is very important in keeping the stuff alive in your head. You can improvise and think, ‘Wait, that A-flat doesn’t sound right,’ and you change things as you go along, even though you’re just sketching.
The Gay Single Man of Substance or GSMS sat in the Honda Customer Service lounge staring at the crush of humanity packed into a small space. It was another toasty Saturday in the San Gabriel Valley. It took visits to three different Honda dealerships before he found the one that could handle an oil change.
“I think everyone got the message to get lubed today,” he said to himself with a smirk. “At least their music is amazing!”
It was a classic 80’s Top 40 pop playlist. Madonna. Billy Ocean. Bangles. Phil Collins. Belinda Carlisle. Deep Laura Branigan and Carly Simon cuts. Forgotten Mr. Mister and Billy Vera & the Beaters tracks. Steve Winwood!
“Hello, Yacht Rock,” he laughed.
For the duration of his estancia at the Honda of El Monte, he was a bit loathe to admit that most of these hits were lifted straight from the soundtrack of a youngish life oh-so-long ago. It was Winwood’s “Higher Love” that made him take pause.
GSMS didn’t date much as a teen. If anything, he was already the “gay best friend” before he even knew he was a beacon to fag hags the world over, a term that was still a few years away from his vernacular. (Side note, he always felt Rupert Everett eventually fucked it up for all gay men who never seemed to escape from the dreaded “Friend Zone.”)
The Friend Zone. That’s where GSMS set up residence at a very long age. Save for a few detours with the Crazy Comanche and the Ex; he always found his way “home.” Hell, he was entrenched, way beyond settled.
“What the hell do you tell guys on your dates,” asked a Co-Worker.
“I never mention the past,” GSMS answered. “I never tell them my brother lives with me, either. I don’t want to scare them off.”
GSMS used to bemoan it was his wearing the Mask of Desperation on his face that would send suitors running for the hills. It was evident that he wanted to be in a couple too much. Before he could get too caught up in that downward spiral, the Expose dance classic “Point of No Return” began to spin over the Honda PA.
“Oh, to dance at a house party like that again!” he thought. As he rubbed his peach fuzzed scalp, reminding him of years of mousse abuse, Sebastian Shpritz Forte (never AquaNet), and relaxers robbed him of his “Welcome Back, Kotter” coiffure.
The only dancing he’d engaged in of late was sidestepping reality. It was easier to say he was being cock-blocked by his brother. Worse, he became accustomed to using his late father being afflicted by Alzheimer’s as a reason to quit working on his self-esteem and focus. Truth? He’d crafted a litany of excuses as to why a relationship, much less a better sense of self, was out of his reach.
It was a small collective of medications. No, it was a lack of personal time away from a demanding job. The GSMS was adept at adding to the list, after all, he’d been writing it since he was 15. The painful reality stemmed from his origin story, a trifecta of “overs,” eating, spending, stimulation by superficial distractions. They all laid the foundation to a fortress designed to protect himself from the outside world. The GSMS was a master of self-sabotage now.
“Aw shit,” he grimaced. “I’m in that downward spiral mode. No one gives a shit about this self-pitying blah blah.”
He was hitting the Delete key when his attention turned to a young Asian boy dancing to Fine Young Cannibals’ “Good Thing.” It was a sight to behold, his cherubic face glowing and smiling as he moved to the retro beat. He had no idea anyone was looking at him, nor did it matter. Even Mom was oblivious to the maximum joy expressed at that moment.
“Look at him go,” The GSMS marveled. “Go on with yourself! Dance it out, baby!”
Maybe the GSMS needed this reminder. It was time to move, and just because his car was ready. As he gathered his things to retrieve his now-lubed vehicle, he reminded himself of the day’s mission statement. What he needed was what Mr. Winwood was crooning about, a little higher love.
It was time to bestow his own slivered heart a little care, too.
Maybe it was those pink suede skater shoes that pulled him in. Or perhaps it was the horn-rimmed glasses? The combination of scruffy beard and the thick chestnut color hair that reminded him of James MacArthur on the original “Hawaii 5-0” series? Hell yes! And, that burly chest was absolutely a significant draw. But in the end, it really was the pink suede Vans that sealed the deal.
The Gay Man of Substance (GSMS?) was feeling desire again.
The specter of the Ex, who was 15 years his junior, did give him pause. After all, Skater Boy (or SkB?) was about 22 years younger. The divide would be enough to trigger a lot of responses from GMS’ friends, single or otherwise. It surprised him to know that even those who would proudly crow “Love is Love” could have surprisingly myopic opinions, which is why he kept them to himself this time. No reason to hit them with, “He’s not like the other men he’s met over the last year.” Truth be told, the situation was just real enough for him to whisper this tale of longing into the ear of his most trusted confidante, his laptop. He was inspired to write about him, a bad sign indeed.
The arrival of Skater Boy was prescient, though. Their night out of museum roaming and coffee was not just the usual job interview exchange reserved for first meet-and-greet situations. No, they covered topics from the personal, which were honest and unrestrained, to how they viewed being gay today. This era of Basic Masculinity had worn them both down. The uniform of sporting a beard, super-luxe trainers, tattoo sleeves, and distressed Japanese denim may define 2019, but it was still a uniform. That proved more distressing than the artfully placed rips on those snug ball holders posing as trousers. Imagine having this era give off a sense of wistfulness to the days of when sentiments like “Masc for Masc; No Fats or Fems” were the standard. Of course, GSMS had to mention how his brand of “gay” was not in favor anymore. Sweater Queens were a thing of an Armistead Maupin or Paul Rudnick-documented past. That’s how GSM saw himself. For him, the dividing line was once so clear as to what was desirable amongst los gays. He knew where he stood, but surprising how the community has not lost in penchant in making you feel like shit for not fitting in with the right group!
GSMS was off and running now.
“Such mindfuckery preys on so many, even today,” he said to SkB, who nodded.
“Toxic masculinity remains supremely poisonous,” GSMS continued. “Not so long ago, you weren’t visible without a tan line, a gun show, or a rack of abs to mirror the cover of Honcho or Blueboy Magazine.
Maybe SkB understood the references, but he knew GSMS had not reached his peak yet.
“The bear community was once so much more accepting way back when. Beefy and hairy isn’t much of a subset anymore, but it, too, as evolved into a more airbrushed version these days! And what the hell is this gainer trend? Bigger is not better, especially if you have to inject yourself with tire sealant and cement to satisfy your body dysmorphia! What the hell are we doing to ourselves?”
SkB just took it all in. He knew the narrative was going to hit the current alphabet soup of gender nonconformity next.
“With the flood gates of gender fluidity now open wide,” GSM continued, “the deluge has muddied the criteria further. While the homosex community can wield its growing list of labels with fervor, it all feels so superficial and false when projected in the world of social media. It’s even worse on the dating and hookup apps. We may be able to let all of our unique brands of sexuality run free, but it has only exacerbated what we don’t want to court or seduce either. If we don’t look like the men we want to fuck, what’s the everloving point?”
SkB was transfixed by this aria of middle age uncertainty and bias. Yet, he couldn’t leave. Something kept him seated on that metal chair. As the couple’s coffee cooled, the conversation only heated up further. SkB found himself determined to give as good as he was getting. It was beautiful, this connection between people who listened and had no fear to answer back with equal aplomb and truth. It took so little effort for them to exist in this state of “Try.”
Had it been so long since GSM felt the need to make an effort to understand another man? Even more, that it was in a context that wasn’t part of his job description? He made his living asking questions, of getting people to reveal themselves just enough to exhibit a sense of humanity that could be shared with others.
GSMS was terrible at removing that interviewer’s voice in a dating situation. No one ever likes an interrogation in any form. Skater Boy didn’t even flinch. He was curious, too.
“The truth is I made a point to leave a specific life and self in the Midwest behind,” SkB confessed. “I knew what I had to do to become the creature I always meant to be, and it brought me here to Los Angeles.”
GSMS understood and applauded how SkB saw a dark fate and turned on a dime to walk into the light of maturity and self-accountability that is the cornerstone of sobriety.
“I have no intention of turning back,” SkB added. “That’s what fuels my art. I have to keep on creating, to not stand still.”
At that moment, a reflection of the kinetic heart, his signature design, that SkB displayed without fear made itself known; separating him from the pack. To look at the surface, yes, SkB was of this modern generation. Ah, but underneath GSMS saw something magnificently different. He had a soul.
As this odd duo sat at a local cafe, sharing a pastry and coffee-fueled truths, the night continued to offer more revelations and confessions. It ultimately held the promise of a friendship, which sometimes is all that can manifest itself in such brief-ish encounters. The world was oblivious to their chatter, which was just as well. It made them both appreciate the random nature of such meet and greets, of real-life occurring just under someone’s nose. Most of the patrons at the cafe were stuck in polite silences or milling about on the sidewalk. It felt as if all of them were waiting for anything to happen.
In the weeks since that first encounter, GSMS made a point to maintain a constant dialogue with SkB. The polite soul that he is, the Gay Single Man of Substance was contented by the manner in which it was being reciprocated. GSMS was well aware of SkB being a visible man, balancing a life of art, travel, commissions, networking, and more creativity.
“The man has his fans, too,” he thought to himself “Boy, does he have fans; that’s okay.”
All artists need a muse, one that can drive you towards surrendering to inspiration. As the modernist Henri Matisse said, “Creativity takes courage.” True. Then again, it doesn’t hurt to include a pair of pink suede skater shoes, either.
As GSMS completed his latest draft of a story, he couldn’t help my smile. The process felt as natural as ever, writing his feelings down. Looking out the window towards a new weekend that approached, the obvious struck him. No matter the intent, whether crafting a new piece of art, making a new friend or just letting your heartbeat loud enough to be heard by someone you like, all you really have to do is to just try.
Sometimes he’d sit at his desk and listen to old Barbra Streisand songs. He’s not even a real fan. He’d play and replay tracks like “I Stayed Too Long at the Fair” or “When in Rome” or “Gotta Movie” because he’d feel transported. Inspired, really. Those early tracks, when La Streisand was only starting her journey to becoming the multi-hyphenate “Barbra,” underscored his own life as a single gay man of substance.
It sounds so grand, being dubbed a “Single Gay Man of Substance.” Somewhere Barbara Taylor Bradford is probably rolling her eyes with lady-like grace. Apologies to Ms. BTB., but “substance” does read better than “of a certain age.”
Music is supposed to be able to cure what ails you, or at least give you a respite from whatever malady you’re hosting on a given day. He believed in having a soundtrack for life, creating and endlessly revising playlists from his iTunes account. He couldn’t get down with Spotify or Pandora or Apple Music. He felt such sites were for the cheap and lazy to curate a library of dearth and nuance. No, he’d pour over his favorite tracks endlessly. Naming the playlist was the first step.
Camp, darlings, a second helping
I’m Driving Here!
Their names were variations of themes, tracks, and fragments of triggered memories. The songs always remembered when he couldn’t bear the weight of a certain romantic memory. Lately, the music was giving him reasons not to feel so scared to put himself out there again, of falling for someone else again. Still, every dating failure was like hitting a cue and he was back at square one.
Had it really been nine years since the break-up, of which two splits occurred, with the Nashville Boy, the dreaded Ex? The distance between went from goodbye to wide chasm in the end. They rarely spoke anymore. A void existed where love and affection were once traded without conditions or struggle. It all happened so fast. Were they ideally matched? Probably not? He couldn’t even answer that question with any certainty. If you want to continue the thread on distance, 15 years of life experience, or a lack thereof, separated them from the beginning. He’d spent a lot of the years since their break-up picking that song apart, a deep cut in more ways than one.
That life seemed like an eternity ago. A musician himself, the Ex hovered over him like a track you can never get out of your head after someone else hums it aloud. He’d even written lyrics about him, but like their relationship, the melody seemed discordant and unstable. He couldn’t find them now if he tried, but every so often he would make that effort. He’d scour email addresses, old and new, shuffling through email monikers and profiles that once fit so well so long ago, too, but were ultimately ghosted and discarded.
It is strange, searching for threads to hold your own narrative together. People have been force-fed this idea of keeping track of one’s life together in an authentic fashion. What do you do when you see your life as a constant re-write? What do you do when even you tire of your narrative and opt to settle into a period of writer’s block? That’s how he felt these days. Blocked. Or, finding the needle stuck in a particular groove, unable to even skip to the next track. Perhaps the song does remember when, but at what point do you allow yourself to forget it altogether. Maybe the narrative will shake loose with his next playlist. He had the perfect name already: Playlist de basura.
I spent quite a bit of time on the set of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s poignant adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s best selling novel, “The Secret Life of Boys.” Given the task to produce the behind the scenes footage and content for this high profile project was both enviable and fulfilling. Impeccably cast with such luminaries as Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, and Dakota Fanning, I sat down with all of these formidable talents on set on some cold and rainy days in Wilmington, North Carolina in 2007, later following up with them at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.
I’ll never forget that beautifully designed pink house, the centerpiece of Monk Kidd’s historical novel chronicling the life of a young white girl on the cusp of womanhood and the effect her housekeeper, and especially, a family of three beekeeping sisters have on her life. Projected against the canvas of the Civil Rights era in the Amercian South, the layers on which the narrative is told still resonate today, perhaps even more so.
The interviews with the cast had to encompass a dialogue on racial and gender equality, a conversation that has lost none of its power or importance today. At the time of principal photography, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were both seeking the Democratic Nomination for president. It was a time of great hope and wonder, at seeing history happen before our very eyes. It was an inspiring force, particularly for the cast who were essaying roles set in an era of great pain and suffering in a war for societal change.
Grammy winner Alicia Keys was at the peak of her popularity when she signed on to star in “The Secret Life of Bees” in 2007. Still a vocal activist and philanthropist today, I chose this interview as the second installment of “Generic” as a means to bridge our conversation in 2008 with today’s dialogue on fighting to protect and promote gender and racial equality. Keys has not given up the fight in 2017, as heard through her artistry and public appearances. Neither should any of you.
The Four Seasons Hotel, Toronto
September 8, 2008
Few recording artists today have the incredible staying – and selling — power like that of Alicia Keys.
Instantly setting herself apart from her rump-shaking contemporaries upon her 2001 debut, Keys’ smooth blend of old school soul and rhythm & blues continues to court global favor. With 11 Grammy awards on her shelf, as well as more than 20 million albums sold worldwide, the musical life of Ms. Keys is without compare. So, why the eagerness to extend her artistic reach into acting where so many others have been met with deaf ears? The answers were direct and simple.
Performance for Keys comes from the same place and she is more than up for the challenge of voicing new words without music. However, what matters for this artistic hyphenate – which continues to extend with new titles – is that what she is saying is something of worth. And in 2008, Keys proved she had quite a bit to say through several mediums, beginning with her most challenging motion picture effort to date, an acclaimed role in the hit screen adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees.”
Citing the novel as one of her favorite books, Keys was eager to portray “June Boatwright,” the strong protector of a trio of beekeeping sisters living in 1960s era rural American south. What drew Keys to the project was that the character of “June” more than understands the racial strife of the outside world and its threat to the idyllic Eden of her family home. It is no coincidence that the character’s ability to express a softer emotion is through playing the cello, something Keys, already trained musician in her own right, sought to learn to give realism to the role. It is a scene-stealing performance, in spite of formidable work from co-stars Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, and Jennifer Hudson. Yet, it was the experience of making her third film, in advance of the most historic moment in African-American history that offered Keys the most gratifying and educational experience of her career.
In discussing this latest chapter in her life, the 27-year-old native New Yorker proved as passionate and focused as she sounds in such hits as “No One” and “Fallin’.” Those smoky tones are no studio-enhanced trick, something I commented to her during our chat at the Toronto Film Festival for “The Secret Life of Bees” earlier in September. Shamelessly, I said it was a “drop-drawers” kind of voice. I got a flash of that amazing smile and a husky laugh.
It is encouraging to know that film will continue a role in her life, whether on screen or by contributing music. In addition to “Doncha Know (Sky is Blue), the end credits song from “The Secret Life of Bees,” Keys can also be heard with Jack White (of The White Stripes) tearing through “Another Way to Die,” the theme to the new James Bond film “Quantum of Solace.” Even with just being nominated for a few more Grammy Awards for several tracks off her recent “As I Am” album, art will have to share space with her most serious endeavor, working tirelessly as a global ambassador for Keep A Child Alive, a non-profit organization that provides life-saving AIDS medicines directly to children and families living with HIV/AIDS in Africa. Yes, this Julliard-trained hyphenate knows no bounds this year, one of the 2008’s most important personalities.
Without further delay, a confession that is truly in the key of Alicia.
JORGE CARREON: It can be said that each of the woman in “The Secret Life of Bees” represents a different facet of what it is to be a woman. Would you agree with that?
ALICIA KEYS: I would. I really do see the many variations of beautiful women in this film. They come in all styles, shapes, sizes, colors and all types of pasts; things that we’re recovering from and going through and embracing. So I do agree.
CARREON: Regardless of the film’s time frame and issues, is it really hard to be a woman?
KEYS: I think it is. It’s the most beautiful thing to be on the planet, so that’s first. But secondly, it is difficult to be a woman because we carry a lot on our shoulders and we are very, very strong. Sometimes we make it look really easy, but it’s not always easy. I think another thing we do as women is we hold things inside of us because we have to keep on pushing and keep going. Keep going for our family, our kids, for the ones that we love, you know? Sometimes that does weigh heavily on us. But I think that we are the most resilient and we are definitely just beautiful creatures. I love being a woman. I love it very much.
CARREON: Do you think such gender driven a story like “The Secret Life of Bees” has a place in contemporary entertainment that extends beyond a female audience?
KEYS: There are so many wonderful women in the world and we have to be represented properly. So, yes! It is time to tell more interesting stories about the many variations of women.
CARREON: Men are thinking, “How does this relate to me?”
KEYS: I think ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ is something that will relate to a lot of men. In fact, all the men that I spoke to were like, “I’ll tell you what. I thought it was a ‘chick flick,’ but I really loved it.” They can see in the women their mothers, their sisters, lovers they know. They can see all the women that they know and they can see their own experience being a young person displaced and trying to find their way through it all. It’s not really about color and it’s not about gender. It’s about the experience of finding your place in this world and I think that’s something that everyone can relate to. It’s a story about the human condition. We can all relate to love, family, defeat, and fear. And, we can all relate inspiration, hope, and faith. These are all the themes that are inside the movie.
CARREON As you continue to evolve as an artist, what made this filmmaking experience important to you?
KEYS: This experience is what I expected it to be and more! I learned that it’s just incredible to be around such fascinating women. I learned that it’s amazing to be directed by a woman like Gina (Prince-Bythewood), who was the screenwriter as well. I learned that when you put a whole lot of great women in one space, it’s a wonderful outcome.
CARREON: Faith continues to be a buzzword in the media of late. It seems entertainment is not shying away from addressing such themes, either. Why do you think faith and family have to go hand in hand?
KEYS: Faith brings the family together. And through all of the things that families go through, it’s the faith that we keep that allows us to know that we’ll make it through everything. You can’t do it on your own, even if it’s just one person; you need someone that has that faith with you.
CARREON: Do you find yourself thinking about your life’s journey after being part of a project like a film as opposed to music?
KEYS: Very much so. Always. Especially now, I am definitely searching for my place, my stability, what I’d like for myself. It’s a good journey because sometimes I just dig and find and figure it out. That’s what I think they’ve all done in “The Secret Life of Bees” and I’m doing it, too.
CARREON: Is there any coincidence that three of the film’s leads are actually musicians in their own right?
ALICIA KEYS: No! (Laughs)
CARREON: As your career continues to evolve, do you feel different about music and acting in a movie? Is it exercising the same muscle or is it nice to switch it up a little bit?
KEYS: Well, for me, acting and music do come from the same muscle in regards to tapping into something that’s honest and pure. You’re expressing it with abandonment, and in that way, it’s very much the same. The difference is, obviously, you are in a film. You’re becoming a different person from yourself, so you’re expressing another person’s story. With music, I’m expressing my story but it’s so similar because you’re empathetic, you understand it and you can connect. What I find about “June,” I can connect with every part of her. I understand her from a woman’s perspective, from a transitional perspective, from growing from one kind of part of your self into the next. There’s so much of me in her.
CARREON: “Bees” director/writer Gina Prince-Bythewood gave the cast an amazing amount of resources to feel connected to the period of the film. Why is it important then, Alicia, to continue to look back to honor the struggles of one time and how they parallel to our own contemporary experience?
KEYS: That’s something that we discussed a lot. Gina has been phenomenal in providing us with a multitude of ways to dig out who our characters are and where they sit amongst society and what’s happening in the society at this time. The NAACP and SNCC and all of these organizations that were coming up were really fighting powerfully for a major change with the opportunity for Black people to be able to vote. It’s an incredible history. Sometimes we go on in life and don’t realize the amount of struggle that it took to just get to the point of where we are. You know how many people say, “Oh, I’m not voting, it’s rigged anyway.” How many people struggled, fought and died for that and you take it for granted as if it’s not important to utilize your voice when that’s all we wanted? To have a voice? It’s important to remember and understand things like that. To understand where we have come from and to realize that we, honestly, haven’t even come that far, which is the sad part. You know what I mean? Because you think about the state of the world today and I think about where we are in this film, and it’s almost parallel. Major change, radical change, much struggle and fighting needed to just demand something different.
CARREON: The film offers your first of two new songs bearing your voice this year. What was the inspiration for the song featured in “The Secret Life of Bees?”
KEYS: I love the song in the film and it really represents it perfectly. Just the fact that sometimes you might feel down, you might feel like the world is on your shoulders, but have a little faith in you because the sky is blue.
** My interview with Alicia Keys was conducted on September 8, 2008, at the Toronto Film Festival for 20th Century Fox International. It has been edited from the original transcript.
Dad was a big fan of Glen Campbell. That these formidable men have been afflicted by Alzheimer’s is still tough to fathom. Today, Mr. Campbell succumbed to this disease. He leaves behind generations of fans, a loving and supporting family and a legacy of art that is without compare.
I will never forget the sound of his music playing over the car radio as my family and I drove through the Southwestern desert on our way to visit family to Mexico in the early 1970s. My Dad would hum along, tapping the steering wheel, offering back-up. It was a late night, our family Impala cutting its path through the star-filled darkness. Dad didn’t know I was awake, his silent co-pilot, determined to remember it all.
Years later, before Mr. Campbell retired from touring, my siblings and I took Dad to see him perform live at the Pala Casino outside of San Diego. His own family shared the stage, with his daughter carefully guiding her legendary father through the songs. I remember holding back tears as my father smiled and tapped along to the music, clearly engaged by the Campbell musical experience like it was those many nights long ago.
Both men were in the throes of dealing with Alzheimer’s at that moment, never knowing what they had in common that evening. That one of these two men is no longer with us fills me with a surge of fills me with a surge of emotion. I am very blessed t still have my father in my life, despite the hardships of this disease. While Dad was far from being a rhinestone cowboy or a Wichita lineman, he still towers in my heart and life. And the music created by Mr. Campbell? It is a shame I can’t tell him it will forever be something so profound and poignant for my family and myself, now and forever. Thank you, Mr. Campbell, for leaving us this gift, too.
As posted on the Glen Campbell website: “In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Glen Campbell Memorial Fund at BrightFocus Foundation through the CareLiving.org donation page.
Isn’t it romantic?
Merely to be young on such a night as this?
Isn’t it romantic?
Every note that’s sung is like a lover’s kiss
Sweet symbols in the moonlight
Do you mean that I will fall in love perchance?
“Isn’t It Romantc?” — Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
I hate to break it to Ella or the Messrs. Rodgers & Hart. It isn’t so romantic anymore to be young — or in my case “mature” — on any given day/night when you’re single in LA in 2016. Those “sweet symbols”of yore have been replaced by emojis and the art of flirting has given way to acts of narcissism, sexting, pexting and a strange paranoia that everyone is going to stalk you if you dare to ask for their phone number.
What happened to the fine art of seduction!? I think I can chart the course of our romantic Titanic to this famed opening from one of Candace Bushnell’s “Sex and the City” columns:
“Welcome to the Age of Un-Innocence. The glittering lights of Manhattan that served as backdrops for Edith Wharton’s bodice-heaving trysts are still glowing—but the stage is empty. No one has breakfast at Tiffany’s, and no one has affairs to remember—instead, we have breakfast at 7 A.M. and affairs we try to forget as quickly as possible. How did we get into this mess?”
And that was in the 1990s, way before we even reached this intersection of technology and dating that dominates us today.
To be fair, love and sex have always been risky investments and commodities to broker with during any given era. Yet,something changed in us in the 1980s, where we became enthralled with the art of the deal and every relationship could be viewed as a transaction that either paid off (or not) with (or without) financial gain or status upgrades. A pervasive layer of cynicism took root back then and I am starting to think it had an unforeseen consequence on subsequent generations of adults looking for love, sex or whatever passes for intimacy these days.
Behold this lovely message I received on Growlr today:
Yup. You read that right. “Love to be in bondage to you, Sir!”
Let that marinate for a minute.
Have decades of broken marriages, absent parenting and a steady diet of reality TV “courtships for the camera” warped or corrupted our ability to love and be loved? Why is it now okay to reveal your junk in the first 15 minutes of a text exchange, but the second we offer up a little sentiment or vulnerability, you shut us down? “Blocked!” Are we so distrustful of compliments that we confuse them with bullshit hyperbole or read them as code for an ulterior motive ? Again, “Blocked!” And don’t forget the ultimate sin of app dating: never ask for and suggest an exchange of phone numbers.
Now, back to the bondage comment.
Nothing exists in my Growlr profile that even remotely proclaims I have a desire for kink, fetish or any other alternative life style variation thereof. So what endgame did this gentleman even hope to achieve? It caught me so off guard, I didn’t even know how to react. Laughter was first, followed by “What the Fuck!” I mean, that text took balls, which I am sure are wrapped up with strips of leather at the time it was sent. Haha. I don’t begrudge anyone their tastes in terms of sex, but you have to KNOW your audience before sending any such missive.
In the days since that text, I can’t stop thinking about how the art of romance seems to be all but D.O.A. these days. I think of the American Songbook classics that have scored many of my favorite films, counterpointing what romance could look and sound like if given the chance. But love and relationships must live in a different world. And like any transaction, you do get what you pay for. So, why do I shop at the Growlr or Scruff store? Good question.
At times, I find myself at odds with the men I do encounter on these sites. The type of men I’ve engaged with, whether via text or in person, have changed a bit since I grew my beard, if you can believe it. Suddenly, my sexual desirability has manifested into something that is marketable and wanted thanks to my facial hair. Go figure. Some don’t seem to be put off by my observations or way of expressing myself. Others have stayed happily put behind their carefully built fortresses of solitude or indifference. I’ve gotten better about moving on and tapering back any level of persistence. If you’re receiving the most generic of comebacks, cease and desist and no one gets “Blocked!”
It is easy to denigrate the app experience as shallow, lazy and dehumanizing. Why take it at all seriously in the first place? Well, it’s replaced our concept of community, like most social networking sites. Since our lifeblood comes with Apple Care now, we have chosen to allow our dependence on smart phones and other devices to bring the world to us on our terms. Here we live in our shining iTowers, hoping to spare ourselves any indignities, awkward exchanges and diminished expectations from the safety of our own private spaces. It can all be deleted as if it never happened. What a marvel!
What a tragedy.
We will continue to swipe ourselves silly, never sure as to what we want, but darn certain as to who we don’t want to bring into our real time fold. In some ways, app life is like the old days of clubbing, where we would meet and dance with that possible Mr. Right or Mr. Right Now but always kept a close eye on the door should a better option walk in.
It makes me laugh still that we were so willing to take the bigger risk of calling those 900 or 800 number “meeting” lines where your prospective honey was only a voice! Now, your destiny is thumbnail size, for those of us who think nothing of posting our faces. (That people still prefer their own version of a closet reveals a lot of the stigma that still exists today for many men grappling with their sexuality.) The animosity against such “faceless” profiles is something to behold. Vehemence is a good word. So much for #strongertogether.
I don’t know how much longer I will continue sampling the gay buffet offered by the apps. This perpetual state of “speed” dating is exhausting and not very fulfilling. In all honesty, as I begin my journey towards 50 (and we haven’t even touched on the incredible ageism found on the apps, but next time), I think I am finally understanding that actively looking for love is not how it is found. And that’s okay because despite my reservations, something good has come out of all this Growlr-ing around.
I am able to put together my own community of gay men, men that are engaging and interesting to know as friends. It’s been a slow process, but it feels so great to be social with other men who even share some of my sensibilities. In fact, the line “Las aventuras de un oso viejo y cachondo” was crafted during one exchange with a supremely genteel and appealing Mexicano who just started his first term at FIDM in Los Angeles.
None of this may be romantic, but it is wonderfully human and real. If I had to answer the query, “Dating apps, friend or foe?” I would probably respond with “frenemy.” Like it or not, as with anything in life, it is all what you make of it. As for my woes about the scarcity of romance, I refuse to let go of my ideals in that regard. I’m just starting to love myself again, that’s one romance that’s been long overdue.
It is affirming to discover in small pockets that romance isn’t dead for all of us. For as long as we as gay men cherish the ideals of being treated with respect and care, romance will never be relegated to being a luxury item for the privileged few. Cynics beware, us new romantics are legion and our numbers can only grow from here.
Something tells me the best is yet to come…take it away, Ella.
SALLY TOMATO: Some day, Mr. Fred, you take this book, turn it into a novel. Everything is there. Just fill in the blanks.
HOLLY GOLIGHTLY: Would be good for some laughs.
ST: No. No, I don’t think so. This is a book would break the heart. (READS ENTRIES) “Mr. Fitzsimmons, powder room, $50. Less $18, repair one black satin dress. Cat food, 27 cents.”
HOLLY: Sally, darling, you’re making me blush. But you’re right about Jack Fitzsimmons. He’s an absolute rat. but I guess, of course, I don’t know anybody but rats. Except, of course, Fred here…”
From the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” adapted from the Truman Capote novella by George Axelrod
It is a story to break the heart, indeed.
Last night, I had a coffee date with a real life Holly Golightly, author Truman Capote’s famed gamine immortalized by Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Although, as I wake up to write this recollection, I now see shades Lorelei Lee, the famed blonde mantrap vedette from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Either way, I write this of two minds.
I admired his pluck and honesty when he hurled statements like, “I don’t want to work to sustain myself. I want someone else to take care of me. My mom did that. So did my grandmother. I guess it runs in the family.”
I am also saddened by the harsh reality of his worldview. It was disconcerting to see how a darker shade of self was hiding beneath those incredibly green eyes. Yet, moments occurred during our two hour conversation where it was apparent said eyes could turn icy blue with determination.
God, he was beautiful. He had this classic Pepsodent, that all-American, clean cut look reserved for those who are the physical manifestation of manifest destiny. He knew he had the power to pillage and conquer souls and grab all the riches of the land. It would happen without him ever having to do or give anything in return, a fact he made quite clear.
I was never one of those boys. I never had that power. I was the friend. The confidante. The one that went with you shopping. The one that would hold your hand and console you when you would cry or rage over the one you’d rather be with treated you wrong. I don’t know what it’s like to wield a sexual power so strong, that men would become automatic teller machines to sustain even the most tenuous of connections. I was never the boy who looked like a teenage dream.
During the course of our time together, I had visions, strong sexual ones. How could I not? I recognized the signs from day one. His careful banter, always appealing, almost demure, was seductive. But as our conversations, or rather marathon text narratives, evolved, an edge was starting to make itself known. Sitting with him at this Starbucks at Downtown Disney, it became apparent to me he knew what he had to say to draw a man in. Shrewd sincerity always wins in the conquering game.
It was fitting that our meet and greet happened at a place where artificial beauty runs rampant and costly dreams of fun and adventure are sold. This temple of cartoon consumerism only compounded my resolve not to engage with this boy again. Clarity hit as I drove by the 605 freeway on ramp. The role models provided by Holly Golightly and Lorelei Lee haven’t lost one iota of their potency.
But I shouldn’t be surprised.
Madonna’s seductive and telegenic anthem “Material Girl,” itself a variation and homage to these archetypes, has never been more resonant than today, where a generation refuses to do the hard work or take pride in making their own success. It’s about the instant gratification of it all, of getting and wanting all you desire.
Bartering with sex is nothing new. From the moment we learn to covet, we will find the right selfie angle with which to succeed of obtaining our heart’s desire. Yet something else is in the mix when you’re beautiful of face and body. I’d like to think a high cost exists to trade one’s souls to appease a hunger for Vuitton.
Lorelei Lee exalts near the end of “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” how “a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?”
It does help, Miss Lee. But when all you can do is show your price tag like I was shown last night, I realized the cost would not just be a monetary one. I don’t have the funds to become a sugar daddy for someone who may just walk away when a fuller bank account comes into play. I would never want to pay to make someone love me. I want parity. I want equality. I want to share whatever I have with someone who understands the importance of giving back and not just in a financial way.
Want to know the greatest irony in all of this? He worked at a bank.
It took me a while to fight my way to the middle in this world. I am not going to be a rich man. I’ve pretty much squandered most of the riches of my perceived Hollywood life anyway in a lifetime of unbridled spending. That emotional void I’ve fought most of my life is no closer to being filled, although I recognize the danger of giving it power. It’s a hollow space. Period. What surrounds it, however, is something that keeps me from falling in.
I tire of this app fueled world, where you swipe by thumbnail portraits of the desperate and the damned. It’s a virtual Serengeti. Here, a generation of men, predators and game, roam the space in search of something that can stave off the inevitable, even it’s just for a moment. It’s a network for the anti-social, where you trade innuendo and salacious photos in acts that approximate connection and intimacy. No one ever really wants to go beyond the chat box. Somehow, that’s just inviting the danger and risk of having to actually relate to somebody. (Side note, maybe we ain’t talking, but a lot of us are still fucking the pain away. Which may account why STD and HIV infections are on the rise.)
For a moment, I thought, “Maybe. Just maybe.” He was softening a bit, opening up more and more about his family life, later showing me pictures of his mom and sister on Instagram, which was unexpected. It was the most real aspect of our conversation, the only time I didn’t hear cynicism and contempt. Calculated, perhaps. Yet, an urgency could be heard in his voice, which would fall to a whisper. “This man,” I thought, “is lonely.” Despite the romanticism of a fireworks show in the distance, it was the spark of an iPhone 6 Plus screen that illuminated the truth — and path for my exit strategy.
He joked that he couldn’t live without his phone, a trait that goes beyond generations at this point. And quite a bit of life was happening while we sat together. He’d text and talk, talk and text. I eventually had to sneak a look, only to be rewarded by the sight of a distinguished, smiling gentleman with a beard. Older, like me. Smiling that smile of “Notice me, please,” like me. It was obvious that the Teenage Dream was hedging his bets alright. I was one of a group.
One final boom filled the sky and we began our walk back to our cars. He said he always loses his car in the Disneyland parking lot. Once found, we hugged and he allowed for three tender kisses on the lips. As he turned away, he asked, “Text me” in a voice laden with promise of future heavenly delights. Or maybe it was just polite indifference, the voice we use when we know won’t ever speak again. Either way, I couldn’t really listen anymore.
This “date” cost me $29: $18, parking. $11 for two lattes, one with sugar and one without. But one thing is certain: his story will ultimately break his heart.
Written and posted from Wayne Avenue Manor on Sunday, December 13.