Seeing Things

This Liberty still image

This past summer in Cheyenne my uncle Richard Hughes told me of his hallucinations. That a man going blind might also view visions seems an insult to injury. Yet his condition has a name—Charles Bonnet syndrome—after an eighteenth-century Swiss naturalist and philosopher. As profiled in ACNR (Vol. 8, No. 5, 19) Bonnet first listed his grandfather’s

silent visions of men, women, birds, carriages, and buildings, which he fully realised were ‘fictions’ of his brain. Bonnet himself later underwent visual deterioration and experienced hallucinations typical of the syndrome named after him […].

(Compare with “Blinky” Watts, the sound effects technician character from David Lynch’s short-lived TV series On the Air, who suffers from Bozeman’s Simplex, which causes him to see “25.62 times as much as we do.”)

Six months prior I came across a song by Richard Dawson, which I wanted to write about tonight only to find that he too sees things (due to a genetic defect), but through a glass darkly, as Dawson told The Guardian‘s Michael Hann, who remarked, “There’s an almost hallucinatory clarity to his writing.” Continue reading “Seeing Things”

The feeble strength of one

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Comrades in Denver recently attended a performance by the Manitoba band Propagandhi. I knew the group’s name but not their music and poked around a bit. If you like your tunes hard and fast, guitar-driven and polemically positioned, with gorgeously apocalyptic album art, this is up your alley. But I was quite surprised to learn that John K. Samson was the band’s bassist for nearly six years.

According to the cliché about art school, you learn the rules before breaking them. Samson can be seen, superficially, as having worked in reverse, with a minimalist-with-message band before leaving school to fashion, with The Weakerthans, a new song in an old mold: figurative, more muted, embellished with just enough magic in its realism to keep us inquiring. Perhaps the finest example of this craft is the band’s ballad “Pamphleteer.”

Continue reading “The feeble strength of one”

Bad Rap

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I’m a terrible interviewee for the most part. Recently I was contacted by a radio news editor about homophobia in hip-hop, based on my involvement in the 1980s rap group, Age of Consent. I can’t imagine any sound bites from that conversation will end up in the final piece, but the dialogue got me thinking. In the course of subsequent riffling through AOC archival material and updating our website I came across a profile of our group from 1983 in which I actually was cogent. And I was surprised that I articulated a notion I thought I’d only come to hold more recently. But I was also disappointed by my hubris.

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The article, by Samir Hachem (1956–1992), provides a good introduction to what AOC was about, so I won’t duplicate that here. I knew Samir’s work from radio and his love for the Lebanese singer Fairouz. As KCRW’s Tom Schnabel (the station’s first music director and creator of Morning Becomes Eclectic) recalls in his tribute to Hachem, “Samir told me of how Fairouz could perform for one faction in the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s, then cross over to the other side and perform there, too. Such was her fame and the respect she commanded.” In addition to radio Samir wrote for The Hollywood Reporter and The Advocate, in which the AOC profile appeared.

Continue reading “Bad Rap”

Attica: Coming Together

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What follows is the recollection and reflection of a remarkable musical work, and my work experience around it.

Prison Strike 2018 poster imageThe prison strike of late summer 2018 was in part a commemoration of the killing of prison organizer and author George Jackson on August 21, 1971 as well as the uprising his death sparked (in part) at Attica nineteen days later on September 9. Having just turned 16 at the time, although I was involved in antiwar activity in Boulder, Jackson and Attica were two coastlines away and easy enough for me to ignore. Two years later I was reacquainted with those struggles—through music. Continue reading “Attica: Coming Together”

1952: A Triad

1952 was a watershed year for the Mattachine. The organization had begun its engagement with the larger community by standing in solidarity with Mexican Americans who, like homosexuals, were targets of the Los Angeles Police Department. With the arrest of its cofounder Dale Jennings in March of that year, the Mattachine had a test case of its own to rally ’round, but in that effort the group turned inward rather than outward. I examine this dynamic in the first of three articles, “Harry Hay Meets His Match.” I also look toward the remarkable woman Hay met along the way.

The gamble to back Jennings paid off. His superb legal representation—bankrolled by Mattachine fundraising—resulted in a hung jury, allowing the organization to capitalize on an impossible dream: an admittedly homosexual man beating a charge of lewd vagrancy. “Blown Cover: The Arrest of Dale Jennings” reviews some of the particulars of the case, including the identity of his arresting officers. I also examine LAPD’s liberal employment of the lewd vagrancy allegation as well as its use of a tactic known as the “third degree” and brutalization in general.

In the fall of 1952, emboldened by Jennings’ success in court, the Mattachine once again turned its gaze outward, this time to civic leaders and local candidates for office. The vehicle of outreach was a brief survey known to have been completed by only three or four respondents, but when it came to the attention of a local newspaper columnist, the concerns he voiced about the Mattachine turned out to reflect those already in the minds of its members, as discussed in “Queer Questionnaire and Coates Column.”

The above three articles are adapted from my work-in-progress with the working title The Feeble Strength of One: Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, Maxey, Marx and the Mattachine. Because their length likely would prevent their eventual publication as-is, I offer them via The Tangent Group.

Gerry Brissette: Mattachine Momentum, Misgivings

Brissette-Freman Letter

A profile of Gerry Brissette.

Gerard “Gerry” Brissette (November 12, 1926–September 20, 1980) almost singlehandedly organized what we now know as the Mattachine Society in the San Francisco Bay Area.

With his direction, facilitation, and participation the organization in Northern California grew from a virtually useless mailing list in mid-February 1953 to being active enough to send delegates to the Mattachine’s constitutional convention in April and May of that year. Nearly as quickly, following the conventions, Brissette became disillusioned with the organization’s trajectory and fell away. Due to a series of letters between Brissette and Mattachine cofounder Chuck Rowland in 1953, we are privy both to Brissette’s early biography as well as his motivations and challenges in building the organization in San Francisco and the East Bay. A 1976 interview of Brissette conducted by historian John D’Emilio aids in the latter regard as well.

This profile of Gerry Brissette is adapted from my work-in-progress with the working title The Feeble Strength of One: Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, Maxey, Marx and the Mattachine. Because its length likely would prevent its eventual publication as-is, I offer it on The Tangent Group.

Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out

Big Mama Thornton

A review of the book by Martin Aston.

With this new volume, Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out, Aston fills a much needed lapse in queer pop history. Unlike books such as Zoot Suits and Second-Hand Dresses (1988) edited by Angela McRobbie and John Gill’s Queer Noises (1995), the former which deals with the subject tangentially and the latter which deals with it personally and sporadically, Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache (taking its name from a late ’60s Northern soul hit) moves decade by decade through the 20th century (a bit before, and after), just as the music itself comes into play.

Paul Benard: Mattachine Misfit

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A profile of Paul Benard.

In my time looking at the lives of members of the early Mattachine, perhaps the most enigmatic was Paul Benard (April 24, 1916–November 7, 1954).

One of the eight men pictured in the famous “Christmas tree” photograph taken by Jim Gruber in 1951, Benard turns out to have been considered for a role in the Mattachine’s leadership. He left the group and left Los Angeles but remained in contact with members, only to die in 1954.

To my surprise last year, a chance query by Víctor Macías-González, Professor of History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at University of Wisconsin–La Crosse provided me with Benard’s birth name, and I was able to construct a very detailed account of his early life. Had the existing Mattachine leadership known about his involvement in the “little” and leftist theater endeavors of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, they’d have seen him as a comrade.

This profile of Paul Benard is adapted from my work-in-progress with the working title The Feeble Strength of One: Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, Maxey, Marx and the Mattachine. Because its length likely would prevent its eventual publication as-is, I offer it here. Lengthy as it is, more study of Paul Benard is warranted.

Vile Vault: The FBI Gets Its Man (or Woman)

"Put up or shut up" FBI Report image

The Federal Bureau of Investigation turned 108 this year, originally having been considered a reform of what the New York Times called a “tangle” of the Secret Service. “The plan is nothing less,” wrote the Times in 1908, “than the merging of the Secret Service and the detective agencies of all departments of the Government into a Bureau of Criminal Investigation, a sort of Federal police, to be incorporated under the Department of Justice.” Lest the notion of such a Federal force strike fear, the Christian Science Monitor cooed:

These employees of the government are not ‘police spies’ and should not be denominated as such even by those who entertain a passing resentment toward the system. In the great majority of cases they are simply confidential agents of the government, and their calling is just as legitimate as that of the confidential agents of corporate and private business concerns.

People interested in what the FBI has been up to during the last century can browse its Vault, an online treasure trove of thousands of documents released either via Freedom of Information Act requests, or by the Bureau’s own largesse.

A sexually circumscribed stroll through The Vault’s index reveals files on several shady characters: Alfred Kinsey, Amelia Earhart, Alger Hiss, Bishop Fulton Sheen, Black Dahlia aka Elizabeth Short, Bayard Rustin, Bettie Page—that’s just the A’s and B’s. (All subjects are listed—but not precisely sorted—by first names.) The C’s are worth a gander, revealing the Bureau’s political inquiries: Cardinal Francis Spellman, Clark Gable, Carl Sagan, Casey Kasem, Christic Institute, César Chávez, Carl Sandburg, Coretta Scott King, COINTELPRO, and none other than Clyde A. Tolson—J. Edgar Hoover’s first mate in the FBI.

Vile Vault examines the FBI investigation of the Mattachine Society and ONE magazine. And the identity of a snitch.