This is JD Doyle and welcome to Queer Music Heritage.
Flirtations - Bop 'Til You Drop (1992)
That was the Flirtations and a blend of two songs they often used to begin their live shows, "Bop 'Til You Drop" and "At the Hop." They were a very gay a cappela singing group in New York City from 1988 to about 1997, with some member changes along the way. I'll get to that in a while, but the member I'm mainly concerned with for this show is Michael Callen. I've been wanting to do a tribute show to him for quite some time, but kept putting it off, as I consider his contributions to our music culture to be so significant. Tackling that has been a little daunting, but for me the time is right. You see, on my March show I interviewed Pam Brandt, to get the history of the band The Deadly Nightshade, and part of her history involved Michael. In the mid-80s she, Michael, Richard Dworkin and Jan Cleary were in probably the first mixed gay and lesbian band, calling themselves Lowlife.
Of course I have to mention right away that in addition to his music Michael Callen is known for work regarding AIDS. Wikipedia sums it up nicely this way: "He was a significant architect of the response to the AIDS crisis in the United States." And he did that by helping to found several AIDS organizations, writing books and newspaper articles, appearing on television shows, and doing public speaking, which included testifying before the President's Commission on AIDS and both houses of Congress.
But this is a music show, and I can map out Michael's career in about four stages, and there's some overlap. In the mid-80s was the band Lowlife. After that came some solo performing and cabaret work, and he also did some of that before Lowlife. In 1988 was the release of his solo LP, "Purple Heart." Late 1987 saw the start of the group The Flirtations, which lasted past Michael's death in December of 1993. Finally, in 1996 an incredible posthumous double CD was released of work recorded before his death, and mastered afterwards. That project was called "Legacy."
Okay, back to the band Lowlife. Before you hear about the band itself I want to play some music, and from my interview with Deadly Nightshade member Pam Brandt, I have her talking about what I think was by far the band's most political song; one called "Living in Wartime."
Pam Brandt Interview
PB: Well, that was an AIDS anthem. Michael wrote that, and the message is pretty clear, more die every day, this is war. As gay people we're living in wartime, just a different kind of wartime. And it ended up being used in the Broadway play, Larry Kramer's play, "The Normal Heart," which was new then . The play itself was not a musical. They took that recording, it was the music that they played as people were walking out of the theatre. So it did end up being heard by the public, and not just on Michael's solo album.
Lowlife - Living in Wartime (1985)
JD: Tell me
about the group Lowlife, such as how and why was it formed and what
was unique about it?
Richard Dworkin Interview
I met Michael
in June of 1982, and the way I met Michael was I answered an ad for
gay musicians that appeared in the New York Native, a gay newspaper.
And Michael said, "well, I happen to be getting together with
a bass player tonight, so why don't you come over?" So I rode
my bike up to the West Village, went up to Mike's apartment on Jones
Street, and there was Michael and Pam Brandt. Pam Brandt had been
in a group called the Deadly Nightshade, and she also had answered
Mike's ad and apparently they had had a meeting or two previous to
this. And so we all ordered Chinese food, and Mike made Sorbet, and
Pam went home and I stayed.
RD: How we got from having a band Lowlife to making a solo album was that Michael had AIDS from basically from the time I knew him, and by 1986...I think it was...I can't remember now...I think it was '86 or '87 when we started recording. Anyway, I think it was a Nina Simone record. I had a record called "Nina Simone and Piano," and I played it for Mike one day and he said, you know, that's a really effecting and moving album and it's just her and piano. So maybe we should just make a record, and it will be whatever it will be. Cause Mike was very influenced by people like Barbra Streisand, Elton John, Bette Midler who usually had big productions behind their voices, so he always wanted that kind of thing, and I think it was sort of him dealing with his own...imagining his imminent mortality and thinking that it's better that I make some record than not make any record. And so we started looking for a place where we could make a record, and we were lucky to find Fred Hersch, who had a studio in his loft at that time.
Chronologically we're in 1988 and Michael's "Purple Heart" album, and it contained his most acclaimed song, "Love Don't Need a Reason."
RD: Michael wrote this tune with Marsha Malamet, with whom he wrote several songs. It may have been the first tune that they wrote together, and they got the idea to write this song when Barbra Streisand announced that she was going to make a movie of Larry Kramer's play, "The Normal Heart." And they thought, let's write a song that could be the theme song for that movie. Now of course, that was in 1986 and of course that movie's never been made...still no movie. But the song has been sung by a lot of people. There's...I don't know...maybe fifteen commercial releases, versions of that song. So, anyway, Mike and Marsha got the idea to write this song and Marsha had written with Peter Allen. And it was Marsha's idea to invite Peter Allen to work on writing the song, and so the three of them wrote it, and it got its public debut at the New York City AIDS Walk, which still goes on in Central Park every May. Peter sang the song at the AIDS Walk in 1987.
All three of the writers, Michael, Marsha Malamet and Peter Allen recorded solo versions of the song, and it's by far his most covered song, done my many other artists and choruses over the years.
Marsha Malamet Interview
So I especially wanted to hear from Michael's co-writer on the song, Marsha Malamet. She is a very acclaimed songwriter, whose work has been recorded by...just to name a few...Barbra Streisand, Luther Vandross, Faith Hill, Diana Ross, Barbara Cook, Peter Allen, and on and on. When I wrote her she said she always has time to talk about Michael.
JD: How did
you meet Michael, and when did you meet him?
JD: Do you happen to know what year that was?
MM: It could have been the end of '85, because we wrote it and it was debuted at the first AIDS Walk, in Lincoln Center, in '86.
While we're talking with Marsha I'm going to jump ahead a bit in our chronology to share with you a live version of the song, with Michael singing and introducing it in April of 1993, at the March on Washington for GLBT Rights. It was essentially his last live performance, and he died on December 27, 1993. And unfortunately due to time constraints I won't be able to play complete versions of many of the songs in this segment. I do want to remind you that the song was inspired by the play "The Normal Heart," and the lyrics start out, "If a heart always did what a normal heart should do..."
Michael Callen - Love Don't Need a Reason (live, 1993)
JD: Tell me about the writing of "Love Worth Fighting For"
MM: It was all encompassing, his AIDS diagnosis, that's what he lived for, to get the word out, you know, he was invited to speak to Congress, he was on many TV shows, I accompanied him on many of them. He was just the spokesman. It was a moment in time when Michael did his thing, and he did it very well. And he came up with an idea...you know, he thought this was a fight, that we had to fight for our rights, that they were not going to be handed to us. And of course the bottom line to that...is love. And he wanted to write a song about the fight, but also about two people, partners, that loved each other. And the inspiration of their love came out of the song, and vice versa, that, you know, just look in my eyes, and that's the love that we're fighting for.
Michael Callen - Love Worth Fighting For (1995)
The song was first released on the 1995 compilation "A Love Worth Fighting For," which included a number of extraordinary artists and on it you can also hear Marsha's own version of "Love Don't Need a Reason."
And I know you've been waiting for this. It's time for the Flirtations chapter of the story. But first I'm going to sneak in a surprise.
Michael Callen - Jockey (1982)
Wouldn't you buy jockey underwear from Michael Callen? That was the plan anyway. In 1982 he recorded a number of demos of commercials, hoping to get that kind of work. Okay, here's another.
Michael Callen - Wonder (1982)
Now, back to the Flirtations and for that I go to founding member Jon Arterton.
Jon Arterton Interview
JD: How was the group the flirtations formed?
JA: I came out of the closet pretty late in life. I was I think 37 or maybe even 38 and I came out with wild abandon, and shortly after that I got cast in a show called "The Ten Percent Revue," Tom Wilson Weinberg's show, and after a year, year and a half of doing that, the other guy who was in the show and I both left the show, and we lived in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn. And we were having breakfast one day, and we both said, boy, it would be great to have a singing group. And so we came up with the idea, The Flirts, and we put up notices around Greenwich Village and posted advertisements in the gay newspapers at the time. And people came out and auditioned, and we started, that was the Fall of 1987. We had just come from the March on Washington (October 11, 1987) and had come home enthused and wanted to do it.
JD: And that was Elliot Pilshaw, wasn't it?
JD: So who were the first, quote-unquote, official members of the group?
JA: We actually started with six. We were Elliot and I, and Michael, and Aurelio (Font), and TJ Meyers and Cal Grogan. And after about a year, maybe less than a year Cal left the group. And maybe a year and a half, two years in, Elliot decided that he wanted to leave the group. He had just gotten a new job in New York and had just gotten a new boyfriend, and he didn't want to be on the road, and so that's when Cliff (Townsend) joined the group.
JD: How soon after its formation did the group start touring?
JA: I would say it was at least a year before we did much. I remember our first out of New York City concert was up in Poughkeepsie, and that was probably, yeah, 1988, I would say, probably in the Fall, but it wasn't long after that, and of course we released our first album in, I think, 1989.
JD: There's a Youtube video of the group from 1988, singing on the streets the song "My Boyfriend's Back." Was that the first audio or video capture of the group?
JA: You know, I don't know, that very well might be, as far as I know that's the earliest footage.
JD: Well, I love that clip because y'all were singing "My Boyfriend's Back," which you never recorded on your own.
JA: I guess you're right, yeah.
So this is a historic recording, caught live on the street, with street noise, but I just have to share some of it.
Flirtations - My Boyfriend's Back (1988)
JD: What would you say were one or two of the career highlights for the group?
JA: Well, obviously being in the film "Philadelphia" was one of the big highlights, I would say, the opening ceremony of the Gay Games at Yankee Stadium was also a thrill, we once got to be the guest artists of the New York City Gay Men's Chorus, in Carnegie Hall, of course that was a thrill. There were many, almost every city I have some kind of memory of.
JD: In the film "Philadelphia," the group sang "Mister Sandman," talk about your version of that one. How was it picked for the movie?
would love a screen capture of the Flirts from
JA: Well, we actually were playing a concert in Philadelphia and somebody on Jonathan Demme's crew saw the poster for our concert on a street corner, and he brought it in and gave it to the producer, and the producer called me up, and he said, "you got any music you could send me?" And I said, "we've got a CD," and he went "Oh, well, I didn't know you had a..." so I sent him the CD and I suspect he listened to the songs on the CD and picked that one out.
JD: And, it's a very campy version.
JA: Yes, we had a lot of fun writing the words to that song
From the second Flirtations CD, "Live: Out on the Road," from 1992 is "Mister Sandman."
Flirtations - Mister Sandman (1992)
In addition to the many humorous songs in their performances, they were even more known for a couple songs that were very inspirational.
JD: Talk about the song "Something Inside So Strong."
JA: When I had a boyfriend in New York, very early on in our relationship he said, "you know, I know this song that would be great for you guys." And I said, "Oh, well, you know, I should just tell you that there are some songs that lend themselves and...you know, a lot of people suggested songs and they haven't worked out, so I'd love to hear it, but I can't promise anything." And he played me the original version of Labi Siffre singing that song, and I was just blown away. I don't know, have you heard the original? [Yep] It's intense. So we arranged it and we just started doing it. It's an amazing, just an amazing song. For one thing the rhythmic drive it has...it's difficult in writing a cappella arrangements sometimes to capture the rhythmic intensity of a song. But that one seems to work pretty well a cappella.
Flirtations - Something Inside So Strong (1992)
The Flirtations and a shortened version of "Something Inside So Strong."
JD: What would you like the world to know about Michael Callen?
JA: Well, he would want me to say that he was a big old queen. [laughs] He was a unique, amazing person, very kind, loving, sensitive, creative, determined person, who just believed that he could. And he worked so well with people that he inspired them to greater deeds. I think everyone who came into contact with in any sizable way is grateful for the gift of having been a part of his life. There are not many people that one meets along the journey that stay with you the way Michael has with me, and a lot of people, just an amazing and inspiring human being.
Michael died on December 27, 1993. His last live performance was at the March on Washington in April of that year. There's video on Youtube of him singing "Love Don't Need a Reason" at that event. I played the audio of that earlier in this segment. While he was no longer strong enough to tour with the Flirts, he was definitely able to record music, and from January through September of that year he and Richard Dworkin went into the studio and captured about 40 songs, all sung masterfully. In 1996 the result was the release of a double CD that I consider at the top of the list of essential LGBT recordings for any music collection. It was called "Legacy" and included 29 songs, of a variety of styles and many of them iconic to me, like the ones already discussed with Marsha Malamet. There are way too many to cover in this segment, so for eager listeners it is fortunate that this tribute has additional parts, to feature much more of Michael's music.
One of those songs first appeared in 1990 but was redone beautifully for the "Legacy" album. It was called "Crazy World," and Richard Dworkin commented on it.
RD: "Crazy World," I would love it if someone sort of put a little EQ on it so it sounded like it was coming out of a mono transistor radio or something. I always imagined that song as like this is from a lounge singer in the fifties that no one ever heard of, and he made this gay song and it never got released. "Crazy World" Mike had written and recorded for a compilation "Feeding the Flame: Songs by Men to End AIDS," I believe is the name of the compilation. He had recorded it just with his own piano accompaniment, but at some point I got the idea that it would sound good as a 6/8 ballad, and that's how we did it.
Michael Callen - Crazy World (1996)
As we near the end of this tribute, and I have something the helps prove the legacy continues. There is a musical in New York City currently in development about the life and work of Michael Callen. It's called "Even for One Night," and was conceived and written by Jim Bredeson and I was able to talk with him about what inspired the show.
JD: And how did that turn into a show?
JB: Sure, you know, I approached him with the idea...I think that my initial email was, I'd like to look at Michael's life and his music as a theatre project. And Richard was like, "okay, sure, go for it." Mainly because I think he'd gotten calls like this before. In fact I know he has, because this material is rich, and a lot of people know it, but I'm not sure that anybody's actually really followed up on an initial idea. But looking at the material and looking at the music and also this great vault that Michael left behind. He came at a time when the video camera was new, as you know, recording and audio cassettes were cheap, answering machines were cheap, people left many drafts of their writing because the computer had become so popular. So, so much of Michael as a person had been left behind that I started to look at the idea of what if we let Michael tell his own story. What if we look at the best of the best of how he expressed himself, his beliefs and told his own story, and somehow wove that together into an evening of experience, with Michael, rather than something that's a standard book musical.
JD: So, how is it staged?
JB: And, so we have five actors who are all playing Michael simultaneously. They are talking to each other, commenting on each other's thoughts, rephrasing each other's thoughts, and kind of trying to exemplify the many different types of Michael that there were. And so what you have is a conversation between Michael Callen a singer-songwriter, Michael Callen an AIDS activist, Michael Callen a sex-positive person, all of these voices together at one time telling a story. So we have five actors, one of whom plays the piano in performance, telling the stories together.
JD: Do they all sing?
JB: They all sing, yes, one of these archetypes if you will, or types of Michael, is the most artistic of them, or the one who is the singer-songwriter, the one who doesn't want to talk about condom use, but wants to make music, he does the majority of the singing
This is JD Doyle and I'm winding down my Michael Callen Tribute. I did quite a bit of researching and interviewing for the show and in my usual zeal captured much more than would fit into an hour segment. So, there are more parts to the show, where I will have more of many of my interviews, a whole lot more music, including a song from Jim Bredeson's musical, and a couple rare surprises. That's on my website at queermusicheritage.com. I adore Michael's body of work so much that I struggled with what song should close the show. I considered two iconic ones, "They Are Falling All Around Us," and "Healing Power of Love," but finally chose one of the most famous as done by the Flirtations. It is the Fred Small song "Everything Possible," and I asked Jon Arterton about it.
JD: I'm thinking you greatly respect the song "Everything Possible," as do I. When Michael was in the Flirtations it was recorded twice, and you've done it two more times, on the third Flirts CD and on your own CD with your husband, James Mack. Talk about how that song went over when the Flirts sang it in concert.
JA: I'd be glad to. Well, there are really two major songs that we did that had a huge impact and that was one of them, and "Something Inside So Strong" was the other. "Everything Possible"...I can't tell you how many people came up after concerts and just told us what it meant for them to hear that song and the sentiments in it. It was kind of our one-two punch to end the show. We would sing "Everything Possible" and then we would sing "Something Inside So Strong." Through the years we thought about trying other songs in those positions, and nothing, nothing seemed to work.
JD: No, you can't top those two songs.
JA: No, you can't. I think that when we were going to put "Everything Possible" onto the third album, I called Fred Small to tell him, and he said, "well, you know, I do write other songs." [laughs] I think we can really be proud of the fact that after we sang that song and recorded it that virtually every gay and lesbian chorus across the country started singing it. And, we did not write the song, Fred Small wrote the song.
I consider this song so important to the story that I also contacted the songwriter, Fred Small to ask about the inspiration for "Everything Possible."
Fred Small Interview
FS: I was on tour in the Pacific Northwest, I think the Winter of 1983, and I was staying in the home of Janet Peterson, who is a cellist and singer with the women's group Motherlode. And she and I were talking and she was telling me about her son, who was then nine years old, and how he was struggling in school because of all the expectations and pressure and gender stereotyping around being a boy. And he'd just been a kid, and now he realized there were all these norms that he had to uphold, as a guy, that he had to distinguish himself from girls by being different, and the difference was not a difference that he found very helpful, or natural to him. And Janet said something like, "well, Fred, I'm going to make the same request of you that I'm making to every songwriter that passes through Seattle. And can you write a song that can support my son, in knowing that he has choices, that he doesn't have to fit these stereotypes." I don't recall how I responded, but within 24 hours I think I was working on "Everything Possible," and I'm pretty sure I wrote it on the bus to Olympia, Washington, on the way to a gig, but that was the genesis of the song. At some point Elliot Pilshaw heard the song, and brought it to the Flirtations, with whom he was singing at the time, and they arranged it for their five a cappella voices and sang it as part of their repertoire and my understanding is that it became their most requested song. I think they recorded it on three different albums over the years. And they of course brought it to a completely different and ultimately much larger audience, of gay and lesbian choruses and their audiences around the world. I mean, in those days you didn't talk about things going viral, but certainly The Flirts vastly expanded the audience for the song.
JD: This is maybe an unfair question, but do you have favorite recording of the song?
FS: Oh, I'd have to say The Flirts, with Michael singing, it's just stunning.
Flirtations - Everything Possible (1990)
Callen, Malamet & Allen - Love Don't Need a Reason (1988, 1995, 1990)
This is JD Doyle and welcome to Part 2 of my Michael Callen Tribute, and I figured a good way to start it out was sort of a mash-up of the three writers of "Love Don't Need a Reason," each doing their own version. So that was Michael Callen, Marsha Malamet and Peter Allen, and leave it to Peter to have the biggest arrangement.
I packed all I could into Part 1, but still have a whole lot to share of Michael's music and the interviews I captured. And I'm going to go right to Michael's solo album from 1988, "Purple Heart." Now, in 1983 as an AIDS activist he co-wrote a pamphlet called "How To Have Sex in an Epidemic," and he also wrote a song by that name. And to intro the song I'm using a snippet from an interview with Michael talking about the subject.
- How To Have Sex (interview, 1983)
I want to return to my interview with Michael's partner, Richard Dworkin, and pick it up where I asked him how the album was received.
Richard Dworkin: I think "Purple Heart" was pretty well received by the gay community, by the gay press. It was virtually ignored in the main stream press.
JD: There's a song about you on the album, right?
RD: There is indeed a song about me on the album, "Me and Dickie D."
JD: Would you talk about that song?
RD: No. [laughs] What I most remember about recording the song "Me and Dickie D" is that it was mortifying to participate in. Playing and producing a song written about oneself is something I don't recommend to anyone. I think what helped the process along was the fact that the piano player I had contracted to do the recording backed out at the last minute. And I still think there was some homophobic element involved here. But we were able to find someone, basically while we were standing around in the studio, to play piano on it, and he did just a fantastic job.
Michael Callen - Me & Dickie D (1988)
I mentioned that the musical chapters of Michael's life overlapped a bit, and in the one on solo and cabaret work was a show he was involved with in April of 1990. It played at the Duplex in New York City and was a tribute to another gay songwriter who had died of AIDS, in 1984. That was Bobby Blume and in 1990 several of his friends performed in a revue of his songs. Besides Michael the cast included Peggy Gordon, Amy Ryder and Michael McAssey. The show ran to good reviews and I love that there were several solo performances by Michael Callen, including this one, called "When This Fever Breaks."
- When This Fever Breaks (1990)
From 1990, you heard "When This Fever Breaks" and "Fool Heart," sung by Michael Callen, and written by Bobby Blume.
I'm going to jump ahead just a bit chronologically to cover a solo performance by Michael, and it was in the AIDS film "Zero Patience," from 1993. In it he had a small role, as Miss HIV and there was a short song called "Scheherazade (Tell a Story)," and also a longer version, and you'll hear both.
Michael Callen - Scheherazade (Tell a Story) (1993)
Gee, I think that was Michael doing a dance song.
Flirtations - The Flirt Song / To Know Him Is To Love Him (1990)
Of course that was the Flirtations, with two tracks from their first CD, featuring "The Flirt Song" and a much more campy version of "To Know Him Is To Love Him." And I have a bunch more from my interview with Flirtations founder Jon Arterton, and I began by asking if there was a leader of the group.
John Arterton: Ah, yeah, I guess I was the defacto leader of the group, since Elliot (Pilshaw) and I started it, and then Elliot left, and I wrote almost all of the arrangements. And at one point around 1992 or so we went to a lawyer, an entertainment lawyer, who said we could continue to operate as a collective but if you really wanted to keep the group functioning for a long, long time it might be better to make it a corporation, which we did and I became the sole owner of the corporation, I guess.
JD: How was material picked for the group to perform?
JA: Well, there were two main things. We didn't want anyone to have to sing words that he didn't agree with, so we had to have complete consensus on every song that we picked. And we wanted every song to have some kind of lyrical contribution to the theme of what we were doing. So sometimes songs took on special meaning because we were gay men in the height of the AIDS crisis, so we could sing "My Buddy" or "I'll Be Seeing You" and it would take on a significance, and there were other songs that we sang that were directly kind of political, and songs that talk about other causes that were similar to our cause, and then songs that we thought would just be entertaining. There's something political about taking a song that everyone has heard and either changing the pronouns or changing the situation so that it becomes an obviously gay kind of parody song.
JD: I was kind of surprised to realize that the Flirts only recorded one of Michael's songs, "Living in Wartime." Did the group perform any live?
JA: Ah, let's see..."Love Don't Need a Reason"...
JD: That would be the obvious one for you to do.
JD: Do you have any funny stories about Michael being in the group?
JA: Oh, my God, how much time do you have? Well, it's hard to pick one. Michael was so funny that he kept us entertained all the time. He just had a very funny way of being in the world. He could really laugh at his illness. I remember towards the end and he had an infection in his foot that he couldn't shake, and I remember him saying, "Oh, I fought AIDS all these years and now my damn foot's going to kill me!" He'd frequently turn to Cliff (Townsend) and say...you know, somebody would come up and say, oh Michael, blah blah blah...and Cliff would say, "Well, I didn't know that you did that, Michael." And Michael would say, "when are you going to learn how famous I am, Cliff?" So, he was a person who loved a good joke.
JD: Was his humor witty or self-deprecating or campy or...
JA: I would say...all of those...he loved to be scandalous. When we would go to a college campus and then sing a concert and then go out afterwards to dinner or something with some of the kids from the college group, he would love to just sort of scandalize the undergraduates by asking questions about their sex lives. But he did it with such a smile on his face and he would just giggle. And if there were people in the group, and there were, who at some point told a story about something that had happened to them, especially in a sexual situation, Michael would at the drop of a hat in the middle of a dinner say, "ah, so, Cliff, tell me about that time in Central Park when the police officer..." you know, he would just goat him into getting more and more detail, in front of a captive audience.
JD: When did Michael stop performing with the Flirts?
JA: It was the Spring of 1993 there was a March on Washington and we gave a series of free concerts in Washington that weekend, and we also sang on the stage there, and we had some wonderful gay and lesbian performers come out and sing one last time with Michael...Holly Near, Cris Williamson, Romanovsky & Phillips, I remember...so that was sad, and then that summer at one point we had gone on as a quartet without Michael. I remember we were doing some concerts up in Provincetown and Michael came up and sat in the audience and watched us sing. And Michael was very functional, very much into therapy and into not letting things go, so towards the end of his life we came to Provincetown and we had some group therapy sessions, with a therapist, and we all got the opportunity to tell Michael how we missed him, how we loved him, and he got to do the same to us.
JD: So, was April 93 when he stopped touring with the group or did he stop a little before that?
JA: He had in the last year before that he had done fewer and fewer appearances with us but he was still pretty much with us when his health would allow.
JD: Yeah, what I'm basing that question on is that I saw the group in Houston, but I don't remember what year it was. I do remember that I was aware that Michael still alive, but not well enough to tour.
JA: Ah, yeah, I would have no idea.
JD: The song "Sometimes Not Often Enough" appears on Michael's "Legacy" album and the notes say the Flirts sang backup. Can you tell me about recording that song? About when was it done and was that the last recording with Michael?
JA: Yes, it was the last recording with Michael. It was done I believe in the Spring of 1993, Michael died in December of that year. It was recorded in New York City, and Michael had kind of retired from the group in that Spring and had stopped touring with us. And it might have even been early Summer. I believe he was living in Los Angeles at that time but came back to New York, cause Richard was producing the album there. And it was...it was emotional, singing with Michael, kind of knowing that it might very well be the last time we would do that.
Michael Callen & The Flirtations - Sometimes Not Often Enough (1996)
I opened this segment with the song "Love Don't Need a Reason," which is by far the best known one by Michael. It's such an important song that I wanted to get some other artists talking about it, and it was one of the songs I asked Holly Near to tell me about when we interviewed in 2010.
Holly Near: Michael Callen was one of the founders and singers in a gay men's group called The Flirtations, and one of the songs that Michael loved and sang, he had written with two other writers [Peter Allen and Marsha Malamet] Thank you, I was having a brain pause there. And when Michael was dying he had AIDS and had been surviving for quite a long time, but when he knew he was on his way out he decided he wanted to do a recording of all of the songs that he could imagine doing if he had a longer lifetime. So he called in all his friends to help him with this recording, and I loved his version of "Love Don't Need a Reason," so kind of to honor him after his death we did a version of it and on the recording it started out with Michael's voice singing, and then I pick up the song, after the first phrase or two. [I think that was a stunning touch and his voice just makes me melt.] It's really something, isn't it.
And that particular intro by Michael can only be found on Holly's recording. I want to get back to Marsha Malamet to hear more about the song, "Love Don't Need a Reason."
JD: Who wrote the words and who wrote the music, or how was it broken down?
Marsha Malamet: Ah, funny story. You know, Peter and I both are composers and we both play piano, so we're at his house, and of course I defer to Mr. Allen. There was no way I was going to sit at the piano and just sit there and have Peter throw out a note or two. I wanted him to be comfortable and, and you know, it was Peter Allen, so he sat and Michael threw out lyrics and he worked on it, and then as the premier gentleman that he is, he got up and he said, "okay, Marsha, you take over." And it was just very magnanimous of him. It was just very generous of him. So he got up and I sat at the piano and I started noodling too, and I continued what he brought in. So, it was really a collaboration. He did I would say 65% or 70% of the music, and the rest was me, and he collaborated with Michael on the lyric, but it was mostly Michael. That was how we wrote it, and it came very quickly. It was one of the fastest songs I've ever written. And from there, I don't know how the AIDS Walk people found out about it, but it was the theme song for the first one.
JD: When you finished did you three realize the masterpiece it was?
MM: You know, you feel it, you know it, but you never know when it comes to an audience response. We knew we had something beautiful, and I don't know if we went to how important it would be and to this day I have stories about how it's changed people's lives. However at that moment we were just pretty jazzed about writing a really good song, as songwriters feel when the really nail it, and we nailed it, and that's really it but to project how important the song would be and how it would be this theme song or ten or eleven AIDS Walks. And then of course people have recorded it, gay choruses all over the world have recorded it, Barbara Cook has recorded it, Holly (Near). There's like 25-30 choruses and artists that have recorded the song. So we didn't know. We knew we had something beautiful, but we didn't know it would take on a life of its own.
JD: Do you have any stories about what you have noticed about the impact of the song?
MM: Yeah, when we got called to do the AIDS Walks, and Michael was called to sing them, after Peter died (June 18, 1992) when Michael sang I always with him, playing the keyboard. So I'll never forget...it was one of the first times we did San Francisco...it's always at the beginning of the walk when you have the ceremony and there are people sitting on stage, civic leaders are introduced and sponsors are introduced, and then they call Michael up to sing. Well, we sang it, we did it, Michael sang it, and afterwards we were standing around waiting for our lift, or talking with people, and this one young guy comes up to us, and he was in tears, and he said to Michael, "do you know how you saved my life with this song?" And of course Michael was very moved. I was almost in tears. And he proceeded to tell us the story about how his parents rejected him and he had to go to a clinic in some other city to be treated. And he asked his parents to listen to this song. It really got to them, and they brought him back home, and he was with his family then.
MM: So when you hear stories like that...that a song turned this kid's life around and he was reunited with his family, and his parents opened up their arms and let him back into the house. And it helped them because of this song. It was pretty heavy, it was pretty deep. And that was the first time that I witnessed something like that. You know, after Michael died I started singing it. They used to call me to do it. I sang it at Sheep Meadow Park in front of like 25,000-30,000 people. And again, people came up to me afterwards and "oh that song," and it was sort of like a calling card, for love. That's the way I see it, of understanding, compassion and of love. It never ceases to amaze me how art and this song, in particular, could really move people and change the way they feel and think about something. It just boggles the mind, and I guess in that moment when we wrote it, we did hit the homerun. And you know, I have to say, I haven't written many perfect songs, but that song is. I always miss Michael and the songs that we wrote will live on for sure, for sure. And it's like his energy, his passion, his intelligence...he was so bright...but so enthusiastic about life, about art, about his singing, his work. He was so bigger than life. Every time I think of him I have such amazing memories, such incredible memories. He was bigger than life and he affected people in his legacy, you hear people talk about him in such glorious terms, and it's true. He was one of a kind.
New York Gay Men's Chorus - Love Don't Need a Reason (1991)
At least eight GLBT choruses have recorded the song, with that being the earliest by the New York City Gay Men's Chorus, in 1991.
JD: Please tell me about the song you wrote with Michael and Elliot Sokolov, called "Just Look in Our Eyes."
MM: Elliot is another very talented composer, scorer, and we were all friends, and Elliot's gay, so the three of us were gay, so "hey, let's sit down and write a song." I don't think there was any sort of deep meaning or reason why we sang it. I would say it was just up for us. Either Michael or I wrote the beginnings of it, and then we brought it in to Elliot to finish it and to demo it, as Elliot had a little studio in his apartment. So he became the producer. And I think this gentlemen, Ernest Kohl, recorded it as a disco song, no less.
JD: I know, I have it.
MM: So, you never know, people are dancing to it so it's all cool.
JD: Did you write any other songs with Michael, and were they recorded?
MM: Nope, it was those four.
JD: Wow, three classics out of four.
MM: Not bad, I'll take those odds any day. Just he alone, you talk about living your truth. That guy lived his truth, to the nth degree. So out there, and proud of who he was, and so full of life, and full of love...I mean, he had rage but he also coupled with the rage was the love and the passion for his people, for being gay, for the struggle, for his friends, he was just a very unique, brilliant...creatively and intellectually...a brilliant person.
And this is JD Doyle, closing Part 2, with a demo of Michael singing "Just Look in Our Eyes," which he wrote with Marsha and Elliot Sokolov.
Michael Callen - Just Look in Our Eyes (~1989)
Michael Callen - They Are Falling All Around Us (1996)
This is JD Doyle
and that's a good start to Part 3 of my Michael Callen Tribute. It's
From the album is a beautiful song called "Mother Mother."
Michael Callen - Mother Mother (1996)
Richard Dworkin: Well I'd love to talk about Cris Williamson's song, "Mother Mother," and this was done at the end, it was recorded at the end of the session, when we recorded "They Are Falling All Around Me." Maybe I should just talk about that day, because I think it was one of the best days in Michael Callen's life. And what happened was that Mike wanted to record this song, "They Are Falling All Around Us," by Bernice Johnson Reagon, of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and I think Bernice Johnson Reagon is perhaps one of the great musical eulogists of our time. So we arranged to record the song in San Francisco in June of 1993, and Michael loved the music and the singing of Cris Williamson, and he also just adored Holly Near, who he had gotten to know a little bit, and...Michael would have been a lesbian given half the chance, anyway...so we arranged to do this recording, and we had Arnold McCuller fly up to participate in it. And Holly happened to be performing her one-woman show in San Francisco at that time, and that's why we did this in San Francisco and Cris happened to be around. It was around gay pride. Anyway they made up the arrangement in the morning and sang it in the afternoon. And it's just so beautiful I can't stand it.
RD: One thing I particularly love is Arnold had to go fly somewhere at the end of the session and he had a cab waiting for him. And he was dashing out the door and he said, "just a minute," and he came back and did this little vocal improv that's over the form in the middle of the song, and I just wish I had mixed it louder because it's so beautiful. I should mention also that Holly's piano player, John Bucchino, also sings on that song and does a wonderful job.
RD: "Legacy" we worked on a total of 50 songs in a period of nine months, and I think there are 29 songs on "Legacy." In the end he sang so wonderfully on "Legacy" it was really incredible to see him in the studio, where he would have no energy whatsoever as people were sort of tuning up or getting ready to do a take, and then the moment the tape started rolling he would just...even Michael who was a life-long atheist would say he started to channel something. And he had this wonderful, incredible energy for the duration of the take and then immediately just sort of deflate, and even be like lying down in the booth for a while.
I have a couple more songs from "Legacy," and happen to have comments from the other performers involved talking about them. One of the songs was a very touching one written by composer & lyricist John Bucchino. Michael recorded his song "Do Not Turn Away."
John Bucchino Comments
JD: You played on several of the tracks that ended up Michael Callen's "Legacy" album. What was your relationship with Michael?
John Bucchino: He was just one of the realest people I ever met in my life. I adored him, I mean, he was an extraordinary human being, really powerful, really charismatic, and passionate and committed to of course gay rights and AIDS education and. God, what an extraordinary fellow. So I was thrilled when he was well, first of all he recorded a song of mine called "Do Not Turn Away," which I had written when my brother was dying.
JD: Yeah, I was going to ask you what inspired that song.
John Bucchino: Well, my brother was dying. My mom my brother had a partner for about eleven years, so he was a member of our family as well. My parents have always been completely supportive and wonderful. Both my brother and sister and I are all gay, so it's sort of three out of three in our family, and my parents have been wonderful. My brother was still alive and my mom had gone to an AIDS support group with his partner, and after this meeting she called me in tears, because she said that there was this beautiful 18-year-old boy who had got up and told the group that when he came out to his parents and told them that he was gay and he had AIDS, they kicked him out of the house, and wouldn't have anything to do with him. And she was sobbing, I mean, it just broke her heart, she couldn't imagine how parents could to that to a child, and that's what prompted me to write the song. And Michael gorgeously recorded it.
And again, the song is called "Do Not Turn Away."
Michael Callen - Do Not Turn Away (1996)
Not every song was a tear-jerker. The recording of this next one was finished after Michael's death, and Michael had left a request that the humorous song "Two Men Dance the Tango" be a duet with UK singer Tom Robinson. First we'll hear from Richard Dworkin, and then Tom Robinson.
Richard Dworkin: "Two Men Dance the Tango" was actually one of the last things that Mike and I talked about, because when he was in the hospital the last time I got the idea of who should sing this song with him, which was something that we had gone around and around about. And I had wanted the Flirtations to sing the song with him, but for some reason they didn't want to sing the song with him. And then he wanted me to sing the song with him, and I just thought there should be a real singer singing it with him. And eventually I got the idea to ask Tom Robinson. One of the last things Mike and I talked about was asking Tom to do it, and Mike said, "yeah, that sounded like a pretty good idea." And fortunately Tom was able to do it, and I think it turned out great.
Tom Robinson: One poignant moment of my career was getting to sing a duet posthumously with Michael Callen, on "Two Men Dance the Tango." And I was very touched that he had left a request for me to do it with him, and then really sorry that we weren't able to get in touch with each other while he was still around and making the "Legacy" album, to go and do it in person. But to hear his voice in the headphones when I was dueting with him was a nice and reassuring thing. I only met him the once on the occasion of my last band gig in New York in 1985, and didn't realize until after having met him what a kind of important figure he was, both musically and in the name of activism.
Michael Callen & Tom Robinson - Two Men Dance the Tango (1996)
On Part 1 you heard Jim Bredeson tell us a little about his upcoming musical "Even For One Night," which is a tribute to Michael Callen. And I promised to let you hear a song from the show, but first I want to share more of the interview.
JD: Michael had such an extraordinary voice, I wonder if it is a bit intimidating for actors to sing those songs.
JB: I think it probably is. Part of the idea of this production is that everybody involved is my age. I'm 34, and I grew up with AIDS on television as a scary other. It was kind of synonymous with AIDS, and I think that all of these actors did as well. And for the most part no one was familiar with Michael coming into it, so they're kind of meeting Michael, the story and his music at the same time. And where Michael had an amazing falsetto that, a range that was astounding and I think that what we're looking at is trying to find ways to have these actors make this music their own, while honoring Michael's sound. But in no way are they doing impersonations, or really trying, either in the way that they're personifying themselves, or the way that they're singing are they really trying to impersonate Michael.
JD: About how many songs are in the show?
JB: There are twelve songs in the show, and then some other songs are represented through underscoring, so really about sixteen of Michael's songs are there. And everything within the show Michael did write as well, whether or not he did that with a partner, like Marsha Malamet or Peter Allen, or he wrote it on his own, but songs like "Where the Boys Are" and other cover songs aren't in the show
JD: Will the show include any previously unrecorded songs?
JB: It will, actually. I wish that I could include so many more, because there is a whole album of "Legacy" that was never released. So there are about twelve songs that have never been heard by the public, and we're fortunate to be including "Street Singer," which is a song that Michael wrote very early, sometime between 1981 and 1982. We've taken the song and utilized it as a retrospective of his life, so that when it's introduced Michael's moved to California...it's 1993 and he's looking back on his life, and kind of longing for that idea of being a street singer, being someone that doesn't have to worry about things, other than just getting through the day
JD: I know this is hard to predict with a musical in workshop status, but what do you see as a timetable goal for future performances?
JB: Right now what we're looking at is another round of work-shopping in June or July, with the idea that fundraising for a full performance would commence at that time, and that full performance schedule would happen in the Fall of this year, Fall or early Winter.
JD: Talk about the cast for a moment.
JB: Well, we've been working with many different people. Three of these actors have been with the cast since my first draft of the show, and sat around the living room reading it, Jonathan Whitton, Rob Maitner, and Steven Stratford, and these three have been so helpful in developing the show. They come from a variety of different places. Jonathan Whitton is a cabaret singer of some import here in New York. Rob Maitner's a MAC Award (Manhattan Association of Clubs and Cabarets) winner, and Steven Strafford was in the first national tour of "Spamalot."
JD: Do the all sing?
JB: They all
sing, yes, it's one of these archetypes, if you will, or types of
Michael is the most artistic of them, or the one who is the singer-songwriter,
the one who doesn't want to talk about condom use but wants to make
music. He does the majority of the singing. But here are times throughout
the show that they all sing together. Some songs like "On the
Other Side" are made into duets, where we have Michael starting
this performance at the Duplex and then having it kind of escape into
an other world, where we bring another character in and "On the
Other Side" is brought to life theatrically. "On the Other
Side" is such a great song, and what we've done with it is...you
know, the frame of this song is two men on opposite sides of a subway
platform, checking each other out. I mean, it's such a picture that
you have right away, the idea of being interested in someone across
the platform, whether that be cruising for sex, or whether that be
real genuine interest, but having this tunnel between you that doesn't
allow for true connection or to really reach, cause by the time someone
ran to the other side of the platform, maybe the other guy's train
has already come. And so "On the Other Side" captures a
moment where I think in this production Michael is beginning to look
for connection outside of promiscuity, for lack of a better word,
that he was enjoying at the time.
I thank Jim Bredeson for allowing me to share a performance of that song, captured in a workshop setting, and it features the voices of John Berno and Jonathan Whitton.
John Berno & Jonathan Whitton - On the Other Side (2013)
Above, Whitton (on left) and Berno rehearsing "On the Other Side"
I want you to pay attention to the backing singers on this next song. It's called "Hymn," and is from the 1991 CD "Be Political Not Polite," by Romanovsky & Phillips.
Romanovsky & Phillips - Hymn (1991)
And backups were done by the Vienna Queer Boys Choir, at least that's what it says on the liner notes. It was really made up of a bunch of Michael Callens. Ron Romanovsky talks about that session.
Roughly how many people were in the Michael Callen choir.
Grant King is one of my New York City artist friends, and he did a tribute song, called "Michael." It's on his 1994 CD "Let Love Out."
Grant King -
And many of you I'm sure recognized the voices of Cris Williamson and Tret Fure on that song, called "Living On." It was a track on their 1993 CD "Postcards from Paradise," and they got Michael to share the third lead on the song. That was another of his rare appearances on the recordings of others.
I mentioned in Part 1 that this part would include some surprises, and here is a very special one. As you may have gathered during Michael's last year he recorded about 40 songs and 29 were used in the "Legacy" album. Richard Dworkin is graciously allowing me to premier one of the unreleased songs, and I am so honored. It is called "Innocence Dying," and is a song about a young man dying in a fire at the Everard Baths in New York City, in 1977. This was a gay bathhouse that was open from 1888 until 1985, almost a hundred years. Nine patrons died in the 1977 fire.
Michael Callen - Innocence Dying (1993)
Yes, that is a wow moment. "Innocence Dying" by Michael Callen.
This is JD Doyle and I'm getting down to the last song of Part 3, and I want to thank my interview guests Pam Brandt, Richard Dworkin, Jon Arterton, Marsha Malamet, Holly Near, Arnold McCuller, John Bucchino, Tom Robinson, Ron Romanovsky, Fred Small and Jim Bredeson. I think that's the most I've ever had on one show. And I thank you for listening.
The closing song is a powerful one. It's from the "Legacy" CD and is called "Healing Power of Love." I have three folks to talk about it, starting with Arnold McCuller. He and David Lasley were among those providing backups. And then you'll hear from Marsha Malamet, and then Richard Dworkin.
Arnold McCuller: Michael was the coolest guy to work with. I remember flying to San Francisco to record with him. We did a lot of recording here in L.A., and once he and David and I got together we realized we loved singing together, and we did most of that. David and Michael and I did a lot of that stuff together in Los Angeles, but then I got to go to San Francisco and work with Holly and Cris.
JD: Any other memories of those sessions?
AM: I remember the little motel we stayed in San Francisco and I remember meeting Holly and Cris for the first time and how sweet they were, you know, but it was just a nice time, it was a really good time. Michael was kind of frail. He would be pretty tired, I think, and he would have to get up enough energy to come into the studio and record.
JD: One of the songs was "They Are Falling All Around Us." That's the one that you sang with Holly Near and Cris Williamson and John Bucchino.
AM: Yes, I remember crying in the studio singing it. It was amazing.
Marsha Malamet: He took his experience and his life, and he put it in song, you know, love it is. Love is the healing power. And he wanted to write a song about that. Again, it's all coming from his experience, and because he had such an intuition about what type of lyric would work. How do you reach people, in this time of AIDS, in this time of tragedy, in this time of sickness and suffering? You can't sing about that per se, you have to take the high road, you have to take the healing road, and the healing is love. These three songs, "Love Don't Need a Reason," "Love Worth Fighting For," and "The Healing Power of Love" are stand-outs in my career for sure. He had his joie de vive, he had so much wonderful qualities about him. And that's why you're doing this show, that's why people still record the songs, that's why they're doing a musical about him, that's why people talk about him still to this day, because he was very, very special.
Richard Dworkin: Mike's song "Healing Power of Love" was sort of written as an anthem for the People With AIDS Self-Empowerment Movement, of which he was a big part. And actually it was really written to be performed as a duet, and it's almost never been performed that way. If you follow the lyrics, it's really someone with AIDS singing, and a friend...a friend or a family member...sort of singing back to him, and then them singing together. And we thought about doing that on "Legacy" and we had a performance of him singing it that he'd recorded earlier and we just went with that. And I love the vocal backups at the end, and the way that came about was the original demo recording just sort of faded into eternity. It went on forever, I think, with the idea that it would be faded out. And so we had all this material at the end of the tune and no strong idea of what to do with it. And the backup singers, led by David Lasley, came up with this wonderful a cappella thing, where Michael sort of fades out and they fade up, in this beautiful ethereal chorus.
Michael Callen - The Healing Power of Love (1996)
This is JD Doyle and welcome to a special segment of my show this month. It is an interview with singer/songwriter Fred Small, who is very well respected mostly in the folk music community. Between 1981 and 2001 he released seven albums, and in 1996 he became a minister in the Unitarian Church, in Massachusetts.
In Part 1 you heard Jon Arterton of the Flirtations and Fred Small talk about how important the song "Everything Possible" is both to the body of work by the Flirts and to our culture in general. It's a song I have much respected for a long time, and now I have found the perfect way to explore its story further by presenting this interview with Fred Small. So, for those tuning in to just this segment I'm repeating the first couple minutes of his comments. And, by the way, the version of the song I opened with was by the group Motherlode, from 1987, and they had perhaps the first cover version of it, and figure into our story.
JD: Please tell me about the inspiration for the song "Everything Possible"
Fred Small: I was on tour in the Pacific Northwest, I think the Winter of 1983, and I was staying in the home of Janet Peterson, who is a cellist and singer with the women's group Motherlode. And she and I were talking and she was telling me about her son, who was then nine years old, and how he was struggling in school because of all the expectations and pressure and gender stereotyping around being a boy. And he'd just been a kid, and now he realized there were all these norms that he had to uphold, as a guy, that he had to distinguish himself from girls by being different, and the difference was not a difference that he found very helpful, or natural to him. And Janet said something like, "well, Fred, I'm going to make the same request of you that I'm making to every songwriter that passes through Seattle. And can you write a song that can support my son, in knowing that he has choices, that he doesn't have to fit these stereotypes." I don't recall how I responded, but within 24 hours I think I was working on "Everything Possible," and I'm pretty sure I wrote it on the bus to Olympia, Washington, on the way to a gig, but that was the genesis of the song.
JD: Was it a hard song to write. Some writers say it was like channeling.
FS: Hmm, it was a very easy song to write. It came out easily, and it took me a while to figure out how powerful a song it was. I think as a songwriter often I'm kind of the last to know. I really have to try it out, and the test of it is how people respond. Sometimes you have a gut feeling about it. I'm not sure I had a strong gut feeling about the song. I think the song really does walk the line between simplicity, which you want, and maybe even over-simplification or simple-mindedness..."you can be anybody you want to be" certainly treads perilously close to the U.S. Army slogan, be anybody you want to be, or something like that. So, I wasn't sure, and only by singing it to first individuals and an audience I found that people responded very powerfully to it. And I certainly didn't write it with the intention of it being a gay anthem. Obviously it's gay-affirmative, but the gay piece is really not front and center. It's part of a larger message, of unconditional love and acceptance and support for the people...well, for anyone, and certainly for the people that we care most deeply about. And then when GLBTQ people started really responding to it. I realized that it had touched a chord.
JD: How has the song travelled over the years, what's been its journey?
FS: Well, I started singing it on the folk circuit, and certainly there were GLBTQ people in my audiences but they were not primarily GLBTQ audiences. They were just...whoever liked folk music was there. I also sang it on a more political circuit, peace, justice, environment...the whole range of what are considered left-wing or liberal causes. And at some point Elliot Pilshaw heard the song, and brought it to the Flirtations, with whom he was singing at the time, and they arranged it for their five a cappella voices and began to sing it as part of their repertoire and my understanding is that it became their most requested song. I think they recorded it on three different albums over the years. And they of course brought it to a completely different and ultimately much larger audience, of gay and lesbian choruses and their audiences around the world. I mean, in those days you didn't talk about things going viral, but certainly The Flirts vastly expanded the audience for the song.
I want to add that one of my online friends, Greg Allen, has a very advanced collection of albums by GLBT choruses, and he has provided me with a spreadsheet of the tracks from those 500 or so recordings. From it I can report that "Everything Possible" is among the very most recorded songs, showing up on 31 different CDs, from groups all over the world.
JD: This is maybe an unfair question, do you have favorite recording of the song
FS: Oh, I'd have to say the Flirts, with Michael singing. It's just stunning.
Flirtations - Everything Possible (1990)
JD: Did you know Michael Callen?
FS: Not well, I met him when he was still singing with the Flirts and he was a lovely guy, was very gracious and friendly and kind to me. There was a time when we were both at one of the conferences, annual national conferences of Men and Masculinity, and I had sung there maybe the year before, but I wasn't on the bill to sing that year, and they were. And that was fine with me, I understand that. But when Michael found out that I wasn't singing that year, he said, "oh, well, take some time from our set." So I sang a song or two. I think it was actually during their set, but it was in any event as part of their slot and on Michael's invitations. So that was very generous.
JD: Do some people think that since you wrote such an iconic gay anthem that you are gay yourself?
FS: Oh, absolutely, people often have been quite surprised, and indeed I was surprised also when...I think it was at the Vancouver Folk Festival...when I stepped off the stage and a young man about my age...I was a younger man in those days...walked up to me and planted this huge smacker on my lips. And you normally don't want to say, um, "I'm not gay," but I probably said something along those lines, as graciously as I could just so we could have a clear understanding. But the funniest story is that when I met and began dating the woman who became my wife, her brother...her twin brother, actually...when he found out that we were dating, said "that's impossible, Fred Small is gay." Which he had inferred from my music, which he knew and I think in fact had a tape of mine, and Julie said, "bro, you're going to have to trust me on this one."
JD: Well, you've written a number of songs with gay themes.
FS: Well, you know, I try to be a good ally to the GLBTQ community, as I try to be to all communities of people who are not treated as well as the communities from which I come. I have a lot of privilege in my life. I'm white, straight, male, able-bodies, grew up in not riches certainly, but solid middle-class affluence. So having been given a lot of gifts, a lot of resources in my life, I just feel that it would be really immoral, unconscienable, not to do my best to support others in their quest for justice, for equality, for a place at the table, for the fruits of the tree of life.
JD: What were some of the songs. I know one was called "Annie," one was called "Marine's Lament."
FS: Ah, right. Well, "Annie" is a song about a school teacher who is closeted, because she fears, rightfully, for her job otherwise, and it tells a story of that double life that you have to lead when you can't be true, you can't be authentic about who you are and whom you love, in the company of others who might betray you. So I wrote "Annie" before "Everything Possible," I think "Annie" was the first sort of explicitly gay-affirmative song that I wrote. I mean, it's a kind of liberal song in the sense that...the set-up is you gradually figure out that the young woman, Annie, is a lesbian, in the course of the song. And so what I was deliberately trying to do was to trick heterosexuals into liking her before saying, oh by the way, she's gay. And by that time they liked her enough that they had to empathize with her.
FS: And I sang that song for years, and then finally as things were getting better, particularly in Massachusetts, I sang it, oh, twenty years ago, maybe fifteen years ago. And I sang it in Cambridge and there was a girl, I think, maybe twelve years old in the audience. And she didn't get it. Which was great, because she didn't understand what Annie was up against. She might have been a student at Cambridge Friends School, which is a very liberal Quaker school here, which incidentally has adopted "Everything Possible" as one of its anthems. I'm not saying they play it at their sporting events, but they sing it a lot. Anyway, it was such a beautiful moment to realize that at least in this child's mind she didn't know about this injustice. Now, you could say that naivety is not helpful and she will need to know that this injustice persists, and that's true. But just as a kind of barometer of progress, I was just thrilled. It is very rare I would have to say for a topical songwriter to write a song that goes out of date. Because usually the things that we're protesting don't go away. There are certainly many places around the country where "Annie" is painfully current, but Massachusetts is, I think it's fair to say, not one of them, because we've had strong legal protections on the books for many years against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation
From the 1985 album "The Heart of the Appaloosa" is "Annie."
Fred Small - Annie (1985)
FS: And then, the "Marine's Lament" was right around the time of the great Don't Ask Don't Tell debacle, right after Bill Clinton was elected and immediately reneged on his commitment to end discrimination against gays in the military. And it struck me that juxtaposing the legitimate valor, the incredible courage that soldiers show and take pride in the military and on the battlefield. The notion that they would be absolutely freaked out and terrified by the proximity of a gay man just seemed ridiculous, and a good opportunity to lampoon and just make the point that this discrimination was not only immoral and harmful, but also absurd.
Fred Small - Marine's Lament (1993)
JD: Any other gay themed songs you'd like to talk about?
FS: You know, I haven't thought of my catalog in a while, because I am no longer working out a set list every night. Do you know my song "Larry the Polar Bear"? It's on the same album that "Annie" is on, which is "The Heart of the Appaloosa," on Rounder, and it's a song about a polar bear who is raised entirely in captivity at the Los Angeles Zoo, based on a true story. And the polar bear is taught tricks by his keeper. I named the polar bear Larry. And because Larry is such a good doer of tricks, he is recruited for a movie shoot. And the movie shoot is in Alaska, on location. So they take to Alaska this polar bear who has never been to Alaska, has never been in his natural habitat. And they let him out of the crate, and he looks around, and something stirs inside him, there's this instinctive recognition that this is home. He's never seen it before, but it's home. And he just takes off. He runs away, and is never seen again. What I found was that GLBTQ folk often responded very deeply to that moment, to that recognition...that what they thought was home, was not home, that what they thought was their life, was not their life. And once they realized that, everything changed. And they had to go, they had to leave, they had to go to this new life.
Fred Small - Larry the Polar Bear (1985)
JD: There's a song on your "I Will Stand Fast" album that was a duet with Cris Williamson.
FS: Oh, yeah, "This Love." That's a kind of a combination of a love song and an anti-war song..."for just one moment, people all over the world could know this love...armies would hold their fire, we'd have peace...if everyone could love with the same degree of generosity and listening and humility that we're loving." So it tried to bring together the personal and the political. I sang the duet live in the studio, and we were both in isolation booths so that our voices wouldn't bleed into the other, so that they could be mixed and fixed separately if necessary. But when Cris started to sing I was looking at her through the glass, and hearing her voice though the headphones I practically fainted just then...oh my God, Cris Williamson is singing with me, right here, and it just sounded so spectacular. It was a great honor.
Fred Small &
Cris Williamson - This Love (1988)
Also from Fred's album "I Will Stand Fast," from 1988, was the very poignant song "Scott and Jamie."
JD: What's your second most successful song?
FS: I think, "The Heart of the Appaloosa," which was probably my most popular and most requested song on the folk circuit. It's a song about the Nez Perce indians and the appaloosa horse and their intertwined fates.
Fred Small - The Heart of the Appaloosa (1985)
I'm closing this special segment with Fred's own version of the song, but before we leave I want to share a few more comments from Fred on the song "Everything Possible." It originally appeared on his 1985 album "No Limit."
FS: One of the earliest recordings of "Everything Possible" was by Priscilla Herdman, a folk singer, and she recorded it. I believe she was pregnant at the time, when she actually recorded the song. And I know that she sang it to her baby, both before and after birth. And for me as a songwriter I think the most touching thing has been how many people have told me the difference the song has made in their lives. And sometimes these are GLBTQ folk for whom it has really been a comfort, and sometimes even a saving grace. And other times it's parents, whether gay or straight, who have said "we have been singing this song to our child since before they were born...we have sung this song to our child every night, as a lullaby...this is a song that our child has grown up with, and their friends have grown up with."
FS: And a songwriter who is interested in change, in making change, when you find that you have become part of a new culture, which can nourish and support and sustain in precisely the way that the old culture diminished and harmed and limited and abused, that's just a very powerful awareness, and a deeply gratifying realization that...you know, I'm not a mass artist, but in some communities and in some places and in some families I have made a difference. I have become part of that new culture. And the great thing is I've discovered that for a six year old, or maybe even an eight year old, a CD is a CD, and a lot of these kids don't realize that I'm not at the level of Michael Jackson or Bruce Springsteen...so, to them it's part of their world, and so my hope and my wish is that they grow up internalizing this sense of possibility, and understanding that their parents, who are singing this song to them actually believe that, and that they will love them, no matter what.
Fred Small - Everything Possible (1985)
Fred Small Discography