Last week, we posted the 42-song “Love to Orlando” playlist, which I worked on with my colleague Erik Roldan as a small gesture of tribute to the people targeted at the Pulse nightclub, plus anyone else who had ever found refuge in defiantly joyous Latin and LGBTQ dance clubs. In the days after the devastating attack, certain songs kept flickering in my mind, causing me to involuntarily hum or sing bits of verses or choruses. Every time, I’d think of Orlando, and countless memories of dancing in gay and Latin clubs (and club nights), and of friends who had danced in those clubs with me and are now gone. For this column, I wrote about a few of those songs.
As the father of a young son, the Orlando death that struck me the hardest was that of Brenda Lee Marquez McCool. A 49-year-old single mother who raised 11 kids, McCool went dancing at Pulse two Sundays ago with her 21-year-old son Isaiah — not just to support him, but expressly to enjoy his world to the fullest. McCool, a two-time cancer survivor, did not survive the attack, though Isaiah did. Just over a week ago, she posted this on her Facebook page: “While we teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life's all about. Embrace, Encourage, Acknowledge, and Love them unconditionally.” Her last post, just hours before rifle fire ripped through Pulse’s swirling lights, was of two men dancing together.
Love to Orlando.
Valentino, "I Was Born This Way" (1975); Carl Bean, “I Was Born This Way” (1977)
Two years after 1969’s historic Stonewall riots in New York City, a straight, black Christian mom named Bunny Jones who owned several Harlem beauty salons was inspired by the gay hairdressers and friends she met in her shops to write the lyrics for a song called “I Was Born This Way.” A few years later, she collaborated with musician-producer Chris Spierer and 22-year-old Off-Broadway singer-performer Charles “Valentino” Harris to release a 7-inch of her dream song in 1975 on her own Gaiee label. As Jones told The Advocate at the time: “I began to feel that gays were more suppressed than blacks, Chicanos, or other minorities.” For Harris, he was coming out on the first gay proto-disco record, wailing, “I’m walking through life in nature’s disguise / You laugh at me and you criticize / Just because I’m happy, I’m carefree, and I’m GAY.” An underground, out-the-trunk minor local hit, “Born This Way” was picked up for distribution by Motown; the label decided to rerecord it two years later with gospel singer Carl Bean, another fearless young black man who also came out on record, seeing no conflict with his Baptist beliefs. Assisted by experienced producers and arrangers (along with legendary mixer Tom Moulton), the song was transformed into a jubilant Philly soul stormer, cracking the Billboard charts and becoming a would-be gay national anthem in the same year that unhinged Christian singer Anita Bryant led a “crusade” against homosexuality.
There were other versions over the years — a popular “Better Days” mix in 1986 by influential DJ and Madonna collaborator Shep Pettibone, as well as a 1990 cover by British pop legend Dusty Springfield, who in 1970 came out as bisexual under tremendous media glare. Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” the title track to her 2011 album, was basically Bean’s “I Was Born This Way” + Madonna’s “Express Yourself” = No. 1 smash. Bean, who later became archbishop of the Los Angeles–based Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, remains loudly proud of the song, publishing a book in 2013 titled, I Was Born This Way: A Gay Preacher's Journey through Gospel Music, Disco Stardom, and a Ministry in Christ. But perhaps the song’s original writer, Ms. Jones, best captured its appeal: “Anyone who can identify with truth will have to love this record — gay, straight, or what have you. Even my goldfish get frisky when they hear this record.”
Machine, “There But for the Grace of God Go I” (1979)
Tommy Browder, a.k.a. August Darnell, a.k.a Kid Creole, was disco’s most fearlessly original storyteller. After the last mutation of his peerless polyglot pageant Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, he signed on to produce and write with New York funk-R&B band Machine on their debut album. Their first single, “There But for the Grace,” a gritty novella tucked into a glossy groove, became one of the era’s artistic peaks, along with Dr. Buzzard’s "Cherchez La Femme" (inspiration for Ghostface Killah’s "Cherchez LaGhost”), reaching both the club and pop charts. Called “disco’s finest morality play” by Peter Shapiro in his book Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco, it had a historical impact on gay audiences, telling the story of the immigrant Vidal family, who moved from the Bronx to protect their daughter from the borough’s supposedly seedy, dangerous elements — namely, “the blacks, the Jews, and the gays,” a line singer Clare Bathé belted out with a girlish flair that made it all the more disconcerting. The daughter, though, “turns out to be a natural freak,” listening to rock and roll that her father then bans from the home, “popping pills and smoking weed,” and eventually running away at 16 with some random dude.
The music gave “There But for the Grace” a bittersweet ebullience, a tone of which Darnell was a master. Opening with a grand piano flourish, it abruptly shifted into a turbo rhythmic churn decorated with playfully squishy synth blurts. It’s easy to see the appeal for, say, Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan, who could give the song’s thick, heavy boom and the manic keyboard flourishes all sorts of intensifying reverberations. Bathé and bandleader Jay Stovall traded off and shared vocals, while Stovall’s guitar accompanied throughout, jangling and weaving amid a thick, bullish bass line that it often seemed to be racing to the end of the song.
One can hear the unmistakable influence of “There But for the Grace” on Nuyorican salsero Willie Colón’s legendary tune “El Gran Varon,” translated loosely as “The Big Man” (from his 1989 album Legal Alien), which has a dolorous electric piano and violin intro before breaking into a brassy, polyrhythmic salsa groove. With Colón singing the story of Simon, depicted from a father’s point of view by longtime Latin songwriter Omar Alfanno, it also has a bittersweet verve. Simon, a child of the ’50s, is raised (presumably in Puerto Rico) by a tough-guy father named “Don Andrés,” but later he leaves the country (presumably to go to the U.S.). When his father decides to visit unannounced, he discovers that his son is now a transgender woman. Again loosely translated, Simon exclaims with a tinge of sarcasm: “Hello, Daddy, how are you? Don’t you recognize me? It’s me, Simon! Simon, your son, the big man!” The father returns home, dismayed. Years later, softened by age, he grumbles that his son never writes to him. But in 1986, he receives a phone call, informing him that Simon died alone in a hospital room of a strange illness (unnamed, but obviously AIDS). The song, speaking to an audience not assumed to be sympathetic, preaches tolerance more than equality or acceptance, but in 1989, this was a monumental statement by Colón.
Marc Almond, “Tears Run Rings” (1988)
I almost left this off the playlist since it’s not Latin, not necessarily “gay” (though Almond identifies as such), and not dance music. But it’s probably occupied my thoughts more than any other song during the past week. Years ago, I worked with a guy in the word-processing dungeon of a Manhattan law firm, typing up limited partnership agreements and wills and living trusts and other deadening documents while sucking in fumes from the parking garage overhead; he was soft-spoken but with a palpable edge, a balding loner who was older than the rest of us aspiring nobodies. Turned out he was a longtime veteran/casualty of New York clubbing, and if one was interested and semi-respectful and patient, he was a font of disco lore about clubs, people, music, sex, drugs, DJs — you name it. (He was even featured in a photo in the original version of the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, perched on a speaker wearing a gold lamé leotard.) Long story short, he’d contracted HIV some years back, and his health was quickly failing. We shared a final pasta dinner at his small Houston Street apartment and a couple of awkward phone calls when he was too sick to work. I learned about his death when our supervisor solicited money for flowers.
At the time, I was listening to Marc Almond’s The Stars We Are, the cuttingly melancholy orchestral-pop album that contains “Tears Run Rings,” and the music eerily matched my friend’s wry yet sincere mood. His death unnerved me more than I expected; one day, our smart-ass crew of white, black, male, female, gay, and straight dungeon drones were mercilessly goofing on my friend’s eccentricities, as they always had — it was their way of remembering him, I guess. He’d always taken it badly, with visible disdain, which is probably why they kept doing it. I took it badly on this day too, and had to leave the building and walk around outside. I wandered over to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and idly went inside. At that time, the Catholic Church, led by the archbishop of New York, John Cardinal O’Connor, was militantly homophobic, regularly making heartless statements and fighting against efforts by the city or state to legislate any rights or humanity for gay citizens. Heading back to the office, I was more worked up than I had been before I left.
I remembered my friend as a slightly eccentric guy, but one who hauled around a big, wounded, searching heart, which he had trouble sharing with others — yet had shared with me. But he didn’t, at least at that point in his life, have the ability to hide his hurt or anger anymore. Like Almond, he was openly brooding and vehemently earnest. He could’ve written the lyrics of “Tears Run Rings” himself. For instance: “I don't understand / The wicked things we do / In the name of the good / In the name of the few.” And just listening back to The Stars We Are’s title song drops me right into the middle of one of our conversations: “Say no goodbyes, no regrets / For the things that we said / And how we said / That we only wanted an answer / To our dreams / We wanted an answer to our dreams.” What more do we all want? Yet dreams remain unfulfilled, and more than that, questions continue to pile up, as tears ring our eyes. That’s the dark truth. But there’s another truth: Those tears will dry, the dancing will restart, and again we’ll face the choice of whether to share our stories and music and hearts with each other. In the end, that’s what we’ve got. So get out on the floor.