Sing Out! Gays and Lesbians in the Music World by Boze Hadleigh. New York: Barricade Books. $21.95 ($30.75 Cdn), ISBN 1-56980-116-9, 328pp. To order, call 1-800-59-BOOKS or e-mail email@example.com.
America’s prisons are woefully overcrowded and so, according to Boze Hadleigh, are its closets — customized prisons for one. Hadleigh’s made new and improved use of this still-potent symbol of sexual repression by detailing its contours, its effect on those who inhabit it, and its consequences for society gay and straight. Over the past couple of decades, he’s made a cottage industry of the subject, turning out a series of bitchy, dishy screeds on queer stars (Conversations with My Elders, Hollywood Lesbians, Hollywood Gays), queer cinema (The Lavender Screen), and now queers in the music world. Actually, Sing Out! is an update of the author’s 1991 The Vinyl Closet(renamed no doubt because vinyl is passé and some readers might find The Two Pieces of Mylar Encoded with Digital Data Closet a little confusing).
Doing the ethically dicey work of forcing open the entertainment industry’s society’s many closet doors isn’t easy or always rewarding, and Hadleigh’s reputation has had its ups and downs. Some critics have objected to his frequent ego-drenched intrusions into his narratives; some have recoiled at his occasionally brutal attempts to drag reluctant witnesses out of the closet (check out the Barbara Stanwyck interview in Hollywood Lesbians); more scholarly minded readers have tsked at his inconsistent citing of sources. More egregious, perhaps, has been his use of anonymous interviews — “O is a top singer, or was” — a not uncommon journalistic practice but one that arguably makes him appear to be reinforcing the very closets he’s trying to empty.
But let’s face it — good dish is rare, and ethical debates and nitpicking aside, Sing Out! slings it with the best of them. The book is divided into six long, anecdote-heavy chapters that make up a witty, informative document on the lives and careers of gay, lesbian, and bi men and women as musicians, singers, dancers, and composers. The approach is enticingly sprawling, moving with ease within a chapter like “The Music Lovers” from the travails of syphilitic queen Franz Schubert (1797-1828) to Brian Epstein allowing John Lennon “the use of his throat” in Spain in 1963. Other chapters cover an equally broad cultural and chronological ground. The “Songbirds” in the chapter of that title come from the cream of 1920s black café society (Josephine Baker) and the netherworld of “bulldagger blues” (250-pound butch Gladys Bentley), and closer to home, the lesbian redneck rock scene (Janis Joplin, Melissa Etheredge) and the dazzling world of British genderfuck (Annie Lennox, Boy George).
Sing Out! resonates with an inescapable subtext: minorities — queer, black, Jewish — who found the only doorway to acceptance through their musical talent, only to have the same door shut on their sexuality, sometimes permanently. The great lyricist Lorenz Hart tried all his life to go straight; actor/drag queen Dan Dailey captured the visceral hell of sexual suppression when he said of Hart: “He disliked himself before and after sex, and his partners during.” Glorious kitschmeister Liberace refused to come out even while dying of AIDS, an indication that some stars bolted the closet door after society shut it. For others, like rock pioneer Little Richard, the closet had a revolving door, with Richard sometimes an “in” Christian and other times a “screaming, unhinged queen” as critic Adam Block called him. Richard gets some of the book’s best lines: “I’m gonna scream like a white woman!” he told one terrified audience.
In spite of an initial disclaimer that Sing Out! is “not a Who’s Who or Who’s Had Who,” this is in fact a good source for such information. Some of the characters are revelations: who knew about Billy Tipton, a female saxophone and trumpet player in the ’40s and ’50s who passed as a man, married a woman, and adopted kids, none of whom knew what he was until his death? On more familiar ground, the book is sharp on the subject of David Bowie’s affairs gay and straight, his endless multiple sexual identities as self-merchandising strategies, and the essential conservatism of this allegedly cutting-edge “Queen Bitch.” The book has enough revelations to keep the reader occupied for weeks at the library or the CD store, but it can’t be called definitive with no mention of out music mogul David Geffen, or the trampy tranny chanteuse Pussy Galore, or musical camp pioneer Rae Bourbon, who’s surely due for a revival.
Hadleigh’s writing is mostly snappy. He can capture a subject in a few words, like calling Prince’s look “neo-Versailles drag,” or painting a mocking picture of Dan Dailey making midnight raids on Linda Darnell’s costumes at Fox studios. On the other hand, some of the stories, amusing in themselves, seem to have little to do with queers or closets. In spite of devoting five paragraphs to the subject, he fails to convince us that Ricky Nelson was a lusty bisexual who spent most of his time in gay three-ways. Part of the problem here is sources: invoking legendary gossip rags like The Hollywood Kids, Bill Dakota’s Hollywood Star, and anything by Kenneth Anger reveals more titillation than truth. Still, all is forgiven when the author recounts bathetic stories like the one about a paralyzed Cole Porter crawling toward a sadistic Jack Cassidy in order to give him a blow job; or recalls soprano Eileen Farrell’s response to a command from conductor Thomas Schippers (“Listen, Tommy, I’ll take care of the music. You just stick to sucking cock!”); or quotes some of Australian Peter Allen’s inimitable stage patter: “I was in Sydney last week—Sydney loved it!”