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Lance Loud: The First Real Boy On The Sun

January 12, 2015

In 1973, I was unarguably a child, arguably pre-sexual, and extraordinarily curious about the world around me.  I was also constantly aware that I was being conned. I knew that the people I saw on television were strangers; not just strangers to my way of life (full of the usual oppressions, limitations, disenfranchisements, and handicaps of pre-pubescence), but also strangers to reality: these characters, these Bradys, these Partridges, these summertime replacement sketch comics, they were caricatures that reflected reality no more – and often far less – than cartoon characters did. 

Very few eleven year olds are free.  Not only are they almost completely dependent on family and parents, but their worldview is defined by available and accessible media (and their generational peers vomiting up the same).  At that age, in any era (not just the rotary phone/terrestrial television world of the early 1970s), even in this era, young people are a grotesque and addlepated mofungo of their environmental influences; we don’t know who we are, but we try to form an image of ourselves based on the slivers and shards of a thousand funhouse mirrors the world throws all around us.  In fact, virtually none of these mirrors reflect our actual selves in any functional or useful way. Each child is full of great depth, in many ways the same depth they will presume and assume as adults, yet we have to construct a world out of the largely one-dimensional residue of what adults presume to be our usefulness as consumers.

The list of the fears that shadowed my 11 year-old world was long and common:  the end of the world; the mortality of my parents; the thick shadows of the bullies or the lock-jawed disapproval of the teachers; the terror caused by lifts home from Hebrew school that never came; not to mention the foreshadow of sex, mysterious almost to the point of being otherworldly.  Honestly, not a single minute of any television show spoke to any of these issues, yet television was our world, our refuge from screaming families and fall-out drills and all the aforementioned everyday terrors.

I was aware, when I watched anything except for the news (Vietnam!  Spiro Agnew!  John Lindsay!  Mario Biaggi!  The Columbo Family! Joan Whitney Payson!  Aristotle Onassis!) that I was not watching reality; I was not watching anything that told me about who I was and who I might become.

Into this world, this world of fear and fakery, stepped Lance Loud. 

He was light, he was beautiful, he was an angel, he was utterly unlike anyone I had seen on television (and I watched a lot of television, being lonely, strange, and chubby), the world to him seemed to be a suitor to be charmed with a flip of your hair and a sly comment.  Even within the documentary format of the show that featured him, An American Family, he seemed hyper-real, like the birdsong heard for only eight seconds that is more beautiful than any recorded composition.

I immediately fell in love, even though I knew nothing yet of sexual desire, much less the mechanics of homosexuality.  I fell in love with his joy, his lithe, rubbery spirit, this person who seemed free and real and so strange yet so utterly familiar; he was the dreams I had not yet had (but only suspected); and what was most important about Lance Loud wasn’t that he was the first openly gay person on television (more on that in a moment), but he was the first utterly real person on television, the first person who reflected us at our most sensitive, at our most truly silly, at our most casual and cavalier and intense and introspective, at our most flippant or flirtatious; he, alone of anyone on the Empire of Television, seemed to understand that we might dance in front of a mirror and be someone we never could be (or precisely the person we would become!), he alone seemed to understand that while riding a bike down a suburban street we might pretend, for 48 seconds, to be the king of an empire that had the same name as our street.  In other words, he was the first person on television with an interior life.

When I looked at Bobby Brady, I saw no interior life; and when we are children, when our lives are full of the most beautiful secrets (mostly the secrets of our strangeness, for every child is strange, for one minute an hour, or one hour a day, or for one year of a life, until the strangeness is hyper-normalized out of them!), when our lives are full of the belief that the world is full of infinite possibilities and infinite miracles and a million ghosts and a million stars, we are ALL interior life; and Lance Loud, long and grinning with  lips that split the screen, clearly not only had an interior life, his interior life looked like ours, and he wore it on the outside. 

Now, that’s just my personal perspective.  In a more universal sense, let me state this clearly:  Lance Loud was the first announced gay man on American television.  Do you know how fucking huge that was?  He was Jackie Robinson, he was Louis Armstrong, he was Neil Armstrong, he was Chaplin, he was Crosby, he was that important.  In our revisionist perspective, we see the world of the 1950s and ‘60s as being full of visible gays:  but not only were these gays unannounced, they were often broad caricatures, easily dismissed, objects of fun or ridicule.  Paul Lynde, Liberace, Truman Capote, these gentlemen were caricatures, and deliberately ridiculous, and the source of ridicule, and if they waved any flag, it was the flag that their sexual predilection was like the name of a Hebrew God, not to be spoken aloud, and thereby easily denied and easily mocked.

But here was Lance Loud: Lance Loud might have been gay, but he was also our brothers, our sons, our neighbors, our schoolmates; he was a part of us (and if we were deeply a fantasist, like so many of us were, he was most of us, he was the best part of us!), he was gay, he was on television, he was real, he was not a figure of fun or ridicule, he was gay and the on television and more realistic than any boy next door; which is all to say that Lance Loud wasn’t just the first gay on television, as deeply important, indeed historic, as that is; he was also the first real boy on television. 

He was complicated, shaded, confused, arrogant, funny, tragic, he was everything we suspected a sensitive soul such as ourselves might be, but we had never seen one before outside the shadows of our own hopes!

He also carved the idea, somewhere in the willing, supple, and soft balsa-wood of my brain, that our fantasy self, our fantasy I, so private, so lonely, could one day be a we, we might meet others like him, like us, we might meet Morrissey or Michael Stipe or Dean Johnston, he instilled the idea that we were not overly sensitive, but appropriately sensitive; Not overly artistic, but appropriately artistic; Not overly bookish, but appropriately bookish; Not overly fey, but utterly beautiful in our own true boy skin.

Lance Loud was the first true boy on the sun, which is to say, he was real, he reflected a thousand and eight hopes and flaws and realities and shades of masculinity, and the sun was the television, beaming his brightness all over America.


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R.E.M. Were the Band of Our Time

August 27, 2014

This past Sunday was the 32nd anniversary of the release of Chronic Town by R.E.M.

I tried writing about this event with some objectivity, wit, or erudition, but failed.

That’s because

R.E.M. were the band of our time.

However, here’s what I did come up with:

R.E.M. were the band of our time.  They weren’t necessarily the best band, or the one we loved most or longest, but they were ours, ours, ours, ours.

If the college rock revolution had a July 4, 1776, it was August 24, 1982.
(And like all revolutions it featured many strangely hot girls who owned Big Star records and didn’t shave under their arms)

My generation were the little brothers of punk rock.  We were four, five, six, seven, eight years younger than David Byrne, Pete Shelley, Tom Verlaine, David Thomas, Colin Newman, Andy Partridge, and all the 89.1 heroes whose vinyl filled our lives; even the (slightly) more recent objects of our alt-passions (like Julian Cope, Ian Curtis, or Ian McCulloch) were still notably older than us.  This left us prone to seduction by the inferior tribes of ska and hardcore simply because they were closer to our age.   As we sluiced even further into the 1980s

(like we were riding a subway car full of pink and gray neon posterboard-people trampling on the bluefiush-blue down jackets of the ‘70s, accompanied by the bleat of Ed Koch’s bloated boasts and the confusing wobble of 45’s warped by the flaking bone-colored radiators of our first post-dorm apartments)

We were eager, terribly and beautifully eager, for a user-friendly form of college artrock we could call our own, one that felt like it was made by us and for us, but had the potential to exist on a far greater stage.

When R.E.M. entered our lives between 1981 and 1984, we immediately sensed

they were us, they were ours;

right away, we recognized them from our time spent standing in front of the mirror miming to Velvet Underground records, tossing our hair like Lance Loud, and dancing like Vanessa from Pylon. The discovery of R.E.M. was our Ed Sullivan moment (whenever that moment came, whether it be the indie release of “Radio Free Europe” or their masterpiece, the mushroom-laced kudzu gothic of Fables of the Reconstruction, or the deep, melancholy sweetness of Murmur or Reckoning); much as an entire generation wanted to grow their hair moppishly and pick up guitars after seeing the Beatles on TV in February 1964, when we

First heard R.E.M

we sensed that our time had come and the art of our heart’s desire, formed by cliquish devotion to dBs and Byrds and Big Star and Love and Beach Boys and Kinks and Move and Patti and Brautigan and Groovies, had suddenly found aggressive, physical, charming, and public voice; someone had formed the band we wanted to hear, someone had beaten us to it, and we couldn’t have been happier.  We had found the band we had theorized but perhaps never believed could be realized, the band that blended art and tradition better than any band of our time.

In those years (specifically ’82 through ’85), to us (those of us who were 18 to 25 at that time), R.E.M. became the friend at whose house every party started, that party where we would talk with abandon fueled by coffee and Heineken about all our favorite books and films and records and poets, and where we would meet every girl or boy we would instantly fall for (for at least eight days).  R.E.M. were us, in a way no other band had ever been us

(Us: shifty, sassy outsiders born in the years of JFK and LBJ, now entering the heartbeat of our 20s and shaking off the idea that we were a footnote to someone else’s past.)

R.E.M., and the friends we made through their fandom, were us, sharing our influences, our literary and musical and artistic and social and political interests, our beliefs that music could be popular without apologies. R.E.M. was the first band we loved who were the best versions of us, the first band who we could look in the eye and just know they came from the same place as us, the first band who would know just what we meant when we made a sly reference to Kimberly Rew or Chris Bell or Robert Frank or Wim Wenders and who would agree that the redhead sitting over there who drank John Courage and loved the Wooster Group looked very good indeed.

Some of you will scoff at these strong, romantic, childish words; but I suspect there are many of you out there who will know exactly what I am talking about.  We have to recall that feeling, that love we felt for those rich enchanting arpeggios and those sexy, enigmatic mumbles, and not feel any shame; we were right, right, right. They were the first band of, for, and by generation college rock, and the first band of that generation to get it all right.

(Oh, and by the way, Layne, if you don’t own that first EP and the three albums that followed — once again, that’s Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning, and Fables of the Reconstruction — I have ZERO hesitation in stating that NOTHING you have to say or think about alternative music has any value, and I would be better off talking about Nick Drake or Tim Buckley with  Mayim Bialik or even Allison Mosier, the girl on the Cami Secret commercial.)

Eventually, we would recognize that we were not the youngest child, but the perennial middle child of the alt revolution — too young to be David Byrne, too old to be Kurt Cobain. But there was a little while when our age was perfect: for a shimmering time in the 1980s when we were drunk on youth’s true perfect years

(Youth’s True Perfect Years: the early/mid 20s, when a person is finally old enough to know how to have some genuine fun yet still too young to know better),

everything was right, and R.E.M. was our soundtrack, and R.E.M. told our story better than we could tell our own, and made us believe that our dreams that the words “art” and “commerce” were not necessarily oxymoronic could actually be true.

Thank you Peter, Mike, Michael, Bill, and Jefferson. Somewhere in my heart it is always August 24, 1982.

(And thanks to Glenn Boothe, a great friend and a legendary Triangle club booker, for reminding me of the date).

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