Category Archives: Music

The Madonna Manifesto

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It is a moment pregnant with possibility. She stands on the precipice of something great, and almost every time this has happened in the past (and there have been many such times), she’s jumped off and soared. That anticipation is in the air again, but still I find myself wanting something more. She is, after all, Madonna.

Despite playing on Instagram and teasing bits of what may musically come, she’s been largely quiet of late. A pristinely-photo-shopped romp with Katy Perry on the cover of a magazine gave fans a slight bone, but we’re salivating for more. Traditionally she averages about two years between albums, bridged with soundtracks and other projects, so we’re almost due for a new one – the first since 2012′s powerful if slightly-unappreciated ‘MDNA’. That colorful record was a driving, if at times dark, exercise in exorcism, dwelling on her divorce (‘Love Spent‘, ‘Gang Bang‘) and balanced by fluffier fare (‘Girl Gone Wild‘, ‘Gimme All Your Luvin‘, ‘Turn Up the Radio‘) but it wasn’t the miraculous pop moment she’s conjured in the past (‘Ray of Light‘, ‘Like A Prayer‘). The world awaits a proper return to form, but this world is drastically different from the world in which she rose to prominence three decades ago. Can she still cut it? Yes, but only if she goes back to her roots.

For the past several years, Madonna has, quite shockingly to some of us, kept largely to the same hairstyle. While this may seem trivial and off-focus, I bring it up because it’s a key feature to her career, and the point of this post. “Everyone always says, ‘Oh, she reinvented herself,’ but the thing is, I just get a new haircut every year, which everyone should do,” she once said. This was powerful, even if you think it’s frivolous. When was the last time you got a new haircut? Not any haircut – not the one you usually get, not the one your stylist lovingly knows so well – but a brand new color, a brand new length, a brand new look. I’m guessing most of us haven’t done that in years – if ever. Madonna used to do that with charming regularity, and drastically different results each time. It was a part of her success, and part of the unexpected thrill we got when each new image morphed into the Madonna canon.

Yet since 2005′s ‘Confessions on a Dancefloor’, she’s kept mostly to the reddish-blonde soft-frame of curls she still sports – it’s the look she wore for her H&M ads, the Reinvention/Confessions/Sticky and Sweet tours, and her impressive appearance at the Superbowl. It works for her, but to me it’s starting to feel, dare I say it, stagnant. That’s the one thing Madonna is not. Shape-shifting, jumping, and executing hairpin turns at a breakneck pace, she has never stood still or waited for very long. But her reliance on the tried and true, as well as her work with of-the-moment hit-makers, points to a recent tendency to play it safe.

What I want from Madonna is for her to go back to the beginning – to go back to being brave. I want her to age with dignity and defiance. I want the perennial ‘Fuck you’ attitude to re-surface and carry her into maturity in a way that once again redefines and challenges the ways in which society has slowly and predictably been trying to trap her. She falls prey to that with every round of face-filler, with every photo-shopped worry-line. Rather than skirting those issues or chasing the elusive quest for eternal youth (and there’s a good chance that some of us worry about that more than Madonna does), she would be the best one to champion a graceful yet empowering way of aging.

I’m not saying she needs to tone anything down – if anything, I’m suggesting the opposite. And in simply continuing to do what she does, she’s already, in a sense, defied a bunch of rules. Though the rebel in me secretly hopes for an earth-rattling ‘Sex‘ or ‘American Life‘ moment that pisses off more people than it pleases, she’s probably wise not to go for simple shock value. There have been delicious glimpses of it – her nipple-baring antics and butt-cheek peep-shows, which excited and thrilled even this staunchly gay character – and she still gets pages of press for something as small and silly as popping in a set of gold grillz. But I want her, more than anything, to be real. That was the real power of Madonna in my formative years. She glammed it up as her fame and money increased, but you always got the sense – and the photos to prove it – that she was willing to get down and sweaty on the dance floor with the gay boys. She didn’t isolate herself from humanity, she reveled in it, taking it in and transforming it into something else, something more.

In the writing of this, I’ve once again confirmed her power. She is more than pop star or show-off, she is a mistress of mirrors, reflecting back whatever ailments, shortcomings, failings, powers, magics, darkness, and light we each project. Madonna has, strangely, not always been about Madonna, but about what we think about Madonna, what Madonna makes us feel. It’s the key, and often-overlooked, component in why she remains such a fascinating creature, and why she will continue to remain so.

If her long and storied past is proof of anything, it’s that we should never count her out. In fact, such moments of doubt and wonder usually portend something miraculous in the offing. After thirty years, we know her better than she thinks we do. (And when she proves us wrong – again – it will be even better.)

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Poses & Roses


He had invited me earlier in the year, when the winter raged, and thoughts of the garden were all that kept me sane. In his lovely way, he asked me to visit him “when the roses bloomed” and then he included his address and contact information. His name was Lee Bailey, and he was the man who wrote my gardening bible, ‘Country Flowers’ – the first book I ever read on the subject. I’d written him a fan letter when I was only eleven or twelve, and he’d written back then, pleasantly surprised by my age and interest. I thought nothing of it until a decade or so later, when I wrote him another fan letter, and he responded with the invitation to see him in the city.

I didn’t make it down until the end of June or early July, passed the point of the first flush of roses, at the height of heat and the nastiness that accompanies summer in New York. At the Chelsea Pines Hotel, in some starlet-themed room of garish and gaudy excess, I stood before the raging air conditioner, cooling down before my meeting with Mr. Bailey. ‘Poses’ by Rufus Wainwright was playing in my mind, its references to Fifth Avenue and flip-flops an apt correlation to my time there.

Out on the street, the heat was instantly intense. It was only a few blocks to his penthouse, but I knew they would be grueling. Taking it slowly, I stayed in the shade, waiting in vain for a breeze that never arrived. Normally I’d have slipped into shorts and, yes, flip-flops, but for this meeting – for the first face-to-face with an idol – I donned khakis out of respect, and a short-sleeved button-up shirt, with  few buttons undone in deference to the heat. Something told me, in the friendly and casual way he had of writing, that Mr. Bailey wouldn’t stand on ceremony when it came to clothing or attitude.

On this sunny summer day, on a sticky and somewhat stinky sidewalk of New York, I made my way to my hero. Writers and artists and gardeners were always more impressive than Batman or Superman (but perhaps not Wonder Woman.) Suddenly I was very nervous about meeting him. In some ways, it was a moment that was a decade and a half in the making. He was someone who’d been with me since I was a child. Even if he had no idea, he was there guiding my choices, aiding in my decisions. Mostly it was in garden matters, of course, but there were other lessons cloaked in the guide of caretaking and tending to plants and flowers.

All these poses such beautiful poses
Makes any boy feel like picking up roses

In the lobby of his building, I paused, trying to cool down before going up in the elevator. I had never been in anyone’s NYC penthouse, and as the doors opened and deposited me in the hallway of his place, I felt wholly removed from New York, and almost everything I’d ever known. I’d seen similar things before, and had spent time in several mansions and the occasional Senator’s home, but it always impressed me to see how the other half lives. There was an ease to it, a grace you don’t always feel when you’re struggling, even if I knew that such wealth and comfort had its own sets of problems and worries. So much was simply relative.

His assistant brought me into the main living room, flanked on two ends by French doors that were open to the wrap-around balcony. That would be where the roses bloomed, I surmised. She offered me a glass of water and I accepted. Shortly after, Lee Bailey entered his living room. Walking with a cane, he exhibited the passing years since ‘Country Flowers’ had been published, but the spark was still there, and the wit and charm that seeped through his prose were still in evidence now that he stood before me in person. We sat across from each other, on parallel couches, and shared a lovely chat.

I don’t recall the specifics. Mostly, I just marveled at the pinnacle of a journey that began in the winter nights of my childhood, when I pored over the photographs of his flowers, imagining the expanse of his gardens, and drifting to sleep with the hardcover by my side. I explained, in slightly faltering form, how much he had influenced me, but it’s never easy to get across how much it had meant.

We talked of things other than gardening, too: men and boyfriends and his friend Elaine Stritch. He knew several other celebrities whom I would later see at one of his parties – Joel Schumacher, Liz Smith, Hal Prince – but they were merely his contemporaries, people who populated his past like Suzie or Chris populated mine. Though it seemed like my silly life had paled in comparison to his, he treated me as an equal, and such gracious respect would be one of his great lessons.

All these poses such beautiful poses
Makes any boy feel as pretty as princes
The green autumnal parks conducting
All the city streets a wondrous chorus singing
All these poses oh how can you blame me
Life is a game and true love is a trophy
And you said
Watch my head about it…

Our waters done, and sweating on a pair of coasters, we rose and I helped him toward the balcony. He apologized that the roses were done blooming for the moment – and recounted their beauty from a few weeks ago. Here was where the breeze lived – cool and refreshing and so very far from the sidewalk down below. We walked once around the entire length of the balcony, and then I sensed it was time to go.

He promised an invitation to his holiday party – a promise he kept, and a party I would attend right before Christmas – the first of a couple, and I was honored to be included. On that day, we parted quietly, easily, as if we’d known each other all our lives, and for one of us that was kind of true.

Back on the street, the heat had not abated, and I undid another button of my shirt. Mr. Wainwright came back to my head, and a gently meandering piano line plotted my return to the Chelsea Pines Hotel. I’d met my idol. The day was filled with promise and sparkle, with a melancholic undertow that scored all things bright and beautiful.

Reclined amongst these packs of reasons
For to smokes the days away into the evenings
All these poses of classical torture
Ruined my mind like a snake in the orchard
I did go from wanting to be someone now
I’m drunk and wearing flip – flops on Fifth Avenue
Once you’ve fallen from classical virtue
Won’t have a soul for to wake up and hold you
In the green autumnal parks conducting
All the city streets a wondrous chorus
Singing all these poses now no longer boyish
Made me a man, but who cares what that is?

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Hunk of the Day: Eli Lieb

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He is the thoughtful singer-songwriter behind the music of this touching ad. His name is Eli Lieb, an openly-gay music-maker who has been named the Hunk of the Day as much for his easy-on-the-eyes appearance as for his stunning musical talents. The Hunks that excite me the most are those who offer more than just a pretty face and defined body – they’re the ones who are doing something with those gifts, and making the most of others. Mr. Lieb is a perfect example of this.

His music is moving, inspirational, and authentic. Self-producing his first eponymous album, he brings a melodic gorgeousness to sometimes plaintive themes, somehow finding hope and encouragement in the darkest hours, as in mini anthems life ‘Safe in My Hands.’ His covers are unconventional and unexpectedly powerful (witness his incandescent stripped-down version of ‘Wrecking Ball’ originally sung by Miley Cyrus or his reworkings of the work of Lana Del Rey, Britney Spears, or Adele – simply amazing.)

Check out his video for ‘Young Love’ below – a hopeful and thrilling encapsulation of those first heady moments of falling in love:

In a world of pre-fabricated pop stars and carefully-crafted images, Mr. Lieb is a refreshing dose of genuine musicality and passion. He has claimed that Transcendental Meditation has kept him grounded in the whirlwind of a musician’s life. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working.

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Wicked Summer Game


The school year had come to an end, and the days were full of ripe promise. In the heat and bright light of day, it seemed there were no wrongs in the world. Hollyhocks climbed into the blue sky, and the beetles that marred their foliage were picked off and drowned in cans of motor oil. Summer could be a messy business, but the iridescent wings of the doomed looked very pretty as they slowed and stilled themselves in the thick fluid.

There is a memory within a memory here, as a glass mason jar filled with dead beetles and oil gets replaced with an empty one, and I chase fireflies around in a corner of the backyard. Near a hedge of euonymus, I corner the pulsating bugs, lit from chemicals within, as they try to capture mates or call to friends or whatever the neon green light is for. Little stars of Gatsby’s great green dream glow and tease, just out of a little boy’s reach. It is a cruel thing, sometimes, to give a kid that kind of hope.

The world was on fire and no one could save me but you.
It’s strange what desire will make foolish people do.
I never dreamed that I’d meet somebody like you.
And I never dreamed that I’d lose somebody like you.
No, I don’t want to fall in love (This world is only gonna break your heart)
No, I don’t want to fall in love (This world is only gonna break your heart)
With you (This world is only gonna break your heart)

In the bedroom, when I was a little older, say the summer of ’91, I watched the street from my window. A book by Dickens fell to the floor. The CD had long since reached its last song. At night, all was gray, all was shadows, and the light of the moon crept in over the floor, over the bed, over the tendons of my wrist. Skin was somehow more true in the light of the moon. Strange how that happened, and I studied myself in the echoes of the sun’s reflection.

I wanted to marry the fireflies and save the beetles and go back and fix everything I had done wrong. I reached for the moon but it stretched farther away. ‘Don’t go,’ I whispered to no one, startling myself with the words. ‘Stay with me,’ I whispered to the night, but the night remained silent, moving slowly onward.

What a wicked game to play, to make me feel this way.
What a wicked thing to do, to let me dream of you.
What a wicked thing to say, you never felt this way.
What a wicked thing to do, to make me dream of you and…
I want to fall in love (This world is only gonna break your heart)
No, I want to fall in love (This world is only gonna break your heart)
With you.

In the years to come, there would be men who whispered to me of love in the night. It’s always easier to whisper such things in the darkness. Safer, too. You stand a better chance of not being laughed at, or at least of not seeing the smile of victory, because there is always a victor in these matters. Usually it’s the one who is told they are loved who holds the power. True love, it is said, has nothing to do with power or victory marches, but the fact remains that the one who is told gets to hold the cards. Even if the teller is the more courageous soul.

Nobody loves no one.
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Dance With Me… Right Now (Yes, Now!)

One fine day,
you’ll look at me
And you will know our love was meant to be…

Sometimes you don’t need a specific memory for a song to have an impact on your life – in this case, I have no memory or story attached to this one. I didn’t see the George Clooney/Michelle Pfeiffer movie that bears its namesake, nor do I have any recollection of any time I heard it prior to this moment. (Of course, I have heard it, but no specific time in my life sticks out in correlation to it.)

If I did have a memory attached to it – or, more accurately, if I could attach this song to a memory – it would be of a September weekend in Ogunquit, as Andy and I walked along Main Street and the Marginal Way for the first time. The sun was shining, the summer was still burning, and the first flush of love was on our cheeks.

The arms  I long for
Will open wide
And you’ll be proud to have me right by your side…

These days, this music just makes me want to get up and dance, and any time that happens I take the song and play it to death, because we all need a little more dancing in our lives.

I’ll keep waiting, and someday darling
You’ll come to me when you want to settle down…

While the original recording by The Chiffons as seen above will be its classic incarnation, I do have an affinity to the following rollicking version by the writer herself, the majestic Carole King. Both versions beg you to move your feet. Go on, you know you want to… and I promise I won’t tell anyone, so long as you do the same.

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Every Time We Say Goodbye


My time in Minneapolis had come to a close. In the short set of days I’d been there, it had quickly become a comfortable place – the weekday bustle of the downtown, the maze of the Skywalk, the leisurely strolls along Nicollet Mall, the arts and the food and the friendliness of the people – and I suddenly found it sad to be leaving this bridge of a vacation between jobs. It helped to be away, and such thankfulness for a place and time always pings the heart, in much the same way any end of a vacation does.

Every time we say goodbye,
I die a little,
Every time we say goodbye,
I wonder why a little,
Why the Gods above me,
who must be in the know.
Think so little of me,
they allow you to go.

Who else but Ms. Fitzgerald could so perfectly capture the bittersweet poignancy of such a Sunday morning? The tea cup from breakfast sits forlornly on the desk. A rolled-up tie awaits snug placement in the suitcase. The rumpled sheets of a bed only briefly mine spill onto the floor. All the things that held such an exciting allure for the past few days are suddenly deflated with the morning of goodbye.

As often happens at this time, my mind wanders back to the first few moments spent in my hotel room.

When you’re near, there’s such an air of spring about it,
I can hear a lark somewhere, begin to sing about it,
There’s no love song finer, but how strange the change from major to minor,
Every time we say goodbye.

Preparing to depart, I take one last look around the room. Aside from the messy bed, and the pile of towels in the bathroom, it looks much like it did on the day of my arrival, now that the suitcase is packed. The difference is in my countenance. Resigned to return to upstate New York, my head is already partly there. It will make it easier for when I do touch down.  Unlike most of my last-days-of-vacation, I am due to spend most of the day in Minneapolis. My flight isn’t scheduled to depart until the evening, so I walk to the Walker, but I’ve already told you about that.

An airport is either the happiest place on earth (at the start of a vacation) or the saddest (at the end) and rarely is there an in-between. By the time I walk through the Minneapolis/St. Paul hub (which smells much better than any other airport I’ve been in, thanks to the aroma emanating from Aveda), I am content and at peace with this goodbye. Minneapolis has been good to me, and the people have been kind. Sometimes that’s more than you can find in the comfort of your own home.

When you’re near, there’s such an air of spring about it,
I can hear a lark somewhere, begin to sing about it,
There’s no love song finer, but how strange the change from major to minor,
Every time we say goodbye.

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What I Need…

james out to get you

It was one of the albums that shaped my life. There are just a few that have done that ~ Shirley Horn’s ‘Here’s to Life’, Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’, and REM’s ‘Automatic for the People’ come to mind – and to that ‘Laid’ by James must be added. Nowhere is that more evident than in the opening track, a quiet beginning to the maelstrom of emotions that the rest of the album would release. I like quiet beginnings.

I’m so alone tonight
My bed feels larger than when I was small
Lost in memories
Lost in all the sheets and old pillows
So alone tonight
Miss you more than I will let you know
Miss the outline of your back
Miss you breathing down my neck
They’re all out to get you
Once again they’re all out to get you
Once again…

As 1993 turned into 1994, and winter turned into spring, and my first year at Brandeis turned into something that was coming to a close, I sat up in my small twin bed, sheets twisted around my legs, the gray light from an outside lamp spilling in like some lame approximation of moonlight, and wondered at the predicament of being alone.

My roommate was gone. I felt relieved, but alone – always alone. Yet not lonely – not yet.

The red numerals of an alarm clock took rigid stock of the passing minutes. Spring rustled at the window. A restless longing was being tapped out by my heart. What did this life have in store? What message might I be missing? Do you hear me? Do you understand what I’m saying?

Insecure, whatcha gonna do?
Feel so small they could step on you
Called you up, answering machine
When the human touch
Is what I need
What I need, what I need, what I need, what I need…
Is you
I need you.

A bottle of urine stood beside the bed (the college guy’s method of avoiding fluorescent hallway walks past midnight.) My backpack slumped on the chair, filled with the books I’d need for the next morning’s classes. Looking back, I’m glad I never realized how alone I was. It would have broken me.

That night, I did not know. Or, rather, it was all I knew, and it was how I survived. Shadows and muffled laughter of passing students floated in from the hallway. I watched the shifting shaft of light beneath the door and bristled at the fading voices. There was no laughter inside my room.

Looked in the mirror, I don’t know who I am anymore
The face is familiar
But the eyes, the eyes give it all away
They’re all out to get you
Once again they’re all out to get you
Here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again…

A bit of paranoia creeps into the song. It builds slowly, like an incoming tide, gently but insistently growing louder, and soon, too soon, it is a roar. Static in the head. A feverish state. I kick off the sheets and blankets, as a cold sweat soaks through my t-shirt. On the verge of crying, I wonder why they never loved me. Somehow, I don’t cry. It isn’t sadness that I feel, or even loss. Merely a sense of wonder, at the world, at the human condition, at what it was all supposed to mean. I made a tender reconciliation with the night then.

Insecure whatcha gonna do?
Feel so small they could step on you
Called you up, answering machine
When the human touch
Is what I need
What I need, what I need, what I need, what I need, what I need, what I need, what I need, what I need, what I need…
Is you, is you,  is you, is you, is you, is you, is you…
If you let me breathe…

I call friends and lovers at strange hours. I need to talk, and listen, and hear from people I know. They buffer the fear. I ask them to listen to this song, to the whole album. They promise to try, but I know they don’t. I make mix tapes for them instead, counting on the effort to get them to hear it. They don’t respond or say they like it. I have no way of knowing if they hear it too, if they hear the loneliness.

I have never heard voices in the night. Not in the crazy way that would make it easier to make sense of who I am, the way they want so badly to make sense of me. Instead, I hear James. If they heard it – if they only listened – they would know too.

They’re all out to get you
Once again
To get you
Once again.
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“Suppose I happen to know a unique flower, one that exists nowhere in the world except on my planet, one that a little sheep can wipe out in a single bite one morning, just like that, without even realizing what he’s doing – that isn’t important? If someone loves a flower of which just one example exists among all the millions and millions of stars, that’s enough to make him happy when he looks at the stars. He tells himself ‘My flower’s up there somewhere…’ But if the sheep eats the flower, then for him it’s as if, suddenly, all the stars went out. And that isn’t important?” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

If I caught the world in a bottle
And everything was still beneath the moon
Without your love would it shine for me?
If I was smart as Aristotle
And understood the rings around the moon
What would it all matter if you love me?
Here in your arms where the world is impossibly still
With a million dreams to fulfill
And a matter of moments until the dancing ends.

There was a river rushing by, and on the other side of it a city rose in the twilight. On our shore a wedding party assembled, all in happy, colorful costumes, all joy and unabashed love. There would be dancing and embracing and kissing, and the moving silence of a bell that could never be rung. Here a magical horse and accompanying chariot awaited to whisk us away to an evening of enchantment, where beneath a blanket we could hold hands and sigh. There was no way to stop the rush of a river in spring, nor a reason to try.

Here in your arms when everything seems to be clear
Not a solitary thing would I fear
Except when this moment comes near the dancing’s end.
If I caught the world in an hourglass
Saddled up the moon so we could ride
Until the stars grew dim

She sings songs of love, songs of heartbreak, and songs of longing. She will sing your song, if you ask nicely, if she knows it, and she will smile and nod when it’s over. You will thank her with folded green paper tossed into a glass goblet, with your smile and your hands brought together, and waves of love and appreciation – because that sort of thing matters, that sort of thing gets through. She will sing a song that accompanies you as you cross the river, and return to your world, and then she will sing you to sleep.

One day you’ll meet a stranger
And all the noise is silenced in the room
You’ll feel that you’re close to some mystery.
In the moonlight when everything’s shadows
You’ll feel as if you’ve known her all your life
The world’s oldest lesson in history.

When the song ends, and you’re alone in the quiet, you may find reason and want to cry. It’s all right if you do, though better if there’s someone to hold you. Well, not better, for there’s an unfair stigma attached to solitude, but different. It is possible to dance alone, but it’s so much friendlier with two.

Here in your arms where the world is impossibly still
With a million dreams to fulfill
And a matter of moments until the dancing ends.
Here in your arms when everything seems to be clear
Not a solitary thing do I fear
Except when this moment comes near the dancing’s end

When the dance is done, and the world has stilled, and all seems ready for slumber, you will slip into the sheets of a perfectly-made bed. Maybe someone will tuck you in, whisper sweet nothings, and hold you until the morning. Or maybe you will just dream until…

Oh if I caught the world in an hourglass
Saddled up the moon so we could ride
Until the stars grew dim
Until the time that time stands still


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Turn Me On


Those who seem to be the most popular are usually the ones who are the most lonely. It’s the reason they’re popular – they’ve made themselves so in an effort to never be alone. I’m too honest to be very popular, and up until now I’ve never been lonely, but I think I may be starting to feel it a bit. The truth is, I’m more often alone these days than with people. Usually by design, but sometimes against my subtle wishes.

Like a flower, waiting to bloom
Like a lightbulb, in a dark room
I’m just sittin’ here waiting for you
To come on home and turn me on

And so I wait. For the feeling to pass, for the loneliness to subside, for what I once knew to return to me – because once upon a time I was all right, and it was okay to be waiting. There wasn’t restlessness, there wasn’t discontent, there was me – alone and waiting.

Like the desert waiting for the rain
Like a school kid waiting for the spring
I’m just sitting here waiting for you
To come on home and turn me on

Sometimes we have to be a home to ourselves. Sometimes we have to stoke our own fire, tend to our own hearth, and be satisfied, happy even, with the wait. Sometimes the wait is all there is.

My poor heart, it’s been so dark
Since you’ve been gone
After all your the one who turns me off
But you’re the only one who can turn me back on

Once in a while, though, maybe once in a lifetime, someone comes along and ends the waiting. And they are home.

My Hi-fi is waiting for a new tune
My glass is waiting for some fresh ice cubes
I’m just sitting here waiting for you
To come on home and turn me on, turn me on
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Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered


It’s a memory that may not have actually happened. The time of the year is accurate, the weather quite distinct, and the location a very tangible one. The tail end of August, after a rainy day, on the very tip of Cape Cod ~ Provincetown. It was still summer, but barely, and the first hints of fall were seeping into the night. The year was 1995, and Suzie and I made our virgin trip to what might as well have been the edge of the world. Foolishly, we hadn’t thought ahead to make any sort of reservation (things were slightly different back then) so we entered the town after a long drive, exhausted and not in the mood for the lack of vacancy that was going on. Finally, we found a place – well, Suzie did – and I went along, relieved to lie down on a stationary object.

It was on a quiet side street, and after the rain the town had seemingly gone to sleep. The forecast had not been a happy one, but Suzie and I were just glad to be out of upstate New York, and near the water. Overcast and cool, we couldn’t care less. Depositing our suitcases in the room, we rustled up some grub and had a leisurely dinner. That night, Suzie stayed in while I took a short walk along Commercial Street.

A long line of men stood watching me pass by. In a tight black t-shirt and flowing linen pants, I must have looked like a cross between ‘The Birdcage’ and the clearance section of International Male. I was too young and inexperienced to know any better, and I strutted down the street like a bashful peacock, a haughty, arrogant air defying anyone to say hello, a mask of outward confidence barely betraying a bottomless well of insecurity. I pretended so long and so hard that it would eventually come true, but back then it was ordinary make-believe, a case of flimsy affect that I was certain people could see right through. Quickly, I passed the crowd, much quicker than it felt I’m sure, and made my way further into the evening. The air had cooled from the rain, and that glorious fragrance of its aftermath, the scent that always made the rain worth it, was lingering like a few scant straggling blooms of the privet. A few still managed to hang on, perhaps tricked by the upcoming change in season.

I’m wild again, beguiled again, a simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I
Couldn’t sleep, and wouldn’t sleep when love came and told me I shouldn’t sleep
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I…

That much of the memory is clear. Pristinely so. The only haze was that of the actual evening – my head recalls every nuance perfectly – until this moment. On a street off of Commercial – and it may be directly off, or the one just above, running parallel – a quiet portion of Provincetown revealed itself between green hedges and immaculate yet lush landscaping. There stood a guest house, and through its windows a warm amber light glowed. It was painted richly in shades of purple and lavender, with accents of brick red that somehow worked (though I would never combine them in any outfit outside of a circus). Gold was at play too, either in gold leafing or brass handles or some sort of filigree that wound its way into my memory. There was music too, faint at first, but it came to the ear if you stopped pushing gravel around, if you stood still and listened like we never really do. Scratchy at first, like the muffled old spinning of a true record player, it smoothed itself out into a soulful and creamy voice singing of love and sex and loss and relief.

Lost my heart, but what of it?
He is cold, I agree…
He can laugh, but I love it
Although the laugh’s on me.
I’ll sing to him, each spring to him,
And long for the day when I’ll cling to him…

I looked deeper into the house through the windows. A bookcase stood on one side of the room. A chair was placed by a small table. I thought of two old men having tea and coffee together, sharing a moment, sharing a lifetime ~ a lifetime of twists and turns exemplified by the languidly-paced music.

This was, I believe, my first brush with ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.’ I’d just heard it in the film version of ‘Love! Valour! Compassion!’ so looking back it was probably that soundtrack that was playing. Ella Fitzgerald’s version, so dreamily slowed down into a dirge of desire, a meandering tale of the blossom and decay of romance, the tricky, capricious nature of love, and the way most of us would do it all over again no matter what.

He’s a fool and don’t I know it, but a fool can have his charms
I’m in love and don’t I show it like a babe in arms
Love’s the same old sad sensation
Lately I’ve not slept a wink
Since this half-pint imitation put me on the blink

I stood there, alone outside a guest house that wasn’t mine, near rooms that would remain forever closed to me, and looked into the dark sky. I wanted for something I could not put into words, for someone who seemingly did not exist. If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s possible to miss someone you’ve never met, yes, it is. I learned that then, as Ms. Fitzgerald told her wonderful, woeful, wild and winsome tale.

I’ve sinned a lot, I mean a lot
But I’m like sweet seventeen a lot
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I
I’ll sing to him each spring to him
And worship the trousers that cling to him
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I
When he talks he is seeking words to get off his chest
Horizontally-speaking he’s at his very best
Vexed again, perplexed again, thank God I can be oversexed again
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I

Not having ever had your heart broken doesn’t mean you can’t access or know heartbreak – and sometimes loneliness exists even when you’ve never lost someone. I listened to the end of the song and walked back to our room. The next day, before departing, we’d visit the beach. A windy and wild day, it remained slightly overcast. The photos we took show us squinting into the rush of air and sand, hair blowing messily, propped against a travel pillow for whatever buffering effect it might produce. We read a bit there on the beach, listening to seagulls and the occasional snippet of conversation carried by the wind, and then it was time to go.

On our way back from the Cape, we brushed Boston, where these photos were taken. In a few weeks I’d return to Brandeis, but there, in the sudden dark, driving with Suzie, I was in a holding pattern. Waiting. Wondering. Watching for signs. The turn of the song, then, a surprise twist lending whimsy and humor and pathos, and for the next few years I’d find it all, even, and especially, when I didn’t want anymore.

Wise at last, my eyes at last are cutting you down to your size at last
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered no more
Burned a lot, but learned a lot, and now you are broke, so you’ve earned a lot
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered no more

Love, then, was a difficult business. It came in fits and stunts, it arrived unwanted and unheralded, it was there when you least expected it and elusive when sought out. It was a funny thing, made that way out of necessity. We’d all be crying if we couldn’t turn it on its head, but for me at least, it was hard to make a laugh out of such sorrow. Ella knew this, and her voice comforted and soothed. She said it would be all right, it would work out in the end, because sometimes we end up with the wrong people. Sometimes we have to go through the silliness, the sexiness, and the sadness, as she took us through the last lines of the song. Determined to leave it all behind, the words are a final declaration of defiance, and a chance to start it all over again with someone else. Back then, that was hardly an appealing notion. I wanted to fall in love once and for all and have it last forever. That was the romantic in me.

Couldn’t eat, was dyspeptic, life was so hard to bear
Now my heart’s antiseptic since you moved out of  there
Romance finis, your chance, finis, those ants that invaded my pants, finis
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered no more.

And there it ended, not with a bang or a boom but with a simple “no more.”

The song haunted me for years. I wanted it to have a happy ending. I wanted it to work out. I wanted there to be something that matched the longing and yearning and wistfulness of the music. But it wasn’t happening, and eventually, after trying to force a few failed romances to be what they would never be, I understood. If it’s meant to be it will be. If it’s not, it won’t. Once I got that into my head, once it was understood, the world of romance became a much happier one, and I became a lot happier too. It was then that I embraced the song, every twist and turn of it, from the unlikely hope at the start to the freedom of the finish.


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Flash Me Anytime


My teary-eyed love for a flash mob has already been documented here, but here’s a bit of an addendum, spurred by this video of a ‘Lion King’ cast setting the take-off scene in an airplane. Everyone wishes they were on a flight like this, and once again I teared up a bit watching it unfold, as often happens when people spontaneously burst into song.

Most of us, myself included, reach a certain state of complacent ennui as we age, a sort of stagnant and sad plateau of steady-as-she-goes. We succumb to a bit of ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ syndrome. I don’t believe in that. I like ripples and dips and ravines with ravishing drop-offs. So when something like this comes along to beautifully upset the status-quo, even in the hum-drum exercise of a plane take-off, I take notice and smile.

Those moments when we are jolted awake are what inspire me. That’s what a flash mob or unexpected round of singing does. And as touching as it is to see a group of people joining together to make strangers smile, it is the smiles on those who get to witness the event that are just as moving. That is the ultimate human experience for me – strangers making each other smile. I’m not good at that, but my closest friends are. People like Skip and Suzie, who care just as much for their fellow human beings as they do for themselves. There’s a grace and generosity of spirit that they have, and which I most often lack, so from them I try to learn to be better. Watching a moment like this restores a little bit of my faith in humanity. It reminds me that things aren’t as bad as they sometimes seem.

There is more to see than can ever be seen,
More to do than can ever be done…
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Hunk of the Day: Lenny Kravitz

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A welcome suggestion by my friend JoJo, Lenny Kravitz is the Hunk of the Day, lending a little musical slant to this stalwart feature. Mr. Kravitz has long held that smoldering, reserved sexual power – a sleepy sort of confidence that one suspects explodes in the bedroom, or whatever other room in which he deigns to do the dirty. Coupled with his rock star status, he’s irresistible. It’s a not-quite-scientifically-proven fact that once you strap a guitar on someone, they become ten times sexier in that instant.

My love for Lenny comes down to a single musical moment – his first big breakthrough song: ‘It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over’ from 1991′s ‘Mama Said’ album. It defined that summer for me.

Fittingly, ‘It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over’ is one of the poppier records of the rocker’s career, which is why it was so easily accessible to my aural-candy-loving ears. Key to my enjoyment of the track are all those violins – plop a string section into a pop song and I’m a happy camper. Also of aid was its summer release – songs like this always sound better in the summer. Sun, pool, flowers, and languid lounging in air-conditioned space.

That was the summer I read ‘David Copperfield’. I watched hollyhocks search for the sky, picking off Japanese beetles and dropping them into a jar of oil. It was another summer of solitude, and I did not mind it in the least. Something called to me in this song, though I couldn’t begin to access what it was like to try to hold onto a romantic relationship when I’d never even been in one. Somehow I’d always known heartache.

That was also the summer of ‘Truth or Dare’, and the first motions toward my own truth, the path to my becoming a man. Mr. Kravitz sang out almost plaintively that it wasn’t over until it was over, giving a jolt of hope to the journey that was about to get much rockier for a few years. I would carry that carefree summer with me in the darker, colder days to come.

As for Mr. Kravitz, his style is a little too hippie for me (other than at 60′s-themed summer parties) so this post is mostly for JoJo. And those who like a naked male celebrity with a washboard stomach and a rocking ass.

Any other musicians you’d like to see as Hunk of the Day? Keep in mind we’ve already featured the sexy likes of Justin Timberlake, Adam Levine, Enrique Iglesias, Jon Bon Jovi (hello Ann!), Adam Lambert and Jake Shears.

Are you gonna go my way?

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Treacherous Emotional Thaw

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It happens much the same way – the transition from winter to spring, that certain smell in the night air, the warmth on the night wind, the heart-rending churning of emotional mayhem that the arrival of the season of birth invariably brings. To that end, no one embodies such dramatic angst better than Madonna. Underneath all the hype and hoopla, the sexiness and showbiz pizzazz, I always sensed the wounded hurt of a lonely heart. It takes one to know one. In the span of the few minutes of a song, she could zone in on the basic longing and yearning for love that most of us have come to know and want at some point.

It’s there in the watery brilliance of the ‘Ray of Light‘ album. From the first (and deepest) cut ‘Drowned World/Substitute for Love‘, to the brutal memory-tripping of ‘Little Star‘ and ‘To Have and Not To Hold‘ – and the farewell implicit in ‘The Power of Good-Bye‘ it rings of loss and hope.

It’s there on the cusp of adolescence, in the tender final days of boyhood innocence, in the desperate want of ‘Crazy For You.’

It’s there in the eclipse-crescents of shadows beneath the leafy boughs hanging over my first year at Brandeis University, and the gentle melancholy of ‘I’ll Remember.’

It’s there in the beautiful brutality and spiritual transcendence of ‘Like A Prayer.’

And it’s there in the mysterious dim beauty of the ‘X-Static Process‘ of love.

The ache of the coming spring. The death of another winter. The power of a pop song.

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The Man in the Mirror

I’m gonna make a change for once in my life
It’s gonna feel real good, gonna make a difference, gonna make it right
As I turned up the collar on my favorite winter coat, this wind is blowing my mind
I see the kids in the street with not enough to eat,
Who am I to be blind, pretending not to see their needs?

A good song will withstand any number of renditions – a great one can become something so much more when given a treatment like this. Listen to Michael Henry and Justin Robinett lift Michael’s Jackson’s classic ‘Man in the Mirror’ to an even higher plane. Minus production pyrotechnics, special effects, or fancy costumes or choreography, these gentlemen sell the song from a simpler place of musical purity, from the very origin of its message. 

This song reminds me of the very end of winter and the start of spring – in other words, this very time of the year, when dirty snow and roads are just giving way to cleansing rains and warmer days.

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and make a change.

Back in 1988, I wasn’t anywhere close to becoming a man – some days I still wonder – but I took this song’s message to heart. Granted, it was at key and selective moments, and it would take years before any real sense of love for my fellow human beings was born, and some days it’s still difficult to access that. You see, you have to start with yourself first, and that’s always been the hardest part.

I’ve been a victim of a selfish kind of love
It’s time that I realized
That there are some with no home, not a nickel to loan
Could it be really me pretending that they’re not all alone?
A willow deeply scarred
Somebody’s broken heart
And a washed out dream…
They follow the path of the wind you see
Cause they’ve got no place to be that’s why I’m starting with me.

At the end of every winter, when I was typically at my darkest, mood-wise, I would revisit this song, trying to remember what was really important, trying to do something that mattered, something that was bigger than my small self. As the years passed, it grew in resonance, as I grew up. In ways, I would need to become more selfish before I learned what it was to be generous, I’d have to become mean and cruel before I could become kind. Throughout it all, though, this song put me back on track whenever I stopped to truly listen to it.

Set-backs came at regular intervals, as they do in anyone’s life, and there were moments when I was battered, bruised, and not believed. That was difficult to accept. And when you live as bluntly and honestly as I do, you tend to get a reputation for being cutting and cruel when it’s not always warranted. It’s hard to pull yourself out of that pigeonhole – well, that’s not accurate – it’s hard for others not to see you in that pigeonhole – I never had a problem moving on to a better place. Others usually had a problem seeing me move on, because it was easier for them to keep me trapped like that, to believe that I could not be capable of growth or compassion or even love.

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and make a change.

There’s no way I’m anywhere near finishing this work. I’m not even close to being the good person I most wish I could be – that kind and caring and generous and non-judgmental guy that on my best days I only barely approach. But slowly, I’m getting closer. And on the day that I get there, I am certain that I’ll still not be satisfied, which is as it should be. Several words appear as goals now:

Grace. Serenity. Transcendence. Freedom.

I need not mention Truth, for that has always been on my side, an integral part of my world, as problematic as it might be for some to handle. I need not mention Loyalty either.

You can say a great many things about me – many unflattering and unkind things that may be accurate – but you cannot claim the least bit of a lack of self-awareness. I am the most honest, the most harsh, and the most glaringly unforgiving with myself. You can never be as honest with me as I have been with myself. That’s not self-delusional, and it’s not self-denial. I know the man in the mirror. I know he has to change. And I know he can.

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The Madonna Timeline: Song #106 – ‘Like A Prayer’ – March 1989

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{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

It began, of all places, in the middle of ‘The Cosby Show.’ Then a part of America’s must-see Thursday night NBC line-up, it was the perfect time and location for maximum exposure. A preview – one of the only commercials for a commercial – had aired the week before. In the midst of a desolate arid landscape, tumbleweed rolling in the wind, a solitary tribal man stumbles into a hut that incongruently houses a television and a Pepsi dispenser.

“No matter where in the world you are on March 2, get to a TV and see Pepsi present Madonna with her latest release ‘Like A Prayer’ for the first time on the planet earth,” an ominous voice-over announced. The new Madonna single was to premiere in a Pepsi commercial. Soft drink preference aside (I had always been a Coke boy, when I had the luxury of drinking soda, which wasn’t often) I was excited. While nowhere near the levels of fanatical devotion I would attain in a couple of years, I enjoyed Madonna much more than the next guy. It was in the gay genes.

On March 2, 1989, I sat on the edge of the chair by the television in the cellar of my parents’ house. I can still picture its plaid upholstery, black and gray and brown, and straight out of the 70’s. Leaning forward, I watched with rapt attention as the laugh track faded and the commercial break began.

Madonna’s voice sounded the opening lines of ‘Like A Prayer.’


Life is a mystery,


Everyone must stand alone


I hear you call my name


And it feels like home.

My very first impression? I didn’t like it. I was used to the simpler, disposable, instant ear candy of ‘Like A Virgin’ and ‘True Blue.’ This was challenging, darker, more complex… and was that a Gospel choir? It marked the beginning of the way I would learn to love a Madonna song slowly at first (‘Frozen’) but also more deeply. This would be a love that lasted through time and space, and such life-long loves don’t always begin with immediate gratification. It took some time, but once ‘Like A Prayer’ embedded itself in my head, once those grand cathedrals of mighty thought and musical rumination erected themselves in my mind, it was there for good.

As for the Pepsi commercial, it was sweet-enough, but it would only air twice. The official music video was released next, and it was then that all hell broke loose. A startlingly brunette Madonna (we’d only known the dirty and platinum blonde of the 80’s) sang her new song while dancing in a black slip, receiving stigmata, kissing a black saint come-to-life, and standing defiantly in a field of burning crosses, while a plain-as-day story of a black man wrongly accused of murder played out almost as an afterthought.

I remember being profoundly perplexed by all the controversy. The Catholic Church was pissed about the religious imagery, seemingly oblivious to its message of truth and justice. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority found fault with just about everything Madonna did, and planned a boycott of Pepsi who, scared shitless, immediately dropped the commercial and their ties to Madonna (while kissing the millions of dollars they paid her good-bye.) Were people seeing the same video I was seeing? This was a tale of right and wrong, of innocence and guilt, of wrongdoing and murder and misplaced blame, of racism and violence, and ultimately of vindication and justice. The imagery was powerful, and effective, and the resulting firestorm of publicity only served to solidify Madonna’s status as cultural icon and zeitgeist master.

For anyone with the slightest ability to comprehend a video narrative, Madonna’s character stands for justice and truth, and the story is one of an innocent man wronged, and finally righted. The burning crosses were more for impact of imagery, conjuring the historical context of racism over a story in which racism plays an integral part. The religious moments, too, were more of a touching on key Catholic components that today seem both archaic and harmless. At the time, though, ‘Like A Prayer’ ignited an inferno of rage from all sides. For a thirteen-year-old gay boy, it sparked something else – the transcendent power of a pop song, and the way it could take one away from a miserable and mundane existence.


When you call my name
it’s like a little prayer


I’m down on my knees,
I wanna take you there


In the midnight hour
I can feel your power


Just like a prayer
you know I’ll take you there

Every morning before going off to school I would watch the video on MTV’s Top-Ten countdown. It filled me with a thrill and a vague sense of danger, but the music moved me, every listen growing more powerful, touching something deeper. Despite the fact that I did well in school, had a few friends and a pretty good time there, it still required a bit of effort to gear myself up to face another day. There was always the possibility of being called out, of being called ‘faggot’, of being targeted and taunted. I felt myself apart from all my classmates, something that distanced me from them no matter how close we got. Some of these kids I’d known since I was a baby, and yet I never felt part of the class.

After each period, the halls filled with the noisy rushing masses of burgeoning adolescence, each scrambling to find peace, acceptance, or their next class. After a tumultuous and sickly 7th grade, I found my footing in my final year at Wilbur H. Lynch Middle School, but still never managed to truly belong.

In the middle of the building, a marble staircase rose across from the auditorium, and if you peered over the windows looking out you had a view of the hills rolling down to the Mohawk River. I stopped there, feeling the rush of life move around and past me, like some bit of time-lapse photography where my body was the stationary point around which all else evolved and changed. Standing still, I looked out the window. I wanted to be free.

I hear your voice, it’s like an angel sighing
I have no choice, I hear your voice
Feels like flying, I close my eyes
Oh God I think I’m falling out of the sky
I close my eyes, Heaven help me

I was breaking free of parental and parochial restraints, unfurling wings I never knew I had, challenging dogma that I’d never thought to question, and not because of Madonna, but because of knowledge and information and the realization that there was more to life than I was being taught and told. When I got home from school, I searched the television for her again, catching another countdown and re-examining what everything in the video might mean. More than the images, though, it was the music that moved me.

She was there in the night, to see me through. On the radio she sang to me as I laid in bed. The lights were out, and in the darkness I prayed. It was a prayer and a wish for love all at once, where the hunger of desire matched the hunger for something spiritual, and the soul demanded something both carnal and emotional and only found it in the orgasmic swelling of a choir. This was a song for eternity. A God anthem. A glimpse of heaven, a taunt of hell. In me something moved. Something recognized that soon I would have greater struggles, and the life I had, the love I would feel, would be at direct odds with what the church would have me be, what my family would have wanted for their first-born son, and what society would not be ready to accept until many years later – until, perhaps, many years too late. Luckily, I did not see that then. It would have been too much for my thirteen-year-old mind to comprehend. Instead, I got lost in the majestic swelling of the music, the rousing spirit of the choir, the glorious licks of an electric guitar.

It lifted me up. It raised my spirit. It spoke to me like the voice of God – perhaps greater than the voice of God because up until that point I didn’t think God had ever spoken to me. It gave me strength to get through whatever obstacle came my way. It was a covenant between me and Madonna, that whatever might come she would be there.

After my initial hesitation, I grew to love the song, feeling that wonderful pull to listen to it over and over – the kind of addictive draw I only felt with Madonna songs. Late at night, when I should have been asleep, the song would come over the radio, and I’d sit up and listen, slowly turning the volume up just a bit, getting lost in the chords and the choir, feeling a stirring from deep within my soul – and I knew I wanted to be a part of that one day, to inspire that feeling, to make something that touched someone.

When you call my name it’s like a little prayer
I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there
In the midnight hour I can feel your power
Just like a prayer you know I’ll take you there

The ‘Like A Prayer’ album, however, was another story. Being raised as a strict Catholic, and being shamed and scared into behaving lest I burn in the fires of hell, I could stand the vague religious teasing in songs such as ‘Like A Prayer’ and ‘Spanish Eyes,’ but not the sacrilegious squealing of the last track ‘Act of Contrition,’ where she turned the traditional prayer of confession into a screeching, jarring, in-joke of borderline-blasphemy. I played only a few minutes of that before shutting it off and taking the cassette tape out of the stereo. Frightened, I fled outside under the falling light of day, quickly traversing the length of lawn, then into the woods beyond the pool. I paused at the top of a bank, where forest weeds parted in a bit of a clearing, and placed the cassette on the ground. I found a rock – a large one for my small self – and raised it over my head, planning to smash the cassette into a multitude of plastic shards.

Conflicted, I paused, the muscles in my arms slowly starting to burn beneath the weight of the stone. I wanted to prove something to God, to prove something to myself, to prove, perhaps, that I did have faith, I did believe, I did have love in my heart. It was a sign of repentance. A sign of solidarity and support for the Lord. A sign of respect for Jesus Christ.

Yet it was all for show, and God would know that. I stood there, hovering over the tape, Madonna’s navel gazing up at me, and I wondered at my faith, not knowing whether to laugh or cry at the ridiculous predicament in which I had just placed myself. I put the rock down, lowered myself onto my haunches, and balanced there, contemplating what I was supposed to do. Dusk was at hand. The light was fading. Soon the woods would be dark.

I decided then… not to decide then. Pocketing the tape, I trudged back inside, and once in my bedroom I shoved it far back into one of my desk drawers, closing it into darkness. Something in those whispered prayers scared me. I feared what might befall my family if I listened to that. I feared whatever wrath or dark magic might be conjured if those words were released in my home. I wasn’t so concerned with myself – in fact, quite the opposite – but the idea of my behavior causing pain or harm to loved ones was where all that Catholic guilt manifested its treacherous power. There was also the question of my own soul – what might happen to it if I were to embrace Madonna’s blasphemous album? The tape stayed hidden for a couple of years. From time to time I’d catch a glimpse of it when searching for something else, sniffing a hint of its patchouli packaging, then quickly shutting the drawer again. I put it so far from my mind that I almost forgot about it.

But then a strange thing happened. I wanted to die. To kill myself. And suddenly I wasn’t so scared by God and religion and what might happen to my soul. It wasn’t that I stopped believing, I simply stopped buying into the dogma and the fear. If God was love, why should there be such fear? Why would He be so vengeful? Why would He hate me for my love?

When you’re freed from such fear, a song like ‘Act of Contrition’ means nothing – while ‘Like A Prayer’ could mean everything. The only moments I felt alive back then were when I listened to that album. Raking leaves and feeling profoundly hurt by my parents, I’d put ‘Promise to Try‘ and ‘Oh Father‘ on my walkman. I’d listen to ‘Spanish Eyes’ and let my own tears burn the pillow, begging for Christ to redeem and rescue me before taking my soul and body away.  I even found the betrayal and loss in ‘Til Death Do Us Part‘ a comfort for my downtrodden state.

In the months and years ahead, ‘Like A Prayer’ – the song and album – transformed into something life-changing. The music was good. It was inspiring. The driving force of ‘Express Yourself’ was all I needed for motivating the worst day, and the giddiness of ‘Cherish‘ and ‘Dear Jessie‘ lifted the heart when I was on top of the world. Madonna had crafted a cohesive tapestry of sound and experience, the very best kind of pop art an artist could muster. And I felt, in connections small and large, the power that certain songs had of making sense of the madness.

It was far more serious than her previous pop efforts, deeper and richer as well. Crafted during the tumultuous death-throes of her marriage to Sean Penn, it is heavy with both tension and release. An impending divorce is a heavy burden, the pain of loss magnified by Madonna’s familial ruminations at the same time.

Like a child you whisper softly to me
You’re in control just like a child
Now I’m dancing
It’s like a dream, no end and no beginning
You’re here with me it’s like a dream
Let the choir sing…

For me, I was on the brink of such turmoil, about to be tossed into the raging river of adolescent angst, teenage rebellion, and the messy and difficult struggle of coming to terms with my sexuality. It was a maelstrom of emotions, a mass of moving moods which all of Madonna’s burgeoning messages would come to mollify. She was searching, I was searching, we were all searching for something – meaning, magic, love… and it came to fruition in a pop song ~ a magnificent, majestic, moving song that melded electric guitar and a Gospel choir and the voice of the woman who once sang ‘Like A Virgin.’

The fear that first accompanied the album, and that first supposedly-blasphemous performance of ‘Like A Prayer’ during the Blonde Ambition Tour had dissipated into something else, like the curling tendrils of incense that encircled the air, gripped the lungs, and then drifted off like they had never been of consequence.

Every year during Lent, the rituals of the Catholic church haunted me, in a good way. There was comfort in that dim smoke-laden atmosphere, in the hush and quietude of the cavernous church. All the mysteries of the crucifixion and the resurrection, in the alchemy of the Body and Blood of Christ, hung in the air like, well, Jesus himself. And bound like His bloodied head in a crown of thorns, shot through like the nails in His hands, the guilt that once bled from me was rendered into a similar collection of religious cyphers and signs – echoes of what once held such sway. ‘Like A Prayer’ was the musical embodiment of this time of the year, and I cannot think of it without thinking of the church.

When you call my name it’s like a little prayer
I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there
In the midnight hour I can feel your power
Just like a prayer you know I’ll take you there

As for its place in the Madonna canon, ‘Like A Prayer’ remains, almost across the board, her most beloved song. Critics, fans, and non-fans alike agree on that much. It marked the first bit of widespread critical acclaim that she’d enjoyed for her music. (I still remember a hard-core Metallica fan, one of my classmates in high school, begrudgingly giving props to the guitar chords of ‘Like A Prayer’.)

Live performances of ‘Like A Prayer’ have proved to be perennially powerful, beginning with the epic Blonde Ambition staging – the first time she performed it for an audience. That version (Catholic misgivings aside) was a stunning church-themed tour-de-force of choreography and vocals.

Oddly enough, she would not perform it live again for over a decade – at an MTV release special for ‘American Life’ in 2003. Since then, though, it has been a staple, not only for tours, but for one-off live performances. On the Reinvention Tour – the closest she’s come to a greatest hits tour – ‘Like A Prayer’ was given a stripped-down but rousing treatment, a testament to the power and construction of the song, and Patrick Leonard’s vital impact on Madonna’s musical legacy.

My very favorite live performance of ‘Like A Prayer’, however, may just be the one she performed for Live Aid 8, mostly because of her genuine and touching interaction with the girl whose face had embodied the original Live Aid dream. It’s a rare moment of earnest and unguarded joy in a career where very little has ever been left to chance.

On a much smaller scale, she also performed at the Hope For Haiti benefit. That acoustic version was intimate and somber, yet filled with hope, and it flew largely under the radar, which was a shame, as it was quite a compelling argument for Madonna’s oft-questioned musical prowess. As for those who had pegged Madonna as a pop star capable only of disposable, frothy throwaway hits, ‘Like A Prayer’ displayed a deeper and darker side to her songbook. A techno-infused mash-up that soars to a hand-clapping climax, the apocalyptic performance from the Sticky and Sweet Tour reveals the darkness at the heart of ‘Like A Prayer’ – even if there is light and salvation at its resolution.

That salvation would be found in the finale to her Super Bowl appearance – when thousands of lights glowed in the stadium, and one woman stood alone in the center of it all, commanding the stage and finishing up one of the greatest Super Bowl half-time shows in history.

Most recently, Madonna performed ‘Like A Prayer’ on the MDNA Tour. There is usually one moment in every Madonna tour that brings me to the verge of tears: the opening salvo of the Drowned World Tour, the intimate ‘Crazy For You’ on the Reinvention Tour, the powerful ‘Live to Tell’ on the Confessions Tour, or the haunting ‘Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You’ on the Sticky and Sweet Tour – but for the MDNA Tour it was the climactic ‘Like A Prayer.’ It was here that the transcendent culmination of the evening found its footing in the united fans, all of us joined across the globe – a connection to each other, a connection to Madonna, a connection to whatever God or higher power in which we each believed.

Life is a mystery
Everyone must stand alone
I hear you call my name
And it feels like home. 

Darkness. Anger. Fire. Danger. Life. Death. Heaven. God. From the depths of hell to the upper echelon of glory, the spiritual journey of ‘Like A Prayer’ is epic. It began at the beginning of some of my darkest times. Adolescence. Puberty. A time of questioning and wondering, doubting and despairing. But the trajectory of ‘Like A Prayer’ had to begin somewhere. It had to start from the lowest point and move steadily and slowly toward ascendance, ever-reaching upwards. It was a long journey. A spiritual journey. A journey I needed to make alone, and the only guidance was the voice of Madonna.

Just like a prayer,
Your voice can take me there,
Just ike a muse to me,
You are a mystery
Just like a dream
You are not what you seem
Just like a prayer,
No choice your voice can take me there.

Life was a mystery, but she was there to help me along the way. Madonna was the Beatrice to my Dante, calling me up from the depths of the despair and guiding me through the hellish journey, bringing me higher, raising me up, lifting my heart and spirit and soul.

I didn’t know it then, but I was lost. And I would be lost for a very long time. It was Madonna who helped me to find myself. Unbeknownst to her, it was her voice that carried me through those dim days, and any dim day that followed.

‘Like A Prayer’ continues to evolve and transform in the way that the most lasting songs do. Gaining resonance, growing in significance, and becoming much more than it ever originally was, the song has withstood the tests of time and taste. Listening to it today I still get goose-bumps. I still go back to those early days of being so lost and so alone. But it’s okay. Like a prayer will always take me there.

For the longest time, I’d been looking forward to writing the Madonna Timeline for ‘Like A Prayer’ – as one of my favorite Madonna songs, I knew it would be a totem for this series. Yet as the songs progressed, and we passed #100, I began to feel a certain dread and pressure to do it justice, to properly impress upon you the import of this song on my life – and it turned out that’s impossible to do. Like the very faith it embodies, my love for ‘Like A Prayer’ is ethereal, untouchable, and indefinable – defying all explanation, at once intrinsically and universally personal. There would be no way to convey the myriad ways this song has informed my existence, the way it’s been a part of my life for the past 25 years. There are certain songs that become a part of our existence, woven delicately yet inextricably into the fabric that makes up the tapestry of our time on earth. They bind us to this moment, to this world, taking a stand and making a mark in the timeline of the universe. That will always be what ‘Like A Prayer’ is for me.

The best way to understand… is to listen.

No choice, your voice can take me there
Your voice can take me there…
Like a prayer.
Song #106 – ‘Like A Prayer’ – March 1989 
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