Category Archives: Music

The Passion of Sondheim

passion sondheim
Loving you is not a choice
It’s who I am.

It was the fall of 1996. I remember the leaves. Dead and brown, crackling beneath my feet as I faced the steps to the Braddock brownstone. On certain evenings, in late October or early November, the fatigue of an early nightfall left one breathless before tackling those stairs.

On the stereo, the savior Stephen Sondheim and his critically-divisive masterpiece ‘Passion’ played to my heart’s discontent. I’d been hurt, you see, not intentionally, but motive has rarely mitigated heartache. When it breaks, it breaks, and there’s no use in talking yourself out of it or convincing anyone otherwise.

Loving you is not a choice
And not much reason to rejoice
But it gives me purpose
Gives me voice to say to the world
This is why I live, you are why I live.

My mistake was in loving, but no – no – I cannot believe it was a mistake. I saw that even then. I saw it through the pain, through the tears, through the desolate nights of solitude. I saw that my loving someone, however unrequited, however unreturned, would never hurt the world. I was made to love.

Then the world changed.

Not overnight, not in a grand sweeping melodramatic moment, but slowly, gradually, easing the need to love. Yet it would always be a desperation I carried with me. It was something I couldn’t shirk or pretend away, even if I was masterful at hiding it. Almost two decades later, it remains something one doesn’t forget. Like being really cold. Like being terrifyingly lost. Like being… in love.

In this scene from ‘Passion’ the downtrodden anti-heroine Fosca sings her final plea to the man who does not quite love her back – not yet – and in this one musical moment, set on a train near the end of a story that wrenches the hearts of some and vexes the heads of others, I felt a kindred longing, and I returned to that chilly, lonely fall.

Loving you is why I do
The things I do
Loving you is not in my control
But loving you, I have a goal
For what’s left of my life
I would live
And I would die for you.
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Hunk of the Day: Nick Carter

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Ah, the Backstreet Boys. Allow me, if you will, a moment to go back to the late nineties, at the turn of the ‘Millennium’ (that epic album of theirs that contained the classic ‘I Want It That Way.’ What they wanted and in what way they wanted it will ever be a mystery to us, but at that time it didn’t matter. All that mattered was Nick Carter’s blond mop mopping up the pop charts and hysterical tween girls (and a couple of gay guys) ate it all up.

A confession: I had a ‘Backstreet Boys’ planner calendar. Oh, stop. I also had an ‘N Sync one, so if you’re going to judge me, judge me for that. We all have those moments, and while our Hunk of the Day Nick Carter was the popular front-man for the group, it was his band-mate Kevin Richardson that stole the show for me. I don’t suppose that’s nice to say since we’re honoring Mr. Carter today, so I’ll leave it at that.

As for the latter, he currently has a VH1 show airing, from which the first few photos are taken. I’m sure there’s a good reason for running around in a thong like that, but I prefer the last two photos, taken after he got in shape a few years ago.

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In A Bottle Or On A Bench

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The bench looks out onto the Charles River. Beneath a green-leafed oak it is shaded beneath the hot afternoon sun. Even in September, the heat of a dying summer remains strong. A city hangs onto heat like that, but a river and an ocean are nearby, and a breeze lends a comforting and cooling effect. September is the bridge between summer and fall, when the nights turn crisp and suddenly the days follow suit, and soon it’s easy to forget that there ever was a time when it was hot.

I don’t know if it’s sadness that I feel at the approach of fall. Most of the time the relief from oppressive heat is reinvigorating more than anything else, but I still can’t quell the worry that this is the start of the slow march to winter. It only gets more barren from this point forward. The days will shorten. The light will lessen. The clocks will tick, and time will advance.

If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day til eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you
If I could make days last forever
If words could make wishes come true
I’d save every day like a treasure and then
Again, I would spend them with you

Along the Charles people walk or run or ride bikes behind the bench on which I sit. Out of the corner of my eye, I sense their presence. Some move quickly, whizzing by in a blur. Others are slow and deliberate, pausing along the way, lost in revelry or distraction, or maybe just intent on their journey. It is impossible to read the human mind.

The river laps at its shore. A plastic bottle mars the otherwise-pristine view, but it is too far to reach. The bench next to mine is empty. There is something both hopeful and lamentable about an empty bench. It carries the weight of possibility bound by loneliness, the happiness of summer days suffused with the ache of passing time. A bench is a marker – of space and hours and days and moments. It stands still when the world refuses to wait.

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do, once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go through time with

The first time I passed this bench I did not pause. I was one of the walkers, passing quickly by behind it, not noticing or caring enough to take in the day, to drink in the sun, to reflect on the moment. I was walking next to the first man I ever kissed, on the way to his apartment, and that was all that mattered. It would be years before I made the connection of where we were, and the route we had taken. Back then Boston was a disjointed mass of T-stops, and aside from a few green line stations, I had no idea how the city was truly laid out. I had to walk to discover.

If I had a box just for wishes
And dreams that had never come true
The box would be empty, except for the memory of how
They were answered by you.

There are still days when fall feels like summer. If you close your eyes and sit still in the sun, you can fool yourself into thinking that time has not passed, that we have not yet reached the beginning of the end. Until that first hard frost, it’s possible to pretend. The tricks of memory, the twists and turns of time, the gnarled paths we take, sometimes repeating ourselves, sometimes branching out in frightening and wonderful directions – these are the marks of the seasonal shift out of summer.

Opening my eyes, the dappled sunlight dances on the dry ground. Soon, the space will be littered with fallen oak leaves. They hold on until the very end, reluctant to let go of their lofty vantage point. It is time to leave this place, before the leaves fall. This is how I want to remember it.

We will return here one day. For now, we put the summer to sleep.

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do, once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go through time with…
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Hunk of the Day: Brendon Urie

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Brendon Urie, lead singer for Panic! At The Disco, is our Hunk of the Day, brought to my attention by this scorching rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – which manages to rise to the Freddie Mercury occasion and do more than justice to the Queen classic. Mr. Urie carries an impish sexiness with him as demonstrated in his lively performance. Of course, music always adds a dash of sexiness to everything. [See Adam LevineJustin Timberlake, Lenny Kravitz, Jon Bon Jovi, Jake Shears, Enrique Iglesias, or Adam Lambert.]

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Dreamy Music for a Diner, And Other Scenes

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If there was one character I related to most on ‘Twin Peaks’ it was Audrey – the young, sexy vixen who had the hots for Agent Dale Cooper, who was supremely uninterested in her. I know that song, I know that dance, and I know that no matter how silly and sophomoric it may seem, those feelings can rip apart the heart, rending it doubly difficult of loving later on. Audrey managed to be seductive and sad, a sex-pot who didn’t so much have sex as inspire it, someone who longed for the one man who wouldn’t long for her in return. Not that way. Never that way.

You can have the eyes and the desire of the world, but what good is it when the one you want doesn’t even notice? Sometimes I think that’s what drives us – the elusive other, the one who got away, the single person who will only ever like you, not love – not love in the way you need and crave and want, not love in the one way that will mean everything and turn you inside out and bring the world crashing down so they can build it all back up. No, not that kind of love. Not for her, not for me.

The breezes of fall rustled through the pine trees in my childhood backyard. The abyss of darkness, and the safety and the danger of night, stretched out unseen and unknown. I could only feel it, even when I reached out and stepped over broken leaves and matted grass. I could only listen to the rush of it, pulsating with the quickened beating of a heart – a single heart – the aching sound of loneliness. Longing is louder, but loneliness rings deeper.

The soundtrack to ‘Twin Peaks’ brings it all rushing back to my mind. I was in high school then. Practicing marching band music after school, fumbling with math proofs, and squeezing a frozen juice box into a messy accordion. On certain Friday nights, we had to perform in the football halftime show, running out into the middle of the surreal, unforgiving illumination of the football field, blaring ‘Fanfare and Entrance’ while the majorettes kicked their legs and waved their pom-poms in the air. When the halftime show was over, and Friday night fun was just beginning for others, I traipsed my way through a darkened field back up to my home. I passed dimly-lit baseball diamonds, and a patch of blackened forest that beckoned with the fate of Laura Palmer. I did not know fear then. I did not know what it was like to be unloved. I did not know how lucky I was.

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The Madonna Timeline: Song #108 – ‘Burning Up’ – 1983

Madonna Burning Up

{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.}

Not every Madonna song is a classic in the mold of ‘Like A Prayer’ or ‘Ray of Light’ – and even though this Madonna Timeline selection is reportedly one of Guy Oseary’s favorites, I’ve never been all that fond of it (though the video and sound are classic early Madonna.) This is ‘Burning Up’ – a relic from the 80’s that probably should remain buried there. I differ from many Madonna fans on my antipathy for the song, but there’s enough room in the world for different tastes, so I’m standing by my dislike.

Don’t put me off ’cause I’m on fire
And I can’t quench my desire
Don’t you know that I’m burning up for your love
You’re not convinced that that is enough
I put myself in this position
And I deserve the imposition
But you don’t even know I’m alive
And this pounding in my heart just won’t die
I’m burning up

‘Burning Up’ treated us to one of the first hallmarks of many a Madonna song: an unabashed ode to sexuality and pleasure that could also be read as an ode to love. Underneath all the double entendres there is the simple excitement of feeling the heat from an object of affection, and the passionate will to do anything for said object.

You’re always closing your door
Well that only makes me want you more
And day and night I cry for your love
You’re not convinced that that is enough
To justify my wanting you
Now tell me what you want me to do
I’m not blind and I know
That you want to want me but you can’t let go
Come on, let go!

It also set Madonna apart from everyone else, particularly in the way she snarls, ‘Unlike the others I’ll do anything, I’m not the same, I have no shame, I’m on fire!’ Little did the world knew how true she would prove that to be.

You know you got me burning up, baby (Burning up for your love)
You know you got me burning up, baby (Burning up for your love)
Song #108 – ‘Burning Up’ – 1983
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The Musical Magnificence of Mika

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It’s been a long, long time since I’ve purchased an actual CD from a physically-standing store, but on my last visit to Boston I saw the new album by Mika,  ’The Origin of Love,’ in Barnes & Noble, so I picked it up for the car ride home. There are only a few artists whose music I would buy before hearing any of the songs – Madonna, Shirley Horn (sadly no more new music), and James.

On this record, the music sounds like the love child between Daft Punk and Erasure – making it both of-the-moment but also timeless. In other words, an instant classic that manages to sound both completely familiar and entirely new. Such musical magic is difficult to conjure, but Mika has managed to make it happen on all three of his albums to date, progressively revealing a darker yet still-accessible side on cuts like ‘Make You Happy’ or ‘Overrated.’ He continues to craft some of the frothiest pop out there today, as in ‘Popular Song’ (which gleefully borrows from ‘Wicked’) and the gorgeous ‘Kids.’

Such stuff might at first seem tailor-made for over-production and saccharine sweetness, but Mika wisely veers clear of such pitfalls, stripping things down for the title track. Filled with ambivalence, and shot through with treacherous questions on faith and religion, ‘Origin of Love’ is a powerful reminder of the potency of Mika at his best. It begins somewhat slowly for the bombastic guy responsible for such rousing anthems as ‘Grace Kelly’ and ‘We Are Golden’ but it grows into something richer and more lasting.

Even when he’s being snarky and sardonic, as in the beautifully blunt ‘Love You When I’m Drunk,’ the music is so light and bouncy it takes away a bit of the edge, but in doing so lends it a more sinister impact. He may cut you, but it’s going to feel and sound so good you won’t mind as much.

That’s Mika’s greatest weapon: he’s an aural assassin, and his music can slay the staunchest enemy. Any lashing out comes from a displacement of hurt, deliciously disguised as he shuffles along on marvelous melodies and resounding choruses.

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The Madonna Timeline: Song #107 – ‘Like A Virgin – 1984

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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.}

The woman stands alone in the spotlight. Thousands of screaming fans surround her, watching her every move, but she is undeniably alone, and, dare it be said, perhaps a little lonely. Her hair is disheveled, her body is both beautiful and a wreck – bound by a corset, restricted by lace, and held only half together by her trademark fishnet stockings. She looks a bit broken and fiercely forlorn. The familiar pop chirp and breezy bounce of the signature track is almost unrecognizable in this waltz – and the woman, almost three decades after she first sang the song, imbues the performance with a tragically ironic take on all that is shiny and new. This is Madonna and her latest incarnation of ‘Like A Virgin’ – the emotional high-point of the MDNA Tour. She sings to a plaintive slowed-down ballad version, with world-weary fatigue and heartrending abandon. Here, then, is our Queen, laid low by life. It is a mesmerizing moment from a woman who has made a career of transcending the boundaries of pop culture.

‘Like A Virgin’ is the album that catapulted her into the pop culture stratosphere, and it remains her best-selling album in the United States. As for the title song, it had a bass-line influenced by Michael Jackson, and the synth-heavy production so favored in the 80’s. It also had a universal message, particularly when you take out the mundane literal readings of the lyrics, and nothing that has lasted all this time could ever be seriously dismissed as a novelty song. Madonna herself has always claimed that ‘Virgin’ was less about losing one’s virginity and more about a freshness, a feeling of newness and wonder as befits the beginning of any relationship. There was a sexual aspect running through all of it, however, one that even she couldn’t deny, but to peg it solely as a sex song is largely missing the mark, and ignoring its lasting cultural influence.

I made it through the wilderness, somehow I made it through
Didn’t know how lost I was until I found you
I was beat, incomplete, I’d been had, I was sad and blue
But you made me feel, yeah you made me feel shiny and new… 

Going back a few years before the opening scene, she gave the song an electro-twist, riding around on a futuristic abstract horse on the Confessions Tour in 2006, while x-rays of her recently-broken ribs flashed across screens behind her. In that version she was the triumphant rider, returning to the scene of a crime in Madonna-fashion, defying that which struck her down a few months prior. By that time, ‘Like A Virgin’ was already a well-tread warhorse of its own, having undergone such drastic tinkering as 1993’s Girlie Show incarnation.

For that circus-like romp, Madonna donned a top hat and tails, channeling Marlene Dietrich in full androgynous glory. It came, right after the ‘Sex’ book and ‘Erotica’ album, with a comforting wink and nod (and only one phallic rising that was more comical than offensive). At the very moment that her career was saturated with sex, Madonna made ‘Virgin’ the unlikely heart of a rather family-friendly portion of an otherwise erotic-heavy show. That’s defiance. That’s the power of the shiny and new.

Like a virgin
Touched for the very first time
Like a virgin
When your heart beats
Next to mine.

It’s withstood the test of time due in large part to Madonna’s varied performances of the song, from a silly throwaway mash-up on the ‘Who’s That Girl‘ Tour to more magnificent executions such as in the epic Blonde Ambition Tour documented in ‘Truth or Dare.’ To this day, the latter remains my favorite rendering of the song. Maybe it was the time period that ‘Truth or Dare’ was released – the summer of 1991 – and its coinciding with my budding adolescence, or the infamous golden Gaultier cone-bra, or the simple brazen act of someone who had the nerve to rub one out for all the world to see, but for whatever reason, that’s the rendition of ‘Like A Virgin’ that means the most to me.

Gonna give you all my love boy
My fear is fading fast
Been saving it all for you
Cause only love can last.

“So, what’s considered masturbation?” the diminutive woman asked as she adjusted her head-set beneath the tangle of her blonde, Barbie-doll pony-tail.

“When you stick your hand in your crotch,” her brother sheepishly answered.

Such was the exchange that Madonna had with her brother Christopher before going on-stage in Toronto for that night’s show. It was, by many accounts, the pinnacle of her outrageous power, and her masturbatory performance of ‘Like A Virgin’ was the centerpiece of sexual provocation. Forget the cone-shaped bras strapped onto the male back-up dancers, the harem-like Middle-Eastern revision of the song, and the red velvet bed on which our tainted heroine draped her body – it was the simple act of self-satisfaction that had so many in an uproar, and this boy in rapt wonder and awe.

Watching her command the audience, and the world, with a brush of her nether-regions, illustrated the power of sex. It was titillation, it was promise, it was tease and release. It was a woman in control, with men as supporting players at best (and likely gay and uninterested to boot.) With a single touch, she brought a parochial world to its knees. With a simple grind, she felled centuries of male-domination. With one final flourish, she cried out to God and released the tormented torrent of the life of a woman.

You’re so fine,
And you’re mine
Make me strong, yeah you make me bold
Cause your love thawed out
Yeah your love thawed out
What was scared and cold.

As a gay boy, I didn’t quite get turned on by the proceedings, instead I took a different lesson: the power of self-love. Literally. Tied in with that was the power of sex and the power of seduction, along with the power that comes from being the object of desire, untouchable but for her own hands, isolated and alone yet watched by thousands. It was a daring show of raw sexuality and unabashed self-pleasure that left jaws-dropping wherever the Blonde Ambition tour landed. It is the image of ‘Like A Virgin’ that I retain to this day. It’s a far cry from its original version.

Like a virgin
Touched for the very first time
Like a virgin
When your heart beats
Next to mine.

Back in 1984, a lot of the world hadn’t quite heard of Madonna. I myself missed out on her debut album – including ‘Holiday’, ‘Lucky Star’, and ‘Borderline’ (I was, after all, only nine years old) but by 1985 ‘Material Girl’ brought her into my life, and my life into sudden-focus. Its infectious beat kept me glued to the rest of the ‘Like A Virgin’ album. Even so, the title song, and its accompanying Bride-in-Venice video didn’t do much for me. It was catchy enough, and I sensed in the title a certain degree of naughtiness, but at that time in my life I listened, shrugged, and fast-forwarded to ‘Dress You Up.’


You’re so fine, and you’re mine
I’ll be yours til the end of time
Cause you made me feel, yeah you made me feel
I’ve got nothing to hide.

Looking back, I wish I’d paid more attention to this moment and that first flush of Madonnamania. My wanna-be years were a bit further off, but something must have touched me. Now, it means a little more. ‘Like A Virgin’ tugged at my ears, at my pants, at my head, and at my heart. As it grew in resonance over the years, it came to mean different things at different times, but always the hope of starting over, the freshness of a new beginning, the bright bursting of a heart newly in love. If I listen closely enough, if I close my eyes and let my mind wander back, I can remember the innocence of childhood – and there it is again, all shiny and new… for the very first time.

Song #107 – ‘Like A Virgin’ – 1984

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A Capital ‘F’ In It


A seagull pokes its head over the sand dune. Among beach grass and scattered feathers, it peers at us from a distance, then flaps its wings and disappears. The wind is strong on this day, scattering sand into waves that echo the ocean. Examined closely, the grains are fine, and the sand here is soft. In-between our toes, it sifts as if in an hourglass. I bury my foot deeper. The breeze is cool on the tip of Cape Cod, and for this overcast day the beaches are relatively empty. It’s late in the season – end of August or early September – and Suzie and I have made an impromptu trip to Provincetown. The year is 1995.

We had driven over in the rain, and somehow Suzie found us lodging for the weekend. The fall semester was set to begin in a couple of days. We didn’t want the summer to end. On our last day, instead of hitting the road, we made our way to the beach. Not the gay beach – it would be a few years before I learned the long and winding way through the marsh and dunes to make it there – but a quiet stretch of shoreline where only a few other brave folks withstood the chilly wind. I would have left early in the morning, but Suzie wanted a day at the beach, and in the first break from the rain, and our last hours on the Cape, we took it.

I listen to the waves crash rhythmically upon the shore. Their roar is muffled beneath the rushing wind. I put on a pair of headphones, as much for the music as to shield my cold ears. A Shirley Horn song begins as my eyes follow a fellow walking along the beach.

He is my fate,
with capital “F” in it,
Now in my dreams,
there’ll be someone definite,
ring down the curtain,
I’m certain at present,
my future just passed.

On a plaid pillow, I lean back. Suzie snaps a photo, likely at my insistence. The sun looks as if it wants to break through, but a layer of clouds prevents it. There will be no direct sunlight today. That doesn’t bother me as much with Suzie by my side. I don’t know then that this moment will be one of my happiest memories, before the entanglements of romance began for both of us, before the break-ups and breakdowns. For now, the hope and possibility and excitement of love looms beautifully on the horizon, just ahead of us, and the only thing bothering me is the impatient anticipation involved: I cannot wait to find it. To find him.

Don’t even know if he has been spoken for,
If he is tied, the ties must be broken, for,
life can’t be that way,
to wake me then break me,
my future just passed.
Stars in the blue,
though you’re at a distance,
you can assure me,
but sometimes a girl encounters resistance,
help me to win this boy.

I don’t know what he’ll look like, but I’ll spend the next several years searching, and seeking out the one. Some will come close, and I’ll try to force them into the place of my heart where I most want someone to fit, but I begin to doubt that anyone will fill that hole. Even those who love me, at least for a moment, seem ill-suited for such treacherous and tedious environs. I watch them pass on. I watch them walk away.

Here are my arms,
may he find illusion there,
Kiss my two lips…

There is passion I find along the way. Enough to sustain, enough to maintain hope. And there is love. Even when it is fleeting and ephemeral, it matters. I believe this because the alternative is too grim to fathom. When the world turns dark, and loneliness cries forlornly like the whimper of a trapped animal, you will believe in almost anything.

Now that I’m loving,
I’m living at last,
my future just passed.
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Hunk of the Day: Adam Lambert ~ A Second Coming

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Maybe it’s the new facial hair, maybe it’s the new haircut, or maybe it’s his front-man status for Queen, but for some reason Adam Lambert just got a whole lot hotter, hence his current re-crowning as the Hunk of the Day. (Alongside such double-dipper-strippers as Alex Pettyfer, Todd Sanfield, and Ronnie Kroell, Mr. Lambert joins an elite group of guys whose hotness exceeds a single Hunk of the Day post.) He’s stomping through Queen’s tour in Freddie’s platform shoes, and from all accounts he’s slaying it as if to the manner born. His cocky, sexy, flamboyant showmanship is an ideal draw for filling stadiums with howling fans, while his larger-than-life charisma reaches the very ends of the earth.

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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

eli lieb 101

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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