Category Archives: Music

A Thirty-Year-Old Virgin

mad virg100

Yes, they do exist – in this case it’s Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’ album, which was released three decades ago this week. Hard to believe that such a long time has gone by since she first preened a la Marilyn in ‘Material Girl’ or acted anything-but-like-a-virgin in the titular track, but time waits for no woman, virgin or not. ‘Like A Virgin’ was the first Madonna album that entered our home, and for all the supposedly titillating fodder, it made for harmless background music as we went on family vacations. Clearly my brother and I didn’t know what ‘virgin’ even meant, but we knew a good hook and a catchy pop song, and that’s all that mattered to my ears at the time. Here’s a quick look back at those LAV songs that have made it onto the Madonna Timeline.

We’ll begin with lead-off track ‘Material Girl’ – since this is where it all started for me. I loved it. I could dance to it all night long (and often did). Fueling the greed-obsessed 80s, the materialistic song was turned on its head with Madonna’s video for the single. In the end, she chooses love over material possessions – something everyone seemed to miss.

Angel‘ was a fluffy bit of day-dreamy swooning, as Madonna literally sighs and laughs over someone who’d caught her fancy. Harmless, escapist pop at its best, it was sugar for the ears, and nothing sounded sweeter.

Title track ‘Like A Virgin‘ is arguably her best-known and most classic work. Whereas ‘Like A Prayer’ was spectacular in a different way, ‘Virgin’ was Madonna’s first entry into the pop stratosphere – and you never forget your first time. The numerous subsequent interpretations she’s given the song are a testament to its staying power and eternal themes.

It was on ‘Kids Incorporated’ when I first heard ‘Over and Over‘ – as rendered by a Madonna-wanna-be Martika. In spite of that, I still loved the song.

As far as my favorite ‘Virgin’ cut goes, I’d have to give the edge to ‘Dress You Up‘ – this is the song that had me jumping up and down on my brothers bed and squealing with absolute excitement at how good a song could sound at ear-throttling volume.

The album closed with a plea to ‘Stay‘ – a request I would not understand for a few more years, but something called out to me even back then – a longing, a wish, a prayer – and Madonna gave it all a voice.

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The Moon & The Fag

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Apart from my first and last semesters of college, I didn’t socialize much on campus during my years at Brandeis. I didn’t relate to much of what college-age kids were talking about or going through – I wanted out, and I wanted out as quickly as possible. For such a supposedly progressive group of people, so many were so immature. Yet there were glimmers of hope, along with the possibility of friendship in that first semester, so when I started hanging out with my next door dorm mate Tony I thought I might have made a friend.

He was from the south – New Orleans I believe – and he had a smooth Southern drawl and a bit of charm that matched his earnestness. Don’t misunderstandI did not have a crush, I did not have an infatuation, and it was clear that Tony was very straight. At that time I was still pretending to be too, with a girlfriend from high school still in the picture. Tony didn’t have anyone, and he also wasn’t confident or courageous enough to ask anyone out, even if he was rakishly handsome in his way. So that left us alone, and together.

There’s no set way for how a friendship develops, particularly between two young men. A few shared walks to class, a couple of shared dinners, and the usual freshman dorm ice-breakers and monthly meetings are sometimes enough to spark it if it’s ever going to happen. Living next door aided in that too – so much of life occurs due to sheer proximity. We passed each other first thing in the morning, and last thing in the evening. In boxers and t-shirts, in glasses and mussed hair, in hope and in dread. He also had a dick of a roommate whom we all pretty much disliked, and I had a roommate who was hardly ever there (and whom I loved for it.) In some ways it was only natural that we’d become friends.

He also had a fondness for pop music and for guessing which songs would hit the top of the charts. At the time, Ace of Base was big, but the latest entry from Mariah Carey was also about to begin its Billboard climb. Tony was thrilled with ‘Hero’ and proclaimed it the next big smash. While never a big Mariah fan, I did enjoy the song, though I wondered if it would make it to Number One. Of course, it did. (To this day that and her Christmas song are about all I can stand.) ‘Hero’ brings me instantly back to that late fall at Brandeis, when I was first starting to awaken to the fact that I’d made a new friend. And it was a guy – a straight guy – something rather rare in my female-centric cloistered world.

 

There’s a hero
If you look inside your heart
you don’t have to be afraid
of what you are…

Now, it sounds like Tony could very well have stood on the gay side of the Kinsey scale (Ace of Base? Mariah Carey?) but believe me, he most certainly was not. There was incessant talk of hot girls and breasts and butts and sometimes it was all I could do to hold my tongue to stop the flow of objectification that spilled from his southern mouth. It was never mean-spirited though, and never degrading – it was simply child-like and unrefined. In short, it was the stuff of straight guys – and it fascinated me. More than that, though, it taught me that I could be friends with someone who didn’t share all my politically-correct beliefs. No one was perfect, as I was finding, and you had to take the bad with the good because sometimes it was worth it. We challenged each other, and those challenges often led right to the verge of real arguments, but in the end we could agree to disagree and still walk back to the dorm together and meet up the next morning. This was new for me.

There’s an answer
If you reach into your soul
And the sorrow that you know
Will melt away…

By November of that year, I was finally getting the hang of college life after a couple of questionable months. I’d whittled my class-load down from an initial overly-ambitious schedule to just four courses (one of which was Water Aerobics – much more inviting at the end of August than in the first chill of November). I also had two difficult science courses, the first being Astronomy (which I also took with the hope it would be an easy pass of looking at the stars, not counting on all the physics and equations involved). In addition to the math, however, we did get to go outside and look up at the night sky from the roof of the observatory building.

Around us, the campus laid in quiet wait, and in the distance the glow of Boston once again beckoned to my desire. Above, the sky opened up and revealed more of itself as our eyes adjusted to the darkness. The moon, brilliant if only halfway in light floated in a corner, while the belt and sword of Orion stood at an angle. There was a brisk wind, and we hurriedly plotted things out on paper, took some measurements, and soon were set free by the professor. I walked down the stairs and back to my dorm. The hissing of the radiator was the only thing that greeted me in the darkened room. That hiss could be the loneliest sound in the world. Outside, the branches of a pine tree shifted shadows from a streetlight. I popped down the hall to see if Tony was around. There was no answer to my knock, and I went back to my room. The mark of a friendship is the dejection you feel when they’re not around. I put on the stupid Mariah Carey song and smiled. Maybe a guy could be a friend and a hero and I didn’t have to fall in love with him.

And then a hero comes along
With the strength to carry on
And you cast your fears aside
And you know you can survive

So when you feel like hope is gone
Look inside you and be strong
And you’ll finally see the truth
That a hero lies in you.

For his part,  I’d like to believe that  Tony felt similarly about me. Neither of us had a large circle of friends, and his southern friendliness was somewhat shocked by our cold northeastern indifference. We were both outsiders for vastly different reasons. He was on a pre-law track, and I was about to default to a degree in English and American Literature (hence all the science and water aerobics courses [?]) While we didn’t share any classes or interests, we had started sharing dinners at Sherman Hall, and spirited conversations that ranged in topic from Madonna to racial divides. I think each of us thought that he had the upper hand, and when that happens you sometimes create an unintended equality between friends that results in a mutual admiration. It’s so much easier to think better of someone if you actually believe that you’re better than that someone. Yet as misguided as we both may have been, that didn’t mean the burgeoning affection wasn’t real. Of course, I don’t know that for sure. I haven’t seen Tony in about eighteen years. Maybe he just didn’t want to eat dinner alone.

It’s a long road
When you face the world alone
No one reaches out a hand for you to hold.
You can find love
If you search within yourself
And the emptiness you felt will disappear.

In the way that it has often happened in my life, all it takes is one person – one friend – to galvanize me into confidence and serenity. Just knowing that another person out there cares, and is willing to come up to you across campus to say hello and have a chat about the day – it eases any loneliness in a way that no other source of strength can match. This was in the time before the bromance was an acknowledged part of life, a time when guys kept their distance for fear of being thought gay. It was only 1993, and it feels like a world away.

As November ripened, and we neared the Thanksgiving break, it was dark when we headed out to dinner. The first brisk days and nights that hint of winter to come are not always unwelcome, and I wrapped my arms around each other, pulling my coat close. We sat down to a warm dinner and talked of holiday plans. My drive in Thanksgiving Eve traffic would likely be just as long as his flight south. I realized then that I might miss him. I was just getting into a new way of life when suddenly I’d be whisked back to Amsterdam, to the past, to the town I’d tried to escape. Tony was excited to be going home, though, and I was happy for him. He missed Louisiana, he said. His friends and family. Even when it’s less than ideal, there’s no place like home. We finished our meal and dropped our trays off near the exit. Pulling our coats on, we met the night and the cold and hurried up the hill back to our dorm.

As we neared Usdan Center, the moon appeared from behind a stand of pine trees. It was glorious, almost full, and I said innocently, my recent Astronomy class still in my mind, “Hey, look at the moon,” as I pointed to the sky.

He paused in his stride and looked at me quizzically, in the way he sometimes cocked his head and questioned something I said. “You’re not going fag on me, are you?” he asked, rather seriously, and without a laugh or a smile.

Somewhere, the joy and hope I’d thought I was finding in another person froze. Something shifted right then for me, not only in our friendship, but in the rest of my world, and for the rest of my life. Something died in me. The little amount of faith I held in humanity diminished just a little bit more. And I felt someone I trusted – someone who was, or had already become, a friend – slip away. I waited for him to qualify the remark, to offer a joke or something to take away the sting of what he had said. I’d been called a fag before, and I would be again, but never by someone I considered a friend. Never someone so close.

I’m not one who usually cries, but at that moment, in the instant the words came out of his mouth, I wanted to cry. I swallowed hard instead, and then insisted of course I was not a fag, even managing to embolden the lie with a convincing laugh. I explained that I was merely commenting on the moon and what I’d learned in Astronomy that week. We were quiet for a few moments, then separated and went our ways. I think we both knew then.

The Lord knows dreams are hard to follow
But don’t let anyone tear them away
Hold on, here will be tomorrow
In time, you’ll find the way.

We had a few more dinners after that, and carried on outwardly in much the same way as before. But after Thanksgiving break, I stopped going to dinner with Tony. I wanted to be alone then anyway. I was coming to terms with the fact that I was gay, and even if I wasn’t, I knew I couldn’t be friends with someone who could use the word ‘fag’ so flippantly even if it he didn’t mean it, even if it didn’t mean anything. Words matter – at least they do to me.

After winter break, when snow was on the ground and trudging through campus proved both depressing and difficult, it would have been nice to have someone to bear the burden, shoulder to shoulder, but when he knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to grab dinner, I repeatedly bowed out. He stopped knocking soon enough. When our first year was over, and my parents had loaded the last of my things into the station wagon for the ride home, I didn’t say good-bye to Tony. I’m not even sure where he was that day, because I had honestly stopped caring.

And then a hero comes along
With the strength to carry on
And you cast your fears aside
And you know you can survive
So when you feel like hope is gone
Look inside you and be strong
And you’ll finally see the truth
That a hero lies in you.

Somehow, I never saw Tony for the next two years. It’s strange, as Brandeis is a relatively small college, but I was keeping to myself, lying in wait until I could get into Boston and away from college guys who equated looking at the moon with being a fag. He may have nudged my closet door closed completely, but in the ensuing months it only made me want to kick it down more.

In my last semester, I saw him for the last time. It was at this time of the year again – November or December – and I was waiting for the commuter rail to go into Boston – where I had just moved. He was getting off the outgoing train, and I remember watching him walk down the steps and thinking I knew him from somewhere. He flashed the same puzzled recognition before we realized and recognized. We exchanged hurried pleasantries and caught up a bit. I noticed how his eyes traveled down my outfit: a velvet scarf tied around my neck, and a top coat in black wool. His gaze focused on the velvet.

“That’s an interesting… scarf,” he said with the slightest bit of derision. It looked like he wanted to say more, but he didn’t. I wanted to say more too, but I followed his lead. It was almost dark, and the wind was picking up. We said our good-byes, and when the train pulled away I watched him cross the tracks as I stood there waiting for the next train to Boston. The velvet scarf fluttered behind me as I stood facing the wind.

There comes a time when you have to be your own hero.

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Losing My Mind

Follies Set-Ups

There’s a special bit of alchemy that explodes when a Hunk of the Day like Jeremy Jordan meets a song by Stephen Sondheim. I was lucky enough to catch Mr. Jordan in his recent creation of the J.M. Barrie in ‘Finding Neverland.’ His version is slightly more subdued than the usual female versions of this song of desperation. In that respect I tend to prefer someone like Bernadette Peters, whose histrionic tear-addled take on it tells of more heartache than any human should have to bear. Which do you like better? Both are wondrous, but everyone cottons to their own favorite for a reason.

I like the way Ms. Peters inhabits the past and present of this character. Suzie and I saw her in the revival of ‘Follies’ captured here, and she was as fantastic as expected. (Well, Suzie thought she cried too much, but Suzie’s harsh that way. She once crushed my five-year-old hand in a car window.) I found her richly dramatic and beautifully brittle. No one writes an unrequited love song like Mr. Sondheim.

I think it’s the first few lines that touch me the most:

The sun comes up
I think about you
The coffee cup
I think about you
I want you so
It’s like I’m losing my mind

Such stark simplicity, such naked emotions, such heartbreaking solitude. I remember mornings like that. Sometimes part of me even misses them, the passion they broke in me. As I grow out of my 30′s, I understand what they mean by ‘The Big Chill.’ This icy remoteness, the further we move from our youth, the further we seem to move from feeling. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. The hardening of a heart finally coming years after I could have really used it. It’s so hard to get worked up about things. So difficult to find anything that really matters.

The morning ends
I think about you
I talk to friends
I think about you
And do they know
It’s like I’m losing my mind

There was such longing then, but that longing inspired and drove my restless heart. Every unreturned love letter, made more vicious in its vacuous silence, singed my tattered hopes. I burned willingly, from the inside out, and I “decked myself out in every little feather that floated my way” just to hang onto something so flimsy it would not matter if it could not hold me. In fact, all the better if it didn’t. I wanted it to fall apart. I wanted to fall. And I did.

All afternoon doing every little chore
The thought of you stays bright
Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor
Not going left
Not going right
I dim the lights
And think about you
Spend sleepless nights
To think about you
You said you loved . . me
Or were you just being kind
Or am I losing my mind

Being kind. Such a nice sentiment. Such a sweet turn of phrase. Such a fucking lie. There, in a fiery instant, the rage. The fury. The thousands of lonely nights gathered in a single black sheet of wrinkled memory, cast down and thrown up into a starless sky. What despair hides in a tear that never falls. Choke it all down. Purse the lips. Glaze the eyes. And, always, smile when you say goodbye.

Does no one know
It’s like I’m losing my mind…

I’ve forgotten what I was going to say.

Sometimes this blog is just one big nervous breakdown waiting to happen.

Or maybe it already did.

You said you loved . . . . me
Or were you just being kind
Or am I losing my mind?
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When October Goes

october goes

{NOTE: The song here is not the rendition that Betty Buckley sang over my sad little stereo in 1996. I couldn’t find that on YouTube. Instead, it’s Nancy Wilson, who does an equally-admirable version. It seems that for the first time one of my musical memories is too obscure even for the all-encompassing YouTube. I don’t know if I’m angry or proud about that.}

The month: October

The year: 1995

The location: Waltham, Massachusetts

The more specific location: Brandeis University, Usen Castle – the turret room

The mindset: Alone and almost lonely, a little lost

And when October goes

The same old dream appears
And you are in my arms
To share the happy years
I turn my head away
To hide the helpless tears
Oh how I hate to see October go

It would be my last year living on campus. We’d already found a family home in Boston, but I held onto a campus room since I was still a full-time student. I was also working 35 hours a week at Structure – which was practically full-time. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it, but I suppose there was no other way, or, more importantly, no other way of which I knew.

 

In my little turret room, vaguely shaped like a piece of pie or a piece of Trivial Pursuit, the walls were made of painted cinder bricks. There had been two long twin beds taking up most of the space, so I stacked one frame on the other, and did the same with the mattresses, creating a lofty princess-and-the-pea scene that rose above the bottom ledge of one window.

 

On the rickety wooden dresser that stood against one wall, my stereo played ‘When October Goes’ when it wasn’t playing ‘I Want You.’ It was, after all, time for October to go.

 

It’s strange – I distinctly remember that fall in the dorm room, but not the following winter and spring. By then, I’d already moved much of my life into Boston. It wasn’t a huge move - my head and heart had been there for months anyway.

 

Still, for that one semester it was just me, on an absurdly high bed, in an absurd turret of an absurd castle, on a campus I could not wait to leave behind. The departure of October was a welcome one. I wanted out of college and into life. Out of Brandeis and into Boston. Leaving a smaller room of solitude for a larger one.

 

I should be over it now I know
It doesn’t matter much
How old I grow
I hate to see October go.
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The Madonna Timeline: Song #109 – ‘Lucky Star’ – 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.}

With the last few Madonna Timeline entries – ‘Like a Virgin‘ and ‘Burning Up‘ and ‘Dress You Up‘  -  we’ve delved deep into the early days of M’s musical career. We stay in the 80′s with the latest, ‘Lucky Star.’ Now brace yourself, because I have to say something rather blasphemous to die-hard fans, and many casual fans of that heady early era as well I suppose: I’m not a fan of ‘Lucky Star.’ And you know what? It’s ok to say that. If Matthew Rettenmund can have issues with ‘Take A Bow’ and ‘Crazy For You‘ then surely I can scoff at ‘Lucky Star!’

Come on, Shine your heavenly body tonight
Cause I know you’re gonna make everything all right

I also don’t have any fond or not-so-fond memories of when the song came out. My first Madonna memory was a short while later – when ‘Material Girl‘ marched onto the scene. Prior to that I was too young to listen to the radio.

That said, I understand that ‘Lucky Star’ is a highlight in her catalog, particularly to many who were bopping to the early MTV beat back then, so I will not discount its importance. For her video career, it was crucial in establishing her style (and it’s historic in the back-up dancing by her own brother, Christopher, who would prove to have a crucial presence in the first half of her career) and her soon-to-be dominance of MTV. Yet for some reason, and it’s a personal preference more than anything else, I never connected to the song or the video.

So you see, I don’t like absolutely everything Madonna does. I’m a sick fan, but I’m not a sycophant.

You may be my lucky star, but I’m the luckiest by far.

SONG #109 – ‘Lucky Star’ – 1985

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I’ll Teach You How to F@&k…

mad erotic 101

Yesterday marked the day, way back in 1992, when Madonna released her ‘Erotica’ album. It was the fall of my senior year in high school, and I was in a very dismal place. The prospect of leaving home in less than a year was a frightening light at the end of a tunnel from which I wasn’t sure I could escape. The last days of October ripped the leaves from the trees. Summer had long since surrendered. In the moments that led up to the release of ‘Erotica’ I felt like those leaves. Torn. Shredded. Fallen. Falling…

It was a dark time, and ‘Erotica’ was one of Madonna’s darker albums, which makes it one of her best. There were scorching spots like ‘Fever‘ and ‘Thief of Hearts.’ There were softer stretches like ‘Bad Girl‘ and ‘Rain.’ There were even funny bits like ‘Bye Bye Baby‘ along with under-rated, overlooked gems like ‘Words.’ And there were classic tracks like ‘Deeper and Deeper‘ and ‘Erotica‘ itself.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I would ever hear the album. At that time, I wasn’t sure I’d need my math homework the next day. I felt on the verge of self-annihilation. In the backyard, I stood lonely sentry by piles of oak leaves, after raking the expanse of dying lawn behind the house. From my hands, cold and wet clumps of leaves and twigs dropped into black garbage bags. In the folds of plastic that was the shade of clear night sky, I looked at molten-like reflections of clouds and pine trees and the bare branches of deciduous nudity.

Sometimes I feel emotionally naked on this blog. This is one of those times. It’s always easier to take your clothes off than show your heart and share your secrets. Suddenly I want to clam up and stop the telling of this story – and since this is my blog, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. For now, at least. I don’t feel like talking about it. But it’s already been said, and written about, and if you delve deep enough here it’s not difficult to piece it together. Tricksters don’t like to be caught, but sometimes we do get trapped.

In a similar way, ‘Erotica’ was the trap that Madonna set for herself. We all do it at some point. We design situations to test, to try, to risk, and, yes, to die. Bound by the ropes we weave, tied up in chains of self-construction, she exorcised her demons publicly, brazenly baring her body in her ‘Sex’ book and aurally releasing herself in the ‘Erotica’ album. It was a piece of pop art that pissed people off, because it raised a mirror to the world. No matter how vain we secretly (or not-so-secretly) are, the world despises anyone who points that mirror at it uninvited. I did not understand that then. I don’t think Madonna did either.

Whenever someone questions me about my love and adoration for Madonna, I think back to the fall that ‘Erotica’ came out, and how she was partly responsible for saving my life. It would be foolish to attribute my survival solely to her, but she most certainly played an integral role in getting me through the rough times.

She still does.

Madonna would make it past the critical and commercial downturn that the ‘Erotica’ period became, and I would make it past that frightening fall. Sometimes, though, on rainy nights late in October, I remember when the leaves fell in 1992, and I marvel that we escaped.

Surrender to me, to love…

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The Passion of Sondheim

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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

nick carter thong1

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

time bottle 101

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

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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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