Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Legend of the Stonewall Riots

Considering the historic rulings the United States Supreme Court handed down on Wednesday of this week concerning D.O.M.A. and California's Prop 8, I think it's time we look back on where the entire struggle for gay rights began as well as the odd circumstances surrounding that event. 

This is a little something I first posted on my original blog back in 2004, and I think it's time to dust it off and bring it back out again - a history lesson that features the death of a show business legend, a mafia run bar in New York City, and a flash point in history.



Once upon a time there was a famous movie star and singer who went by the name of Judy Garland. She was renowned through out the world for her phenomenal voice and acting abilities;  subsequently she was also known as a troubled soul with a penchant for marrying the wrong men and indulging in prescription drugs and one too many cocktails.

The famous woman was said to have many gay fans.

One day the famous woman, while in London, took a few too many sleeping pills and never woke up.

Her body was flown back to the States and her funeral was held in New York City at Campbell's Funeral Home located on Madison Avenue. It is said that close to 22,000 people lined the streets to wait on line and pay their last respects to her.

The funeral was held on June 27th, 1969.

It was a Friday night.

During this same Friday night, across town at a seedy little Mafia run bar known as The Stonewall Inn, a lot of men gathered to drink. Many of them were saddened by the death of the famous singer, or so we are told. Some insist that the famous singer’s death made these men feel angry as well.

At some time during the night, New York’s finest decided to raid the bar, as they were prone to doing back in those times.

You see, back then, if you were in a bar like The Stonewall Inn, you were considered a pariah, and you could be rounded up and arrested and have your name printed in the paper and pretty much have your life ruined.

But something odd happened that night.

People fought back, and they fought hard.

Police were pummeled with spare change and right hooks by queens and pansy boys, and eventually a mob gathered and in the spirit of the times (this was the 60’s after all) a full scale riot broke out.

Some say that another riot broke out the following night, while others insist that it was a three night affair, with police pretty much outnumbered by gay men and women as well as some very cool straight folk. (It should be noted that one of the men attacked by the police that night was the late Folk Singer, Dave Van Ronk -- who, while not gay, took a beating for his gay brothers.)

A few days later, The New York Daily News ran this headline: Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad.    As you can see,  even the press back then mocked gays.

Of course as with every good legend, there are many variations as to what actually did occur. Several good books have been written on the subject ( Martin Duberman’s being one of the best); and it is said that every gay man of a certain age in New York claims to have been at the Stonewall the night all hell broke loose.

The truth about the riots; Who knows? What is known is that The Stonewall Riots were a turning point in gay history, and while younger gay people today probably have little or no idea why the Gay Pride Parades are always held in late June, it would be a shame to forget this colorful little piece of history that occurred a few months before the Woodstock Festival.

So this year on June 27th , raise a toast to those tough customers that fought back, and another to the late Dave Van Ronk for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and one more to the memory of a famous lady who died too soon and whose death was quite possibly the convoluted catalyst for change. 




Thursday, June 20, 2013

Tony Soprano and I

The first episode of The Sopranos that I ever saw was the first episode of the series.

An Italian/American, balding, husky fellow sits in the waiting room of a therapist.  He fidgets, he fusses, he examines a statue of a nude in the waiting room and,  eventually, is called in to the doctor's office where, for the next five years, he'd lay his psyche bare and talk about his dysfunctional childhood, his relationship with his mother, his job, and his love life.

He's an odd guy this balding husky fellow.  Prone to fits of  rage, but also  sentimental enough that a flock of ducks wading in his backyard's swimming pool fills him with joy.

He suffers from debilitating panic attacks, but has been know to also strangle a man to death with his bare hands.

He is devoted to his wife and children, but he does not think twice about having sex with any woman who gives him the eye.

He chokes up over seemingly inconsequential things, but seems unmoved by the amount of cold blooded acts he and his compatriots  have engaged in.

While I personally, have never killed anyone, nor have I ever belonged to the Cosa Nostra, I always related to Tony Soprano.

I have a strained and somewhat dysfunctional relationship with my mother.

I have, in the past, had moments of red, hot, blind rage.

I suffer from panic attacks.

I am an Italian/American balding, husky fellow.

I am known to be sentimental to a fault - and can tear up over the most ridiculous things.

I love my family, and I love my significant other - but I often wonder how things might have turned out, had I traveled another route.

Like most of America, I was hypnotized by this character and his story - sure, it was the story of a Mafia family, but more than that, it was the stuff of Greek Tragedy.

The man who breathed life into this character, this Tony Soprano, one, James Gandolfini, managed to create a three dimensional man: a monster, a father, and a complex human being. It would have been so much easier had he just turned him into a stereotype - but he chose something more realistic.

Nobody is black and white, none of us. We are all shades of gray. 

I met James Gandolfini twice.  The first time was in the summer of 2001.  His show was just starting to catch fire, and he had agreed to appear at the office of a college roommate of his, a chiropractor in Moorestown, New Jersey.  He drove him self to this appearance, and a handful of fans were there.  I had my picture taken with him, and babbled on about how much I loved his performance on The Sopranos.  He looked me square in the eye and said, "Hey, you're a nice guy, thanks for the kind words".  And then he signed an autograph, and posed for a picture with me.   I remember that his hands were much bigger than mine, and that his voice was much less intimidating that Tony Soprano's.

In 2010, I met him again.  This time I was at the World Premiere of HBO's Boardwalk Empire.  It was the after party, and we were all in the court yard of the 30 Rock center.  A lot of celebrities were there, and the entire cast of The Soprano's was there as well.  James was walking up to complete strangers and taking pictures of them and shaking hands.  I saw him, and figured, what did I have to lose? So I went up to him and before I could do or say anything, he put his arm around me, and slapped me on the back,and said, "Hey, pal, how are ya'?" and then he moved on.   Once again, he did not sound at all like Tony Soprano.  If anything, he just reminded me of  a cousin or uncle one might bump into a party or a wedding.   I noticed that night, that he was taller than me, and how much of a "bear" he really was.

Last night, I discovered  that James Gandolfini had died.    For some strange reason, I have not felt this saddened by a celebrity's death since John Lennon's passing.  

My interactions with him in real-life were fleeting moments, I did not know him, I never spent any real time with him...and yet...I am heartbroken, saddened, deflated.

For some reason, the voice of Nancy Marchand as Livia Soprano (who played his mother in the series) rings true..."in the end you die in your own arms."

RIP, Mr. Gandolfini - and thanks for everything. 

Some guy and James G.

Monday, June 3, 2013

It Was the Third of June...

sexy, sultry UCLA philosophy major
It was during the so called, Summer of Love, 1967;  August of that year to be precise, when a singer/songwriter from Chickasaw County, Mississippi knocked the Beatles, “All You Need Is Love” out of the number one spot with a moody little tune about a poor southern family dealing with the apparent suicide of a troubled young man.

The moody little tune entitled, “Ode to Billie Joe” was recorded by a former UCLA philosophy major named Roberta Streeter who would perform under the name of. Bobbie Gentry.

Gentry’s silky, smoky voice coupled with the song’s somewhat vague and disturbing lyrics served to create a Delta Goth Ballad, the likes of which have never been heard again.

Rumors abound about the actual meaning of the song (so what did Billie Joe and the unnamed narrator of the song throw off that bridge the first time – an aborted fetus? A body?). An even more intriguing rumor states that the original version of “Ode…” is more than seven minutes long and that it spells out much more of the mystery. Apparently, Gentry has denied that rumor.

In the 70’s, “Ode to Billie Joe” was turned in to a dreadful film that, among other things, attributed Billie Joe’s suicide to his having had sex with a man … to make matters worse, it turned out, he never actually had sex with a man, he was drunk and assumed he did … go figure.

Bad movie notwithstanding, “Ode to Billie Joe” stands on its own as one of the best tunes ever written. And every June 3rd, I think of it, and am haunted by it.


***

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin' cotton and my brother was balin' hay
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat
And Mama hollered out the back door "y'all remember to wipe your feet"
And then she said "I got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge"
"Today Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

And Papa said to Mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas
"Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please"
"There's five more acres in the lower forty I've got to plow"
And Mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow
Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billie Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

And Brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show
And wasn't I talkin' to him after church last Sunday night?
"I'll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don't seem right"
"I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge"
"And now you tell me Billie Joe's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

And Mama said to me "Child, what's happened to your appetite?"
"I've been cookin' all morning and you haven't touched a single bite"
"That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today"
"Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way"
"He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge"
"And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

A year has come 'n' gone since we heard the news 'bout Billie Joe
And Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo
There was a virus going 'round, Papa caught it and he died last Spring
And now Mama doesn't seem to wanna do much of anything
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin' flowers up on Choctaw Ridge

And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge