Category Archives: Bay Area Reporter Archive (1997-2006)

Brian Epstein and the Beatles: All he needed was love

How Brian Epstein’s passion for the Beatles
shaped world history.

 

 

epstein copy
Brian Epstein

No figure in rock ‘n’ roll history did more to trailblaze the road for future band managers – defining the path to success for all great bands – than Brian Epstein, who managed the Beatles, boldly shaping their ascent from Liverpool obscurity to global superstardom. Elvis may have had Colonel Parker, but compared to Epstein, Parker was a mere carnival barker. In marketing the Fab Four to the world and setting countless precedents in doing so, Epstein set in motion cultural forces that irrevocably changed not just the music industry, but global society. What motivated him therefore becomes a question of significance not just to Beatles fans, but to those who want to understand Western Civilization in the late 20th century.

Epstein had the bad luck to be gay in Britain at a time when that country’s criminal penalties for homosexuality were particularly harsh. The fact of Epstein’s gayness, however closeted he may have been out of necessity (his homosexuality was well known to and accepted by those close to him, just not talked about publicly), figures hugely not just in his own life, but in the Beatles’ vast legacy. Though Epstein hardly conjures up the image of a conquering warrior, his gayness turns out to be as significant in the course of human events as that of Alexander the Great. The decisions Epstein made in orchestrating the Beatles’ meteoric rise were both revolutionary and hugely informed by his being gay.

____________________

Though Epstein hardly conjures up the image of a conquering warrior, his gayness turns out to be as significant in the course of human events as that of Alexander the Great.

____________________

Whether these statements accurately reflect the historical record, or exaggerate for the sake of erecting yet another icon in the pantheon of manmade deities, they are impressions inescapably drawn from viewing Arena: The Brian Epstein Story, a documentary film by British television and film producer and director Anthony Wall, to be screened at this year’s San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

“He was one of the great original tragic stories of the new rock era,” Wall told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent visit to San Francisco, “a kind of person that changed the world. He died in 1967, four years after he was running a record shop in Liverpool, absolutely unknown to the world. Then he managed to become one of the most famous people on earth.”

 

Brian and ‘the boys’

Wall’s documentary, produced in cooperation with Paul McCartney and many others close to Epstein, benefits enormously from having first-hand access to archival footage of Epstein and his “boys,” as he was forever calling the Beatles. We get to see intimate views of John, Paul, George and Ringo, often together with Epstein, learn about their party habits, meet their friends and colleagues of yore, hear them as they rehearse and perform, and relate to them on a profoundly human level, rather than at the level of untouchable superstars.

The striking thing in the film is the contrast starkly revealed between the rough-and-ready boys, with their working-class accents and manners, and the refined, impeccably tailored, elegant Epstein, whose personal style masked his attraction to “rough trade,” as made clear from interviews with those close to him. Though Wall steers away from delving into the details of Epstein’s love life, he in no way shies from conveying the nature of Epstein’s desires. The film revels in telling the story of Epstein’s gayness, in many ways emphasizing that being gay determined the course of his life. In particular, especially in a contemporary interview with an affable and articulate Paul McCartney, it seems clear that the question of whether Epstein’s well-known love for John Lennon remained unrequited or not becomes central to almost everything else in assessing the man’s life and tragic death.

Did he or did he not have a one-time fling with Lennon in the south of Spain, just a week after Julian Lennon was born? Did he or did he not commit suicide over the hopelessness of his love, or was his death accidental, as officially ruled?

“The trouble is, the only two people who really know are dead,” says Wall, who nimbly raises the issues in the film, delicately balancing points of view and, perhaps, softening the edges of the controversy. Moreover, he adds, “Lennon would certainly not have been above saying one thing to this person and another thing to that person.”

The film’s US producer, Debbie Geller, joins with Wall in explaining that “one of the evergreen and reductionist views of the Beatles and Brian Epstein was that Epstein was in love with John Lennon, and that was really his only interest in the group, and that had he not had that hangdog, unrequited love – which only came true in that one little instance in Barcelona – then the Beatles never would have happened.” This view, she insists, does “a real disservice to Brian Epstein.”

 

Lennon the tease

Geller does feel that Lennon most likely teased Epstein about being gay, maybe even manipulated his attraction “as a way of maintaining power over him.” From the outset, Epstein’s gayness was known to the Beatles and completely accepted. But a bit of perversity in the relationship seemed inevitable.

“Brian liked a bit of punishment,” says Wall. “So Lennon – that was his stock in trade, dishing out, taking people to the end of their tether, seeing how far he could push them. And they were all very amusing, witty, but Lennon had that sort of ambitiousness about it, seeing what he could do next.”

In the film, McCartney addresses the question of whether Epstein and Lennon ever had sex, and considers the possibility unlikely but not impossible. Even if something did happen between them, though, he believes the matter relatively insignificant.

McCartney’s obvious eagerness to address the question on screen is remarkable. Geller explains that during the interview, McCartney said: “Are you going to ask about his being gay? No one ever asks me about that.” Considering the extent to which the Beatles’ lives and careers have been put under a microscope, this omission in the record seems astounding, but it helps explain McCartney’s readiness to take part in the film project. Says Wall: “He didn’t need any persuasion, because he himself had come to this point where he thought it was time to tell the story. He was quite clear that he wanted to do it because it was time the record was set straight, and that Epstein had been largely forgotten and hadn’t been given his due.”

The portrait of Epstein that emerges is one of a fantastically ambitious, driven, fastidious and brilliantly passionate man, handsome yet woefully unlucky in love, who repeatedly put himself in harm’s way because of his secret desires.

Apart from his obvious (and necessarily platonic) love for his “boys,” Epstein was never able to establish a lasting love relationship. One California lad, Diz Gillespie, whom some characterize as a hustler, for a time seemed to be working out for Epstein. But the relationship turned sour.

“Everybody’s down on Diz,” says Wall. “But Epstein seemed to find some kind of consolation in Diz, although Diz fucked him around knowingly.”

And thus was gay life in Britain, even for the man who helped move his once bombed-out, burned-out country back into modernity and renewed prestige on the world stage.

 

The Brian Epstein Story screened at the Castro Theatre on Monday, June 19, 2000 at 12:30 p.m.


Little old lady takes over Cannabis Buyer’s Club

 

Peron's_Pot_ClubSAN FRANCISCO, April 1998: It was the kind of wacky-sweet political and cultural concordance likely to be recalled again and again for generations as a hallmark of San Francisco’s off-beat character. And like so many other mind-bending events here in the nexus of hippiedom, queerness, AIDS activism, and marijuana wars, it all occurred amid a crush of media. For many, in fact, it was the ’60s all over again, with a distinct late-’90s twist.

On Monday afternoon in San Francisco, amid a barrage of television cameras and reporters’ questions, a popular county sheriff and a revered, gay, marijuana seller got together to deliver a major slap in the face of California Attorney General Dan Lungren. The two old friends, backed by their Mayor and District Attorney, united to let their state’s AG know, in no uncertain terms, that they strongly disagree with his senseless quest to circumvent the will of California voters who overwhelmingly legalized medical marijuana by passing Proposition 215.

What might have turned out as an ugly citizen-police confrontation, had it occurred under different circumstances or in almost any other locality, instead transpired as a near love-fest between natural foes.

To comply with the letter of an order issued on April 15 by Superior Court Judge David Garcia, at the behest of Lungren, Sheriff Michael Hennessey and at least a dozen of his deputies politely entered the famed, now-former Cannabis Buyers Club at 1444 Market Street, greeted its founder, gay activist and Republican gubernatorial candidate Dennis Peron, smiled at his merry-making band of pot-smoking patients, and respectfully ordered everyone to vacate the spacious, five-story premises, which since 19__ had served as San Francisco’s primary hemp haven and dispensary.

When Hennessey first told Peron he had no choice but to come in and shut the club, “I told him we weren’t going to resist and that there would be no confrontation,” said Peron. “He said he was going to obey the law, and I said I was too.”

After entering the building precisely on schedule, at 1:30 p.m., Hennessey and his deputies casually combed its interior, going through the motions of confiscating whatever pot plants and paraphernalia they found. To satisfy them, Peron and club volunteers conveniently left behind several scraggly pot plants, some bongs and pipes, and a heap or two of marijuana “shake”, meaning the shaken-out leaves of pot plants. All other hemp plants and products had previously been removed from the premises, as everyone well knew.

Out on the sidewalk, in front of the building, dozens of buoyant club clients, along with the media types, craned their necks upward in fascination as they watched deputies, behind the windows of the club’s second-floor offices, sort out the confiscated items. Occasionally those below would wave, while those up above would grin down and acknowledge the cheers.

Every once in a while Hennessey would pop outside to answer reporters’ questions, and occasionally he invited Peron and some of his associates inside to help carry out the eviction. But never did the officers touch or remove any client files, and nary a discouraging word was uttered by anyone.

The whole affair, the much-anticipated, well-choreographed shut-down of Peron’s dispensary, was set in motion by Lungren, whose right-wing views and rival gubernatorial candidacy blinded him to the need of patients for the one medicinal substance — THC from marijuana — that could ease their nausea and relieve much of their pain.

Yet despite Lungren, who has indicated he wants nothing more than to put all medical-marijuana clubs out of business permanently, Judge Garcia issued only a limited order, charging Peron and one assistant with violating the provisions of Proposition 215 by selling cannabis products not just to prescription-wielding patients, but to primary-care givers as well.

That order required Peron to cease selling pot and to close his club, and called on the sheriff to enforce the action. It did not, however, prevent Peron from ceremonially passing the keys to the shut building’s owner, Mr. Zacharia, who then turned around and handed a new set of keys to Hazel Rodgers, a 78-year-old glaucoma victim who for years has volunteered at the club where she obtains the marijuana she was prescribed as a relief for her condition.

By 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Rodgers was in charge of a reincarnated medical-marijuana establishment, the Cannabis Healing Center, in exactly the same place, with exactly the same clients as before.

“Hazel instituted a couple of new policies,” Peron told the B.A.R. on Tuesday afternoon. He spoke by phone from the new club, where he was busy giving interviews to reporters from around the country. “She no longer allows caregivers in building, and does not issue cards to caregivers. We’re now in conformance with the new law and the court rulings.”

Dennis_Peron
Dennis Peron

Peron, who served as a primary caregiver to thousands, claimed he never knew it was against law to dispense medical marijuana to other primary caregivers. Even so, he added, relatively few such individuals came to the club anyway, “maybe 5 percent” of all those coming to the club for pot.

“Now if they want to come here,” suggested Peron, “they’re going to have to be diagnosed with something and get a prescription.”

It is precisely Peron’s willingness to openly confront hostile state (and federal) authorities, his conviction that marijuana eases suffering and should be made readily available to those who need it, and his theatrics in popularizing his cause that have revered him to thousands if not millions of progressive voters and politicians throughout California, while infuriating conservatives like Lungren.

“A hundred percent of what I’ve been doing is spreading a message of hope and empowerment,” said a relaxed, smiling Peron as he milled about among a host of admirers, media types, television news cameras, and deputies on the sidewalk in front of the club in which he is no longer allowed to take an active role. “I’ve been carrying this thing for six years, and I’m ready to have this chapter of my life close.”

Peron added that he now plans to devote himself full-time to his quest for the governor’s seat.

Meanwhile, those who have worked with Peron in running the club continue to do so under the new banner and Rodgers’ management. They also look at this latest maneuvering in the fight for medical marijuana as just one more step toward complete victory.

“In this [judge’s] decision, both sides claim victory,” said John Entwistle, who has been at the side of Peron since the club first started in a storefront on 19th Street at Castro. “It enables us to continue to exist and serve patients. Everyone’s coming around. We’re a large group of people, and we’ll influence the rest of the nation. Just because the judge shut down the club for a few hours doesn’t mean the genie goes back in the bottle.”

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A Peak Affair: “Ansel Adams at 100” at SFMOMA

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“Bishops Pass, Kings River Canyon, 1936,” part of “Ansel Adams at 100” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

I like my mountains to look like men — rugged, hard-bodied, and a challenge to mount. When I see a peak, I see potential routes up to a dramatic climax. The more difficult the climb, the more orgasmic the experience. Of course, prior to any attempt at conquest, the way up must be carefully surveyed, so typically I accord photographs of peaks, whether in mountaineering journals or on the walls of SFMOMA, the same loving scrutiny straight men give pictures of Playboy models. While I’m at it, I also closely inspect the surroundings — the windblown trees, the ice-encrusted streams, the lichen-covered stones — as any man will do in the boudoir of his lover.

Ansel Adams has provided more mountain centerfolds than probably any mountaineering/nature photographer ever, and you can see them all nicely (i.e. conservatively) displayed at the SFMOMA exhibition, Ansel Adams at 100, which opened August 4 and runs through January 13. The work was curated by a great eminence in the photo-art world, John Szarkowski, who was director of the photography department of New Yorks MoMA from 1962-1991.

In his prime, when Adams was most active in the outdoors, he brought a zest for mountaineering to his photographic work, and consistently turned out images of superior technical quality as pure, pristine and crystal clear as the wilderness landscapes themselves, as Adams demanded. He was a master technician, and the key to his success was not just in being the first to photograph a particular peak, but the one who captured the best shots of those peaks, and then developed his prints to the highest possible standards of perfection. His forms are sleek, sensuous, seductive, and presented in all their naked glory at SFMOMA. Adams loved those Sierra Nevada peaks I imagine as women, if he sexualized them at all and worked tirelessly at capturing every nuance of their delicate, subtle forms. Seeing his original prints spread out with great dignity and formality on the walls of SFMOMA reminded me, for some odd reason, of classy peep shows where one views gorgeous body after gorgeous body, the display of beauty leaving you panting.

At times I also like my mountains soft and willowy, warm and completely enfolding. That sort of temperament can only be come upon by chance in the great outdoors, and capturing it on film is an art of the highest order. Adams routinely captured that and countless other mountain moods, as well or probably better than any mountaineering photographer before or since. His name is revered in circles of mountaineering photographers, virtually all of whom in the past 60 years or so owe a debt to Adams. He, more than anyone except writer/naturalist John Muir, conveyed the character of mountains in a way that moved people both spiritually and emotionally, without hammering them over the head with religion. Especially in the early years of his long career, he was exquisitely subtle in his mountain portrayals; in his renderings you could perceive traces of femininity and masculinity where others found only stone and wind-swept vistas.

The problem with Ansel Adams is that his work has become thoroughly cliched and cheapened in value through gross overexposure especially because his images have spread widely among those who have little or no personal connection with the places Adams worshipped. His art is not abstract, it’s enormously concrete, attempting to signify universal truths through attention to specific places and objects. He, like Muir, treated the wilderness as a spiritual home, and mountains as cathedrals. He worshipped idols.

Adams was conflicted, like so many conservationists of his day. On the one hand he worked taking photographs for mining companies and other industrial interests. At the same time, he worked to preserve and protect the wild places he truly love. His art developed to its fine degree because he was driven, as all mountaineers are, to conquer peak after peak, to be the first to a lofty place from which he could look out across creation and claim it as his own. But while his friends and contemporaries David Brower, Dick Leonard, Glen Dawson, and Bestor Robinson were making all the notable first ascents, Adams was making the even more notable and enduring images of the peaks being conquered.

To truly appreciate Adams, you must appreciate how difficult it was, especially in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, to journey deep into the Sierra, often with pack mules and a hundred or so fellow backpackers on a Sierra Club outing, carrying a full load of photographic gear. You must be familiar with the old Sierra Club Bulletins in which Adams work first appeared, with their quaint mountaineering essays and black-and-white plates. You must know that Adams tangled famously with his editor at the Sierra Club, David Brower, who was as wildly liberal and daring in his way of doing things as Adams was conservative and cautious. Together they rocked the conservation world, built a lasting environmental movement, and carried on the spirit of John Muir.

While I adore all the Adams images now on display at SFMOMAs big centennial retrospective of the San Francisco natives work (Adams was born here in 1902), and appreciate them being nicely organized in one section of the museums 4th floor, in that sterile environment, they dont generate a lot of heat. Its hard to look at Adams photographs there without thinking about the publishing/marketing decisions that have led to Adams photographs being massively reproduced and disseminated for decades, so out of context so out of touch with the wilderness realm that inspired them that today they work almost as much as nostalgic kitsch as inspiration.

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This article originally appeared in the August 9, 2001 edition of the Bay Area Reporter

 

How to age and die with grace: Ram Dass

Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying, by Ram Dass, Riverhead Books, 2001.

ramdass-still-here

What happens after death is a central theme of all the world’s religions,” writes the guru of psychedelic experience and Soul awareness, Ram Dass, in Still Here, his elegant swan song, written from the perspective of an old man confined to a wheel chair, having endured a stroke, now looking back upon his life and evaluating the prospects for death – and the Soul’s existence after death. He quotes Goethe, who once avowed that “I am just as certain as you see me here that I have existed a thousand times before, and I hope to return a thousand times more.”

He observes: “Every attempt to describe what happens after we die – the bardos in the Tibetan texts, the mansions in the Kabbala, the heaven and hell of Christianity, the ground of being in Buddhism – point to the same source: that is, a realm that the Soul enters after death in some form of continuing evolution.”

He quotes a Japanese Zen Master who, on approaching death, picked up his pen and scribbled:

“Birth is thus. Death is thus. Verse or no verse, what’s the fuss?”

The fuss is all in our minds, Dass assures us in this profoundly wise and elegant book. It’s the Ego at work, that force within us that shouts out so loudly we forget to listen to the Soul, making us forget that all the things the Ego works toward are transitory and ultimately burdensome, while all the Soul wants is to be liberated, to become fully Aware, to exist peacefully for all eternity. Ego time is immediate, short-term; Soul time beats with the pulse of infinity. The Soul, unlike the Ego, carries no baggage, and acts quietly. It is thus easily overlooked in the din of our chaotic lives, with our minds so overwhelmed with distractions. Those who approach the end of their mortal lives without having calmed their Egos and gained Awareness, warns Dass, will meet death badly.

But death need not be so feared. Dass offers a prescription for aging and dying with grace: “We each bring to the moment of our passing the summation of all that we’ve lived and done, which is why we must begin as soon as possible to prepare ourselves for this occasion by waking up, completing our business, and becoming the sort of wise elders who can close their eyes for the last time without regrets.”

Everything else in Still Here leads up to this conclusion. Dass laments that the real value of elders of our society – who more and more are treated (and come to view themselves) as “obsolete, like yesterday’s computers” – is sadly being overlooked.

“Wisdom is one of the few things in human life that does not diminish with age,” writes Dass, whose body has failed him but whose mind is not only lucid, but aware of larger truths: “While everything else falls away, wisdom alone increases until death if we live examined lives.”

In Dass’s worldview, ultimate wisdom equates with “Awareness,” otherwise known as “God, Brahma, Paramatman, the Nameless, the Formless, The Unmanifest, the Nondual, the Absolute. Ego and Soul are inextricable parts of Awareness, just as Awareness is the very essence of who we are.”

The reason wisdom has ceased to retain its once-exalted stature in human society, according to Dass, is because “at root we are a secular society whose deepest leanings are toward the school of thought known as philosophical materialism . . . the idea that reality is limited to what we perceive through our senses.”

Our Egos prevent us from seeing beyond ourselves. “The Ego is what ages and dies,” Dass asserts. “It doesn’t continue. It is nearly impossible for the Ego to imagine this. When the Ego thinks it’s dying, it mistakes itself for the whole – body, Soul and Awareness – and often people who are beginning to go through the long process of ripening into God run around to different doctors (and maybe even shrinks) because they develop an even more intense dread of death.”

Throughout the book, Dass serves up examples from his own life. Yet, thankfully, his anecdotes are kept to a minimum, his own Ego kept in check. Primarily he takes stock of his own situation to launch into reflections on universal issues: learning to face and conquer our fears as we age, expanding our consciousness, coping with depression, accepting the changes in our bodies, working with pain, adjusting to dependency, enjoying our eccentricities.

Dass’s core advice, though, centers on letting go of the past, lest memories intrude and discolor the present, and ceasing to worry overmuch about what the future holds.

“Prolong not the past./Invite not the future,” quotes Dass from a Tibetan Buddhist verse. But how is one to achieve these goals? Dass’s advice contains the beauty of wisdom: “Getting the Ego to release its grip can be as simple as being able to experience what’s present at any given time. It sounds simple, but volumes have been written about just how to do this, some of them thousands of years old. It’s called meditation.”

This could happen here

“Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-45”

On
June 28,
2005, in the
San Francisco Main
Library’s packed Koret
Auditorium, Edward (Ted) J.
Phillips, Deputy Director of Exhi-
bitions of the United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum (www.ushmm.org), spoke of
putting together “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals
1933-1945,” the exhibition on display in the Skylight Gallery.

 

Pink+Triangle
Gay men in Nazi concentration camps were identified by pink triangles sewn on their prison garb.

“Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945” is a must-see, real-life horror story with reverberations up to the present day. The exhibit at the San Francisco Main Library, organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, conveys the horror of that era primarily through a series of illustrated narrative panels that describe what happened to gays in one of history’s darkest eras.  Selected rare publications from the Gerard Koskovich collection are also on display, devoted to medical doctor and social reformer Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935).

To walk among the panels and experience the grim reality of that time is to experience intense emotions. To be immersed in such material full time in the course of research must be heartbreaking. At one point toward the end of curator Ted Phillips’ powerful, important, moving lecture on the exhibit, his voice started to crack.

“I started this project in 2000,” Phillips told the rapt audience in the Koret Auditorium. “It opened at the museum in 2002. It was probably one of the most difficult two years of my life. It’s not a project one just sort of takes up and works on 40 hours a week. Everything about this history I lived with 24 hours a day, seven days a week. My friends got a little bit tired of hearing about nightmare stories of the Nazi regime, because it’s all I could think about.”

The historian, himself a gay man, had to sift through, untangle, and organize a coherent picture of what was happening to Germany’s gay population during their deliberate persecution by the Nazi regime. Their tale, though vastly overshadowed by the deaths of six million Jews at the hands of the perpetrators, is an example of the Nazi regime’s attempts to eliminate entire other classes of people including the handicapped, the Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Poles, and of course homosexuals.

Jehovah’s Witnesses were targeted because they refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Nazi regime; the handicapped were “the first group of people targeted for state-sponsored murder beginning almost within weeks of the outbreak of the war in 1939,” said Phillips. During the war the Nazis took aim at the non-Jewish Polish population, and ultimately struck at Soviet POWs, “some three million of whom perished in concentration camps set up by the Germans.” But also from the beginning, the Nazis deliberately targeted homosexuals.

A year after its opening in 1994, said Phillips, the Holocaust Museum began putting together a series of publications to look at these non-Jewish groups targeted by the Nazis, and in 1996, after the museum had been up and running successfully for three years, getting extraordinary visitation, the museum decided to turn the information into a series of traveling exhibition. The first out was going to be on the persecution of homosexuals.

“I was given the opportunity to take on that task probably for a variety of reasons,” said Phillips, a professional historian with a Ph.D. in Russian History who already had a couple of exhibitions under his belt working with his colleagues at the museum, “so I kind of had a sense of how to put together an exhibition.” But also, he said, “I think it was because I arrived at the museum as an out gay man. I never made any bones about it and they didn’t pay any attention to it either. I think it was the opportunity as a gay man to be kind of comfortable with what I’d have to be reading about. Not too many straight people are often interested in knowing about the history of gay people. They may find in fact the contents difficult to work with. That wasn’t going to be a problem for me.”

The plan was to put together a narrative of the history of the persecution of gay people and find things to illustrate that history. The challenge was coming up with material to tell a visual story about the persecution of homosexuals.

“Homosexuals as victims did not come forward after the war to tell their stories,” said Phillips. “Jews did. It took them a while, because they were shocked and horrified by what they had been through, but in the months and years after the war the Jews were coming forward and telling what happened to them, those who had survived, who were looking for their families who had perished. Homosexuals did not come forward following the persecution during the war, because they were still criminals in Germany.”

Phillips explained that the law that the law the Nazis wrote in 1935, the infamous criminal law section §175 (“Paragraph 175”), expanded opportunities for the Nazi regime to persecute gays, “and remained on the books as an active law in Western Germany until 1969. Other laws that were put in place during the Nazi years have been eradicated because they were deemed as Nazi, but §175 as written by the Nazis was not identified as being a Nazi-specific law, but was a perfectly acceptable moral law and left in place.”

The result, he said, was that “individuals who had come through the persecution, who may have actually had personal items that would help them be identified as homosexuals, likely destroyed that information because they would have been linked to being homosexuals and therefore could continue to be persecuted in the post-war period.”

 

Denunciations

Just as Phillips was setting out on his research, a museum in Berlin, the Schwules Museum — schwule is German for gay — opened an exhibition on the persecution of homosexual men in Berlin, 1933-1945, so Phillips and a team from the Holocaust Museum hopped a plane and spent two weeks in Berlin, working with that museum’s small team of young, dedicated archivists and researchers who, while basically living on unemployment insurance in order to pursue their research, had uncovered a “remarkable treasure trove” of materials. The Schwules Museum made the material available to Phillips and his team, which helped steamroll the Holocaust Museum’s project. Now could be included such heartbreaking finds as a December 1934 New York World Telegram newspaper article: “Hitler Jails 500 in Morals Drive”.

“They threw into jail between 500 and 700 men accused of perversion,” Phillips said as he projected the image. “This was a particular raid in a particular month in the early months of the Nazi regime. Foretelling is that the invasion of the gay bars and restaurants and other gathering places of gay men was against a class described by Herr Hitler as a menace to the race.”

Among the documents supporting the exhibition are transcripts of Gestapo “denunciations,” said Phillips, “denunciations by people about gay men, turned into the Gestapo to be arrested and dealt with by the police.” He showed one from 1938 “denouncing somebody for accused sexual activities from two years earlier,” and another denunciation of a man by the man’s partner’s mother.

Between 1933 and 1945, said Phillips, “100,000 men in Germany were arrested for violating §175. Roughly half of those ended up in prison.” Seventy-eight percent of the convictions occurred between 1936 and 1939, the outbreak of World War II. In the city of Berlin alone, 112 homosexuals were arrested in the month of June 1937, Phillips added. “By my calculation there’s something like 500 gay men who were arrested just in this one month across Germany.”

In the Q&A after the speech, Phillips addressed several interesting questions, including the difference between the yellow stars the Jews were forced to wear and the the pink triangles used to identify homosexuals. Phillips said that “the only place that gays were marked with pink triangles was in concentration camps. That’s very different from the Jewish experience, where Jews were in ghettos, and even before ghettos existed had to just wear it in public as a yellow star.”

As to the infamous book “The Hidden Hitler” by German researcher/scholar Lother Machtan, exploring the idea that Hitler and some of his milieu were gay, Phillips said tartly: “As a historian I find the book just despicable. Not because of what he is attempting to argue, by his misuse of the sources. My favorite example of how he tries to prove his case: Hitler and his friend in Austria loved the opera. Magnus Hirschfeld in his research indicated that some gay men had some particular interest in opera. Therefore, aha! Guess who’s gay! Give me a break. I’m gay and I hate opera!”

More to the point, Phillips added somberly, is what former Holocaust Museum Director Walter Reich said in his comment on the book, which was basically, “so what? He still did what he did. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust and millions of others perished at the hands of his regime. Whether he was gay or not makes no difference; he was still a nightmare.”

“Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945” is on display in the Main Library’s Skylight Gallery from June 18–Aug. 18, 2005. Info: sfpl.lib.ca.us/news/exhibitions.htm

SFMOMA PARTY BLASTS OFF

billviola copy
Video Art by Bill Viola at SFMOMA

We may be a small city, but far from being a cultural backwater, we’re a city that knows how to party in high style. The latest evidence of this came last weekend at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a place where, against the traditions of stuffy museums everywhere, people were allowed to be part of the art.

The occasion was “RGB,” the electronic-music rave and laser/light show organized by Blasthaus and held Saturday night/Sunday morning, July 10/11 [1999], in conjunction with the spectacular exhibition of video art by Bill Viola. The decision to admit hundreds or possibly thousands of people into the building late at night to dance, drink, and partake of a world-class exhibit was inspired. The sheer spectacle of masses of people talking boistrously, laughing, gesticulating toward the hyperkinetic laser projections high over their heads, and leaping about ecstatically in the usually hushed confines of one of the city’s most prestigious art santcuaries was in itself a fine work of art. Boundaries and etiquette were smashed, while leaving the museum and its art very much intact – though forever changed in the perceptions of those who were there. No longer, for them, can the institution be perceived as aloof or at all indifferent. It became a place of the people, by the people, and for the people.

In the building’s atrium, perched like an emperor on the staircase landing, looking out over the crowd toward the lofty front entrance, DJ Mocean Worker of New York City worked a set of turntables with considerable finesse. He amped the place up, sending beats streaming out at a dizzying rate, energizing the crowd with the latest in techno-trance sounds. The volume was such that you could take a smoke across the street at Yerba Buena Center and still hear the party loud and clear.

In the Be-Calm Transit Lounge, the ambient/experimental music room adjacent to the main dance area, a surprising number of computer geeks sat at banks of terminals, Netsurfing the night away. What they discovered in their journeys, only they can say, but the sight of them was disconcerting. Only the hardest of hard-core Netheads could stay off the dance floor when the likes of DJs Darkhorse, Joe Rice, and Pimps of Atlantis were creating the grooviest of vibes.

But far more than the music, the dancing, the lasers, or anything else, the party’s highlight came in viewing the Viola video installations. People flowed from room to room in the self-guided video journey (a sort of self-propelled Disney ride), repeatedly plopping themselves down to partake of extraordinary imagery and sound effects. Clearly many of those sitting for long periods in front of various video terminals or giant screens were tripping. And the atmosphere was ecstatic. Installations became living rooms, and the people in them family. People sat among friends and strangers, arms clasped around knees, shoulders brushing, everyone bathed in the dim light of video displays. With each mind-tripping sound and image effect, a sort of communal rush ensued.

Truly, “RGB” set a new standard for parties, and created a whole new way of appreciating art. The SFMOMA will never be quite the same, and that bodes well for modern art, modern art enthusiasts, and modern music as they move into the next, undoubtedly electronic millennium.

 

For a related story, see “Light, then … time: Bill Viola at SFMOMA.”

 

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter on July 15, 1999.

 

Light, then … time: Bill Viola at SFMOMA

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Bill Viola at SFMOMA

Just minutes after leaving the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art survey of video art by the masterful Bill Viola, I found myself inside that huge new Sony Metreon monstrosity walling off one end of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. There, in the depths of a crass “futuristic” shopping mall/movie palace, countless video-display images and techno beeps and roars assaulted me as kids played oversized, oversexed video games overdone with gaudy colors and endless bloodlust. I couldn’t wait to flee before I forgot how wonderful video art can be.

The video masterpieces I experienced at the Bill Viola exhibit were inspired not by money, but by soul. The16 installations incorporated into an ingeniously designed room-to-room journey of sight and sound utilize imagery, light, darkness, space, time, distortion, the shock of the unexpected, ambient sounds, hypnotic motion, dub mixes, and an endless variety of explosions and continuous roars.

While video games engage minds, they leave bodies inert. Not so the Bill Viola exhibit, in which the body responds to the artist’s constructions by speeding up, slowing down, turning around, stopping, walking slowly forward toward looming objects, and retreating down narrow passageways from which emanate eerie noises and odd flashing lights. No drugs are required to appreciate this psychedelia. It’s the ultimate in light-and-sound architecture, a virtual passageway through which minds can be transported to many other realities.

My favorite stop came at “The Reflecting Pool” (1977-79), a 7-minute videotape in which a man emerges from a forest to stand naked before a rustic garden pond. Slowly, the pool comes to life, but seemingly occupies a different space and time than all around it. Dimensions become blurred, and what is real and what is reflection rely on the imagination.

What distinguishes Viola’s work from less imaginative video art is the spirit that enlivens it. Viola has drawn inspiration from Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism, the physics of optics and the mechanisms of perception, Sufi poetry, and the free verse of Walt Whitman. His work is textured, neither muscle-bound nor insipid, but alternately muscular and brainy. In his range of imagination and technique, Viola demonstrates what video-art can be, while putting commercial video art to shame.

“Bill Viola: A 25-Year Survey,” was co-curated by David A. Ross and Peter Sellars, ran through September 12, 1999 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 

For a related story, see “SFMOMA Party Blasts Off.”

Seth Eisen’s ‘Stitching the Invisible Whole’

SethEisen&RemyCharlipBetter late than never, this past weekend I caught the closing of San Francisco conceptual artist Seth Isen’s impressive solo show, Stitching the Invisible Whole, at the Sanchez Art Center in Pacifica, just a hop and skip away down the coast, and how appropriate was the seaside setting.

Eisen’s work assembles and stitches togther travel pics from Thailand, driftwood and other sea-pummeled flotsam and jetsam, and a few powerful news images, all reflecting the fateful day when he and partner Keith Hennessy were trekking in the northern part of the Thailand when the tsunami struck, killing nearly 300,000 people across eight countries.

In his artistic response, Eisen writes: “Rather than show only the gruesome face of the disaster I have chosen to alter and juxtapose my photographs next to found objects and images from the media to explore the fragility of our existence and complexity of human life.”

Seth did a remarkable job, even stitching images with a machine, as though embroidering them, giving them a vibrant, colorful texture and resonance. His objects fairly drip with thread and string, almost crying, the spindles discarded and scattered as though part of the ocean debris. You see the tragedy reflected in remnants, reminiscent of ancient garments decayed nearly beyond recognition, hanging together by threads or the faint breath of a long-vanished prayer.

The reception drew such long-time, passionate admirers of Eisen as journalist/author Jim Provenzano and dance/children’s book legend Remy Charlip, along with newer admirer Kirk Read, San Francisco’s rising author/open-mic star/performance artist sensation, who has a keen nose for talent and who frequents the new CounterPULSE space at 9th & Mission in S.F. where Eisen and Hennessy are both involved in art-show/performance art organizing.

For those who couldn’t make it to Stitching the Invisible Whole, you can still catch Eisen at the Sanchez Art Center where he maintains a studio. He conducts art workshops there, including mask making with found art. The Sanchez Art Center always has great shows up in its three big galleries, so it’s worth a visit anytime.

 

Leather on parade 

On Sunday afternoon the Dore Alley Fair came off with high spirits and many smiles (at least while I was there) as merry men galore bared chests, butts and more adorned by leather gear ranging from minimal (boots, cockring & choker) to maximal (full body coverage including head & face mask with breathing holes). It was an adults-only scene in the closed-off block, and appropriately the proprietor of LavenderLounge.com was there, checking out the beefcake. It was a great place to sin and be seen.

 

Birthday boy

That night came the lavish 30th birthday party for the adorable Cameron Eng, actor/director/producer, yogi, and loving partner of Terrance Alan, self-proclaimed Mayor of the happening Blue Cube nightclub at 34 Mason St. This tight, sweet couple occupy cool warehouse-like digs South of Market, where the huge wall are adorned with artistic greats including the fabulous Plasticfucker (L.A.’s Doug Murphy), the hot new artist collected by the stars. Cameron, with his perpetual big smile, glistening skin, twinkling eyes and long, silky black hair looked the star that he is. He shared his birthday cake with a host of glamaratti, including Sister Lolita Me Into Temptation, one of the most alluring of the Sisters I’ve encountered (also perhaps the youngest at 24) and the older-but-wiser Sister Uma Gawd, who patiently answered my questions about what it takes to enter the order (if anyone could initiate me, she could). Other revelers on hand to spank Cameron and taste his sweet, juicy pineapple-carrot cake included well-known party host and community benefactor Marty Kahn and faerie friends DolphPun and Baby; the devilishly handsome, gray-bearded, immensely erudite Wyn de Wally, garden designer and theater maven; Theatre Tableau Vivant set designer Dana van Porres; the cast of Whoop-Dee-Doo including Tom Orr, taking a spin to the kick-ass sounds of DJ PussPuss; scene photographer Dan Nicoletta (still looking for funds for that Harvey Milk bust in City Hall) and pal Jordy Jones (artist, writer, curator and community advocate); and so many others.

 

This article appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter, August 4, 2005.

Get wicked!

pinheadHear ye! Hear ye! Lads and lasses, ladies and gents, men lovers, women lovers, bi lovers, tranny lovers, leather lovers, fetish lovers and all you lovers of adult sex and relationships in all their glorious forms: Halloween is our holiday, our holy night, the night for everyone to celebrate queerness. Every culture tangles with ghosts in one way or another, and most of the world’s peoples dedicate rites and holidays to venerating or combatting demons. On this eve we queer folk, demonized by the forces of darkness the rest of the year, receive our just adoration. Everyone, even our straight sisters and brothers, agrees on this night to be queer, which is not just to be gay, it’s to be different.

But beware – bashers also take to the streets this night. We are not totally free to be ourselves, if that means to be careless. If our perceived otherness diminishes on this night, our perceived vulnerability increases. We prance in the spotlight. Nearly everyone gawks and points fingers at us, laughs uproariously with us, dances among us, swings on our arms and takes part in our sexy public frolicks, but unnatural enemies lurk in the crowds. Some truly ugly monsters may shadow us happy witches and freaks, and they may want to see real blood, our blood. We know this, because we’ve experienced it before. We’ve seen the packs of maurauding thugs sweep through the Castro on Halloween, wielding sticks and other objects to inflict real wounds. We’ve heard ourselves demonized on this night, not in fun but in all seriousness, and we’ve had to learn to defend ourselves. We’ve erected barriers, put police and crowd monitors in place, prohibited potentially harmful props from being carried about, and agreed to blow whistles at the first sign of trouble. Halloween is scary.

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So let us sally forth into the night, boldly wicked in our regalia, take part in this parade of the damned, and drink champagne as blood. Let us remember that this rite we’re taking part in evolved out of ancient agrarian rituals, and that our open queerness is a slap in the face at those who long tried, with tragic effect over centuries, to wipe out our kind. Our persecutors may roam yet among us, but most know better than to attack us, because we are strong in numbers, and we know how to fight back.

. . . . .

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter, October 23, 1999.

Burroughs for opera lovers: Erling Wold’s ‘Queer’

Reviewed by Mark Mardon.

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A scene from Erling Wold’s “Queer” chamber opera.

Brilliance characterized every facet of Erling Wold’s Queer on opening-night, April 11, 2001, at ODC Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District. From conception through execution, the chamber opera based on the William Burroughs novel more than did justice to Burroughs’ spirit – it rekindled that spirit vividly for the audience, a sophisticated crowd that paid rapt attention to every subtle nuance of inflection and expression from orchestra and actors alike.

Truly the night belonged to composer Wold, whose latest, possibly greatest work follows previous chamber operas A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil (1993-94) and Sub Pontio Pilato (1995-98) and a host of recordings, chamber pieces, and New Music-style electronic experiments. The concept of turning a classic of queer literature into a post-postmodern chamber piece, complete with on-stage orchestra and what amounts to a singing William Burroughs, dares to be taken seriously. In lesser hands, it could have turned Burroughs’ dry humor and desperate longings into farce. But the combined prodigious talents of Wold, stage director Jim Cave, dramaturgist John Morace, conductor Deirdre McClure, choreographer Cid Pearlman, lighting designer Clyde Sheets, and costume designer Hank Ford, together with a stellar cast, orchestra, and crew, skillfully brought life to Wold’s idea, turning Queer into an exceptionally well-rehearsed, well-executed, inspiring work of high art.

Wold’s composition for trumpet, guitar, piano, synthesizer, violin and contrabass, flawlessly executed by an orchestra including Wold on guitar, creates an atmospheric, classically based soundscape reminiscent of works by Philip Glass, David Del Tredici, and Ned Rorem; aptly, the Village Voice once described Wold as “the Eric Satie of Berkeley surrealist/minimalist electro-artrock.” Here, though, minimalism and melody go hand in hand, with lovely passages, including suggestions of Mexican mariachi music, offset by sections more mood-setting than melodic. The various passages cohere into a gorgeous tapestry, as intricate and interesting as any woven textile.

Part of Queer‘s appeal is its marriage of modern music with a text dear to the hearts of queer literati. It would have been easy to parody Burroughs using his own words. Fortunately, the caustically funny Burroughs temperament came across dazzlingly in the characterization of William Lee – Burroughs’ alter ego – by Trauma Flintstone, who turned in a bravura performance. Flintstone was a joy to experience as Lee, singing passages in recitative and flowing across the stage in hot pursuit of his love object. At times he soared in touching, elegant arias – usually just after he’d downed a drink or two, or tried to get his hand down Allerton’s pants and been yet-again rejected.

Not only did Flintstone exhibit rich vocal qualities and a prodigious feat of memory – he sang practically the entire libretto, whole passages expertly pieced together from the text of the novel – he convincingly personified the novel’s chief protagonist. He did this not by imitating Burroughs’ style, but by channeling the writer’s corrosive spirit with seeming effortlessness. Flintstone is a natural for the part, with lanky body, balding head, growly voice, and an apparently innate ability to tell fanciful yarns illustrated with expansive hand gestures and quirky facial tics.

Flintstone brought to the role natural charm, an easiness in body language, a measured pace, and inner motivation outwardly manifested by apt facial expressions, vocal tones, and gestures. His comfortable stage presence allowed him real interactions with his fellow actor/singers. Hints of music-theater training emerged in his vocal style, suggesting a potential for affectation and exaggeration, yet Flintstone nailed the operatic form, bringing heft to his performance and grounding it in the meaning of the text, rather than letting fly simply for the sake of melody.

Shane Kramer ably carried off the challenge of serving as Lee’s mostly unresponsive love object, Eugene Allerton, a young man of sullen good looks and aloof (not to mention alcoholic and heroin addicted) behavior. At first Kramer seemed an odd choice for the part, being perhaps older and more rugged in appearance than the novel suggests Allerton to be. Rather than a corrupt pretty kid, Kramer embodied the character of a jaded young tough, sullen in the way Brad Davis was as the sought-after sailor/sex object in Querelle. Yet Kramer pulled it off well, keeping himself aloof, disinterested, but never wooden. His sexuality always was palpable, and you could understand why Lee obsessed over him.

Lending lusty weight and powerful vocals to various character parts was Ken Berry, his acting and singing abilities indispensable to the overall tone and success of the piece. This is Berry’s second production with Wold, after playing the father in Wold’s A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil.

Dancers doubling as characters – the lovely Stacey Em Jackson, Zenón Barrón, and Norberto Martinez – popped in and out of the scenes, gracefully, artfully merging dance and drama. At one moment they served as foils and counterparts to Lee’s lusty imagination; the next they were creating evocative tableaux on the wide, deep, beautifully lit stage. The set, with benches, tables, and bar at the front of the stage and an alluring bed toward the rear, allowed much space for the dancers, and choreographer Cid Pearlman made great use of the openings. Barrón and Martinez paired off frequently in sensuous dance-play that formed a continual backdrop to the goings on with Lee and Allerton. Especially in the second half of the show, together with Jackson, they infused the production with a sexy perfume of teasing, come-hither looks, and slow-motion seductions.

Queer, the chamber opera, conveys the story of a queer American bum south of the border in the 1940s as artfully as Queer, the novel. One might have expected a musical version of the book to incorporate grunge rock, or jazz, or blues, or tango – but a chamber opera? It works, and that’s all the encouragement anyone should need to check out this instant classic.

 

Erling Wold’s Queer played through April 22 at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St. Phone (415) 863-9834.