Perfect Sound Forever

Queering Classic Rock

by Calliope Kurtz
(October 2007)

"Will the real homosexuals please stand up?"
from 'Androgyny In Rock: A Short Introduction,' Creem, August 1973

With the Who, Stones, Black Sabbath and other major bands in decline, the 1975 release of Physical Graffiti, simultaneously thundering across U.S. stadiums, confirmed Led Zeppelin's status as the "greatest," "heaviest," "awesomest" rock act on the planet. A double LP with profligate packaging, Physical Graffiti heralded Zeppelin's supremacy by debuting their vanity label, SwanSong. I vividly recall the perplexity facing me - a 15-year-old St. Louis male - and my long-haired stoner peers: the heaviest rock group on the planet redefined itself as Icarus - neutered. What's up with that?

There's a reason why classic rock (which back then at least, was an ostensibly a male adolescent mass entertainment), invokes gender variance. Long before Lou Reed crooned about transsexuals on the AM dial, rock's will to shock manifested itself with long hair (prompting the derisive question, "Is that a boy or a girl?"). This rebellion wasn't merely theatrical or rhetorical: in an age when Vietnam and the draft suffused American consciousness, for a male to adopt any appurtenance of femininity was a clear breach and rejection of military readiness. "Flower power" was a political challenge, and SwanSong's 'fairy' logo represented the intuitive locus of all Uncle Sam loathed and feared.

Led Zeppelin, of course, didn't perform any anti-war songs. Their place in the scheme of things was attractively reactionary: throbbing anthems approximating, codifying and ultimately neutralizing the sound, fury and mythology of Woodstock. Party on, man. Zeppelin emblematized the "Death of Rock." Although it has been credibly argued that cocaine did the deed, I believe I know the day "the music died": January 15, 1973. James Taylor, Alice Cooper, disco or Kiss didn't kill off rock - Richard Nixon did. With the termination of the Vietnam War and the draft, rock (and its unamplified corollary, long hair) lost its life-and-death imperative, its narrative of subordination.

As identity politics subsumed war resistance in the mid-70's, gender variance assumed new positions within the culture of rock; it's no coincidence the preeminent hippie city of America became its uncontested gay capital. While the trashily heterosexual New York Dolls and the studied bisexuality of David Bowie provided the initial flashpoint of "glam," the truest practitioner was Freddy Mercury, leading the otherwise straight band Queen into a platinum stratosphere - all the while queering the testosterone implications of post-Watergate "real" rock.

Considering their "kick-ass" constituency, the band's name was devastatingly defiant - and clever; it took years before Mid-West denim-clad jocks "got the joke" (which was on them). Never one for subtlety, early interviews with Queen found Mercury citing Liza Minnelli as his primary performance influence. Their megasmash "Bohemian Rhapsody," skewering operatic pomp, turned gay camp inside out and seemed destined to go on forever; it wasn't until Abba's weirdly similar "Mama Mia" appeared that the insane UK chart reign of "Bohemian Rhapsody" finally came to an end. "Fat Bottomed Girls" successfully married gay culture's ambivalence towards femininity to straight blue-collar misogyny, while "Bicycle Race," when divorced from its softporn video spectacle, is just a total preening hoax. Still, the radio and the white male proles adored 'em. And why not? Gay music is guy music.

"We Will Rock You" both caricatured and celebrated lumpen tendencies with a drag nihilism best heard, as I first did, in boot camp. The Village People paled in comparison. Alas, its companion piece "We Are The Champions" was gooey Styx bluster - lamentably unrectified until Liza Minnelli, by then deliciously past her prime, brought the anthem to its postmodern knees at the Freddy Mercury / AIDS Benefit Concert held at Wembley Stadium in 1992. At their best, Queen delivered the goods while simultaneously lampooning them. Considering Mercury's use of gay iconography as an arena rock component and what Queen stood to lose, the bravado of his celebrity presentation was Lennonesque in scope.

In it for the ideological long haul, Mercury pulled off his greatest passing coup with "Another One Bites The Dust," topping the R&B charts in early 1980. I remember, much to my incredulity, how many "bloods" took it for granted that tune's vocalist was, like Michael Jackson, black. Had they looked at Mercury on the cover of the LP, they would've seen George Michael before he even existed. After this success, Queen became confident enough to give up the passing entirely (too bad Hot Space was incomprehensibly lame), losing some U.S. sales and chart prowess but, in the age of prodigiously mascaraed hair-metal "bad boys," Mercury and company continued to enjoy brisk box office at U.S. stadiums while later singles flourished on Euro charts.

Eventually, Queen mellowed enough to let Mercury exude a quietly aristocratic gayness, producing some of their most memorable recordings. Utopian lyrics abound through their mid-80's material, showing the band's heart was in the right place ("The Miracle") even if their battalions of amps were still set on 11 ("One Vision"). The Pet Shop Boys' pop of "I'm Going Slightly Mad" is a coy aberration, "These Are The Days Of Our Lives" reveals craftsmanship worthy of Elton John, both "Who Wants To Live Forever" and "The Show Must Go On" are portentously grandiose while, finally, Mercury's Olympian solo reading of "The Great Pretender" proved, conclusively, he's the real deal - the greatest gay singer in the history of show biz.

Adam Sweeting's Guardian obituary for Mercury sagely noted: 'It was a measure of the band's professionalism that, in spite of Mercury's flamboyant performances and cross-dressing, they managed to avoid the media witch-hunts which beset others. Mercury dressed as a ballet dancer and a storm trooper and persuaded the whole group to wear drag in the video for 1984's "I Want To Break Free," but their reputation emerged enhanced. This was because, behind the togs and the mascara, Mercury possessed unusual musical talent.'

Even after death, Mercury got up to his old tricks. In 2000, a TV advertisement for Viagra featured an army of ecstatic suburban dads, presumably no less straight than Bob Dole, marching, en mass, through their neighborhoods to the sounds of "We Are The Champions." The layers of interpretation dazzle.

George Michael's Herculean Wembley performance of "Somebody To Love" briefly gave rise to rumors the (admittedly declining) ultra-platinum heartthrob would join Queen but, alas, one of pop's most compelling what if's was writ on ether. Deciding instead to completely fuck up, May, Taylor & Beacon opted for the automatized AOR (and hetero) swagger of Paul Rogers, a choice no less exciting than The Who's decision to fill Keith Moon's chair with Kenny Jones. If only Queen had realized the (perversely) perfect replacement for Mercury would be Sinead O'Connor. Oh, well.

Now then. A lot of greying boomers, some whom still drive vintage VW bugs and buy whatever Neil Young albums are sold at Starbucks, despair over the "Death Of Rock." "It had more meaning then" - and, yup, that's true. But, here's the historical-materialist rub, my friends: In order to get goodies like "Volunteers," "1983 ... (a Merman I Should Turn To Be)" and "Kick Out The Jams," ya gotta also get Nixon, Hoover, Kent State, pigs, draft cards - and a whole lot more coffins than Iraq will ever produce.

Ergo, Icarus.

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