I talk about being gay–you might have already noticed some of the subtle messaging on the stage. But I’m gay and I talk about being gay kind of a lot. I’m sure some people wish I would shut up about it sometimes. But I have my reasons–you know–and like, some of them are personal because I spent such a long time wishing I wasn’t gay–being ashamed of that. So now it’s like we’re making up for lost time–you know?
But what I wanted to say to you guys was that the only reason that I’m even able to be up here talking about my gay self is because of all the people that came before me that have fought for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people….
–Olly Alexander, from the Pyramid Stage of the Glastonbury Music Festival, Worthy Farm, United Kingdom, June 30, 2019.
Months earlier, Mr. Alexander said as much at Terminal 5. After accepting a rainbow flag from someone in the audience, he draped it about his shoulders and declared, “Well, I guess you know I’m gay.” But as the crowd carried on cheering and shouting, he became suddenly sheepish and vulnerable. He held the microphone tentatively before continuing; and, when he did, his words came with a smile as if to ward off rejection. There was no obvious disdain in the crowd; but, in that brief moment of doubt, Mr. Alexander betrayed an honesty so rarely glimpsed: An openly gay performer demanding: “Take me as I am.” The last time I remember that gauntlet being thrown down at a show was back in 2001.
In those days, Tim Daly and Pablo Das used to play the Antifolk downtown music scene as a duo called “Testosterone Kills.” Das once called them an “electro-folk/antifolk Indigo Boys,” but others like Murray Moss, former proprietor of the Moss Design Gallery in SoHo, insisted they were “what Simon and Garfunkel might have been if they fucked each other and grew up on Nirvana and techno and had day jobs at Moss.” Regardless, Testosterone Kills stood out on the circuit not only because its members were openly gay, but because they were the only ones willing to do so among the hundreds of other eclectic regulars. In fact, the band was probably the king of the eclectics, more Antifolk than anyone else.
It was a typical Monday night at the Sidewalk Cafe on Avenue A and East 6th Street–otherwise known as Open Mic Night–or, more colloquially, Lach’s Antihoot. Musicians signed up for a spot at 7:30. Lach, as host, would have them draw numbers from a hat, and afterward, people would begin to perform at 8. Shortly before 10, a duo I had never heard of before ascended to the cramped, smoky stage. Tim–the one wearing shades or transition glasses–accompanied Pablo–the one brandishing an acoustic guitar. One might even have donned a t-shirt that night with the band’s name scrawled across President Bush’s face. Regardless, I was about to get up from chair my when their voices emerged. I sat back down.
Theirs was a sheer gust of melody that up to then had been lacking. They sang with an exuberance so anathema to everyone else I thought they’d be banned from ever playing Sidewalk again. In bridges, chorus, and verse–in a structured song, no less!–they cleverly hid their challenge. Lyrics about Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovksy, falling for men, and getting high with a boyfriend were topics rarely poached for material on the scene. But here they were not stealing, rather revealing the details of their intimate lives. This wasn’t an act. It was the truth; and no anonymous pronouns dissembled their longing. It was HE, HE, HE. I love only HIM. I want only HIM. It was deeply affecting. But how would the other patrons react?
As Mr. Alexander offered his truth, he certainly had unwavering support. Although not gay themselves, his bandmates Mike Goldsworthy and Emre Turkmen provided a steady platform from which he could dive. The beats, the bass, and the programming they mined coaxed his body and primed his voice as he fell through the music. From behind their instruments, they projected as friends, allies, and even good sports when Mr. Alexander had the mind to tease them. It was nearly utopian. Only a generation ago, frontmen as open about their sexuality as a Boy George, Jobriath, k.d. lang, or Melissa Etheridge were marginalized by the mainstream–sometimes even taken less seriously than their peers–but now more listeners are welcoming the gauntlet. Whether straight, gay, or somewhere in between, they’re up for the challenge. Look no further than their reception for Frank Ocean, Justin Tranter, Rufus Wainwright, Jake Shears, Janelle Monae, Hayley Kiyoko, or Olly Alexander.
Photo by Rick Stachura. Mr. Alexander performs with Years & Years at Terminal 5. October 8, 2018.