Junebug versus Hurricane


The Hagscape

Taylor Black

March 24, 2010

I know this dress I’m wearing doesn’t hide the secret I have tried concealing

Imagine the look on my face when I heard the first lines of one of my favorite Dolly Parton songs fall from Marianne Faithfull’s wilting, gilded lips.  The picture given at the beginning of this wonderful, horrible, hopeless romance is of a woman standing alone, waiting for the image of her lover to appear somewhere on the horizon…

When he left he promised me that he’d be back by the time it was revealing

Pregnant with love for him, dumb with hope and carrying his child, our poor narrator’s story only gets worse from here; it’s a dead loss

The sun behind a cloud just casts the crawling shadow o’er the fields of clover

One the one hand, I like \”Down From Dover\” because it’s so horrible.  There are already in existence more than one incantation of this song by Dolly that I have loved for years, especially after hearing that she was asked by the management of a casino/nightclub where she was performing in Las Vegas not to do it because of the risk it ran of depressing the guests, of mellowing them out.  But, this version from Faithfull’s latest record “Easy Come Easy Go” does more than simply appease my questionable affection for melodrama, abjection and battered femininity that guides my taste in music (and worse), it creates a world that I feel used to, where I think I ought to belong: the space that us hags habitate.

And time is running out for me I wish that he would hurry down from Dover

I have an image of myself thirty or forty years from now, seated at the end of a bar: I’m alone, mindlessly applying lipstick on top of lipstick that’s been caked on for years, not noticing anyone or hearing what’s on the jukebox, humming some sweet sad song no one even remembers anymore, waiting—for the praise and adoration of passing strangers, for a great dark man to take me home, for my time to come, to get asked to leave. . .I’m not really sure.

He’s been gone so long when he left the snow was deep upon the ground

Faithfull’s performance of the song somehow manages to distill this image in my mind—I think chiefly because the song itself produces more than a narrative, it also paints the image of the haggard, threadbare protagonist that I suspect I might someday become.

And I have seen a spring and summer pass and now the leaves are turning brown

Unlike a landscape, which paints a picture in order to convey an image or a world within its frames, Faithfull’s performance casts out a soundscape.   In this world,  every syllable, every note, every line in the story, and even the shaky sound of the song passing through Faithfull’s busted throat has its place: not in order to paint a picture, but as a picture. . .the picture of someone whose time has long since passed them by.

And any time a tiny face will show itself ’cause waiting’s almost over

But what about this baby?  As the story goes, it’s there to deliver a message; to conceal as well as be concealed until that fateful moment of clarity comes.

But I won’t have a name to give it if he doesn’t hurry down from Dover

My folks weren’t understanding when they found out they sent me from the home place

My daddy said if folks found out he’d be ashamed to ever show his face

My mamma said I was a fool and she did not believe it when I told her

The performance and the song too are ephemeral, but they’re eternal too.  The sadness of failure and the loss of hope conveyed in each line of the song pass by as soon as they’re sung.  However, unlike the image of the nymphet—of a beautiful youthfulness and purity that is always already captured and decaying at the time—that Nabokov created in Lolita, the one that “Down From Dover” romances and that Faithfull performs is of a woman whose own downfall and decomposition were always there from the start—before, during and through her pitiful youth.  The world created here, the soundscape if you will, is one suffering with prematurity, of Protegra.

That everything would be all right ’cause soon he would be coming down from Dover

When you’re in the debutante stages of your life, your future is full of hope; when caught up in your twilight years, however, your entire present becomes the story of your death, of your soon to be past.

I loved him more than anything and I could not refuse him when he needed me

The song of the hag creates a world of already-lost hope, of foreclosed possibilities, of false concealments.

He was the only one I’d loved and I just can’t believe that he was using me

He couldn’t leave me here like this I know it can’t be so it can’t be over

He wouldn’t make me go through this so long, oh he’ll be coming down from Dover

Faithfull’s performance is playful: she manages to turn Dolly’s stern benediction song into an experiment, adding horns and rocking the song back and forth in a way that carries an uncanny, fun(ny) rhythm along with it.

My body aches the time is here it’s lonely in this place where I’m lyin’
Our baby has been born but something’s wrong it’s much too still I hear no cryin’

As the story ends, and as the baby brings the news of stillborn sadness that was impending right from the start, the joke the protagonist seems to be on her-self.

I guess in some strange way she knew she’d never have a father’s arms to hold her

And dying was her way of telling me he wasn’t coming down from Dover

Like her, the joke will be on me someday soon.  You see, the irony is, when you suffer from Progeria, unkindly known as “Nature’s Cruelest Joke,” you don’t even know it.  Like the woman featured in the song, I won’t mind sitting at the end of that bar all alone, because I’ll be certain that someone’s coming to get me, that some-thing’s finally going to repay me in this world—and like our Miss Faithfull,

I’ll still, somehow, be fantastic.



Our Amy Ray Earworms

The Butch’s Throat: “She’s Got To Be” and \”Stand and Deliver\”

Elena Glasberg

03/10/10

I’ve been way too intense these days, way too dramatic.  My tendency to take myself too seriously or romantically — let’s call it my tendency in mid life to “fall in love with the first woman I meet/ Put her in a wheelbarrow, and wheel her down the street”– puts me in the Dylanesque category of wizened boy troubadour.  It’s an insouciant masculinity based in lusty misogyny and ultimately timed to keep moving on.  Though Dylan did once write “Tangled Up in Blue,” about the best most sustained plaint on companionate marriage ever sung.  So good that I recognized it long before I ever married, long before I ever broke.  I must have known it just from being born to woman and man.  But for the most part, Dylan’s love sick blues are lonesome.  He’s always showily singing to some idea of a woman and his anger is getting to sound more and more like stand up.  “Hell’s My Wife’s Hometown,” another cut from Together Through Life, makes me laugh every time.  Dylan stopped singing about real people and feelings a long time ago, though he still reaches me on the deep level of myth and song.

But any protection I might seek from the damage I do to other women and to myself in my wavering, weary boyishness and my inconsistency and bravado breaks down when I pay attention to Amy Ray.  “Stand and Deliver” and “She’s Got to Be” are both relationship songs, and in that they are a dime a dozen.  Cheesy, even.  I’ve never enjoyed the feeling of being hailed by TV ads (phone ads are especially manipulative) or pop tunes.  Of course part of maturing or becoming human for the queer child is becoming open to popular feelings, even feeling normal.  And now that queer is a brand name, a new way to be incoherent and individual just like every other tattooed sexual deviant out there, I’m even more resistant to the sound track.  But oppositional reading and selective insertion of my desires into even the greatest musical fabrics has limits.  When I listen to Amy Ray I recognize my nonsense.  I feel read, exposed, and even normal. I hear my own struggling voice.

Baby’s got a lot of tears

Enough to cry a thousand years

Enough to cry a thousand seas

Enough to break a boy like me

I want to stand and deliver

Be the one who makes it better.

“Stand and Deliver” deliberately plays with anthemic production modes and structure, the kind intended to hail large rooms of thronging fans.  But what theme exactly does Amy Ray seek to politicize?  Butch-femme relations?  Can an anthem represent queer relations and not monumentalize or reify the fluidity once offered by (and for) sexual resistance?

Even if the answer to these leading questions were not obvious, I’d still enjoy “Stand and Deliver” for precisely daring to speak for me, a lonely striving butch who never feels good enough.  Not good enough for womanhood in general, and certainly not good enough for any woman.  You can talk about pride and self-knowing, and you can even be really successful with getting men’s wives to sit on your lap (it’s easy, actually).  But there’s a part of every deep-in-the-bone butch that can never believe any (real) woman would have her.  That’s the butch’s throat, the wondrous contralto from the uncertain center of an unsung identity.  Cue the swelling strings and the Robinhood garb:

All I’ve got’s this little chalice

Born of fear and forged with malice

All I’ve got’s this coat of mail [male?]

But in its time it served me well.

It’s useless now as I wither

Why can’t I just deliver?

Forget Robinhood, it’s almost Wagnerian in its endless, swelling drive to cement the lovers and heal the wounded hero with love-death.  Sometimes Ray stands behind her electric guitar and delivers, drives forth her contralto from down in her chest, the covered place.  This is not a natural voice.  I know.  I remember one summer vacation in the Catskills making the decision to break the shyness and order an icecream cone.  I pitched my voice low, threw it down that hole, tried to feel it supported by my solar plexus, the fundament of my social projection: chocolate cone, please.  From that utterance on, that pitch stuck in my butch throat.

No one ever enjoys hearing themselves played back on tape (it’s way more disturbing than a glimpse of yourself unawares in a mirror).  The discomfort probably stems not from judgment but more likely from misrecognition: we do not hear ourselves internally the way the sounds come back through recording technologies.  Feedback is not so much a reflection as a harmonic disillusion, a rending of our imagined wholeness. Ray, unlike most other butches, spends much of her time working out the mechanics of her voice, its reproduction and circulation.  When not standing and delivering she practices the studio croon, the intimate delivery that became possible with the advent of miked recording on radio.  In a youtube video, a relatively dolled-up Amy Ray strums directly into the camera, into the microphone, crooning to an imagined audience one swooning femme at a time.  It’s a more anxious performance than the one on Wouldn’t It Be Kinder and I’m not sure it suits.

There’s another youtube video of just such an early version of “Stand and Deliver,” lovingly recorded by a fan.  It works.  Listening, I find myself holding my breath, sort of the way you do at the ballpark when the underprepared kid gets up to sing the national anthem – a notoriously difficult and unlovely vocal obstacle course – and you wonder if they can hit the highs and lows.  The same feeling comes over me in this solo acoustic version.  The vocal range and delicacy necessary to belt out the prayer, to cast the spell, to produce the butch voice, even more than to seduce the femme (who’s got her own thing going, and I’ll let it alone), makes me wonder, is she gonna make it to the end of this note, to the end of the song?

In the video and on the recording Ray shifts at the end of the song to falsetto, the quintessential male pop voice.  I don’t think I any other female singer has ever used falsetto, and there’s a reason: Amy Ray is the butch’s throat, not Patti Smith’s wonderful but still ventriloquized gender masquerade in “Gloria.”  No, Amy Ray don’t sound like a man.  Close your eyes; there’s no double take/ double listening.  Amy Ray is the butch throat.  And in “Stand and Deliver” her butchness is cast in relation to doing right, to making whole another woman.  It’s not ventriloquism, but something more contrapuntal.  Not univocal; it’s anarchy.

As anarchic as it may be, the butch voice springs from one unifying throat or position:

She’s got to be with me always

To make sense of the skin I’m in

Sometimes it gets dangerous

And lonely to defend

Marking time with every change

It’s hard to love this woman in me

She’s the one that stills the seas

Finds the truth in this anarchy

Dives the depth of every age

Keeps this body and knows the shape

I will love.  I will protect this love

It was hard to get

I will love and I will protect this love

And it’s anarchy.

Only Ray can occupy the con-tralto boy-like-me position and bypass soprano, the female high voice, bypass also the African-American infused gospel alto that had belonged to singers like Odetta.  Ray’s depth and range is less spectacular than K. D. Lang’s virtuoso croon.  It’s less self-assured, less placed, more liable to break down and to shift key and pitch mid song and between songs.  Her voice is anarchy, the pitched battle of internalized gender.

“Is this body just a cage?”  Well of course it is.  And that’s why the voice, emanates from the body and yet speaks outside it.  This variation on the old body-mind split I call the Gomer Pyle syndrome, after the suspect southern TV army recruit who gaaw-aawl-ied with a country accent, but who burst out in operatic baritone.  The voice, unlike the body, does not betray class status or sexuality but does the opposite, it soars away from Podunk, and away from the Viet Nam war.  It offers a better alibi than Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.  Jim Nabors through his voice became a whole, national crooner, the hopeless white southern faggot no more.  Voice can uncage the body, transform status, fool the ear if not the eye.  It is always projecting and projection.

But voice is also placed.  Voice teachers speak of placing the voice, meaning techniques for producing “head” voice, “chest” or some other foundation for the sound waves to be produced from forced and controlled air through the “pipes” of the larynx and the containing cavities of the torso and skull.  Amy Ray’s butch-ly placed sound may overlap with some critiques of the mezzo sound as hooty or covered or dark.  But there’s also a boyish brightness or white gospel clarity to her tone, if not emanating from its placement, then from its intention, its innocence and yearning qualities.  If the body is a cage, a place for the production of gender and trouble, it is also a staging for a projection.  When Amy Ray switches to falsetto, she performs an aural gender trick beyond even the most complex of Strauss’s late trouser role in Der Rosenkavalierbecause it is not only the context of the reception of the voice that changes, and not only how the voice is produced that creates the aural difference, but the final falsetto is a new move in gender’s voiced and performed history: a woman singing low, quoting a man singing high.  And the body does not, cannot change.  Nor is it a cage, exactly.  It is, Amy, a vessel, a location, a passage for air, a bag of wind, a bottom plexus of flesh and energy: it’s anarchy.  It’s politics.

Amy Ray is at times as good as Woody Guthrie or Bruce Springsteen when it comes to getting away with politics in song.  I could argue that the line “I spent all day pushing tissue roses into chicken wire” from “Put It Out For Good” is the most riveting, alarming, activating image of meaningless and underpaid factory labor in all of rock n roll.  But that would be strange, isolating praise.  Rock protest tends towards self-promoting anthems of youth and resistance.  Even great anti-consumer culture songs like “take this job and shove it” or “(Can’t get no) Satisfaction” prefer the anger of a duped man who thinks his life should matter to scarifying details of other people’s unredeemable labor.

Amy Ray can write an anthem too, though.  But people don’t necessarily understand where she’s coming from.  It used to be suburbia – the “tramps like us”? . . . Well, maybe not.  That was Springsteen’s word for the unsung.  Continuing in the American song protest tradition, Ray sings in “Put It Out For Good” for the tramps not like “us”:

All the punks and the queers and the freaks and the smokers

. . . A new gender nation with a new desire.

But lately I think Ray has exhausted the singular field of identity crisis.  Reports are that she thinks about the land.  She roosts back on that bloody soil of the Las Americas del Sud.  The American South.  Georgia’s on her mind and in her body.  Through Guthrie and Springsteen’s masculine outrage on behalf of outsiders, deportees, the people of the land caught among the map’s shifting borders and their insane walls and real porosity, Ray sings in the voice of the people.  But the people never cohered.  That’s why Ray’s people are all trannies.  No one’s got a home – and no one’s got a righteous purchase on the land.  Ray can agitate for the rights of the indigenous, for the people of place, the placed people, even as she speaks for the “new gendered nation,” the people of suburban anomie and placelessness, in a moving voice of contradiction with the power to transport.  Long live the butch’s throat!

She’s Got To Be

Taylor Black

03/10/10


When I was very young I wanted to be a witch.  No, not in the sun and moon-worshipping, pentacle-wearing way, but a real witch, the kind you see in movies.  In fact, my obsession was specifically with the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, and until I was around seven or eight years old I not only idolized her mentally and emotionally but also dressed as her more often than not.  Cloaked in black, witch’s hat in place and riding around my family’s house on a broomstick, I felt most at home in my own skin.

As the years passed and all the confusing feelings and sensations brought on by puberty began to wax, all the imperiousness and dark glamour that influenced my idea of myself as a young witch transformed into what might be generously called a bourgeoning gender and sexual identity.  As I ceased riding around on broom sticks and began to ponder my life as a matured adult being I then began to slowly cultivate a different idea of myself as a person found myself drawn to women that were, like Miss Witch: cold, commanding and horribly imposing.

I then spent the rest of my teenage years basking in the glow of these women and this wicked, feminized vision of myself.  Luckily, I then found myself able to manipulate my icy form of majestic detachment as a sort of self-defense mechanism as I hurtled through all the drama one might expect for a depraved young faggot growing up in the oppressively masculine, drab Bible Belt South.  More tragically, I suppose, I also felt a certain distance —from other people, from lovers, from myself, from my own body.

Living in the ivory tower of my fantasies, I began to feel all alone.  And then soon I was.  Everything would be okay, would stay in its rightful place, so long as I didn’t look into a mirror.  Sex felt alright if I didn’t have to be touched or feel anything good.  Friendships were okay if I did all the talking but none of the sharing.  Being a member of my family was fine just as long as no one mentioned or thought about my future as a human being, much less as a gendered one.

Fast-forward to my sad, stony face staring around New York City, my new home.  Running just as fast as I could out of North Carolina and pointing my toes, or my broomstick, due north, I landed on its shores at age 18, expecting something of a community and some kind of solid sense of identity to come my way.  As evidenced in my last piece on Le Tigre’s ode to transmasculinity, the queer world I found myself in was not one I was able to fold myself so easily into.  Drunk on (post-)identity politics and the prescriptive narratives and vocabularies that went along with it, I felt even more failed than before.  Knee-deep in sinners presumably like myself and settled into a community of queers and a city full of failures, I still felt my obvious lack of identification and hope for my sorry state of sexual abjection and gender dysphoria to be a burden and a source of that same loneliness I’d become so accustomed to.

The central question, at least to me, posed in my bitchy little entry on “Viz” was about the subject of queer anthems, and specifically whether or not the two terms work together at all.  While an anthem is meant to celebrate and praise some sort of body—of work, of land, of a person—queerness, at least in my case, is a description for someone who lacks the sort of necessary cohesion to be sung about in such a praiseworthy manner, or even to be praised at all.

Which brings me, however belatedly, to the song that I intended to focus squarely on this week, but that got waylaid by this little confessional.  Not just the title for this mistaken autobiography of mine, but also the title of the second song off of Amy Ray’s most recent solo record Didn’t It Feel Kinder\”She\’s Got To Be\” is the closest to an anthem or to a trans/queer audiobiography that I might be able to relate to.

Odd as it is, I find a lot of myself in this road-weary, road-worn song Amy Ray has written about her butchness and her own relationship to gender dysphoria.  Across generations, bodies and sexualities, I find this very personal, yet complicated and even cagey, “anthem” of hers comforting.  For better or worse, the song stands out on the album it appears on, but also in the whole of Amy Ray’s catalogue.  Following behind the slow drawl of the organ and the almost funky, soulful push given by the bass and the beat comes Amy Ray singing in a boyish falsetto.  Her voice is deceptively sweet, sounding almost like some sort of fucked up version of David Cassidy or Donny Osmond.  If you don’t listen carefully to the lyrics in the first verse it would be easy to think of the song as a love song for another woman.

She’s got to be with me always

To make sense of the skin I’m in

Sometimes it gets dangerous

And lonely to defend

Marking time with every change

It’s hard to love this woman in me

The first time I listened to the song was at a concert, standing just a few feet from Amy Ray and her band as she closed her eyes and started in on this devastatingly personal and personalizing ballad to her self.  Mind you, I’d heard the song a whole lot of times in the weeks leading up to the show on record, but I hadn’t listened to what it was saying.  More than that, though, I don’t think it would have willfully occurred to me that a song sung about queerness might have anything to say to me, isolated as I have become in my mixed-up, useless image of myself.

Unlike Samson’s epic ode to her fabulous gender presentation, Amy Ray’s song romances the sadness I’ve felt of not having either.  “She’s Got To Be” is everything “Viz” song isn’t: resigned, undone, incomplete and, at least to me, absolutely gorgeous.  As I’ve said, you can’t sing a song in praise of some-thing about yourself that you didn’t create or do.  If you try and sing triumphantly about a game you can’t win, you’ll lose out in the end.  You lost before you began.  But, what you can do is sing in the name of your failure—not to over-essentialize or lionize it, but to wrap yourself in it and feel at home.  You can stop fighting against yourself if you stop pretending you might be able to win.

She’s the one that stills the seas

Finds the truth in this anarchy

Dives the depth of every age

Keeps this body and knows the shape

The chorus sounds anthemic, but is really more of a spell that Amy Ray casts in her singing of it.  Instead of celebrating, it’s creating. It’s resolving.  You’ve got to be to be free.

I will love I will protect this love

It was hard to get

I will love and I will protect this love

And it’s anarchy

Standing at the show, drunk on gin and staggered by the weight of what I was suddenly hearing, I began to cry quietly—something, as you might imagine, that doesn’t come naturally or easily to me.  The revelation in the song is in Amy Ray’s willingness to give in to herself, to stop fighting and start becoming.  Central to my own melancholy regarding any queer or trans narrative I might be able to apply to myself is a recognition that my fantasies and desires—of my self, my body and my sexual expression—can’t translate into anything.  This song, like me, is resigned to its failure and in love with its chaos.

The thing that made me cry is the impossibility—of gender, cohesion, language, existence—Amy Ray realizes and demonstrates in her performance of the song.  I cried not because I was sad for her, though, but because I knew what she was expressing, felt what she was admitting to have failed at.  From my early years on a broomstick to my isolated attempts at finding a home for myself and a useful meaning for my desires, I stood rejoicing in this sweet little song of hers about giving up and staying put.  In order to love yourself and become you’ve got to learn to leave well enough alone.  Instead of breaking you down, failure can be full of capacity,  a way of being and becoming in and of itself.

As I have come to believe in my twilight: when there’s nowhere to go it can feel a lot less lonely and horrifying to stay put, to remain right where you seem to belong.  “She’s Got To Be” isn’t a queer anthem, but it’s an anthem to queer-ness; to self-love, instead of misguided self-praise.  In place of the noise of rebellion and the silent echoes of loneliness came this song of self-love and affirmation to save me.  In every subsequent listen, I remain to be wooed by its sweet sounds of failure, caught up in the romantic melody of resignation.