Junebug versus Hurricane

“The Second Time Around” for Amy Ray’s “Laramie”

— Again

Elena Glasberg

November, 2010

hunting season's over

I’ve got a queer hangover and it is NOT getting any better.  Actually, it’s getting harder and harder to be me.  I mean at 51, finally the world cannot stop speaking of my categories in the most emotional and righteous of ways.  If it’s not Israelis killing innocent Palestinians in the name of God-knows-what, it’s gays beaten and killed by “neighborhood bullies.”  Or, as some lament, not being allowed to kill (unlike those universally conscripted Jewish Israelis) for their country.  And now, “gay suicide”: gays killing themselves before anyone gets the chance.

Life for gay kids was once easier.  Before the “It gets better (so you can become normal)” tidal wave gathered and struck.  I remember as an undergrad at Purchase College in the late 1970s I had a chance to take a course on gay culture with a now-foundational anthropologist.  She was a Jew and a butch.  No way, I thought.  Why would I want to study what I already knew?  I was so dumb!  I could’ve caught a case of identity studies as it was on the rise and begun a profitable career in my self.  But no.  I took astronomy and Medieval literature, though I was neither sidereal in nature nor was I of the past.  I was just trying to live my girl-obsessed punky little life.  I showed up one time to the (newly forming) gay undergrad club that met in a room in the basement of the dorm.  Scanning the room of fatties and dweebs and seeing not one female who didn’t make me hate myself almost as much as I was likely to come to hate them if I stayed, I fled back to the light of apolitical prettiness and joyful exclusion.

Forgive me, Amy.  I didn’t know any better.  I was a rocker.  Loved Lou Reed and Patti Smith.  Television, Neil Young.  Screaming guitars.  Lucinda, Dylan.  I did not associate with lesbian-feminist women’s music festival any more than I could tolerate Melissa Etheridge’s middle American high school version of the lesbian loner peeking in straight girls’ windows.  Earnest and direct politics worked for Woody Guthrie.  But for everyone else, it’s musical death.  But with typical missionary zeal, Junebug showed me the error of my ways.  Now the scales have fallen from out my ears holes, I can hear Amy Ray’s commitment and her experience with multiple communities and genres: rural kids, Homocore, women’s music, bluegrass, Native land rights, protest songs, anthems.  And as it turns out, she was weary, weary of the coerciveness of communities of outlaws and of the highjackings of injury and loss of the normative movement of gay politics.  Given the recent and seemingly natural (or as they say on the internet where everything happens now, “viral”) expansion of national gay rights production of an evidential “epidemic” of gay bullying and suicides in the “It Gets Better” videos, it just might be time for a second time around with Ray’s 2001 Song about Matthew Shephard’s murder, “Laramie.”

Amy Ray sings the connections of the US landscape, from the old fields and plantations, dirt roads, and highways.  She’s been riding the rails between a place called home and the road, like a good American troubadour.  When she’s on the road she’s dreaming of a dirt road.  When she’s sitting at the end of that dirt road, she’s singing about getting back on that open road.  That’s what troubadours do; they trouble space and the air with their songs.  When she’s not hurrying on to some woman down that road or trying to make her way back to the one she shouldn’t have left, Ray’s road songs are actually thinking about those spaces, fences, and networks that trace and create the political landscape of the US. Now is the time to revisit one of those places at the end of a road, Laramie.

The road to Laramie is a weary one.  “We all heard about that mess.”  We’ve been hearing it and replaying this dirge of young men martyred in the name of hatred.  Or was it freedom?  The campaigns for so-called “gay” marriage and for open military service and the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell policy more than ever define gay politics.  These moral, political goals leave behind the “mess” of actual sexual politics as it forms bodies and classes of people not unlike the way barbed wire created the Plains by fencing things in and keeping things out.

Laramie’s liquid la la syllables invoke the “open plains” of cowboys and Indians.  Of course cowboys and Indians has never been a simple set of stories.  Laramie’s associations of conflict, enmity, and racialized hatred have deepened since Matthew Shepherd met his end on the side of a road, leaned up against a barbed wire fence, the same cheap and flexible fences that helped create the “open” space of the plains and a cattle industry.  The same fences that helped drive under Native ways of living on that land.

The “road to Laramie” comes at you with a heavy downbeat.  It comes with Neil Young’s electric guitar distortion, catching at your mind like the barbs on the wire catch at the animals, the weeds, all the lives trying to pass through.  And it comes now with a new myth, one to replace the dead Indians and the wide open: a little blond boy beaten to death by ignorant, hateful and doubtless desirous white thugs from hometown Laramie. 

With a dolorous atonal chord Ray calls out, “Hey coalitions/ Lay down your mission/aries” to skewer the morality of the aggressive new missionary mode of gay politics.  And it applies even better to this understandable but no less lamentable recent move to counter-missionize “at-risk” youth.  The viral “It gets better” videos point to the truth of the slur that gays “recruit.”  They missionize.  Of course they do.  Surely, MS was on a mission that night at the bar in Laramie – to get laid, to find friends and acceptance.  What he ran into were the fences and the barbs.  But Laramie wasn’t any different from the rest.

it gets better

Ray won’t give into urban-centered myths of freedom: “those boys just doing what the fancy people think.”  They’re the cowboys who unrolled and strung out the bales of wire fencing that made the plains.  But more often as not they’re just frat boys now, bewildered and diminished manhoods roaming the range to which Amy Ray aims another wall of noise: “Hey motherfuckers! Party season’s over…” Not just for them, but us too. Those boys in Laramie are not a party, a people “out there.”  They are not an enemy.  And not only are we not martyrs, the martyrs are actually not us.  Despite the outpourings of facile identification and developmentalism implied in the “It gets better” viral reproduction, no one really knows what it was like for the suicides.  Or for Matthew Shephard.  Further, these deaths and failures to connect, victimizations and murders may not add up to anything we know call homophobia.  For example, few consider the persistent utility of homophobia in the expression of so many religious leaders as more an effect of historical sectarianism than a real hatred of gay people.  In fact, with the “It gets better” campaign the public gay movements now slavishly imitate religions, states, and as the term campaign also suggests, military strategy.  In other words, Ray suggests that the Coalitions are missionary.  Imitators of what they seek to upend.

For coalition, Ray offers Neil Young, a connection through rock n roll, distorted guitars, songs like “Pocahontas” and “Powder Finger.”  And it makes sense Ray has been covering these relatively obscure Young songs for her young-er audience, carrying on the tradition of redressive resistance.  “Pocahontas,” despite its creepy moccasin-fever, animates the myth of the dead Indian: Pocahontas is a living, seeing presence in the aural landscape.  “Powder Finger” is a Faulknerian take on coming of age with Civil War.  From its opening alarm, “Look out Mama, there’s a white boat coming down the river” it tells the story of the brief life of a boy caught up in a war that comes to his quiet town.  American history never sounded like this, it never looked like this.  The boy might have just as easily been on the banks of a river in Viet Nam, too.  All the rivers, like all the roads converge on a young man “just turned 22” and not going to make it to the last line of the song, dying in a war he had no idea of.

There’s a connection Ray is trying for, between Young’s generation of the Vietnam War and civil rights protest movements and the contemporary resurrection of that national sacrificial figure.  Now, post-nation, “post” civil rights, we get gay martyrs as representative of a real rights-bearing category of civil life.  Before “all [this] mess,” Matthew Shepherd might have been another boy dead from war, drinking, class anger, syphilis, AIDS.  But now that sexuality fights its way through injury towards a rights-bearing condition, a gay martyr emerges from the murk of people just doing wrong.  And it is no accident that he was – and is – that type of the white male citizen, soldier, martyr.  Yeah, we all heard about that mess.  “But that town ain’t any different from the rest.” The sentimental attachment to male martyrdom and to suicide in particular distort understanding of what can change politically – and for whom — in the area of sexual freedom and policy (or rights discourse).

Laramie was also the end of the road in the gay rights imaginary—both an impasse, or a turning point in time where they said ‘enough’s enough,’ invigorating their homonationalist campaigns for rights at the end of the century.  Imagine all the concerned left and east coast homos who descended on Laramie in the years following the incident like ‘49ers, picking at the memory of this poor dead boy and mining that poor dead town for all the political and cultural metaphors they could fit in their knapsacks and take back home with them, back on the campaign.  Can a town’s political metaphors/usages be stripped mined out until the landscape is bare?  Will the fair-haired white gay martyr continue to be the gold standard of the gay rights movement at the expense of the all the land, the rest of the people, a fuller accounting and connection through history and geography?

When this country or this gay rights movement can use a different kind of martyr, well, the need for civic sacrifice will itself most likely have died out.  “Party time” will one day be over.  In that case, with Amy Ray, I say RIP.


Sweet Sad Songs (sung by lonely girls)

Taylor Black


lonely girls

lonely girls

Forgive me, for, try as I might, I cannot let the hag thing rest.  It’s like a song that won’t ever get out of your head.

With this entry, I would like to think about/clarify my own romantic inclinations towards ruined femininity and all the sweet silent solitude awaiting me and all the other lonely girls of the world who live their lives at the end of the bar—living a whole life like it was the end of the night, dancing alone and pretending like we’ve got somewhere to go.

Even as I write this entry, I feel guilty, in part, because I feel I’m just repeating exactly what I said about myself last week—that I longed for the hag’s life; that I have always imagined myself waiting my life out alone at the end of some bar, always there at closing time cloaked in false hope and averting glares behind false eyelashes.

lonely girls

lonely girls

But, sometimes there’s nothing to do but repeat yourself.  More staggering than whatever hesitations I have about blogging and, to put it kindly, doing critical analysis about myself the music I listen to, is the image that’s glaring back at me off the computer screen: the image of a lonely girl nursing a gin and tonic that she wishes she could weep into (for dramatic and literary effect, of course) who doesn’t even know how to cry, who can’t even think of something worth getting that upset about.

heavy blankets

While it might be easy to assume that my attraction to failed femininity might have something to do with being a white, gay male, that stock narrative doesn’t work for me…try as I might.  You see, my taste tends less toward what you are imagining in your stock narrative of gay masculinity than it is actually, legitimately and tragically aligned not with icons of tragic femininity—Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Whitney Houston, Hillary Clinton—than it is with the actual nameless ruined and destitute women that are, as I speak, sitting by themselves, waiting for something good to happen and singing all the sweet, sad songs that lonely girls do sing.  You see, believe it or not, there’s not much irony in what I’ve been trying to convey lately.  Forlorn and busted are not qualities that I appreciate, they’re what I am, what I will become.

So, if you’ll allow me one last siren song to close out this hag’s trilogy I promise to be less personal and less overbearing in entries to come.  But, with my apologies and defenses out of the way, I’d like to riff off of this song that wrote me long before I tried to comprehend it, that sings the song not only of my life but also of the whole constellation of down and out ladies who are joined with and adhered to me.  Their lives rhyme with mine, and together we make up one great big song that never ever ends.

heavy blankets

heavy blankets cover lonely girls

Like the song that I’m burying these thoughts in, the story my face tells and the song that I’ve got to sing about myself doesn’t really go anywhere, even though it probably ought to.  Lucinda’s “Lonely Girls” is the first song on Essence, the album immediately following her hugely successful, career-changing Car Wheels on a Gravel Road—a foundational record in the annals of what’s referred to as alt-country, but also simply a whole collection of brilliant narrative-driven songs.

“Lonely Girls,” as you can see, doesn’t have a story to tell…at least that’s not what it’s content is focused on doing…the song really doesn’t even have much content to it in the first place.  Like the lonely, ruined women I have been conjuring up the past few weeks as I have attempted to characterize my own romantic image of myself, this song stands alone.  There are no metaphors in the song you see before you either, not really even what we think of as artistic expression.

The things that make and cover over lovely girls are not things at all…not descriptions or literary devices but productions, connections, events, stains and always-echoing echoes.  You sing the song long enough that you become it.

Rocking back and forth both melodically and rhythmically and not moving beyond the kinds of lyrical descriptions and musical associations normally destined for the first verse of a song, “Lonely Girls” doesn’t go anywhere.  However, because of the way the song moves and repeats itself it becomes more like an echo even before you’re a minute in—and when it’s over it’s hard to know how long you’ve been listening; you ask yourself if, perhaps, the song has accidentally gone on repeat.

So goes the life of a lonely girl: destined to repetition and bound to always be too late.  I should know.

sweet sad songs

sweet sad songs

sweet sad songs sung by lonely girls

This last verse, I’ll admit, has sunk into my bucket of regularly used phrases—and, if you’ll notice, my blogging—without my even knowing I was doing it.  “What a wonderful way to put things, Lucinda,” is the phrase I must have looked over the first minute I uttered the phrase “sweet, sad songs,” assuming it was something I’d come up with myself.  But, to her credit as a songwriter and as an alibi for my “creative” plagiarisms, I’d like point out that this is what function a song should play: it sings the story of your life that knew you before you knew it; it makes you a part of the world it creates—fixing you into its lyrics, its cracks, its seams, itself.

Lonely girls may be coming apart at the seams, busted to the gills, broken down and made fragile by their place in the world, but they’ll always have each other; even if they only know themselves through their own personal, languid, remote locations, they know they’re not the only ones out there waiting for their last-call, partner-dancing all by themselves and picking up the pieces that were fractured before the start.

lonely girls

lonely girls

lonely girls

lonely girls

pretty hairdos

pretty hairdos

pretty hairdos worn by lonely girls

sparkly rhinestones

sparkly rhinesstones

sparkly rhinestones shine on lonely girls

Lonely girls

Lonely girls

Lonely girls

Lonely girls

I oughta know

I oughta know

I oughta know about lonely girls

An hour and a half in and I can’t remember where I began.  The song’s been playing on repeat for twice as long as that.  Filling my glass with one last gin and tonic before bed, I’m getting used to the idea of leaving this piece unbalanced and unfinished…how in the world am I supposed to close a piece up neatly that didn’t really even ever properly begin?

I oughta know.

Lonely girls

Lonely girls

Lonely girls

Lonely girls

Dirty Drunk

"Girl sitting on her bed with her shirt off," Diane Arbus

Elena Glasberg


Sober Girl
–Amy Ray

I’m a sober girl

not for any good reason

I found myself on this road I’m on

It felt a lot like treason

To my last girlfriends

Who could never understand

When it comes to love I wanted ….. purity

I felt alone in this world in the city so I got out of there

I found myself at the end of a long dirt road

It felt a lot like nowhere

To my last girlfriends……..

When I was young in every camptown song I sung

I was aching just to be …… with someone

Who could lay me down, where rivers run

who was able, who was free…….

Free of this man made world

And all the bargains we made with fear

They slowly whittle us down to nothing

It felt a lot like despair

But I found someone who was still standin when it was done

And with the purest heart she said these words to me:

When I was young…..

Purity.  That word that just doesn’t fit in this song and I could never hear it, had to have Taylor translate it for me, several times, in fact.  The lyric, its rhythm, just doesn’t make any sense in the context of the song – it always ends the line so awkwardly, against the driving beat.  The word is musically unintelligible.  It seems to exist on another register of meaning altogether. Who but a lesbian would end a rock lyric on love with the non-rhyme “purity”?  But then Taylor’s got to translate so many of Amy Ray’s lyrics for me – I’m trying to get into their heaven, but I seem to live in a far distant psychic world.  I’m a Yankee, for one.  And a terrible lesbian.

I’m never sure to what extent I care about those sobriety narratives.  Or lesbian music culture, which everyone knows exists, if only in some idealized, non-commercial form.  Personally, I never listened to lesbian music – no Melissa Etheridge pressing her nose to the heterosexual window, threatening to seduce those straight girls.  No Indigo Girls!  Only Amy Ray solo for me.  These days Amy Ray makes true, complicated butch music.  Love her contralto, and her mixedness.  I’m interested in the way “Sober Girl” mixes hard rock n roll and the “camptown” songs Amy Ray was subject to in her southern religious upbringing.  Funny how the music that accompanies even the most oppressive dogmas probably saved more people than the teachings themselves.  Even in my heathenish way, I often feel saved by religious music. I might even say that all music is based in religious practice – in parables and incantations (spells).  It can lead to ecstasy — like the twinned guitar solos taking off at the song’s fade out.

“Sober Girl” is the moral-religious soundtrack of contemporary lesbianism.  What does it mean to be sober?  As a goal it lacks “reason.” And leads to isolation: “treason.” Sobriety requires social revolt and risk.  The singer moves from alienated religious childhood, to the bar girls of her young adulthood, finally to achieve self-possession.  The song collides on its divergent origins, the church organ entering the ripping guitars and stuttering, free drumming at the “bridge.” Here, the lyrics about wanting to find “someone who would be still standing when it was done” fold into themselves, rondo-like, and it turns out that that “someone” was you all along.  The alienated church girl turned into an equally alienated righteous lesbian.  Those last girlfriends, “who could never understand” are only the latest exemplars of the ‘man-made world” she needed to flee. I guess you could say, Amy’s (and my) “life was saved by rock n roll” without choking on the irony that a man wrote those lyrics.

The song describes the way I feel about lesbian righteousness and the sub culture’s sad tendency toward censoriousness (that would include a lack of appreciation for lou reed, the rock n roll animal).  You know, the identity wars, butch-femme drama, enforced folksiness and general culture of political earnestness that continues in different dress today. Sober is such a loaded term.  I’ve always been the sober one at the party.  But that’s not the same as being righteous or the one “standing when it was all done.” No, all those drunks can weigh you down.  Once (an obviously very castigating) girlfriend even suggested I was a “dry drunk,” a person who, without actually having the fun of boozing manages to display all the pathologies of unsobriety.  Well, talk about high and mighty!  Sometimes escaping back out that long dirt road seems less like victory than, well, treason.  And does treason sort of rhyme with the last word, “free’?  Freedom can be more isolating than alienation – at least alienation’s an identity.  Freedom can just feel like lost.

For a sober butch in a lesbian culture drunk on righteousness… being the sober butch has always felt a lot nowhere.  And now there’s a new substance – testosterone.  Everyone’s drunk on masculinity in a bottle, whether they’re taking it themselves or just rubbernecking.  For a middle aged butch this is one more scene that “feels a lot like nowhere”…..