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.