by Jon Hunt
In honor of Pride week, We Will Rock You highlights five pioneering (but sadly underappreciated) gay musicians from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
1. Curt Boettcher. In the multicolored creative explosion that was Los Angeles in the mid-to-late-’60s, there was no finer auteur and studio rat than the great Curt Boettcher. As a producer and arranger, he was remarkable. His work with the Association (And Then…Along Comes The Association) helped create an entire genre (sunshine pop) that would become much-lauded and influential. But it is as a bandleader that he truly shone. Across the course of two albums (Present Tense by Sagittarius, which he worked on with Byrds producer Gary Usher, and Begin by the Millennium) he shone like a beacon, producing staggering pop symphonies that reportedly had even the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson shuddering behind his mixing board. Both albums feature an aggregate of songwriters and singers molded into a uniform, harmony-laden, high-singing whole. If you wanna know where Big Star and the power-poppers of the early ’70s got it, look no further. Sadly, both albums were expensive failures. Boettcher did a couple of solo albums and some production work in the ’70s before dying young in relative obscurity in the late ’80s. But his legacy lives on: Sundazed Records’ high-profile reissue of Present Tense and Begin have given Boettcher much-deserved posthumous recognition as a studio legend.
2. Judee Sill. Laura Nyro gets all the press (and the deserved Rock Hall of Fame induction, finally) and Joni Mitchell gets all the accolades, but my favorite singer/songwriter of the early ’70s by a comfortable country mile is the brilliant, stormy Judee Sill. Struggling all her life with drug addiction and depression, Sill is that girl in your high school class that got sent to the “Teens In Trouble” class but came out fighting. She only made two albums in her lifetime, but what records! Her self-titled debut, entirely written and arranged by Sill and sung in her wavering alto voice, is chock-full of sad, gorgeous songs. Listen to the tender lilt of “Crayon Angels,” the tragic bounce of “Jesus was a Crossmaker” or the remarkably sad but purely honeyed “Lady-O” – this is the real stuff, straight from the gut. The follow up, Heart Food, is even better, featuring remarkable songs like “The Pearl” and “When The Bridegroom Comes” that feature pseudo-religious imagery mixed with self-recrimination and unrequited love and a metric ton of pure feeling. She never finished a third record, and died in 1979 of a drug overdose. The Hollies’ version of “Crossmaker” was featured in “Elizabethtown” and Fleet Foxes have been touting “Crayon Angels” in concert.
3. Jobriath. The first out gay artist to be signed to a major label, Jobriath is frequently dismissed as a product of the ’70s hype machine, as his ambitious, glammy debut album was heavily pushed as America’s answer to David Bowie. An enormous publicity campaign preceded its release, including full-page ads and a mammoth billboard in Times Square. A combination of anti-hype suspicion and good old-fashioned American homophobia combined to make Jobriath’s first album a mammoth flop, and it’s now viewed, quite unfairly, as all moustache and no cowboy; a case of the Emperor quite literally having no clothes. It is, however, quite a terrific album despite all this. Imagine a quite-po-faced cross between Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie and The Rocky Horror Picture Show with a touch of Grand Guignol stirred into the mix. Jobriath plays Space God magnificently, and he has a hell of a voice – listen to him coo and bark his way through songs like “World Without End” and the gorgeous “Space Clown” and marvel that this wasn’t a bigger hit. Jobriath was one of the first gay musicians to be felled by AIDS; he died in 1983. One very high-profile Jobriath booster has been glam-fan Morrissey, who managed to get a CD reissue released, finally – but he’s due for a revival/reassessment. Let’s start here.
4. Klaus Nomi. If you haven’t seen The Nomi Song, the documentary about performance artist/opera singer/New Wave pioneer Klaus Nomi, you must. You will fall madly in love with the man and his art. If you don’t, and you happen across his music at a party (I like to play Klaus just to get people’s reactions), you might rightly wonder what the hell you’re hearing, or whether the whole thing is a joke – Klaus sings pop songs, classic soul numbers and musical theater in a perfect operatic soprano (or technically countertenor) , dressed in an angular dadaist suit, his face painted white and his lips painted into a permanent black pucker. It’s theater and parody, sure, but it’s pure talent. What the hell do you do with a guy who sings that marvelously (and that weirdly!) but write him some unbelievably forward-thinking proto-new-wave songs to sing over? Klaus died in 1983 in the same tragic first wave that Jobriath did. If you’ve got an open mind (and wondered who the hell that was behind David Bowie on his SNL performance of “Ashes to Ashes”), let Klaus Nomi mess you up a little bit.
5. Wayne/Jayne County. Wayne County (later Jayne County) was rock’s first transgender singer. Part of the same New York protopunk scene that gave us the New York Dolls, the Ramones and Television, and a member of Andy Warhol’s Factory crew, County had a series of bands (Queen Elizabeth, Wayne County and the Backstreet Boys, Wayne County and the Electric Chairs) that recorded little but were influential on everybody from David Bowie (who signed her to his MainMan management company and reportedly borrowed the is-she-a-boy-or-a-girl vibe of her song “Queenage Baby” for “Rebel Rebel”) to the early British punks (County moved to London in ’77 just as that scene was emerging). She is perhaps best known for her seminal punk single “Fuck Off,” which featured the first recorded appearance by a young Jools Holland. If you wanna get the full Wayne County vibe, track down a copy (often on grey-market boots) of At The Trucks, a 1974 live appearance of the Backstreet Boys recorded at great expense (and never released) by MainMan – it’s equal parts New York Dolls trash and Bowie swagger.