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Gays prominent at Amy Grant’s Nashville weekend

Gathering reminds how much is missing of singer’s touring history

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Weekend before last, a friend and I made a road trip to Nashville to spend a weekend with Amy Grant and 550 of her nearest and dearest. It was a great weekend — $50,000 was raised for various charities Grant supports, the music performed (almost all requests) was a long-time fan’s dream come true and the Gospel Music Hall of Famer and six-time Grammy winner was as accessible and approachable as was realistically possible considering those attending were among the all-time die hards, a few of whom had vulture-like tendencies everytime Grant appeared.

That gays — and at least one lesbian couple and one trans woman — were among the group was hardly surprising. We’ve been among the most vocal in her fan circles for years. Most non-church folks remember Grant only for a few early ’90s hits (“Baby Baby,” “Every Heartbeat”). Though her catalog has aged well, she’s not deemed terribly high on the hip quotient. Even one of the charity recipients said, “Amy Grant — isn’t she Vince Gill’s wife?”

But for a generation of gay men who grew up in Baptist and Evangelical churches in the ’80s, Grant was so much more than that and, no exaggeration, a lifeline. Contemporary Christian Music had its own parallel universe divas — Sandi Patty, Twila Paris, Margaret Becker, et. al. — and Grant, who in many ways had and maintains a very non-diva-esque persona, was queen of the lot. But that’s just one of the ironies of Grant’s career — she also stumbled into the music biz without really trying, has always been upfront about her modest pipes (she’s really a better songwriter than singer) and, despite a bounty of RIAA Platinum albums, never fully fit in in either the gospel or pop establishments.

Amy Grant with fans at her farm in Franklin, Tenn., last weekend. (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

Those of us in fan circles have discussed ad nauseum Grant’s public handling of her gay fans (or lack thereof). She’s warm, friendly, gamely poses for photos with male couples, etc., but is careful never to state her personal feelings one way or the other. One understands to a degree — she’s in a no-win situation. As was obvious from the attendees last weekend, most of Grant’s fans are Gen. X and post-Boomer soccer moms from the Bible belt. We all seem to mix pretty well. I hope they feel the same. But Grant would alienate a large part of her fan base if she were to come out one way or the other on her feelings of the Bible and homosexuality. There’s a clamoring among gay fans, of course, for her to be more unequivocal. Nobody’s expecting Lady Gaga-caliber activism, but heck, even the late Tammy Faye Bakker Messner was more openly gay accepting than Grant. Perhaps, though, having lost everything already, Tammy Faye had nothing left to lose (Tammy Faye even joined us at Capital Pride about 10 years ago …. Ahhhh, Tammy Faye, how I miss thee).

Grant does occasionally take risks — it will undoubtedly seem like a non-issue to many, but monogrammed bottles of Jack Daniels with Amy Grant nameplates were sold for $100 a pop at her farm, which she opened to guests on June 23. It all went to charity but the irony was delicious — I’m old enough to recall the outraged reactions in the ’80s when Grant said in an early interview that she occasionally imbibed. Folks at my parents’ church were apoplectic.

It’s never been a big deal to me, either the booze or the gay stuff. Some fans, so eager to glean the slightest glimmer of acceptance (are we really that desperate for validation?), latched on to an off-the-cuff remark she made during the weekend when a guest southern gospel singer, telling a story about a drag queen who’d parodied his wife, said his group had a large gay following (Grant acknowledged she did as well).

The draws for me have always been Grant’s music and personality. There’s a freshness, a buoyancy, to her music that, though it sounds stylistically dated, never really goes away. It goes back to the first album — lyrics and energetic Brown Bannister production around lines like, “The sun woke me up real early it’s a beautiful morn/so I’m goin’ down to the river to be reborn” still resonate 35 years after they were put down on wax. My parents, both products of stodgy, old school mainline and Roman Catholic versions of Christianity, had early-’70s born again experiences and for them and their fellow Boomers, there was a parallel Jesus music/born again fever sweeping the country the same time Stonewall and the modern gay rights movement was kicking off. This is no coincidence — hippie ideals weren’t sustainable, of course, but what they did bring us was a shucking off of the ’50s mindset on all kinds of issues. In terms of gay stuff, faith, and a whole lot more, this was not your parents’ (my grandparents’) America. Grant got in on sort of the tail end of that but shot off into the stratosphere in the early ’80s. By then, things had calmed down and she became the voice of a churchgoing, Bible Belt generation with songs like “El Shaddai,” “Sing Your Praise to the Lord” and “Thy Word.”

Bored eventually with straight-up gospel, she gradually started flirting with pop music and following a hit No. 1 duet with Peter Cetera in ’87 (“Next Time I Fall”), she had a full-on hit pop album of her own by 1991 (“Heart in Motion”). But she never fully went one way or the other. At the point in which an all-out pop album would have made the most sense — just following the Cetera hit — she went the other direction and made an impressionistic gospel album, “Lead Me On.” Its singles tanked on pop radio but it went onto become her critical peak and has been called (by CCM magazine, et. al.) the best gospel album of all time. Likewise, when “Heart in Motion” was going through the roof a few years later, Grant was careful to let people know she hadn’t sold out as she was so often accused of doing by the hardliners (she gets bonus points, in my opinion, for having been condemned by Jimmy Swaggart). The album closes with the all-out praise song “Hope Set High” (“if there’s anything good that happens in life, it’s from Jesus”), a song she memorably performed last weekend.

So were the young gays of the era, hopelessly stranded in the Bible Belt with no hope of escape until college, just latching on to the closest thing we could get to a lighthouse in Grant? Not really — it’s deeper than that. I and many I know were also listening to Madonna, Janet Jackson, Cyndi Lauper and Tina Turner (we all figured “Private Dancer” was her first album) back then too, even if we had to sneak their tapes into the house. It’s hard to know if Grant meant any of this intentionally or if it was her own way of sneaking in some stuff past the gatekeepers, but there are glimmers of gay hope dotted all throughout her discography from as early as 1980 when she sang the lyrics her then-husband, Gary Chapman, had written (“all I ever have to be is what you made me/any more or less would be a step out of your plan”) to her own lyrics just a year later (“being this person inside of me/unafraid of being me/no more faces to hide behind …/even if I am the only one who wants to fly”) and even much later, with the 2003 song “Out in the Open” (“there is no jury, there is no judge/ready and waiting are the steady arms of love”). If it all sounds vague or like searching for something that’s not there, keep in mind, more often than not, Grant was nearly as subtle with her Christian references. It seems laughable now, but people used to parse her lyric sheets and balk at how few references there were to Jesus and/or God anytime she had a new album out, noting how increasingly infrequent they were becoming.

I don’t particularly care what Grant’s personal views are on homosexuality. Sure, it would be great if she would at least take the Dolly Parton approach to embracing/acknowledging us. Lord knows we need all the help we can get on the LGBT rights front where each step ahead feels like pulling teeth. But conversely, what does it say about us as fans if we need some sort of acknowledgement from our favorite singers? I do get it — when you’ve invested emotionally and financially in a singer/brand who’s meant so much to you, especially during the raw, painful formative years (and let me tell you, it’s lonely being the only gay fish in an evangelical, Bible Belt pond when you’re 13), it means a lot to know those you admire are on board. But as adults, ultimately that need for validation says more about our own desperation than anything it might suggest about Grant. For the record, Sandi Patty, perhaps my other all-time favorite singer, is just as evasive. There are quietly gay people in her camp and she once told a group of gay fans who hosted a tribute post-show event for her in New York that she was “feeling the love,” but she, too, stops short of any condoning type-of statement. They’ll both talk to any small-town newspaper in which they happen to have an upcoming show, yet my Blade interview requests go curiously unacknowledged. Perhaps they feel they’ve already rocked their Christian fan bases enough having spent the last 10-15 years rebuilding after each going through controversial divorces (Sandi’s first husband, John Helvering, and Amy’s, Gary Chapman, were huge parts of their touring entourages in the ’80s; John ran sound for Sandi; Gary was Amy’s band director on several of her biggest tours).

My ultimate frustration with loving these singers falls into a whole other category entirely — to my endless chagrin, whole chapters of their touring history are missing in action. Sure, I love mainstream pop and rock too, but if you’re a Stevie Nicks fan or, merciful heavens, a Tori Amos fan, and you’re willing to look in some, ahem, unofficial places, you can find audio circulating of practically every show they’ve ever done. Same with the Stones, Bob Dylan, Springsteen — all the big dogs you’d expect. Other acts, like Pearl Jam, have recognized the insatiable appetites of their staunchest legions, and have released “official” bootlegs, manna from heaven for those who’ve worn out the studio recordings and spent many hard-earned dollars following them around. Even Cyndi Lauper, who traditionally has varied up her live show way more than, say Madonna or Janet, has a surprisingly rich bevy of fan-generated recordings out there. Different artists have different feelings on this sort of thing (the Grateful Dead famously encouraged it), but the sticking point for many is that it’s OK as long as you don’t attempt to profit off it.

Amy and Sandi both fall into that category — Sandi didn’t even bat an eye when people plunked down camcorders on mini-tripods at a Nashville event she hosted last year — and yet huge swaths of their concert-giving history are unaccounted for. And I’m not talking about obscure stuff, either — tours like Amy’s “Heart in Motion Tour” and Sandi’s “Another Time Another Place Tour” were mammoth operations playing arenas for months on end all around the country 20 years ago. On one hand, it’s not terribly shocking — these are not singers, historically, with wildly inventive bands who shook up their set lists drastically from night to night. However, when 25 years has gone by and you can’t even find a complete set list and no official live album or VHS concert tape was ever released, this brings its own level of frustration. These people have spent half their lives on the road, yet there’s precious little evidence that they’ve even left their living rooms.

Just for the record, my holy grails in this vein are — Sandi: anything pre-’83, the ’84-’85 “From the Heart Tour” (her first cross-country jaunt), the ’91-’92 “Another Time Another Place Tour” or the ’98 “Artist of My Soul”-era dates. For Amy: always wondered how complete the “Age to Age” concert video is — at 90 minutes including Gary’s set, one imagines a few numbers might have ended up on the cutting room floor. Only a handful of individual numbers have ever surfaced from the 18-month-long “Unguarded Tour” — surely somebody taped this at least one night (soundboard tapes were reportedly made each night but have never surfaced in fan circles). Also curiously missing from trading circles is her biggest tour ever — the “Heart in Motion Tour.” Audio has been known to exist, but nobody I’ve ever talked to claims to have it. I’m totally down for a no-profit swap if anybody has any of this stuff.

If there’s an upside to all this, it’s that Amy and Sandi are still out there and active. Patty records regularly and has released an album almost every year of the last decade. Grant only records here and there (she’s reportedly working on a new album), but she tours almost constantly. It’s a blessing I don’t take for granted as a few of my other favorites from the era — Paris and Becker — have, with precious few exceptions, completely stopped recording and touring.

Time to move on and get a life? Yeah, probably, but isn’t it uncanny how deep the nerve is that takes you back to the first music you ever discovered on your own? For me, it defies explanation. And so the quest/obsession continues. I’m even — don’t laugh — planning to check out a D.C. Women of Faith conference in August. Ordinarily I’d rather sit home and watch paint dry (I’ve left much of that theology long behind), but — holy of holies — Amy and Sandi are BOTH scheduled to be there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gender expression is fluid in captivating ‘Paul & Trisha’ doc

Exploring what’s possible when you allow yourself to become who you truly are

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Paul Whitehead and Trisha van Cleef in ‘Paul & Trisha.’ (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

Given the polarizing controversies surrounding the subject of gender in today’s world, it might feel as if challenges to the conventional “norms” around the way we understand it were a product of the modern age. They’re not, of course; artists have been exploring the boundaries of gender  – both its presentation and its perception – since long before the language we use to discuss the topic today was ever developed. After all, gender is a universal experience, and isn’t art, ultimately, meant to be about the sharing of universal experiences in a way that bypasses, or at least overcomes, the limitations of language?

We know, we know; debate about the “purpose” of art is almost as fraught with controversy as the one about gender identity, but it’s still undeniable that art has always been the place to find ideas that contradict or question conventional ways of viewing the world. Thanks to the heavy expectation of conformity to society’s comfortable “norms”  in our relationship with gender, it’s inevitable that artists might chafe at such restrictive assumptions enough to challenge them – and few have committed quite so completely to doing so as Paul Whitehead, the focus of “Paul & Trisha: The Art of Fluidity,” a new documentary from filmmaker Fia Perera which enjoyed a successful run on the festival circuit and is now available for pre-order on iTunes and Apple TV ahead of a VOD/streaming release on July 9.

Whitehead, who first gained attention and found success in London’s fertile art-and-fashion scene of the mid 1960s, might not be a household name, but he has worked closely with many people who are. A job as an in-house illustrator at a record company led to his hiring as the first art director for the UK Magazine Time Out, which opened the door for even more prominent commissions for album art – including a series of iconic covers for Genesis, Van der Graaf, Generator, and Peter Hammill, which helped to shape the visual aesthetic of the Progressive Rock movement with his bold, surrealistic pop aesthetic, and worked as an art director for John Lennon for a time. Moving to Los Angeles in 1973, his continuing work in the music industry expanded to encompass a wide variety of commercial art and landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records as painter of the largest indoor mural in the world inside the now-demolished Vegas World Casino in Las Vegas. As a founder of the Eyes and Ears Foundation, he conceived and organized the “Artboard Festival”, which turned a stretch of L.A. roadway into a “drive-through art gallery” with donated billboards painted by participating artists.

Perera’s film catches up with Whitehead in the relatively low-profile city of Ventura, Calif., where the globally renowned visual artist now operates from a combination studio and gallery in a strip mall storefront. Still prolific and producing striking artworks (many of them influenced and inspired by his self-described “closet Hinduism”), the film reveals a man who, far from coming off as elderly, seems ageless; possessed of a rare mix of spiritual insight and worldly wisdom, he is left by the filmmaker to tell his own story by himself, and he embraces the task with the effortless verve of a seasoned raconteur. For roughly the first half of the film, we are treated to the chronicle of his early career provided straight from the source, without “talking head” commentaries or interview footage culled from entertainment news archives, and laced with anecdotes and observations that reveal a clear-headedness, along with a remarkable sense of self-knowledge and an inspiring freedom of thought, that makes his observations feel like deep wisdom. He’s a fascinating host, taking us on a tour of the life he has lived so far, and it’s like spending time with the most interesting guy at the party.

It’s when “Art of Fluidity” introduces its second subject, however, that things really begin to get interesting, because as Whitehead was pushing boundaries as an in-demand artist, he was also pushing boundaries in other parts of his life. Experimenting with his gender identity through cross-dressing since the 1960s, what began tentatively as an “in the bedroom” fetish became a long-term process of self-discovery that resulted in the emergence of “converged artist” Trisha Van Cleef, a feminine manifestation of Whitehead’s persona who has been creating art of her own since 2004. Neither dissociated “alter ego” nor performative character, Trisha might be a conceptual construct, in some ways, but she’s also a very authentic expression of personal gender perception who exists just as definitively as Paul Whitehead. They are, like the seeming opposites of yin and yang, two sides of the same fundamental and united nature.

Naturally, the bold process of redefining one’s personal relationship with gender is not an easy one, and part of what makes Trisha so compelling is the challenge she represents to Paul – and, by extension, the audience – by co-existing with him in his own life. She pushes him to step beyond his fears – such as his concerns about the hostile attitude of the shopkeeper next door and the danger of bullying, brutality, and worse when Trisha goes out in public – and embrace both sides of his nature instead of trying to force himself to be one or the other alone. And while the film doesn’t shy away from addressing the brutal reality about the risk of violence against non-gender-conforming people in our culture, it also highlights what is possible when you choose to allow yourself to become who you truly are.

As a sort of disclaimer, it must be acknowledged that some viewers may take issue with some of Whitehead’s personal beliefs about gender identity, which might not quite mesh with prevailing ideas and could be perceived as “problematic” within certain perspectives. Similarly, the depth of his engagement with Hindu cosmology might be off-putting to audiences geared toward skepticism around any spiritually inspired outlook on the world. However, it’s clear within the larger context of the documentary that both Paul and Trisha speak only for themselves, expressing a personal truth that does not nullify or deny the personal truth of anyone else. Further, one of the facets that gives “Art of Fluidity” its mesmerizing, upbeat charm is the sense that we are watching an ongoing evolution, a work in progress in which an artist is still discovering the way forward. There’s no insinuation that any aspect of Paul or Trisha’s shared life is definitive, rather we come to see them as a united pair, in constant flux, moving through the world together, as one, and becoming more like themselves every step of the way.

That’s something toward which we all would be wise to aspire; the acceptance of all of our parts and the understanding that we are always in the process of becoming something else would certainly go a long way toward making a happier, friendlier world.

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PHOTOS: Pride Rewind

Official Sapphic Queer Dance Party held at The Square

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(Washington Blade photo by Emily Hanna)

The Capital Pride Alliance held its “Pride Rewind: Official Sapphic Queer Dance Party” at The Square (1850 K Street, N.W.) on Saturday, June 8.

(Washington Blade photos by Emily Hanna)

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PHOTOS: Pride on the Pier and Fireworks Show

Washington Blade holds annual event at The Wharf

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2024 Pride on the Pier (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Washington Blade and the Ladies of LURe held the Pride on the Pier and Fireworks Show at The Wharf on Saturday, June 8. The fireworks were presented by the Leonard-Litz LGBTQ Foundation.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key and Emily Hanna; Wildside Media photos used with permission; @marvimage photo used with permission)

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