When I was a young teenager and I first started drinking, early Rod Stewart and Queen were always in the rotation. I grew up in a mostly white small town. I can’t say that to my knowledge I ever encountered anyone that was openly gay until at least college. The words faggot and queer were tossed around as they often are by young males, though more often than not that meant you were being a pussy and didn’t have any overtly gay association. (Though I know some will argue that it doesn’t matter. I personally don’t believe any word should be off limits. It is always the intent that matters. Words are just sounds and banning any of them forces people to use other words that allows them to hide their intentions better. But this can be a topic for another day.)
Anyway, the point that I want to make is that even music that isn’t overtly political can have political reverberations by allowing one to empathize with different kinds of people. The Rod Stewart song above, The Killing of Georgie (Part I & II), was a favorite amongst my friends and I. It has that easy groove and wistful melody that sounds great when you are knocking ’em back. The song is about the sad life of a gay man that is eventually murdered. However, rather than being an overtly sad song, Rod brings love to his portrait of Georgie:
Georgie Boy was gay I guess
Nothing more and nothing less
The kindest guy I ever knew
And later in the song:
The last time I saw George alive
Was in the summer of ’75
He said he was in love, I said I’m pleased
This song would bring about debate amongst my friends and I about how we would respond to Georgie. Now remember we were early teenage boys, most of whom were football players, growing up in a small town. And while we were in the cups, in a state of drunken merriment, we would say that we would respond just like Rod did: “He said he was in love, I said I’m pleased.” We would say that nonchalantly and shrug our shoulders, showing that we too wouldn’t care if Georgie was gay or not. Although my parents are very liberal, most of my friends grew up in moderately conservative families. I’m not saying there was any deep thinking going on in those nights, only that Rod’s songwriting had opened a little door, by connecting emotionally, in which a bunch of young straight males, that didn’t even know any gay people, in a time that was less excepting than now, could say to each other that it was OK to be gay.
Queen would also be played on many of those nights. By the time we were listening to Freddie, he had already died from AIDS. Although in watching Queen videos it isn’t hard to guess that Freddie was batting for both teams, by the time we discovered him there was no doubt that he was bisexual. Someone would say something like, while a Queen record was on, “Does it bother you that Freddie is gay?” And someone would always reply along the lines of, “Nah, it’s Freddie.” He was our friend and our companion on nights of revelry.
The past is faded now, and a bit blurry as well due to the booze, but I know for a fact that Rod’s song and Freddie Mercury’s whole persona allowed us to be more tolerant than we very well otherwise might have been. Neither artist was a political firebrand. But by simply creating something with emotional content, and by not being afraid to either be themselves or express how they felt, there was a little more understanding in the world.
As sort of a postscript I want to bring up one more idea. Larry Kirwan, of Black 47, whose autobiography is one of the greatest rock n roll books ever, wrote in that book about how story songs are the best way to communicate political ideas. This is because they don’t address the politics of something head on, but create a character that, if it is done right, makes the listener not help but be able to empathize with them. Now I love political songs of all kinds, many that are outright combative, but I think there is some truth to what he says. I think Rod’s song is a great example of that. You can’t help feeling for Georgie listening to it, unless you are an asshole of course. A song that had maybe been more military in its championing of gay rights might not have reached young boys in the same way. Just an idea to think about…
“Cause youth’s a mask and it don’t last
Live it long and live it fast”
Georgie was a friend of mine