Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Friday, May 14, 2004
Cheap Music
Noël Coward got it spot on when he marvelled at the potency of "cheap music". Play Fauré's Requiem, and the greater part of the country will wonder what all the fuss is about and go off and listen to Kylie instead. But plonk Elton behind the old Joanna with a vulgar, trashy and totally apposite reworking of "Candle in the Wind", and he captures perfectly the hysterical mood of an entire nation (well, apart from me, that is), and gets himself a knighthood into the bargain.

It's amazing how evocative of time and place some music can be. Every couple, past, present, or plotting revenge, has "their" song; and while there are masses who can think of far better things for God to do than save the Queen, I suspect there are few English people who aren't just a tiny bit moved by the patriotic zeal and vision of "Jerusalem".

Other memories are much more personal. Terry Jacks' frankly otherwise quite atrocious version of "Seasons in the Sun" takes me back to my "O"-levels and one of the hottest summers on record when the temperature was so high the ground began to crack. On my first trip to New York, and at the precise moment my yellow cab cleared a corner to give me my first sight of that night-time skyline, "Like A Virgin" blasted out at me from the car speakers. "Touched for the very first time," sang Madge. If only she knew. And I'd love to tell you what associations Patti Smith's "Horses" holds for me, but if I did Blogger would very probably close me down.

Of course, the memories aren't always that pleasant. I can't listen to "An Englishman In New York", Sting's homage to Quentin Crisp, without thinking of a former flat-mate, because that was on continuous loop on the hospital radio as we waited for him to die. And whenever I hear the vomitous "Wind Beneath My Wings", I'm time-warped back to flying in a small plane over the Masai Mara with the one who'd later end up breaking my —

Er. Sorry. Don't know what came over me there. Now, where was I? Oh yes, evocative music.

I was reminded about this the other night, when I was going off on one of my usual three-and-a-half Stella rants, this one about gay anthems, those overlong, over-hyped, over-produced pieces of pink pish which purport to define and unite an entire community whose only common interest is what, or more precisely who, they'd like to get up to with their willies.

I was expected to choose as my fag-fave some hands-in-the-air, amyl-up-the-nostril G.A.Y crowd pleaser like "I Will Survive" or "I Am What I Am", or maybe even "YMCA" or at least something from Steps, which is a fair indication of the opinion certain people have of me round these parts. Instead I went for "Somewhere", from West Side Story.

I first heard this in its homo-context a few years ago at the After Party of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras (something else over-hyped, over-produced and over not a moment too soon if you want my opinion). Then, a six-foot, slinky, black drag queen came on stage, dressed all in white, and sang to the accompaniment of a single piano:
There's a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us

The song's gentle yearning for nothing more than peace and acceptance stunned into shocked and respectful silence a thousands-strong dancefloor of sweaty Muscle Marys. (The pharmaceuticals may also have played not a small part in it, however…)

I next heard it round about a year later, after the fatal bomb attack on the Admiral Duncan pub, right in the heart of London's gay ghetto village. I was running late that Friday evening, otherwise I might have dropped in there for a drink. I would certainly have been passing by. Two of my friends were inside when the bomb went off; thankfully they survived with only minor injuries and burns, but even today, five years after the event, the memories linger, and the staff still search your bag when you visit.

The pub reopened about six weeks later, fittingly on the Friday before that year's Gay Pride/ Mardi Gras/ Big Gay Out, or whatever the fageratti were calling it that particular year. I took along to the re-opening ceremony in a packed Old Compton Street one of the friends who'd been in the pub at the time the bomb went off, the idea being to help exorcise the ghost of the attack as soon as possible. After the speeches and messages of support had been read, and the bells of St Anne's church had tolled for each one of the dead and the injured, someone, I don't know who, came to the open first-floor window, and sang once again that song from West Side Story, no longer a song of yearning but now a two-fingers to homophobes more powerful than all your Gloria Gaynors put together, and for one all too brief period also an affirmation of community:
We'll find a new way of living,
We'll find a way of forgiving
There's a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Time together with time to spare,
Time to learn, time to care…
Hold my hand and I'll take you there,
Hold my hand and we're halfway there.

Oh, sod it. You had to be there. Or just a big old softy Stranger like me.