March 2010 Script
THE MUSIC & THE POLITICS - THEN AND NOW
This is Queer Music Heritage with JD Doyle, and this month I'm taking you back musically and politically to the early 90s. The theme of the show is Queer Nation. That was a direct action organization that popularized the chant "we're here, we're queer, get used to it," "we're here, we're queer, get used to it," "we're here, we're queer, get used to it,"
Here's Rick Cresswell of the band Queer Conscience, talking about their song "It's a Queer Nation"
Rick Cresswell: Well, it's a very simple message. It's just that we're here and we're not going away.
Queer Conscience - It's a Queer Nation (1992)
Again this is JD Doyle and in a way I think that every Queer Music Heritage show I've done in the last ten years has had a political angle to it, in that getting the music and the message of our lives out there is an important statement. But this month I'm going to put the politics front and center. The theme of both segments of the show will be Queer Nation. And I've got some I think special ways to do this. That includes interviews with the band Queer Conscience in this segment and in Part 2 with a wonderful new and very political duo calling themselves Good Asian Drivers, and of course I squeeze in other goodies as well. You already have an introduction to the band Queer Conscience. Before we hear their interview I want to give you some background information, and I'm going to do that in a couple ways. Queer Nation was a direct action organization founded in New York City in early 1990 by members of the group called Act Up. And it quickly spread to a number of cities around the country. And you can't really understand Queer Nation unless you know about Act Up. I happen to be able to do that musically. This comes from my October 2008 show where I got Scott Free to talk about his CD "The Pink Album," and his song, called "Act Up Fight Back." It's about time someone wrote a song called "Act Up Fight Back"
Scott Free: You know, I really felt like I had to devote a number of songs to AIDS. I couldn't skip over it. I couldn't do it lightly. AIDS has been, for 15 years it was just this black cloud that existed over our lives, and I didn't want to belittle it, and I knew, in my opinion, ACT UP saved hundreds of thousands of people's lives, because they were out there just causing riots to get the drug companies to get those drugs out to people faster than was the normal slow system. And I really struggled with how am I going to write a song about that, and then I was just web-searching, and I found a website that had just documented all of their protests, and I thought, oh, this is perfect. I just grabbed all their protest slogans and made a song out of it, and as I started to record it I was like, oh, wow, I'm onto something here, because I just can't, I can't ever think of a song that is an actual instead of a quote unquote protest song from the 60s, this is an actual protest song.
Scott Free - Act Up Fight Back (2008)
A powerful song called "Act Up Fight Back," by Scott Free. Okay, that was a bit of the Act Up story, and I wanted to also give you background on Queer Nation. To do that I, contacted Ray Hill. Now, no one would dispute that Ray Hill is the father of the gay movement in Houston and has, either behind the scenes or way out front, been at the pulse of the city's GLBT progress, for about 50 years, and I'm very pleased to say I've known Ray a long time, and pleased to bring you this short interview with him.
Ray Hill Interview (2010)
[ background music: Dennis Milone - Inner Space, from CD "Propinquity," 2003 ]
Can you briefly describe the national organization Queer Nation?
Ray Hill: Well, we had been doing remarkable progress on the GLBT movement until the AIDS crisis came in, and then that being a more pressing priority ACT-UP kind of took the forefront and used a lot of energy in making progress in defending people's lives and protecting them through reforms with ACT-UP and meanwhile the GLBT stuff was pushed to the back of the stage and wasn't getting a lot of play, and a group of activists both nationally and locally in Houston decided, "wait a minute, this ain't right. We have this other work and what we do about AIDS is important," thus emerged a group of people using activism in the fashion of ACT-UP on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered issues. Thus Queer Nation.
For those who don't know ACT-UP, what was their tactic?
RH: Well, ACT-UP was very confrontational, and it needed to be because we were dealing with people that were not just subject to arrest and abuse. We're dealing with people who were subject to die. And we had great big burly enemies, all of the church people were saying AIDS was God's curse upon gay people and that had to be addressed. The first battle that ACT-UP fought was to keep AIDS from being named Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome, GRID, and whenever you've got a major disease named after your group, that's hell on earth, so we had to fight that battle and it was decided that very confrontational, in-your-face kind of strategies is what was needed to happen, in those pressing priorities and that's what ACT-UP became and Queer Nation kind of immolated those activist patterns for other issues.
My research indicates that Houston was one of the more active cities in the country for Queer Nation. Were you involved in the Queer Nation activities in Houston and could you talk about them.
RH: The Houston Queer Nation movement not only continues to straighten out the issues that had evolved with ACT-UP but also took a different form, a more egalitarian form, they didn't even have permanent officers, they changed chairs from meeting to meeting. It was a very egalitarian structure that I personally like, because I think moving the responsibilities around is a better way to approach those things.
Do you recall some of the particular Queer Nation protests in Houston?
RH: Yeah, in Houston probably one of the most effective uses of Queer Nation was one generated by me, because I wound up with the police stuff. And when Paul Broussard was killed the police said, "we're not going to solve this case," so I went to Queer Nation, asked for their assistance and they came forward with a massive demonstration, 4,000 people at the corner of Westheimer and Montrose one night, and that made headline news and we kept the story alive and with continued activities of Queer Nation for weeks until the case was solved.
"Hey, Hey, Ho Ho, Homophobia's Got To Go! Hey, Hey, Ho Ho, Homophobia's Got To Go!"
Thanks to a YouTube video of news coverage, I was able to slip in there some of the actual chanting from the demonstration Ray just described.
I've read there were some other activities, like the firing of people and the Republican National Convention.
RH: Well, the Republican Convention (August 1992) was the one national Queer Nation activity in Houston. The senior George Bush had maneuvered the Republican Convention at our Astrodome and while they were in town we decided to put on a show, that was planned actually by national Queer Nation leadership, and that resulted in typical Houston police riots, where the only time in my career that I was part of a group that after which I had to go by hospitals and check on people and by jails and check on people. Generally you try to keep people out of jails and hospitals following demonstrations, but that one it didn't work.
We're talking of the early 90's and the militant protest style of Queer Nation contrasted sharply with most of the gay organizations then, which were trying to work within the system. Do you think Queer Nation was successful and what about the conflict between the other organizations?
RH: Well, there really was no conflict. There was a lot of back talk, back room discussion, but conflict is something that our movement is not familiar with. We all agree on the overall goals. Methodology is discussed. But if you're looking for ill feelings between the more established GLBT groups and Queer Nation, that really never happened. Prior to Queer Nation getting formed I had always played the bad guy. That's my role in Houston. The more establishment people held the titles in the organizations, and I went out and rubbed the cat hair the wrong direction and then pushed the authorities into the arms of the more establishment people, and they would say, well, look we've got this, get a little more to keep Ray settled down. Well, when Queer Nation turned up my role changed. I became the good cop and they remained the bad cop, and so I enjoyed a change of roles for as long as the organization existed.
Looking back now, almost 20 years, what do you think is the legacy of Queer Nation
RH: We made rapid progress in struggling toward GLBT equality at a time when most of the energy had recently prior to that been devoted to HIV and AIDS issues, and it kept the charge toward our equality as a people going after we had taken a sabbatical for that. It continued the movement, which continues today, in a different form. Houston now has a lesbian mayor. We wouldn't have a lesbian mayor if Queer Nation hadn't filled the gap in their era.
Do you believe that Queer Nation helped reclaim the word queer?
RH: Absolutely. That is anthropologically, it not only reclaimed the word queer, it tidied it up considerably. Their direct confrontational efforts made the word respectable because of the courage.
You're so good at this. I've got plenty, could you do a drop, this is Ray Hill, and you're listening to Queer Music Heritage.
RH: This is Ray Hill, and I'm listening to Queer Music Heritage, and I want you to know that this is some of the most important work in our culture.
Time to get back to the music. Out of the Boston area, the band Queer Conscience released three recordings, starting in 1992 with "It's a Queer Nation," and followed by "Back to the Other World" in 1993 and "Gayja Vu" in 1995. All are very queer. The founding band members were Rick Cresswell, his partner Jamie Pierce, and Justine Sullivan. I was delighted to track down Rick and Jamie for this interview, and I started with Rick.
How did the band Queer Conscience come about, seems like it had a built-in agenda.
Rick Cresswell: Oh, it definitely had a built-in agenda, at least for ourselves to start with and make ourselves feel good about being gay. And it started at least as much as I can remember, Jamie was working for a big computer company, Digital, back in the late 80s, and there was a gay group that had a talent show, and we were part of that. For that I wrote a song, "Everyone Knows." We did it with acoustic guitars and folky sound. I think that's kind of how it started, and we just enlarged on that and said, you know there isn't really any music out there that's talking about us, let's make some.
So it was more the message than the music driving the band?
RC: Yes, definitely, I made a point of not writing anything that would be mistaken as being straight, just so things would be kind of equaled, fill in some of the areas that we really weren't talked about.
On the first Queer Conscience album there was a song I can't really play on this segment, as it airs on public radio. Now, you can hear it on the internet version of Part 1, but for broadcast radio I'll just let you hear Rick talking about it.
Queer Conscience - Gonna Eat My Way to Heaven (1992)
The song "Gonna Eat My Way to Heaven" is a very sexual song, could you talk about it?
RC: Well, at the time we were involved with Queer Nation, so having things in your face was kind of the way to go, and there's nothing left to the imagination in that song. We kind of departed from that way of looking at things because it seemed to limit the audience. I wanted to concentrate on the gay issues, rather than sexual.
Yeah, that was a question, an angle I wanted to follow up with, is that, several songs on the first release were so sexual, and had language issues, I guess it was a conscious effort not to carry that over to the other albums.
RC: Yes, it was. It didn't buy us anything, and not even shock value, because there wasn't a lot of opportunity to even play the music. And I thought initially I thought Queer Nation would kind of be excited about it, but Queer Nation was a very kind of fluid of group. It was different each time it got together. It would be different people each time it got together in a lot of cases. [So, no structure for anybody to grab a hold of anything] No, no structure, but with kind of a game plan we could all agree with. We did a lot of things that were thought to be bazaar at the time, but then people in higher places in the Boston community were very appreciative that we did do kiss-ins and things like that.
I was going to ask about that 'kiss in' that you're very well known for, could you talk about that?
RC: At Stocks & Bonds, a mostly heterosexual and popular bar at the time. I think it was 1990. We had a, Queer Nation had a kiss-in, or a visibility action. We went and danced and listened to the music and like anybody else, and at some point, we were ready to leave, actually, and two guys in our group kissed each other. The security guard, who was a Boston policeman rushed right over there and told them they couldn't do it, and it just bugged the hell out of us, for him to tell us we couldn't do it when the straight people were doing it. So Jamie and I instantly started kissing, and of course he came over to us, and picked me up by my throat, and very big guy and pushed me backwards and off-balance and threw me through a set of doors onto a staircase. The bouncers kind of took their signals from him and started pushing everybody in our group, there were about a dozen of us, out onto the street and into the street, until I got close enough to the guy that attacked me to read his badge number, and I yelled that and he backed away.
Was there follow up to that?
RC: I tried, went through the ACLU, talked to Internal Affairs, and had a hearing and the whole bit, but it was clearly not going to go our way, and nothing was done about it at all.
Wasn't there some kind of, not a settlement, but a determination later?
RC: That was when the MCAD, the Massachusetts Commission on Discrimination, and it took a few years. This was aimed not toward the police, but toward the bar for hiring the police and setting the policy. And we won that case, a couple of us who made out reports and talked to the MCAD, including myself, won $10,000. [Wow] Well, we never got a penny of it. The bar went out of business, so that was their way of not having to pay us. It was never the money anyway. It was just it got on the radio, it got noticed. At least the message was out there that bad things can happen to people who discriminate.
"Queerly Beloved" has to be one of the earliest songs about gay marriage. I can only think of one earlier one ["Wedding Song" from TWW's "Ten Percent Revue," 1987]
RC: Yeah, I was just looking at that recently. I kind of dug up all those older songs that you were interested in. It was mostly just making fun of the institution of marriage at the same time we were being deprived of it.
Queer Conscience - Queerly Beloved (1992)
And how about the song "A Sunrise That Stays"?
RC: Well, that was just very romantic, and all the good reasons for getting married. It was a song that I wrote for a gay wedding, and it was played at our commitment ceremony in 1990.
Queer Conscience - A Sunrise That Stays (1992)
I read that when you and Jamie sent out a commitment announcement (in 1990) it caused quite a stir.
RC: Yeah, in a lot of ways we just thought, well, we'll send it out to the local paper. We'll put together like a regular wedding announcement, and see what they do, cause we had reason to believe that it may be the case that no one's even tried to do it, just giving up before they tried. So we did that, the paper refused to print it.
This was the Patriot Ledger? [Yes] And what city was that?
RC: Quincy. We held a protest at the newspaper building, and there were about a dozen cops that showed up, and there were about 8 or 10 of us, and it was kind of exciting. I rented a bullhorn, we did a mock gay wedding there, and threw pink carnations and rice, but at the time, it was near closing time for the paper. Everybody was noses pressed up against the windows, watching, and we expected when they got out there would be a lot of negative reaction. And we were stunned at how positive it was. [Did the paper ever change its policy] Yes, it did.
QC QMH ID
And this is a good time to invite you to check out my website. If you visit it while you're listening you can see the playlist and follow along, while looking at photos of the artists and recordings. I've always considered our music history as a visual as well as an audio experience. Again, that's at www.queermusicheritage.com, Also, for more very queer programming, please listen to After Hours with Jimmy Carper, every Friday night/Saturday morning from 1 to 4 am, on KPFT; it's Queer Radio, with attitude.
As I mentioned earlier two of the founding members of Queer Conscience were Rick Cresswell and his partner Jamie Pierce, so I could not pass up the opportunity to also talk to Jamie.
Hi, this is a real treat, to get both of you, as part of an interview to do a tribute to the band.
Jamie Pierce: Yeah, well, thank you very much for your interest. It's great.
I want to ask you a couple things. Since your song is "A Stranger's Face," you wrote it and sing it, could you talk about that song?
Jamie Pierce: Yeah, I guess it was just the idea of a couple that's been together and what happens internally to the relationship when one of the two decides not to be closeted, and becomes more politically aware and begins to change in that way, and the other partner doesn't, isn't moving in that same direction at the same time. You know, what kinds of new tensions, and what happens inside a relationship when something like that happens. [I can't think of another song like that] Thanks.
Queer Conscience - A Stranger's Face (1992)
JP: I haven't written too many songs. I wrote one for that first album, and I wrote another one later on, and I'm not nearly as prolific as Rick is.
What was the other song?
JP: "When the Time Is Right" was the name of it. That was also about coming out. It was sort of about people who sort of tell themselves, or by other people, now's not the right time, and not just about coming out, but about being political in other ways. People are often telling themselves, or often hear from other people, at least in those days, maybe less so now, that the time isn't right, it's not a good time, you should wait, and so that sort of song is about, when is the time ever right? The time is never right. If you wait for the time to be right, it will never happen.
Queer Conscience - When the Time Is Right (1995)
I asked Rick about the song "Everyone Knows"
RC: That's a song that talks about being visibly gay, everyone seems to know it but the person who is gay, and just having an unrealistic expectation or just the wrong idea of how you come across to people.
Queer Conscience - Everyone Knows (1992)
What track from the first tape got the most attention?
RC: In some ways, "Some In Silence," I think in some circles got a little more attention because it was so gut-wrenching. It makes a comparison to seeing violence happen to gay people, gay bashing, and doing nothing about it, and the whole AIDS epidemic, and how either way we end up dead in both situations, and really just the responsibility of people to not sit there and do nothing about it.
Queer Conscience - Some In Silence (1992)
Another strong song by you uses rap, please talk about "Save Our Children"
RC: Yeah, again a very simple concept. Your kid might be gay, but he's still your kid. I just tried to put it into what was the popular music of the time.
Queer Conscience - Save Our Children (1992)
Please tell me about "Outside Information"
RC: Well, this is another song that talks about insisting on being visible. So you tell your parents you're gay, and they say, well, we're going to keep it a secret, then that's against the rules. It's not inside information, it's outside information. It's information we want to be spread, because it's something we're proud of, or not ashamed of different than what our parents or other generations might expect.
I had that same reaction from my parents we love you, we accept you, but let's not tell the relative about this.
RC: Yeah, well, I didn't even know that my parents were not telling people. In fact at our commitment ceremony we wrote the ceremony ourselves and we put as part of it, to really support us, you need to tell people at work and other family members that you went to a gay wedding this weekend, and that's your way of supporting us, to keep our visibility alive.
Queer Conscience - Outside Information (1993)
I have to ask about the song "Harvey" (The Ballad of Harvey Milk)
RC: Oh, about Harvey Milk. Well it's the story a lot of us know about, him being one of the first out people in politics, in San Francisco, and it's just kind of a tribute to him, and I was happy to hear this was a bunch, maybe ten years ago, that someone had been visiting San Francisco, they went into the public library and they were having some kind of remembrance of Harvey Milk, and right on display was the lyrics to my song, which I thought was very cool.
Queer Conscience - Harvey (The Ballad of Harvey Milk) (1993)
Their third recording was called "Gayja Vu," and from it I asked Rick about the song "A Wonder."
RC: This is a story, it's a made up story but it's something that really does happen in real life, about a father in this story he's a single parent with a daughter who is very proud of her father, knows he's gay and kind of shames him into feeling better about himself, and deciding, if my little girl is proud of me, I should be proud of me too. A lot of people really reacted to that song. They had somebody in their lives who kind of fit the roles.
Yeah, I like some of the lines where the father says, if you wear that pink triangle, it will cause trouble.
RC: Right, and she didn't care, she's going to wear it anyway, and it kind of emboldened him.
Queer Conscience - A Wonder (1995)
And the title of the third release is "Gayja Vu," that's an interesting turn on that phrase.
RC: Well, it's about what déjà vu is about, doesn't it seem like we've waged this battle before? And the truth is it just keeps on needing to be brought up, no matter how long we're out, no matter how visible we are, there are still people waiting to take our rights away.
I understand there's quite a story behind the song "Marchin' In Southie (Our St Patrick's Day Parade)"
RC: Yeah, that's Justine's song. She wrote it, I arranged it, and I don't know how much the rest of the country hears about what happens in Boston, but a few years back gay groups were banned from the St Patrick's Day Parade in South Boston. We got a court order to overturn that. It's now gone back to us not being included, but it just talks about the irony of gay people being kicked out of celebrating being Irish. Gay people are just as Irish, and in fact in Ireland they don't make any big deal out of gay people marching in the parades. The year that they did march, Justine was marching, Jamie was marching, I didn't know I was so Irish at the time, or I would have been marching. I was following the groups on the sidewalks, and I got coffee thrown at me, Jamie got beer thrown at him. It was not very welcoming.
Queer Conscience - Marchin' in Southie (1995)
I want to add two things, the full title of that song was "Marchin' in Southie (Our St Patrick's Day Parade)" and Southie is the heavily Irish section of Boston. As Rick said, the song was written by band member Justine Sullivan, and from another source I've got a quote from Justine about the song.
Justine Sullivan comment (1996)
JS: In 1993 Jamie Pierce and I joined GLIB [the Irish-American Gay Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston] and marched in the parade. We marched through Southie and there were people lining the streets with their faces all scrunched up in hatred, and they yelled at us and I guess it was better than the reception the previous year, where there was actual violence and people threw things. But it was still really scary to see these people that just hated us so much.
Since KPFT is a Pacifica Station I was able to get from the Pacifica Archives a segment from This Way Out, from March of 1996, about that song and their third album, called "Gayja Vu." You can hear the entire segment on my site.
Is there one song from all three albums that has gotten the most attention? "Your Coming Out Day"
RC: I think "Your 'Coming Out' Day" has gotten a lot of the attention. "Your 'Coming Out' Day" is a celebratory song, just perfect for the actual Coming Out day, national Coming Out Day, but any day, and it basically says, it's your coming out day and you should be proud of yourself. It's against all odds, it's not so easy to do, and you've come out, if you can do that, you can do almost anything.
Queer Conscience - Your 'Coming Out' Day (1995)
I'm going back to Jamie for a couple more questions.
When you look back on the band, do you have a favorite memory?
JP: I just enjoyed, you know, the whole process of actually doing the very first record was so different than the way the later ones were made, because Rick did it all on his own, with a little bit of work in the studio, just to finalize the songs and master them, and but all of it was done at home, on this little four-track recorder, and every part was done that way, and we'd be in the house with little head phones on and playing, I'd be playing my sax part or whatever it was. It just seemed so homemade, and in fact it was homemade, so it's just fun to remember that whole process. Things have changes so much, the technology and also the business of selling music, changes so rapidly. When the first cassette came out, Rick would be driving around New England, talking to individual owners of record shops about stocking his music, and a very, very hands-on kind of process. Of course that was before the internet and before everybody started downloading music off the net, and before iTunes. [Yeah, it's all different now] It's all different.
Any guess on how many copies of that cassette were pressed?
JP: Probably hundreds, yeah, in the low hundreds, maybe three or four hundred probably. [It's very rare] Yeah, well partly because we don't have an outlet to sell it. It's very difficult without advertising, and we were never a performing band, we didn't tour to support the records, we just put the records out there. And if you're not advertizing it in some fashion or if you're not performing live to back up the sales of the CDs, it's very, very difficult to get them sold, cause people look at it in a record shop in those days and they'd have no idea what it was or what it sounded like.
Well, as the band has not been active for about 15 years there's not website for them, but the last two releases can be found on iTunes. I'm down to the last song for Part 1, but before I get to it I want to thank you all for listening, and I want to especially thank Rick Cresswell and Jamie Pierce of Queer Conscience, and Ray Hill in Houston for the wonderful interviews. And I've already told you, the journey continues in Part 2, with an interview with the very talented and outspoken duo Good Asian Drivers. That of course can be found at www.queermusicheritage.com. And, as always if you have questions or comments about any of the music I've featured, please write me. This is JD Doyle for Queer Voices on KPFT in Houston. And back to Rick for the last song.
What do you think is your place in the gay music history?
RC: My place well, I'd like to think it's as a motivator, to motivate people to at least get to a level we were as far as being out. You know, it's great to see gay musicians out there and gay songwriters and stuff, so I would hope that I would have some responsibility in driving that a little further to the edge.
Considering the radio shows I do, there's probably never been a song more logical for me to ask about than your song "Gay Music"
RC: Yeah, Gay Music had been one of my focuses and has been over the years, because it talks about the issue of gay people supporting gay music, it identifies what gay music is, or what it is to me at least, and it brings up examples of "I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus," kind of where we've gotten to before this, how far we've come, and I'm not sure we've come that far when it comes to music, so that's why I kind of spelled it out, well, this is what I'm thinking about.
Queer Conscience - Gay Music (1995)
This is JD Doyle and welcome to Queer Music Heritage and Part 2 of my Queer Nation show. And that song was called "Queer Nation," and was from VonTanner's 2005 album "The Beauty and The Beats." It's a more light-hearted take on the subject, and I played it to point out the changing usage of the term. There was even an Australian dance music compilation issued in 2004 named "Queer Nation." To me the increased wide-spread use of the term again demonstrates the reclaiming of it, thanks to the original work by the organization Queer Nation, back in the early 90s.
Regular listeners of the show know that a pet interest of mine is the music of transgender artists. I just feel that their music and their journeys do not get enough exposure, and I always delight in bringing you more, and there's more coming up. I'm going to stay in a very queer vein for this segment, and I've got a special interview with the duo Good Asian Drivers, which I think you'll find inspiring. But first I want to visit Michelle Garcia who, while now living in Nashville, had quite a history on the West Coast. In addition to her activism work, she was crowned Miss Transgender San Francisco in 2000, and has released a number of albums, but one in particular caught my attention, which shouldn't surprise you. It's called "San Francisco Queers."
Michelle Garcia Comments (2010)
"San Francisco Queers" or "SFQueers" as it's also known as, it covers a lot of queer life, from celebration of the spirit to songs that really speak about the challenges we face as an alternative lifestyle. And I feel that there are some explicit songs about being transgendered and others that are more centered on LGBT issues. But what's really happening in "SFQueers" is that it tells the story of the queer lifestyles from the joy that we experience from sexual freedom to the pain and suffering that we endure from being different. Even though there's heavy songs that have a sense of truth and clarity in them I also feel that there's some joyful songs, and it gives the listener a chance to feel that it's okay that you're listening to an artist that really cares about you, and may even understand you better than most.
Tell me about the song "San Francisco Queers."
MG: Well, of course it's the title track. I wanted to create a song that was totally about being queer and being in a city that was respected all around the world. I feel that I brought it home because being from San Francisco you get the inside story of all the little, the little things that make it so special, and that's what the song I feel helps to convey.
Michelle Garcia - San Francisco Queers (2009)
Tell me about the song "Transwoman."
MG: "Transwoman" is kind of a comedy approach to the lifestyle, what it is to be a transwoman. So many folks in the industry, the entertainment industry like to poke fun at somebody that might be a tranny, as it's called, but I believe that there's more of a heart and more of a center to the transwoman and I think I captured it in that song.
Michelle Garcia - Transwoman (2009)
During our talk it came up that Michelle was her real first name.
MG: Yeah, I was born with the name Michelle Garcia and I didn't use it at all, because I got laughed at, having a girl's name, and so I used my middle name, which is Erin. You know they laughed at me, all through high school and everything for having a girl's name, so I stopped using Michelle after I graduated from high school, and for all those years, all those years, all those 15-16 years I dropped my old name and then I used my original name.
Hmm, that's interesting. So Michelle was like a self-fulfilling prophesy.
MG: Wow, you know, it's on my birth certificate, what can I say, the full Michelle Erin Garcia.
Again, that was Michelle Garcia, and her album "San Francisco Queers" is a digital release only, so you can find it at sites like Amazon or iTunes. On to the duo Good Asian Drivers, and my main interview. Good Asian Drivers are lesbian singer songwriter Melissa Li and transman spoken word artist Kit Yan. When I first heard their album, called "Drive Away Home," I was immediately struck not only by the music but also by the powerful slam poetry of Kit Yan. And then I found that Melissa Li also has released her own album, called "2 Seconds Away," which also impressed me. I named both of their albums in my Best of 2009 show. I started out by asking Melissa about her album.
Melissa Li: "2 Seconds Away" is my first album, released in 2007. It comes from a very personal place and I write about loves and other relationships. It features layered vocals and a lot of orchestrations that was produced by a brilliant and talented producer and musician, Chris Takita.
And, how about the song "2 Seconds Away"
ML: "2 Seconds Away" is about a relationship I've been in and it was exciting for me to write that song because, mostly because it was the first time that I had come up with a hook that I genuinely felt that was really good and catchy, and yeah, it's basically about being on the edge of something really great, and just trying to reach for it, and not necessarily knowing if you'd get there or not, but the act of trying to reach is enough in a lot of ways.
Why did you make it the title track?
ML: I made it the title track because I felt like that was in a sense a metaphor of what I was trying to do, with my life too, you know, I'm trying to reach a goal, I'm trying to get a lot of people to listen to my music and enjoy my music, and also to write really great work and that I was on the edge of something there, and so it felt appropriate to me.
Melissa Li - 2 Seconds Away (2008)
Another song that I really like from your album is called "Extra," could you talk about it.
ML: "Extra" I really like that song but I know that compared to other songs I've written it's not necessarily like the best written song in the world, but I personally really like it because I like the way it fits in my range. I guess that's a very musical reason for liking it. I'd written it also when I was in college. All of the songs on the album were written a long time ago, because I have been waiting so long to make my first album, and that song is just about it sounds so dramatic and it's about being with a girl but then but no, she wants to be with me but she wants to be with this guy, and it's kind of dramatic, but all of that happened when I was 14 years old, so it's definitely really melodramatic and it's someone I knew for two weeks so that's where that song comes from. It's just a part of my youth.
Melissa Li - Extra (2008)
How about the song "Dance America"?
ML: That was something I'd written when I was 17, and it sort of was the beginning of me writing songs about politics and socio-political issues and for me I was just seeing how money was driving so much. It was just sort of my attempt to speak back to the commercialism of the world.
Melissa Li - Dance America (2008)
And now it's time to find out more about Good Asian Drivers, the band, and their new album.
Kit Yan: "Drive Away Home" is Good Asian Drivers' debut album, from 2009. It features a collection of stories, poems, songs from the road, from being on tour and the collaborative energy between Melissa Li and I. it also features a bunch of other artists from our community, friends of ours, Mara Levi on the bass, Chris Takita on the electric guitar and Melissa Bartell on the keys, and it was just a really great experience to get in the studio and share some of our work. One of the songs was nominated for Outmusician of the year. It was "Queer Nation." The lyrics are about the queer community and features a lot of different themes about queers, trans people, people of color, and so the entire album was just a journey.
Where did the name GAD come from?
ML: I came up with the name well, one day you know, we actually have been solo artists ourselves for a while before we decided to come together and do a tour. So originally it was meant to be the name of the tour, and we'd sat down and tried to think of what it could be called for a while and we came up with all these awful names that didn't really stick and so we decided to not talk about it, and just go home and think more about it. And while I was driving I guess I was texting Kit, cause I was driving and I came up with this idea, and I was like "oh, Kit, it should be Good Asian Drivers," and then it stuck from then on.
I want to ask each of you about your background, so Melissa, tell me a little about your performing background.
ML: Sure, I'm classically trained, so I play the piano, the violin, from a very young age, but I'd never really gotten into songwriting until I was about twelve or thirteen, and then I started writing songs on the piano. And then when I was about fifteen somebody gave me a guitar and I picked it up and started writing songs and performing in the Boston area. And I think it just sort of built like that. I had a goal that I wanted to put out an album, and I just performed in the subways and at talent shows at school and community events and I think about seven years later I finally put out the album, which is "2 Seconds Away."
Kit, what's your performing background?
KY: I've been writing poetry since I was six, probably, and the first time I remember doing a spoken word poem was when I was nine. But I didn't really start getting serious or competitive about it until I moved from Hawaii to Boston and found the slam community, which is really a performance heavy theatre way of kind of doing poetry. And from then I got onto a team and I started touring and performing with the Lizard Lounge in Boston and on my own too, during college, but it wasn't until a couple of years out of school that Melissa and I had quit our jobs and then started being full-time artists.
How did you start performing together?
ML: I think we just knew each other from the community and we just knew who each other was and things worked out in our lives that we were able to come together I think Kit approached me and was like "oh, do you want to quit your job and go on tour." I'd always wanted to do that and at the time it was perfect cause I wasn't doing anything I was crazy about, and so it was just a great idea and so we started performing together and shaping our performances together.
KY: Yeah, it was actually conceived in the back make-up area of a drag bar, where we had both been invited to perform, as part of a queer Asian cabaret.
Some of my listeners may wonder, are you a couple?
KY: (laughs) A lot of people ask us that, and we're not a couple we're two Asians who are about the same age (laughs)
Okay, I knew the answer to that, but I wanted to get it into the show.
In a way the fun song "On the Road With You" is sort an introduction to them, so I had to hear about it.
ML: It was something fun that we had done when we first started on the tour. We were coming up with just really ridiculous ideas. I just wrote that song. I think we didn't have enough songs for the album. That's a secret. That's a secret that I'm just now revealing, but I think we didn't have enough tracks for the album and so we were like, hey, we should stick this at the end, this would be fun.
KY: Yeah, it was supposed to be a hidden track, but now it's out.
Good Asian Drivers - On The Road With You (2009)
You've got at least three different demographics going for you, lesbian, transgender and Asian, how do each of those affect appealing to an audience and do each represent different challenges?
KY: Because our albums are so personal it's really inevitable that our identities will come out in the lyrics. A lot of times I might reference being trans or queer and Melissa might do the same, about being a queer Asian. And so I guess it's affected us in that it really lets us connect with the communities that we identify with. I mean, not all our work is focused on our specific identities like that, but I think when somebody identities the same way they'll pick it out of a song and they'll cling onto it, and it's sort of like a gem for an audience member, when they are listening to something that everybody's grooving to but they had a special connection. In terms of it being limiting, we've definitely talked about it before, if it was limiting for us to be so out, and I guess in a way it is and in a way it isn't. We can't really deny that racism or sexism or homophobia doesn't exist, transphobia doesn't exist, when we're out doing shows. But it sort of also keeps us going sometimes, in terms of being able to feel accomplished and in helping people as well as making great music.
It's like, no matter what songs I write, whether or not it's outspoken
or whether or not it's subtle, it can only do good for the community.
You know, it's still a positive thing to see someone from your community
performing and doing well, no matter what songs they're writing about.
Tell me about the song "For Our Daughters"
KY: I think I was just thinking about the future generations of people out there. We were actually having a tour planning meeting and running up against some walls in terms of finding venues, and planning, and we were just sitting around going how are we going to make this happen, how are we going to finance a three-month tour, and were a little shooting really far off on this. I just thought, we're doing it, it's not impossible. Then I started thinking about I always wanted to have daughters, and so it's sort of a poem written to tell them, all the next generation of women, that you can do whatever you want, and any lifestyle's a viable choice.
ML: We were playing around with writing a chorus for it where it would be sung and I think we were just going on the themes of what to tell our daughters, and for the chorus I was trying to drive home that we should stop listening to all the rules and what we're supposed to do as Asian women, and to really just break out of that and to do what we dream and hope to do with our lives.
Good Asian Drivers - For Our Daughters (2009)
Tell me about the song "Here's To You"
ML: "Here's To You" is actually, it was originally my song and I had written it when I was in college. I went to a school in Boston and my freshman year there my roommate had been sexually assaulted and the school hadn't been very supportive and didn't really do anything and essentially they blamed her and said it was more her issue, and it has really upset me, and so I had written the song, as sort of an anthem for women. I brought it into a Good Asian Drivers rehearsal and Kit had added some spoken word to it and it became what it is.
KY: Yeah, when Melissa had brought in the song "Here's To You" I thought it was one of the most empowering songs I'd ever heard and so as a transman I wanted to make sure I was writing something like an ally to the women's community, and in a supportive way channeling some of the inspiration from the song itself.
Good Asian Drivers - Here's To You (2009)
QMH ID GAD
Performance spaces for lesbian artists to perform have not always traditionally been open to trans artists, did you run into this, and how did you deal with it?
ML: It's interesting I think for the most part all the places and venues that we've performed have been very welcoming, and correct me if I'm wrong, Kit, I don't think we've had any sort of incidents while we've been on tour, regarding that. But at the same time we as a group are very aware of that issue, and for example many people have said, oh, Melissa you should play Michigan (Michigan Women's Festival) for example, but that's a situation where they're not supportive and historically haven't been to trans artists, so it's not a show that we would ever do or want to do, so yeah, we're very aware of that.
KY: Yeah, we're also aware in a sense that, we check in with the organizers and try to find out what kind of space it is because, as a trans man I understand that there are women safe spaces that may be a community event that I may not necessarily be a part of, and that's definitely something that we try to find out. I mean, every community deserves their chance at a closed and safe space and time.
For a lesbian, going on tour with a transman turned out to be quite an education, as evidenced in the song "My Boy."
ML: I had written that song after I had gone on the first twelve-week tour with Kit, and it was because I felt like I didn't know anything about trans issues when I was first getting into it. In fact, asking a lot of silly questions, rather ignorant questions at the beginning, and I felt like, and in so many ways, I still don't know that much about trans issues, not having lived it, but having gone on the tour and really getting really close to Kit, and knowing him as a good friend and person just really changed my life, and so I had written that song about that.
Good Asian Drivers - My Boy (2009)
I like and in fact I've played already on my show the track "Tranny Shack"
KY: Oh, wow, that's an oldie. At some point in my life I released a bunch of little albums, that were just spoken word, and "Tranny Shack" is one of them. It was from the early identity phase in my life, and I was feeling a little bit frustrated. I was more trans-questioning at that point and trying to channel those feelings into a spoken word piece. Tranny is you know I hear Harvey Katz (of Athens Boys Choir), he makes like a PSA before he performs, and he tells people that 'tranny' is a word that can only be used by us, and not necessarily for the mainstream world to use to refer to trans folks, and I definitely agree with that. So "Tranny Shack" is maybe a little bit of an attempt to reclaim that word.
Kit Yan - Tranny Shack (2008, Kit Yan Live)
Asian GLBT artists have not been very visible, can you comment on that?
ML: It's true, and I think that you can probably count on one hand all the more prominent queer Asian people that are out there in the media and in the arts. And so for us, the purpose of our tour to begin with was just to expose visibility about these issues and also to do a sort of viral sort of marketing too because we want to reach people who may not have a chance to come to our shows, who may not have a supportive network, and so we try to use internet and online media to try to reach those people too.
Tell me about the song "Third Gender."
KY: I think I wrote "Third Gender" in college, and it has gone through a lot of drafts, because as my perception and understanding of gender has changed, so has that piece. And so as I grew to understand my relationship with gender more, I found that the queer community has a wealth of identities, very specific identities, very fluid identities, that people identify with for a lot of really great reasons. And so I also was talking a little bit about the difference between sex and gender, in sort of a light-hearted way, and also a little bit of that track is about the commercialization of the queer community and gender, so it's meant to be a really fun piece that's upbeat but also drives home some serious issues, which I think actually the music helps. I don't know if, Melissa, you could speak a little bit about the music.
ML: Yeah, when we were recording in the studio we didn't really have a solid idea of what we wanted that to be, so I remember Kit was saying how he wanted sound. And everyone was really confused as to what he wanted. But actually Ashley (Baier), our drummer, and Mara (Levi), whose playing the bass with us basically just went into the studio and it was let's just make it sort of experimental, and let's play around with it. They did it in one take, and that's was how it turned out, and it sounds great.
KY: We had a lot of fun with that one.
Good Asian Drivers - Third Gender (2009)
This is JD Doyle and I've so enjoyed bringing Melissa Li and Kit Yan of the Good Asian Drivers to you on Queer Music Heritage. I thank them and Michelle Garcia for the interviews for this segment and thank you for listening. Again, this month I tried to tell you about Queer Nation, and in Part 1 you heard Houston activist Ray Hill talk about it and got to explore the musical agenda it gave to the early 90s band Queer Conscience. And in this segment I brought things up to date. I so love that Kit and Melissa recorded the very appropriate closing track, the slam poet piece called "Queer Nation."
KY: "Queer Nation" is a piece that is a little bit more on the serious side, inspired by going out, going out to the night clubs and going out to the bars, and one night I was actually out in the bars and I saw this woman, like sexually molesting other women, and it actually put me in check. I thought, gosh, I never see women do that. That's just so outside of my normal frame, so it got me thinking about all the different types of problems that may exist within our community that I experience, that my friends experience on a regular basis that aren't really the issues that people talk about a lot, because I think sometimes we don't tend to talk about problems in the queer community, cause we're trying to hold it together, but it's still important to sort of keep our family in check. And so I drew from a range of experiences from people and myself, and that story of that particular night, to write "Queer Nation," and it's actually one of my favorite tracks on the album, cause I think because it also sounds beautiful.
Good Asian Drivers - Queer Nation (2009)