I moved out of the house in 1992 and started college. I came home for a total of two summers after that, one after my freshman year and one after my senior year, but otherwise that was pretty much it for living at home. One summer I rented a house with four of my friends. I spent two other summers in a vegetarian co-op, which I still marvel at considering I’m not a vegetarian and I’m terrible at cooperation. I both like and love my parents, and have almost always gotten along well with them, and wasn’t running away from any particularly bad situation. I was just ready to be on my own.
Part of the reason for this was that I was tired of being in the closet. My immediate circle of friends all knew I was bisexual. I didn’t go out of my way to tell anyone else in school, but I didn’t work very hard to keep it a secret. I was mostly dating and hooking up with girls still, partly because by my senior year as far as I knew there were only three of us non-heterosexual guys left in the whole school and we needed each other as friends more than anything else. But one awkward night my mom accidentally got the secret out of me, and it was only a matter of time before I told my dad.
So I got to college, moved into the theater dorm, and started my rainbow flag year. To make a long story short, I joined the campus GLB group (this was before the T was mandatory), got my first email address, discovered Usenet, found a newsgroup for bisexuals online and started to absorb some unrealistic ideas about how relationships could work for people like me, bought some “freedom rings” in both rainbow colors and the blue/purple/pink triangles representing bisexuality, and finally had my first boyfriend. And I wrote my parents a letter formally coming out to them, which was a terrible idea on all sorts of levels but, you know, at least it got it out of the way.
That first semester, one of my two gay friends from high school came to visit me in college, and we went to a GLB dance party, and someone had a copy of Madonna’s Sex book. If you’ve never seen it, you can probably Google images from it (just don’t do it at work). She looks pretty great in it, which isn’t surprising since she was only 34, but she’s so confident, so self-assured, so put together in it that she seems older. It might be the dominatrix persona, or it might just be Madonna.
I mean, she’s always been confident, everybody knows that, but Erotica, the album that came out that year along with the book, takes that to the next level. Whether she’s being sexy, nostalgic, yearning, poignant, righteous, or philosophical, she’s fully on top of it and playing only by her own rules. She’s probably at her funniest on this record, too, either by design (“Where Life Begins,” a forehead-slapping ode to cunnilingus) or accident (“Did You Do It?”, a spontaneous rap by her producer over the backing track to “Waiting”).
At the time it seemed over-the-top, stretching fully into the running length afforded by CDs (which had just become a dominant format both in stores and in my collection in the past couple of years) and indulging in the sort of explicit sexuality she’d only strongly implied on her earlier major-label records, but when I look back now, it just seems mature and confident, returning to earlier territory with even greater style. “Erotica” is the next chapter of “Justify My Love”; “Deeper and Deeper,” the epic result of Expressing Yourself; “Rain,” a traditional Madonna ballad with greater scope and clarity. A bit of social consciousness with “Why’s It So Hard?” and “In This Life,” counterbalanced with vindictive fun in the forms of “Bye Bye Baby” and “Thief of Hearts” and a smoking Peggy Lee cover, “Fever.”
I’m only half gay, but that’s still gay enough to have my own personal diva, and for me it’s Madonna. I mean, definitely still a want her/want to be her situation — the cover for Like a Virgin = smoking hot — but yeah, where previous generations had Judy Garland and the one after me had Britney and the one now has either Gaga or Beyonce, I had Madonna. I treasured all her albums up through Bedtime Stories, was really impressed by Ray of Light, and still had fun with Music even though the lyrics were getting really bad. American Life was the first album of hers I didn’t buy, and I’ve just pretended everything after that didn’t happen, but for almost 20 years, she was the biggest pop star I ever loved and I have no regrets.
They Might Be Giants, Apollo 18
I’ve mentioned that I wasn’t allowed to leave the tiny “city” I grew up in to see any of the concerts that my friends went to. I missed Depeche Mode and the Cure at the peak of their fame and talent. So my first concert ended up being They Might Be Giants, right there on our school campus. It was 1993, so their set was still mostly from this album. Luckily it’s a great album, full of science (“Mammal,” “Dinner Bell”), psychodrama (“I Palindrome I,” “My Evil Twin”), and phantasmagoria (“Hall of Heads,” “Turn Around”). All of the full-length tracks are so brilliant it seems a shame it’s remembered chiefly for witty dada like “Spider” and the irresistible 21-part suite “Fingertips.”
Morrissey, Your Arsenal
I don’t know why I started losing interest in Morrissey with this album. Not only was it a classic, it was exactly what he needed: a new band, a new rockabilly sound, a new muscle behind his ever-sharp lyrics. The whole thing is great, but if I had to pick a few tracks right now to single out, they might be “Glamorous Glue,” “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful,” “You’re the One For Me, Fatty,” and “Tomorrow.”
Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes
“Kate Bush was on Letterman the other night,” a friend of mine told me. “Wasn’t that her? Curly red hair?” Nope; it turned out to be some new singer I’d never heard of, Tori Amos. I listened to her album and didn’t hear much resemblance between the two, except that both women were virtuoso pianists and genius songwriters. Then I listened to her album again, and again, and again, on repeat. I’m not sure what sounded so unusual to me about the piano riffs underlying her songs, but for some reason I felt as though I’d never heard anything like it. After I got my shots for college and was sick from them in the back of a station wagon heading to Boston for a whale watch, this was the album that took my mind off how crappy I felt. I hope I never have to make a list of the ten best albums ever recorded, but if I do, I probably will only have to think hard about nine of them.
- The Beautiful South, 0898
- R.E.M., Automatic for the People
- The Charlatans UK, Between 10th and 11th
- Curve, Doppelganger
- Shawn Colvin, Fat City
- Ride, Going Blank Again
- Peter Murphy, Holy Smoke
- Ian McCulloch, Mysterio
- XTC, Nonsuch
- The Church, Priest = Aura
- Peter Gabriel, Us
- Utah Saints, Utah Saints
- The Cure, Wish
- Bel Canto, Shimmering Warm and Bright
- Suzanne Vega, 99.9 F