Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Remedies: Cure For AIDS

Dan Bern: Cure For AIDS [purchase]

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I went to see Karen Finley’s show, Grabbing Pussy (based on her new book, coincidentally published by a company partially owned by a friend). If you have never seen Karen, one of the most famous performance artists ever, you really should. Her shows, which focus on political and social issues, are always thought provoking. She makes connections and observations that are truly astounding. Watching her shows is like trying to drink from a fire hose--her words and ideas come at you in torrents, you can't take it all in, but what you are able to digest is pretty incredible.

We first met Karen years ago when I coached her daughter Violet, a friend of my daughter’s, in soccer, and became friendly with her and her ex-husband Michael. We’ve seen Karen’s shows where she channeled Liza Minnelli, Jackie O and others, but she is always her provocative self. This show, though, as you can tell from its title, was focused on the current groper-in-chief, and others, such as Harvey Weinstein, who used their power to exploit women. Karen also touched on many other things, including something that has profoundly affected her (as we have seen from her other shows and writings), the many friends that she lost over the years to AIDS.

When my wife and I arrived at the theater (early, of course), we were happy to see that Michael was there, and that Violet (who was a pretty good soccer player, and has created her own controversial art) had flown in from LA). Not surprisingly, many people in the crowd knew Karen, Michael, and Violet, and we were introduced to some of them. Joining us at the table was a gentleman who was introduced to us as Michael, another old friend, and it quickly became clear that he had an electric personality. At one point, Karen came out of the dressing room to say hi, and new Michael mentioned that he had seen an exhibition of works by David Wojnarowicz, an artist and AIDS activist who died of the disease in 1992, who had been a friend of theirs.

Our new friend, it turned out, is named Michael Alago, and he has had a fascinating life, some of which we learned chatting with him before the show, and more of it we learned from watching a documentary about him on Netfilx, with the great title, Who The Fuck Is That Guy? Alago, a gay Puerto Rican from Brooklyn was, and is, a music obsessive, whose vast knowledge of, and boundless enthusiasm for, music got him jobs at The Ritz, eventually booking the shows at that legendary venue, and as an A&R representative for Elektra Records, where he signed Metallica and executive produced Nina Simone's last album, and later at Geffen Records.

Michael (and Karen and Michael) and I are roughly the same age, and yet we lived very different lives. While I was obsessing over music in my suburban bedroom, and at WPRB, Alago was going to Max’s Kansas City, CBGB and other clubs, staying out all night, and hanging out with Bono, Johnny Lydon, Springsteen, the Dead Boys, Metallica, and many, many, many others (which you can see in the film). The three of them were part of a world of music, art, photography, and writing that was sadly filled with many people lost to AIDS, addiction, or both. And it struck me that while these losses devastated people like them, to me it was really more of an abstract concept because none of my friends died from these scourges. So, while I can certainly understand it when Karen discusses the effect of this lost generation of her friends, it can't really affect me the same way. But one of the things that great art can do is to allow you to experience feelings outside your personal existence.

Towards the end of Who The Fuck Is That Guy?, the discussion turns to the fact that Alago was HIV positive, and appeared, a number of times, to be on the edge of death, something that he was open about during our discussions at the theater. Now, because current-day Michael is all over the film, we know that he didn’t die then, and the film doesn’t really explain what happened, except to refer to new drug cocktails and regimens, so it is fair to assume that this is what “cured” him. And today, he appears to be in excellent health, he is clean and sober (although he did eat a bunch of french fries during Karen’s show), and he has left the music business to become a photographer.

Another thing that we all discussed before the show (I did mention that we got there early, right?) was the fact that there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of protest music against the president and his awful policies as there had been against the Vietnam War when we were kids. We had heard the CSN&Y song “Ohio” in the car coming into the city, and that song, about the killing of students at Kent State during an antiwar protest, was all over the radio then, and continues to be part of the classic rock canon. And it isn’t the only song like that. While there are anti-Trump songs, they don’t get played as broadly, which in part is a result of the way that the radio and music business has changed, but it also does seem that there just isn’t as much political music being made these days. Alago mentioned that Ministry recently released AmeriKKKant, which is overtly political, but it is unlikely to break into the mainstream. I brought up Dan Bern, about whom I have often written, who writes political songs (and poetry, and paints political pictures), but again, he doesn’t get all that much airplay. The Drive-By Truckers released a pointedly political album at the end of 2016, which got a reasonable amount of positive press, but was not heard much on mainstream media.

Back in 1998, Bern released an album, Fifty Eggs, produced by Ani DiFranco, which had, as one would expect from Bern, a bunch of topical songs (and one beautiful tribute to his sister). One of them was “Cure For AIDS.” At the time, the AIDS epidemic was still rampant—the number of HIV infections, globally, peaked in about 1997, the number of AIDS deaths globally was still rising, as were the number of people living with HIV. But in the US, AIDS deaths, as a result of new drug regimens, had recently begun to plummet. Bern’s song, though, posits a magic bullet-type cure for the disease, which resulted in a six-month long period of sexual excess, ready access to morning after pills, and the end of homophobia. And, most importantly, “Nobody was afraid.” Of course, none of that has happened, but it is certainly better now, when an HIV diagnosis is no longer a sure death sentence, and AIDS is no longer an easy excuse for hatred.

In March, Bern mangled some of the fingers on his left hand, and had surgery, which led to the removal of part of his middle finger, a partial remedy at best. He is out on tour—I know that at one point he had friends play guitar for him, but I’m not sure if he is able to play guitar now (there is at least one pretty famous guitarist who did pretty well without a middle finger on his right hand, though).

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