Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Tales From the Crypt, Part XXXVI

[Been meaning to post this -- the opening section of the unsurpassed literary masterpiece that will probably make my name live beyond eternity (Gender Chameleons: Androgyny in Rock 'N' Roll, Arbor House, 1985) -- for a while, and now here it is at last. I had a lot of fun writing this, as you'll probably be able to tell from the excerpt, but it would be a gross exagerration to say that the book sold well or made much of a splash, although as I recall I did get one very nice review ("Insightful and often wildly hilarious" -- L.A. Times). In any case, the book ultimately occasioned one of the great thrills of my professional career, during the first Eschaton convention in 2005. An Atriot on-line pal, who I hadn't before then met, introduced herself on opening night and told me that, back in the day, as an impressionable youth, she had not only bought a copy (solely because of the title) but that it had in some small way enriched her life. Of course, I would have preferred a five figure royalty check from subsequent printings, but it was gratifying to hear that anyway.]


For me, the subject of androgyny first came up when I discovered that I was a Lesbian.

This was during the heyday of the alleged Counterculture and my tenure at an unidentified college on Long Island. By this time, of course, like so many of my contemporaries, I had become a professional Bohemian. I had also acquired a girlfriend, a tender young princess from Syosset named Joy, whose parents' freezer contained, at all times, enough frozen food to adequately feed the civilian population of Nassau County in the event of a sneak nuclear attack by a foreign power. Since I did not have a card enabling me to eat in the school cafeteria, I became much enamored of this young woman, as you can well imagine. One evening (after feasting on a recently defrosted rump roast) the two of us returned to the campus parking lot, parked behind my dormitory, and spent a passionate hour or so in the backseat of Joy's 1968 Mustang. That duty discharged, I ran back to the third-floor lounge to watch "Star Trek." In the middle of the episode one of my good ol' fraternity boy hallmates sat down next to me and poked me in the ribs.

"You'll never believe what I just saw," he said with the kind of slack-jawed stupefaction usually associated with people who've been abducted by UFO's.

"What?" I asked innocently.

"Two girls," he replied, still obviously shaken. "Making out. In the parking lot."

I paused for dramatic effect.

"In a green Mustang?"

"You saw them too!"

I nodded but chose not to enlighten my friend further. Frankly, I was not a little irritated by the whole business. After all, I had a mustache, unlike any of the Lesbians I had met at that point in my young life. How was such a confusion possible? Was I actually so effeminate that I could be mistaken for a girl? So what if Joy and I happened to have nearly identical long curly hair and middle-European features? So what if we both dressed in faded work shirts and jeans? So what if neither of us wore makeup? Why, a blind man could see the differences between us with a cane.

The more I thought about it, the more the conclusion becamse inescapable. I had to kill my friend.*

Of course, androgyny was not a completely alien concept to me even then. Before my college days I may not have known precisely what the word meant, but the concept had vaguely registered by the sixth grade, since the phrase "he throws like a girl" impinged itself on my consciousness. By high school, like most of my peers, I had already seen the Rolling Stones mince around on "The Ed Sullivan Show" (particularly that skinny singer with the big lips and the blond guitarist whose hairdo reminded me of Judy Berkowitz, a girl who sat in front of me in third-period English). Those guys are onto something, I said to myself, even if I don't know what it is. And even later, watching the TAMI Show movie in the darkened vastness of the Hackensack Oritani Theater, I couldn't help notice that the Stones were preceded in that landmark rock film by the Barbarians, a bunch of extremely long-haired ex-jock types who were singing something entitled "Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?" (Perhaps if they had called it "Excuse Me, Are You Androgynous?" I would have seen the light sooner, but then again, such a song title would not have garnered the Barbarians much airplay, let alone their richly deserved reputation as a minor footnote to rock history. In any case, I have long since forgiven them.)

But enough of my personal reminiscences. I'm here to tell a story that's far bigger than I: the story of A Trend. No, not just A Trend, but A Theme...A Theme that predates rock-and-roll (as any devotee of Marlene Dietrich will attest) but has undeniably found its most widespread public expression in the postwar years in rock-and-roll, and is today (let us not mince words) not only the dominant motif in pop music but a Certifiable Phenomenon. For when a tabloid like the National Star gives its readers tips on achieving the Boy George look, and CBS devotes half an hour of its prestigious "Face the Nation" to a discussion of male pop singers who wear dresses, something is happening that has wider cultural implications than, say, who shot Bobby Ewing.

The story is androgyny in rock -- the blurring of distinctions, traditional or otherwise, between the sexes, by performers and fans alike. From its Fifties emergence to its Eighties apotheosis, there is much to ponder, as well as much to remember affectionately. Calling a spade a spade and a queen a queen, we may wind up with more questions than answers (or vice versa, however unlikely that may be), but let the chips fall where they may -- we'll take our lumps together like men. Or women. Or whatever.

One final note. Nick Lowe, who is one of my favorite pop stars and not at all androgynous (for an Englishman), recently observed that there is a general, appalling lack of humor and realism in today's rock-and-roll. I agree, and this book has been written in part as my own small attempt to correct that situation. As Oscar Wilde (a man who had a nodding acquaintance with androgyny) said: "Some things are too important to be taken seriously." Or, if you prefer, Shecky Greene (whose influence on our age can not be underestimated): "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke."

Thanks are due to Merille Heifetz of Writers House, who got me the gig; to Philip Hoffman, Joseph Gonzalez, Denise Sweeny and everybody at Downtown, who let me drink when I should have been writing; to Marcia Swanberg, who kept me solvent; to the inventor of word processing(who was that man? I'd like to shake his hand); and, finally, to my parents, who looked -- very, very carefully -- before having me circumcised. Without any or all of the above, this would have been an altogether different book. A Harlequin Romance, for instance.

-- Steven Simels

New York City
September 1984


*Cooler heads prevailed, of course. I didn't kill him, and, like my Dad used to say, time wounds all heels. I have since learned that the neighbor from those faraway college days is now a colostomy supply salesman, punishment enough for his lack of discernment. As for Ms. Joy, since I haven't seen her in over fifteen years, I have reluctantly concluded that we have drifted apart. But I like to think that she still has a well-stocked freezer, that she married somebody who looks as much like me as I do, and that -- even now -- she's raising three extremely androgynous children. Three, hopefully. One of each. Scott, Tiffany, and Betty-George.


Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Steve, Re Gender Chameleons, Amazon has all of 9 copies, all used, & ranging from $25 to … $239 plus shipping.

Do you have any extra copies you could part with for a price ranging from $25 - $239 plus shipping? If so, I bid $50 to open. Seriously, I'd much rather buy from you than from some anonymous guy -- or is it a girl? -- via Amazon, and I'm sure others would too. Any chance?

CovetedNOPrizeWinnerWithOakLeafCluster said...

Thanks for the excerpt.

steve simels said...


The idea that somebody on Amazon thinks they can charge $239 for that thin gruel strikes me as absolutely hilarious.

racymind said...

The idea that somebody on Amazon thinks they can charge $239 for that thin gruel strikes me as absolutely hilarious.

When the people are hungry, gruel satisfies.

Bravo, ms. simels

steves said...

The idea that somebody on Amazon thinks they can charge $239 for that thin gruel strikes me as absolutely hilarious.

Au contraire.

If the rights have reverted back to you, this might be a good time for a second printing. And since you're my friend, I'll only take a 10% cut instead of my usual 15.

Brooklyn Girl said...

As one who is lucky enough to have found it for a lot less than $239, I can attest that the book is laugh out loud funny.

Anonymous said...

Androgyny: Rock & Roll's longest running phenomenon!


Cleveland Bob said...


That was just great. I'd love to read a copy of an old issue if there is such an animal lying about. Send it to me and I'll sure to pass it on via the US mail to another deserving power-popper when I am finished.

BTW, We're going to see Nick Lowe here in October. He's the greatest.

Thanks again for the excerpt.

Monica_A:Obamaniac said...

Your book changed my life, Steve. You showed me there was a world outside of my hometown and I shouldn't be afraid to step into it. A big hug and kiss to you!

dave™© said...

Hey Steverino - what the hell's that thing you're sitting in front of in that pic? Is that what "word processors" used to look like?

ms. rosa said...

hahahahaha! and as a former 7th grader who wore skinny ties like her heroes, may i say: HAHAHAHAHAHA!

!viva shecky greene! and ur dad!

i STILL use a smith corona! WTF?!

-rosa, a lifelong member of the itty bitty titty club and de facto androgyne society

CovetedNOPrizeWinnerWithOakLeafCluster said...

I finally found a copy, after all these years. The most androgynous man I know has taken to living with squirrels, so the final joke struck me as particularly funny.

Anonymous said...