February 2009 Archives

The Meaning of Death and Life


Metal skeleton statue playing guitarVia I Want Your Skull, I discovered Saul Hernandez's sculptures of death, showing the skeletal figure engaged in various pursuits: playing an instrument, enjoying a drink, taking a bath, having sex.

Over the last several years, Day of the Dead figures have become very common in Los Angeles. As part of entering the U.S. mainstream, there has been some change in the meaning of these statuettes. In L.A., their connection to Dia de los Muertos celebrations and their ritual function as reminders of death has been obscured in favor of more pop symbolism.

Although folklore traditions naturally change over time, I'm not entirely comfortable with the kitschy character of some pop Day of the Dead imagery. It feels as if these cultural artifacts have been drained of death, and what's left is just a visual joke, or a childish cartoon.

What I like about Saul Hernandez's sculptures of death is their soulful aspect. In the image of a skeleton playing a guitar shown here, you can see the fragility of life in the slumped shoulders and spine. Because of that, you can also see its opposite: the determination to live in the cocked angle of the knee and in the bowed skull, so deep in concentration.

This past weekend, the Cute-Little-Red-Headed-Girlfriend and I made the now annual trip to the Roxy in West Hollywood to see Lucy Lawless perform in concert. Owing to personal circumstances, we knew we could only attend one night. So we chose Saturday and decided to go all out: we wanted front row standing-room seats and we were ready to do whatever it took to get them.

What it took to get them turned out to be seven hours of waiting, including six hours baking in the sun on the utterly filthy yet justly legendary Sunset Strip. Once the Girlfriend and I realized we were engaged in an urban version of camping, we immediately became more comfortable with our situation, since camping is of course an in-born lesbian skill.

I spent my time on the Strip socializing and occasionally Twittering on my mobile phone. That morning, I had used Twitter to poll my fellow Lucy fans on what shoes I should wear to the concert. They voted for the glam-inspired silver-spray-painted Doc Martens, which can be seen resting on the pavement outside the Roxy in the photo below.

This year's Roxy show was to be different from prior years in that we were promised a stage show, rather than a musical concert. Pleasuredome is based on an unproduced musical co-written by Xena creator Rob Tapert. The script is set during the AIDS crisis and chronicles some of the highs and lows of that period. To create her stage show, Lucy developed a plot around one of the lesbian characters, named Sappho, contained within the original script.

As soon as we entered the Roxy, the Girlfriend and I rushed to take up standing positions in the front row, at the very edge of the stage. We then settled in to defend our territory until the show began. A mix of tunes consisting of 70s disco--the unofficial classic soundtrack of all gay pride events--with a few odd ball hits, like Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" thrown in, played over the sound system. The mood was joyous and inclusive, especially when Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" came on, resulting in a group sing-along.

As the waiting continued, the sing-alongs became more boisterous and maudlin, especially when Celine Dion's ballad, "Power of Love," played over the loudspeakers. Swaying in sync to the music, the mostly lesbian crowd screeched their way through lines such as "'Cause I am your lady / And you are my man / Whenever you reach for me / I'll do all that I can." There was a drunken-Girl-Scout-camp-counselor-type vibe in the air that I'm sure brought back positive memories for many on hand.

Call to confession. The evening began with a short but funny set by stand-up comic Cat Crimins, back for her third opener at the Roxy. Not too long after Cat left the stage, a stern nun by the name of Sister Mary Catherine, bearing a striking resemblance to Cat Crimins, appeared in order to deliver a message of penitence to the audience.

"Sinners!" Sister Mary Catherine called in greeting. Zeroing in on one female audience member, Sister Mary Catherine asked pointedly, "Do you have a boyfriend?" When the audience member answered that she did not, Sister Mary Catherine tried to impress upon the large crowd of women the urgent need to find boyfriends. The nun humor went over like gangbusters and everyone appreciated the nod to Lucy's role as the Mother Superior in the forthcoming film Bitch Slap.

Finally, the curtain rose on Pleasuredome with an exuberantly campy rendition of the Gloria, which gestured to the religious themes that would continue throughout the evening. It also held out to fans the promise of a reprise of Lucy's rendition of Patti Smith's "Gloria," which Lucy had previously debuted at her London concert. In addition to the band, three women dressed in religious robes were present on stage, forming a chorus.

Lucy appears on stage in a Catholic schoolgirl outfit that brought to mind the sexualized school girls of Yuri anime and manga. Her hair dressed in pigtails and swinging a school bag, Lucy launches into the show's first song, Queen's "Somebody to Love." Mixing heartbreaking earnestness with a determined naughtiness, Lucy's character Sappho sings of her desire for worldly experience and, especially, the tellingly gender-neutral "somebody" to love.

As Sappho imagines the somebody who awaits her, her fingers reach for her own nipple, only to stop short and pluck away the school cardigan instead, revealing a white blouse worn in a saucy halter style. (The outfit was actually not that risque, as Lucy was wearing a full bodysuit underneath the schoolgirl outfit, which allowed for a later costume change.) Next Sappho's hand creeps down and fastens itself between her legs.

Suddenly, Sister Mary Catherine walks on stage, calling out in dismay, "Sappho Warrior Princess! What would your parents think?" Sappho's adolescent swagger wilts in the face of religious authority, providing a launch point for the next song, Nina Simone's "Go to Hell." Sister Mary Catherine remains for the song and gets well into the spirit of the thing, busting out some dance moves and joining in for the recurrent damning choruses of "Hell!"

Despite the humorous references to the trappings of Catholicism, I found the underlying message concerning Sappho's conflicted feelings to be quite serious. Over the many years I've been out as a lesbian, I've met gay people from a variety of faiths who have been tormented by the threat of their religious sect's version of hell. I've met Mormons worried about Outer Darkness, Baptists and Pentecostals who have undergone exorcism, and still others who have submitted themselves to the ex-gay movement in an effort to avoid eternal flame.

Even more disturbing are the many secular gays and lesbians who have spoken to me of their fears. How, in the middle of the night, despite their education or modern outlook or secularism or other mitigating factors, they will waken and hear a voice in their head that says it's all true: that they will go to hell for their sexuality. My own life has been decisively and negatively impacted by the Catholic Church in ways that have left me feeling helpless, even though my own relationship to the church is to say the least tenuous. And so, the central conflict in Pleasuredome, however comically presented, struck me as an extremely relevant one to Lucy's lesbian following.

With hellfire at her back, Sappho is introduced to the discotheque known as "The Pleasuredome," where she will be sorely tempted by the figure of Gloria (interchangeably called Laura) bearing a platter of cocaine. Sappho wasn't the only one struggling with temptation. I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate as Gloria emerged from the chorus, removed her robe and began to parade about the stage in electric blue hot pants and a flimsy halter. The other two singers, who had less developed roles, also removed their robes. One singer had such an ample and inviting bosom I found it necessary to discipline myself to not look at that corner of the stage unless she was singing solo, lest I become lost in reverie.

Laura "Needs Warning Label" Sperrazza. The Frankie Goes to Hollywood song "Welcome to the Pleasuredome" became the soundtrack for Sappho's dynamic seduction by Gloria/Laura. Now, I don't want to take anything away from Sperrazza's talent as a singer, or her considerable capabilities as a dancer, or for that matter, her acting prowess. But HOLY FUCK let's talk about this woman's body for a minute or three.

In this time of homogenized Hollywood breasts, Laura Sperrazza is indeed a potent reminder of just how much havoc one woman with a full A/small B cup can cause in a room. My best attempt to convey to you the effect Laura Sperrazza's body has is to say she is the kind of woman that might lead otherwise upstanding people to commit grave crimes.

I ran into several lesbian fans in the 24 hours after the Saturday show with a dazed and absent look in their eyes, like they'd been caught staring too long at the sun. A little probing on my part revealed they had simply been gazing at Laura's gyrating ass too long. Sadly, the essence of Laura Sperrazza is lost in photos. You really needed to be there to experience the fine crease of her hot pants, savor the plushy softness of her flesh, follow the bounce and sway of those little heart stickers on her nipples.

Sappho did not stand up long to the temptations offered by Gloria/Laura. A portion of the audience hooted and hollered with glee as Sappho bent to snort her first line of coke. Once the show was over, another portion of the audience claimed to be confused by many of the drug references in Pleasuredome. None of my jaded citydweller friends had any trouble deciphering the visual cues, which I found clever and concise.

The Big Plunge. The next songs in Pleasuredome revolved around Sappho's pursuit of Gloria and the establishment of their relationship. As Gloria/Laura exits the stage at the end of "Welcome to the Pleasuredome," an intrigued Sappho begins to sing the Eurythmics' "Who's That Girl?" This song, like almost all included in Pleasuredome, was a gay club hit in the early 80s. I remember this one well from when I first started whoring around going to lesbian and gay clubs in West Hollywood, back in the day.

Next came Cyndi Lauper's "She-Bop," re-imagined as a wild and raucous celebration of girl-on-girl sexuality. As she has occasionally done at previous concerts, Lucy changed the lyrics to suit her lesbian audience, switching out "blue boy magazine" for "blue girl magazine." Wearing a blindfold over her eyes in mockery of the blindness said to be caused by certain forms of sexuality, a toppish Sappho grabs hold of Gloria's hair and guides her in simulated oral sex.

Although the oral sex scene was sexy, it was also hilarious. I was struck by how Lucy is able to convey incredible sexiness and be extremely funny at the same time. Hers is the type of humor one can laugh out loud at, but somehow the laughter never defuses the sexuality present. It's a unique quality and I can't think of another female actor who can do that. The looks on Sappho's face as she was being serviced were priceless. From our position down front, it was like we were mainlining the juiciness of it all.

The chorus of "She-Bop" was punctuated by Sappho rhythmically spanking Gloria and, sexiest of all, several segments where Sappho played air guitar. I feel certain that when I get to dyke heaven, it will be filled with large panel screens playing a loop tape of Lucy Lawless on air guitar.

Then came Jet's "Be My Girl," in which Sappho woos and wins Gloria. By the end of the song, however, it is Gloria who appears the more dominant partner. In an intensity-filled segment, Sappho sits on her knees facing the audience while Gloria straddles her legs from behind, gripping Sappho's tie as if to rein her in while driving her with a riding crop as if in slow motion.

Some fans interpreted this scene as bondage or S&M. I took the meaning to be more psychological. But whether the pussy-whipping was literal or symbolic didn't really matter to the progression of the story. I enjoyed the ambiguity and multiple meanings inherent in the Pleasuredome staging generally. Whatever was lost in terms of narrative clarity only added to the interactivity of the theatrical performance.

Following the show, some fans complained about the content of this segment, calling it "pornographic." When I told the Cute-Little-Red-Headed-Girlfriend about these responses, she replied, "They obviously haven't seen very much pornography, have they?" I thought she made a very good point. However, Pleasuredome does display some of the in-your-face sex radicalism that I associate with queer politics during the AIDS crisis. That's certainly not a bad thing from my perspective (I'm a devotee of shock aesthetics), but it's to be expected that it will alienate some people.

As far as I know, there's only been one musical that documents the AIDS era: Rent, which has been marred by accusations of plagiarism, among other criticisms. In a note dated 2/5/09 on her Official Fan Club page, Lucy states her interest in developing Pleasuredome further. Whether the show is scaled up or is repeated in its current form, it's one I would be eager to revisit. I value in particular its representation of the sexual adventurism that many urban-dwelling lesbians embraced at the very moment that the gay male community was forced to give up more libertine sex practices. It's also an interesting addition to the various Catholic-specific political and cultural protests regarding the Church's position on sexual orientation.

The Naked Soul. Having found love, Sappho revisits the meaning of faith through the R.E.M. song "Losing My Religion." But the move away from faith also signals a descent of sorts. Stripped down to a flesh-toned body stocking and under the blare of a strobe light, Sappho sings "White Lines" while she and Gloria doodle on her body with white paint, symbolizing further drug exploration.

The song "White Lines" proved a good showcase for the band, led by musical director and Xena composer Joe LoDuca, who played guitar. My one regret from the evening was that I didn't spend more time watching the band. I was aware of their presence because they were responsible for the flow of the performance, weaving a rich, seamless sound experience that left me rapt for the entire night. Besides being a great rock band, there was also an additional element of orchestration that raised the collection of songs to a level that merited the term "rock opera."

My favorite song from the show, "Gloria," was next. I was eager to see Lucy perform it, but I didn't expected her to deliver it with as much power and conviction as she did that night. It began with Sappho attempting to wipe the white paint from her body, only to leave dark greasy smudges in their place. Sappho stands there nearly naked, singing her heart out, while covered in what looks like mud or shit. Meanwhile, Gloria/Laura takes up pom-poms for a frenetic dance that reinforced the incantatory and hypnotic aspects of the song. It was completely mad and over-the-top and I just loved it to pieces.

The relationship between Sappho and Gloria deteriorates and doubts emerge in the Heaven 17 song, "Temptation." A sense of escalating crisis culminates in Soft Cell's song "Tainted Love." Although this was intended to express a moment of sadness and betrayal in the show, my reaction was led off track owing to the fact that this song--along with Pete Shelley's gay anthem "Homosapien"--always fills me with an immediate desire to shed my clothes. The dark, sexy musical arrangement and Lucy's suggestive delivery didn't help matters. Nonetheless, it was an excellent song choice in terms of plot development.

Redemption through Love. Forgiveness is asked for and extended in the duet "Power of Love," movingly delivered by Lucy and Laura Sperrazza. The song, which melds religious and romantic imagery in its lyrics, concluded with a dramatic bent-back kiss between Sappho and Gloria. Lucy's fans drew on years of pent-up enthusiasm as they cheered the kiss; meanwhile, many miles away, back at Lesbian HQ, a well-manicured hand picked up a sharpened pencil and deftly marked off one item on the collective "100 Things to See Before I Die" list.

The show ended with Hoobastank's "The Reason," further underlining the redemptive power of love in the painful journey toward one's personal truths and the acknowledgement of imperfection. I was pleased the show ended on a happy note for Sappho and Gloria, rather than an endpoint of spiritual decadence or heartbreak. For me, Pleasuredome seemed to last only an instant, and it was a show I could go back to see again and again.

She knows what girls like, she knows what girls want. I don't know if Lucy worked with her regular costumer on Pleasuredome or not. I often think of her costumer as a kind of Evil Mad Costumer occupying a basement lab/design studio where he tests out his creations on a group of test lesbians, all hooked up to the female lubricant-measuring plethysmographs used in various half-baked sexology studies. "Let's see what happens when I add silver studs to these chaps!" he cries out, a peal of maniacal laughter filling the room.

Lucy's outfit for her encore followed the existing pattern of costumes tweaked to create maximum pain impact on her core audience. Amid thunderous applause, Lucy strode on stage wearing men's trousers reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich, thick black suspenders and a skin-baring racerback camisole tank. To quote lesbian blogger Dorothy Surrenders, who has copiously documented lesbians' love of the tank top in her recurring feature, "Tank Top Tuesday," "Any woman wearing a tank top and suspenders automatically goes to the front of the crush line." Lucy's arms and torso were still smudged with black and white goo left over from when she'd been wearing the bodysuit. Her dirty and disheveled appearance combined with the menswear gave Lucy an appealing E.M. Forster-era rough trade look that made me want to reach for my wallet. Finally, just to add that little something extra that makes you lose your mind, Lucy topped off the look by removing her shoes so we could all sigh over her distinctive and adorable toes.

One of the musicians held his hands over his ears to block out the din of the audience while Lucy urged the overexcited crowd to calm down. As the opening to the fan-favorite "Hallelujah" began, the audience quickly became silent. According to information posted on her official website, Lucy was influenced by the Jeff Buckley version of "Hallelujah." Before writing this report, I assembled all the lyrics to the Pleasuredome songs (which you can download from here) and read up on some of them, especially those with multiple popular recordings. The Wikipedia article on "Hallelujah" was quite informative, providing a link out to a BBC article noting the many Biblical references in the lyrics and quoting Jeff Buckley as saying his rendition was about "the hallelujah of the orgasm." With its mixture of religiosity and sexuality, "Hallelujah" extended the themes presented earlier in Pleasuredome.

The final song was the 80s hit, David Bowie's romantic "Let's Dance." With colored lights swirling across the stage and a ceiling-mounted snow machine dispensing fake snow, the room took on a party-like atmosphere as Lucy sang and thanked the Pleasuredome cast. An evening with Lucy is always marked by a sense of fun and playfulness and "Let's Dance" captured that carefree spirit the fans enjoy so much.

After Lucy ran off stage for the last time, slapping the front-row fans' raised hands as she exited, we unglued ourselves from our positions at the edge of the stage and drifted among the crowd. Inevitably, we ran into more people we knew. And so the evening continued for us, outside of the Roxy now, but still in the company of fans, with thoughts of Lucy vivid in our hearts and minds.

Special thanks go to several of my fan buddies, Janna, Kathy and Van Lord, who let me use their photography in this report. Photo credits are as follows, numbered from top to bottom as they appear in this post: nos. 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, 18, Janna; nos. 4, 10, 14, 15, 17, Kathy; nos. 5, 8, 9, 16, Van; nos. 1, 2, 3, 19, Teresa.

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