Maudeville at Lismore Regional Art Gallery

Maudeville at Lismore Regional Art Gallery

Not long after arriving in Sydney in the mid 1990s, I remember being blown away by the elaborate wigs of drag queen, Maude Boate. In contrast to the permed and blow dried wigs of so many drag queens, Maude had cartoon-like headgear made of plastic.

Maude was a regular performer at the legendary, sadly missed Albury Hotel. Working alongside Maude at The Albury, was barman, Tim Chappell, one of the Academy Award winning costume designers for “Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert”. Apparently that’s how some of the Maude Boate designed headgear and dresses ended up in the movie. The other connection between Maude and Tim was that both came from my hometown, Lismore. I remember discovering that about Tim about the time he won the Academy Award. But it wasn’t until a few years later I discovered Maude Boate was in fact, Michael Gates, also from my hometown.

“When I was growing up in Lismore, drag was completely unacceptable”, Michael says on a short video that’s playing as part of “Maudeville” an exhibition currently at the Lismore Regional Art Gallery. Being of a similar age, I knew exactly what he meant. And yet, at the same time as Jim Brigginshaw, the editor of the local newspaper, The Northern Star was writing inflammatory anti-gay editorials, people like Mike Bray and Vera Bourne (the mother of a schoolmate) were hosting Gaywaves on the local community radio station, 2NCR-FM, Mike ran a gay restaurant called “Double Dutch” and the local social group, Tropical Fruits was just starting out.

Thirty five years later, Tropical Fruits is now a multi-day festival (with a pool party and street parade) that attracts a lot of visitors from elsewhere (the actor Alan Cumming was the star celebrity guest this year), and there’s an exhibition at the local art gallery paying tribute to the work of a man who achieved a great deal through his drag persona. Design-wise, Maude Boate continues to influence how many of Sydney’s drag queens dress. In the short video, Michael also describes how he makes wigs for the stage production of “Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert”.

It’s a lovely exhibition. Well worth a look. But be quick, noting it closes January 30, 2016.

Holding The Man

Holding The Man

“I hadn’t realised it was so soon after his death when the book was released”, I told my friend. We had just been to see a screening of the movie version of “Holding The Man” at Sydney’s Verona Cinema. We were right in the midst of the film in many ways. St Vincent’s Hospital. “The Wall”. “I could lead a walking tour of the area covered in the film”, I joked. A couple of people at the pedestrian crossing laughed out loud. At the end of the film, the credits tell you Timothy Conigrave completed the book at the end of 1994 and died ten days later.

Buying that book, sometime in 1995, is one of my first memories of moving to Sydney. As I wrote a few years ago

When I first moved to Sydney one of the things that most impressed me about the place was the late night book-store, Ariel. Having spent all of my life in the country (I include my four years in Brisbane in that), I’d found myself suddenly living in Australia’s largest city. And one of the great things about that was that I could walk up to Oxford Street and purchase a book at the oddest hours.

I swear it must have been about nine o’clock on a Tuesday night when I bought, “Holding The Man”, because I’m pretty sure I was late for work the next day. It was sometime in 1995, though I’m not exactly sure when, when I walked to Oxford Street, bought the book and came straight home to read it. It must have been three or four am when I finished reading the book.

In such a short period of time I had never experienced so much laughter and tears, as the story of Tim and John was revealed to me. From their furtive teenage sexual encounters to their deaths from AIDS in the early 90s, it was such an incredibly well told beautiful story, made incrediblY strong by its absolute authenticity. Indeed, it was an authenticity which cut a swathe through the emotions of so many of my peers.

A few years later, I went to the opening night of the play, and wrote about the apprehension I felt that was soon swept away…

By the play’s end, however, I was in tears. But as emotional as it was for me, I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for those who knew Tim and John. I was sitting next to Noel Hodda, for example, one of the founding members of Griffin Theatre Company which Tim was a part of. Also in the audience was Penny Cook, a close friend of Tim’s, who was referred to in the play. As the play deals graphically with the impact of HIV/AIDS – “a footballer who loses his body and an actor who loses his mind” – it must have been quite harrowing for them to go over some of those experiences again. Or maybe it was cathartic? But for me it was probably one of the best nights of theatre I’ve ever enjoyed, with a tremendous ensemble cast and faultless direction and staging…

I felt a similar sense of apprehension about seeing the movie. “How can they possibly cover such an important story in a film”, I worried.

Overall, I didn’t laugh as much (or cry as much) as I did in either the book or the play. But in lots of other ways, I gained some really amazing new insights into the story.

“Tim was a really flawed character”, my friend said, as we walked along Oxford Street. To be honest, before seeing the movie I’d never really thought that before. But there’s a moment in the movie when the lecturer at NIDA says to Tim something along the lines of him always wanting to be the centre of attention, which kinda re-enforces that idea. I also thought the film was far more “sympathetic” (I’m not sure if that’s the right word) towards John, as we watch his sad, slow, drawn out death. Though Tim is there with John to the end, you’re left with an almost incomplete view of how difficult Tim’s own final days must have been.

This is not a criticism of the film. Quite the opposite. It’s meant to demonstrate how the film differs from the book and the play, and how each of these different manifestations has made me think deeply about this story. This is not simply a word for word adaptation of the book.

The script is great, the acting’s great, and it’s beautifully filmed.

Go and see it, do yourself a favour.

Stockholm Pride Parade

Stockholm Pride - Marching for those who can't which is always my favourite float

There was a brief moment earlier today when the bloke standing next to me and I looked at each other in momentary disbelief. A second later, and we didn’t need to exchange any words, because we both knew we both just seen a man go past us on roller skates wearing nothing but a rainbow flag. And yes, you guessed it, at the very moment he went past us, the wind whipped up the flag to reveal more than I’ve seen in quite a while. After the reasonably dull weather of the last week, there were blue skies in Stockholm today. Shorts weather. Underwear weather. Or indeed, nothing at all. Though I wasn’t fast enough to snap the man on roller skates, these are some of my favourite photographs from today’s Stockholm Pride parade.

Måns Zelmerlöw at Stockholm Pride

Måns Zelmerlöw at Stockholm Pride

The first time I saw Måns Zelmerlöw perform live was at Stockholm Pride in 2008. At the time, I think he really only had one hit song, “Cara Mia”. Eight years later, he was back at Stockholm Pride, and performed that song again. Last night he also sang another previous hit, (and Eurovision/Melodifestivalen entry) “Hope And Glory” as well as “Heroes”, the song which won him this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Although I was close enough to touch him, I didn’t. Sweden has laws about that kind of thing :)

Men Only

Deni Hines at The Midnight Shift

Ahead of meeting up with some mates for dinner tonight, I called in to The Midnight Shift on Sydney’s Oxford Street for a G&T. I’d arrived early, and I figured a G&T would be a nice way to kill 15 or 20 minutes. To my surprise, Deni Hines was also there.

Although I “grew up” with Deni Hines, I’m more familiar with her mother, 1970s Australian pop icon, Marcia Hines. “When I told my mother I was playing The Midnight Shift, she told me she played here when it was Men Only. I’m proud to say I’m second generation to play The Shift”, she said.

I also remember when The Midnight Shift was Men Only. Unofficially for many years, but also officially, as they usually excluded women for footwear reasons. “You’re wearing open-toed shoes” they would often explain as the reason why women were not allowed to enter.

I wish they had been a little more honest, and just said something like “There are times when women want a women-only space, and times when a men want a men-only space, so I hope you can appreciate that”. Not only would that have been a little more honest, I think that would have also have led to much less conflict. I can imagine there would have been more occasions when people would have said,, “OK”, rather than get into fights about definitions, as I know my friends and I sometimes did.

2015, and life is different. And on a Queen’s Birthday Weekend, I couldn’t help but notice the bars on Oxford Street were awfully busy. On a normal Sunday night, there would often be handsful of people at bars like The Midnight Shift and The Oxford Hotel. But tonight the bars were full, and even places like The Oxford which normally struggle for patrons were charging a $15 entry. So after a G&T, some Deni Hines, and dinner, it was home for bed (and some blogging).

Visiting Melbourne – Sunday night at DT’s

DT's in Melbourne

For a bunch of reasons, there aren’t too many “gay bars” any-more. It doesn’t worry me too much, though a friend bemoans the lack of a “traditional” neighbourhood bar, where you can go and have a drink, have a chat, meet some nice blokes, and maybe “catch up”. Or at least that’s the case in most cities around the world it seems. I’m curious to see if that will be the case in Tokyo (which I’ll be visiting in July) which boasts 300 neighbourhood gay bars in a small area. Even though they’ve pretty much disappeared for the most part in Australia, Melbourne still has one, it seems: DT’s. Amusingly enough, the most friendly people in the bar were actually a group of guys from Sydney (two of whom live metres away from me) who befriended me on a Melbourne cold, winter’s night.

Sunday Night at Stonewall

Stonewall

When I was in Brisbane the other week I walked past “The Alliance Hotel” on Boundary Street. As I peered through window, I noted it seems like a very modern “boutique” hotel these days. However, I remember it back in the 80s when it was a fairly down-market gay bar.

“Down-market” is probably the wrong phrase to use, as it’s a venue I remember with fondness. They had $3 meals on a Monday night, as I recall, which was a very attractive offering to an impoverished university student living such as myself.

But it was the Sunday nights I remember the most. There was a “Sunday Session” from roughly four until ten, which was always a wonderful opportunity to catch up with friends for a beer or two. And they had a wonderful drag show which seemed to go on for hours. Although there were lots of drag legends in Brisbane at the time such as Toye de Wilde (who once ran for the Queensland Parliament) and Destiny Devine (who we named our cat after), the “star” of the show was a character called Freda Mae West. Freda Made was, probably, in her 70s, and her “star turn” was an inability to lip-sync properly. Most famously, the line “I see you shiver with anticipation” from Rocky Horror had the crowd in rapturous laughter.

In some ways, the Sunday night show at Sydney’s Stonewall reminds me of those days at The Alliance. Hosted by Polly, the show is all about having a fun time, having a few drinks with your mates, and in preparation for the week ahead, not taking life too seriously. A treasure.

Mardi Gras

Drag queen, Felicity at The Imperiall Hotel

“I’m running late. The bus was late, but I’ll be there shortly”, I told a friend by text message.

I haven’t really participated much in this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, so we had planned to catch up for a beer and a bit of “Mardi Gras” spirit at Sydney’s legendary Imperial Hotel. “I think Sunday afternoon is the best option. And as the Imperial is about to turn straight, maybe we should meet there for their Sunday afternoon retro session” a friend told me in am email. “Turning straight? Just like all my exboyfriends”, I joked in reply.

But as I arrived at Erskineville, Graeme said, “It’s closed”. Instantly that brought back memories of that day in November 2007 when we had planned to meet at The Newtown Hotel, only to discover the bar had closed suddenly. Thankfully, that wasn’t repeated at The Imperial, just a later opening time than advertised.

What a relief. Because we had a lovely afternoon of chatting, listening to music, and enjoying the comic ramblings of the resident drag queen, Felicity.

In this modern world of online relationships, Grindr, and the like I hope there’s still room for “gay bars”. I think it’s fantastic that (in the inner city at least) it’s all okay for gays and straights to socialise in the same bars. I think it’s fantastic that male or female couples can, by and large, show affection to each other without retribution. Obviously that’s not the case in many locations, but most definitely in the inner-city part of Sydney in which I live. But still there are times when it’s nice to be with “my people” and to share a sense of community.

That’s also how I feel about Mardi Gras. Even though I didn’t participate much this year, I think it’s really important that it continues to exist. Even if we achieve full equality in my lifetime (and that’s possible), I still think it’s good to have these moments of individual community celebration. Even if there’s equality, it shouldn’t mean mean everyone’s the same.

Twists and Turns – Matthew Mitcham

Matthew Mitcham CD

I think Matthew Mitcham is stalking me. I wish. On Tuesday we jockeyed for position in the coffee queue at the ABC cafe, ahead of his appearance on Midday Interview with Margaret Throsby. This afternoon, he was in the reception of 702 ABC Sydney, ahead of his appearance on “Thank God It’s Friday”. “I loved your show last night”, I told him.

Indeed I did. He has a cabaret show – songs, stories, acrobatics – based on his autobiography, which I read a couple of years ago. At the time, I observed how amazing and complex was his life story, moving me in many ways.

As I read about his early years in Brisbane, I couldn’t help but be connected to his story. “Oh my goodness, he lived around the corner from my aunt”, I noticed. And the gay bar he went to where they allowed him in as an underage patron? I’d been there too. With a good cultural knowledge of Brisbane, I knew instantly where that was, even though he failed to name it (for obvious legal reasons). I’d also been an under-age entrant to a gay bar in Brisbane many, many years ago. I was fifteen at the time, and was accompanied by a slightly older friend. Not much older, but old enough to be able to whisper in the ear of the bouncer and guarantee me entry. Twenty years later, and it seems little had changed when Matthew found himself in a similar position. Unlike Matthew, however, I was never accompanied by my mother.

His mother was in the audience at last night’s show, along with his diving coach, and seemingly, several hundred of his closest friends because there was a lot of love in the room. There were lots of people who have obviously followed his story ever since Beijing, which, by contrast I completely missed, as I backpacked my way through Europe at the time.

Matthew’s quite a good singer, with a reasonable vocal range, and with dramatic qualities, brings life to a range of songs, many written for the show, along with others such as “True Faith” by “New Order”. He’s also a talented story-teller, and displays a charming self deprecating sense of humour. One of the highlights was a mood-lighting re-enactment of his perfect 10 dive at Beijing, accompanied by Matthew singing a rather haunting song.

At the end of the show there was a 15 minute or so Q&A session. He was asked whether or not he would be going to any of the Mardi Gras parties. “Oh no, I don’t know how to party safely”, he told the audience, showing a greater level of self-awareness than I did at that age.

After the Q&A everyone wandered outside for selfies with Matthew, and for the purchase of a range of signed merchandise. A fun evening was had by all.

Behind Bars

Lex Watson's Book Collection for Sale

It’s thirty years since the decriminalisation of consensual male sex in New South Wales, and “some of the leading figures responsible for that change have all died in a six month period”, we were told by Murray Maclachlan at the Australian Homosexual History Conference held at Sydney’s University of Technology. He was referring to former politicians, Gough Whitlam, Neville Wran and Ron Mulock, and to the academic and homosexual activist, Lex Watson.

As a young man thirty years ago, first becoming aware of homosexual liberation politics, Lex was a name I knew well. He was the “go to” person for the mainstream media for discussion about homosexual law reform. It’s amazing to think it was only thirty years ago that you could go to gaol in NSW for gay sex. In fact, the laws were so incredibly odd that the penalty for homosexual rape in NSW was seven years, whereas the penalty of consensual homosexual sex was fourteen years (I don’t think I’ve misrepresented the case there).

At the conference a series of speakers spoke about the moves to homosexual law reform in the different states and territories during the 60s, 70s, and 80s. In some states and territories, the changes were as the result of the state government leading public opinion, in others, the politicians had to be dragged along by the sentiment of public opinion. In others still, it was a combination of both. And then you have Tasmania, where it was the result of strong action by a small group of activists, who had to take their battle internationally, before the long overdue change could occur back here.

The keynote speaker for the conference was the former politician, and now Age Discrimination Commissioner, Susan Ryan. She told the conference she had grown up in a fairly conservative Catholic family, and so it wasn’t until she went to university that she learned about homosexuals. “Camp as a row of tents was a phrase that was used at the time”, she told us, reflecting on both the negative and positive use of the phrase. Feminism informed her understanding of sexuality, she added. She spoke early in the piece about the political turmoil of early to mid 1970s, and how there was deep distrust of her in the heavily male-dominated Australian Labor Party. “There was a general view in the ALP in support of homosexual law reform, but there were fears about the political consequences”, she said. Forty years later, she pondered the opinion gap between the public and politicians on the issue of homosexual marriage, with a clear majority of Australians in favour of making the change. “The community won’t go backwards so the politicians will need to go forward”, she said. Now, as the Age Discrimination Commissioner, one of her major concerns are the issues facing older homosexual Australians in faith-based aged care. Though she says the sector says they don’t discriminate, she thinks that needs to be tested, though noting “there haven’t been any complaint yet”. During her speech, she reflected on the massive changes which have occurred in the last forty years, saying with a grin, “We used to say in the women’s movement how come they’ve done better than us?”.

Charlie Hides

Charlie Hides as Cher

Charlie Hides has one of the funniest live shows I’ve seen in ages. He’s an English comedian – though originally from the United States – who dresses up and impersonates (with humour and affection) some of the great modern pop divas, including Cher, Madonna and Lady GaGa.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been enthusiastically sharing his Youtube videos with friends. The first one that made me laugh was a sketch about the apparent rivalry between Madonna and Lady GaGa. Since then, he’s gone on to incorporate a bunch of other characters including Lana Delray, Joan Rivers and others with the same level of affection and humour. Unlike many other comedians, I don’t think there’s anything nasty or malicious behind his humour.

In the last year or so he’s been doing live shows in London, and I’ve read about this development with a sense of longing and wonder. “There has to be a lot of video in his live shows to achieve what he does”, I whispered to Graeme in the minutes before his live show at Sydney’s “Gingers” began. There is. There are also lots of costumes changes, and a comedy routine which continues to shock and surprise over the course of about ninety minutes. He works hard.

The comedy of his live show was far more cutting edge, and definitely less politically correct, than you see on the Youtube clips. Overall it was a fantastic night which we both enjoyed very much. Hopefully he’ll be back for Mardi Gras again next year.

Privates On Parade

Photographer - Unsure, but looks like a theatre publicity shot. Happy to credit if I can find out the photographer.

“Meet the gang cos the boys are here, the boys to entertain you…” Nearly forty years after having first watched “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum”, the 1970s BBC sit-com, I can still remember and sing-a-long with the opening theme song.

Having spent most of my formative years just a few feet away from a 26″ Chrysler colour TV, it’s no surprise. Along with “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum”, there was a steady regular Friday night television diet courtesy of the ABC which included Dave Allen, The Two Ronnies and “The Trots”. And when I say “The Trots”, I mean trotting. Horses. Yes its true. Every Friday night, ABC TV in NSW (and probably elsewhere) used to regularly feature live coverage of trotting. They might have been done “The Dogs” also, though I don’t have that memory.

Yes it was a different world back then. Although it wasn’t evident to my young eyes, I’m sure if you looked closely at “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum” these days, there would be more than a hint of racism. I don’t think I will. But going to see “Privates On Parade” has re-ignited in me an interest in some of those BBC comedies of my youth.

The subject matter of “Privates On Parade” is similar to “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum”: both are based around the activities of a 1940s English Army Entertainment Troop. Although I’m sure the original play was the basis for the television show, the subject matter of the play is much darker, dealing openly with homosexuality (whereas it was only really hinted at in the TV show), and with death.

I thought the production by New Theatre (as part of Mardi Gras) was excellent. It’s a well written play (of course), though perhaps a little dated. so the company had good material to start with. While there could have been a propensity to ham things up a little, I thought the company did an excellent job in playing it straight, and allowing for the depth of the characters to show.

Croc-a-Dyke Dundee

Dawn O'Donnell - still taken from movie trailer

Years ago I remember watching a really fantastic documentary about the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras called, Feed Them to the Cannibals. As I recall, the title was a reference to the words of an Australian government official, who was asked what he thought should be done with those engaging in homosexual behaviour in the early days of European settlement here.

For me, that 1993 film was also an introduction to the larger-than-life character of Dawn O’Donnell, the subject of the movie I saw tonight, Croc-a-Dyke Dundee. For many years, a friend and I developed quite a routine between ourselves, as we remembered and laughed about some of the classic lines delivered by Dawn in that early film.

Co-incidentally both films were made by the same person, Fiona Cunningham-Reid. At tonight’s screening she mentioned how she had asked Dawn many years ago if she would participate in a follow-up documentary about her own life story. For many years, Dawn and her partner, Aniek Baton both refused.

At the Q&A session which followed tonight’s screening, Aniek explained what finally brought her around, was recognition the telling the story of Dawn’s life goes some way to telling the history of Gay & Lesbian life in Sydney in the last fifty years or so.

That said, the film also gives a really lovely insight into her life before she became a nightclub owner on Oxford Street. The film explains she was the daughter of a single parent, growing up in Sydney in reasonably rough circumstances, until she was sent to a convent school to “smooth off the edges”. She had an early passion for ice-skating, which eventually took her to live in both London and Paris, until an accident cut short her career.

On returning to Australia she married a man which, in the film she says, “lasted for about two months”.The film then goes on to explain how she made her career mostly in real estate, and then later in nightclubs.

The film doesn’t shy away from the more suspect parts of Dawn’s life. The film talks about her connections with the convicted criminal, Abe Saffron; the many allegations of nightclub arson; and even the suggestion she murdered someone. The film offers no new evidence on any of these allegations, but that’s okay, it wasn’t that type of film.

For me the really interesting insight into Dawn’s life, of course, came from Aniek, Dawn’s partner. They were together thirty years, and it sounds like they had an amazing series of adventures together, particularly the travel. Dawn died five or six years ago, and Aniek was left out of the will. At tonight’s screening she said she was still involved in a complex legal battle tonight which was “ongoing and private”.

Though the film wasn’t as ground-breaking and as memorable for me as “Feed Them To The Cannibals”, I really enjoyed it. I hope one day it will get a television screening as well.

Boyers and Bitches

The Governor General and Geraldine Doogue

There was a real moment of history being in the audience for the speech delivered by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, as part of The Boyer Lecture Series.

In the midst of a speech about celebrating the diversity of Australian life, the two most news-worthy (and much quoted comments) concerned her (hinted) support for same-sex marriage, and her low-key support for the transition of Australian from Constitutional Monarchy to Republic.

As was reported by ABC News…

Ms Bryce, delivering the final Boyer Lecture of the year on Friday night, said she hoped Australia might become a nation where “people are free to love and marry whom they choose”.

“And where perhaps, my friends, one day, one young girl or boy may even grow up to be our nation’s first head of state,” she said.

As I personally support both things, it was a welcome affirmation, though you can understand why those opposed to such things, and those who have differing views to my own about what a Governor-General should and shouldn’t say, have expressed their concern. It was a moment of history, and it was good to be there.

The Bitch Is Black at Corroboree Festival
The Bitch Is Black at Corroboree Festival

“Do you think we’re the only ones here tonight, who are about to head off to see an Indigenous drag show…?”, I asked my friend. We both giggled out loud, as the contrast between the two audiences could not have been greater. The Boyers audience was very Anglo, very top end of town, very serious. In contrast, the audience for “The Bitch Is Black” was very irreverent, very Indigenous, and featured a greater variety of people attending, though we did have a drink or two with a former Federal Minister of the Crown who was there with his Indigenous partner.

The basic premise for the show (re-titled after the Elton John song, once covered by Tina Turner) was a drag tribute to the great black American female singers of the last fifty years. Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Janet Jackson… you get the idea.

“Oh my goodness”, it’s my record collection”, I realised at one point. But for the three men performing the drag show (who said they grew up like lots of people singing along to their songs as teenagers), I’m guessing these artists had a lot of additional cultural significance due to the colour of their skin.

“We’d like to take the show on the road”, one of the guys told us later in the night as we chatted. Based on the reaction from the crowd – pure joy – I reckon the show would do well.

Though completely unplanned, we ended the night doing a bit of our own lip-syncing to great pop songs as Palms, the club on Oxford Street.

As we waited in line to enter the club we had a really bizarre conversation with a couple of guys. One of them was a little drunk, and so, a little unashamed blurted out, asking one of our friends if he was Aboriginal. When he replied yes, the guy then went on to say his grandmother was black, his father was black, his brothers and sisters were black, his cousins were black, and “some of his best friends” were black, but that HE wasn’t Aboriginal. “I think you might want to think that one through a bit…” we said to him. Life’s rich tapestry…

Jamie, Liberace and Me

Behind-the-Candelabra-2013

Many years after I left Lismore, I remember being back there and going through a box of my things which included a pencil-case from my early years at primary school. In those days, pencil-cases also usually contained pens, textas and rubbers/erasers. They were usually made of vinyl, and it was all the rage to use your pens and textas to cover the vinyl pencil-case in personal graffiti. Generally at that age you would write down the name of your favourite pop group or sports team, or you might secretly write the initials of the person you had a crush on. Imagine my surprise all those years later to discover the seven-year old James had in fact written the phrase, “I love Jamie Redfern” on his pencil-case.

It was through Jamie Redfern that I discovered Liberace. Famously, Liberace came to Australia, discovered Jamie Redfern and invited him to return to America and go on tour. In 2013, there would be outrage at the idea of a young boy going back to America with a middle-aged musician who was gay. Back in the early 70s, however, we were probably all a little more “trusting” than we’ve become in the wake of revelations about paedophile priests and so on.

I suppose in a way I probably did have a crush on Jamie Redfern, the star of “Young Talent Time”. First and foremost I really loved YTT, and Jamie was by far my favourite on the show. He was my answer to Justin Bieber, I guess. I bought all of his records, and strongly remember standing outside in the rain waiting as he performed at the Lismore City Hall.

Years later when Liberace died, and it was confirmed he died from AIDS complications, and years after the famous legal case where he denied being gay, we all knew he was, the media once again took an interest in Jamie Redfern (whose career had, by then, faded into obscurity). Don’t quote me on this, but my re-collection was that Jamie Redfern as an adult said “nothing untoward happened” and that he maintained a great deal of respect for Liberace.

Were it not for Jamie Redfern I probably wouldn’t have discovered Liberace until later in life. But having discovered him, I learned a little about his career, watched a few of his earlier movies on television, and of course took a great interest when he died and when it was revealed, against his wishes, that it was through AIDS complications.

In a similar position, Rock Hudson who died through AIDS a few years earlier, and who had maintained a heterosexual persona for years, finally came out shortly before his death and received a lot of support. Liberace never did that, and as I watched “Behind the Candelabra” today I began to understand the reasons why.

First and foremost, Liberace was from another era. An era where your sexuality remained private and where you didn’t use your celebrity to campaign for issues. There’s one point in the movie where, talking about Jane Fonda, the Liberace character says he was so pleased Jane had forgotten about all of her causes and had made a “lovely movie with her father”, referring to “On Golden Pond”. Liberace was also from a “humble” working-class Catholic family. As I watched the film I got the sense he thought all of the success he had achieved might suddenly disappear, as if he didn’t “deserve” the success he’d achieved. Thirdly, and related to the idea he could suddenly lose everything, was the fact in the 1950s he’d successfully sued a London newspaper which had suggested he was homosexual.

But wouldn’t you think on your death-bed, you might have reached that point of personal comfort and happiness you could at last be honest? Maybe it wasn’t his choice? As portrayed in the film, the manager seems to have had a strong hold on Liberace’s life, both personally and professionally. The manager was the guy who “cleaned up” Liberace’s life when things went wrong in his personal life. Or at least that’s how it’s portrayed in this film which was very much from the perspective of Scott Thorsen, Liberace’s partner for a number of years.

I really enjoyed the film. I thought Michael Douglas and Matt Damon were both excellent in their roles. From time to time I thought they were a little “too camp” but then I remembered – this is a film about Liberace. He wasn’t exactly John Wayne, was he?

I thought the film moved along at a nice pace, and never once did I think “hurry up and die”.

All of that said, I wasn’t really “touched” by the film. I guess the issue was I never felt strongly for any of the characters. Both Liberace and Scott have major flaws, but not the kind of flaws which might endear them to you. They’re both portrayed in the film as very superficial, materialistic, and self-obsessed individuals. That Liberace paid a plastic surgeon to have work done on Scott’s face so he could look more like him is a sign of a strangely sick puppy. And Scott went along with it! And Rob Lowe as the very creepy plastic surgeon who did it! These were all seriously weird people who I failed to understand why they made the decisions they did.

I guess that’s why, despite the strength of the acting, direction, writing and film-making, “Behind The Candelabra” never really moved me.

Stockholm Sunrise

Stockholm Sunrise

I’d like to say I was “up early” to see the sunrise over Stockholm, but actually I was “out late”.

It all started early-ish on Sunday evening when I thought it might be fun to end the weekend with a dance at the Stockholm nightclub, Patricia. Patricia, by the way, is boat moored near Slussen. They have a restaurant, several bars, and a few dance floors. Every Sunday night they have a “gay night” where they play lots of terrific dance tunes. I’ve been several times before, and have always enjoyed it very much.

The other times I’ve been, though, have been in the summer when it’s often standing room only. In contrast, when I arrived, it was reasonably quiet. On the upstairs bar, there were maybe twenty or thirty people, while downstairs it was even quieter.

A couple of people recognised me from the preview of the ABBA Museum the other day and from the ABBA Day in Roosendaal a few weeks earlier. I ended up spending the night chatting, dancing, and drinking with a couple of guys. One was English; the other was French. We spent most of the night in one of the smaller bars.

In stark contrast to the “main” dance bar where there was, for a while, literally no one on the dance floor, in the smaller bar we were packed in like sardines. The attraction? For quite some time the bar was only playing ABBA. As I listened around, the crowd was fairly international. Predominantly it was Swedish, but there were also quite a few Brits, a few French speakers, and a large number of Americans.

The Americans loved ABBA. But when the winner of last year’s Eurovision Song Content came on, Sweden’s Loreen, the blank look on their faces became evident. Aside from ABBA, European pop music remains a bit of a mystery for many Americans, it seems.

For one of the English guys I chatted to, it was his first visit to Stockholm, and so I offered him a few visitor tips. “Quick, let’s go outside”, he said at one point. “It’s pretty spectacular”, I said, as we watched the sun start to rise over the city. Having set only a few hours earlier, it was terrific to watch the sun come back up again.

Best of all? I’m staying in Medborgarplatsen at the moment, so it was only one stop on the subway and a brief walk to get home.

Should Be In Sydney

QX Magazine profile on Newtown in Sydney

As I sat and waited to meet Sandra and Robert ahead of the Valborg celebration last night in Stockholm, I picked up a copy of the Swedish gay newspaper, QX. It’s a magazine I read from time to time, as it usually has a fair bit of Swedish music news. For example, this month’s edition features a track by track review of the new album by ABBA’s Agnetha Fältskog. But what excited me most was noticing the big article on Newtown. Yes, Newtown in Sydney. Sydney, Australia to be absolutely clear.

Magazines, of course, do regular features on different countries and different cities on a regular basis. Occasionally you might even see a feature on somewhere smaller like Bondi or Byron Bay. But Newtown? Wow, what’s that about.

The article goes on to explain Newtown is a little alternative, a little hippie, and that if you’re visiting Sydney, and you want to “go gay”, you should head off to Oxford Street. The article explains, though, that gays are welcome in Newtown, and that many gays prefer it over Oxford Street.

The article mentions a number of people who have chosen to call Newtown home, including a bloke called Mark Reid who used to live in Canberra, and a couple Nick Roth (and his girlfriend) who operate “Claire’s Crepes”. I’d never heard of “Claire’s Crepes” (to be honest), but I’ll be sure to look them up when I return to Sydney. In particular, I’ll be interested to see if young Swede, Jonatan Duregård is still working there, though the article does note… “Jonatan är hetero…”

One of the people interviewed, Aaron Petriddi describes Newtown as the “new” Gay Sydney, with more and more couples moving to the area for the simple life. “It’s a good mixture of people and business”, he says.

…”det nya gay-Sydney” – allt fler par flyttar hit tack vare den ”sköna livsstilen” i området. – Det är en bra mix av människor och affärsverksamheter. Det känns som att allas blickar är på Newtown nu, alla man pratar med kan tänka sig att flytta hit…

The article paints such a glowing image of Newtown that I find myself thinking “Why am I in Stockholm? I should be in Sydney instead”. The other man’s grass is always greener, I guess.

Download The Magazine

P.S. Swedes are welcome in Surry Hills too.

Before We Had Beer

Wine. How classy people get wasted.

“I’m not old enough to remember, as I was only thirteen years old when the law changed…” the barman told me when I asked what happened before the mid-1980s removal of the beer ban in Iceland. “But I do know”, he added, “we used to have light beer that people used to add vodka to, and that’s wrong in oh so many ways”.

He was the barman and co-owner of “Litla Gula Hænan” (The Little Yellow Hen). Located at Laugavegur 22, (the spot of a number of “legendary” bars of the yeas) this particular incarnation was only a few months old, he told me. He applied for the licence in November, went through all of the necessary legal checks, and was open for New Years Eve. In designing the bar, he included some items from previous incarnations of the bar including a wonderful sign which said, “Wine. How Classy People Get Drunk”. I can’t recall his name, now, but I can tell you he was a lovely, friendly bloke with a dry sense of humour. “I’ll see you tomorrow night, so no big dramatic goodbyes tonight”, he said to a couple of guys leaving the bar. That left just a handful of us. It was, after all, a Wednesday night.

There was me, an American, a couple of Icelandic blokes and later, a group of young people came in asking for a drink. Goodness knows what was going through their minds, as they sent the youngest looking forward fist. “Eighteen in a few months time” the young bloke said when asked how old he was. “That’s got to be the worst answer to that question you’ve ever heard?”, I asked, and was then told the legal drinking age in Iceland is actually twenty.

Like the nearby Scandinavian countries, Iceland has had a difficult relationship with alcohol over the years. There was the beer ban until the mid-80s. Even now, the alcohol stores, like Sweden remain state-owned with limited training hours. On the weekends, however, Reykjavik comes to life with a vivid late night scene. “All the tourists come out, and go home by about 12.30, and then the Icelanders come out and wonder where all the tourists have gone”, the barman told me. “I’ll be back later in the week”, I told him, noting the 1.00am closure tonight.

Still, it was a big night for a couple of guys I met. Brothers. One gay, one straight. Both having consumed a fair amount to drink. They were fun to chat to. For a while, we were joined by a mate of theirs who told me he was travelling to Australia in a few weeks to, as he said, “bring my boyfriend back home from Brisbane”. In the meantime I was having a lovely time chatting to the barman. I hope this new venture goes well for him.

Five Hours in Amsterdam

Outdoor Church Service in Amsterdam

“Would you like to join us for karaoke?’ the young woman standing nearby asked me. As I looked at the list of available songs (all of which were in Dutch) there was one which caught my eye, “Tulpen uit Amsterdam”. With a slight twinkle in my eye, I looked at her and said, “I’ll give it a try”. What I later found out was she didn’t know there was an English language version of the song which I knew, almost by heart, thanks to a fondly remembered episode of “The Goodies”. What she also didn’t know is that I have some previous experience of singing karaoke in Dutch. As I’ve blogged previously in 2008

In a bar that comprised only two Dutch bar-tenders, two Dutch customers, five Spanish customers and one Australian, it was time for a karaoke sing-a-long (in Dutch). As it turns out, it was the final night of residency at the bar for Jason and Kylie, and we were encouraged to sing them a farewell serenade. The words (in Dutch) appeared on the television screen, and without evening thinking twice, we all burst into song. I can’t begin to imagine how hilarious it must have been for the locals to watch the Spanish guys and the Australian bloke sing a long to a Dutch language pop song. “I’m singing in Dutch”, I kept thinking to myself in between moments of laughter. So funny.

My attempt at singing “Tulpen uit Amsterdam” in the original Dutch resulted in a combination of laughter and admiration. “You didn’t know many of the words, but you knew the tune”, one of the group of people today said to me. That’s when I told her about the English language version. “You should sing it in English for us too”, she said.

With just five hours in Amsterdam, as I waited for my overnight train to Copenhagen, I decided a visit to “Amstel 54” was how I would best pass the time. Having considered the tourist options of a canal cruise or a visit to a gallery or museum, I decided it would be more fun to hang out with some locals. So I grabbed a map and made my way to a bar I fondly remembered from my last time in Amsterdam. It’s a predominantly gay bar, where they a great combination of pop music, and where I remembered there was a friendly vibe towards travellers.

The bar staff may have changed since 2008, but the friendly vibe was still there. I chatted with one of the bar staff briefly before his shift. He had observed there was a woman sitting in the corner (along with a male friend, probably her partner) who was doing a line-drawing of the scene outside. “She’s a good artist”, I said. “And she’s got a great rack”, he responded with a smile. “As two gay men we can be objective about these things”, he added.

Later, a couple of older guys wearing some amazing outfits joined the group of people in the bar. I kindly asked for a photograph, which they were to happy to do.

And then there was an Australian guy in his early 30s who I also chatted to for a while. With that distinctive accent we all know without resorting to cliché, I’d overheard him telling the barman he was travelling independently for a month, revisiting some of the places he had been to while backpacking ten years earlier. He was a nice guy who told me he was originally from Adelaide, but who now lives in Darwin. Within a few minutes of chatting, I quickly realised he didn’t know he was in a gay bar. Or at least not until the main group of people left later in the afternoon.

The main group was there for the 39th birthday of a lovely woman called Amanda. When she and her friends began packing their bags I wished her a “Happy Birthday” and thanked them for inviting me into their group. They all responded kindly with with a hug and a with a “Safe Travels” wish for me also.

Minutes later it was time for me to leave. With the departure of the main group and with myself shortly afterwards, I wondered how long before the bloke from Darwin realised he had stumbled into one of the most fantastic gay bars in the world.

Loreen Made Me Come Out

Rainbow Footpath on Sydney's Oxford Street

They’ve painted a rainbow pedestrian crossing at Sydney’s Taylor Square to celebrathe Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras. Apparently it cost a lot of money, and thus it’s been controversial according to the newspapers today. I have no idea if the story is true or not, and therefore have no valid opinions on the matter.

But I will say it was rather charming to walk across a rainbow pedestrian crossing tonight, and I rather enjoyed watching other people do the same thing, even if I did worry for a moment about the possibility of accidents, as people seemed to spend far too much time pausing and having their photograph taken, and not enough time crossing the street.

The reason I wandered to Oxford Street tonight was the hope for a brief glimpse of Swedish singer, Loreen. She won the Eurovision Song Contest last year, and is in Sydney for Mardi Gras. Late this afternoon I received an email indicating she would be at the Mardi Gras pop-up shop tonight, and would be signing autographs etc. On closer inspection, I noticed it was only possible if you had a ticket to the Mardi Gras Party.

Frankly, I’d rather poke a blunt stick in my own eye than go to Mardi Gras, these days. Although I was once an active participant in all the Mardi Gras festivities, and still support them strongly “in principle”, I feel that most of what’s on offer now is “just not my thing”. I find both the parade and party too crowded, and also dislike the party drug culture. It’s a decade since I’ve been to the party, and I only occasionally wander down to the parade now, so maybe things have changed? I suspect not.

Even tonight as I wandered down to Oxford Street, I was a little overwhelmed by the crowd. And it’s the night BEFORE Mardi Gras, not the actual night itself.

But the possibility of seeing a brief glimpse of Loreen tonight got me out of the house. I didn’t see her, because there’s absolutely no way I was going to pay a huge amount of money for a Mardi Gras ticket, even if I could have resold it later. Just too much effort, I thought, and at the end of the day I concluded I’d rather see her at Melodifestivalen in Stockholm next week. My flight leaves Monday at 9.00pm.

This, by the way, is my favourite all time performance by her at last year’s Gay Gala in Stockholm. This looks like much more my kind of scene…