A Queer Hippy Christ




Steven Grossman: Caravan Tonight (Mercury)

"It ain't what you do but the way that you do it" is a perfect adage for the brief career of Steven Grossman, who didn't do very much except make an album called Caravan Tonight.

It didn't shift in unit-crunching amounts, although Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone hailed it as "one of the most auspicious singer-songwriter debuts of the '70s."

What makes Grossman unusual was his brave honesty. He was the first openly gay artist signed to a major label, although the more contentious Jobriath was first to release an album.

A mixture of Cat Stevens and James Taylor, Grossman's work lacks the camp bravado implicit in most gay music. His album is astonishing on account of the honesty he harnesses to express his sexual awakening. Mercury Records handled their unusual charge without resorting to the shock tactics employed by Elektra to sell Jobriath to an unsuspecting public. He was marketed with rare tact for the time.

"Steven Grossman does not consider himself a crusader in the true meaning of the word. He wants to be judged as an artist who happens to be gay, rather than a gay performer."

It briefly seemed that Grossman might become a songwriter with longevity: Twiggy covered his song "Caravan Tonight." But he quickly grew unhappy with the expectations of having a public profile. Fame wasn't for him, and he wasn't one for fame. It would be difficult enough these days to sell a gay hippie who looked like Christ, but in 1974, it was even less of a walk in the park.

Grossman bowed out, becoming an accountant, and succumbed to AIDS in 1991. However, for all the the liberation and the anthems sung by proxy by soul divas with a rather odd relationship with their gay public and God (think Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor), for all the Will and Grace, Queer Eye acceptance, there remains something jaw-droppingly candid about Grossman's work.

We may delude ourselves that the world has moved on, and in many ways it thankfully has, but few artists have dared to grasp the nettles of their sexuality in such a profoundly exposed and direct way.

The ultimate irony is that gay culture hasn't traveled too far. Rufus Wainwright's plundering of fucked-up Judy's finest performance, be it on the Palladium or Carnegie Hall stages, be it a tribute or a travesty of ego over any sense of reality, misses one thing: Empathizing with a dysfunctional straight woman's travails with her men represents the same kind of socio-sexual identification-by-proxy that gay men were forced into when they had no choice, and no other outlet.

It seems like a willful great leap backwards into the sexual dark ages, if in fact it represents any kind of movement at all. "I will because I can" does not suggest advancement, merely an outmoded attachment to redundant furrows of being.

Steven Grossman was born in 1952 in Brooklyn. He initially toyed with being an actor, planning to study at the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse in New York while working at Coney Island during the summer to raise funds. He was a "stab and bagger," a garbage collector on the beach.

In "Out," he encompasses the universal problem of having an orientation which is at odds with your own expectations, and those of others.

"Mama dear mama I've something important to say

Yes I know you didn't plan on me

Turning out this way

Well you didn't fail me mama

And I don't love you any less

'Cause for me it's just a matter

Of what suits me best.

Well I know it's hard for you to take

And it's nothing you would brag

When your first born turns out to be a ... "

In "Dry Dock Dreaming":

"Oh devil don't you leave me,

I'm turning to stone.

I'm anxious and angry and want to go home.

But please not alone."

And in "Christopher's Blues," the emptiness of cruising is touched upon:

"And I don't want no hit and run cruiser

I don't want to waste my days -- these days

Trying to catch the eye on each corner

There must be a better way"

The album remains a stark testament of self-acceptance, and deserves to be a better known work because it remains largely undated in the emotions it explores and the tribulations it annotates. The human condition repeats itself in each generation with little indication that there is anything gleaned from the experiences of our predecessors.

Grossman recorded a second album in the months prior to his death in 1991. He was an innovative maverick who stood his ground at a time when that was a brave and dangerous stance to take. That he did so as himself, without the posturing and costumery of the New York Dolls, David Bowie, or Jobriath, is all the more admirable.

The world turns slowly, and in the time that has passed, much has changed, but the more things alter the more they stay the same. If this record appeared today, it would still be relevant, but probably no more successful. Consider this a parable of the poverty attached to the sin of innovation.