Sometimes people accuse me of over-reading, of reading too much into something, of distorting. Making promiscuous texts. Desiring texts (“wishful thinking”). Confusing my sexual and textual politics.
I think you have to, have to twist and make it work for you, have to push it until you find some space for yourself in the cultural imaginary. So I take liberties. Who shall I take liberties with? – with meaning together-. I think Patrick Wolf might be ok with me taking liberties, he once wrote a song called the Libertine.
He has a new album out soon, called Lupercalia, named after a Roman festival of love. The album figures desire insistently, is concerned with how we organise ourselves around public space. Normally we follow the Victorians in thinking in love as private, as properly confined to the bedroom. “Get a room,” we tell over-eager straight lovers (and worse if they are not straight). We don’t want to see or hear it.
First single “The City” references this destructive urge:
(Video clip that features Patrick Wolf, a slim white man with floppy red hair, frolicking on the Santa Monica beach. He’s tender with both a man and a woman)
The chorus – “won’t let the city destroy our love.” In a recent interview with Digital Spy, he said that:
In a way it’s a protest song. It’s saying that no matter how homeless, poor or jobless we are, we won’t let that affect our love and relationships.
Where pop narratives more usually refer to obstacles like parents or spouses, Wolf takes the unusual tack of seeing the city itself as an antagonist to relationships. When I interviewed him recently for Billboard, he clarified that the song was a response to the recession, and seeing friends of his re-evaluate their relationships for financial reasons.
A London boy, “the city” Wolf refers to is quite possibly The City—the financial district of London. Marx argued that capitalism evaporates all social bonds, that “all that is solid melts into air” (a point decidedly missed by free market conservatives, whose economic policies evaporate the very social forms they claim to be preserving – eg low wages mean parents work more and parent less). What I see in this song is that fidelity to love is a kind of resistance to the annihilating movement of capitalism.
The city is at once hostile and home to queer love. Every one of us knows how city space—and especially suburban space—is almost entirely heterosexual, that it demands we regulate how we hold ourselves, how we touch our lovers, what we can say and do and when.
My partner and I walk side by side along a road towards a Pride event held in the deep South of the U.S. It’s hot and sweaty, summer, is being held in a convention centre. Outside, a small group of half a dozen white men hold signs that say “homosexuality is perversion,” that quote Bible verses. They hand out fliers that accuse us of deviancy, of un-natural desires, of paedophilia, that condemn us to death. Inside, there’s a brittle atmosphere of forced jollity. I watch the door and each new entrant appears shaken to some extent. We are gathered together, but they have forced us into solitary introspection.
Three hundred of us and six of them, and they have made it clear: this is not your city, you do not belong. If you gather, if you dare celebrate your existence, we will stand outside in 100F degree weather just to remind you how hated you are, to remind you to fear.
But this is not all there is to the city. Many of us have fled from the country to the city in search of friendlier climes, in search of that mythic GLBTQ community. We don’t always find that, but we do find something. Even in more hostile times, gay men, Patrick Wolf’s forefathers, created counter-spaces for their desire – beats and baths, clubs (Samuel Delany wrote about this in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.)
I am in Melbourne for a conference, alone. I deliver my paper and get to talk with the two trans men and one cis dyke who’d attended my session. The woman asks me if I’d like to go to dinner with her housemates, then we go out clubbing, meeting up with several other queer couples and the self-described “worst lesbian in the world” on the steps of the State Library. The eight of us walk through the centre of Melbourne unafraid– loud, flamboyant, colourful. We kiss and caress and desire, we take up space. A straight man wolf-whistles at one of the fishnet-clad boys and we turn and jeer. These are not just your streets anymore.
Wolf’s “Bermondsey Street.” A story about a heterosexual couple getting engaged. “He kisses her on Bermondsey Street.” On the other side of the street, a gay couple get engaged. Wolf tells the second story the same as the first – “he kisses him on Bermondsey Street.” Live, he tells me, he changes the pronouns around willy-nilly. Love is the same on Bermondsey Street, what changes is the way we inhabit the space. What changes is the way that love and desire are seen, by the other people on the street, by the media, by the State.
As the song swells, Wolf holds one note – “loooooooooove” – bringing it to the ecstatic. Desire is excessive, it must be – either you desire too much or you desire not at all – it swells and flows, it engulfs, it breaks through boundaries.
It is this that’s folded into Lupercalia, in the enormous string and brass sections, in the melding of electronic and acoustic, in the hush of Wolf’s whispers as much as his screams. There’s the echoes of disco and house—two musical forms created by and for primarily queer men of colour—as well as Wolf’s own balladry, of Motown and classical, of the pastoral folk of the English countryside.
“Together.” However we love, we must love together, in solidarity. Together we’re stronger, we’re braver, we desire and fuck and love better and harder, desire and fuck and love with, enough to fill an entire city.