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Taking liberties with Patrick Wolf

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.

Memory 1:
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.)

Memory 2:
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.

10 Comments

  1. Pthalo wrote:

    Memory #3

    We’re nervous, this morning, approaching the first police cordon in Belgrade to show our IDs and be patted down before entering the park where the pride march will begin. An old lady approaches and asks us in Serbian if we are going to the march. I weigh the risks in my head (old people are conservative. is she going to give us a hard time? the police are just ahead of us, though, and she’s just an old lady; she’s not carrying a brick.) before answering an affirmative “da”. She blows my prejudices out the window by replying “Wonderful! So many people are against you marching in the street today and I don’t understand it. I’m coming with you.”

    Later, the media would report that there was a “war” on the streets of Belgrade, that for a day, “Belgrade looked like Baghdad”. There wasn’t much reporting about what we saw, far out of earshot of the violence behind three police cordons, marching hopefully with our brightly coloured flags.

    Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  2. ozymandias wrote:

    A beautiful piece. I’ll have to check out Lupercalia.

    Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Permalink
  3. Faye wrote:

    I’m excited to see Patrick Wolf being covered on here! One of my favorite queer artists.
    I’m quite jealous of your interview with Wolf for Billboard!

    I like the “liberties” you took with The City (and Bermondsey Street) and think they’re entirely apt. The memories are something I think many of us can relate to. Having come out and come of age in southern cities, places where there were small but well-attended Pride events but were also surrounded by less than welcoming people as well, I’ve definitely experienced both sides of the coin (interestingly, I’ve definitely seen as much homophobia here in Chicago as I did back home, though, despite our large queer population).

    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 2:06 am | Permalink
  4. lunamorgan wrote:

    I’m so excited about Lupercalia and everything it holds. What I’ve heard so far it beautiful and while deeply personal for him also extremely relateable for anyone who has ever been in love, especially a kind of love that isn’t societally acceptable.

    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 2:17 am | Permalink
  5. Kathy wrote:

    What a great piece, thank you. I’m a big fan of Patrick Wolf and am looking forward to Lupercalia. So far I’ve only heard “The City”. The video and song itself reminds me a lot of the pop music of my childhood, but manages to transcend cheesiness or irony.

    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  6. Emily Manuel wrote:

    Thanks all for the kind comments :)

    @Faye He was really lovely to talk to. I didn’t want to be too name-droppy – or to scoop myself! – but found when it came to writing that it was hard not to think of some of the things he’d said about the album. He had a lot of really interesting things to say about love and art.

    @Lunamorgan

    Yeah, I agree. It does seem very personal, but it’s very accessible.

    @Kathy

    There’s two more singles on youtube – “House” and “Time of your life.” They are certainly playing with cheese, but I don’t think there’s loads of irony about some of the retro sounds – I didn’t get the sense that the album’s a pisstake of older forms so much as trying to get at the spirit of those genres and communities. Aiming to be not so much retro as timeless, I think.

    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink
  7. LC wrote:

    I may have to check it out. Partially motivated in being a longtime fan of Lupercalia (I tend to recommend people celebrate it instead of St. Valentine’s Day) and because I like the pun of using a wolf-festival name for his album.

    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink
  8. Annie wrote:

    loved this. So, so much.

    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Permalink
  9. Rodrigo! wrote:

    Oh, wow, I am so surprised to read this here! I usually come for the snarky commentary on hipocrisy and such and was scared to see Patrick Wolf involved, I thought maybe this singer I like but haven’t really got to know that well yet is secretly a douche with double-standards! So the actual post was very pleasant since it touched on various items I am concerned with.

    Props, cheers, good work everybody, let’s call it a day.

    Thursday, May 19, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Permalink
  10. Monex wrote:

    The survey of the Gender Study Group shows that most women felt disgusted insulted and scared by any sort of harassment… They not only doubt the validity of their own experiences but begin to believe that they themselves must be abnormal cheap indecent or deserving the violence that comes their way… In addition most men and women described eve teasing as isolated incidents while sexual harassment would typically be repetitive and sustained over a long period of time. Many respondents said that they felt extreme anger frustration and helplessness at not being able to do anything about the harassment…

    Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink