Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 07 July, 1997


Michael Callen

CD Review by Warren D. Adkins


Though Michael Callen is dead, his spirit, undaunted, celebrates itself over and over in Legacy, a collaborative work he purposefully left behind as a testimonial linking yesterday's joys and sorrows with the living present.

This rich album gives focus to much of what's poignant in gay-inspired culture, melodic reflections over coffeecups late on Sunday mornings while looking from a window across west-side Manhattan in early autumn. Here is music, yearnings of an insightful youth whose boyish voice, fortunately, once graced Big Apple stages. Others who knew Callen's inner worth sing with him in Legacy. They include Holly Near, Chris Williamson, Tom Robinson, The Flirtations, Fred Hersch, David Lasley, and a cast of dozens.

I first read of Michael Callen in a serious book titled Sex Between Men: An Intimate History of the Sex Lives of Gay Men Postwar to Present. In the preface--Foreplay--the author, Douglas Sadownick, says he'd been inspired in part by Callen, whom he calls the "safer-sex co-founder." The singer's passionate crusades lighting new pathways to inter-personal pleasure were also a part of his legacy. Sadownick writes:

"Callen moved to Los Angeles to spend his remaining time making music. Our friendship was founded on a common interest in sexuality. 'Why have gay men never developed a theory and defense of sex the way the lesbian feminists did in the '80s?' he asked. He thought gay men at a painful loss of theoretical tools to put sexual compulsion and sexual health in perspective. 'Gay people are at the forefront on calling the central bluff of Western culture,' he told me, 'that uses sex to sell everything from toothpaste to cars, but heaven forbid you should actually admit to having it.' He gave me a crash course in feminist thought and literature. Like the radical lesbians he so admired, he wanted to know the ways in which sex offered both pleasure and danger and he wanted to create a 'practical homosexual ethic' along such lines.

"As he started to die," said Sadownick, "I saw that there was a level to his experience feminism had denied him. Yes, he experienced profound feelings, but they seemed of an alien nature. They were mostly masculine. He wanted a potent and almost transpersonal healing ... Lucid until his final moment, the staunch materialist noticed, to his shock, something almost profound in his longing. He knew of the word 'projection' but it seemed too clinical to describe what he was feeling. 'Musta been that morphine the FABULOUS doctors are giving me,' was his explanation."

There is, in the music Callen left behind, a return to his own more profound levels of experience. He jumps easily in Legacy through the familiar hoops those long at ease in gay culture know about--including even drag. Appropriately, on the "Top" side of the album, he sings, in part, in a fine dragola voice, adding touches of variety's spice and humor. The song, Glitter and Be Gay, found Callen the recipient of the 1993 Diamond Award at the Imperial Court of New York's "Night of a Thousand Gowns," at which he lip-synched to his own recording.

Though Callen's music reflects Manhattan, Sadownick reminds us that Callen was a product of the Midwest. "With death so close at hand," he explains, "he talked easily about promiscuity, and the theories behind it." "He shrugged his shoulders at one point and said, "I was always looking for love and I did not ever feel myself worthy of it so sex was the next best thing." All the same, he went out of his way to defend sex for sex's sake as a way to repair wounded pride and self-esteem. "It should be seen as a wholesome need, like eating or taking a walk."


Those who welcome curiosity and honesty into their growing but never-perfect relationships, will want Michael Callen's Legacy near at hand.

I first saw Michael Callen on the boob tube. So, I thought, this handsome songster is also an articulate safer-sex crusader? Hmmmm. There was no mistaking his sex appeal, a warmth and honesty that comes through bigtime on his Legacy CDs. Yes, there are two discs in this album, one marked "Top" and one "Bottom." I'm not sure what it says about me, but I wept crock tears over the beautiful "Bottom" disc. It wasn't even on a.m. Sunday--it was Saturday morning, post-coffee time.

The first "Bottom" cut, They Are Falling All Around Me, is a haunting, exquisitely-phrased spiritual. It hit hard upon this reviewer-- a whammo in the depths of soul-- a gripping reminder of what the age of AIDS has brought-to and taken-from to our lives. This song, in an unforgettable and powerful celebration of love-memory, shows how those departed and whom we miss, live on as Callen undoubtedly does. We trudge, nevertheless, carrying long-gone but unforgettable faces, granting the early-dead unfettered space in our heart-thoughts.

The second "Bottom" cut, Wish I Had a Dime, is a tear jerker too, but one with hope and easy dignity at its command. "Wish I had a dime for dreams I've left behind. ..."

Nothing Lasts Forever is an upbeat tune, in spite of Callen's forthright statement: "I say there's no heaven." He teaches, in See Here, that "you better do the things you dream!"

Like another "materialist" the philosopher Bertrand Russell, Callen brings us in song his conviction that in a world of cruel, unexpected coldness, it is best to warm ourselves at the fires of human companionship. The Healing Power of Love is filled with such a conviction: "We are all in this together. It's going to take everything we've got."

Much of Legacy gives Callen's messages in nigh-anthem formats. There are moments when he sounds a bit like John Denver, except when his voice soars to octaves worthy of Smokey Robinson. The orchestration perfectly complements the singer's talents.

An old favorite, Smile, captures in both poignant song and sonorous instrumentalism, the courage this young man possessed, a legacy he successfully propelled into our futures because he dared to live his honest dreams himself. "Smile though your heart is aching," is an important part of the Michael Callen message. In death's presence he smiled broadly, hoping to ignite in others their capability to do the same.

1997 BEI; All Rights Reserved.
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