Long before he ever joined a band, Steve Brooks was a rock star. At age 9, he dressed up for Halloween as Pat Benatar. The photo still hangs on his refrigerator: A fourth-grader
dolled up in pointy-toed boots, stockings, mini-skirt, cropped sweatshirt à la Flashdance, and a wig tied up in a scarf.
"I thought it was going to be funny," says Brooks, 34. His peers didn't get the joke. "I went to a party, and everyone called me a fag and laughed at me." He shrugged it off and had fun, and recounting the memory today, the singer-guitarist for Torche sounds amused, not bitter.
Like most of his South Florida friends, Brooks grew up listening to thrash and death metal. Out of high school, he formed Floor, his first group. Yet making music didn't allow him to vent all his feelings, and the next time Brooks challenged conventional gender roles, it wasn't as lighthearted as that youthful Halloween.
"When I was about 18 or 19, I figured out, 'Man, this isn't a phase,'" he recalls. "And I was pretty angry. 'Why is this me?'" A teacher at his high school had been stabbed repeatedly after being seen exiting a gay bar. Brooks's secret nagged at him. "I didn't talk about it with anybody. Eventually, I went to a shrink, just to try and feel comfortable about being gay."
"It was a different time than it is now," emphasizes Brooks, who lives in Atlanta today. And he's right. Since the early '90s, the landscape has changed. You're a gay or lesbian rock musician? Big deal. Artists like Bob Mould, Melissa Etheridge, and Judas Priest's Rob Halford came out of the closet unscathed. Riot grrrl and homocore made the punk community safer for dykes and fags than ever.
But what about gay members of bands that don't speak directly to a queer sensibility or engage in lifestyle marketing—especially groups that make intense, heavy music and play to primarily young male fans? There are more of these individuals than you might guess. OTEP have rocked Ozzfest repeatedly, but do crowds realize that the nu-metal band is fronted by a lesbian?
Consider openly gay musicians like Brooks, guitarist Juan Velazquez, 22, of Abe Vigoda, and Brian Cook, 31, bassist for These Arms Are Snakes (and occasional Stranger contributor). What are their lives like? With both Torche and Abe Vigoda playing Seattle this week, it seemed a perfect opportunity to ask.
These bands don't sound identical, but they could easily share a bill. Torche have been described as stoner or sludge metal, and the majestic melodies and savvy dynamics on their second album, Meanderthal, should appeal to fans of Sunn O))), Jesu, and the Melvins. Skeleton, the latest from No Age contemporaries Abe Vigoda, might be the product of a young Sonic Youth after a night of too many mai tais and repeated spins of Martin Denny's Exotica LP. The ferocity of the Snakes' shows and records betrays their roots in hardcore punk and metal, but also belies the complexity of their sonic palette.
Mainstream gay media overlooks these bands. Conversely, music journalists rarely talk about their sexual preferences. Brooks estimates "less than 10 percent" of Torche buffs know he's homosexual; before a recent European tour, one well-meaning supporter e-mailed Brooks to tell him how hot Swedish chicks are. If fans hear someone in Abe Vigoda is gay, Velazquez says they often guess singer Michael Vidal. "People make the assumption, because he is a soft-spoken, nice guy. And sometimes, I'm not. I can be pretty abrasive."
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The original premise for this story was to meet in person for beers and a bull session on Halloween. But then Cook went and queered the deal—pun intended—with six weeks of European touring. Which is unfortunate, and a little ironic, since one thing the guys all revealed is that they most often get to socialize with like-minded homo music geeks while on the road.
Both Torche and TAAS have toured with Isis, who have a gay tour manager. That covert camaraderie can make for funny moments, says Cook. "Some nights, I would be watching our merchandise, and he would be watching theirs. Isis's line was all big, bearded dudes with tattoos, which is totally my type." The fans queuing for Cook's booth were "waifish guys, with messy hair, in tight T-shirts and girl jeans. And Isis's tour manager would just look over and go, 'Man, your fans are so hot.' We'd have both sold a lot more merch if we'd switched!"
Velazquez has plenty of gay friends at home in Los Angeles. "But they don't go to the Smell all the time or hang out at shows." And that schism makes life awkward. "Music is my primary interest, and that's where I feel most comfortable," he says. On Abe Vigoda's last pass through Washington, D.C., he hit it off with Ruffian Records proprietor Hugh McElroy, formerly of Dischord band Black Eyes. "I had no idea anybody in that band was gay." They hung out till the wee small hours, just talking about music, dating, and being queer in the rock scene.
All three of these gents came of age with either little access to, or no interest in, mainstream gay culture. Velazquez grew up Mexican and Catholic in Chino, California; Cook lived in Hawaii until 1992 and was raised "in a very religious household."
"When I was younger, I stayed away from gay people," admits Brooks. "I was kind of homophobic." Although his musical tastes have expanded over the years, he still abhors dance music, a genre promoted heavily to and within mainstream gay culture. "About the gayest I'll get is the Smiths," he says.
While early punk gave rise to beloved queer icons like Gary Floyd (the Dicks) and Phranc, other big acts—Bad Brains, Fear—intimidated fans with open homophobia. Even in progressive music scenes, Cook says a "locker-room" mentality emerges when you get a bunch of guys together. He still hears other musicians toss around terms like "gay" and "fag," although, when confronted, most scramble to apologize.
Consequently, it still sometimes comes as a surprise when these guys' straight colleagues are nonplussed by their sexual orientation. On Abe Vigoda's last tour, Velazquez brought some back issues of BUTT, the Dutch magazine that mixes blunt profiles of queer creative types with intimate photos of dudes who've never even considered body waxing. When reading material became scarce in the van, the others investigated Velazquez's stash. The upshot? The whole band are now pressing their publicist to get them a BUTT feature.
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Much as they cherish music, none of these fellas demands that potential friends or lovers be a "perfect match" when it comes to the stereo. Far from it. Cook says his partner of 10 years "doesn't really like music"—and what he does enjoy tends towards mainstream fare. "It actually works out well. Especially dealing with punk and hardcore stuff, where there is so much ridiculous politics involved. To have someone who, every once in a while, says, 'That is so stupid and I don't get it.'" Cook smiles. "I'm sure Mariah Carey wouldn't obsess about whether her record was distributed by Dutch East as opposed to Caroline."
Brooks's former longtime boyfriend enjoyed many artists he loathed: Erasure, Pet Shop Boys. "The only thing we agreed on in his car was Donna Summer." The guitarist shook his head when his other half "would tell his friends, 'Steve's band sounds like Rage Against the Machine.'" But when they played a local gig? "He'd be at the show, with this giant smile on his face. He was so excited. And so supportive, too."
Does another artist's sexuality influence their own listening? Velazquez and Cook are both more likely to investigate an act with gay or lesbian members; Brooks doesn't give a rat's ass. Yet all three praise Limpwrist, the queer hardcore band fronted by out Latino singer Martin Sorrondeguy. Ditto Bob Mould. "Hüsker Dü changed my life," says Brooks. "That was a huge influence on me."
Curiously, as passionate as they are about what they do, none of our test subjects feels his sexual preference plays a significant role in his group's music. "We're not a political band," says Velazquez. Though he admires outspoken '90s acts like Huggy Bear, neither he nor Abe Vigoda have an agenda to promote. "If things come off that way, indirectly, that's not a big deal. But I wouldn't be trying to push any sort of message."
"My sexuality really has nothing to do with the music," insists Brooks. He pauses. "Although when I get up there, in front of the crowd, and start humping my guitar, that's totally sexual."
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One more point of intersection these men all share: Although each resides in a city with a big, progressive GLBT community, none of their groups has even been asked to play a gay pride rally. And they'd all be happy to.
"Hell yeah!" concludes Brooks. "Although I would probably laugh my ass off, because I could see us being back-to-back with some house DJ, and everyone running for their lives, covering their ears." Regardless, the offer stands. Maybe the next time you see these three bands lumped together, it will be on a flier for just such an event. Brooks may not have done drag since he was 9, but he's still secure enough to stand out from the pack—if anyone cares to notice.