Get Your Filthy Hands Off Me!’ Gorgeous George’s Glamorous Legacy

Rather than watch the Olympics, and all that noble, ser­i­ous sport­ing uplift, I’ve been read­ing a book about a carny, corny, shame­less 1940s-50s American wrest­ler: Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture, by John Capouya.

My American chum Chris Supermarky recom­men­ded it to me, think­ing it would be of interest. He wasn’t wrong. It was noth­ing less than a rev­el­a­tion. It was like find­ing the Rosetta Stone of met­ro­sexu­al­ity. Or at least, post-war male glamorousness.

George Wagner was a baby-faced bru­nette, pint-sized, some­what unre­mark­able 1940s US wrest­ler who decided he needed a gim­mick to get noticed. And boy, did he find one. By turn­ing him­self into Gorgeous George, a vain, primp­ing, preen­ing pea­cock who per­ox­ided his hair, had it metic­u­lously ton­sured, fussily held in place by gold-painted ‘Georgie’ pins, and wear­ing flam­boy­ant robes that were out­rageous cre­ations of lace and silk and chif­fon in mauves and pale pinks, he suc­ceeded in invent­ing per­haps the most per­sist­ent and suc­cess­ful gim­mick of the post-war world: The glam­or­ous, dec­ad­ent, ‘effem­in­ate’ male star.

Before Beckham. Before Boy George. Before Bowie. Before Jagger. Before Elvis. Before Liberace. Before Little Richard. Before James Brown there was Gorgeous George.

Under the shrewd guid­ance of his Svengali wife Betty (there’s no evid­ence, aside from his gor­geous­ness, that George was any­thing other than het­ero­sexual), who made many of his most dar­ing robes her­self, The ‘Human Orchid’ as he liked to be known, had deduced that the best way to get ‘heat’ from a wrest­ling audi­ence – and thus book­ings – was to trans­gress 1940s gender norms. Wildly. And cheat. Equally wildly. Not for noth­ing was his favour­ite slo­gan: ‘Win if you can. Lose if you must. But always cheat.’

The Sensation of the Nation’s pan­to­mime per­form­ance of sis­sy­n­ess was a kind of cheat­ing in itself: in 1940s and early 50s America men, par­tic­u­larly the blue-collar kind that Wagner wrestled for, were not allowed to enjoy chif­fon and affect­a­tion. George was bend­ing the rules and gender.

To help milk his act, and mul­tiply his crimes, Wagner would hold his pre-match press con­fer­ences in local beauty par­lours while hav­ing his hair mar­celled and employed a tail-coated valet (a device later appro­pri­ated by GG fan James Brown) who would snob­bishly spray the ring with cologne before George would deign to grace it with his aris­to­cratic pres­ence. When the ref­eree tried to search George before the match as required by wrest­ling rules he would recoil offen­ded, shout­ing ‘GET YOUR FILTHY HANDS OFF ME!!’

Such were the pas­sions aroused by George’s gor­geous­ness that his incen­di­ary appear­ance often led to fights and some­times mini-riots when incensed mem­bers of the pub­lic would storm the ring in an indig­nant fury and try to take him on them­selves. The dir­ector John Waters recalls watch­ing GG on TV as a kid, spell­bound by this appar­i­tion of queen­i­ness — while his offen­ded par­ents yelled insults at the lacey freak. GG was someone that America loved to hate but ended up just loving.

Although largely for­got­ten today, GG was about as fam­ous as you could get back then: a by-word for fame itself — even mak­ing an appear­ance in a Bugs Bunny Warner Bros car­toon (as ‘Ravishing Ronald’), and one of the first proper stars of the new medium of tele­vi­sion. Wrestling had been taken up by the early net­works as a cheaply-staged way of inter­est­ing the masses in this new-fangled gad­get. The small screen turned out to have been made for GG’s big glam head.

Many claimed to have been influ­enced by GG (includ­ing Bob Dylan of all people) but per­haps his most fam­ous dis­ciple was a young, rel­at­ively down­beat Mohammed Ali, who decided to adopt GG’s vain­glori­ous, pro­voc­at­ive per­sona – to dev­ast­at­ing effect:

I made up my mind after [meet­ing] Gorgeous George to make people angry at me.… I saw fif­teen thou­sand people comin’ to see this man get beat. And his talk­ing did it. I said this is a gooood idea!’

And so Ali became the mouthy black boxer who bragged about being the ‘pret­ti­est thing you’ve ever seen’ – ‘The Greatest’. Ali really was gor­geous. Facially and bod­ily. Wagner on the other hand… slightly less so. I’m not sug­gest­ing of course for one moment that GG was ugly – but at 5′ 9″, with a Roman nose and a bit of a pot belly his gor­geous­ness was per­haps more aspir­a­tional than Ali’s. Particularly in the lat­ter part of his career George’s appear­ance puts me in mind of Freud’s fam­ous phrase: ‘His majesty the baby.’

There was a dark side to all this glam­or­ous­ness. Wagner reportedly began to believe his own pub­li­city and insisted his own chil­dren refer to him as ‘Gorgeous George’, or ‘GG’. He was also, even by the stand­ards of the time and his pro­fes­sion, a hardened drinker. After both his mar­riages failed he took to drink­ing even more. And as TV fell out of love with wrest­ling, and the years – and the booz­ing – took their toll, he of course drank even more.

By the late 50s early 60s Gorgeous George was reduced to nov­elty fights in which he was billed as for­feit­ing his lovely locks if he lost. And of course, he did — sub­mit­ting to the indig­nity of being clippered seated on a stool in the centre of the ring, like a lat­ter day Samson. A great box-office suc­cess the first time, this ritual humi­li­ation became less and less so the more he repeated it. Even see­ing Gorgeous George finally get­ting what had been com­ing to him all these years wasn’t enough of a draw second or third time around.

When the final bell rang in 1963 and George Wagner died of liver dis­ease and heart fail­ure, aged 48, all the large wedges of cash that had passed through his hands dur­ing his stun­ningly suc­cess­ful career had van­ished without trace: he was pen­ni­less. But fam­ily and friends made sure he was given a glam­or­ous send off.

The Human Orchid was dressed in his favour­ite purple satin robe (the ‘George Washington’), his hair was ton­sured and pinned one last time and he was exhib­ited in a highly pol­ished purple cas­ket — before being ‘planted’ in the ground.

While he may have been largely for­got­ten, George’s glam­or­ous ‘gim­mick’ of course took root in the cul­ture, and lives on.



Too Big For Their Breeches

I’m try­ing my best to dis­tract myself from the des­per­ate dis­ap­point­ment of THAT single – you know, the one that defin­it­ively proved that there really is such a thing as ‘too gay’. Even for G*g*.

So here’s a blast from the past – when pop music was still vital and vig­or­ous instead of gal­vanic and twitch­ing. Homoerotic instead of gay­ist. Climactic without the ‘anti’. And what a dis­trac­tion! This is basic­ally a bunch of young bucks in breeches f***king fully-dressed on national TV. In 1966. Note the gui­tar­ist brazenly, two-handedly toss­ing off his ‘axe’ above his snugly out­lined pack­age and flared thighs at 1.50

‘Girl, you bet­ter get straight.’

Fat chance with you provid­ing kicks like that, lads.

This per­form­ance of ‘Kicks’ by Paul Revere and the Raiders a rather good example of how boy bands (and that would include of course those boy bands who call them­selves ‘rock bands’) have always ten­ded to have that slashy, man­love for ladies thing going on.

I sup­pose the rel­at­ive ‘inno­cence’ of the 60s meant you could get away with so much more. I’m not entirely sure even the chaps in the skin-tight white breeches are fully aware of what they’re doing, even if their styl­ist was. Mind, this is only a dec­ade after Elvis the Pelvis was fam­ously filmed strictly from the waist up on the Ed Sullivan show. And he was wear­ing flannels.

When, I won­der, are tight white breeches going to make a comeback, other than on fox­hunt­ing toffs? And prefer­ably without the frock coat cov­er­ing the but­tocks. Have they already? Did I blink and miss it? I sup­pose they did moment­ar­ily with Adam Ant’s won­der­ful dandy high­way­man per­sona back in the early 80s – though he usu­ally wore his punk leather trousers (and watch­ing this clip I’m reminded that des­pite what he tells the press, Johnny Depp’s fop­pish pir­ate Jack Sparrow prob­ably owes more to dandy high­way­man Adam than it does Keith Richards).

Either way, I decree that the male thigh should def­in­itely get much more atten­tion. Along with the male but­tock. While the male packet should prob­ably be on dis­play in a few more pub­lic places than photo-shopped designer under­wear ads.

Until the 19th Century it almost always was. The shape of a man’s leg was con­sidered one of his most desir­able fea­tures. But even the tarti­est male tarts today, seem to shy away from that kind of dis­play. Instead like Mikey Sorrentino, they want to dis­tract your atten­tion upwards – towards heaven – and have you admire their divine abs and cleav­age instead, while pro­tect­ing their vir­tue with those baggy jeans/track-pants/board-shorts/male burkhas that American males (and their Anglo admirers) have worn reli­giously since the 80s, with the advent of the Age of Speedophobia.

Tip: Frances Eby

Shameless Slashiness

I’m not much of a Robbie Williams fan. ‘Bromance’ leaves me cold. And I hated Brokeback Mountain. But per­haps I’m a big softy really because I rather like this video for Williams’ single ‘Shame’ which brings all these themes together, adds a hairy Gary Barlow, Robbie’s once-reviled Take That col­lab­or­ator, and takes its top off. What was it Dusty said? ‘The best part of break­ing up is when you’re mak­ing up’

Yes, the ‘Toys R Us’ line is a real clanger, a reminder of Robbie’s gurn­ing, annoy­ing­ness, and the song is a little bland. But the video suc­ceeds, just about, in bring­ing it alive. Despite the com­plaints of some gays that the promo ‘mocks’ Brokeback Mountain there’s a real sense of long­ing and intim­acy in the way they look at one another that is almost more con­vin­cing than much of what appeared in the movie it’s ‘spoof­ing’. Or, to be hon­est, in many gay male relationships.

Actually this promo’s not really ‘bromance’ at all, which is almost defined by its snig­ger­ing, para­lys­ing fear of any­thing phys­ical – it’s a know­ingly slashy pop promo video: man­love for the ladies (and the gays). It plays on both the ‘gay­ness’ of Take That, who, des­pite the leather har­nesses, disco and baby oil — and the fantas­ies of many of their fans — were prob­ably all straight (more or less), and the fam­ously pas­sion­ate love-hate and now love-again affair between Barlow and Williams. Though of course, for all the looks and strip­ping off they don’t ‘take the plunge’. Which is a bit of a relief, frankly.  And in its way rather less cow­ardly than ‘gay cow­boy romance’ Brokeback Mountain’s five seconds of darkly-lit tent sex.

But that end­ing to ‘Shame’, in which Robbie and Gary run to the top of a cliff to jump into the water below (but chicken out) seems to ref­er­ence a much older and bet­ter cow­boy romance – the fam­ous scene in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid where Robert Redford and Paul Newman laugh­ingly jump into the river together to escape a pur­su­ing posse.  Butch Cassidy was a favour­ite of early slash­ers – ‘strange’ ladies who liked to bring out the homo­erotic sub­text of main­stream movies, TV shows and bands, and per­haps of male het­ero­sexu­al­ity itself, and make them the text, some­times with eye-popping illustrations.

Forty years on, the auto-slashiness of the video for ‘Shame’ seems to illus­trate how main­stream and accep­ted slash itself has become in pop culture.

Tip: William Godwin

Army Dreamers: A Backwards Salute to Recruitment Films

by Mark Simpson, The Guardian

As a boy grow­ing up in the 1960s and 70s I was raised to fight The Second World War all over again. Airfix mod­els. Commando com­ics. Air tat­toos in June. Watching The Battle of Britain and The Longest Day on telly with my dad, just so I’d know what to do if I ever found myself pinned down on a Normandy beach or with an Me 109E on my tail.

All of which made me easy prey to an RAF recruit­ing film about a buc­can­eer squad­ron train­ing sortie from Gibraltar, set to a Vangelis soundtrack. I promptly signed up to the air cadets and spent Tuesday after­noons and a week or two in the sum­mer hols wear­ing itchy shirts and a Frank Spencer-style beret, learn­ing how to march without fall­ing over. I loved it, and would prob­ably have signed up for the real thing if it hadn’t been for a sixth-form flir­ta­tion with Quakerism.

Alas, that old recruit­ing film isn’t included in They Stand Ready, a new col­lec­tion of Central Office of Information (COI) armed forces recruit­ment and pro­pa­ganda shorts made between 1946 and 1985, released by the BFI. But sev­eral sim­ilar ones are, includ­ing Tornado (1985), about a sim­u­lated attack on a Warsaw Pact surface-to-air mis­sile site, and HMS Sheffield (1975), about life onboard a Royal Navy frig­ate (that was later hit by an Exocet dur­ing the Falklands war with the loss of 30 lives).

With their prom­ise of escape from hum­drum life, oppor­tun­it­ies for new mates, good times, for­eign travel and play­ing with really expens­ive toys – though strangely silent on the pos­sible phys­ical cost – these films offer a glimpse into the list­less, regi­men­ted world that was mid-to-late 20th-century civil­ian Britain, wait­ing impa­tiently for Xboxes, EasyJet, the inter­net and proper drugs to turn up.

Perhaps it’s because prime min­is­ter David Cameron is around the same age as me – or pos­sibly because the armed forces, or at least the army, are still largely run by lah-de-dah Ruperts like him – that he seems so nos­tal­gic for this van­ished old world. Cameron recently vowed to make the forces “front and centre of national life” and “revered” again, in a speech to UK per­son­nel in Afghanistan.

Not that increased prom­in­ence is a guar­an­tee of increased rev­er­ence, how­ever. A short cel­eb­rat­ing national ser­vice, They Stand Ready (1955), which dates from a year before the Suez débâcle punc­tured the UK’s global pre­ten­sions, recalls the last time that the armed forces really were front and centre of national life. Yet con­scrip­tion proved to be highly unpop­u­lar – both with most of those who had to do it and those who had to find some­thing to do with them.

Once the last national ser­vice­men left the ranks in 1963, army life could then be sold as some­thing glam­or­ous and excit­ing instead of an oner­ous black-and-white duty. This is exactly what Ten Feet Tall (1963), a rock’n’roll-soundtracked recruit­ing film does in glor­i­ous Technicolor. It show­cases a matinée-idol young Scottish squaddie’s ruddy com­plex­ion, per­fect white teeth, and the (now omin­ously) nicotine-stained fin­gers of the army careers officer.

• The COI Collection Volume Three: They Stand Ready, a BFI DVD release, avail­able from July 2010


Danny’s top but Mikey is bottom

…acccord­ing to a head­line in today’s Sun news­pa­per. Glad to see they’re finally report­ing the news that people really want to hear.

Far be it for me to con­tra­dict Britain’s best-selling tabloid, but I won­der whether Danny Young isn’t more ‘vers’.

You can watch his top­less Rocky on the tra­gic­ally awful and appar­ently end­less ITV real­ity show Dancing on Ice here.  Danny is favour­ite to win because he and his perky nipples (I’m sure it’s the ice) are the only reason any­one watches it.

I’d like to see him skat­ing with Johnny Weir.  Then we’ll really find out who’s top.

David Beckham’s Package: Don’t Handle The Goods, Madam

After all those ads in which Becks thrus­ted his giant Armani wrapped pack­age in our faces if not down our throats, an Italian satir­ical TV show decided to do a little con­sumer product test­ing.  You know that in Italy they like to handle the saus­age and toma­toes — and haggle over the price — before they part with their Euros.

Both parties are clearly unimpressed.

For those who don’t speak the most beau­ti­ful, most musical lan­guage in the world: the rubber-gloved lady shouts at a hooded, glower­ing Beckham driv­ing off in his (ridicu­lously large) car full of mind­ers: ‘HOW COULD YOU TAKE US FORRIDE!!??’

The incid­ent has caused some anger in the UK, and some see it as out­right sexual assault.  But if you are paid very large wedges of cash to put your lunch­box on the side of buses to sell over­priced under­wear to the masses then per­haps the only shock­ing thing is that more punters don’t cop a feel of the goods.

Don’t Mess With the Bull Young Man, You’ll Get the Horns


Mark Simpson on John Hughes’ leg­acy

(Arena Hommes Plus, Winter 2009)

So here’s the pitch:  A Hollywood teen movie in which noth­ing hap­pens.  All day. In a school lib­rary. Introduced by a pre­ten­tious quote from David Bowie’s ‘Changes’.

Or how about this: A boy bunks off High School to take his friends to mooch around an art gal­lery, to the strains of some­thing espe­cially del­ic­ate by The Smiths.

What do you mean you’ll call me? Don’t you want to invest your mil­lions in these sure-fire hits??

When the dir­ector John Hughes died this August, aged 59. much was made of how ‘influ­en­tial’ he has been for today’s gen­er­a­tion of movie-makers. But it’s dif­fi­cult to con­ceive of almost any of his clas­sic mid-80s teen films, which included Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off being made in Hollywood today. Unless you re-wrote them to include slo-mo amputations.

John Hughes movies had great scripts, they had great char­ac­ters, win­some, quirky act­ors: all these years later young Molly Ringwald with her red hair and ang­sty com­plex­ion still looks to me like the pret­ti­est, love­li­est girl­friend I never had (while Emilio Estevez looks a lot like a lot of the boys I have had — at least in my mind’s eye). Hughes movies had feel­ings, they had intel­li­gence, they had heart – all of which tend to get in the way of films being made today. They also had a view of the world that, while often-times wise-crackingly cyn­ical — ‘Does Barry Manilow know you raid his ward­robe?’ — wasn’t afraid to be lyr­ical: ‘Life moves pretty fast.  You don’t stop to look around, you could miss it.’

Just like, in other words, the best British pop music, with which Hughes peppered his films lib­er­ally. In fact his work, although cel­eb­rated now, often by a forty-something crowd cry­ing over their spilt youth, looks like frag­ments of a lost America. A much bet­ter one than the one we ended up with – with much super­ior taste in pop music.

Precisely because of their human­ity and wit, Many of Hughes’ movies are as start­ling twenty years on as the Union Jack on the back of Ferris Bueller’s bed­room door, the posters on his walls for Blancmange and Cabaret Voltaire – and a glam Bryan Ferry puck­er­ing up over his bed. Matthew Broderick’s intox­ic­at­ing mix­ture of all-American, unblink­ing, huck­ster­ing con­fid­ence and very Anglo, coquet­tish flam­boy­ance is incon­ceiv­able in a lead Hollywood actor in a teen movie today. It would be loudly dis­missed as ‘TOO GAY!’.

The fam­ous parade scene where he jumps on a parade float and mimes to a 1961 record­ing of fey Wayne Newton croon­ing ‘Danke Schoen’ like a Vegas Marlene Dietrich, and then to the Beatles’ deli­ri­ously, aden­oid­ally sexy ‘Twist and Shout’ (from the pre­vi­ous Britpop inva­sion of John Hughes’ own youth) and every­one in Hughes’ homet­own of Chicago, black and white, male and female, young and old, falls in love with him, is noth­ing less than a dreamy pop cul­tural epiphany.

It was a false one, how­ever. The future, as we now know, belonged not to sen­ti­mental, art-loving, anglo­phile, andro­gyn­ous Ferris in a stolen red 1961 250GT Ferrari Spyder (which appar­ently, and quite appro­pri­ately, was actu­ally a glass fibre fake with a British MG sports car under­neath), but to ruth­less career-planner and Reaganite Republican Maverick in an all-American F-14 Grumman Tomcat. Top Gun and Tom Cruise were launched into the stra­to­sphere by steam cata­pult the pre­vi­ous year, in 1985 – the  same year as The Breakfast Club were chew­ing their fin­ger­nails and won­der­ing, oh-so-deliciously, what they were going to do with their fucked-up lives.

Despite suc­cess with the warm adult com­edy Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), which once again spoke of a bet­ter, kinder America than the one that actu­ally happened — one full of belly-laughs rather than today’s com­edy cringe, snob­bery and sad­ism — Hughes Hollywood career didn’t quite make it into the 90s, never recov­er­ing from the fright­en­ing suc­cess of annoy­ing kid­die com­edy Home Alone in 1990, for which he wrote the script. He later left Hollywood and became a farmer. Growing things for people to eat was the per­fect riposte to today’s ter­min­ally toxic movie business.

As Ferris in his dress­ing gown put it, rais­ing a quiz­zical eye­brow at us: ‘You’re still here??  It’s over!  Go home!

© Mark Simpson 2009

Morrissey’s Seven Inch Plastic Strap-On

There’s a naked man stand­ing laugh­ing in your dreams.
You know who it is, but you don’t like what it means.


A num­ber of people have for­war­ded Morrissey’s pubes to me. (For which, many thanks.)

I thought I could get away with not dis­cuss­ing the Moz minge, but this Red Hot Chili Peppers pas­tiche, nos­tal­gic vinyl tak­ing the place of stuffed socks, which appears on the inside sleeve of Morrissey’s new single ‘Throwing My Arms Around Paris’ has gen­er­ated a lot of com­ment­ary, some amused, some not, and some, such as Paul Flynn in the Guardian, cit­ing it as ‘the latest sign of artistic decline’.

But all of it sug­gest­ing Morrissey’s cur­lies can­not be ignored.

It’s funny how Morrissey man­ages to repeatedly sur­prise people with his con­sist­ent, insist­ent coquet­tish­ness. Only last year, legions were scan­dal­ized when that pic­ture taken in the early 90s of His Mozness’ naked hairy arse with ‘YOUR ARSE ANALL’ scrawled across it in Magic Marker  (with the apo­strophe in ‘ANALL’ aimed at Moz’s fun­da­ment) appeared in a book­let for his Greatest Hits col­lec­tion: ‘So gross! This must mean he’s, like, totally gay!’


But Morrissey, odd, reclus­ive creature that he is, has never exactly been a shrink­ing violet. His work has always had a naughty, ‘cheeky’, exhib­i­tion­ist side. As he sang back in the day on the Meat is Murder track ‘Nowhere Fast’: ‘I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen — every sens­ible child will know what this means’. His first single fea­tured a close-up of naked male gay porn star’s bubble-butt. His first album had a shot of the torso of a naked male hust­ler on it. (Like all the art­work dur­ing his Smiths period, it was all selec­ted and dir­ec­ted and prob­ably even pas­ted up by him.)


After The Smiths split, he became his own cover star and was to be found hug­ging his top­less solo self on his 1997 ‘Best Of’ collection.


And while he may have once scorned her shame­less­ness, Moz’s out­rageous ‘November Spawned a Monster’ promo in 1990 out-Madonna-ed Madonna, fea­tur­ing him writh­ing in the desert in a skimpy see-through mesh blouse that some­how keeps slip­ping off — per­haps because he appears to be being bummed by an odd-shaped boulder.

On-stage he pole-dances around his songs often end­ing on his back with his legs in the air, obli­gingly lif­ted towards the aud­it­or­ium, while yodel­ling. Even today, it’s still an abso­lute and legal require­ment of all tick­ets sales that Moz strips off his sweat-soaked shirt at least once every show and throw it into the crowd, who instantly rend it to tiny fra­grant shreds, which they then appear to eat.

If Morrissey doesn’t get his tits out for the lads and lasses you’re entitled to a full refund, I believe. It’s always been a flag­rantly, prob­ably patho­lo­gic­ally sexual thing between Moz and his fans. Though as he’s got older and thicker around the mid­riff the pole-dancing, does get a bit more, er, awkward.

Oh, and the naked Moz show­ing us his shaved armpit shot by Eamonn McCabe (which seems to be an update of the fam­ous Narcissus statue by Cellini) used on the jacket of Saint Morrissey — partly to under­mine the title  - ori­gin­ally appeared on the cover of the NME in 1988 and on a big, fold-out, blue-tac-to-your-sweaty-teen-boy-bedroom-wall poster inside.

Today’s naked Moz looks very dif­fer­ent. Which is only nat­ural since he’s now nearly 50 — though of course age­ing nat­ur­ally is the height of unnat­ur­al­ness these days. But the boy­ish exhib­i­tion­ism is largely unchanged. Yes, he has the body of a middle-aged male celebrity who scan­dal­ously refuses to hire a per­sonal fit­ness trainer (even if one or two of the chaps in his employ look as if they’d rather be on a ten mile run).

But he’s also show­ing us that inside the body of a pub land­lord from County Mayo is still a skinny lonely boy from Stretford, nakedly demand­ing our love. With a seven inch pop single where his man­hood should be. That’s how people don’t grow up.

If you look closely — and clearly I have — this jokey pic isn’t really very funny. Like ‘Throwing My Arms Around Paris’, it’s sadly, proudly defi­ant. It’s Morrissey’s fam­ily por­trait. This is what his love-life looks like. It’s all here: Pop music. His band-mates. His fans (we’re look­ing at him again — he’s that naked man laugh­ing and cry­ing in our dreams).

And, centre of shot, per­haps his most endur­ing rela­tion­ship of all: the one he has with his hair.

Both ends.

Boy George and George Michael — queer cellmates?


Mark Simpson pon­ders the trouble the two Georges, Boy and Michael, have been get­ting in lately in this month’s Out:

What is it about middle-aged queer British pop stars from the ‘80s? Why can’t they settle down, keep their noses clean, their peck­ers zippered, and their faces out of the papers? More pre­cisely, what is it about middle-aged queer British pop stars from the ‘80s named George?

George Alan O’Dowd, slightly bet­ter known as Boy George, former Culture Club front/frock man, starts 2009 being “banged up” — as we call prison sen­tences in the U.K. — for attack­ing and impris­on­ing a Norwegian male escort he’d invited to his home.

Read the art­icle in full here.

Let’s Be Civil: Gay Marriage Isn’t The End of the Rainbow

by Mark Simpson (A shorter ver­sion ori­gin­ally appeared on Guardian CIF November 2, 2008)

It’s bet­ter to marry than burn with pas­sion,” declared St Paul. But now mar­riage itself seems to have become a burn­ing issue — or at least, gay marriage.

The re-banning of gay mar­riage in California earlier this month with the pas­sage of Proposition 8 has been presen­ted by gay mar­riage advoc­ates as a vicious body-blow for gay rights. Angry gay people and their allies have pro­tested across the US, some reportedly even riot­ing. The timely release of the Gus Van Sant movie Milk, about the murder in 1977 of Harvey Milk, the US’s first out elec­ted offi­cial, has fuelled the sense of gay out­rage and defi­ance. Surely only a hate­ful bigot like the one that gunned down Harvey would be opposed to gay marriage?

Gay mar­riage is the touch­stone of gay equal­ity, appar­ently. Settling for any­thing less is a form of Jim Crow style gay segreg­a­tion and second-class citizenship.

But not all gays agree. This one for instance sees gay mar­riage not so much as a touch­stone as a fet­ish. A largely sym­bolic and emo­tional issue that in the US threatens to under­mine real, non-symbolic same-sex couple pro­tec­tion: civil uni­ons bestow in effect the same legal status as mar­riage in sev­eral US states — includ­ing California. As a res­ult of the reli­gious right’s mobil­isa­tion against gay mar­riage, civil uni­ons have been rolled back in sev­eral US states.

Perhaps the les­son of Proposition 8 is not that most straight people think gay people should sit at the back of the bus, but that if you take on reli­gion and tra­di­tion on its hal­lowed turf — and that is what mar­riage effect­ively is — you’re highly likely to lose.  Even in lib­eral California.

Maybe I shouldn’t carp, liv­ing as I do in the UK, where civil part­ner­ships with equal legal status to mar­riage have been nation­ally recog­nised since 2004. But part of the reason that civil part­ner­ships were suc­cess­fully intro­duced here was because they are civil part­ner­ships not “mar­riages” (the UK is a much more sec­u­lar coun­try than the US, and some­what more gay-friendly too — but even here gay mar­riage would almost cer­tainly not have passed).

At this point I’d like to hide behind the, erm, for­mid­able fig­ure of Sir Elton John, who also expressed doubts recently about the fix­a­tion of US gay cam­paign­ers on the word ‘mar­riage’, and declared he was happy to be in a civil part­ner­ship with the Canadian David Furnish and did not want to get mar­ried. Needless to say, Mr John wasn’t exactly thanked for speak­ing his mind by gay mar­riage advocates.

But amidst all the gay gnash­ing of teeth about the inequal­ity of Proposition 8 it’s worth ask­ing: when did mar­riage have any­thing to do with equal­ity? Respectability, cer­tainly. Normality, pos­sibly. Stability, hope­fully. Very hope­fully. But equality?

First of all, there’s some­thing gay people and their friends need to admit to the world: gay and straight long-term rela­tion­ships are gen­er­ally not the same. How many het­ero­sexual mar­riages are open, for example? In my exper­i­ence, many if not most long term male-male rela­tion­ships are very open indeed. Similarly, sex is not quite so likely to be turned into repro­duc­tion when your gen­it­als are the same shape. Yes, some gay couples may want to have chil­dren, by adop­tion or other means, and that’s fine and dandy of course, but chil­dren are not a con­sequence of gay con­jug­a­tion. Which has always been part of the appeal for some.

More fun­da­ment­ally who is the “man” and who is the “wife” in a gay mar­riage? Unlike cross-sex couples, same-sex part­ner­ships are part­ner­ships between nom­inal equals without any bio­lo­gic­ally, divinely or even cul­tur­ally determ­ined reproductive/domestic roles. Who is to be “given away”? Or as Elton John, put it: “I don’t wanna be anyone’s wife”.

It’s increas­ingly unclear even to het­ero­sexu­als who is the “man” and who is the “wife”, who should cleave to the other’s will and who should bring home the bacon. That’s why so many today intro­duce their hus­band or wife as “my part­ner”. The fam­ous excep­tion to this of course was Guy Ritchie and his mis­sus, Madonna — and look what happened to them. Pre-nuptial agree­ments, very pop­u­lar with celebs (though not, appar­ently, with Guy and Madonna), rep­res­ent the very real­istic step of divor­cing before you get mar­ried — like plastic sur­gery, this is a hard-faced celeb habit that’s going mainstream.

If Christians and tra­di­tion­al­ists want to pre­serve the “sanc­tity” of mar­riage as some­thing between a man and a woman, with all the mumbo jumbo that entails, let them. They only hasten the col­lapse of mar­riage. Instead of demand­ing gay mar­riage, in effect try­ing to mod­ern­ise an increas­ingly moribund insti­tu­tion, maybe les­bian and gay people should push for civil part­ner­ships to be opened to every­one, as they are in France — where they have proved very popular.

I sus­pect civil part­ner­ships, new, sec­u­lar, lit­er­ally down-to-earth con­tracts between two equals, rel­at­ively free of the bag­gage of tra­di­tion, ritual and unreal­istic expect­a­tions, would also prove very pop­u­lar with cross-sex couples in the Anglo world at a time when the insti­tu­tion of mar­riage is the most unpop­u­lar it’s ever been among people who aren’t actu­ally gay. Yes, cross-sex couples can have civil mar­riage cere­mon­ies, but they’re still mar­riages, not part­ner­ships. If made open to every­one, civil part­ner­ships might even­tu­ally not just be an altern­at­ive to mar­riage. Marriage might end up being some­thing left to Mormons.

Perhaps my scep­ti­cism about gay mar­riage and mar­riage in gen­eral is down to the fact that I’m ter­min­ally single. Perhaps it’s all just sour grapes. Or maybe I prefer to burn with pas­sion than marry. After all, St Paul’s viol­ently ascetic world-view which regarded mar­riage as a poor runner-up to chastity, also ensured that the Christian Church would burn sod­om­ites like kind­ling for centuries.

Either way, I think it needs to be men­tioned amidst all this shout­ing about gay domest­icity that, import­ant as it is to see les­bian and gay couples recog­nised and given legal pro­tec­tion, prob­ably most gay men (though prob­ably not most les­bi­ans) are single and prob­ably will be single for most of their lives. With or without civil partnerships/unions.

Or even the magical, sym­bolic power of gay marriage.

Postscript: The Voice of Gay America responds — loudly.

Paul Newman the American Dream-Boy is Dead

Timing is everything for an actor, and Newman’s curtain-call, com­ing as it does amidst melt­down on Wall Street and panic on Capitol Hill, and at the end of a dec­ade defined by the twin dis­asters of 9–11 and Iraq, is noth­ing if not dra­matic.  The myriad obit­u­ar­ies and trib­utes to Paul Newman in the last few days have been richly deserved, but his passing seems to sym­bol­ize more than just the death of a great and well-loved actor, or even the cur­tain fall­ing on one of the last products of the Hollywood stu­dio sys­tem.  It seems almost to mark the demise of the American Dream itself.  A dream that is look­ing more and more like a dis­tinctly mid-to-late 20th Century reverie.

But what a rev­erie! Newman was stun­ning in his youth, like a neo-Classical Florentine statue brought very magic­ally to life: those proud cheekbones, that straight nose con­nect­ing with his thought­ful brow, the square dimpled chin and his tight little (non-steroidal) boxer body, that clasp­able neck, those white teeth, those pout­ing lips and those preter­nat­ur­ally pale blue eyes, more invit­ing than pen­et­rat­ing, that seemed to con­tain in their cool­ness, the un-spoilt, excit­ing, abund­ant prom­ise of America’s plains, lakes and shin­ing seas. The fact that in his per­sonal life he turned out to be an extraordin­ar­ily gen­er­ous and socially-concerned chap makes that prom­ise even more poignant.

Newman, who him­self was part of the ‘Greatest Generation’ (he served in the Pacific dur­ing the Second World War), was the post-war American Dream made beau­ti­ful, friendly flesh. Somehow, pro­jec­ted on sil­ver screens around the world in the 1950s and 1960s, this demi­god man­aged to be entirely desir­able but also entirely approach­able. In other words: American. Everyone, male and female, wanted to buy him a drink and be his buddy or lover or both — and, cru­cially, thought they could be. Newman was one of the act­ors (all from the 1950s and 1960s) I watched as a kid on TV that made me announce to any­one that would listen that ‘when I grow up I’m going to move to America to become mates with those blokes in the movies!’.

In terms of pro­ject­ing the American way of life around the world, Hollywood’s Paul Newman was worth more than a fleet of nuclear-powered air­craft car­ri­ers - and prob­ably rather more fun in bed.

It’s no acci­dent that Newman’s two most pop­u­lar movies were both buddy-love vehicles with the (almost) equally all-American Robert Redford: ‘Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid’ (1969) and ‘The Sting’ (1973). Newman seems to have been slightly exas­per­ated that most people had missed the point of ‘Butch Cassidy’: that it was a film about male love — a male romance. It was in many ways the ori­ginal and much super­ior Brokeback Mountain, thirty years before the tedi­ous, mawk­ish Ang Lee ‘remake’. For my pop­corn money, Butch/Newman’s and Sundance/Redford’s love for each other is much more con­vin­cing and affect­ing than that of their Noughties men’s-fashion-shoot-with-a-Western-theme coun­ter­parts, des­pite never being consummated.

Newman’s tough vul­ner­ab­il­ity and deli­ciously flawed mas­culin­ity seem to have made his rela­tion­ship to homo­sexu­al­ity sym­bol­ic­ally cent­ral to his cine­matic per­sona; the fact he seems to have been a very hap­pily mar­ried het­ero­sexual in ‘real’ life only adds to his mythos.  Below is a YouTube clip of Newman (with a Placebo soundtrack you can mute), pout­ing peer­lessly as Brick in the 1958 movie ver­sion of Tennessee Williams clas­sic ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ as an all-American jock strug­gling with his secret love for Skipper his buddy who has com­mit­ted sui­cide, Big Daddy’s expect­a­tions of a grand­son and the ‘men­dacity’ of family-values American life.

Because of the men­dacity of 1950s Hollywood, the movie-version of William’s script bowd­ler­ised Brick’s lat­ent homo­sexu­al­ity.  However, such was the troubled erotic power of Newman’s appear­ance on the screen that the ori­ginal mean­ing still some­how shines through, des­pite the baby-making happy ending.

Perhaps it’s just me, but all these years later Elizabeth Taylor, won­der­fully youth­fully glam­or­ous as she is here, now some­times looks less like Brick’s wife and more like his inces­tu­ous young mother.  There was already some­thing not quite right about the American Dream back in the 1950s, and Tennessee Williams couldn’t leave it alone.

As for the rest of us, we couldn’t leave Paul Newman alone.

Epic Illusions and Metrowarriors

Achilles, Alexander, Jason, Odysseus — the fab­ulous scrap­ping, rut­ting war­ri­ors of the Ancient World ful­fil every boy’s own fantasy. Now, says Mark Simpson, Oliver Stone’s spayed movie ‘Alexander’ and the recent crop of ‘epics’ con­firms that Hollywood has abol­ished her­oes — past and present.

(Originally appeared Independent on Sunday, 19 December 2004)

For some, the entry “Double Classics” in their school timetable might have been an omin­ous omen. For me and my class­mates how­ever it meant 80 minutes of bliss listen­ing to a won­der­ful old gent called Mr Field recount, and fre­quently re-enact with his walking-stick, fant­astic stor­ies of male derring-do from the Ancient World. Spellbound and wide-eyed we listened to the adven­tures of Jason and the Argonauts, Achilles and Odysseus. So great was the pull of the past in the mouth of Mr Field that hardly any­one fid­geted or played with their chunky 1970s LED digital watches.

Of all the epic tales recoun­ted it was that of Alexander the Great that most gripped my pubes­cent ima­gin­a­tion. The story of a scrappy, mus­cu­lar little blond boy from the pro­vin­cial Greek state of Macedonia who took on the world and won, carving out an unpre­ced­en­ted empire that stretched from the Adriatic to India. The story of a boy who never quite grew up; who quite prob­ably assas­sin­ated his father; who cer­tainly sur­passed his extraordin­ary achieve­ments, estab­lish­ing him­self as the greatest cav­alry cap­tain who ever lived, whose tac­tics are still stud­ied today. A boy who never really cared for any woman except his ter­ri­fy­ing mother Olympias (so ter­ri­fy­ing that once he left home, Alexander never returned); whose great and con­stant loves were Bucephalus, his legendary war-horse, and Hephaestion, his legendary com­rade in beefy arms. What boy wouldn’t love Alexander? What boy wouldn’t want to be Alexander?

The story of Alexander the Great (356BC323BC) is the best boy’s own story ever told –the Trojan Wars may never have happened: hence the posters for Oliver Stone’s new movie Alexander announce: “The Greatest Legend Of All Was Real”. Alexander’s is a tale of pas­sion, adven­ture, really big fist­icuffs, mas­cu­line camaraderie, and run­ning away from girls. And also, drunk­en­ness, debauch­ery, mass murder and mad­ness. His 12-year tour of the known (and unknown) world, and his long list of battle hon­ours — Thebes, Heliocarnassus, Issus, Gaugamela, Tyre, Hydaspes, to name but a few — rep­res­ent dates on the greatest rock ‘n’ roll tour in history.

Alexander is the time­less, age­less hero of boy­ish psy­chosis — a romantic dis­ease which affects all men, though admit­tedly some more than oth­ers (well, I was at board­ing school). Boys brim with enough energy to change the world, or des­troy it — it makes no dif­fer­ence to them. This dan­ger­ous, sexy, pas­sion­ate indif­fer­ence is the basis of the mix­ture of fear and envy that causes adults gen­er­ally to treat them so badly.

Alexander’s ambi­tion was lit­er­ally global, shap­ing the Ancient World; his Eastern cru­sades ended the ancient dyn­asties of Persia and Egypt. Alexander effect­ively inven­ted the Western idea of Empire, glob­al­isa­tion and stamped his face on our idea of fame and suc­cess. He wanted noth­ing less than the whole world to be Alexander. For a while he came shock­ingly close to achiev­ing just that, boldly going where no man had gone before (another boy­hood hero of mine, William Shatner, played Alexander in a TV series before land­ing the role of Captain James Tiberius Kirk — which he played of course, in his won­der­fully lim­ited way as Alexander again). In part, his suc­cess was due to the way he suc­ceeded in por­tray­ing his own ambi­tion and self-interest as being for the bene­fit of Macedonia, pan-Hellenism or human­ity itself.

In this Alexander could be seen as the ancient tem­plate for a neo-con America; he even invaded and conquered what is today Iraq and Afghanistan — as well as Iran. But like the neo-cons he could con­quer but he couldn’t or wouldn’t admin­is­trate: rebel­lions broke out fre­quently and his Empire dis­solved imme­di­ately after his death; Alexander, like con­tem­por­ary audi­ences, had a short atten­tion span. Certainly Stone’s epic new biopic could be sub­titled: “Operation Persian Freedom”: his Alexander mouths plat­it­udes about lib­er­at­ing Asia; the turbaned, bearded King Darius looks oddly like Bin Laden and, after his decis­ive defeat at Gaugamela, he is hunted down by Alexander in the mountains.

Obviously this, in addi­tion to the redis­covered fash­ion­ab­il­ity of sword-and-sandal epics (Gladiator, Troy, King Arthur, The Last Samurai), is why Hollywood has redis­covered this chippy little man and remembered his story as the ulti­mate road move, the clas­sic story of bound­less boy­ish all-American ambi­tion, light­ing out for the ter­rit­ory. In addi­tion to Oliver Stone’s effort, Baz Luhrmann is rumoured to be devel­op­ing his own ver­sion, with Leonardo Di Caprio in the title role. Even The World’s Only True Catholic, Mel Gibson, is plan­ning to make a 10 epis­ode HBO TV series about this pagan arse-bandit who whipped the world’s butt. Suddenly, Alexander really does appear to be con­quer­ing the world again.

There is another reason why the epics are back though: they offer reas­sur­ing, if utterly fraud­u­lent, nos­trums about mas­culin­ity in an uncer­tain, met­ro­sexual world. The Ancient World was a time when men were men (and boys were nervous). In fact, war­rior chic has been the fash­ion state­ment of 2004. This is the same year, after all, that a US pres­id­en­tial elec­tion was fought largely on the basis of who would make the best war­rior pres­id­ent — and won largely on the grounds of who saluted best on cam­era and looked most fetch­ing in 1960s uniform.

And like­wise, what Hollywood is really offer­ing us in these mod­ern epics is not hairy ret­ro­sexu­al­ity but just more met­ro­sexual pleas­ures, this time in a rather gor­geous, ancient set­ting; mod­els play­ing at being rough boys — met­rowar­ri­ors. In The Last Samurai, the Tom finally grows facial hair, and renounces the unmanly mil­it­ary machinery of mod­ern­ity for the harsh-but-tender camaraderie of Samurai life — but only to make him more glam­or­ous; Mr Cruise’s Western oth­er­ness actu­ally makes him the female lead of the movie. In Troy pretty boys Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom are the real beauty pageant entrants and Diane Kruger (Helen) — and the audi­ence — sit in judge­ment. The fields of Ilium become not a back­drop for the glor­i­ous feats of ancient war­ri­ors, but an expens­ive pre­text for ogling Brad Pitt’s body, and also a half-hearted attempt to make it look prac­tical, pur­pose­ful: when in fact his flaw­less, untested physique is the very defin­i­tion of look-don’t-touch. In Alexander Irish boy-band actor Colin Farrell, with bottle-blond hair and eye­liner, stands in for cha­risma and passion.

The main reason for the return to the epics is this: Hollywood is emas­cu­lat­ing the past. It isn’t raid­ing it, but pav­ing it over. Telling us there never were any her­oes. What other explan­a­tion could there be for foist­ing Pitt as Achilles and Farrell as Alexander on us in the space of a year? These stars who have risen without a trace are stars because of their bland insub­stan­ti­al­ity not des­pite it. We live in a crowded world which is offen­ded by tal­ent, ter­ri­fied by genius. The Irish pipsqueak Colin Farrell was destined to become King of the Knowing World, aka Hollywood, because he is so inof­fens­ive. He’s the anti-Alexander. Like Robbie Williams doing an album of Frank Sinatra songs, Farrell as Alexander, or Pitt as Achilles, serves to reas­sure a gen­er­a­tion that might have some dim, uneasy ances­tral memory of a time before the medi­at­isa­tion of everything — relax! — there were no great men and there was no era of great­ness. There are just dif­fer­ent styles, man. Masculinity is a game of dressy-uppy. Like the CGI armies of mod­ern epics, and the digital wars of Pentagon plan­ners, con­tem­por­ary mas­culin­ity is sim­u­la­tion and number-crunching tech­no­logy. Shock and Awe without the draft.

Hence Farrell’s Alexander isn’t haunted, or driven, para­noid, or threat­en­ing, ter­ri­fy­ing or cha­ris­matic: his eyes are just too close together. When wear­ing his giant war hel­met in the battle scenes his beady little eyes look blink­ing out like Marvin the Martian. He is utterly lost in Stone’s movie. Farrell’s face is as blank and thought­less as the world that has made him a “star”. It’s dif­fi­cult to believe that any­one would fol­low him to the corner shop let alone the edge of the world.

Just as I and count­less other gen­er­a­tions of boys before me wor­shipped Alexander, Alexander hero-worshipped Achilles. It is said he kept two items under his pil­low at all times: a dag­ger and a copy of the Iliad. He yearned to emu­late flame-capped Achilles’ achieve­ments; in fact he far sur­passed them (Farrell, by con­trast, turns in a per­form­ance below even that of Pitt’s Achilles). He was ter­ri­fied that his father would leave noth­ing left for him to achieve, and is one of the reas­ons why he is sus­pec­ted of a hand in his assas­sin­a­tion. Alexander wanted fame — but he wanted it for his worldly achieve­ments not his pro­file. There was another reason why Alexander was fas­cin­ated by Achilles: he was inter­ested in the story of his warrior-lover Patroclus (Homer doesn’t actu­ally say they were lov­ers, but by the time of Alexander they were widely regarded as such). Patroclus was a year older than Achilles, just as Hephaestion was a year older than Alexander; Alexander must have wor­ried that the world might think him Hephaestion’s boy.

At Ilium, Alexander and Hephaestion laid wreaths on Achilles’ tomb, stripped naked, anoin­ted them­selves with oil and ran races around the grave. Strangely, this scene didn’t make Oliver Stone’s movie. We do how­ever hear Aristotle lec­ture the young Alexander on how Achilles and Patroclus were lov­ers and how such a friend­ship between men “pro­duces vir­tue” and is “the basis of the city state”. But this dry his­tory les­son on Greek pat­ri­archy isn’t quite what the teas­ing tagline “Alexander was conquered only once: by Hephaestion’s thighs” might lead you to expect. In fact, we never really see Hephaestion’s thighs let alone Alexander between them. Stone hints heav­ily they were lov­ers, and uses Alexander’s life-long devo­tion to Hephaestion — Alexander was besides him­self with grief when Hephaestion died and lay on his corpse for a day and a night — to make him more sym­path­etic, but can’t quite bring him­self to show sex, kiss­ing or even very much affec­tion. By con­trast, the on-screen romance between Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Ringpiece is pos­it­ively pornographic.

There is only one sex scene in the film — but it is a wedding-night tryst with Roxanna, a wife that Alexander took after invad­ing Persia (but didn’t get around to impreg­nat­ing until years later, and only after Hephaestion’s demise). Alexander, by the way, was not “bisexual” in the way that pub­li­city for the movie has care­fully sug­ges­ted. Stone’s Alexander is bisexual in the way that Elton John was “bisexual” in the Seventies: Stone is wor­ried about los­ing his main­stream, American audi­ence and wants to give them at least half of Alexander to identify with/desire. Of course, terms such as “het­ero­sexual”, “homo­sexual” and espe­cially “bisexual”, with its six­ties ‘free love’ asso­ci­ations, are ana­chron­istic and mis­lead­ing in an Ancient con­text where the gender of a male’s part­ner was of much less import­ance than the pub­lic observ­ance of cer­tain rules of engage­ment based on age and rank (adult male cit­izens, for instance, were offi­cially for­bid­den sexual rela­tions with one another but encour­aged to have them with unbearded teen­aged youths).

Nevertheless, accord­ing to many accounts Alexander’s pref­er­ence was for the same sex; and there is evid­ence that in regard to Hephaestion at least he dis­reg­arded the ban on sexual rela­tions between adult males.

His mother and father were so frantic­ally wor­ried about the teen­age Alexander’s lack of interest in ladies and what this augured for the royal line that they hired a beau­ti­ful and fam­ously tal­en­ted cour­tesan. The fact that his mother is recor­ded as plead­ing with him repeatedly to sleep with the cour­tesan sug­gests that this approach wasn’t very suc­cess­ful (and a mother’s plead­ing, let alone Olympias’, was likely to have been slightly coun­ter­pro­duct­ive). He was to marry, more than once, but mostly for polit­ical reas­ons, or to sat­isfy demands for an heir. For most of Alexander’s life, boys were for pleas­ure; Hephaestion was for love; women were for heirs and alli­ances – and effem­in­ates like Paris. Though, per­haps to con­found our mod­ern inter­pret­a­tions, or at least mine, there is evid­ence he took a mis­tress towards the end of his life.

Alexander dis­dained a chance to inspect Paris’ fam­ous lyre, dis­miss­ing it as hav­ing been used for “adul­ter­ous dit­ties such as cap­tiv­ate and bewitch the hearts of women.” But, he added, “I would gladly see that of Achilles, which he used to sing the glor­i­ous deeds of brave men.” This early example of the pub­lic school men­tal­ity seems to us now like a kind of queeny miso­gyny, and per­haps it was, but the fear­some queen­i­ness of hyper-masculinity, a queen­i­ness that lit­er­ally sub­jec­ted the world (argu­ably not once, but three times: under Alexander, under the Romans and under the Brits). Alexander’s father Philip may have inven­ted the mod­ern state with his innov­a­tion of a stand­ing army, but it was his Empire homo son who proved to be his most potent mar­tial innov­a­tion of all.

According to some, pos­sibly mis­chiev­ous accounts, Macedonia — even by Greek stand­ards — sounds like a giant, jump­ing, open all hours Ancient leather bar. In fact, the Greeks were scan­dal­ised by the “bar­baric” and “beastly” beha­viour of the Macedonians. Sniffy Greek sources com­plain that the mem­bers of Philip’s court were selec­ted for their prowess at drink­ing, gambling, or sexual debauch­ery. “Some of them used to shave their bod­ies and make them smooth although they were men, and oth­ers actu­ally prac­tised lewd­ness with each other although bearded… Nearly every man in the Greek or bar­bar­ian world of a lech­er­ous, loath­some, or ruf­fi­anly char­ac­ter flocked to Macedonia.” Actually, Macedonia was the kind of place that most leather queens would be ter­ri­fied by.

Needless to say, it scares the beje­sus out of Hollywood. In Stone’s film (fin­anced mostly by German money), we get occa­sional, almost sub­lim­inal flashes of the real, rauc­ous nature of Macedonian mas­culin­ity, with war­ri­ors and their boys glimpsed in the back­ground almost neck­ing each other. But des­pite these hints, the pre-Christian, bar­racks erot­ics of Macedonia ulti­mately defeats Stone pre­cisely because it is too mas­cu­line, too pagan. Stone is a lib­eral Judeo-Christian pussy. Stone the macho dir­ector of films about macho men in which women are very thin on the ground wimps out in Alexander. Macedonian mas­culin­ity is just too… mas­cu­line. But then, this is the con­tra­dic­tion of all these met­rowar­rior epics: the Ancient World is just too  rough and real and beastly and male — and, well, Ancient — for con­tem­por­ary America.

So the war­rior sod­omy of Alexander is turned into some­thing mod­ern and harm­less, some­thing sim­u­lated: Queer Eye for the Macedonian Guy, as one critic dubbed it. In addi­tion to the creepily spayed rela­tion­ship between Alexander and Hephaestion, which is presen­ted as a kind of con­tem­por­ary gay mar­riage (sex­less, bor­ing, respect­able), there’s a strong smell of Sixties uni­sex andro­gyny, like ran­cid jos­sticks: Stone has Hephaestion por­trayed by the spoilt-girlish Jared Leto, com­plete with hippy-chick wig, plastered in eye­liner applied by Dusty Springfield. The mas­cu­line side of male love is as taboo today as the effem­in­ate side is popular.

There is a strange kind of poetic irony here: after all, in JFK Stone told us that his virile Irish Catholic hero Kennedy was punked by the hiss­ing con­spir­acies of New Orleans fags. Here Alexander and its dir­ector are punked by Stone’s own fear of mas­cu­line homosexuality.

But there is, admit­tedly, a lot to be afraid of. An entire sea­son of Jerry Springer couldn’t come close to one evening’s male jeal­ousies, pas­sions and intrigues in Macedonia. Although Stone makes much of Philip’s assas­sin­a­tion he draws a veil over the details. The assas­sin, one of his body­guards, was a spurned lover called Pausanias. Noted for his youth­ful beauty, he had been usurped in the royal bed­cham­ber by another attract­ive young sol­dier. Pausanias denounced Philip’s new lover as a male tart and “whore”. The boy then proved his vir­il­ity and vir­tue by sav­ing Philip’s life in battle, at the cost of his own. His brother and friends then, as you do, drugged Pausanias and gang raped him before hand­ing him on to their grooms and muleteers who also raped him and then gave him a good beat­ing as thanks. For polit­ical reas­ons Philip refused to pun­ish the wrong­do­ers and restore Pausanias’s hon­our. Olympias and Alexander prob­ably then used Pausanias’ fury as an instru­ment for remov­ing daddy and gain­ing power. Alexander became king and Emperor of the World because his father was murdered by a neg­lected male lover. Warrior sod­omy is a ter­ri­fy­ing, fearsome-fearless thing — don’t mess!

It’s tempt­ing to see this cur­rent obses­sion with the Ancient World as a func­tion of our search for new pagan lights in a chaotic, darkened, post-Christian, post-ideological world in which Posh and Becks have replaced the Holy Family. Tempting, but prob­ably mis­taken. None of these films have any gods – except the pathet­ic­ally demo­cratic, earth­bound ones: the celebs that star in them. Real wor­ship, whether of her­oes or gods is def­in­itely not on offer. It’s just too messy and dan­ger­ous for our safe, sterile, sim­u­lated mod­ern lives. Boys today don’t wor­ship or want to be Alexander or Achilles, who both regarded them­selves as sons of gods. They want to be Colin or Brad. Or their styl­ist. Although it is dif­fi­cult for someone like me to accept, maybe this isn’t all bad. After all, as we’ve seen in present-day Mesopotamia, there really isn’t much room in the world for Empire build­ing these days.

Besides, we’re all too busy play­ing with our digital watches to care about war­rior virtues.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2008

Ultimate Pillowbiting — How Gay is MMA?

This month’s Out magazine includes a fea­ture by yours truly on my visit to Montréal in April to see the biggest, bad­dest, ball­si­est Ultimate Fighting Championship event ever. UFC, for those who aren’t in the know, or unac­count­ably unin­ter­ested in see­ing fit, near-naked men grap­pling and grunt­ing, is the cage-fighting craze that is rap­idly becom­ing the most pop­u­lar sport with young men in North America.

Out tell me my take has pro­voked some threats against my pretty face from out­raged MMA fans. It seems my crime was enjoy­ing it too much. Other less shall we say clenched fol­low­ers of this man-mounting sport have how­ever wel­comed my interest — even if I breathe too heavily.

Here’s how the piece begins:

Imagine the space shuttle tak­ing off with a really fat cus­tom­ized exhaust pipe or the Visigoths sack­ing Ancient Rome with kick­ing bass tubes fit­ted to their 4-by-4s. Or 20,000 super­charged male orgasms. Simultaneously. And you have some idea what it sounds and feels like in Montréal’s fam­ous Bell Centre tonight for Ultimate Fighting Championship 83, as a spunky young car­rot red­head in shorts pins an auburn lad on his back with his heels some­where around his ears. I think the tech­nical term for this is a “full mount.” Or maybe it’s “ground and pound.”

As the chiseled and blond bad guy with the low-slung shorts (Cam Gigandet) in the recent mixed mar­tial arts (MMA) exploit­a­tion flick Never Back Down says leer­ingly to the doe-eyed bru­net boxer good guy (Sean Faris) new to MMA, the good news is that in this sport you can choke, kick, punch, pin, and throttle; “the bad news is that it’s gotta end with you look­ing like a bitch in front of every­body.” Perhaps it was bad news for him — and for the auburn lad in the ring tonight — but cer­tainly not for the 22,000-strong over­whelm­ingly young-male audi­ence for the biggest-ever UFC event.

Over 2,500 miles away in Las Vegas, “slap­per” Brit boxer Joe Calzaghe is tonight defeat­ing light heavy­weight Bernard Hopkins on points. In the long-established world of box­ing, there is rumored to be an ancient and secret tra­di­tion called the “perk,” or “per­quis­ite” — by which the los­ing man may be required later to lit­er­ally give up what he has lost sym­bol­ic­ally. In other words, the fucked gets…really fucked.

I don’t know how much truth there is to the “perk,” though the breath­less trash talk of modern-day box­ers in the run-up to a fight — “I’m gonna make you my bitch/girlfriend/punk” — cer­tainly doesn’t dis­credit it. But I’m fairly cer­tain that the “perk” doesn’t exist in the “full-contact” brave new world of mixed mar­tial arts, an omni­vor­ous blend of box­ing, free­style wrest­ling, judo, tae kwon do, kick­box­ing, kar­ate, jujitsu, and Thai box­ing that is rap­idly repla­cing bor­ing old tra­di­tional box­ing, espe­cially among young men, as the fight­ing sport. The perk isn’t needed. Because in MMA you get fucked in the “ring” in front of every­body. On pay-per-view TV. The “perk” is the whole, er, perking point, man. And UFC, by far the most suc­cess­ful pur­veyor of MMA fights for the cable TV voyeur, looks remark­ably like gay porn for straight men: Ultimate Fuck-Fighting.

Read the art­icle in full here.

Antinous: The Very First Pop Idol

Why does the love story of Hadrian and Antinous seem so con­tem­por­ary? Mark Simpson argues we’re all pagans now.

(Originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday, 09/06/2002)

OF ALL THE MEN who wore the purple of Rome, Hadrian seems the most “mod­ern”, the most sym­path­etic and the most tasteful.

This second-century Emperor’s char­ac­ter­ist­ics read like a con­tem­por­ary TV sched­ule. There’s his aes­thet­i­cism (a pat­ron of the arts). His mus­cu­lar­ity (an Army man, he could march 20 miles a day and “would with­stand all ele­ments his head uncovered”). His yen for travel (he spent much of his reign tour­ing the far-flung provinces of the Empire). His insec­ur­ity, his mel­an­cho­lia, his obses­sion with fame, and of course his fas­cin­a­tion with archi­tec­ture, interior design and elab­or­ate gar­dens with com­plic­ated water fea­tures (for example at his fam­ous villa at Tivoli). If he were alive today, Hadrian would def­in­itely have his own cable chan­nel: Imperial Lifestyles.


It was, how­ever, his pas­sion­ate and pub­lic love-affair with the ath­letic, hand­some, curly-haired Greek lad Antinous which was undoubtedly the most mod­ern and endur­ing leg­acy of his reign — more endur­ing than all his grand monu­ments and build­ings, includ­ing that wall he built to keep Caledonians out.

As much as we might want to get to grips with this Caesar’s mater­ial achieve­ments, it’s the romance which keeps catch­ing our eye. Perhaps it’s a reflec­tion on our time rather than his; and then again, per­haps it’s the way that he wanted it. Whichever, Elizabeth Speller’s new book, ‘Following Hadrian’, a mean­der­ing though often inter­est­ing jour­ney in the foot­steps of the emperor, returns again and again to the hyp­not­ising fig­ure of Antinous.

Hadrian, per­haps the first pop Svengali, dis­covered the lowly born but divinely beau­ti­ful Antinous on one of his great tours of the Empire, mak­ing him fam­ous and turn­ing him into the last pagan god by Imperial edict after his mys­ter­i­ous death by drown­ing in the Nile in AD130. A grief-stricken Hadrian employed all the media power of the mighty Roman Empire to make his boy Number One, erect­ing statues and temples to him across the ancient world, and even found­ing a kind of theme park to him called Antinoopolis: a city on the Nile, com­plete with statues of the expired youth on every street.

Antinous was the Pop Idol of the ancient world, at a time when “idol” meant some­thing you looked up to rather than down on. He was cuter than Gareth or Will — and also rather bet­ter at hunt­ing and wrest­ling (he may have been Hadrian’s boy but he was very much the youth­ful mas­cu­line ideal of the time). Perhaps because he came to rep­res­ent the very idea of the Beautiful Boy, per­haps because people were less fickle back then, or per­haps because there wasn’t much in the way of real­ity TV in the ancient world, Antinous was wor­shipped enthu­si­ast­ic­ally all over the Empire, espe­cially in the Greek East, for hun­dreds of years after his death.

Just as today, nar­ciss­ism and intim­a­tions of mor­tal­ity were at the root of this cult of per­son­al­ity. At that time it was cus­tom­ary for Emperors to adopt their heirs rather than sire them. Hadrian him­self was adop­ted by the Emperor Trajan (with whom he was thought to have been romantic­ally involved). Later, when Hadrian had grown too old and bearded for Trajan, they very nearly fell out over some pretty young men in Trajan’s court. All this is hardly sur­pris­ing, since the “adopt an heir” Imperial game show itself echoed the Greek model of homosexuality/bisexuality — in which an older man chooses a youth to “repro­duce” him and his tastes.

We will never know whether Hadrian would have chosen Antinous to suc­ceed him. Politically. However, by build­ing statues and temples to him and declar­ing him a god, he “chose” Antinous per­son­ally in the most pub­lic way and ensured that Hadrian — or his desire — was immor­tal. Antinous remains, even after all these cen­tur­ies, the face of desire, at least in the sphere of art history.

Perhaps this is why some whispered at the time that Hadrian had either killed Antinous him­self, or per­suaded the lad to take his own life, in a form of human sac­ri­fice to grant Hadrian immor­tal­ity. Poetically, hub­rist­ic­ally, Antinous’ death by drown­ing echoes that of Narcissus — though it may have been Hadrian’s van­ity he drowned in.

Whatever the truth of this rumour (Speller dis­sects the evid­ence adeptly and con­cludes that it was unlikely), the beau­ti­ful boy who rep­res­en­ted Hadrian’s spir­itual immor­tal­ity rather than his worldly leg­acy would, after his death and dei­fic­a­tion, never grow old; or even into full, bearded man­hood. Interesting that both Christianity and the cult of Antinous should have been foun­ded on images of naked young men effect­ively sac­ri­fi­cing them­selves to their daddy’s desire. Hadrian even named a new star in the heav­ens after Antinous, believ­ing that it was Antinous’ soul ascen­ded into the heavens.

However, stars can sig­nify nemesis as well as deity. A peace­ful and prag­matic ruler who con­sol­id­ated the Roman Empire by with­draw­ing from unne­ces­sary con­flict, Hadrian is nev­er­the­less remembered forever by the Jews as the des­troyer of the Temple and the archi­tect of the Diaspora. His intol­er­ance of Judaism helped foment a bloody rebel­lion in Judea shortly after Antinous’ death, led by the latest self-styled Messiah, Shimon bar Kokhba — which means in Hebrew, “son of the star”.

It may even be the case that the nova Hadrian named ‘Antinous’ was the same portent that bar Kokhba used to prove his Messianic claims. Reading Speller’s vivid accounts of the ruth­less­ness of the Imperial troops, the fan­at­icism of the Judean under­dogs and the Emperor’s implac­able oppos­i­tion to any kind of accom­mod­a­tion or com­prom­ise with the indi­gen­ous pop­u­la­tion, it’s dif­fi­cult not to think that his­tory repeats itself, but likes to swap the roles around. The revolt was finally quelled, but not before it cost sev­eral legions and much of the repu­ta­tion of Hadrian in Rome.

Some his­tor­i­ans have sug­ges­ted that Hadrian’s anti-Semitism was a product of his Hellenist tend­en­cies. Part of the spark for the Judean upris­ing was his ban on cir­cum­cision (a mutil­at­ing out­rage to a Hellenist — the Greeks con­sidered the fore­skin sac­red). Greek and Jewish cul­ture were in com­pet­i­tion at that time in the Eastern Mediterranean, and per­haps this goes some way to explain­ing why the Judeo-Christian tra­di­tion turned out so hos­tile to homoerotics.

Certainly, Hadrian’s trans­form­a­tion of an ordin­ary Greek boy into the last pagan god of Rome 100 years after the death of Christ ensured that the Christians would be more than a little bit sour about him. Perhaps it didn’t help that the pagan god looked bet­ter with his clothes off than theirs. Early Christian fath­ers routinely soun­ded off about the abom­in­a­tion of Hadrian’s ‘catamite’ being com­pared to The Son of God. (The biggest col­lec­tion of Antinous statu­ary today is in the vaults of the Vatican. And argu­ably the cult of Antinous was assim­il­ated by the Church of Rome, partly in the form of the Saint Sebastian myth.)

As part of his pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with immor­tal­ity and pos­ter­ity, Hadrian penned his own mem­oirs. Sadly, these have been lost. Speller tries the device of intro­du­cing each chapter with “mem­oirs” of the poet Julia Balbilla, friend of Hadrian’s neg­lected wife Sabina. It’s a nice idea, and appar­ently endeav­ours to cor­rect the “male bias” of the Hadrian story, but alas, it doesn’t quite work; Speller isn’t able to bring Balbilla to life, or even dis­tin­guish the voice of “Julia” from that of the rest of Speller’s prose.

Ultimately, the most strik­ing thing about Hadrian is not how mod­ern he was, but how much we in the West appear to be revis­it­ing his reign: an extraordin­ar­ily sus­tained period of afflu­ence, per­sist­ent upris­ings in Judea, the Beautiful Boy wor­shipped and immor­tal­ised in the temples of Hollywood, advert­ising and pop music — while aes­thet­ics, nar­ciss­ism, interior design and com­plic­ated water fea­tures in gar­dens have become all-encompassing concerns.

The Early Christians saw all this as evid­ence of the dec­ad­ence of Rome and how doomed pagan­ism was. Now it just looks like evid­ence of its longevity.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2002

The All-New, All-Tarty Gladiators

Contenders, ready! Gladiators, ready! Cross-Your-Heart male bra, ready!

It’s back. This week­end that naff 90s Saturday Night fam­ily enter­tain­ment staple Gladiators returns to British TVthough this time on sat­tel­ite and cable only.

A few, pos­sibly super­flu­ous, observations:

It looks a lot kinkier. It looks, in fact, like a sub­urban fet­ish party. Rather ‘dark’, with a lot of leather and rub­ber and a lot of porno pout­ing — and that’s just the guys.

The most pop­u­lar male Gladiator, ‘Spartan’, wears a skirt.

Some of the men also seem to be wear­ing bras. It’s dif­fi­cult not to won­der they’re a bit lack­ing in the tit depart­ment but have good abs, so they gave them some­thing to cover up their saggy breasts or over-large nipples.

Or maybe, along with the skirt, it is just more evid­ence that the male body is now as pack­aged and fet­ish­ised, not to men­tion scru­tin­ized, as the female vari­ety — at least on Prime Time TV.

Actually, on the basis of the new Gladiators, you could argue that women are now held up to less exact­ing stand­ards. The men are show­ing more flesh than the ladies — and their flesh is much more spec­tac­u­lar. Spartan’s abs aren’t really ter­ribly use­ful, but they do look fant­astic, so let’s have him hanging by his arms while the cam­era zooms in on them.

Either way, the Gladiators, male and female, with the excep­tion of pig­tailed Battleaxe who looks like she might actu­ally be able to handle her­self in a pub fight, seem less like super-heroes than a bunch of tarts.

But then, tarting’s what we want these days. Especially on fam­ily shows like Gladiators.

It’s a meas­ure of how main­stream met­ro­sexu­al­ity is now, how ‘nor­mal’ it’s become, that even naff old Gladiators has been met­ro­sexed up — ‘for all the fam­ily’. The ori­ginal series was of course also a form of lycra-clad voyeur­ism, but with a It’s a Knockout/PE-teacher hearti­ness as fig-leaf. New Gladiators, on the other hand, like the brave/terrifying new met­ro­sexual world we’re liv­ing in, isn’t the least bit shy and doesn’t need fig-leafs. Instead, we’re given skim­pier out­fits and flick­er­ing, lust­ful, wicked flames lick­ing around their per­fect bodies.

Sometimes the effect though can be very con­fus­ing. Atlas (left), with that long blond hair and sly wink he does on the web­site, looks less like Charles Atlas, than a cross between Popeye, Jessica Rabbit and Dick Emery. It used to be said that female body­build­ers looked like men in wigs — but look­ing at Atlas I can’t work out who or what is wear­ing the wig. Transexy time again.

Perhaps inev­it­ably the trailer for the new series includes a pas­tiche of the hit 2000 film Gladiator, set in the Coliseum. Gladiators were slaves, com­mod­it­ies of worked-out human flesh that were bought and sold and pit­ted against one another in a life and death struggle by Roman show­biz at the point of a sword. Now though it’s done at the point of a TV con­tract. Who says civil­iz­a­tion doesn’t advance?

Perhaps I’m read­ing too much in again, but to my eye this adds a layer of irony to the inclu­sion of sev­eral black Gladiators — in an attempt to update the format to reflect multi-racial Britain. Or per­haps simply to make it look more ‘exotic’ and saleable.

The muscli­est gla­di­at­ors mean­while seem even musclier. Atlas and Destroyer look more impossibly massive than the big Gladiators of the Nineties series, such as Hunter and Wolf. The bar has, lit­er­ally, been raised. Their shoulders in par­tic­u­lar are vast — per­haps because since the 90s, partly down to the ori­ginal Gladiators series, we’ve all got a per­sonal fit­ness trainer — or are related to one. So they have to be EVEN BIGGER.

Or per­haps it’s because we’ve all got widescreen TVs now.

Somehow I don’t think it ter­ribly likely the ster­oid ‘epi­demic’ that drug agen­cies have warned is ram­pa­ging amongst young men today because they want a desir­able body like the ones they see in the media will abate any­time soon.


Madonna and Guy — An Old Fashioned Celeb Couple

guy1903.jpgMadonna inter­viewed with this month’s Elle magazine, excerp­ted this week in the Daily Mail under the head­line ‘My amaz­ing sex-life’. Apparently hubby Guy has encour­aged her to be more feminine.

Madge said: “I think I’ve been hon­ing and fin­ess­ing my fem­in­ine side. I’ve always been very com­fort­able with my mas­cu­line side — the con­fid­ence, the ball­si­ness. I’ve learnt to be more pli­ant, more vul­ner­able — and to be com­fort­able with that.“‘

I know it’s rude to quote your­self, espe­cially in pub­lic, but it does remind me of some­thing I wrote for this month’s Out magazine about tran­sexy celebs who are oblit­er­at­ing sexual dif­fer­ence with botox:

Even when a celebrity couple, like Maddy and Guy, act out a reas­ser­tion of tra­di­tional roles, it only serves as par­ody. When Madonna brags about her mock­ney gang­ster groupie hus­band boss­ing her about, it only serves to make it clear that Guy is the English nanny whose duties include hav­ing to pre­tend to dom­in­ate Madonna seven or eight times a week.’

But what, I won­der, was Guy say­ing when the pic (left) was snapped?

Given this story from last year about Madonna’s sex toy gift for him, per­haps it was: “The strap-on was that big I couldn’t get my hand around it!”

Eminem: His Majesty the Baby

fatem.jpgEminem is over­weight, addicted to drugs, suf­fer­ing attacks of pneu­mo­nia, strug­gling with a heart con­di­tion, is a vir­tual recluse sur­roun­ded by para­sitic hangers on and can’t write any new music, accord­ing to the Sun and his estranged mother’s new book.

Worst of all, Marshall Mathers, now aged 35 is ‘spotty’ eats ‘fatty food’ and has even let his bleached blond hair grow out. Now that is really tragic.

OK, so he’s going through a bad time at the moment, and spent Christmas in hos­pital with life-threatening ill­nesses, but there’s really no excuse for such slop­pi­ness in a man these days is there?

Even his beloved daugh­ter Haile appears to be desert­ing him: now 12, she is reportedly becom­ing more inde­pend­ent and no longer so keen on stay­ing in and being being doted on by her daddy-mommy. And who can blame her if he’s got spots and needs a bleach job?

The Sun prints a still taken from one of Marshall Mather’s videos spoof­ing a fat, late-period Elvis who also took ‘tra­di­tional black music to the main­stream’ and points up the ‘irony’ of it all, how an obese Elvis locked him­self in his Graceland man­sion, sur­roun­ded him­self with para­sitic hangers-on and ‘died of a heart attack, aged just 43, after years of drug abuse’.

Well, now, it would be entirely churl­ish of Em not to com­plete the eerie par­al­lel and die of a heart attack him­self, wouldn’t it? (Note to Em: don’t wait til you turn 43 before help­fully drop­ping dead on the john as the Sun will have for­got­ten all about you by then.)

Unmentioned how­ever is the main and most strik­ing paralell between Elvis and Em: two Southern boys who loved their Mommas. And boys, who, in their own ways, never quite got over that - and cer­tainly never grew up. The art­icle does though quote some lines from his pres­ci­ent song ‘Role Model’ that hint at this patho­lo­gical Momma Love: ‘I’m bout as nor­mal as Norman Bates, with deform­at­ive traits/A pre­ma­ture birth that was four minutes late’.

Norman Bates, some of you younger read­ers prob­ably need to be told, was a 1950s Hitchcock psy­cho­path (played by a homo­sexual actor) with mul­tiple per­son­al­ity dis­order (Slim Shady? Eminem? Marshall Mathers?), who kept the pre­served body of his murdered mother in his base­ment and dressed up in her clothes to slash ladies he fan­cies to death with a large knife. Seeing as Em has rapped about slaughter­ing both his ex-ex-ex-wife Kim ‘the only woman I’ve ever loved’ and his smoth­er­ing mother, the ‘New Elvis’ was clearly liv­ing at the Bates Motel instead of Graceland, at least inside his Gothic head.

As this bili­ous piece of mine below from 2003 shows, the ‘New Elvis’ turned into the old ‘Old Elvis’ some time ago. (And if you want to under­stand my dis­ap­point­ment, read this.)

Though in the pic used in the Sun (above) he appears to have turned into Boy George.

His majesty the baby

Isn’t it about time Eminem grew up? Mark Simpson on the rap­per who elev­ated spoilt tan­trums into an art form

Independent on Sunday, 27/04/2003

A few years ago a pasty-faced, bleached-blond, under­fed white boy rap­per arrived on the scene wav­ing a chain­saw who, thrill­ingly, seemed to hate every­one, espe­cially him­self. He took pot shots at all kinds of pre­ten­sion and bull­shit, includ­ing the fame that he had achieved for him­self and the industry that had made it possible.

Although he was a white rap­per, he was decidedly no Vanilla Ice. In fact, there was noth­ing vanilla at all about this scato­lo­gic­ally tal­en­ted, potty– mouthed mis­an­thrope who soun­ded like Bugs Bunny crossed with South Park’s Cartman on crys­tal meth. He was hailed by some as the “new Elvis”, and although the com­par­is­ons were full of hubris, like Elvis he had taken a “black” music form and made it his own, and in the pro­cess fash­ioned a new kind of pop. In this instance one which seemed genu­inely, dan­ger­ously, neur­ot­ic­ally inter­ested in words and nar­rat­ives. For the first time in years, people began talk­ing, arguing and even demon­strat­ing about a pop star.

Marshall Bruce Mathers III, alias Eminem, alias Slim Shady, was the evil, com­ical, candy-buzz of con­sumer­ism laced with melt-in-your-mouth cyan­ide, prom­ising a little indi­ges­tion in a saccharin-sweet, always smil­ing, aspir­a­tional pop industry of boy blands and Britneybots. On his smash-hit work of Gothic genius The Marshall Mathers LP (2000) he fam­ously sneered, “You think I give a damn about a Grammy? Half you crit­ics can’t even stom­ach me…”

And then in 2001 he appeared on the damn Grammys, in that very dis­turb­ing duet with the evil fairy god­mother of show­biz pop bland­ness, Elton John. Millions of view­ers were treated to the sight of Slim Shady con­scien­tiously suck­ing the Grammys’ cock while a pink-polka-dotted bewigged Elton sucked his (Em later claimed he ‘didn’t know Elton was gay’). For his con­sum­mate skill at con­trolling his gag reflex, Em was awar­ded some Grammy con­sol­a­tion prizes for which he was gosh-awfully grate­ful. Countless other awards came his way, eli­cit­ing vari­ous other embar­rass­ing, act­ressy accept­ance speeches in a hip-hop stylee.

Then last year at the MTV Awards, when some audi­ence mem­bers booed him, he accused “that girl” Moby of being behind it and threatened to beat him up. This was greeted with many more boos from MTV’s liberal-leaning great and good, and Em, see­ing his career slip­ping away, ended up humbly apo­lo­gising and mum­bling some­thing about attend­ing “anger man­age­ment classes”. So it was offi­cial. Em was just like all the other “fag­gots” he’d berated so prof­it­ably on his records: he only wanted to be liked. It was all about suck­cess, again. It was just more show­biz bullshit.

Meanwhile, the crit­ics lauded Em’s mediocre Marshall Mathers follow-up album The Eminem Show, full of empty van­ity, forced, phoney polit­ics and pom­pous 1970s gui­tar riffs, espe­cially in fam­ously “street” pub­lic­a­tions such as the Guardian. Maybe I’m just bit­ter because I feel betrayed, but it seemed that every­one wanted you to know how much they liked Eminem — and how cool, ironic and post-PC that made them. As a final con­firm­a­tion of his total tired­ness, his awe­some over-ness, the tedi­ous, tooth­less auto­bi­o­graph­ical flick 8 Mile (com­plete with a Be Nice To Fags pub­lic ser­vice announce­ment) which merely show­cased his sul­len, scrawny lack of cha­risma, saw the “new Elvis” being hailed now as the “new James Dean” on the front page of the rebel-loving hip­ster organ the Daily Telegraph. As a sign of the accel­er­ated times we live in, the New Elvis had become the Old Elvis in the space of two years.

Oh, and by the way, Eminem, the voice of teen­age angst, is actu­ally 30. If you ever felt that Em was remin­is­cent of a Harry Enfield char­ac­ter, Nick Hasted’s bio­graphy will con­firm your sus­pi­cions. Em him­self seems to know that the Kevin-ish sul­len stares, hissy his­tri­on­ics and spite­ful tan­trums he has based his career on are essen­tially child­ish, and has been shav­ing a couple of years off his true age, like an age­ing rent boy, for most of his career. Until, that is, his estranged mother — damn you, bitch! — “outed” his real date of birth recently. That’s the ter­rible thing about moth­ers: they are the ori­ginal Women Who Know Too Much. No won­der he’s said he wants her dead.

Much as I’d like to be able to add Nick Hasted’s book ‘The Dark Story of Eminem’ (Omnibus) to the long list of embar­rass­ing examples of molest­ing dad-culture rub­bing up against Em’s “enorm­ous pop cul­ture tal­ent” and “cred­ib­il­ity”, it’s a largely clear-headed assess­ment of his career, his strengths and weak­nesses, as well as some­thing of an expose of the inev­it­able deceits this artist fam­ous for reck­less “truth-telling” has disseminated.

We learn, hil­ari­ously, that little Em was a quiet, shy, sens­it­ive child who liked to col­our pretty little pic­tures, which he would plead to be sent to his absent, dead­beat dad who never once attemp­ted to get in touch with his son. As he grew up, an only child, Marshall’s rage ended up dir­ec­ted towards someone within reach: his single mother, Debbie Mathers-Briggs. As we all know, he has accused her, over and over again, of neg­lect­ing him. She denies this: “The real prob­lem is not that he had a hard time, but that he resents I sheltered him so much from the real world… I was an over-protective mother who gave him everything he wanted and more.” It’s per­haps self-serving but quite con­vin­cing, not least because Em is still bitch­ing and moan­ing about her neg­lect into his fab­ulously wealthy and fam­ous thirties.

So when Mathers-Briggs recalls: “I got kicked out of stores because he’d be like the spoiled brat, lying in the aisle, arms and legs spread open”, it’s impossible not to cackle. After all, little Em man­aged to turn flail­ing and scream­ing about the world in gen­eral, and women in par­tic­u­lar, not giv­ing him enough atten­tion into a spec­tac­u­larly suc­cess­ful, attention-seeking career. In an early sign of his Springer-esque instincts, he has bragged how he would tape his mother throw­ing him out of the house to play to his friends to con­vince them “how crazy she was”.

Hasted, who did not have access to what Freud might have termed His Majesty the Baby him­self, or his frac­tious fam­ily, has assidu­ously diges­ted the clip­pings, piecing together a more con­sist­ent nar­rat­ive than most of us have gleaned from the pub­lic slang­ing matches in the tabloids and in Em’s songs. Hasted also assesses the oeuvre, giv­ing credit to Mr Mathers’ real tal­ent, but also not quite let­ting him off the miso­gyn­istic hook with his “Ha-ha I was only kid­ding ladies, you know I love you” routine at the end of songs about but­cher­ing his ex-wife in cold blood in front of their daugh­ter, and ana­lys­ing his all-important, all-consuming rela­tion­ships with the women in his life: his mother, his daugh­ter Haille that Em keeps telling us he loves so much, and his ex-ex-wife Kim (since the book was writ­ten they are reportedly very much in love again and liv­ing together with Haille — the whole fam­ily admir­ing Em’s sweet “Kim: Rot in Pieces” tat­too over break­fast). My abid­ing impres­sion is that, alas, Em doesn’t hate every­one, just women — and mostly because he is so pathet­ic­ally depend­ent on them. Which isn’t exactly very special.

Hasted also vis­its Mathers’ home town of Detroit and dis­cov­ers that Em’s back­ground was not quite so white-trash as he has made out — more blue-collar and semi-suburban. Less pro­duct­ively, he spends rather a long time stand­ing in the play­ground where a young Marshall was allegedly thrown by a bully head-first into a snow­drift (Marshall was a favour­ite tar­get of bul­lies, and it’s easy to see why), re-imagining the sem­inal incid­ent which promp­ted the song “Brain Damage” and caused Em to be hos­pit­al­ised for sev­eral days. His mother appar­ently had to nurse him for many months after­wards. (Probably, it seems to me, another reason he hates her: bad enough to be of woman born once, but twice.…)

In fact, Em’s fame appears to have been based on the murder not of ex– wives but of mommy’s little boy. Em’s first album, Infinite, now air­brushed out of his­tory by Em, while crit­ic­ally well-received was appar­ently too sens­it­ive, romantic and polite to be a com­mer­cial hip-hop suc­cess, espe­cially with the sub­urban teen white boy audi­ence who buy hip hop to piss off their nag­ging fem­in­ist moms and keep them out of their bed­rooms. In other words, the don’t-give-a-fuck, mother-hating, wife-murdering, potty-mouthed — and smash hit — Slim Shady per­sona con­ceived (“while I was tak­ing a shit”) after the fail­ure of Infinite, seems to have been all about… giv­ing a fuck.

There never was any Real Slim Shady.

© Mark Simpson 2008