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The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

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Mark Simpson’s Barcelona UOC Lecture in La Vanguardia

A write-up in La Vanguardia of my lecture ‘From Metrosexual to Spornosexual – a Permanent Spectacular Revolution’ at the ‘Men in Movement‘ conference in Barcelona last week, which was organised by the Arts and Humanities department of Universitat Oberta de Catalunya.

LaVanguardia Simpson Spornosexuals-1

LaVanguardia Simpson Spornosexuals-2

Many thanks to everyone involved for their hard work and kind hospitality. With special thanks to Dr Begonya Enguix Grau, the driving force behind this timely event – someone who not only knows her anthropological onions, but also the best places to visit in Barcelona and was great, generous company despite having broken her toe the previous week.

She even managed to organise warm and sunny weather in late November.

Barca beach tower

Mark Simpson Interviewed on Italian Swiss TV Channel RSI

At the end of last year I was interviewed by Sarah Ferraro of Italian Swiss TV channel RSI for a doc about modern masculinity airing Thursday (tomorrow) at 9pm.

Here are some advance clips that the makers of the doc kindly shared of me unrelaxing in a male spa in London’s Mayfair called The Refinery.

The original interview, as you can imagine, lasted hours….

The documentary should be available to view on the RSI site here this Friday (with me dubbed into sexy Italian).

Mark Simpson interviewed by Swedish Public Radio

Yours truly interviewed about spornosexuals by Mona Masri for Swedish Public Radio (and dubbed into Swedish – which makes me sound much more thoughtful).

Cristiano chilling at Mr Armani's place. (But tensing his abs.)

Cristiano relaxing at Mr Armani’s place. (But tensing his abs.)

 

Metrosexuality & the Selfie

Mark Simpson was recently email interviewed by Beverly Parungao for a Sydney Morning Herald piece titled ‘Are Men Becoming Too Metrosexual?’ . Below are his unapologetic, uncircumcised replies.

BP: What is driving the metrosexual movement?

MS: Self-love – and a certain amount of self-loathing – is certainly a powerful dynamo.

But ultimately what we’re seeing here is nothing less than a revolution in masculinity in particular and gender relationships in general.

Metrosexuality isn’t about flip flops, facials or manscara, or about men becoming ‘girly’ or ‘gay’ – it’s about men becoming everything. Everything that they want to be.

Why are men today more concerned with their appearance?

Because they’re worth it. As advertising has told women for decades. Men make up c. 50% of the marketplace and need to pull their weight in the shopping mall if consumerism is to survive. They certainly seem to have upped their game rather a lot in the last decade or so….

We’re also living in a culture in which women have enthusiastically taken on previously ‘male’ preserves – from drinking pints to joining the world of work to actually having orgasms. Men, especially younger men who’ve grown up with all this as the norm, have worked out that they too can now appropriate products, practises and pleasures once deemed ‘gay’ or ‘girly’ and therefore out of bounds. The much greater acceptance of gay people has also reduced the stigma associated with men stepping out of their stereotype.

Most of all, we’re living in a visual, looking-glass culture of selfies, Facebook, Twitter, reality TV and Men’s Health covers. Metrosexuality represents men’s adaptation to this new world order – men can’t just ‘act’ any more they have ‘appear’ too, to be looked at. To be noticed. To be a brand. To be wanted. Male vanity isn’t empty and indulgent – it’s a survival strategy.

In our shiny, highly reflective 21st Century the sexual division of looking has thoroughly broken down, and men now ache to ‘objectify’ themselves.

Even and especially sportsmen who used to be the embodiment of ‘blokes’ and ‘regular guys’ who were supposed to be only concerned, ‘at the end of the day’, with ‘the team’ and ‘doing their job’, have become glossy, inked, pneumatic sporno stars.

You might be forgiven for thinking a lad only plays football or rugby these days as a way of starring in those saucy ads for Armani underwear and those tarty rugby and rowing calendars.

Manscaping is one the rise, but so too is male cosmetic surgery (in Australia and America). Do you view this as trend as part of the metrosexual movement?

Absolutely. The male body, once the last frontier of consumerism, has been totally commodified. Masculinity has been thoroughly aestheticized. I would add to the trend for cosmetic surgery and manscaping man-bits the way that men uses tattoos to shade and emphasise their worked-out muscles. The male body has become a living work of art.

Ironically the total ubiquity of beards at the moment is proof of that. No longer a secondary sexual characteristic or badge of blokedom they’re just another sweet male accessory. Another way today’s chaps ask you to adore them.

Should women be concerned that the metrosexual male is now mainstream?

They should certainly get used to it!

Many women I know welcome the fact that men nowadays are not only better turned out, more worked-out, sensual creatures who are rather better in bed as a result – but also the fact they’re more independent. Self-maintaining. They might spend forever in the bathroom but they are much more likely to be able to operate a cooker or washing machine and even buy their own underwear. Which is an advantage in a job market where women might be working while their partner is not – and where men might be staying at home looking after the kids.

Though for some women, perhaps with more traditional ideas about sex roles and the ‘complementarity’ of the sexes, adjusting to the new metrosexual order could be difficult. But then, a lot of chauvinistic men had trouble adjusting to the changes brought about by women’s lib.

In their quest to be desired have men become too sexy, too feminised and therefore less desirable to women?

You should probably ask women about that…. Though women aren’t always completely truthful in their answer to that question. Quite a few assert that they find a man who spends longer than them in the bathroom – which probably means just as long as them – a total turn off. But then they go completely bananas over a guy who clearly spends hours in the bathroom and every evening in the gym. Trust me, men have noticed this discrepancy!

The only hope for heterosexuality is double ensuite bathrooms.

Mark Simpson’s Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story is available from Amazon in Kindle form and also in physical/fondle form.

Selfie Narcissus image taken from here

Scrape Me With a Strigil! The Grooming Guru interviews Mark Simpson

The Grooming Guru, alias Lee Kynaston, interviews Simpson about how Top Gun made a generation of young men ‘gay’ and why the Romans knew a thing or two about exfoliation. A snippet:

GG: Many commentators complain that men are ‘becoming more like women’ with their grooming/beauty regimes. What would you say to this?

MS: I think it’s more a case of men no longer tying one hand behind their backs when it comes to the increasingly important business – both in private and public life – of looking good. Happily married Lord Sugar, for example, sometimes seems to display a weakness for an attractive, nicely turned-out male candidate. And of course, more and more bosses are female.

Instead of men becoming ‘more like women’ what we’re seeing is men being less inhibited in their behaviour by worries about what’s ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, ‘gay’ and ‘straight’. In much the same way that women have been since the feminist revolution of the 1970s. Likewise, ‘male beauty’ is no longer a completely verboten conjugation that has to always be euphemised with ‘male grooming’.

Read Kynaston’s interview in full here.

The Persueders: Mark Simpson rubs Suede the wrong way

Attitude

(Attitude, 1994 and collected in It’s a Queer World now available on Kindle)

I have something to confess. When I listened to Suede’s eponymous debut album last year I was disappointed. Disappointed that it turned out to be as good as the hype had trumpeted it to be. This was an album that went gold on its first day and sold 100,000 copies in its first week, by a group whose canny PR people secured them no less than nineteen magazine covers. Suede were everywhere, and everyone was hailing them as the greatest thing since The Smiths. So I’m sure you can sympathise with my frustration on discovering I couldn’t loftily dismiss them as paste imitations and actually had to admit that Suede, at once savage and tender, sleazy and sublime, was one of the greatest first albums ever.

Suede, the bastards, they had it all. They had the press; they had the material; they had the success. And to cap it all they had a dangerous, scandalous edge in the form of seventies androgyny queered up for the nineties. It was there in their songs—”We kiss in his room to a popular tune” (“The Drowners”); “In your council home he broke all your bones and now you’re taking it time after time” (“Animal Ni­trate”)—and an album cover that featured two disabled lesbians snog­ging. Most of all, it was there in the sissy shape of front man Brett Anderson. With his irritating girlish fringe, weedy pointy shoulders, and pigeon chest, his swinging, childbearing hips (to which he insisted on drawing attention by banging the microphone against them), and his big-collared blouses baring a waspish waist and nibblesome navel, Anderson was the most offensively, delectably un­manly pop star since Morrissey. Damn him, damn them.

But I needn’t have fretted. Even as Suede were being feted, a backlash was brewing that would unmask them as fakes. What finally unleashed it was Brett’s remark that he considered himself “a bisexual who had never had a homosexual experience.” So Suede were frauds after all! All that mincing of hips and meeting of same-sex lips was phony, a sham! How satisfying.

Gay critics fired the first salvos, denouncing Suede as shameful exploiters of their culture. “Is there any real difference between what Brett from Suede is doing and what the Black and White Minstrels once did?” demanded one furious gay music journalist in Melody Maker.

Meanwhile, those straights who had been discomfited by the queerness of Suede, were given a green light to ridicule them for being big girl’s blouses, now that they had no fear of being called “homophobic.” After reading one gay critic’s attack on Anderson, “comedians” Newman and Baddiel included a typically witty sketch in their last tour that derided him for his poofiness.

Now, more than a year later, as Suede prepare to release their second album, Dog Man Star, they seem as cursed as they were blessed last year. Second albums are always a test, but after such a debut album as Suede, it becomes a trial. Gone is the honeymoon with the press, and gone also is Bernard Butler, the band’s guitarist and Marr to Brett’s Morrissey, in an acrimonious and very public separation. What does the Posing Sodomite have to say about that remark now?

“It was completely misread,” he says, the annoyance registering in his voice. “I was talking about the way I write and the way I generally feel about life. I don’t feel 100 percent akin to the male world or 100 percent akin to the female world. I was trying to express in a sexual perspective something that was more spiritual. Lots of things I write about are third person but written in the first person. Basically it was about not wanting to be pinned down.”

Brett Anderson is perched awkwardly on the arm of the sofa opposite, his body angled slightly away from me. Is he afraid of being “pinned down” as Someone Sitting on a Sofa? Is he, in fact, occupying some more artistic, ambiguous space between sitting and standing? Simon Gilbert, the band’s drummer, who came out as gay last year, is also here, facing me with his knees apart, apparently happy to surrender to the definite, fixed position of sitting on the sofa (albeit in the middle).

Brett continues in his fast-talking, surprisingly laddish South Coast voice: “I don’t think that anyone should have to be pinned down, even if they are definitely in a category—definitely gay or definitely straight. Because you happen to engage in certain sexual practices you shouldn’t have to be that and nothing more. I was trying to state something universal while everyone wanted to read something specific.”

He has a point. OK, so the refusing to be pinned down, “I-don’t- want-to-label-myself” thing is, in a sense, laughably adolescent. But isn’t that what pop is for? To be wilful, self-absorbed, self-important, pretentious? To refuse the definition, the certainty, the common sense, the maturity, the lifelessness of grown-ups? However hopeless such a resistance might be? But gays and straights did not appreciate Suede’s irresponsibility.  Like most who advocate the possibility of a third position in the Sexual Identity War, Anderson was caught in the cross-fire between the two camps.

“The gay side thought it was a cop-out and the straight side weren’t happy with it either,” he complains.  “Everybody wants you as a figurehead for their party: the world is just a series of tribes that want you to speak out for them but I’ve never felt myself part of any of tribe.  I don’t intend to be a spokesman for any of them in particular.  I’d like to think that individuals have got a bit more intelligence than to be happy with belonging to a glorified football team.

“I was seen as a whipping boy for people who wanted to be right-on as well.  I happened to lay my defences open.  Before I did people had thought: he probably is homosexual so we can’t criticise him on those grounds because we won’t be seen as right-on.  Newman and Baddiel wouldn’t have dared do the same sketch about Andy Bell – although I’m sure they would like to – because they know they would have been slated as homophobic.  I think men who are perceived to be gay but who aren’t actually don’t have the political defences to fall back on that gay men do.”

But then you were a rock star making this statement.  Wasn’t it a rather cynical thing for someone in your privileged position to say, exploiting for your own ends the good old-fashioned “ambisexual” appeal of rock ‘n’ roll?

“Perhaps, but that would only be true if it were a charade.  I think it would be impossible for me to act any other way.  It’s not a ploy.”

So you refute the accusation that you were appropriating gay culture by “posing as a sodomite”?

“I wasn’t appropriating it – that sounds like stealing.  I thought I had a kinship with it. My own sexuality aside, I’m quite deeply involved in the gay world because a lot of my friends are gay and because of this feeling of kinship.  But like I said, I didn’t actually feel as if I was part of any particular group and didn’t want to be, so I didn’t feel a fraud at all.  I wasn’t ‘posing as a sodomite’ – I felt completely justified in what I was doing.”

“I think it’s more to do with the way the press decide to portray us that caused the gay community to turn against us. In the NME there were cartoons representing us as limp-wristed Lord Fauntleroys. We weren’t trying to come across that way at all; that was the way the media decided to perceive us. Now I think we’ve gone beyond that – but that’s not to say that I’ve turned my back on what I was talking about then; it’s just the way my mind works.”

But surely you can’t just blame the press for your images as effete fops?

“Look, any pop band can get some success by wearing pink feather boas and some makeup – ‘Ohmygod, they’re outrageous‘ – we’re doing the opposite. We never felt we fitted into any categories. I think the music we make is a metaphor for everything including our sexuality, the way I’ve always tried to avoid barriers.  Simon’s the same…”

“I have to say that I really sympathise with Brett’s position,” Simon chips in on cue. “I come from the other side of the fence if you like. I’ve called myself a bisexual person who’s never had a heterosexual experience. I never wanted to fit into the stereotypical image of what a gay person is. I think that it’s a lucky accident that brought me together with Brett because we really do share a similar outlook. Of all the bands I’ve been with, it’s only with Suede that I felt able to be honest.

“But I don’t want to be defined by my sexual preference, to be put in this category which is, to all intents and purposes, a clubby crowd. I never felt like I belonged in the straight world before I came out. After I came out I didn’t feel like I belonged in the gay world either.”

Actually, Simon doesn’t exactly look like he belongs in Suede. His hair – which is short, spiky, and an angry red-purple – is somewhat at odds with the louche Suede-boy coiffure. Apparently, people often think that he must be “the straight one” because he has short hair. As he continues talking, it becomes apparent where his image comes from. Like many young outsiders growing up in the late 70s, Simon had found a home in punk.

“It seemed to express something about me and I really enjoyed the ambiguity of the lyrics – like The Clash’s ‘Stay Free,’ which I interpret as a love song from one man to another. I’d never identified with politically gay bands and performers like Jimmy Somerville. I think that a song should speak to whoever’s listening without hitting them over the head with rhetoric that’s bound to turn some people off.”

But all the bands Simon had belonged to had displayed sufficient casual homophobia to persuade him to stay firmly in the closet.

“They all had their puerile antigay banter which I had to sit through without saying anything. Suede were different. One day somebody asked if I was gay and I just said, ‘Yeah.’ For a moment I thought, Oh shit, what have I done? I’m out of the band now I fact, the way everyone reacted was brilliant. It felt so right .ill that. I think it has a lot to do with the similarity between his outlook and mine.”

Have either of you consummated your “bisexuality” since last year?

Simon: “No.”

Brett: “Not physically.”

Simon: “I’d say the same.”

What does that actually mean, though?

Simon: “It means that I can relate to a woman without actually getting into bed with her. In the same way as Brett does with men.”

So superficially there’s a neat symmetry between you in that you both want to avoid categorisation, aspiring to be something more and less than what you might be seen to be…

Brett: “… yes, there is …”

Simon: “. . . I’d agree with that. . .”

. . . but perhaps only superficially. Some might argue that you, Brett, were claiming a certain credibility without actually putting your iron in the fire or, probably more to the point, allowing someone else to put his in yours.

Brett: “Mine’s a kind of active statement and Simon’s is a kind passive statement? Yeah, I know what you’re saying. There’s a huge history here which I’m kind of attaching myself to, or port assume I’m attaching myself to. I don’t really see how to get away from it—I’m not saying that I never said it, but….

Now Brett is swallowing water. I throw him a line: Perhaps you were attacked for merely putting into words what has been the unofficial formula for truly great rock ‘n’ roll all along?

“Yeah, I’d agree with that.”

Does he think that his crime was more explanation than exploita­tion?

“Yes, I think that’s been my problem all along—giving too much away. It would have been very easy for me not to mention my sexuality at all and people would draw their own conclusions. I’ve been incredibly honest. I’ve never said anything that wasn’t true.” As a result of Brett’s honesty, some sections of the indie press slated Suede for being “inauthentic” poseurs—possibly the worst crime in the indie universe. Perhaps this had something to do with the notion among some sections of the music press that masculinity is equivalent to authenticity, and both are equivalent to working classness?

“Yeah,” Brett agrees. “Indie does have this huge emphasis on authenticity: everyone has to play and it’s a case of all the lads together. But the whole indie thing is so much a fucking fake itself!” he exclaims with real vehemence. “It’s actually the children of the landed gentry with guitars! I can name quite a few names—but I won’t—people with extravagantly rich parents who have decided to go for this scruffy image.

‘None of us have ever been part of that sort of gang at all. We made music from the other direction: we’re from a scruffy background and aspired to something much more . . . ambitious. I’ve always wanted to make pop music; I’ve always wanted to have hits; I’m always had a really pop ethic and loved the bands who were out-and-out Motown. These other people are the reverse: they’re coming from successful backgrounds and want to have this authenticity and avant-garde appeal by slumming it. I want to make pop songs that everyone can understand and really . . . shine.”

This is the moment to mention those lovable dog-racing cock-er-nee geezahs (or so they’d like you to think) who have risen to fame since Suede’s disappearance from the scene. Brett pauses at the sound of their name-—maybe bristles would be a better descrip­tion. “Ummmm … I don’t really have anything to say about Blur.” He looks at Simon.

“No, there’s not much to say,” concurs Simon, almost spontaneously. “A lot’s been made of our supposed spat with them but it’s all crap really.”

Brett: “They do their thing and we do ours. The press make out that there’s this big rivalry between us, when there isn’t really.”

I try to explain that all I want is a kind of “compare and contrast” angle on Blur. Brett shifts uneasily, moving even more of his body line away from me, flicking nervous sideways glances in my gener­al direction, head close to his chest as he speaks—like a painfully shy boy making his first pass or telling the police where he hid the body.

“Look, any of these bands that have been getting all this attention lately have made it because we haven’t been around [flick]. That sounds really big-headed I know, but I don’t think that anyone has had the track record that we’ve had. Most people only know our singles—that doesn’t reveal the depth to our musical style [flick]. Things like our B sides. We’ve never made a duff B side. Some of our B sides are better than our album tracks. Without being really, y’know, conceited [flick], I don’t think that there’s anyone who has produced such a body of work in such a small amount of time. Not even some of the great British groups of the past [flick, flick], I think that the next album will completely ground everyone else [flick]. I think.”

His speech over, Brett shifts his bony bum around on the sofa arm a teensy bit more towards me.

“I hate all this big-headed crap, y’know?” he confesses. ” ‘We’re the greatest,’ blah, blah. We’ve never gone around with this atti­tude”—now his voice is almost plaintive—”we just happen to think that our music is great and that it has real depth to it.”

Did he face away from me because he was embarrassed at having to sell himself; or was it because he was embarrassed by the “real” Brett Anderson—someone fiercely ambitious, competitive, and egotistical? Whatever the reason, there’s more than a certain amount of truth in what he’s saying. It wasn’t until Suede came along and showed that the body of pop wasn’t quite as cold as everyone had taken it to be that groups like Blur had any chance at all.

The few tracks I’ve heard off the new album suggest Suede have indeed taken a new direction. Toned down is the raw energy of the first album; anger is here replaced by melodrama, and, astonishing­ly, it comes off. Emotions are painted on a larger canvas with more unabashed extravagance than British pop has had for years. Some will denounce it as self-indulgent and pompous. But at least one track, “Still Life”—a ballad that grows into a breathtaking orches­tral production—is going to be huge. It’s so expansive, so gorgeous that no one will be able to resist its goosepimpling embrace. It will be played on Radios 1 and 2; housewives will hum distractedly to its bittersweet melody in kitchens while their sons weep disconso­lately to its wailing angst in their bedrooms.

“I think that we’ve successfully combined those things which we’ve always been good at before,” claims Brett. “We’ve always been able to produce those bubblegum singles like ‘Animal Nitrate’ and ‘The Next Life,’ and on this album we’ve been able to blend the cockiness of these with something more wistful. ‘Wild Ones,’ for example, is for me the most successful thing I’ve ever written. It’s incredibly catchy and poppy and at the same time, it’s something quite beautiful. I think,” he intones solemnly, “it’s really, really rare for pop music to produce something beautiful.”

Do I detect something of Ravel’s Bolero in the finale of “Still Life”?

“Yeah, we ripped it off a bit. If people just heard that track off the album they’d be quite misled because it is very orchestral. We wanted to go for something quite heroic. It’s very easy for a pop band to get a bit of money and pay for an orchestra to accompany them. I think that song justifies it because if you hear it on its own, as an acoustic vocal, it builds naturally anyway. The orchestral embellishments just suggest themselves.

“It is quite pompous, especially the end part. But pop music has always been about being pretentious—you can’t be worthy; there’s no point. That’s the crappy thing about the indie scene: it doesn’t go any further than a bunch of people slapping each other on the back going, ‘Yeah, that’s worthy.'”

Like the Manic Street Preachers, Suede are a pop group, who have that loyalty to pop music that most fans don’t have time for any more. Suede are from an era where there were only three TV channels; two were showing football and one was showing a docu­mentary on fly-fishing. They are from an era of youth-club discos and smoking behind the bike sheds, when the idea of a good time was rattling around in a battered Cortina without tax or insurance, or beating up the local queer. It’s also an England that arguably no longer exists or, if it does, is fast fading away.

Simon disagrees. “Since I came out, I get a lot of letters and I can tell that life in small towns hasn’t changed much. People tell me about getting beaten up in the school playground and stuff. Mind you, Stratford, where I grew up, is really weird. The first time I went back to Stratford after coming out I expected people to be really put off about it—y’know, ‘Oh, here’s that fuckin’ queer.’ But not at all. People were saying, ‘Why didn’t you tell us when you used to hang around with us? It would have been cool.’

“It’s easy to say that things have changed sitting here in London as a member of the media elite. This world just carries on and on, no matter that there are smart people walking around with black brief­cases. [Brett glances at my black briefcase.] There are kids out there who desperately need something to cling on to. Yeah, it is an old- fashioned idea, but it’s what we grew up with. I think it’s easy to talk about the advancement of society when you live in a big city, but I don’t think things have moved on from 1954 once you get outside it.”

But isn’t this a rather patronising view?

“Yes, it is quite patronising, but I also think that it’s quite true,” he says rather impatiently. “It’s patronising towards the people who inflict it on the ones who don’t want it. But they deserve it. Like all my family. They’re living in a different age. It’s all lino and corned beef, like something out of Look Back in Anger.”

Brett and Simon grew up in those corners of Britain where Thatcherism, satellite TV, and Sega Mega-Drives never happened. For Simon it was the tourist/rural limbo of Stratford-upon-Avon; for Brett it was Haywards Heath, a dormitory town north of Brighton. Both men wanted to be pop stars for as long as they can remember. “When I was about four I used to imagine being Paul McCartney,” confesses Simon. No wonder he became a punk.

I put it to Brett that yes, Britain is still dowdy and desper­ate—perhaps more so—especially in those forgotten corners. But the world that produced a passion for pop has gone.

“Yes, that’s true—the world has completely changed in that sense. That’s why I think the new album is a step forward because it is not as caught up with the inverted nostalgia. Where the last album was retrogressive; the new album is much more wistful and in love with the modern age.”

Brett admits, however, that his new optimism is somewhat stifled by certain local realities. “The Suede backlash was partly to do with a reaction against success. Anyone in this country who achieves success is struck out against. You’re allowed to go only so far and no further. This or that song will be dismissed as a ‘pile of shit’ because it’s not avant-garde enough, not because it’s actually any good or not. America’s very different—it seems to be more hopeful.”

But isn’t that part of the deal? That the melancholic, repressed twistedness that your music has fed off can’t be separated from the bitterness, envy, and narrow-mindedness?

“Yes and that’s where the dichotomy lies. This band is caught up in its own history and that’s what makes us what we are. Yet there’s that desire to reach a kind of spiritual state and shed your skin and go on to another plane . . .”

Isn’t this where you end up following in Morrissey’s steps, some­one who also celebrates the mundane and the desperate in British-ness and yet tries to transcend it?

“I don’t think he’s expressed any desire to escape it,” replies Brett quickly. “After fifteen years in the music business there’s been no development in his intention, and I intend to develop. He’s found his niche and seems content within it. That’s fair enough; that’s the way he feels. I don’t want to come across like that. We want to do different things, and even over the space of the last two albums, I think we’ve made quite giant leaps.”

Brett seems rather keen to put some distance between himself and Moz. Maybe this is because he was mocked by the Glum One himself for his hero worship of Bowie and Morrissey. (Morrissey reportedly said, “His reference points are so close together that there’s no space in between.”)

But talking of “giant leaps” actually encourages the comparisons. The world gasped at the recent discovery that Morrissey liked a game of footie and now I can exclusively reveal that Brett was good at sport at school.

“Sport was the only thing I did. I held the record for the 800 metres at my school, Oat Hall Comprehensive, for five years,” he says in a studiously casual way, obviously enjoying the turbulence this fact creates in the wake of his Prince of Fey image. “They used to feed me a special high protein diet at school because I was the only one good at sport.”

Simon was not such a prized pupil. “I hated school for the first year but then I became a punk and got respect—perhaps because I was the only one in Stratford. I wasn’t any good at sport but I was very good at forging my mum’s handwriting on the off-games chits.”

Just before the end of the interview I ask Brett about his relation­ship with pigs. References to things porcine abound in his work, including the track “We Are the Pigs” on the new album. What do porkers mean to him?

“I don’t know really,” he says looking away with a half-smile on his face. “The cover of Animals by Pink Floyd is probably one of my favourite images in the world. It’s a metaphor for sexuality and brutality, stuff like that.”

I suppose that pigs are very . . .

“Human.”

Yes . . .

“And pink.”

Absolutely. And in touch with their bodily functions.

“Yes. They’re supposed to smell but they don’t.”

And so the truth is out at last: Brett’s thing for pigs and pig culture is not so much exploitation as identification.

Download It’s a Queer World

And probably my favourite Suede track, from ‘Coming Up’, 1996:

No, it’s this one!

Metrosexual Daddy Mark Simpson interviewed by Elise Moore

English author and journalist Mark Simpson on love-hating the metrosexual, why bromance lacks balls, and why women are strapping on Captain Kirk.

By Elise Moore (Suite 101, May 6, 2010)

If you could copyright neologisms, Mark Simpson would be a billionaire. Since you can’t, the British gay/gender issues and pop/culture commentator talked to Suite101 about the real definition of metrosexuality and gave his views on gay marriage legalization, slash fic, bromance, and more.

The Metrosexual Past and Present

Being responsible for the metrosexual could keep less hearty souls awake at night. But Mark thinks the guilt should be shared. “Probably consumerism, post-feminism, Men’s Health magazine and Jersey Shore should shoulder at least some of the responsibility for the normalization of male vanity. I mean, the fact the President of the US now makes the Free World wait every morning for him to finish his work-out, and is something of his own First Lady, isn’t entirely down to me.

“Like most people, I have a love-hate relationship with the metrosexual. I love it when he pays me attention, and hate it when he’s flirting with someone else. Then I call him ‘self-obsessed’.”

Speaking of love-hating the metrosexual, Jerry Lewis arguably made the first metrosexual movie, The Nutty Professor, in 1963. “The Nutty Professor is a remarkable film,” Mark agrees. “It’s a kind of proto-metrosexual sci-fi. Geeky, unkempt, invisible and unlaid, Lewis concocts a potion that makes him the centre of attention and irresistible – by boosting his narcissism to monstrous levels. It’s Viagra and Biotherme Homme for Men in one product – decades before either were invented.”

Metrosexuality and Consumerism

“Metrosexuality has lots of antecedents of course: the virile degeneracy of Brando, Dean and Elvis in the 1950s, Jagger ‘s petulant narcissism in the 60s, Bowie’s glittering glamness in the 1970s, the mirrored male world of Saturday Night Fever and American Gigolo – and the military gay porn aesthetic of Top Gun. But they didn’t coalesce into the mainstream, High Street, off-the-peg phenomenon of mediated, commodified, love-me-or-love-me masculinity known as metrosexuality until the late Eighties, early Nineties.”

This close correlation between the metrosexual and increasing consumerism is what gets Mark annoyed when he’s confused with the late 19th century dandy. “As if we can pretend that the sexual and aesthetic division of labour of the Nineteenth and most of the Twentieth Century didn’t happen. As if Oscar Wilde – perhaps the most famous and in many ways the last dandy – hadn’t been destroyed by Victorian morality for his ‘gross indecency’. As if male narcissism and sensuality hadn’t been associated with male homosexuality – and thus criminalised and pathologised – for the next hundred years.

“And as if a dandy would have done anything so vulgar as go to the gym and get sweaty.”

Manlove for Ladies and Bros

Mark is also up for equal-opportunity equal opportunity when it comes to women who like the idea of man-on-man, as exemplified by the fan fiction phenomenon known as “slash fic.” “I’m fascinated and sometimes a little scared by the way that women interpret and fantasize male-on-male sex. Manlove for ladies is very different to gay porn. For starters, it uses imagination. Gay porn never does that. Slash-fic also tends to have a lot of feelings. Which always, always cause loss of wood in gay porn.

“Sometimes it seems as if women are trying, rather fabulously, to escape their prescribed feminine subjectivity by projecting themselves into the bodies of their male protagonists. Captain Kirk as the ultimate strap-on.”

Is “manlove for ladies,” as Mark calls it, comparable in any way to the new neologism in town, “bromance”? “Manlove for the ladies has much more in the way of… balls than ‘bromance’. As the name ‘bromance’ suggests, actual sex, or in fact anything physical, would be a form of incest. It seems like it’s being left to women to put men in touch with their bi-curiousness. Which is as everyone knows – but pretends not to – even more common than the female variety.”

The Greatest Iconoclast

If the views expressed above haven’t made it clear, Mark has upset a few people in his career, not least other, more “orthodox” gay commentators. But who out of his infatuations and inspirations would he deem the greatest iconoclast – Camille Paglia, Lady Gaga, Morrissey, Jerry Lewis? “I would probably have to pick Gore Vidal. He took on everything that is sacred in America: Machismo. Empire. The Kennedys. The Cold War. Hollywood. Monotheism and Monosexuality. What’s more his hilarious late 1960s transsexual novel ‘Myra Breckenridge’ figured out what was happening to masculinity and femininity before I was out of short trousers and long before the Twenty First Century got underway.

“Come to think of it, I should probably clast Mr. Vidal for leaving so little for the rest of us to smash.”

Future of Metrosexuality

Now that the 21st century is unavoidably underway, what does the new millennium hold for the metrosexual?

“A big, scented candle. And even more product.”

 


There’s Something About Henry

A friend has just drawn my attention to this teasing ‘Letter to David Beckham’ by Mr Rollins recorded a couple of years ago, warning Becks when he moves to LA to play for LA Galaxy he’s not going to be so special: the town is already full of ‘metrosexuals… with crunchy hair and distressed jeans and absolutely glowing skin’.  And warning him that he’s not going to sell soccer to American kids because they when they see a soccer game they think ‘soccer… gay!’

It’s funny, and perhaps given Beckham’s Stateside fortunes today also on the money, but the funniest part of it is perhaps not entirely intentional.  When Rollins talks about ‘us metrosexuals’ the gag, like the image of Henry primping his crew cut under a salon hairdryer, seems to be that no one could be less metro than thick-necked, bulldog-voiced, tattooed Henry.  But I’m not so sure.  There’s something intensely narcissistic about Henry, it’s part of his star quality – and his pumped, buzz-cut masculinity does look self-conscious and a little accessorised.  (And I should know about accessorizing such things.)

What’s more, like many metros Henry’s sexuality has been the subject of rumours and innuendo for years, something which he has often complained about – though he himself seems to be here making joshing innuendo about Beckham’s sexuality himself.  Maybe the rumours are so persistent because he’s outspokenly pro-gay rights (only a gay could care about the gays so much, the ‘reasoning’ perhaps goes), he’s middle-aged and unmarried, and quite a few gay – and straight – men fancy him.  Or maybe it’s because he does look a bit ‘gay’ in that slightly cartoonish, slightly over-drawn, over-inked butch way.

For what it’s worth, I’m more than happy to accept that Henry the person isn’t homo, but Henry the persona does have a certain queerness about him that just won’t quit, which is an important part of what makes him intriguing to the public.  This is what I was trying to get at, I think, in the brief interview below that Rollins gave me in his modest-sized hotel room during the London leg of his 1998 Spoken Word Tour.

Tip: Topak

Henry Rollins interviewed by Mark Simpson

(Attitude magazine, September 1998)

Henry Rollins is not gay. Okay? Can we get that straightened out right now?  The ex Black Flag front-man, stand-up comic, author, actor, weightlifter and leading exponent of penitentiary chic á la Robert De Niro in Cape Fear, may come across like the American Mishima, but he’s into chicks.  Though not that much.

‘There was this rumour going round,’ says Henry in his oddly articulate jock/jarhead/jeffstryker way. ‘Fucking MTV called me up and asked me if I’d like to come out on some show of theirs. ‘So I’m gay, huh? I think I’d remember some guy fucking me up the ass!’ The thing that bummed me out about it is that when you have the ‘he’s gay’ fiction spread around the media about you it’s only to slander you. Everyone is like, ‘That guy, he’s a fucking fag!’. But for me being gay is just such a non event. You are into what you’re into. End of story.’

Why do you suppose people think you’re homo?

I asked my gay friends why people thought I was gay, and they said, ‘You’re 37 and in shape. You are thoroughly focussed. You have a great ass.’

Maybe the rumours have something to do with the fact that you don’t have a girlfriend?

Well, yeah. That’s possible. I don’t want a girlfriend because I don’t want to have to call someone every day. The only thing I miss on tour is my bar. I got a precision engineered York powerlifting bar; I miss that fucker because it feels so good! I’ve had enough girls in my time, but I’ve slowed up lately. I’d rather jack off than get into something shallow. But I think the problem is that I don’t make a song and dance about the women I do fuck. I don’t go out on the town with them on my arm. I go to the bookstore.

That’s faggy.

Yeah, ‘He must be a fag—he’s literary!’

On the other hand, you are ‘gay’ in the sense that you’ve built yourself your own masculinity.

Is that a gay thing?

Not specifically. But characteristically.

Yeah, you do get some gay guys who are like hyper-masculine. Look at that guy in leather! Hell, that’s two guys in one man! He’s really getting his point across. When I was in high school I was very skinny. It was a Vietnam Vet that got me into weightlifting. It was the first time in my life when I achieved something: I put on 15 pounds of muscle mass. In life you’ve got to have a bit of the ‘Come on motherfuckers! I got something for your ass!’ mentality.

Tell me about it. Do you get offers from men?

Oh yeah. Sure. All the time. And I go, ‘Well, that’s cool, but I’m not from that bolt of cloth,’ and they go ‘Really? I thought you were.’ And I go, no, no I wouldn’t kid you about that. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Not even maybe just this once?’ ‘Nah, really I don’t want to go there.’ One guy hit me with a really great proposition. He said, ‘Well, close your eyes and you really can’t tell the difference. And I’d do it a lot better than any chick you’ve been with.’ ‘Well, since you’ve got a cock I bet you would.’ But you know, it’s just not my scene.

Your look, the tattoos—have you done time?

Nah. But other convicts… other convicts!—convicts come up to me. One man I’ll never forget. Nebraska, 1988. Old school prison tattoos. Guy walks by and goes, ‘Brother!’ ‘Scuse me?’ ‘Soledad, ’85 Right!’ ‘Er, no.’ ‘Chino?’ ‘No.’ ‘Hell, I’ve done time with you somewhere…’ [in a nerdy bookworm voice:] ‘Well, no sir, actually not’.

How do you think you’d fare in prison? Do you think you’d be some motherfucker’s bitch?

I don’t know man. You’re looking at me about eight pounds underweight, usually I’m 200, but I can’t get the lifts because I’m touring so much, I think that kind of keeps me out of little bitch mode, I’m not anybody’s idea of a piece of chicken, and as far as fighting goes, I know a little bit about that. But in prison, I’d probably be fucking terrified man.

But hasn’t your whole life been a kind of preparation for prison? No family life, no time off—all that lifting weights…

Well, other people tell me where to go because I want to go there, I let them structure it for me. But yeah, I see what you’re saying. I went to a military school for seven years and that had a big impact on me. My dad was also ex-military. My Dad would say stuff like, ‘Fall-out for McDonalds’. Fall-out for your fucking Happy Meal. Shit like that gets to you after a while.

A shrink would say that you have a very punishing super-ego.

(Rollins shrugs his large shoulders)

What I mean is, it sounds as if a part of you is always watching over yourself, policing you –always demanding better.

Oh, that’s true. A lot of my work is result orientated. I’m always trying to do a better show, a better CD, a better book. I have to grade myself nightly. I come off the stage and I often kick myself….

I’ve heard that you were recently ‘watched over’ by someone else.

Oh yeah well, {acting out the scene very loudly} this guy is standing next to me just staring at my dick, and I’m thinking, this is cool, I can deal with this, and my bladder’s fucking bursting but I can’t go, man! I said to myself, Watch me take a leak with this guy watching me and me not give a fuck. But this guy totally took me. He won. Maybe he was some kind of urine comptroller. Fucking crazy shit, man.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2009

Gore Vidal Turns Off The Lights on the American Dream

GoreVidalVanVechten1

Mark Simpson speaks to the mother of Myra Breckinridge, and scourge of imperialism, monotheism – and monosexuality

(Arena Hommes Plus, Summer 2009)

I”m hearing the last living Great American Man of Letters. He says something else I don’t hear and I ask him to repeat it. Suddenly this 83 year old legend is very loud and very scary indeed: ‘IS “QUIET” A EUPHEMISM FOR DEAD?!’ he thunders in a voice much more Biblical than his old foe the late Charlton Heston was ever able to muster. But then, Mr Vidal is amongst other things, an Old Testament prophet – albeit a Godless, ‘pinko’ one with a very mischievous sense of humour.

***

‘I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess.’ So announces the opening sentence of the 1968 sensational best-seller Myra Breckinridge about a hilarious, devastating, but always elegant transsexual, by the hilarious, devastating, but always elegant Gore Vidal. Myra, a (slightly psychotic) devotee of High Hollywood, hell-bent on revenging herself on American machismo, continues her manifesto:

‘Clad only in garter belt and one dress shield I held off the entire elite of the Trobriand Islanders, a race who possess no words for ‘why’ or ‘because. Wielding a stone axe, I broke the arms, the limbs, the balls of their finest warriors, my beauty blinding them, as it does all men, unmanning them in the way that King Kong was reduced to a mere simian whimper by beauteous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter profile if the key light is no more than five feet high during the close shot.’

From the right angle, and in the right light of hindsight, Gore Vidal resembles his most famous offspring. Clad only in his wit – and an armour-plated ego – Mr Vidal has, during his long and prolific career as a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, (failed) politician, commentator, movie special guest-star, (gleeful) gadfly, and America’s (highly unauthorised) biographer, taken on The Land of the Free’s finest literary and political warriors, who had no word for ‘why’ or ‘because’, but plenty for ‘faggot’ and ‘pinko’.

Vidal broke the balls – and outlasted – tiresomely macho brawlers like Norman Mailer: he compared The Prisoner of Sex to ‘three days of menstrual flow”. Later, when he was knocked to the ground by Mailer, he retorted, still on the floor: ‘Words fail Norman Mailer yet again’.

And also right wing bruisers like William F. Buckley Jnr., whom he famously provoked into threatening him and shouting ‘you queer!’ on live national TV in 1968. ‘RIP WFB – In Hell’ was Gore’s very Christian obituary notice last year. Like that other thorn in the side of America, Castro, Vidal has survived almost all his foes.

In his spare time, piercing, pointed Gore has taken on the Cold War, the American Empire, what he calls the ‘Republican-Democrat’ Party, monotheism, and, even more sacred to America (and, for that matter, the UK), monosexuality. He himself has had relationships with both men and women (and what women! He was briefly engaged to Joanne Woodward). He maintains, like the incurable blasphemer he is, that ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ are adjectives not nouns, acts not identities. Most recently, his impressively unnecessary punking of the venerable, extravagantly charming BBC presenter David Dimbleby on live TV on Election Night – ‘I DON’T KNOW WHO YOU ARE!’ he barked in his best Lady Bracknell –  has become an unlikely YouTube hit.

As he once said: ‘Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.’ Or was that Myra? Either way, Mr Vidal is more of a man than many of his adversaries sadly mistook themselves for – and, perhaps, more woman than any of them could ever hope to possess.

Maybe that’s why, twenty years ago when I was a callow youth, I sent Mr Vidal a fan letter. I also included, as you do, a topless shot: back then, I had Hollywood tits. And who better to appreciate them than Gore Vidal, MGM’s last contract writer? Fortunately for both of us, response was there none.

I put my tits away, and took to writing. But I was probably still writing fan notes to Vidal, even when I scribbled, as I did from time to time, nasty, Oedipal things about him. Re-reading Myra Breckinridge I can see that too much of my own work is just footnotes to this forty-year-old novel which more or less invented metrosexuality decades before the word was coined, strapped it on and rammed it where the sun don’t shine. (Described at the time on the dust-jacket as a ‘novel of far-out sexuality’ it now seems, well, all the way in).

But now I’m actually speaking to Mr Vidal. I feel like Michael J Fox in Back to the Future where he meets his teen mother at High School (save my ‘mother’ is generally agreed to be no pussycat). Am I going to disappear into an embarrassing time-paradox? ‘Please forgive my nervousness,’ I stutter. ‘I’m a Big Fan – though I suppose those words probably strike terror into your heart…’.

Without missing a beat comes the laconic reply, in that measured, unmistakable voice: ‘They clearly strike terror into yours.’

Later, I hand him another line when I gush, not entirely baselessly: ‘To someone like me, you almost seem like the embodiment of the Twentieth Century!’

‘On arthritic days I know I’m the Twentieth Century’.

Mr Vidal is speaking today from his American home of the last forty years in the Hollywood Hills. Vidal in the Hollywood Hills makes sense – it is an LA Eyrie; a place where his back is covered and from which he can spy people coming a long way off. His fortress-like house in Ravello, Italy, which he recently sold, was perched atop rocky cliffs, reached only by a steep, dizzying pathway. But Vidal says he chose the Hills because they weren’t vulgar. ‘Unlike other parts of LA, like Beverly Hills or Bel Air, when I bought this house forty years ago, it did not attract the super rich, wherever they live they build these huge houses. You don’t have many of those up here in the hills.’

‘Do you survey Los Angeles from your window?’

‘Heavens, no! There’s no sight uglier than Los Angeles!’

‘But at night it can be very beautiful.’

‘Well, almost anywhere can be beautiful at night!’

‘True. Even a refinery town like Middlesbrough, which just happens to be down the road from my own somewhat less glamorous home in the UK. The opening aerial shot of a future, infernal Los Angeles in Blade Runner were supposedly inspired by Middlesbrough at night – the director Ridley Scott grew up round there.’

‘Yes, Ridley Scott used to hire my house. I think also during the making of that film. I used to hire it out a lot – mostly to Brits.’

‘You’re regarded very fondly on these shores.’

‘It’s reciprocated,’ he says, almost warmly. ‘The books were read in the UK at the same time as they were in America. Although more easily for the English since, unlike the New York Times, the London Times was not dedicated to attacking me.’

The New York Times, taking ladylike fright at the matter-of-fact way Vidal’s second novel ‘The City and the Pillar’ dealt with same-sex love in the US Army during the Second World War (Vidal enlisted at the age 17), had an attack of the vapours and banned Gore’s next five novels. No minor snub this, since the NYT even more so then than today could make or break you as a writer.

Perhaps the NYT was so shocked because this distasteful dissident was a product of the very heart of the East Coast Elite. A cuckoo in a feathered nest. Born in October 3, 1924 at the US Military Academy in Westpoint, his father an aeronautics pioneer and airline tycoon (founding what would become TWA and Eastern Airlines), his grandfather was Thomas P. Gore, the most powerful Senator of the age – and also blind – his mother was an actress and socialite (and a mean drunk). He was christened Eugene Luther Vidal Jr. by the headmaster of St. Albans preparatory school, a school for the DC elite which he was to attend. He later took the name ‘Gore’ in honour of his grandfather (a leading Isolationist – whose outlook Vidal has remained faithful to), whom he spent much of his childhood reading to, and mixing with the most powerful figures in the most powerful country in the world – just before it was about to become the world.

I’d like to think that Vidal was almost a kind of internal émigré from the East Coast when he arrived in LA in the early 50s as a scriptwriter for MGM. ‘Not really,’ he demurs, ‘I was back and forth between the East and West Coast. I was one of the founders of live drama on television. I must have done a hundred plays during ’54 to ’57. After the New York Times banned me I had to make a living, and there it was: I never wanted to be a playwright but I found out I was one. Theatre work kept me going for many years.’

A number of his plays were made into movies, including The Best Man (1960), starring Henry Fonda as an idealistic Presidential Candidate faced with one who will do anything to win. It includes a prophetic speech: ‘One day there will be a Jewish President and then a black President. And when all the minorities are heard from we’ll do something for the downtrodden majority of this country: the ladies.’ I mention to Vidal it’s being re-released on DVD.

‘Oh, they never tell me,’ he sighs, ‘and I never receive any money from it – it just happens. I mean now I think the rights probably belong to a group of Martian businessmen.’ (Possibly a bitter reference to another play of his, Visit to a Small Planet, made into a movie starring Jerry Lewis in 1960, in which a delinquent Martian visits Earth – the play’s sharp satire of the Washington elite and 1950s American values disappeared in the film version.)

It’s a busy Oscar Weekend in LA, but will Mr Vidal be attending any of the events? ‘I’ve been invited to the Vanity Fair Oscar Party but I don’t think I’ll be going along. I haven’t been to the Oscars for years. I really don’t have much interest any more.’

‘Whatever happened’, I ask, ‘to the uplifting propaganda for the American Way of Life that Hollywood used to produce?’

‘Well, there are no longer studios to generate that kind of euphoria,’ he replies glumly. ‘Money is all powerful these days, and calls all the shots – in Hollywood and pretty much everything else in American life. We watched That Hamilton Woman last night, as it was called in America, the 1941 Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton biopic. It really was a spectacular movie, they certainly don’t make them like that anymore. It was the first time that Vivien Leigh and Olivier had appeared together, which caused enormous excitement. London was being bombed and they were making this movie in Hollywood! With Alexander Korda directing and producing. A superb romantic film and great acting. God…!’ He trails off in an unguarded reverie.

High Hollywood, the period that Vidal grew up with, visiting the movie theatre almost daily, almost religiously, is one of the few things that he could be accused of being sentimental about. In Screening History (1992) he wrote: ‘It occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies.’ In Myra Breckinridge, the heroine declares: ‘…in the decade between 1935 and 1945, no irrelevant film was made in the United States. During those years, the entire range of human (which is to say, American) legend was put on film, and any profound study of those extraordinary works is bound to make crystal-clear the human condition.’

No one could seriously accuse most contemporary Hollywood output of being amenable to ‘profound study’. High Hollywood was about money too of course, but movies back then often seemed to be the most aesthetic medium imaginable: fashion, art, glamour. How was that?

‘The early moguls liked art,’ explains Vidal. ‘Like Adolph Zuckor who founded Paramount. He cast Sarah Bernhardt, the famous French actress, in Queen Elizabeth, his first feature film. Zuckor aspired to the highest standards of theatre. Then of course Hollywood became very successful and money became all anyone was really interested in.’

‘Remember, movies are movies. It’s better to do them out here where there’s plenty of light without going broke over the electricity. Mind you, the reason that Warner Brothers films were often the best movies made in the 1930s was because they looked so dark – the chiaroscuro quality of WB films was priceless. Bette Davies in The Letter was a great one- from the opening gloomy, brooding shot. How did Warner do it? Well it was because the Brothers Warner were very, very cheap! They’d go around from soundstage to soundstage turning the lights down, so halfway through the day every scene was in darkness!’

‘It was said that a British actor, a little on the pompous side came over here for some loot. Addressing some of the old timer American actors he asked: “Isn’t it difficult living in a society so unrooted and uprooted, without tradition of any kind?” One of them answered: “Why the Warner Brothers Christmas layoffs are one of our greatest traditions!”‘ Vidal laughs scornfully.

Vidal is himself a frequent visitor to the UK, ‘When I was younger I always made a point to visit Saville Row Whenever in London – though the last time was 30 years ago.’

‘How long does a Saville suit last?’

‘Forever! I don’t believe in fashion. I have no time for it. Versace once told me I looked a state and sent some of his staff to visit me in Ravello and make a suit. And very nice suits they were too. But it isn’t something I take an interest in.’

Vidal may claim not to believe in fashion, but in Myra Breckinridge he proved a profound observer of male fashion trends, predicting in effect the Twenty First Century: ‘…young men [today] compensate by playing at being men, wearing cowboy clothes, boots, black leather, attempting through clothes (what an age for the fetishist!) to impersonate the kind of man our society claims to admire but swiftly puts down should he attempt to be anything more than an illusionist, playing a part.’

But when I suggest this to him, bringing up his most famous, most prophetic book, he just says quickly, ‘I should read it again.’ Making it quite clear that he doesn’t wish to discuss it. Perhaps the eccentric 1970 film version starring Raquel Welch left a bad taste in his mouth – it certainly left one in the critics’ mouths.

I ask him when he was last in the UK. ‘Just the other week. I had the great joy of addressing the House of Commons in Westminster’s Great Hall courtesy of Third World Solidarity to talk about the matter of Cuba and the United States. It was the venom of the Kennedy brothers who were out to destroy Castro because he didn’t want to be killed by them. Or invaded. Or taken over. And his revolution erased. The vanity of that family!’

Vidal’s vigorous attacks on liberal icons the Kennedys – whom he knew personally – for their warmongering are always value for money, exploding as they do the soft-focus mythology of Camelot. Vidal was one of the few people in American public life to dare to denounce the Cold War as an American invention to keep the politically and economically profitable US war machine turning over after the Second World War ceased trading. ‘The thing about Jack was that he actually believed all that anti-communist propaganda – the previous Presidents didn’t.’ (To which could be added: George W. Bush had much in common with Kennedy’s messianic zeal and frothy talk of ‘freedom’ – he just didn’t have the good fortune to be assassinated in his first term.)

Vidal was vehemently attacked for his outspokenness about the Cold War and particularly for talking and writing about something that was as clear as day: the American Empire. ‘”How dare you!” people shouted,’ recalls Vidal. ‘”We’re not an Empire! We stand for freedom!”‘

‘Recently pretty much everyone has started talking about the “American Empire”,’ I observe.

‘Well, when we started down the Roman Imperial, dynastic way with the Bush family,’ says Vidal wearily, ‘it became quite clear it was all wrong whatever it was. Remember, we didn’t break away from England, we broke away from the King. That’s what the Declaration of Independence is all about. Thomas Jefferson’s brilliant propaganda united the colonists against George III.’

‘We’re the original Evil Empire.’

‘Well, you certainly were then.’

‘Alas, our empire fell . . .’

‘Well, you ran out of money.’

‘Yes. As the US seems to be doing now. Are you surprised by the speeded-up schedule of Imperial implosion?’

‘I was surprised by the speed at which we lost the Republic, and lost Magna Carta during the Bush Dictatorship.’

‘But you see liberal icon Roosevelt as the first American Emperor – decreeing there should be no Empires, save his.’

‘I’ll tell you a story. Roosevelt was having lunch with Churchill. The Second World War was drawing to a close. They toasted the end of the war. Then Roosevelt gave Churchill a radiant smile, and said [here Vidal imitates Roosevelt’s high Patrician voice: he is a great, savage mimic], ‘You realize you’re going to have to give up your precious India, don’t you?’ [imitating Churchill’s jowly tones] “Never!” And they had a quarrel over the lunch table. Many people who happened to be there spread it around. Roosevelt not only won the argument, it was force majeure. Roosevelt said, ‘The days of Empire are over, and I trust you realize this.”‘

‘Churchill said: “What do you want me to do? Get on my hind legs like your little dog Fala, and beg?” Roosevelt said simply: “Yes.” Don’t tempt an Emperor!’

‘Most people in the UK seem not to have realised the real nature of the ‘special relationship’ we have had with the US since 1940.’

‘Why should they? their lives go on anyway…’.

Vidal is a keen historian, but that most dangerous kind: an autodidact. ‘I didn’t go to Harvard,’ he once boasted. ‘I just sent my work there.’ Unlike most historians, Vidal has actually had met most of the key players. Or perhaps the other way around – as he has put it himself elsewhere: ‘People always say: “You got to meet everyone.” They always put that sentence the wrong way around. I mean, why not put it the right way, that these people got to meet me, and wanted to? Otherwise it sounds like I spent my life hustling around trying to meet people: “Oh, look, there’s the governor!”‘ Wouldn’t you want to meet Gore Vidal if you were Jack Kennedy or William Burroughs? Although he is an incorrigible name-dropper, it’s probably because his world has been so filled with names that not to drop them would be the pretentious thing to do.

‘I used to know Nancy Astor,’ he says, launching into a five star anecdote sparked by our discussion of Britain’s rather unlikely Imperial past. ‘And I asked her about her famous trip to the Soviet with Bernard Shaw. “Well, I was just lookin’ out that train window” – she had a Virginia accent – “I was watchin’ the whole world go by. And it was pathetic – he kept readin’ one of his own books!”

In Moscow Stalin was in charming mode, embracing them, one in each arm. He listened to Shaw go on for a while, then pointed to a map of the world on the wall of his Kremlin office and he asked, “How is it that this little island in the North Sea has ended up with all this??” And he pointed to all the pink on the map. ‘”Can you explain that to me Mr. Shaw?” Shaw declined to respond. And so he turned to Lady Astor. “Well, ahh think it is becaauuse it was we first who gave the world the King James Version of the Bible.” I asked her, “What did Stalin say to that?” “He didn’t say anythin’.” On the way out, Lady Astor asked, “Mr Stalin, when you gonna stop killin’ people?”

“Oh, Lady Astor,’ replied Stalin, looking directly at her. “The undesirable classes do not kill themselves.”‘

‘Now,’ says Vidal, ‘that’s a nice story where everybody’s in character!’

My audience with the Twentieth Century is winding down. ‘Do you think,’ I ask, looking for silver linings and sunny endings, ‘the latest Emperor, Barack Obama, can rescue the American Imperium?’

‘The US is a very racist country,’ responds Vidal sorrowfully. ‘He will probably be assassinated. Then Martial Law will be declared. The contingency plans are already in place, I’m sure.’ Like the Brother’s Warner, he’s switching off the lights.

‘Do you think the American Dream can be revived?’

‘No. There was never anything to it. It was always fraudulent.’ Off goes another light.

‘LA was once the city of the future – does it still have one?’

‘No. It’s run out of gas.’ And another bulb dies. We’re now in darkness. Bette Davis had more light in that opening shot in The Letter.

‘Do you think America can survive without the kind of brilliant dreams and illusions Hollywood used to manufacture – or without an Empire on which the sun never sets?’

‘Of course we can,’ he retorts. ‘We’ll just get on with our lives like everyone else.’ And a little no-frills night-light comes on.

All things considered, it was probably for the best that I didn’t mention the topless fan letter I’d sent all those years ago to Gore, glorious Grinch of the Hollywood Hills.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2012

Special thanks to Steven Zeeland and DAKrolak

I See Dead People: Bruce LaBruce’s Otto

Mark Simpson chats gaily to Bruce LaBruce about the death instinct (The Advocate, Nov 2008)

‘He’s 18. He’s cute. He’s dead.’

What’s not to like about a film with a tagline like that, whose credits include ‘Lascivious Ballet Dancer #9′, ‘Orgy Zombie #5′ and ‘Yummy Boy eating Ice Cream Cone’?

The credit for ‘Director’, of course, could only be ‘Bruce LaBruce’. Otto; Or, Up With Dead People, a gay zombie movie with a beating if not actually bleeding heart, is the cult Canadian filmmaker’s latest outrageous offering. After assaulting us with Red Army Faction sex terrorism in The Raspberry Reich (2004), and queer neo-Nazi skinheads in Skinflick (2000), LaBruce outdoes himself in Otto, gnawing at our entrails with the affecting story of a sensitive young zombie looking not so much for flesh as for soul in our deathly, post-porn, Crime Sheen, Nip Fuck culture. Instead our undead pretty protagonist finds himself trapped in a film within a film, starring in an agit-prop doc directed by an impressively bossy German lesbian film director determined to put the world to rights – or at least give it a good spanking.

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Mark Simpson: I think congratulations are in order Mr LaBruce. This may be your best work yet. It’s certainly your most romantic. Funny that it should be a film about flesh-eating, gore-humping zombies that brings that out in you…

Bruce LaBruce: Well, I think if you examine my oeuvre Mr Simpson you will find that I’ve always had a strong romantic streak. But because I often deal with slightly outré subject matter-neo-Nazi skinheads, pornography, amputees, would-be terrorists-people sometimes have a hard time seeing it. But actually, characters who are disenfranchised, ugly, or marginal often have a strong sense of the romantic: it’s all they have. Otto is so sensitive to the cruelty of the modern, corporate-controlled world that he has literally deadened himself to it. There’s something very tragic and romantic about that. Medea Yarn, the stylish lesbian filmmaker who makes a documentary about him, romanticises death as a way of coping with the injustices of life.

MS: True, you’ve always been an incurable-adorable romantic, but OTTO really wears its half-eaten heart on its sleeve. By the way, the footage of mechanised death and carpet bombing projected behind Medea as she lectures us about death being the new pornography was totally hot. Where do I find some more of that?

BLB: Just turn on your TV. I looked through a lot of stock footage and it really did strike me how the media packages war and disaster footage as entertainment. And if I see one more poster of Angelina Jolie, our supposed Earth Mother, with her emaciated body and huge breasts, holding some over-sized, phallic automatic weapon, I think I’ll turn into a zombie and start feeding on road-kill!

MS: Bon appétit! I worry slightly though that your devastating satirical critique of deathly gay porn may be crediting it with too much eroticism. A while ago, praying in front of the computer one-handedly as all men do these days, I found myself thinking: this is like watching someone have their appendix out, but less fun.

BLB: Porn has become very anatomical and, shall we say, forensic! You could probably market Savanna Samson’s colonoscopy video as porn these days. On ‘tasteful’ prime-time things are more necrophile: the dead body has become the site of voyeuristic fascination: people are obsessed with TV shows that display all the minutiae of murder, medical procedures, pathology examinations, autopsies – with a creepy, sly sexual component. At least my heroine, Medea Yarn, is upfront about her romantic and erotic attraction to death.

MS: She’s upfront all right. Speaking of voyeuristic fascination, I found the zombie sex scenes in the abandoned fairground most poignant. Part time-lapse nature photography, part social documentary, they reminded me of my misspent youth on Hampstead Heath.

BLB: Or our other fearless champion of public sex, George Michael! Like I always say, if you’ve ever cruised a park at night, or a public toilet or bathhouse, it really is like Night of the Living Dead! There’s something exciting about that somnambulistic state you go into when cruising for sex: the anonymous and interchangeable body parts. But there’s something a little sad and melancholy about it too-the loneliness and desperation.

MS: Yes, and that’s the best part. Can I just say, in case anyone unaccountably suspects me of only being interested in boys’ bits, that Katharina Klewinghaus, who plays the fabulously strident Medea and Susanne Sachsse, who plays her silent film-star girlfriend Hella Bent, give unmissable performances .

BLB: Thanks! I think Medea and Hella are one of the great cinematic lesbian couples, if I do say so myself.

MS: They are. But then, I think you’re one of the great lesbian directors.

BLB: Ha! I like to think of myself as an honorary lesbian! I’m really against the segregation of gays and lesbians so I try to be inclusive. But I do love the Lesbos. I even directed a short film last year, called Give Piece of Ass a Chance about a group of lesbian terrorists who kidnap a munitions heiress and ‘turn’ her. There is an extended cunnilingus scene in it that had gay boys either cheering along with the lesbians or running for the exits!

MS: I think you may have turned me too. I fell hopelessly in love with Hella. Presenting her as a full-time silent film starlet, mute and ghostly in split-screen black and white, emoting to camera and communicating only via flash cards – while Medea rants on in full colour – was pure genius. Is she a comment on ‘silent’ lesbian partners?

BLB: Ha! I never thought of that! The silent lesbian partner! I like it! She’s like Alice B. Toklas to Medea’s Gertrude Stein! Maya Deren was a major inspiration-she was a great avant-garde American director whose films were all silent. It also made sense to me that Medea, totally devoted to cinema, would see even her own girlfriend as a film genre!

MS: She’s my girlfriend now. I want to see a whole movie starring Hella. I insist you start filming immediately.

BLB: That’s funny, because my husband, to whom the movie is dedicated, also thinks Hella steals the movie. I have a big soft-spot for Otto as well, though. As an alienated, hypersensitive gay youth who shuts himself off from a violent and homophobic world, he represents how I felt as a teenager. I cast eighteen-year-old Jey Crisfar as Otto because I could tell from his MySpace page that he had that damaged, almost neutral quality of modern youth.

MS: Sensitive gay youth? Aren’t they drowned at birth these days? How are they going to become snappy style gurus or bitchy gossip columnists if they’re sensitive? Let alone perpetually-lubed fuck-machines. Which reminds me, do you ever use a casting coffin?

BLB: The casting coffin! It’s going to be all the rage! Especially since I predict there’s going to be an explosion of zombie porn in the near future. No, I never pursue the talent, because it’s just too messy and it leads to lots of drama which I’m not really into.

MS: I’m sure that will disappoint a lot of wannabe Bruce LaBruce movie stars. Why do you think that modern youth have that damaged, almost eviscerated quality? Do you see it in yourself at all?

BLB: I think we live in very dark and cynical times. Corporate entities control our lives and a militarized police force clamps down on any protest or dissent, while advanced capitalism, with all its technological diversions, endlessly distracts children from what’s really going on in the world. I think we all suffer from it but today’s youth really have never known any other, more autonomous reality.

MS: I know this sounds a little harsh, but I think they’re sociopathic – all of them. But then, if you’ve grown up in a world of email, texting, infinite online identities, and endless, limitless porn, it would be kind of crazy to actually be one coherent conscientious person. It would certainly cut down your dating options. By the way, I love the punchline the slutty German skinhead delivers to Otto after zombie sex, his entrails hanging out, blood and gore smeared on his bedroom walls: ‘Zat vas amazing! Can I see you again sometime?’

BLB: Anyone who has been involved in the extremes of sex in the gay world recognises that there are few limits. That is one thing that really still separates the men from the boys, and the gay world from the straight world. Like any extremes of experience, you have to learn how to balance that pursuit with your general well-being, to balance the pleasure principle with the reality principle. It’s a simple rule for kids to remember!

MS: Is it something you’ve managed to achieve in your own life, Bruce?

BLB: It’s a constant struggle! As I get older I find it harder to allow the pleasure principal to be as free-wheeling. But I don’t want to be ‘mature’ – I think you can still be a rabble-rouser when you get older. I look to the example of people like William Burroughs or Edward Albee.

MS: No wonder you’re a mess! I can talk though: I don’t seem to be able to get a handle on pleasure or reality. But hang on, you mentioned earlier that this film is dedicated to your husband. That sounds like Bruce settling down!

BLB: I don’t like to talk about it much, but my husband is Cuban and, although we are very much a couple and have been for some time, I married him mostly because otherwise he might not be able to stay in Canada. Of course, I’m ideologically opposed to gay marriage, but I don’t allow ideology to get in the way of practicalities. Besides, I like to contradict myself at least twice a day. Having said that, we were married at City Hall in front of a about thirty friends, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house! I read the lyric of Gershwin’s Our Love Is Here To Stay, and the officiating Justice of the Peace, a spritely Irishman, read, of his own volition, from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass!

MS: I knew you’d gone all mushy inside, Bruce. But I think if I’d been there even I would have cried too – loud enough to wake the dead.

Mark Simpson Interviewed by Manchester Evening News

Email interview with Mark Simpson by Sarah Walters of Manchester Evening News (unedited version) pegged to his appearance as the bad fairy at this year’s Queer Up North Festival

SW: Sexuality has been part and parcel of your life and writings – how has reaction changed to the topic of sexuality since you started writing? Is there a culture of openness now, or still prudishness?

MS: Things have certainly changed. I doubt that the MEN of 20 years ago, would have interviewed me. If anything, it would have organised a campaign against my visit. Frankly, I wouldn’t have blamed them.

To some extent, homosexuality was dirty and sniggersome back then because sex was. Homosex is, symbolically speaking, sex for sex’s sake – not for Mothercare’s or the Pope’s. This of course is why the pop music kids listened to in the 80s was full of queerness: Soft Cell, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and that band called The Smiths.

Nowadays, everything has gone pop – especially Manchester – and sex is everywhere. Except perhaps in sex itself. I sometimes wonder whether, in a world full of broadband porn – and that’s just the TV schedules – whether there’s any point in actually having sex any more. Unless you’re doing it in front of a webcam or in the Big Brother House.

Queerness ain’t so queer any more. Maybe that’s why some of today’s favourite TV queers such as Graham Norton, tend to be reassuringly penis-less creatures from the 1970s.

But then, penised homosexuality can be very scary. And I should know.

Young people seem increasingly more open-minded about discovering and challenging their sexuality. Is being bi-/metro-sexual the new black?

It certainly looks like the future is ‘bi-curious’ and ‘open-minded’. Or at least that’s what it says on its online profile.

I mean, what is ‘straight’ nowadays? Sex outside marriage and Biblically-sanctified orifices has become almost compulsory.

For QUN, you’re taking part in the big Debate on May 10, which is always a huge draw – last year was a sell out. What are the hot topics in queer politics you’re expecting to field?

I’m afraid I’ve no idea what the hot topics in queer politics are. Hopefully I’ll be asked to comment on the new Gladiators’ abs and David Beckham’s Armani-wrapped lunch-box.

I understand that you’ll be taking a devil’s advocate line on the point/necessity of festivals like Queer Up North and speaking out ‘against’ them on May 24. Anti-gay debate (in particular against gay stereotypes) is something you’ve written about previously – what’s your beef with QUN?

Well, I don’t really have that much of a beef with QUN, especially since they’re putting me up in a boutique hotel for the weekend. And full marks to them for addressing this subject at all.

My argument is that with the queering of the mainstream, there really isn’t such a thing as ‘queer culture’ any more. Once upon a time, young queers would have to run away from Darlington to the queer metropoli of Manchester or London if they wanted some ‘queer culture’ – or just to be able to come out without losing their front teeth. This is clearly no longer necessarily the case. Many can come out at home without being made homeless, watch soaps with gay storylines – like Shameless – and log-on to look for love or sex. Or go to ‘gay night’ at the local nitespot. Queer culture was largely a product of queer communities. Queer assimilation and crossover means that those communities are increasingly obsolete.

Has Manchester as a city played a particular role in promoting (or, perhaps distorting) gay culture and liberalising opinions about sexuality?

I don’t think there’s a city anywhere that’s done more to queer the world than Manchester. Home of Coronation Street, Take That, Queer As Folk, Man U’s metrosexual ‘Spice Boys’, Shameless and The Smiths. Thanks to Manchester, it’s not just queer up north anymore.

Manchester itself seems to have been transformed from the desolate post-industrial landscape I knew in 1983 when I lived here briefly, to a city fit for hairdressers. And today’s footballers.

Queer Eye of the Straight Gal

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Mark Simpson meets Julie Burchill and feels her gums.

The North Rises Again: interview with Mark E Smith

Mark Simpson meets The Fall’s legendary front-man who has some deep-fried career advice for the Arctic Monkeys and the Kaiser Chiefs

(Arena Hommes Plus, Summer 2006)

“’Avin’ been around the world I reckon we’re very lucky,” says Mark E Smith, pop genius and (usually) loveable curmudgeon in a moment of uncharacteristic optimism. “They don’t realise what they’ve got, English people.” And what have we got? “Well,” he stalls, eyeing me and sensing a trap, “you don’t know until it’s gone do you, Mark!”

Mark E Smith, is 49 years old this year. It’s part of the mythology of the man who put ‘front’ in ‘frontman’, the lead-ranter for the longest-serving pre-post-punk band The Fall, that he looks much older than his years.  Maybe it’s because those heady days when pop and art and literature and, well, everything worth caring about seemed to intersect, and everything seemed possible, especially after a line of dodgy speed and a can of Special Brew, now seem much further away than they actually are.

Due to an odd trick of the 21st Century light, the late Seventies, when The Fall was founded after Mark E Smith and most of the English working class was laid off at Salford Docks, is now much, much further away than, say, the early Sixties.

Or maybe it’s just because he’s generally reckoned to have consumed enough sulphate and Special Brew to give ICI indigestion. “A tooth fell out this morning, at 2am,” he tells me with a grin, “I thought that’s fookin’ typical! Just before I’m due to meet the press!”. He orders a pint of lager and a whiskey and lights up, eyes narrowing in the smoke.

It’s clear that Mr Smith has had, ahem, a few late nights, and isn’t going to make the cover of Mens Health any time soon but to me he looks younger than his years. No, honestly. Maybe it’s a trick of the iconic light on this Sunday afternoon in this postmodern Manchester hotel, or maybe it’s because he doesn’t care about his looks in the way you’re required by EU edict these days, but the man behind 25 studio albums and 24 live albums looks as scampish and defiant as ever. A slightly shop-worn Kes with a merciless Mancunian motor-mouth.

How does he feel being an icon? “It don’t bother me” he says with a shrug. “Though, being a Smith I prefer not to be noticed and to just get on with it.”

Smith’s style is anything but anonymous. Lyrically, he’s a cross between William Burroughs, Philip Larkin and Ena Sharples. Above all else, he is distinctively, eccentrically English. In the true sense of the word. That’s to say northern.

“London’s sealing itself off with its prices and its attitudes,” he moans.  “London is fookin’ surreal. It’s like: ‘You can’t come in here!’ And what is London, that collection of villages, for? Fook all. Compare it to cities like Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester, great cities which changed the world. I don’t wanna get too northern here…”

Please do….

“After 11 o’clock you still can’t get a pint!” He grins. “But we can’t say this Mark coz this is going in a London-based magazine!”

Albert Camus, who penned the novel Smith named his band after, described a rebel as: ‘A man who says “no”’. Smith has turned ‘no’ literally into an art-form – always placing himself apart from the latest trend, the latest bleating herd-instinct; it’s made him a lot poorer and a lot less celebrated. But it has also made him a hero. One of the last.

He isn’t impressed by the current renaissance of Northern English pop, even those bands which owe rather a lot to The Fall. “I think that the Kaiser Chiefs and Artic Monkeys should open a chain of chip shops in North Yorkshire”, he says, only half joking. “I think the East Germans had it right, actually. Every group used to have to have a permit. Until they came up with anything culturally relevant, like a classical composition. I think they should bring them in here. I should start a musical Stasi. If you can’t play in fookin time, then fook off back to the factory.”

What have the English got? Mark E Smith, that’s what.

Let’s hope this is one thing they appreciate before it’s gone.

© Mark Simpson 2006

Copyright © 1994 - 2017 Mark Simpson All Rights Reserved.