By Gregg Shapiro
Over the course of his first three albums, queer musician Scott Free demonstrated his musical versatility, making our heads spin with forays into punk, modern rock and hip-hop. But nothing could have prepared us for his masterwork, “The Pink Album (A Pop Opera).”
Venturing into new and potentially risky territory, including cabaret and pure pop, Free emerges unscathed and all the better for it. “The Pink Album” is a virtual mini-musical history of gay culture – from childhood to adulthood and from the mid-20th century to the present, touching on themes that will surely resonate with many listeners. The music video for the song “Free” spent seven weeks on Logo’s Click List, charting as high as number six.
Before his Sept. 19 performance as part of Bearapalooza at Diamond Jim’s Saloon in Detroit, Free chatted with Between The Lines about gay culture, addressing the AIDS crisis through his music and why “The Pink Album” feels like his last album – ever.
Your new disc, “The Pink Album,” is subtitled “a pop opera.” Did the concept come first or did the songs come first?
The idea for the “concept” album grew out of the song “Like A Girl,” which was literally written immediately after talking to an old friend about his horrible public school experience. Originally, the concept was just “growing up gay” songs, but I then extended it to living in the newly-formed gay community, through AIDS, and up to today. I decided to use the term “pop opera” because I wanted to make it clear this was not (an) autobiography – these are stories from many different sources.
In the liner notes for “The Pink Album,” you make reference to being asked, during a radio interview, why you are so angry. Was it an LGBT radio program or a mainstream program?
It was an LGBT program, and I won’t name names because it sounds like I’m being critical of them, and I happen to respect them greatly, but it was such a shock for me as an opening question. It is possible that it was generational – this person is much younger than I am, and was too young to feel the full impact of the AIDS crisis.
You address the religious persecution and oppression of LGBT people in the liner notes as well as in the song, “The Boy in the Last Pew.” At this point in time, would you say that you have an affiliation with any religious community?
No, I’m not religious at all, although I do tell my husband that I think angels are out there looking over me – I’ve had too good of a life (laughs). The song “The Boy in The Last Pew” isn’t any one particular person – it’s a “growing up in church” experience that I’ve heard from many of my friends. If you are young and you’ve already figured out that you are gay, and here the church is telling you that you are evil and going to hell, you can’t help but think of suicide. The church’s “teachings” are the equivalent of child abuse.
Religion also comes up in “Mom Dad I,” a song about coming out to parents. Do you think there will ever come a time when the sexuality of a child will not be an issue for a parent, whether or not they consider themselves to be religious?
“Mom Dad I” is one of the few songs on the CD that is totally me. I had planned and planned what I was going to say to my parents when I finally came out to them. And that was my biggest concern – what were their “church friends” going to think of them? Would they themselves think they had failed as parents? It horrified me. I actually have performed that song with my parents in the audience. And this is the first CD that I’ve given to my parents. My previous CDs always had raunchy punk songs on them, and I knew they couldn’t handle that (laughs). My mother just says that “Mom Dad I” is a very sad song; my dad doesn’t comment. It’s been a very long process for them, but they couldn’t be better now – my dad is a gay marriage advocate (laughs)!
We still have a long way to go as far as the general public’s understanding of sexuality (is concerned). Obviously, it’s the suppression of education that makes this issue continue from generation to generation. Maybe around the time of the first openly-gay president of the United States, we will be over it!
“The Pink Album” contains songs, including “Like A Girl” and “Equal,” that will be familiar to listeners who may have had the opportunity to hear you perform them live in acoustic guitar versions. But the big difference on “The Pink Album” is that the production and orchestration is on a whole different level, with an emphasis on piano and horns, for instance. What was it like to transform these songs for this disc?
“Equal” was the first song I recorded; I had finished it even before I had the idea for the pop opera. Luckily it fit right in (laughs). And production has been such an important part of my creative process; it’s as important to me as the song itself. It took me a year and a half to record this CD. I’m an insane perfectionist, and although I still think it’s not a perfect recording, I know that the reasons are more that I don’t have those ten-thousand dollar compressors and the like in my studio; I just have basic equipment.
The songs “Alone,” “Better” and “Two Great Dads” find you dabbling in cabaret, while the wordplay of “GRID,” can only be described as Sondheim-esque.
There’s no doubt, “GRID” is total Sondheim. I was well into the idea of pop opera when I wrote that song. And somehow “Alone” turned into French cabaret, which is so perfect for its lyric – a little over-dramatic (laughs)! “Alone” is also completely me; when I was about 15 years old, I had this concept of how my adult gay life would be – solitary, urban and promiscuous! But it was only until seeing the film “Celluloid Closet” years later that I understood where my ideas came from. It was the only way gays were portrayed in films of that period.
I had a hard time deciding whether to put “Better” on the CD or leave it off. A good friend tells me it’s the saddest song that he’s ever heard. It is hard to listen to. But I didn’t want to address AIDS only from the political side. I had to personalize it. I was with my ex-lover the last two weeks of his life. I dedicated the CD to him. “Better” is a synopsis of the last conversations I had with him. In the song “Death Toll,” he is the only true-named person; the rest of the names are changed or made up, although the stories are ones I was aware of at the time – dying on the Greyhound bus, throwing the body on the White House lawn. I do feel like I should have put a warning sticker on the CD – “contains honest language” (laughs).
I felt it was equally important to include songs about how far we’ve come, and how beautiful our lives can be. “Equal” is one of those songs, as is “Two Great Dads” – another “me” song (laughs)! I’m afraid I wouldn’t be much of a gay parent; I’d be way too busy being a kid with my kid (laughs)! Whenever we are at my husband’s family events, I spend all my time playing with the children. The big joke is that even though I’m white, and my husband is black, to them, I’m Uncle Scott and he is Uncle Scott’s friend (laughs)!
“Death Toll,” which has a roll-call quality that made me think of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” crossed with the reading of the names at a showing of the Names Project Quilt, is set to a dance-hall reggae beat. I was wondering, because of the ongoing homophobia and suggestion of anti-gay violence in reggae, if that was why you chose to set it in that musical framework.
The concept of the song from the beginning was a long list of names; I was trying to get across what it was like in the late 1980s – everyone you knew was dying. It was so horrifying that it’s hard to believe it today. And yes, I immediately thought of the Jim Carroll song. So I went back and listened to that song, because I didn’t want it to be too similar. It turns out that song used a standard blues riff, so basically I just made sure my song was as far away from that as possible – hence the modern world/dancehall beat.
Listening to “Act Up Fight Back” made me wonder why someone hadn’t transformed these chants of protest and empowerment into an anthem, in the way that you did, sooner.
I was struggling for so long on how to include ACT UP in this album; they were too important to our history to leave them out. I was trying to personalize it, but as I was doing my “web research,” I found a site that had put up recordings of ACT UP protests; I just took slogans from their entire history and strung them together. As I first started recording it, I knew I was on to something. I felt like I had invented the first literal protest song (laughs)! And yet, it’s pure musical theater!
“The Pink Album” closes with “My Generation,” which provides a sort of queer-eyed update to the classic Who song. In fact, the album as a whole, speaks with the voice of a generation, many of whom died too young and too soon. Was it your intention with this album, and with the three that preceded it, to be that voice?
I think that’s always been my goal – to be the voice of a generation, or at least a segment of a generation that has been completely ignored in popular music. I never had the exposure that a major label provides, which is obviously step number one in being the voice of a generation. But I’m OK with that. For many years now, my only goal has been to write the best songs I possibly can, the most honest songs that I possibly can. And I feel I’ve succeeded on this album – maybe for the very first time. I’m not saying that this is my final CD, but right now it feels like it, and if I never make another one, I feel like I’ve accomplished my goals. This was the CD that took a lifetime to make – the one that I believe I was meant to make.
8 p.m. Sept. 19
Diamond Jim’s Saloon
19650 W. Warren Ave., Detroit