© t thaemlitz/comatonse recordings
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In Bi ...the way, Spring 2000, No. 20.
Like a lot of queer people, I struggled with my sexual identity as a teenager. I knew I felt an attraction toward men, but I had no role models and no guides to help me understand what I was feeling. I never even said the word "bisexual" until I was in college, spending my teen years assuming I was straight but confused and uncomfortable with what I felt that no straight guy I knew had ever admitted to. One figure in my world stood alone as an inspiration for me: Gary Numan.
I had missed David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust-led glam era by several years; I was part of a newer generation of bis. Heralding the dawn of the 80s a full year early, Gary Numan was the trailblazing leader of the New Romantic scene that became the soundtrack of my life. Obliquely, he gave voice to the feelings I was carrying; his lyrics were ambiguously directed to both men and women and his gender was equally ambivalent. He was the first of the New Wave of men to adorn himself in make-up, lipstick and nail polish, though he had also decked himself out in full leather. His songs had even described him as a prostitute, variously to women and to men. Driven by electronics, alienated in sound and in lyrics, his own alien-ness reflected the odds I was at in my own environment. One sense of alienation his music carried for me personally: I always secretly assumed Numan was straight.
Though he's been name-checked as an influence by numerous artists in the current vanguard of alternative music, I'm still constantly frustrated by responses from others of "Gary who?" I feel stymied at explaining what he's meant to me as a queer man.
Now, someone has expressed it better than I ever could.
Terre Thaemlitz is a maverick on the frontiers of musical expression. He has been described by Numan as a "noted piano maestro and celebrated drag queen." An experimenter in electronic music and a dj centered on the west coast, he operates his own record label, Comatonse Recordings. He is also a thoughtful essayist, writing texts to accompany his own albums. Having previously issued a tribute album to German electronic music pioneers, Kraftwerk, titled Die Roboter Rubato, Terre Thaemlitz in 1999 released an album of pure piano renditions of songs by Gary Numan, entitled Replicas Rubato.
The album title is a play on a Numan album of 1979, Replicas. The cover for Replicas Rubato also plays on that same original, showcasing the same layout, only featuring Thaemlitz in resplendent drag. The songs covered on the tribute are taken from albums spanning several years of Numan's early career.
The piano renditions Terre Thaemlitz has created are, to a numanoid's ears, heart-breakingly lovely, full of improvisation and imagination but always returning to the themes of the songs themselves. They are recorded without any singing, and so translate more universally; here the voice of the piano speaks for itself, full of mood and feeling, from the unquestionable prettiness of "Dream of Siam" through the lush elegance of "Cry the Clock Said" to the final sadness of "Please Push No More." Like Numan's own recordings, these renditions are somber, even sorrowful, but nonetheless stirring and evocative. With the gentle echo that is present throughout-the sustain seemingly left ever open-the album can be quite haunting, taken as a whole.
What brings this tribute most vividly to life, however, is the accompanying essay that Thaemlitz has included here, in which he discusses what Numan's music has meant to him as a queer person. Of particular note to bisexuals, Thaemlitz rejects the constraints of labels and identities, preferring to treat of behaviors and contexts, never copping to a single sexual orientation for himself nor assigning one to Numan's persona, never even adopting a gender for himself as he writes-I refer to him as "him" not un-self-consciously. Thaemlitz revels in the ambiguities of Numan's lyrics, delighting in how they defy convention and open the full possibility of human sexuality. Woven in throughout, Thaemlitz ties the question of sexuality inextricably into the question of it means to be human.
The narrative complements the the album beautifully. Just as in his renditions he begins from the original song structures and strays from them into new textures and arrangements, so with his interpretations of Numan's lyrical content does he begin with the lyrics themselves and extrapolate from them and draw connections between them, always returning again to the original words. His writing and his playing tie together in another way, as well, in that both demand attention to follow the rigorous, thoughtful paths they travel. Thaemlitz does not pander to his audience; he has put consideration into this tribute, and he expects us to be able to keep up with him.
I adore this album, as I do Gary Numan's music. This music touches me in a deeply personal way, one that I cannot describe with justice, and yet at the same time communicates in a language transcendant and immediately understandable. I would recommend Replicas Rubato to anyone- to any lover of piano music or to any queer person with an open mind and an interest in exploring queer context in art.
At the end of the album, after a long silence, when the final notes of the last listed track have trailed away, Thaemlitz has included an extra recording, "Down In the Park." This is Numan's confessed favorite among his own songs, and, presented here as a coda to this album, Thaemlitz appears to have reproduced his own piano reinterpretation from earlier on the album, note for note, only this second time played on a quite electronic sounding synthesizer. With this sign-off Thaemlitz brings his tribute back to its source, as though saying, "All this beauty and wonder comes from music once described as cold and dehumanized," expressing, in a purely musical way, the paradox that is Gary Numan.