Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Seeds And Stems Will Rend My Hems

Published in GCN, 15 March 1980. After writing this review I found a long article in Rolling Stone, from which I learned that "K. Levise" was Ryder's wife Kimberley. Ryder, born "William Levise, Jr." told the interviewer that the songs on How I Spent My Vacation were indeed born of his own experience, including a long-ago affair with politico John Sinclair of Detroit's White Panthers (and manager of the MC5) that inspired "The Jon." But, Ryder assured us, that was all in the past, though at article's end he invited the interviewer to accompany him to a gay bar -- just to hang out, of course. (That's how I remember it now, I haven't been able to track the article down.)

This 2004 Detroit Metro article has an impressive photo of Ryder in 1970. No wonder John Sinclair jumped his bones.

How I Spent My Vacation
Mitch Ryder
Seeds and Stems Records
SS 7801

This is not an album that inspires confidence at first glance. Nor does it warn the prospective buyer that its contents are - how shall I say it? - unusual. In the front cover painting a long-haired, mustachioed male in shades is snorting coke in the mountains while listening through headphones to a transistor radio. This is, the title informs, How I Spent My Vacation. On the back cover are the usual musicians' credits and photos (they look like the guy on the front), song titles, and a handwritten inset (liner notes?) that startles by its hostility: "Say sucker, Does this mean we start at the top/Does this needle in your eye ball feel good/...So screw ya!/I can't even get a good Cuban cigar - Willard."

I first saw How I Spent My Vacation in a used record store and passed it up despite Sixties nostalgia. Typical macho shit, I thought, nastier than usual though. Too much cocaine, I guess. Too bad...If Robert Christgau hadn't reviewed it in one of his Consumer Guides, I never would have reconsidered. "What he remembers best," wrote Christgau, "is sex with men." Mitch Ryder?!

Now that I have heard the album I can report that it still doesn't inspire confidence. It does inspire a wish to play it a lot, which I do. The music is quite competent: guitar-dominated, blues-derived rock 'n' roll, often catchy and danceable, and Ryder is indeed singing about buggery. Whether this means he's actually Doin' It, I have no idea. He did co-write the songs, sometimes with members of his band, sometimes with someone named K. Levise. Who is responsible for the lyrics is not specified. They are often pretty bad. Only once, as as I can tell ("Falling Forming"), are they addressed to a woman.

Whatever Ryder's sex life may be like, I think it's safe to say that he doesn't look on sex between men wholly positively. At times I even suspect that he is really a born-again Christian describing a descent into Hell as an indirect commercial for Jesus, partly because of the frequent religious references in the songs. How I Spent My Vacation is certainly not a commercial for homosexuality.

At first, though, that is what "Cherry Poppin" sounds like. Ryder seems to be exhorting young men to come into his arms, in terms that sometimes echo, sometimes almost parody, heterosexual cock-rock at its worst:

You will be first to feel this burst
of love and hate for Mommy
So dry your tears and dash your fears
roll over on your tummy

You are all men, you are a man
Now stop this shit, I swear to you again
Roll over a bit and left me stick it in
Nothin's queer, just the loss of fear

Cherry poppin', cherry poppin', love is grand
Cherry poppin', I hold it in my hand
Cherry poppin', poppa stick it unh
Cherry poppin', cherry poppin'

There's nothing resembling gay pride here. Rather we have the sort of arguments macho men have always used to rationalize a little friendly cornholing. Is Ryder satirizing this kind of attitude or endorsing it? I hear it either way at different times. The verses are so convoluted, changing attitudes from line to line, it is almost impossible to tell what is going on; but the chorus is simply celebration: "Cherry poppin', love is grand." The question is: Is sexual pleasure being celebrated, or is it power? Yet "Cherry Poppin'" is the closest thing to an upbeat gay song on the album.

"The Jon," a light jazzy shuffle, seems a reversal: the verse may be more positive than the chorus. And "Poster," which closes the album, sounds to me like a Doors retread. The lead guitar recalls Robbie Krieger's fluid style, and Ryder's voice recalls Jim Morrison's in his last sodden days. The lyrics are trendily decadent, apparently about a hustler: Strange Days meets City of Night.

This is certainly not the gay male rock 'n' roll I've been waiting for, though I've just about given up hope of ever getting that. Even Tom Robinson, whom I respect immensely, is at his best when he writes anthems like "Power in the Darkness"; when he writes non-political gay songs like "Crossin' Over the Road" (from TRB Two), the result is almost as ambivalent ("A dirty rat is what I am") as Ryder's songs. And Mitch Ryder makes much better, more exciting music than Robinson does.

And yet it must have taken courage to make this album. Ryder has been trying to make a comeback for a long time. I doubt How I Spent My Vacation will do it. There doesn't seem to be much of a market for rock 'n' roll among gay men, even (or especially) if it's overtly gay. Nor will this album enhance Ryder's following among straights, who would, it's true, rather hear bad things than good things about gays, but would much rather not hear anything about us at all. I suspect too that many straight men would find "Cherry Poppin'" a very threatening song. So I can't say that Ryder is pandering to bigotry, but I don't know what he thinks he is doing.

Coming out was not easy for me, and if (as I suspect) How I Spent My Vacation is largely autobiographical, I can sympathize with Ryder's evident conflict, if not his machismo. I'm glad he chose to write songs about what was happening to him and recorded them, considering how easy it would have been never to commit them to vinyl. That he did is reason for hope, and I hope and believe that this will prove to be a transitional album. Maybe in time Mitch Ryder will be able to give us, if not love songs, at least music which truly celebrates sex between men.

March 15, 1980