Originally Posted on August 15, 2005
One Saturday night, about 1985 or so, I was driving home on the northbound Ventura Freeway near Los Angeles. It was a clear night and I had the radio blasting in my rented Thunderbird. I suddenly tuned to the new wave station and caught a cool tune from Joe Strummer of the Clash called “Trash City.” I remember this tune specifically, because the local video show featured his video the night before of this same song.
Why would I mention this? Well, they had this hot, woofy guy playing congas on this song. This big bear of a man was wailing on the skins while Joe Strummer was wailing on what’s left of his voice. The conguero wore a Kangol ascot-type hat and a thick beard. I mean, he was majorly woofy! I was ready to just have an accident…with the car.
As I found out, the conguero’s name is Poncho Sanchez. Unlike most of the percussionists in the Latin jazz field, he was born in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and played mostly in and around Los Angeles. I was immediately a fan; simply because of his playing…OK, his woofiness. When I started playing congas back in 1988, it was no accident that Poncho Sanchez would be an influence on my music.
Probably one of the common threads I have found in the bear community is that we love music. Music is an activity that most of us share from being folk and country singers that have recorded CD’s to members of the local gay choir or band. We’re also good instrumentalists playing everything from pianos and violins to guitars and drums.
And, certainly, we had our share of icons that we became fans of. Take a look at Luciano Pavarotti, the late Jerry Garcia, John Popper of Blues Traveler, Charlie Daniels, Barry White, B.B. King, Ed Toth of Vertical Horizon, Steve Harwell of Smash Mouth, Tenacious D and, of course, Barenaked Ladies. We can go on listing some of our musical icons, but we can clearly see that our love for music is an integral part of our subcultural identity.
As much as we end up asking ourselves “am I the only one who (fill in the blank),” we act surprised that there’s someone else who also shares the same exact passion for your musical interest or activity. Truth be told, never be surprised when a fellow bear, cub, chub or any gay person comes up to you and share something in common with you. We thrive on having people with common ground. It makes our community whole.
For example, guitarist Patrock of the Pansy Division was a part of the Gen-X Bears in San Francisco and connected with GXB’ers in various cities during their tours. Chris Xefos of King Missile has been a long-time DJ at the Lone Star in San Francisco. Canadian folk singer Andy Northrup is also very active in the chub-chaser community. There's also the multi-taltented and unbelievable Kendall. The list continues on.
Beside the point, musical bears are a special breed. Some of us have attended concerts of our local Gay Men's Chorus or the Gay and Lesbian Chorus. Even they sound great, there are always a couple of guys that our attention is drawn to. Oh yes, some of us know that we have quite the population in these community institutions, lending truth to the old code "singing in the choir.”
Mind you, not all of us sing Bass. I know bears that are First Tenors...even Irish Tenors. Some even sing a high screaming falsetto when doing Gladys Knight at karaoke! The last time I checked, neither of them was wearing tight underwear!
Then, there are our friends who perform in their local Gay and Lesbian Concert or Marching Band. For those of us who can't sing, we can play an instrument very well. Of course, we're talking everything from tubas to drums to clarinets.
All of this is leading to the fact that, indeed, we are quite musical, in every sense of the old British code for gay. Is it in our genes? I can't answer that, but I can make an interesting correlation to our past.
As we attended Middle School, we were most likely found in the school choir or band. For a good number of us, that continued to be manifested in high school, as we remained in Marching Band and never played a down in pads and a helmet. But, for the most part, possibly over half of our members past the age of 21 are still involved in music in one form or another.
This reminds me of a story: Back in the summer of 1991, I came from a "Men's Movement" mini-gathering in Sonoma County, CA and was influenced by Mickey Hart's book about how drumming can be a powerful tool for the soul. I just bought a second conga drum that last Christmas and brought it up to the symposium. As I was driving down Highway 116, I stopped the car short of US 101. I started crying. I got out, opened up the hatchback and took out my wine red LP Classic Conga and cried all over it. That's how I finally came to the realization that I have no choice but to become an openly gay man.
Indeed, music is always good for the soul!
I miss that drum. In fact, I miss drumming completely. I yearn for a new one with a new voice and soul. I should've listened to the people of the Cote d'Ivorie: "If you must choose between the drum and your mate, keep the drum! Your mate will always give your trouble!" Lesson failed twice, but I’ll have this learned yet!
So, for all of you musical bears and bear lovers out there, I salute you! As much as we talk about the music we listen to, what about the music we sing or play. We are a small minority in the general population, but a good chunk in our own world. Again, if they ever do find a gay gene, maybe they can identify what that gene represents. I'm sure it'll say that we're quite musical!
For now, I can only think of the magic I had when I was enchanted by the fat hands of Poncho Sanchez stroking the skins and making beautiful tumbaos on stage.