5 min

The new ‘motown

Queer rockers give Toronto the beats

Credit: Paula Wilson

Kelly Clipperton wonders if he could be so open about his sexuality on stage if he didn’t play such aggressive music.

“The medium of rock ‘n’ roll allows you to be whatever you want because people expect it to be so theatrical. I think if you wanted to dress up in drag and make these statements as a folk musician, you’d have a much harder time.”

But Clipperton – the leader of Toronto quartet Merkury Burn – also recognizes that right now is a particularly welcoming time for openly gay musicians. He believes that changes in music are paralleling an increasing acceptance in society of gay men and lesbians. He contrasts it to the music he listened to as a teenager and even to when he started his first band, My Dear Heretic, in 1994.

“When I started to enjoy music back when I was a teenager, there was Boy George, Annie Lennox and, of course, Madonna, who were playing with androgyny and starting to educate people about things. But nobody came right out and said they were gay. In Canada, you had Rough Trade. But even with songs like ‘High School Confidential,’ I don’t think Carole Pope was openly out. Now, of course, she’s got her whole autobiography out talking about all of her life.”

Clipperton says that today both the band – which is half gay and half straight – and the fans feel free to be themselves.

“Same-sex couples hold hands in Lee’s Palace, make out in the corners. We were playing this show in Halifax, it was a goth night, where some guy is yelling at me to take off my underwear and on the other side of the stage, this little goth girl is trying to go up [straight male guitarist] Jones’ skirt.”

But Clipperton says he still recognizes that not everywhere is as welcoming and he’s serious about the important part that he can play for young queers. “I don’t have a great urge to go to Sudbury right now, for example. But I’m happy to be performing as some sort of role model. These young queer kids, they’re so happy to see someone on stage who’s openly out and gay.”

So for his band’s second anniversary show on Fri, Oct 25, Clipperton has assembled a number of openly gay bands to cover Merkury Burn’s songs. Merkury Burn will then perform all-new material themselves. Among the bands involved are Toronto electronic dance favourites Brother Love Canal and Atomic Pussy (the new band of Suzy Richter, formerly of Claudia’s Cage and the Nancy Sinatras), which performs covers of old ’70s songs.

But Clipperton also hopes that music fans of all orientations will come to the show.

“I don’t want people to think of Merkury Burn as a gay band,” he says. “The only thing the band doesn’t want is to be a novelty act, like the Village People. We just play rock music and we just write songs. It’s not therapy, at least not about my sexuality. It’s probably therapy about other things.”

Steve Diguay of Brother Love Canal agrees that bands can’t pigeonhole themselves according to sexuality. He thinks that realization is one reason why gay bands are having some mainstream success.

“Gay artists are finally getting over themselves. It’s not about coming out all the time. I think we’re kind of letting go of the shackles. We’re less confined than we used to be.”

Diguay says his band has had great success with straight audiences. “Our first show ever was Toronto Pride ’98. The reception was great. But some of our best shows have been before straight crowds. The coldness we have gotten is because we play electronic music.

“We opened for a group called White Cowbell Oklahoma [a loose Toronto troupe who spoof southern stereotypes and play southern rock]. You can’t get more breeder than that – wet T-shirts, everything, it’s Breederfest. But I dressed up as a policeman like in the Village People and another band member put on pink Klan robes. We got a great reception.”

But at the same time Diguay admits that the name of his band alone can put some people off.

“You have to come to terms with the fact that people aren’t all going to like your message. When I go to my boxing club, people ask the name of your band. When you say Brother Love Canal, they look at you funny. Every time you talk about it, every time you advertise, you’re outing yourself.”

Richter, too, says some of the Nancy Sinatras’ best shows were before straight audiences. And, like Diguay, she attributes that in part to the camp factor occasioned by a group of women playing covers of songs by Nancy, Petula Clark and others.

“We were in costumes, so in one fell swoop, that defuses things. You had all these women up there in wigs. I have yet to put on a wig without looking like a drag queen. People couldn’t tell if I was a man or a woman. That’s also great.”

Richter says she was more worried about the reception Claudia’s Cage, which performed original material, would receive. But she says that one big advantage lesbian bands have is the amount of support they receive from dykes who come to the shows.

She says that lesbian musicians still require talent to succeed. “Why would anyone like a lesbian musician who’s a lousy musician?”

But Richter says that gay men often don’t offer that kind of support to gay bands. “There have been more dyke bands than gay male bands and there’s usually a huge contingent of dykes in the audience.”

She points to the steady flow of openly lesbian bands from the American northwest – bands like Sleater-Kinney, Tribe 8, Team Dresch, The Lookers, Sarah Dougher – as an example of the dominance of lesbian bands.

“How often do you see a very out, openly gay man on stage?”

But Diguay thinks that audiences, especially straight audiences, have evolved enough to accept anyone performing.

“Straight people are more open. My sister, with two kids, is very into the Indigo Girls. She knows they’re gay, but she really doesn’t care, she finds their songs inspirational. It used to be a big thing for an artist to come out, but since Elton John and George Michael came out, no-one cares anymore.”

Clipperton, too, thinks that openly gay musicians are here to stay. Unlike flirtations with bisexuality by artists like David Bowie in the ’70s or new wave artists in the ’80s, he doesn’t think this is a passing trend.

“I like to put as much faith as possible in humanity. Look at Motown. At the time people thought, ‘Those people are finally getting their chance, but it won’t last.’ I don’t think it’ll burn out, accepting gay artists. It’ll take time. Like when a kid comes out to their parents, it takes time for the parents to adjust.”

Richter also hopes that the acceptance we’re seeing today in society and music lasts. But she wonders whether that acceptance is a double-edged sword for queer performers.

“I certainly hope there’s no backlash. But it’s so exciting to have something to go up against. There’s always something intoxicating about rebellion. Being a gay musician is still exciting because there’s still enough resistance.

“Will there be something that’s lost when people say, ‘Oh, there’s that lesbian band on KISS-FM or whatever.’

“What’s going to be taboo next?”

* Merkury Burn also plays Buddies’ Halloween party, Inferno, on Sat, Oct 26.


$8. 10pm show.

Fri, Oct 25.

B-Side. 129 Peter St.

(416) 204-9660.