Monday, May 24, 2021

It's Not Too Much to Say the World Changed that Day

Gay Day, 2021: in memory of John-Fredrick Williams

The meanings of holidays, as often as not made dysmorphic over time by social change and the random happenstance of Fate, almost always undergo a metamorphosis. After 52 years the insurrection which marked the Stonewall Uprising in June 1969 may seem to the growing majority of people today who either weren’t born until after that date or weren’t old enough to understand it, to be a kind of mythic tale - a myth uninformed by recent well-meaning attempts to expand our understanding of sexualities as veritably incalculable. But those who were aware of the uprising when it happened could feel in that contemptuously homophobic era the potential threat of its killing bite. An ad hoc posse of gay men and lesbians in the Stonewall Bar on Christopher Street rose up against the police who, as was their periodic wont, raided the bar because that’s what you did with gay bars back then – true, may also not entirely incidentally have justified it because like nearly all gay bars it was run by the Mafia. But mostly the brute push in it was homophobia, the kind of easy hate thought to be a normal response to any, but especially this, Godforsaken homosexual perversity.

It’s not too much to say that the world changed that day. Its significance was given public form in 1970 with the first gay liberation march, embarked upon with trepidation: most expected they’d be excoriated verbally or worse. But it turns out they weren’t. What began as about 200 people in Christopher Street became thousands of people once the parade reached Central Park.

New York City was ready for this. The world was, too. Indeed, the city and much of the world had already through the mid to late 60s undergone a moral and political sea change: Viet Nam, the “sexual revolution,” the proliferation of psychedelic drugs, the deaths of two Kennedys, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. All of this, and, again, an undisguised sexual revolution: the pill made sex democratic between heterosexual women and men; overnight, as it seemed, great realms of morality had shifted. Our notions of gender were starting to soften. But there was also a different more concerted power in the push for the liberation of whole ranges of human variety, African Americans, women, Latinos, Asians and by 1969 and 1970 gay men and lesbians. I was born in 1951, which meant I was 18 in 1969, and although I was off to college in Vermont, I continually returned to New York City in that first stretch of time, and moved into it for keeps in 1975. The city always promised and delivered to me something brutally, gorgeously, alluringly alive. At this stage (ages 16 through 23) my life amounted overall to an extraordinary if often harrowing thrill. The giant mass of my generation marked a new human condition, and therefore a very new moment in social history. Never had so many people rethought so completely and freely who they might be, could be, would be. This liberty to re-invent yourself was a very strange psychic condition. In the sway and the roll of it, you can’t always find your center of gravity, or your heart or mind.

Zoom 50 years later to the Pride Parade, by this time a global celebration, not least because it marked the 50-year anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Then think back last year to the utter vacancy of 2020, the first year the gay parade was canceled. And think, if you will, of the potent tangles and cessations of life through the imposed prison of the pandemic, the evictions from hotels that had housed them of so many mentally ill people who now roamed and still roam the streets, howling at the sky. And think, if I might ask you to think now, of my dear friend John-Fredrick Williams who died back in March, not of covid, but of a heart attack, physically deriving from his having been born with a weak heart (unthinkably, he was born with congestive heart failure).

John-Fredrick Williams 1980s

John-Fredrick evinced all of the conditions of life I have just touched on – from delicacy to uproar. There were times he was homeless, there were times he was a powerful political activist in Act Up and Occupy Wall Street, there were times he would sing in the streets with a dear much-loved friend of his – he was very musical and very brilliant. He wrote reams of poetry, he was as often as not to be seen walking around in a kind of flowered frock worn over, depending on how cold it was, jeans or pulled-up socks and hiking boots. His hair was always a surprise: usually long, and dyed in unsuspected colors. He had small intense eyes – indeed a power of intensity I don’t think I’ve seen the like of in anyone else. John-Fredrick and I met through the AOL chat rooms, sort of zapping odd clever strange phrases at each other, afraid to meet. But eventually we did meet. And we managed a kind of sex, rough and sweet and made up on the spot. We never – and I wonder generally if John-Frederick with anyone quite ever – found a completely habitable space to share. But he may have come somewhat closer to that with me than with most. I don’t know. Like Quentin Crisp, his friends were met mostly one-on-one – and I suspect he was marvelously attuned to each of those friends, when they didn’t piss the hell out of him, which was frequently. He was no stranger to pleasures and pains of extreme varieties. He felt very close to me. He paid a tight attention to my poetry and my singing and my writing and my art. He was one of those people who love with such an utter completeness that you truly don’t know how to respond – except to accept it. He got into you like a serum; you would be affected by him forever. The bracelet you see me wearing here is one he gave me. I don’t know its provenance. I’m not given to wearing jewelry. But I suspect I’ll wear this for the rest of my life.

John-Frederick Williams 2020

What does John-Fredrick have to do with this history of gay liberation? He is central to it. He IS it. He lived a kind of aimed and passionate and irresponsible and deeply affectionate life. He was the human being in some ways we all ought to have looked up to for guidance. But he’s gone now. And there are few people, I think, who will remember him, beyond the handful who, like me, couldn’t bear to forget him. He has no family left. In this way, dare I say, he is us. He is every gay man and woman. He is the human spirit so tremblingly organically constituted that if you could make real contact with him, you would know so very much more about being alive. Few of us will be remembered. Eventually none of us will be. But none of us doesn’t harbor a miracle. I think that’s what John-Fredrick would want me to convey as his message. Suck dick, fuck butt, kiss ass, laugh like a maniac, cry out of love, rail out of hate, be the whole business of you, tenderly, roughly, and share it at least once with someone else. He shared himself with me. And some very lucky others. And he remains for me perhaps the most striking example of the Believably Liberated Gay Homo Sapiens, which is to say the Freest Human Spirit, the incarnate goal, I think probably exactly as Christ was and was meant to have been, of Divinity become mud and ash, a frail detritus of life, as delicate a breath of nothing at the end as he was a clarion call to singing at the top of his lungs at the beginning. Celebrate this time in June of the liberation of Eros with someone like him in mind. We’ll all go like he went. Unrecollected, in some ways unspent, but touched by a god’s fire. None of us is exempt from anything. Including the glory of having to some degree lived unashamedly as who we are.


Guy Kettelhack is the author and co-author of over 25 nonfiction books, including several on gay topics: e.g., DANCING AROUND THE VOLCANO, EASING THE ACHE, THE WIT & WISDOM OF QUENTIN CRISP & VASTLY MORE THAN THAT. He fled the Long Island suburbs where he was born and grew up, and then climbed up and four years later out of the mountains of Vermont after a requisite sojourn at Middlebury College, to make a life in New York City - which he always knew would be, and has proven over 50 years to remain, the city of his heart. You see him here displaying the aforementioned inscrutable bracelet John-Frederick Williams gave him.


Sunday, April 18, 2021

Finding a Rhyme for Linda


Finding a Rhyme for Linda


My mind, last night, like a cat, came to paw

and to knead – interceding to show its affection

it hoped this time might make me draw

when I woke, overcoming whatever objection


that seemed to run through me in streams

faintly tainted with slightly unhappy confusion

which kept me from seeing the innermost beams

of the sun that would open to one sweet effusion


I’d longed to inspire me – wishing for Linda

to come to the fore and to open my door to the joy

that she couldn’t not bring. I felt a soft wind a

mercurial shifty small poltergeist blew to deploy


a strategic solution to finding a rhyme for her name.

He cheated (stuck wind-a to Linda) but lent me

a dream filled like clouds with soft faces – a frame

of some graces of human reflection – which sent me


to pick up my pencils and markers and faith

to apply to some paper: Linda’s wisdom runs quiet

and sweet through the thing, like a sly smiling wraith

of her humor. Of which you’d heard more than a rumor


from me in the panoply of all the souls she delights.

Whom do these faces depict? You got me, honey.

I asked around which got all my ghosts into fights.

One said he might tell me, if I had the money.


But money I lack. And Linda is far more

than funny, to this Kettelhack.

She is dimensions of Kind, Wise & Smart.

And I give her my heart. And I won’t take it back.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Two Songs with a Poem In-Between, in memory of John-Frederick Williams

 please watch & listen to the video.


1. “The Sweetest Sounds”


2. A Stripped-to-the-Skin Singularity


In Mourning for John-Frederick Williams


Which was your truest New York?

Was she utterly like, or utterly not

likd her clamorous claims to fame?

What was your newest New York?


Does one have to become certifiably

something requiring rehab to prove

that one cannot imagine inhabiting

anywhere else on the planet but here -


in her gut, breasts and testicles, penis,

vagina and sinuses - all of her vast

and celestial variety, emptiness, fullness

and grief, thereby finally in a position


to earn a satiety all of her lovers must learn

she can lend in a breath - sending each

of us harrowingly and hilariously

into what, after all, we discover is death?


She was a bitch, and she’s a bitch still.

She’ll randomly keep you alive, or kill.

But she burst your strife into glorious life:

And you burn more brightly than I ever will.


This is a poem I posted probably too hastily during the last day or two of John-Frederick’s life, knowing he’d be gone soon, but wanting to write it in time possibly to read it to him while he was still breathing, albeit in a coma, in his Mt. Sinai hospital room up on west 114th Street. But I didn’t read it: I don’t think I had the balls to read it to him. His partner was there and I didn’t want to disturb him, which was probably silly because his partner had to have been as tough as John-Frederick was, so he would have borne whatever piddle-paddle I had to say. But I still didn’t read it aloud there. And I always read my poems aloud to John-Frederick; he was such an enthusiastic audience. He thought I was much better a poet than I ever would esteem myself. But the fun of it arose from his perfect understanding of what I was doing. Which was basically being funny, or trying to be. Or at least having fun. He knew all the pulse points – his, mine, and those of everything living. I won’t go on about him now because it’s still too early and I don’t know what to say.

I did however know what to sing, this afternoon. Or any rate convinced myself I knew, this afternoon, why I wanted to sing “The Sweetest Sounds”, which opens this cobbled-together business, and “Softly, as I leave you” which will close it. Karaoke background shamelessly exploited. “Sweetest Sounds” is a charming song written for “No Strings” – music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers: it’s lovely to experience him as both melodist and lyricist. It’s among his best songs. A little thing with a capacious heart. “Softly as I leave you” was written by Tony DaVita (music) with lyrics in Italian by Giorgio Calabrese, translated into English by Hal Shaper. “Sweetest Sounds” is about a life not yet lived, but hoped for; “Softly, as I Leave You” tackles a striking notion, that these are the thoughts of a man dying who wants to spare the love of his life the pain of having to watch him fade from life into death. It’s an extraordinary premise, and it gets into my brain almost virally. It asks us to be this dying human being, and to feel as our last conscious experience in the last breath of our mind the whole giving miracle of loving. I think they’re extraordinary songs, and they came to me this afternoon as the only means I could imagine of saying what still seems to me this moment between life and death is for me – not just because of John-Frederick’s death, not just because of more than a year of feeling half-buried in this Covid Era of Erasure, not just because I will become 70 years old in about three weeks, but because I apparently need sounds and words and behaviors to manage at least for a moment the unorderable, the unfathomable, the unforgiving obstinacy of Existence, with its complete refusal to tell us why. Why what? Why anything.


3. “Softly, as I Leave you.”


Thursday, April 1, 2021

Actuality, an Hypothesis (Existentialism 101)

As possibly a blanket defense, or biologically as the first faint dimmings of the onset in me of Alzheimer’s (with or from which my father and his mother died), no memory of anything in my past stands out in any sharp detail. The stories I’ve told and repeated to myself about signal moments in my life are what recur, but nothing with the clout of the initial substance of a moment - vivid smells, colors, faces, places - all of that is sort of what my memory has turned into hearsay. Frankly that’s true of whatever it was that happened to me this morning walking to and back from Rite Aid where I picked up a prescription and stopped in at my Chinese takeout place to pick up lunch. It’s a sort of hazy view, no real sense of immediacy. I’m only ever sure I’m in ‘reality’ in the instant I’m in. The tapping of my index finger on the iPhone keyboard is actual because I can see and hear it (my fingernail, though trimmed, still makes contact with the screen and audibly clicks). But when I stop doing it its reality will become hypothetical almost. I’ve never expressed this instant swallowing of the actual with quite this clarity before. It’s not exactly a surprise - I can’t imagine anyone not knowing through his or her experience what I’m saying - it provides an angle of perception which seems to me almost designed to tamp down memory so that it doesn’t interfere with the immediate impact of actuality. But the forgettingness of things also seems to me so self-protectively defensive. And one of its casualties, for me, is to becloud any memory of anything. It becomes harder to believe in actuality if our experience of it can’t be entirely recollected. How do we know that anything actually happened? Or that anything remembered isn’t just a story we made up to provide evidence that corroborates what we want to believe happened? I know this is Existentialism 101 but it bites me anyway.

Attached are pics of what caught my attention en route to, from & in Rite Aid. It would be churlish of me not to accept them as things actually perceived. So I’ll coast on the sleigh that says they are such a thing.

Monday, February 22, 2021

A Foregone Duty


A Foregone Duty


Apoplectic anorectic -

biometrically unsound -

New York City, once electric:

has it run its power aground?


Or has it always played

this trick of seeming sick -

doomed by fate to fade?

Oblivious to slow or quick,


when or then, again, before - it

knows what it is, it’s more.

How could horny New York quit

its favorite role as whore?


But it’s mother more to moods

than sin. Outer and inner -

to New York they’re foods

of the feast. Loser and winner -


fall on it, savor its beauty's

perfection, its chaotic loss

beyond measure. Its duty’s

foregone: it’s the boss.


Tuesday, February 2, 2021


 I shall rashly suggest (in the wake of finishing this in the early pre-dawn of a blizzardy February) that this may be my best work yet. By which I mean, I had a helluva good time entertaining it, that is, allowing it to entertain me. The video recitation, which is part of what I like to think makes this fly e'en through the snow, is, in fact, done in whispers - though stage whispers of the kind that should be audible. Do expect to kick up the volume, though, if it's annoyingly too soft.






By the time she’d trotted powerfully out to plant her ass

flat on the floor close to the safety of the southwest corner

blissfully to suck up through a giant straw inside a giant glass


half half-and-half, half cold sweet coffee – oh, to warn her

not to drink too much, whatever it might be! – is all you

wished to do and would have done had you been nearer.


But now, from her sly knowing eye you somehow also knew,

with not unwelcome certainty, it could not have been clearer

that you’d merely caught her in the act of drinking iced sweet


mellowed half of this and half of that: no more. Your view

had changed and oddly prospered from this cul-de-sac: neat

trick! this heretofore unknown blessed invitation to pursue,


pursue, look into, voyage through, the unsuspected blithering

and blandishment and random glories in a heavy down-pour

of the rest. You look around: the sky and ground are slithering


into another circumstance, a dancing fanciful romance: much

grandeur now arrives - more heads, which with yours number

ten. Six are yellow, three evince pink greenish-nesses such


as might be bound in and surrounded by fluidities of slumber

that you’re subtly kindly pressed to entertain will not so much

decree your destiny as be it. All this folderol! At last you see it.



Wednesday, November 11, 2020

What I Guess I Came to Say

 What I Guess I Came to Say

(the video is maybe worth seeing, mostly because of the light that dims at the end, exactly on cue, which it did entirely on its own recognizance.)
The practical reality of doing what I do
seemingly impracticably makes me climb
back into reinventing plans to mimic who
I think I was or what I did the last time
I believe I had succeeded: that’s a pain
with little prospect of a gain: “again”
is not a notion to rejoice in: but to feign
a former me, to re-ingest some madeleine
to re-inhabit memory - may be the best
maneuver I could conjure up to shoo in
inconceivable catastrophe, to fail the test
of being serviceably human, ergo ruin
the renewal of what had been an ability
I now had lost: to render calm accord
from those so rageful with malignant incivility,
no calm could now arrive except by sword.
But that would be uncivil and untoward.
Then, at last! I now recall their favorite condition.
“Hit the ground!” I yell as I move forward.
With great relief they do. They love submission.
One twists and turns and burns
to find a serviceable way.
I suppose that’s how one learns.
I guess it’s what I came to say.