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Heaven on Earth: The Seminar

Photo by Ted Soqui

The upside to a hate-free millennium — you have to search tirelessly for an upside, but it’s there — is that hardly anyone is outwardly opposed to the thought. (Except the Reverend Fred Phelps, whose followers chant “GOD HATES FAGS.” Do gay activists remember to pay him?) The downside is that we’re all going to kill each other anyway with misguided love. One camp will save fornicators from hell, the other will save pregnant teens from the horrors of adoption counseling, one camp will censor blasphemous language and art . . . no, wait, that’s both camps. Spot fires of actual love will erupt, nowhere near the places love proclaims itself loudest to be, but enough people who start off loving will slide into self-righteousness to keep holy war raging for millennia to come. Love is like humility; when you assume you’re good at it, you’re not. This is as it should be.

On the other hand, we can dream, as Beatle John once urged — and on this cryogenic cue, in a dimmed conference room at the Simon Wiesenthal Center one recent Sunday, a few dozen teachers, pastors, counselors, parks directors, etc., from around the country sat meditating on the wan recorded trickle of Lennon’s voice (“Imagine no possessions . . .”). Other, equally quaint artifacts followed: Peter, Paul and Mary (“All My Trials”); Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Band-Aid — the signal breaking up a bit here. Next thing we knew, we were on to Eminem. When exactly did the river of liberation jump its banks?

The occasion was the “Train the Trainers Seminar,” a weekend diversity workshop inspired by the Columbine shootings and the 1998 hate killings of gay student Matthew Shepard and black musician James Byrd Jr. Local singer Randi Driscoll, undaunted by the prefab trappings (she introduced herself by singing “Amazing Grace” from a lectern), was using her segment of the day’s agenda to retrace the recent course of musical history. “Don’t buy it! Don’t encourage it! Stop tapping your foot, and listen to the lyrics! Change the world that the music reflects. Yes — question in the back.”

“Why did Elton John appear with Eminem at the Grammys? What was that about?”

Driscoll: “I heard from a fairly trusted source that it was some kind of an olive branch . . .”

Before a lunch of cold cuts and fruit, about 15 participants joined in nondenominational prayer (“Dear Great Eternal Spirit . . .”) with Constance Lax of the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Lax’s travels, she said, had brought her to a lot of biker rallies, where there are “a lot of fundamentalists, some of them good people and some screaming racists. The thing is to be clear, loving and truthful, and if I don’t get angry when they say something racist, I still get my message across.”

Workshop facilitator Brent Scarpo — whose video “Journey to a Hate Free Millennium” has been blessed by the families of both Byrd and Shepard — led the afternoon session, brainstorming hate words at the chalkboard (bitch, loser, lesbo, retard, nigger, Jap) and slinging zippy egalitarian comebacks. “I’m okay with ‘Brent’?” he offered, bowing, when someone asked what to call a gay man. In the back row, on an island of ghostly fame, Judy Shepard (Matthew’s mother) sat beside reformed neo-Nazi T.J. Leyden.

Scarpo leads more than 100 such workshops in a year, and if “the work,” as he called it, has taken its toll, it has also yielded lessons of experience. Over the final hours, attendees were taught the right placement of Kleenex boxes for screening Scarpo’s documentary; advised on how to help teen viewers who come out of the closet during screenings; reminded to love the opposition (Scarpo invited his film’s right-wing antagonists to dinner — a gesture worthy of Elton John). As closing speaker, he had recruited Mama D. (Delia Javier), a Hollywood film worker from Manila who now prepares feasts for 400 homeless every Sunday on Skid Row. A blast of possibility from the streets, an Emersonian call to arms: What were we doing here, while she was out there? Audience: Are you available to come speak at high schools? Javier (shy hesitation): As long as it’s not on Sunday morning.

Before leaving, participants broke into small groups to rewrite a flow chart of hate nouns into something healing, an exercise that turns earnest grown ups into game-show contestants. This might, after all, be as good and pleasant as the millennium gets: teachers, musicians and pastors, some with braided ponytails, standing shoulder to shoulder, bearing flash cards of nirvana:

Empowerment!

Synergy!

Wholeness!

Peace!

Fulfilled!

Group 5 had a problem with parallelism. The others were tolerantly helpful. Eminem and the Reverend Phelps didn’t attend.

 

—Alan Rifkin

Sinners: In Search of Sleaze

On a recent Tuesday, Gazzarri’s Night at the Key Club, glam-metal legends Faster Pussycat made their return to the Sunset Strip. Who says you can’t go home again?

The place is right. The Key Club, after all, was once Gazzarri’s — ground zero in its day for pay-to-play legions of Guns ’n Crue wannabes, spandexed strumpets and other ’80s cultural totems, including Bill Gazzarri himself, the quintessential dirty old man of whom it was once suggested that he had to pre-sell 350 tickets to get past St. Peter into the Pearly Gates after his death in 1991.

But just outside the club, it’s clear that atmosphere factor number one for an ’80s rock & roll reunion, the vibe of a smoke-filled pit filled with writhing bodies, just ain’t gonna be. The new attendees of this spike-heeled stroll down metal memory lane are all puffing away outside; those nasty mid-’90s smoking laws helped sanitize the whole scene. But they are ä hardly to blame for the whole mess.

Consider Stevie, a black-clad Ronnie Dio look-alike from Nashville, who paces back and forth in front of the club and hardly waxes ecstatic about the current scene. “I got here in ’90, and yeah, even by then it was winding down,” he says, eyes darting back and forth, checking out the bevy of females sashaying toward us. “But it was so sleazy then. I liked that — the Cathouse and all of the sleaze. There’s no sleaze now.”

Sleaze — a mantra for a simpler time.

It’s true that the almost noirish image of eager rock boys doing hopeful showcases as their long-suffering stripper girlfriends hung out between Clark and Doheny, all togged out and “flyering” each other for Roxy/Whisky/Troub/Gazzarri’s gigs like an army of mimeograph freaks, is a distant memory. But Stevie is here to support his pals Revlon Red and to get a little Faster Pussycat nostalgia — even if he suspects that this really isn’t the same band for real.

“I hear it’s just Taime [the singer] and Brent [lead guitar] and all these dudes from the Newlydeads [Taime Downe’s current Goth-based band], but I don’t care. I want to see some of those amazing chicks again, man!”

The amazing chicks are here, but my preconceived notion that the room would be top to bottom with balding heshers and aging groupies is way off the mark. The average Gazzarri’s Night attendee is under 30, and lots of them are front and center. Rida, a 25-year-old Brazilian, never went to the original Gazzarri’s and doesn’t care that this is a retrofest.

“I love this music, and I’ve been coming to these nights for two years,” she says, and then adds flatly, “I don’t do ‘raves.’”

Still, there is a level of taste and discrimination evident. When Revlon Red takes the stage with a faux New York Dolls logo and a look so backward as to be comical (aside from its Gothed-on bassist), the audience is not impressed — especially when the band is unable to stay in tune and the lead singer is forced to make patter-chatter with the crowd. At one point he says he’s going to buy the room a drink, and a young lady with braces on her teeth hisses loudly, “Bullshit, you don’t even have a fucking job.” That brings down the house.

You can really feel the love.

Faster Pussycat gets a better reception, and, since it’s a Gazzarri’s Night, the evening’s climax is the legendary Bikini Contest, which was once judged by local metal heavyweights and was a Sunday-night ritual on a par with an Aztec sacrifice back when Bush the First was boss. This one is marred by a dying PA. But luckily the lights still work, and the assembled contestants mug and grin in their thongs and stringy things. One contestant, however, takes the entire shebang one step into the beyond by revealing a crotchless set of panties beneath a leather G-string, which, remarkably, draws hisses and boos from the hooting crowd. Needless to say, she doesn’t win the $1,000 purse and totters off the stage.

Afterward, the 30-year-old escort and Seattle émigré discusses her unsuccessful game plan as we sit in front of the club. “I am so shocked that they booed me for flashing my pussy,” she says. “I mean, isn’t that what they really want?” Then she opens her purse to reveal what was to be the pièce de résistance of her short turn, a red-jelly dildo, which looks to be the size of a forearm. “I never got to use it,” she says sadly. “Those other girls up there were looking at me and saying, ‘You’re bizarre.’ I am not bizarre, I’m just doing my natural thing.”

 

Given the venue, sure, why not? Sleaze, you know!

—Johnny Angel


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