Tuesday, January 14, 2014

No. 142 – Sister Disco

Performer: The Who
Songwriter: Pete Townshend
Original Release: Who Are You
Year: 1978
Definitive Version: Concerts for the People of Kampuchea, 1981.

Before we get started, happy birthday to Laurie.

Sister Disco is by far my favorite post-The Kids Are Alright Who song. True, this song technically isn’t a post-TKAA song, but it wasn’t part of TKAA, and I certainly didn’t know it until long after I saw the movie. By the time The Who played their “farewell concert” in 1982, it was the only post-1975 song among my favorites, and I was pleasantly surprised that they played it.

The love of Sister Disco was due entirely to the Kampuchea concerts, which took place in 1979. I’m pretty sure I saw video of The Who’s performance of this song before MTV, maybe even on Video Concert Hall, and it seemed as close to the old Who as anything I’d seen (even if Roger cut his hair short). It was the pinnacle of Kenny Jones’ performance, and I think most Who fans would agree.

MTV broadcast the full Kampuchea video in 1983, my sophomore year at Wabash, so I finally got to see The Who’s entire performance. It was solid, but Sister Disco remained the standout.

My sophomore year in college was a huge year, as I’ve documented on several occasions, for a lot of reasons. It was the first time I ever really felt as though I was on my own—I was responsible for my own meals, my own laundry, everything (except paying for everything, of course). It was the year I learned how to study; it was the year I became exposed to the possibilities of work on a computer.

My sophomore year in college also was the year I started broadcasting basketball, and, it was the academic year when Beth and I became lovers in every sense of the word. It doesn’t get any bigger than that.

It also was the year when I finally came face to face with the truth that the world was a much bigger place than I had known. At the end of my freshman year, just before I headed home for the summer, Ed invited me to live with him the next academic year in our English professor’s house while he was away on sabbatical.

Ed and I hadn’t done much together since the Chicago weekend (good ol’ No. 162), but obviously we still were on friendly terms, and this was the golden ticket. Move out of the dorms and be (somewhat) on my own? I readily agreed. I had to do a bit of a sales job on Dad that summer, but as soon as he took a look at the differences in terms of expenses for room and board vs. rent and grocery bills, he readily agreed, too.

It was more of a sales job for my friends at Wabash, as it turned out. Aren’t you concerned, they asked. About what? About Ed.

Well, by now I’d heard the whispers … that Ed might be gay. As I noted, I didn’t have any real understanding of homosexuality beyond specific acts, but Ed certainly fit the stereotype. He seemed effeminate and wasn’t interested in sports. He eschewed rock music for classical, was an immaculate dresser and sung in the glee club. Maybe he was gay; I don’t know.

But, really, what difference did it make? He’d never come on to me that I had been aware of. Besides, a third student had been invited to live with us—Jim. I knew Jim but more by reputation than interaction. Jim, to me, was the fail-safe. He was the captain of the football team, a linebacker of renown in Division III. His nickname wasn’t Killer for no reason. I’m sure Jim had heard the same rumors I’d heard, but if HE didn’t care, why should I?

It didn’t take long to realize that our living situation wasn’t any different from what I’d experienced in the dorm or fraternity. The three of us didn’t see a whole lot of each other. Jim had football; Ed glee club. Both, being seniors, had comps in January. Starting in December, I was doing basketball games for WNDY and on the road a lot. All three of us had tons of schoolwork, and I was spending more time at the library than ever before.

There never were any major problems among the three of us that I recall. Occasionally, we got on the nerves of each other—like with any roommates—but I would bet that each of us has had far worse roommates than the other two.

That said, it became fairly obvious that Jim and I got along better simply because we had more in common. We both liked to watch sports on TV; we both had girlfriends: I had Beth; he had a coed at DePauw.

Ed kept more to himself. For example, he was the only one among us who had a job. Ed worked as a paramedic and was gone at night a lot of the time. He even bailed on the house party that we threw in February 1984. As I recall, it was due to his job as a paramedic, but perhaps it was because he just didn’t want to be surrounded by me and Jim’s friends and a bunch of coeds from DePauw.

Ed had a girlfriend for some time that school year. I never met her, but it seems she was a townie and older than we were—perhaps mid-20s. She and Ed went out a few times.

One night in spring 1984, Ed came home from a date while Jim and I were unwinding from our studies. Ed was in a chatty mood, and we assembled in the front living room where I sat at Dr. Herzog’s rolltop desk. Ed flopped over the arm of the sofa, and I wondered whether he’d been drinking.

Almost right away, he announced that he’d broken up with his girlfriend. Jim and I offered condolences, but Ed just laughed. He thought how he broke up with her was all very funny. You see, he said, I told her—as a joke, of course—that I was gay.

Now, if I live to be 100—and I probably won’t—I’ll never forget that as soon as that came out of his mouth, Jim and I exchanged glances, and I’m certain that we were thinking exactly the same thing at that moment: Well … you are, aren’t you?

Of course, neither of us said that. We went along with the gag: Oh, that’s ridiculous. Yes, that’s funny. Ha ha ha … The moment passed, and neither of us spoke about that night or anything else related to that night the rest of year.

However, there was no question—none whatsoever in my mind—that not only did I know someone who was gay, but I actually was living under the same roof as someone who was gay.

You know what? I STILL didn’t care. It was, in fact, a transformative moment in my life.

I’m not breaking the guy code here. Ed DID come out a few years later—confirming what I’m sure Jim and I agreed on years before—and has been out for several decades. He has been in charge of several gay outreach programs through his work. (Ed also is his middle name. He goes by his first name now.)

Now, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, I see a few things more clearly:

1.) When Ed took me to Chicago, it’s possible he WAS coming on to me, or at least testing the waters to see if I might be receptive. (I see us now at Lawry’s in the banquette and other diners going, oh, look at that cute, young gay couple.) Maybe I pinged his gaydar, but, in the end, I wasn’t interested in the way that he might have liked. I certainly didn’t consider this a possibility at the time.

2.) When Ed told Jim and me that fateful night that he broke up with his girlfriend because he was gay—as a joke—what he REALLY was doing was testing the waters. He wasn’t ready to come out, but he thought he’d wade into the surf.

Maybe he hadn’t even come out to himself yet. I don’t know. We’ve never talked about it. But it sure seems to me that he was coming to grips with it, and he decided, well, I’ll say this—as a joke—and see how it’s received.

I’d like to think that when Jim and I—two regular Midwestern guys—didn’t react badly, that we were indifferent, helped him later when he came out in full.

What I know is that one of the biggest lessons I learned my sophomore year at Wabash was that being gay is no big deal. I didn’t have any God in my upbringing, so I hadn’t been taught to reflexively condemn gays as being an abomination. Instead, I learned the truth: They’re just people, and what they do behind closed doors with other consenting adults—just as what I do behind closed doors—has no bearing whatsoever on the quality of their character.

Ed was a good guy, and he treated me well, particularly at a time when I was finding myself. He was nice to Beth when she was around that year. And he broke me free of the dorms. I have nothing bad to say about him. About anyone who might disagree with me on this, however …

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