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Songs in the Key of Gay Life

Pop music: 'Club Verboten' catalogs the contributions of the gay and lesbian community to mainstream popular music.


When most people see a list of the recordings in an upcoming four-CD boxed set from DCC Compact Classics, they'll probably assume they're holding a collection of some of the most celebrated music in American pop history.

And they will be.

The titles include Judy Garland's "Over the Rainbow," Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll," Doris Day's "Secret Love," Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" and Sister Sledge's "We Are Family."

But there is a more ambitious concept behind the 63 songs in "Club Verboten," which is due in stores April 22.

The package, including a 96-page booklet penned by television writer and music historian Richard Oliver, documents one of the most colorful, if often unchronicled, chapters in contemporary culture: the contributions of the gay and lesbian community to mainstream popular music.

Though not all were written or performed by homosexuals, the cuts on "Club Verboten"--including a disc of classical music--have all made a strong connection to gay and lesbian listeners either because of their lyrical themes or the artists involved.

"The songs and the music almost programmed themselves as we moved through this journey," says Oliver, who spent nearly 1 1/2 years researching the subject. "It's almost like a musical revue."

In fact, Oliver and co-producer Marshall Blonstein, president of DCC, say they've been approached about developing "Club Verboten" into a stage show.

Touching on music from the days of Noel Coward and Cole Porter through Billy Strayhorn and Janis Ian, the pop portion of the collection opens with "Masculine Women, Feminine Men," a gender-bending sendup from 1926 that includes the unforgettable line, "Which is a rooster, which is a hen? / It's hard to tell 'em apart today." The third disc ends with a 1995 Gloria Gaynor recording of the celebratory gay anthem "I Am What I Am," from the musical "La Cage aux Folles."

Selections on the classical disc include the "Death in Venice" Suite by Benjamin Britten, whose 35-year relationship with tenor Peter Pears resulted in several operas written especially for the acclaimed singer, and "Dybbuk" by the bisexual Leonard Bernstein, whose music is also included among the pop selections.

Alan Klein, national communications director for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, calls the eclectic set a "groundbreaking" project.

"In essence," Klein says, "it is a time capsule for many gay and lesbian music lovers."

Its importance, he says, can be measured in two ways.

"One is, it recognizes that the lesbian and gay community has influenced American culture, and that American culture obviously has an influence on the gay community," he says. "Secondly, the manufacturers are marketing this boxed set to the gay community, so they realize that there is a vibrant market niche that has yet to be fully tapped."

Actually, DCC Compact Classics is hoping that "Club Verboten" also appeals to a mainstream audience.

"Whether you're gay or not makes no difference," says Oliver, whose research took him to the International Gay & Lesbian Archives in West Hollywood and the New York Public Library's rare books and manuscripts division. "It's really a celebration of music. I mean, who can say no to Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart?"

DCC's Blonstein, who conceived the idea, says he wanted to produce a lasting document.

"I didn't want it to be a gay and lesbian outing package, where you had only gay and lesbian artists," he says. "I wanted it to be a broad package. I wanted it to be a package that people could enjoy musically while they were also getting an education."

This is music for the oppressed and the repressed--from Bessie Smith's 1925 recording of "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle" to Barbra Streisand impersonator Jim Bailey's 1972 take on "Don't Rain on My Parade."

"Anybody who feels disenfranchised, or feels like a lesser person, needs to grasp at something to feel whole or to be understood," Oliver says. "That's what this music has done for people, especially the more anthem-like songs."

Alternately touching and tragic, silly and sad, "Club Verboten" is about "artistic riches born of cultural and personal subjugation," according to the liner notes.

One example is Janis Ian's 1975 hit, "At Seventeen."

"When it came out, it was a very poignant song about a girl who felt on the outside," Oliver says. "Then, some years later, Janis Ian comes out as a lesbian and you listen to the song again and you go, 'Oh.' It takes on a different shade.

"But yet it's a song that could appeal to everybody because we all sometimes feel a bit misunderstood. And that has nothing to do with sexual persuasion."

Heterosexual artists, too, could resonate within the gay community.

"Look at a Judy Garland, who certainly wasn't a lesbian," Blonstein says. "The straight community looked at her and said, 'Wow, what a great entertainer, what a socko singer and a real trouper.'

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