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Two Decades Later, O.C. Musician Finally Commits to Project on Homoerotic Love

February 24, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — A musician lucky enough to have a daring, original idea usually runs with it. Frank Rogala crawled.

In 1979, Rogala watched Dinah Shore belt out a brassy number on TV and was struck that a woman could blithely sing the boy part in boy-girl love songs but that a man crossing gender lines would raise eyebrows, smirks and worse.

"I think it was that stupid song that goes, 'I've got a gal in Kalamazoo.' She was just smiling, beaming and singing it out like it was just nothing," the veteran Orange County rock singer recalled.

"I thought, 'No guy would have the [guts] to sing a girl's song.' There was the undercurrent that lesbianism was accepted, and it wouldn't work the other way around."

Rogala decided to try it, anyway. Now, at 40, he will step on stage tonight in West Hollywood and give his first live performance of "Crimes Against Nature," the remarkable album that grew ever so slowly out of that lightbulb moment. He has faced club audiences for 20 years as the front man of struggling, do-it-yourself grass-roots bands. This time, with his new theme of homoerotic love as a controversial wild card, Rogala doesn't know what to expect.

What took him so long?

Mainly, he got sidetracked by years of striving for rock success by more conventional means. He and his younger brother, Vince, started a techno-pop band called Exude in their hometown of Mackinaw, Mich. They landed in Orange County in the early '80s and got national novelty-hit exposure in 1984 with a Cyndi Lauper parody, "Boys Just Want to Have Sex." As Exude morphed into the darker, more rock-leaning NC-17, Rogala's gender-bending epiphany of 1979 remained on his list of things to do.

In 1994, the Rogala brothers and their longtime bandmate, Robin Canada, began working with a novice film director on a feature-length documentary examining the long odds of making it in the music business. (Director Dov Kelemer said the film is almost done and he expects to soon seek distribution and opportunities to show it at film festivals).

The experience shattered any illusions the musicians had about success being just one lucky break away.

"It just knocked the pins out," Rogala said. "The blinders that kept us going were taken off."

Consequently, NC-17 has not played in four years. Rogala first threw himself into work on the documentary. Eventually, he realized he needed to fill the musical void left by the band's continuing hiatus. Off the shelf came the pet idea he owed to Dinah Shore.

But first, Rogala had to reckon with the consequences.

"Do I do this great artistic idea and bring up all these questions, and maybe problems, or do I not do it, or [do it and] try to be coy about it? And it's not just me involved. When you're in a marriage, it's both of us."

"Be honest," was his wife's answer, Rogala said. "She would never want to make me lie about it."

So Rogala embarked on his album, knowing that when it came out, he would too.

In a recent interview at his house in a nondescript tract but lent secluded character thanks to high hedges and an oasis-like koi pond in the frontyard, Rogala acknowledged it is more difficult to talk about bisexuality in a mainstream newspaper than in the gay press interviews he has done.

As he sat on his living-room floor, the tall, slim singer first tried communicating gingerly, in the indirect language of pop-cultural allusion and inference: "On a spectrum of Bon Jovi to Elton John, I'm closer to Mick Jagger or David Bowie," he said with a nervous grin. After noting that it was vital that nobody feel he had made his album as a mere joke or novelty, he submitted some plainer, if complex, facts:

"I'm a married guy in a committed relationship for 20 years." If, he added, the right man had come along before the right woman, that relationship would have been homosexual. "I don't see sexuality as a black-and-white issue."

After giving himself the green light, Rogala said, he looked for ways to "take [familiar] songs and make people hear them in different ways." He didn't want "Crimes" to be a gimmick, but a strong, all-around musical and emotional statement.

"What would be the most embarrassing girls' songs to sing, where you would be most vulnerable? I started looking for the most pathetic, codependent, sick, politically incorrect songs, and I took it from there."

Rogala's wife, Nancy, suggested two of the titles that are among the album's standouts: Liz Phair's "[Expletive] and Run" and Louis Jordan's swing-era nugget, "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?"--which Rogala learned from a version by Dinah Washington.

Rogala's musical partners were supportive too. His brother, Vince, started tuning in oldies radio and passing on song possibilities that would fit the concept. As co-arranger, Canada helped perform radical surgery on the famous hits chosen for the album.

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