By Richard Clegg
The Queen of Soul has yet again brought tears to the eyes of this sympathetic royal—this tired old queen. As Salome offered John’s severed head, the radio just served up Aretha’s hit Until You Come Back to Me. And my life in the 70s flushed upon me like the water in an unfamiliar toilet when you manage to push, pull, twist all the correct levers and knobs. Amazing the power words and music can bestow upon a fragile, hungry soul—one in the right state, listening at just the right time. “I’m gonna rap on your door / Tap on your window pane.” I wept when I heard it just now. The pull of that music, the vortex of that time was so intense. What a joyous time it was for me! What a fucked-up, lonely time of struggle it was! A marvelous time of self discovery, but I just can’t imagine myself ever being there again. The fear of ever again experiencing such loneliness is devastating even to contemplate.
I had been jilted, humped and dumped, tossed aside for something better by my first great love. I was destroyed, crippled by loneliness and rejection. I understood viscerally the pain beneath Aretha’s determined, heart-breaking vow, “I’m gonna rap on your door / Tap on your window pane / . . . Till you come back to me that’s what I’m gonna do.”
After having licked my wounds and bathed the shit from myself, my first unhappy love affair led me ultimately to the bars. Odd, but I can’t even remember my first time in a gay bar. But I do recall that narrow entry into the Sun Tavern. That would be the original, “old” Sun Tavern that used to sit magically at the corner of South Temple and what is now Rio Grande Street. Wrecking balls and a lot of butch construction worker-types, like right out of a gay porn mag, destroyed what for me in the 70s was a garden of forbidden delights and replaced it with the Energy Solutions Arena. Energy Solutions indeed. A good deal of energy was solved there as I experienced it—then.
Yes, I recall that narrow entry into the Sun Tavern. Like sand through an hour glass we queers would push and rush through a small doorway that seemed to me such a contrast to what was taking place inside on a Saturday night. But instead of the sands of time lying passive in a lump after passing through that tight, dark neck (made a bit grimy with thousands of dirty hands and cigarette smoke), the sands of time would swirl, swish, swagger, dance, dream, hide (stuck like a real sissy wallflower), snort, sniff, pop, pinch, preen, prance, posture, drink, connect, wish, and for most, we would long. It was the most glorious and diverse array of humanity ever assembled—or at least that’s what this little boy from Magna and son of a Mormon Bishop—had ever witnessed. I was forever astounded by the reality this was all taking place in SLC, only blocks away from Brigham’s Garden. This mad frenzy of alienated souls existed in one of the most conservative of states and mind sets. And yet, there I was gawking at this amazing display once, if not twice a week.
It was indeed a garden of forbidden delights: two men holding hands, sitting side by side and staring lovingly into one another’s eyes; two men embracing on the dance floor and slow dancing just like the others do at the Gold and Green Balls; a void in the bartender’s black leather pants exposing to God and the stunned drooling patrons ordering up a beer at the bar a luscious naked ass; bare chests, muscled, hairy, sweaty, sexy—two men locked in a passionate kiss; stunningly handsome men in tight jeans dancing with and stroking another equally true beauty. But most importantly there was that majestic, magical, mystifying sense of community, of belonging. Inside, it was the world as it should have been outside: accepting, tolerant, non judgmental. At least that’s how I envisioned it before Betty John, a stunning drag queen, brushed my mustache with disdain one Halloween night when friends talked me into going to the Sun in a simple black cocktail dress, basic black pumps, blond wig and single strand of pearls. I refused to shave my mustache for anything or anybody, which included Betty John.
I suppose it was that same conservative environment and upbringing that kept me from going over the edge—off the deep end. That saved me, perhaps. I would never be so egotistical as to think it was any positive conscious effort on my part (others might), but I never really tricked. I never really did any of it to excess, except perhaps poppers and dope toward the end. Ah yes . . . toward the end . . .
Just before those seemingly endless years of terrifying loneliness slowly turned into a certain level of self-assurance and eventually into this almost perfect life I share with someone I call the Trove (that’s short for “treasure trove”). But those intervening nights were endlessly lonely, albeit entertaining. And THAT the Sun Tavern was . . . always entertaining. Theater at it’s best. Tragedies played there on weeknights. I must admit that at my very loneliest, I was guilty of being seen there on a Wednesday or Thursday or even, God forbid, a Tuesday night. “Why would any self-respecting Salt Lake fag go to the Sun Tavern on Tuesday night?” I asked myself with great self-disdain. For the same reason less self-respecting fags have done a good many things in their lives . . . that all pervasive loneliness.
The carousel ride of getting and going nowhere as we all rode on the backs of one wooden horse after another. All painted brightly or decorated with colored feathers, skin, leather, plaid, chrome, any look that we felt might get us off the carousel and galloping into the sunset grasping excitedly the tight abs of that cowboy in front of us on his great “fashion beige” stallion; or arm-in-arm, hand-in-hand or at the very least in some sort of comfortable sexually rewarding position. And, of course, I certainly had myself a few carousel horses and a good many dreams of cowboys. You know, the Marlboro Man and all. The Trove says we fall in love with that which we should have been. My shrink says we fall in love with that which we see in others that we want to blossom in ourselves.
Ah yes, disco fever. Life at the Sun was always everything you ever wanted it to be and often we were frightened it just might be. I always went home alone. Ninety-nine out of 100 times that choice was made for me, but one or two times it was my own decision.
If it was bitter cold outside, it was always warm inside with the promise of getting warmer as the night wore on. If it was hot outside it would be unbearable inside, but somehow even the unbearable was bearable at the Sun. Dark freezing winter nights when the MG Midget would barely make it through the snow were somehow brightened by the pulsing beat from a block away: the lights, the queens dancing like some primal tribe to the strains of “I always loved my Mama.” Oh how I wished I could learn or be taught by some handsome hunk in a plaid flannel shirt and tight jeans how to line dance like a real fully fledged gay guy.
And I too screamed with all the rest as Gloria Gaynor promised us with a disco lust like no other before or since that she would survive. Each of us, no matter how trying being gay was, agreed in unison, “I will survive.”
I’m one of the lucky ones. I did.
Gay Writes is a DiverseCity Series writing group, a program of SLCC’s Community Writing Center. The group meets the 2nd and 4th Mondays of every month, 6:30 pm to 8 pm., 210 E. 400 South, Ste. 8, Salt Lake City.