Friday, May 25, 2007

The Video Vault

May has turned into a hectic month and I for one am grateful that Memorial Day Weekend is upon us ... I need to catch up with myself!

Recently a friend shared a video clip with me, which triggered a folder of memories - the star of the clip was the late, great Mama Cass. Now, I'm not going to teach you about Ms. Cass - she's well worth the read if you are unfamiliar - but my post is about just how important Mama Cass was to me and to little gay boys like me in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

My first memory of Mama Cass was within my father's record collection. Just looking at her made me see how unique and different she was, compared to pop stars of the time. Here was this big girl who dressed brightly and boldy and did not let her shape stand in the way. I remember connecting to that - but not knowing quite why.

I really got into Mama Cass when I was around 6-8 years of age (1969-71). My parents had divorced and my mother and I moved into a home in West Philly as a temporary step - it was owned by two 'aunts' of mine (not blood related) who were the hippest and coolest adults I knew at that point. Aunt Rita and Aunt Sandy let me listen to whatever music I wanted - swing in the huge Macramé chair that was bolted to the ceiling - and help out at the sandwich shop they owned at the corner.

Years later I would realize that Rita and Sandy were lesbians - at the time tho, they were just cool. I remember being enrolled in a public school where I was the only white kid in the class.

Different never was so clear to me as it was during that moment.

Even at a young age, I took advantage of the situation; parents split up - everything in disarray, distractions abound. I would go out of my way to avoid school - sick, lonely, tired. Whatever card I could play to convince my already exhausted mother that I couldn't - WOULDN'T - go back to that horrible school.

When I think back - I realize the times played a bigger role than I had thought. Up til then, I grew up in NE section of Philadelphia and spent my kindergarden year in an all-white class. I really hadn't met a black person, with exception to my Nana's housekeeper, who came to help her care for the house where I grew up.

Being pulled out of the only home you knew - seperated from my father and tossed into a new neighborhood that was completely DIFFERENT than anything you had seen ... then entering a school where you are the only white kid in the first grade classroom ... it was a lot to take in.

But I don't regret it one bit. Living with Aunts Rita and Sandy allowed me to learn to appreciate our black neighbors as simply human beings. Rita and Sandy took the time to teach me about stereotypes and to show me how to accept and respect.

Not only others, but myself.

They also allowed me to explore my love for Mama Cass.

I remember the first time I heard this song:

The record ended and I just sat there - a 7-year old gay boy, stuck in a whole new world, all alone but at the same time totally understanding just what it was I had to do.

This song makes me cry til this day. It spoke to me as a kid and Mama Cass became MY Mama at that point. I realized that she was singing to those who felt DIFFERENT. I soaked it up.

I convinced my Aunts to take me to see Pufnstuf - a movie based on the TV show H.R. Pufnstuf ... a truly stoned out of their friggin minds kids show. Pufnstuf the movie came out in 1970 and starred Mama as Witch Hazel and I just HAD to see it!

We went and I was floooooooored. Especially when Mama took to the screen - during this performance, I knew that Mama was singing directly to me.

When I learned about Mama's death in the summer of 1974, I was devatated. At 11 years old, I felt the pain of loss for the first time. But I remember that moment and I remember thinking to myself that I couldn't let Mama down. I had to be strong and continue to be proud of who I was, no matter how different I felt.

Cass Elliot was one of the strongest planks in the early years of my foundation - and she remains close to my heart to this day.

Mama had such a way with notes - with lyrics - with me.

In 1996 everything came together for me, my world and Mama Cass - all thanks to an incredible film called 'Beautiful Thing'.

Beautiful Thing focuses on three neighbors, Jamie, Steve (Ste) and Leah on Thamesmead Estate in south-east London. In the middle flat, Jamie lives with his pub manager mom, Sandra. Next door lives Ste, sporty and good looking, with his brother and alcoholic father. The atmosphere is tense at the best of times. On the other side live Leah and her mom. Leah has been kicked out of school and passes her time listening to old records and has become obsessed with the music of the Mamas and the Papas and particularly with Mama Cass. Jamie and Ste fall in love, much to the frustration of those around - 'cept Leah. Showing you this scene will not spoil the movie, since it is such a wonderfully-painful story that uses the voice of Mama Cass throughout to emphasise that being different is okay.

At this point in the movie, Jamie and Ste have had enough and finally show their love publicly in the courtyard as Leah (as usual) blasts Mama Cass records from her flat. Leah steps out - joined shortly by Jamie's mom - and watch the boys as they stand tall and embrace just how different they are - and in reality, just how same.

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