The world might be going to shit, but to pretend nothing’s changed is an insult to those who’ve fought to make it a better place.
Age looks good on Patrick Haggerty. The 74-year-old’s voice, once high and reedy, has thinned to an inquisitive honk perfect for the ribald, tender and righteously angry songs on his first album since 1973 with Lavender Country. The distance between 1973’s self-titled and this year’s Blackberry Rose and Other Songs and Sorrows from Lavender Country amounts to the entire sweep of a gay elder’s life, and he looks to the past not with nostalgia but with relief at how far we’ve come. The world might be going to shit, but to pretend nothing’s changed is an insult to those who’ve fought to make it a better place.
Haggerty recalls those furtive days in pre-Stonewall gay bars, under the cover of darkness in secrecy, on “Gay Bar Blues.” On “Weeping Willow” he remembers the camaraderie between gay men in the pre-AIDS days—and the grief that set in once those men started disappearing. Even the bawdy love song “I Can’t Shake the Stranger Out of You,” the only song returning from the 1973 album, is permeated with the sad unsustainability of a forbidden love. It’s as if he’s preparing for a generation of young, gay listeners who take their newfound freedoms for granted.
Lavender Country focused almost exclusively on gay men. Here, Haggerty broadens his scope. “Clara Frazer, Clara Frazer” tells us of a Seattle leftist leader whose employers found it fit to fire her for her outspokenness. It’s a goofily specific story Haggerty presumably remembers from his days in Seattle’s political scene (he’s run for public office twice), and it doubles both as a celebration of hard-headed, no-bullshit leadership and a way for Haggerty to flex his activist bona fides.
“Eat the Rich” is eight minutes of rich-family food puns (“Hearst patties,” “oysters Rockefeller”) sung by gay Oakland blues artist Blackberri. He’s one of a number of singers featured on the album in addition to Haggerty, including Tammi Allan, who sings an update on the folk song “The Housewife’s Lament,” and Nikki Grossman, who lampoons Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” (her version is called “Stand on Your Man”). These diverse voices, gathered around a central songwriting voice, bring to mind another project helmed by a witty gay auteur: Stephin Merritt’s Magnetic Fields.
The title track takes us to the Jim Crow days, telling with uncompromising brutality the story of an interracial relationship that ends in tragedy. The man is lynched; the woman’s father kicks her baby to death in the womb and throws her into a mine shaft. In the essential commentary tracks bundled with the album, Haggerty expresses concerns about broaching the subject as a white man. But he draws no explicit conclusions or morals from the story, sidestepping any potential exploitation to simply paint a picture of violence against marginalized people that was, and still is, far too common.
Any misgivings he had about “Blackberry Rose” he should’ve brought to “Sweet Shadow Man,” which uses Jim Crow as a prop to add erotic tension to a forbidden relationship with a hideously fetishized black man. Haggerty uses phrases like “down-low” and “back of the bus” to make the song essentially black-themed, and find me a black man who wants to be called a “sweet shadow man” and I’ll find you a jackalope. Blackberry Rose makes searingly clear how far we’ve come. “Sweet Shadow Man,” inadvertently, shows us how far we have to go.
ADDENDUM: Patrick Haggerty, the leader of Lavender Country, contacted me shortly after this piece was published in response to my interpretation of “Sweet Shadow Man.” While I took the song’s racist, fetishizing imagery for insensitivity on Haggerty’s part, he tells me the song is meant to reflect the attitudes of the song’s narrator—a white man in 1962—rather than his own and that if it illustrates “how far we still have to go” it’s intentional, not inadvertent.