“Follow the sound, tonight, it’ll take you away,” he says. So I go.
I have Tenaglia’s new remix of Frankie Knuckles’ “The Whistle Song” carrying me along I-80, northwest to Sacramento. It is one of those perfect house songs, and each time it takes me back to when I first heard it. New York in October of 1992; I was 21. I was visiting my stepsister who lived then in the East Village on 2nd Ave and 6th St.
I was a ballsy little Midwestern white boy, walking alone all over the city at all hours of the night and day. Maybe less ballsy than stupid; this was pre-Giuliani New York, but I was young and invulnerable. It was my first trip to New York; I had been going stir-crazy at college in Florida, and wanted to see it all. My ex-boyfriend in Florida, a former New Yorker, once told me, “That city will chew you up and spit you out.” I wanted to prove him wrong.
Each night I’d pore over my little HX magazine and decide which club to check out. Was it Friday? I went to Webster Hall, a new or new-again-that-year venue. It was an enormous club, several floors full of rooms and dance floors; different lights, different music. I lost all sense of direction that night, wandering from room to room. I remember walking into a bathroom and seeing two men standing at the sinks, each combing their hair. They were enormous men; I was still skinny then, 140 pounds, though I’d been at the gym for a year. They were huge, muscular, god-like, slick-haired Italian men with wifebeaters stretched tight over their shoulders, exquisitely handsome. They never even glanced at me, so intent on their reflections. They finished with their hair and posed in front of the mirrors, flexing their muscles. Their bold, unapologetic narcissism both hilarious and unsettling all at once. I washed my hands at the sink next to them, glanced once at my own disappointing reflection, then slipped out.
Eventually I found my way to the main dance floor; a dark, cavernous ballroom lit by watery, roaming lights from above. I stood off to the side, watching the mass of men on the floor. I picture an enormous glass chandelier hanging from the ceiling, though it may only be an invention of memory. Then a boy climbed onto a box nearby. He wore only a pair of white briefs and black, ankle-high boots. The blue lights circled around his body, then fixed on him, catching him in their light as though he were a boy in a bottle. It was the first time I had ever seen a go-go boy. Sure, I had seen tacky strippers at bars in Minneapolis and Florida, men with moussed hair and fake tans and red g-strings, who danced like drunken frat boys.
But this boy was different; the boots and the way his thick muscles shifted lazily to the beat. A handsome, green-eyed man with prematurely graying buzzed hair stood at the side of the box, staring up at him, smiling. He held a five-dollar bill in his hand, and the boy lowered himself slowly to his haunches, his knees pointing to the man’s shoulders. The man said something and the boy rubbed the man’s head, smirking. The man reached out, the bill crumpled in his fist. He extended a finger and ran it slowly down the boy’s chest and stomach, so slow and deliberate that from ten feet away I felt the boy’s skin on my fingertip. The man pulled slightly at the waistband of the boy’s underwear, and tucked the bill inside. They talked, low and close, and then the boy rose back to his feet, where he rocked in the rays of blue light washing down over him.
Frankie Knuckles was spinning that night. The music was good; damn good, better than anything I had ever heard. I wound my way onto the floor and danced alone, my eyes adjusting to the dim hall and the men around me. I lost myself in the dark ballroom, in the music and the night and the city.
Then he played his song.
It was the sound of pure presence, of the here and now, of joy and abandon. A song of innocence and optimism playing in a city of hard edges. The bass hooking me into the song, and then the chorus, like a tune the seven dwarves would have whistled, had they ever gone out clubbing. So happy that it became wistful, as so many things did when I was that young.
I looked around me, at the men and the blue lights and the boy on the box. I smiled at the same time my heart broke a little, from the purity of the moment, from my loneliness, from the city I would have to leave. One of those moments everyone has; the perfect song in the perfect place at the perfect time. I stayed very late that night, dancing alone in the dark ballroom.
The next morning I went straight to Tower Records and found a clerk. I tried to explain the song. “It doesn’t have any words, but there’s like this whistling.”
“Oh,” he said, “You mean the ‘Whistle Song’.”
Thank you, Mister Tower Clerk. I am eternally grateful.
I hit “repeat” on the outskirts of Sacramento. Again, the bass, drawing me in, taking me back. It was a song of nostaligia for me; a song about a time and place that I would never again see. But today, a year after mom died, it feels like something else. It feels both nostalgic and hopeful; the sun and the blue sky and the Sierras glowing white in the distance. A song that plays on a day when I am alive and driving with the windows down, a song that plays on a day I feel love for a man who lives far away. A man who knows the Whistle Song. “It’s such a happy song,” he tells me when I call. And he’s right. I am good at sadness, it’s safe and comfortable. But now there’s more, and I get to have it all.
“My kind of people,” Aaron says. We’ve wound our way into the video bar at Faces (why are there so many gay bars called Faces?). We’re standing on the edge of the packed floor. There are all races and genders and orientations dancing together; there is a homely 45-year old man dancing with a young, sexed-out blonde bombshell who raises her arms over her head, who twists her hips around and tosses her hair as the man grabs her waist and hops, off-beat, behind her. There is a woman who looks like the winner of the Banji Girl contest in Paris is Burning; she wears a striped hat made out of the same material as her sweater. She sidles up behind every curvy girl dancing alone and molds her hips to the girl’s butt, until each girl moves away. There are two Asian girls with bee-stung lips colored dark, who hang on each other but whose lesbianism is a show for the men who stand nearby, the ones with gold chains glittering on their necks. There are girls in rugby shirts and mullets dancing in the corner, there is a bartender wearing a tuxedo shirt and a bowtie who knows the words to every song. A boy who walks in late, looking like a younger Rick James, his long pressed hair falling past his shoulders. He removes his sunglasses and catwalks into the bar like he owns the place. There are a couple of gay boys here and there, vastly outnumbered. The videos are all familiar; TRL-style. Songs you can’t help but know, no matter how much you avoid MTV and the radio. The bar is bright and crowded and full of clueless dancers who back their butts into you, separating you from your friends and pushing you off the floor while they undulate to J-Lo. And I dance in spite of it all. Am I really dancing to J-Lo? I think. I can’t believe it. As though there is a secret fag committee standing on the sidelines, watching and judging. I look around for the committee when Britney Spears comes on, but everybody is dancing. Nobody is watching me. So I dance, too. I’m a slave for you, baby.
But then Justin Timberlake comes on and I’m all like, no fucking way am I dancing to Justin Timberlake. I draw the line at Justin Timberlake. I stop moving but the not moving is more conspicuous than the moving. Everyone else is moving and they don’t care what I think about Justin Timberlake. Or that maybe deep down inside I wanna dance to Justin Timberlake. So I move, I dance to Justin Timberlake.
I don’t escape anything, I do not lose myself. I am brought straight into the heart of it. I move as everyone here moves. Everyone into their groove, everyone into their friends. Nobody cruising me; I am definitely not sexy to Sacramento. It’s not Webster Hall and the VJ is not going to play “The Whistle Song.” It’s someplace else entirely. Missy Elliot sings Work It and we work it. I watch the entire dance floor go wild and sing all the lyrics together to Kylie Minogue. But when Christina Aguilera gets all dirrrrrrrty I take a break. I must draw the line somewhere.