Monthly Archives: May 2020

Little Richard: Traumatic History, Complicated Life, Joyous Music

Laurie and Debbie say:

Little Richard’s death last week was mourned all over the world, and his skill was lauded. No obituary we saw was as good as Myles Johnson’s profile, “Little Richard’s Traumatic Black, Queer Childhood Helped Mold Rock’n’Roll,” published in Vice in 2017. The article opens with an interview Little Richard did with Donny and Marie Osmond in 2000:

… he describes the bloody beatings his father would give him while naked and tied up. Richard breaks down in tears. His father was a deacon and dark, or “jet black, blue black” as Richard referred to him during the interview. He received these beatings because of his failing of gender and for performing queerness as a child in the deep South. Despite his father’s violence Richard says, “He didn’t want me to wear long hair, I wore it anyway. He didn’t want me to put rouge on my face, which I didn’t really have to have it, it was there anyhow. I wore it anyway.” 

When Johnson wrote this piece, Little Richard (age 84) had just denounced homosexuality on a Christian broadcasting network.

Despite the black roots of rock ‘n’ roll music and culture, [the expressions of stars like Freddie Mercury, Elton John, and David Bowie] have freed young white people, generation after generation, but imprisoned Little Richard inside guilt because of the belief that his queerness and what he had created was against God. It is sad to think that the people that created an environment for there to be a Summer of Love in 1967 or a punk rock movement in the 70s have hardly been able to receive the same type of societal freedom. In the case of Little Richard, what we have left is a man that designed something bigger than religion, being tamed by religion.

He wasn’t just a great musician, he was an extraordinary influence on the music of several decades.

To understand Little Richard, you must first return him back to his title: the architect of rock ‘n’ roll. Little Richard is credited not just being the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll artists, but as the designer of the entire genre to some musical historians. Ma Rainey and Chuck Berry also deserve credit. Richard inspired countless other legends ….In 2010 he told GQ, “Mick Jagger used to sit at the side of the stage watching my act. Every performance. Where do you think he got that walk?” According to Little Richard’s legend, Liberace was only playing piano in tuxedos when on tour with him, until the celebrated pianist spotted Richard performing in a suit adorned with glass. In the same interview, Elton John quickly talks about Richard’s influence on him, noting how the performer’s prowess as a pianist and his flamboyant style inspired him to sing about tiny dancers. “When I saw Little Richard standing on top of the piano, all lights, sequins and energy,” John said, “I decided there and then that I was going to be a rock ‘n’ roll piano player.”

The queerness which Richard eventually disowned had perhaps an even greater influence, Johnson argues:

Because a queer person played a huge role in creating the bedrock of American youth culture, which is rock ‘n’ rolll, is why we see these queer expressions resurrect routinely in the culture. This makes the cyclical rise of the rebellious, queer rock and pop star seem less as an act of cultural radicalism and more methodical. I’d argue that folks like Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Prince, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, George Clinton, Elton John, Lil Uzi Vert, Rick James, Young Thug, Miguel, and many more aren’t these random cultural explosions, but they’re actually following a pattern and blueprint set by Little Richard. They are staying faithful to who created the dreamscape so that they could even hope to make a noise.

Johnson clearly loves not only Richard’s music, but the man himself. Since he’s talking about the man more than the music, he doesn’t talk about the quality of the early songs: coming from a life of trauma and terror, Richard nonetheless offered his audience the invaluable gift of unmitigated, unfiltered joy. In spite of the horrifying pain, he brought an open-hearted exuberance to rock’n’roll which is certainly part of the reason so many great artists wanted to have what he was having.

And like so many stories of abuse, it didn’t end well for Richard:

In the twilight of his life, Little Richard is still that child being dominated by the toxic masculine force that attempted to beat the queerness out of him as a child. He relinquished his legacy and denied himself the fullness of who he is in order to not only look worthy in his God’s eye, but in the eyes of his abusive father that rejected him and caused him to cry on national television at the age of 67. And this, too, falls in line with the American tradition of cultural consumption. The worlds that Little Richard’s childhood pain and agony formed were stolen and appropriated, and used to liberate white audiences and fuel white supremacist capitalist gain. While today, Little Richard himself is a shell of who he once was. A quick, quirky headline between scandals. Just an old man waiting to return home.

Thanks to Lori Selke for the pointer. Follow Debbie on Twitter.


Writing about Writing about Sex

drawing of a heart with a kitten inside the very bottom
Image from

Debbie says:

Novelist Garth Greenwell writes about writing about sex in The Guardian thoughtfully and — yes — passionately.

I once heard a wonderful writer, addressing students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, say that her ideal of a sex scene would be the sentence: “They sat down on the sofa …” followed by white space. This is a prejudice I can’t understand. One of the glories of being a writer in English is that two of our earliest geniuses, Chaucer and Shakespeare, wrote of the sexual body so exuberantly, claiming it for literature and bringing its vocabulary – including all those wonderful four-letter words – into the texture of our literary language. This is a gift not all languages have received; a translator once complained to me that in her language there was only the diction of the doctor’s office or of pornography, neither of which felt native to poetry.

More than this, surely it is absurd to claim that a central activity of human life, a territory of feeling and drama, is off-limits to art. Sex is a uniquely useful tool for a writer, a powerful means not just of revealing character or exploring relationships, but of asking the largest questions about human beings.

He goes on first to explain what he means:

Sex is an experience of intense vulnerability, and it is also where we are at our most performative, and so it’s at once as near to and as far from authenticity as we come. Sex throws us profoundly into ourselves, our own sensations, physical and emotional; it is also, at least when it’s interesting, the moment when we’re most carefully attuned to the experience of another. In no other activity, I think, do the physical and metaphysical draw so near one another—nowhere else do we feel so intensely both our bodies and something that seems to exceed our bodies—and so our writing of sex can be at once acutely descriptive of bodies in space and expansively philosophical. Nothing exposes us more, not just physically, though that’s not insignificant, but also morally; nowhere am I more aware of selfishness and generosity, cruelty and tenderness, daring and failure of nerve, in my partners and in myself, than in sex. Finally, sex puts us in contact with our shared animal nature and is also inflected by a particular place and time.

and then to talk about what he tries to do.

What excites me in writing sex isn’t explicitness itself, but the combination of explicitness and a particular kind of sentence I’m attracted to, a sentence with a history one might trace from the great introspective English prose writers of the 16th and 17th centuries, through Proust and James to Woolf and Baldwin and Sebald. It’s a sentence at once expansive and recursive, plunging forward but also falling back to question and correct itself. I think of it as a technology for the production of inwardness, for putting on the page what thinking feels like. In writing Cleanness I wanted to find out what might happen when that technology was applied to sex of various kinds: tender and brutal, intimate and impersonal, joyful and abject. I felt there was an intervention literature might play, that it might reclaim the sexual body as a site of consciousness.

As a lifetime reader on a wide variety of topics, I thought I knew the kind of sentence he’s talking about, and I thought it might be easy to find an example. I opened Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to a random page, and found this one:

They had now entered a beautiful walk by teh side of the water, and every step was bringing forward a nobler fall of ground, or a finer reach of the woods to which they were approaching; but it was some time before Elizabeth was sensible of any of it; and, though she answered mechanically to the repeated appeals of her uncle and aunt and seemed to direct her eyes to such objects as they pointed out, she distinguished no part of the scene.

It’s entirely about Elizabeth’s private experience while things are going on around her which are far less important to her than her inwardness. And that makes me want to read Greenwell’s Cleanness, because I think he’s right. Sex can be written personally or impersonally, mechanically or tenderly, as private or public experience, but it is almost never written about as inward experience–and I feel sure I’m not the only person who can experience sex from that perspective.

Toward the end of the essay, Greenwell identifies himself as queer, and he ends with a paean to writing about queer sex in particular:

To write something, to make art of it, is to make a claim about its value. Even in our age of marriage equality, when as a culture we tell ourselves a very flattering story about gay liberation, it remains the case that our culture despises the queer body, especially the queer sexual body. To write about the queer body not just explicitly, but with all of the resources of the literary tradition, to write it in a way that foregrounds beauty and lyricism is, I hope, a way to cherish that body. It’s a way not to argue for its value but to recognise and proclaim its value, and to l

avish it with the peculiar, ennobling dignity art can bestow.

If Greenwell’s fiction is as good as his writing about fiction, it’s going to be a treat indeed.

(I found the illustration at the top on and that took me back to Laurie’s and my interview with Jen Cross. Greenwell doesn’t talk about writing about sex as a route to healing, but Jen Cross does.)

Follow me on Twitter @SpicejarDebbie.