Brendan Maclean: Gay for Pay
Hi I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories – the podcast for the monthly LGBTQIA storytelling night I run at Giant Dwarf in Redfern with support from the City of Sydney. This week, musician Brendan Maclean.
It wasn’t until I was twenty-two that I discovered my legal name is actually, “out gay artist Brendan Maclean.” It was the introduction to almost every article about me when I started promoting my music. It was not really taboo nor was it of particular interest to the general public who didn’t yet know my name but now knew I liked to suck a dick or two. Choosing to come out before I had actually achieved anything lost me a few points in the media. When sexuality is put forward to the community without fame or a sense you’ve earned their respect, you remain a token to be gawked from arms length. It was unnerving but, admittedly, a handy divide between myself and other Sydney folk artists in 2009. If all else failed I could always just turn “it” on: Camper, louder, gayer – no one could come close, no one was trying.
I was pretty gay. Dance, musical theatre and the fact I’d done a three-show tour with Savage Garden were my weapons and I employed them at every opportunity. My songs were sweet but fairly hollow folk tracks with no real references to queerness. It was, in fact, me that had labeled the songs as “gay” and, in light of being celebrated for my sexuality, also felt my failures could only be a reflection of it too. In summary: Everyone who doesn’t like me is homophobic. I later found this to be only half true.
At 24 I was basically able shoot rainbows out of my butt on command and people really seemed to really like that. Suddenly I was being booked for gay panels, spoke at gay rallies and was paid about 300 gay dollars a week to pick funny Tweets for a short lived breakfast show with a racist presenter from New Zealand – their angle for me? “Just be your fabulous self!”
The following year I was cast in my first feature film, The Great Gatsby. Baz Luhrmann was my hero. I spent two months on set of what felt like a theme park, Tobey Mcquire came to watch me play piano at lunch, triple j called direct to my trailer to find out what was happening on set. I talked to anyone who would listen and everyone was listening. The first hint something was amiss came during my big solo scene. I was Klipspringer, playing Ain’t We Got Fun on the organ as Leonardo DiCaprio and Carrie Mulligan danced just below me. They called action. I sang my heart out as Baz gleefully yelled directions, I gave it everything, I sang until I was hoarse… but I wasn’t mic’d. The organ wasn’t even plugged in.
“We’ll get the audio later.” The camera guy said.
At the afterparty Baz grabbed my shoulder, “Brendan”, he said, “you were the heart of that film” – or as The New York Times put it, “The character of Klipspringer has been entirely excised from Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby.”
I flew to New York, embarrassed and ashamed and I did my best to overdose on Oxycontin. I climbed out the window, twelve stories up, hoping that maybe I’d just fall asleep, roll off and never wake up. I still hate myself for that night, not because of what I tried to do, but for telling anyone. It’s the most selfish thing I’ve ever done.
I wake up under a grand piano which had an Emmy on it. I’m on 72ndand Broadway in one of Liza Minelli’s apartment, I’d simply rolled back inside and vomited all over myself. I’m in pain and I refuse to leave for days before I see a friend on Grindr who agrees to take me to the café across the road. On arriving I realize it’s not my friend at all. He just had the same pair of white glasses. His name is Alex, he’s a live in Nanny for a family just up the road. He’s kind, so we have the coffee and at around 2pm, he walks me to his favourite stoop and hands me a one hit pipe. I cough and cough, and for the first time in a decade, I was stoned. Really stoned.
We start making daily trips the Planetarium, naturally with a quick stop to the stoop beforehand. We would buy muffins and sit inside the huge dome which played a 3D documenatary narrated by Liam Neeson. It’s drugs, I know, but I’m laughing, and I’m calm, and when I’m not stoned I’m writing – but it sounds different now – it’s pop, it’s fun, it’s camp but it doesn’t sound cheap, it sounds hopeful. I’m smiling again, and I’m certain without that boy, his weed and Liam Neeson, I wouldn’t have made another song ever again.
In July 2016 the album I started in New York – funbang1 comes out in the iTunes top 5. It doesn’t stay there long, but I’m proud of it. Cut forward 152 performances of a disco juke-box musical called Velvet (which I originally thought was about The Velvet Underground) and I’m in London, Soho – stoned and reading Hal Fischer’s 1977 essay “Gay Semiotics.” The essay is a droll analysis of the semiotics of the San Francisco S&M gay community. His photo collection was also adorable: it was explicit but awkward: Like a school photo but the school is for making porn. I get an idea.
Thousands of comments, a couple hundred death threats, and a PewDiPie reaction video later, ASSHOLE, and House of Air, the project inspired by Fischer’s essay, has now been viewed over two million times and accepted into five international film festivals and not all of them just in Berlin. But most.
If the backlash taught me anything, it’s that, while we like to project an image of a unified queer community, there are clearly some letters among our vast QUILTBAG, think about it, and beyond who aren’t willing to fight for everyone else when things get easy for them. It reminds me that when we fight for progress it shouldn’t come with a caveat of merely tolerating “certain members of our community.” Because who is that exactly? Who is it you don’t believe warrants the dignity you once had to protest and beg for yourself?
Now look, I don’t think I’ll ever be the right type of gay for network television again, not because I’m not generally wonderful, I mean I am, but I can’t flick on that switch anymore and I don’t really want too. And if I am fabulous in public these days, it’s because that’s how I feel, not because that’s how I want to appear.
My fabulous self is delightful, just being myself, on the other hand, is divine.
This is a song I wrote for my friend and, that was true by the way I did, I stayed in Liza Minelli’s apartment for two weeks, I woke up under a piano and yep! It was owned by her accompanist. She has a lot of apartments in New York that she just gives out to queer musicians a lot of the time. So like, another reason to say fuck yeah Liza Minelli!
This is a song I wrote for Alex and it’s kind of a thank you for him, and before I go I should say the last time I performed at Giant Dwarf sitting about there, was Mark Colvin and he said to me ‘you already know you can sing but you don’t know you’re funny, read more Noel Coward, get on with it’ so good on Mark Colvin I’ll miss him so much.
*Audience claps, Brendan begins to play a ukulele and sings*
Real, if anything you’re real,
Invite me to your castle.
Will you show me the way, way, way?
Breathe, rolling up my sleave,
There’s freedom in your footstep.
Can you show me your way, way, way?
Lost like a little kid chasing a red balloon,
I can’t keep up with you.
And I can’t get enough, oh, oh.
You’re giving me attitude,
It’s making me follow you.
And heaven won’t feel this good.
You’re free to love,
You’re free to love.
You and me, oh baby,
Sweet talking won’t change me,
Light this fuse, I’m blazing,
And you’re free to love, you’re free to love, you’re free to love.