Free from the closet

May 31, 2002


Scott Free is dedicated to defying stereotypes. At 6 feet 5 inches and 235
pounds, Free has the physique of an imposing punk rocker, but he plays folk
music. His message is angry and political, but it is also full of humor. And he
happens to be gay.

Punning on the title of the cable TV series, Free is hosting the second annual
"Queer Is Folk Festival" at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Old Town School of Folk
Music, 4544 N. Lincoln. His goals are twofold.

"One, it's kind of just your basic presenting of a different image of gays and
lesbians to the straight world, if you want to call it that," he says. "Certainly the
forces out there like the Showtime soap opera 'Queer As Folk' continue to push
the same old stereotypes. But the other purpose of what I'm doing is to try to
push gay and lesbian musicians to express themselves more.

"In the area of creating music, gay people still kind of seem stuck in the closet.
I don't know if it's that they still have this concept of doing it for the industry and
getting the big hit single, but I don't think they're being as honest as they could
be in the music that they make, so I'm trying to do that in the music that I
present. In the gay community, there really isn't a concept of queer music. They
love to go to the latest gay or lesbian film, but they don't really go to see or hear
queer music.

"I mean, the Pet Shop Boys do a pretty good job of pushing the envelope, but
most of them don't," Free continues. "Melissa Etheridge, her music is
completely generic, and Elton John would be about the worst example, but he
doesn't write his own lyrics, so you kind of have to let him off the hook in that
regard. But they're not saying anything really about their lives, and that's the
whole thing about coming out of the closet. It's about honesty, and saying, 'This
is who I am.' "

After cutting his teeth in the house and gospel scenes, Free turned toward a
sort of acoustic punk, or folk music with attitude, in 1996 when he became sick
with AIDS. "I was kind of on my way out--this was right before they came out
with the combination therapies--and that was the real motivation that got me
going," he says. "It was like, 'OK, I have to do this before I die.' "

Since then, Free has released two independent albums, and he is working on
two more, one a punk disc, the other a broader folk effort that he hopes to
release simultaneously. And his health is just fine now, thanks.

Last year, Free presented the first "Queer Is Folk" festival with Grant Hart of
Husker Du, Tyson Meade of Chainsaw Kittens, and five Chicago artists. This
year's lineup features the first local appearance in a decade by Phranc, the
self-professed "all-American Jewish lesbian folk singer"; Lucie Blue Tremblay, a
major talent on the Olivia Records "womyn's music" scene; the Prince
Myshkins; Waxer; Moses, and John Hasbrouck.

Free grants that there's an awful lot of bad folk music; finding the ambitious
exceptions is as important to him as finding songwriters with a message about
life as a gay person. "I wouldn't necessarily call myself a folk artist, but the
reason I aimed in that direction is because that is the place where it is most
about self-expression," he says. "The lyrics are really important, and they
hopefully tell the story of what the person wants to be expressing."

Tickets for "Queer Is Folk" are $16; $14 for Old Town members, and $12 for
seniors and children. A portion of the proceeds benefit the Howard Brown Health
Clinic and the Lesbian Community Cancer Project. Call (773) 728-6000 for more

* * * *

More than a few rock fans had a flashback while listening to last year's
self-titled Virgin debut by San Francisco's Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The
swirling, ethereal sounds are a vivid reminder of the "shoegazer" movement of
the early '90s, with bands such as Ride, Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, and
the Jesus and Mary Chain.

"The first day we played together, it sounded this way, and that was before
anyone had any sort of conversation like, 'What are we in it for?' " says
bassist-vocalist Robert Turner. "It's a bit more unique than any of those bands,
in my mind. I'm sure other people might disagree. But we're into taking a look at
any band and what they did right and what they did wrong. You try to not make
the same mistakes and to learn from what they did. It's usually more hard to get
your life right than to get the sound right!"

Turner knows a thing or two about learning from the past: His father and the
band's manager is Michael Been, former leader of the New Wave combo the
Call. Been helped the group (which is completed by guitarist-vocalist Peter
Hayes and drummer Nick Jago) successfully navigate a major-label bidding war,
but Turner says that his dad's influence as svengali has been overstated.

"In the beginning, we made a record that was like 13 songs, and we were just
sitting in San Francisco with a box of 500 CDs and it was like, 'Now what?' " he
says. "Pete and Nick kind of turned to me like, 'OK, you know about this. Is
there anybody your family knows from the past who can help out?' But the
record business changes every six months, and there's not like one proven
success plan. We had to leave San Francisco and move to L.A. and play show
after show, and luckily some guy from MCA came to see us, and after that it
was just like dominos."

Rather than nepotism, B.R.M.C. seems to be benefitting from arriving at the
right time, when an audience is once again growing for smart guitar-driven rock
and embracing bands such as the White Stripes, the Hives, and the Strokes.
"Whatever Happened to My Rock 'n' Roll," B.R.M.C. asks on one of the album's
strongest tracks. The rest of the disc seems to say, "Here it is!" Does Turner
sense a sea change?

"I only sense people's reactions, and their reactions are f---ing great," he says.
"People are coming out to shows and there's a good response. We're kind of
scratching and clawing at trying to get to a place where the shows are gonna
come off good and the album's at least available where people can find it in the
record stores. From there on out, it's up to us to keep it going with gigs.

"What originally got me about some of those bands like Ride and My Bloody
Valentine was that they created a mood, and they did that better than anyone.
When I was younger and listening to that, I needed a place to go, and that was
there for me. I try to think back to that time as far as really creating another
place, because this place ain't doing it, you know?"

I do, indeed.

B.R.M.C. will set the mood along with Sense Field and Dispatch at the
Sun-Times/94.7 The Zone "Press Play" concert starting at 5 this evening in front
of the Sun-Times building, 401 N. Wabash. Tickets are $10 and all proceeds
benefit the Sun-Times Charity Trust.