The lava lamp is a stylish light fixture of dorm rooms and modern day opium dens. These hip items of decor were breathed into existence in 1963 by an English accountant. Isn’t it strange that this groovy fixture of counter-cultural decor should be the brainchild of a buttoned down bean-counter? Here’s what Edward Craven Walker had to say about his own creation:
“I think it will always be popular. It is like the cycle of life. It grows, breaks up, falls down and then starts all over again.”
A former RAF pilot and naturist (read:nudist), Walker created his lamp from an orange soda bottle and a weird homemade egg-timer someone had fashioned at his local pub. Compared to your stereotypical accountant, the now 82 year-old Walker is a bit of a weirdo, a misfit, an outsider — his outsider status informed his imagination.
The evergreen James Finn wrote a nice piece pondering the place of musicals, opera and showtunes as part of our shared Queer culture which made me think of lava lamps.
Do you know how these hippy-lights work? Basically you take two liquids, quite different in color and opacity which, for fundamental reasons do not mix, and place them together in a clear bottle. The colorful liquid gets agitated by a heat source and its density changes. This blob moves and pulls itself apart inside the other unremarkable liquid, rising as it heats up and becoming less dense and falling once it cools again.
Somehow we perceive this intersection of liquids, temperature, light and density as abstract art. It’s beautiful, expressive, ineffable . . . trippy.
As a community of “others”, we Queer™ folks (shortening the alphabet-soup LGBTQI+ acronym) act like those psychedelic blobs, floating within the bland world of mainstream identity.
As we feel the heat, we stretch out and rise up. The forms we take define our collective culture.
When we consider them worthy, sometimes we call these patterns art. Those who don’t like the visuals cry out, “degenerate” . . . but degenerate art is art nonetheless.
Why wouldn’t we proudly lay claim to our share (or our Lion King’s share) of art on The Stage? Broadway, like her upper-crust European cousin The Opera represents the the culmination of so many beautiful blobs — instrumental & vocal music, dance, fashion, sculpture, painting, makeup, even carpentry & electric lighting — rising and morphing into something beautiful. We love it because instinct informs that it’s a part of us. Hell, this phenomenon even appears in the big book of tropes.
I love the hilarious and profound 1995 film, Jeffrey.
In it, the young and beautiful Darius is a dancer in the Broadway production of Cats. In one scene a furry, fully-costumed Darius and his much older partner Sterling (played by Patrick Stewart) are chatting with friends about the joys of the theater. Perhaps this exchange from the film helps explain our relationship with art:
Darius: I love the Nutcracker. You know when I was a kid I was always afraid of the dancing mice. Now I’m a cat.
Sterling: His therapist is ecstatic.
Queer subculture, founded on its otherness, also goes through the breakup and re-absorption cycle of the lava lamp. Did Quentin ever regale you in Polari, James Finn, during your strolls in the Village? Oh to have listened to him chirp that ancient but disappearing tongue. Some of those colorful words abide still, many years after Polari cooled and fell. We freely mix vintage terms like “trade” and “chicken” with new ones like “sickening” and “kiki” to compose our gay slang.
So that we could advertise our kinks across noisy disco barrooms, Hanky codes rose and fell in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Then, from the primordial soup of the digital queer those cyphers were replaced by twink & bear codes in online profiles and email signatures.
Bathhouses morphed into chat-rooms and Grindr, while eggplant and peach emojis supplanted “baskets” and “buns”. Disco and poppers morphed into molly and dub-step and now, I’m led to believe, Voguing is back in . . . umm. . . vogue.
“Hey Mary!” became, “My Best Judy” — but how many youngsters know to which Judy we owe our allegiance and why? Let’s not be too quick quick to criticize them though. How many of us fully appreciate that our zany, beautiful, mutating lingo may stretch back as far as the 15 century? No doubt, other aspects of our art and culture extend even further than that.
We’re proud to claim Michelangelo and Da Vinci as our own, alongside Warhol and Wilde. Even if Puccini wasn’t queer, you can bet a great many of his company and fans were.
We don’t have to wonder so much about Bernstein, Sondheim or indeed many of the greatest composers and librettists of the stage and silver screen. Though he played at hiding in the closet, few doubted Cole Porter’s true inclinations with lines like:
“Find me a primitive man,
Built on a primitive plan.
Someone with vigor and vim.
I don’t mean a kind that belongs to a club,
But the kind that has a club that belongs to him.
I could be the personal slave
Of someone just out of a cave.” — from Fifty Million Frenchmen, 1929
“You’re the Nile,
You’re the Tower of Pisa,
You’re the smile
On the Mona Lisa.
I’m a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, Baby, I’m the bottom
You’re the top!” — from Anything Goes 1934
Thankfully, these days there are fewer and fewer reasons to hide one’s flame at all. Maybe one day, nobody will want to.
Why do we love these artists and their works? Metaphysically, they represent the shared culture that brings us together as family.
As Our Lady of the Rainbow, Judy Garland cools and sinks in time, youngsters go Gaga behind a collective Poker Face. Both artists touch the vulnerable spots in the souls of different queer generations. Tastes shift and the waxy blobs of queerness rise and fall against the hot and cold of life, and I for one believe we’ll always have our subversive Queer™ art and culture to bind us together.