"Boys Keep Swinging: A Memoir," by Jake Shears

PQ Book Review

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Atria Books

336 pages

$26.00 US/$35.00 Canada

One of the reviews I saw for this described “Boys Keep Swinging” as “brutally honest.” Such cliche should come nowhere near this memoir, by Scissor Sisters’ frontman Jake Shears. “Brutally honest” implies the author is perhaps revealing too much. For me, this isn’t just a memoir, it’s a celebration of my generation.

Jake Shears, who was born in Arizona but raised partially in the Pacific Northwest and attended the Northwest School in Seattle, is a year older than me. I have always felt lucky in that my college years were spent in a New York that was sadly forever changed by September 11th, 2001.

Shears attended The New School in Lower Manhattan and, like me and many of the young queer men I knew in that New York, spent their off-campus hours haunting the East Village. A neighborhood still not-quite-gentrified, or as Shears describes it, one in the wake of a “sleazy gay resurgence.”  

We were aware that the relatively new, antiretroviral drugs for HIV made the disease no longer a death sentence. Imagine, being nineteen: your parents frightened at the prospect of you being gay and testing positive, while your doctor told you it was now a manageable disease. Guess what that meant for us? Yup. Lots of sex, or attempts; many, many, many attempts. Shears mentions “fumbling foreplay” spent on raised, platform beds in small Lower East Side apartments up against drywall, where f*cking almost never happened.

“They were delectably sticky summer evenings, with no one to answer to, and no telling whose bed I’d end up in.”

This was before apps, by the way.

Sexuality pulsed all over New York, as it surely still does. But there seemed to be a special celebration of it in venues like the Cock, Wonder Bar, and a tiny, dirty, somehow happening place called I.C. Guys, where Shears was a gogo boy.

You may already be familiar with that world in the 2007 album K-Mart Disco, in the song “Step Aside for the Man:”

 

Cause I'm a real nice guy and I'm free as hell

To be a cornpoke faggot dressed really really well

In my big black boots and my denim daisy dukes

I got my big blond hair and my leather underwear

You know I'm fine cause I work it all the time

Baby, do it while you can

If your nasty, you will get burned down

Take a ride with the tide, there's a ocean deep inside

Better learn how to swim the backstroke freestyle

Make it feel good all the while

 

Nice boys, Shears lets us know, could be slutty too. And, Shears was from all accounts a nice boy. He was the only child of a second marriage. His father and sisters were much older, as his father was born in 1928. A story very similar to mine, my father was born in 1924 and was not expecting to be a father again in 1979. Early on in his childhood he found a sort of handbook among his parents things for raising “gifted” or especially intelligent children.

Shears knew he was “different.” Early on he knew he was gay and a quite special, perhaps petulant child. It’s interesting that his parents equated his difference with being gifted, not gay. When he did tell them he was gay, at some point as a boarder at the Northwestern School, his father reacted by saying he was “devastated.” His mother’s initial response to his saying he could still have children was also negative. Basically, she didn’t want a gay son, with a gay partner, raising a child in the house.

These were things we dealt with in that window of time. We were accepted, but at arm’s length. Parents had to grow into their role as parents of grown-up, decision making, gay children. Sure, this still happens today but with the LGBTQ community more visible, with gay marriage (hopefully) preserved, it’s not necessarily the norm we had to deal with twenty years ago.

(Yikes...did I just say that?)

Shears does not fail to mention he had help along the way. For instance, it was Dan Savage who told him on his radio show to tell his parents about his sexuality. Savage, whom he met shortly thereafter at a queer youth party in Seattle as he handed out condoms in a dress, was himself devastated to learn his parents weren’t completely supportive. He took a young Jake, then Jason Sellards, under his wing.

He was also incredibly lucky that he met Anderson Cooper at a bar in New York one night. In the days when everybody gay in New York knew Cooper was gay, but we kept it as a delicious secret. We respected his privacy.

Yes, there is honesty pulsing through the book. An honesty as sexy as strobe lights bouncing off the abs of a gogo boy at the now long-shuttered, famed Twilo nightclub in Chelsea. He’s honest about all the ecstasy. He’s honest about all the sex. He even reveals he decided on a career in music because he had to do something with his life. Something fun, clearly.

Not since Sean Wilsey’s “Oh, the Glory of it All” published in 2005 have I read a memoir so beautifully crafted. There’s a lot to unpack in this memoir. If you were young in New York in the mid-1990s to early 2000s, love music, love first-person storytelling, or simply want to go on a wild ride with one of the most important musicians of the 21st Century, it should be required reading.

I should add, resist the temptation ro listen to the Scissor Sisters’ albums on repeat as you read this. Instead, learn how the music was made. Then, as I am now, play their songs with renewed appreciation and "keep swinging."

 

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