Monday, June 18, 2012

This Day in Pop Music History (Peter Allen, Flamboyant Singer-Songwriter, Dead From AIDS)

June 18, 1992—Peter Allen, known (if at all) to most pop-music fans for songs other artists covered such as “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and “I Honestly Love You” but to a more rabid cult following as a consummate concert performer in his own right, died at age 48 of AIDS-related throat cancer in a hospital in San Diego.

The death of the Australian-born former protégé of Judy Garland (and first husband of her daughter Liza Minnelli) came less than six months after fans at his last performance in Sydney noticed his uncharacteristic difficulty with high notes—a consequence of his illness—and eight years after the AIDS-related illness of longtime companion Gregory Connell.

The charismatic showman had a contemplative, quieter self reflected in one of his more personal songs, the title cut of his 1979 album I Could Have Been a Sailor, a vision of an idyllic life without compromise in pursuit of dreams: “Oh lover, I can see the waves before you part/Well, I settled for safer harbors of my heart.” In death, he found communion with the waters he loved, as his ashes were scattered at sea.

With the passage of two decades, it can be difficult to describe Allen in all his dimensions. Part of him harked back to Cole Porter, another songwriter whose rueful moods sometimes bubbled up, despite himself, to his bon vivant surface. This was the composer whose work furnished other performers with some of the biggest hits of their careers, including Olivia Newton-John (“I Honestly Love You”), Melissa Manchester (“Don’t Cry Out Loud”) and Rita Coolidge (“I’d Rather Leave While I’m in Love”). (As one of several composers on the tune, he also won an Oscar for Best Song for Christopher Cross's "Arthur's Theme (When You Get Caught Between the Moon and New York City").

And then there was the performer, the between-songs jokester, the wild man pounding the piano with one hand while singing to the audience with each leg on either side of the bench—even the Grand Levitator, moved by sheer energy in his signature song, “I Go to Rio,” to dance around the stage as he shook maracas.

Allen’s concert persona took shape in the New York cabaret Reno Sweeney’s, where he began a few months after its October 1972 opening. He would start his show with songs from his first two LPs, Peter Allen and Tenterfield Saddler, as often as not tinged with nostalgia and melancholy. But he was keenly aware that his audience could use something else, he admitted later to James Gavin in an interview for Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret:

“The same people kept coming back and back…. I could see the audience wanted to have a good time, so I stopped singing so many sad ballads and switched to a lot of uptempo things. We didn’t have a drummer, so I got the audience to clap and do the beat to keep time.  Then I started to get up and dance around to the stomping of their feet. You would look out and see boys holding boys’ hands and girls holding girls’ hands. When you did a ballad, the most unlikely combinations gravitated toward each other.”

Those last couple of sentences hint at the post-Stonewall gay community that helped revive New York's cabaret scene in the early 1970s. After his short-lived marriage to Minnelli, Allen stopped pretending he was heterosexual. Unlike other performers of his time, he didn’t nervously stay in the closet; unlike those of our own era, he didn’t do an elaborately choreographed coming out in a national publication. He simply was out there.

Someone I know who caught one of his shows in the 1980s related this little bit of patter, which, from what I gather, was typical in tone: “I know what you’re all asking yourselves—is he…or isn’t he?” He let the titters build to a crescendo before saying, with a wink: “Well…I guess I’ll let you figure it out for yourselves.”

That didn’t turn out to be too hard. If it wasn’t obvious from his loud, sequined Hawaiian shirts, his double-entendre description of his living arrangements (“I’m bi-coastal”) or the sly title of one of his songs (“Not the Boy Next Door), it was from the uninhibited stunt he began to use in his 1979 New York one-man show, Up in One: coming onstage toward the end in Carmen Miranda-like drag complete with fruit-topped headdress, belting out “I Go to Rio.”

Campy? Undoubtedly. But also expressive of an irrepressible joie de vivre. His studio albums, even when buffed to a high sheen by the likes of ace producer David Foster, came nowhere near capturing this bonhomie. For that, you had to turn to his live work. If you weren’t lucky, you made do with recordings such as It Is Time for Peter Allen; if you were lucky, you caught him hoofing it up, for all he was worth, with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.

His unstoppable energy served Allen well in the late Eighties, when he began to battle some of the stiffest challenges of his career and life. After critics mauled his musical Legs Diamond, he simply incorporated a number of the songs into a retooled version of his act and went on the road.

Those fans who knew how to read between the lines of his sometimes autobiographical lyrics, however, might have felt a chill when they saw the title of what turned out to be his last album: Making Every Moment Count. Less than two years later, Allen was dead, with Minnelli (who remained his friend despite the breakup of his marriage) at his bedside constantly until the end.

More than a decade after Allen’s death, fellow Australian Hugh Jackman starred on Broadway in a jukebox musical based on the singer’s life and work, The Boy From Oz. I never got around to seeing this show, but I don’t think it would have lessened any bit of my regret over what would have been a vast catalogue of sterling songs but for Allen’s untimely, wasteful death.

(Photo shows Peter Allen performing at the opening of the Sydney Entertainment Centre, May 1, 1983)

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