Michael Callen's Legacy

“You’d have to have lived in a very dark, heavily-fortified closet in a very small town in a decade other than the one just past to have not heard of Michael Callen. He was one of the longest-living PWA’s, and he became talismanic proof for the rest of us that people with AIDS survive, perhaps, we imagined/hoped, till the coming of the Queer Utopia, concurrent obviously with the discovery of The Cure. Unreasonably, I never expected him to die.

He was one of the omnipresent, one of the titans, he seemed during the feverish days of the first risings of the PWA population and its supporters to be everywhere, on television, in the media, expressing an anger that sounded familiar but always slightly unlike the anger in fashion, as exemplified by ACT UP. If the AIDS militant movement had been the early Russian Revolution, and ACT UP the Bolsheviks, Callen would have been one of the left-anarchist faction groups: in revolutionary solidarity, but dissenting. For one thing, he didn’t believe HIV caused AIDS. For another thing, he admitted uncertainty and he rarely prescribed—action or drugs. For a third thing, he mistrusted authority, even queer authority, even the leadership of the AIDS militant movement, with a mistrust so profoundly anarchist in spirit that he made membership in any organization seem a little conformist, and slow.

Rehearsing Bernice Johnson Reagon's "They Are Falling All Around Me" with Cris Williamson and Holly Near (right).

He was exasperating at times, and he was endlessly accused of self-promotion. One ugly rumor held that he was faking AIDS to boost his singing career (we are hideously unkind to one another). None of the heroes of the movement have escaped charges of narcissism—have the heroes of any movement ever escaped such charges? Just as the lesbian and gay movement helped reinvigorate identity politics by infusing its actions with the spirit of carnival, making of the angriest demonstrations a protest and a celebration simultaneously, so too has the Hero As Diva been added to the political repertoire. Heroes have always been divas, but never before so self-consciously, so performatively: Bill Clinton (nobody’s hero) playing mediocre sax doesn’t electrify the way Michael Callen does when this acknowledged expert on the epidemic of the century, this champion of the rights of People With AIDS, sings “Glitter and Be Gay.” Clinton’s sax, Lee Atwater’s guitar, or Chief Justice Rehnquist’s Stephen Foster singalongs are affectations entirely inappropriate to the abysmal anti-music, the dire soul-lessness of their politics. Callen’s Divaisms, defiant assertions of flamboyant sissyhood and of strength, speak perfectly to his political aims: Tin Pan Alley has always accommodated the tragic and the jubilant with redemptive, irresistible grace. And so it is fitting that alongside his inspirational, invaluable book (Surviving AIDS), his powerful televisual performances, his amazing, moving interviews, and the movement he helped create, stands Legacy, this album of lovely popular songs. Sing, Diva!

And it is surely one of the most astonishing features of the album you hold in your hands that the lungs producing this soaring music were at the time of much of the recording thoroughly ravaged by KS lesions. More than a testament to Callen’s immense willpower, the singing you hear is in a sense produced in collaboration with, or at the very least accompanied by the plague, transformed through artistry into incredible music. It’s an illusion, but until the cure arrives, it’s a helpful one: Callen has found a way to make even this murderer sing.

In his letter asking me to contribute these notes, Richard Dworkin put the essential question: “What is it that makes an ordinary person do extraordinary things?” Michael Callen wasn’t ordinary: he was intelligent, articulate, ambitious, disciplined, possessed of these qualities in greater abundance than most of us can lay claim to. And yet Richard is right in calling Michael ordinary, in that this description fits the manifestly generous spirit that drove and infused his work and his art. Callen was that paradoxical thing, the leader-citizen, an extraordinary ordinary man. The force that generated his activism, his sense of civic duty, his commitment, was doubtless compounded of all the qualities I’ve already listed, including narcissism and moral responsibility. And it was compounded equally of mysteries: of timing, of inspiration, of receiving a calling. When one speaks of Callen’s “work and art” one is, I imagine, making an unnecessary distinction; like most true artists he brought to his art an activist passion, and like most great activists he brought to his activism the passion and beauty of art.

— Tony Kushner

Excerpted from Legacy liner notes; other contributors include Deborah Tannen, Tim Miller, Doug Sadownick, Pamela Brandt, Elinor Burkitt, and Holly Near.