Nearly 18,000 LGBTQ New Yorkers, including many living with HIV, access services at Callen-Lorde Community Health Center each year, but many of them have no idea who the center is jointly named for: Michael Callen, the pioneering gay musician and AIDS activist who died of the disease in 1993 at the age of 38, and Audre Lorde, the black lesbian poet and activist who died of cancer at 58. (The two apparently didn't know each other.)
On Nov. 11, at least the Callen half of the namesake will get his rightful due at a special evening at the iconic Joe's Pub in New York City. Purple Heart: The Music of Michael Callen (tickets start at $40 for a barstool, and sponsorship tickets start at $250 for a pair) will be emceed by venerable lesbian comic Kate Clinton and feature downtown queer superstars including Taylor Mac, Bridget Everett, Holly Near, NathAnn Carrera, and Xavier Smith. The evening will celebrate Callen's vast body of musical work, including from his 1988 debut solo album Purple Heart, his two albums with his group the Flirtations, and his posthumous 1996 album Legacy.
The evening will benefit the perpetually overbooked Callen-Lorde, which plans to open a clinic in downtown Brooklyn next spring. The event is being organized by pianist, musical director, and arranger Matt Ray and drummer Richard Dworkin, Callen's partner in life and music. TheBody spoke with the duo about the highlights of Callen's brief but wildly productive adult life, which included his coauthoring (with Joseph Sonnabend, M.D., and activist Richard Berkowitz) the seminal 1983 safe-sex tract How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, his part in drafting the Denver Principles, which recast AIDS "victims" as human beings with rights and demands, and his cofounding of important groups including the People With AIDS Coalition and the Community Research Initiative on AIDS, which evolved into ACRIA.
Tim Murphy: Hi there, Matt and Richard. The event sounds exciting! Whose idea was it?
Richard Dworkin: It was something I'd wanted to do for a very long time, because a lot of Michael's music hasn't been heard or played in a quarter-century now. And I miss playing it, too. And it wasn't manifesting with me just thinking about it. So I was at a Callen-Lorde event and mentioned it to Donnie Roberts, the head of development, and he said, "That's fantastic! We can help you with that." Then he went and got Wendy Stark, the executive director, who said, "Yeah, that's a great idea."
TM: What will the performers be singing on Nov. 11? And did any of them know Michael?
RD: Holly Near knew Michael. She's on his second and final album, Legacy.
Matt Ray: Holly will sing her version of "Love Don't Need a Reason," Taylor will sing [a song version of] "How to Have Sex in an Epidemic," and Bridget will sing "The Healing Power of Love" -- all classic Callen songs.
TM: How would you characterize Michael's music?
RD: Wide-ranging, diverse, politically and socially aware. It's a musical reflection of his activist work. He was influenced by Elton John, Bette Midler, and Barbra Streisand.
MR: You have some power ballads, some more Broadway type of songs, then these anthemic rock songs.
TM: For those who aren't familiar with Michael, how would you describe his importance?
RD: He was a writer, author, and AIDS activist before there really was an AIDS activist movement [Ed.: ACT UP New York did not start until 1987] -- and a really, really talented singer-songwriter and funny guy. At a time when the lifespan of people with AIDS was measured in months, he sent the message that you could thrive and perhaps survive AIDS forever, which of course he didn't. [Ed.: Callen wrote the 1990 book Surviving AIDS.
TM: Richard, how did you and Michael meet?
RD: In 1982, I answered an ad in the New York Native that Michael had placed looking for gay musicians. I kept calling this number and getting an answering machine. Then I got this amazing gig out in California, and when I got back, I thought, "Let me call one more time," so I called and Michael answered and said, "I happen to be getting together with a bass player tonight, do you want to come over?" So I said OK and went to his house on Jones Street, and there was the bass player, and Michael had made sorbet. And we fell in love that night, and I stayed over. He had a piano and books, and to me that was a draw. He moved in with me in the fall of '82.
TM: And what was your life like together?
RD: He went and lived in L.A. for a while, but otherwise, our 11-year life together was wonderful and complicated. He was living really fast, because he figured he might not have that much time, and he wanted to do as much as he could. Also, he felt like he was uniquely situated, and had the responsibility, to do something about the burgeoning AIDS epidemic. So he played the piano and I played drums, he wrote and I edited songs. It was exciting, fun, draining, and all-consuming.
TM: What would you do for fun?
RD: I remember that in the final year of his life, we did a recording session with Holly and Cris Williamson in San Francisco, then we piled into a big black limo and went to [famous Berkeley restaurant] Chez Panisse. That was a perfect day for him, because he was also an amazing cook who loved to make fruit tarts, because he felt they described him.
TM: What do you think Michael would consider the most exciting or best year of his life?
RD: Probably the last year, because he got to do something he had to put aside during his quote-unquote AIDS career, and that was work on music almost exclusively. He felt he was called away from music to fight the war against AIDS, but that last year, we recorded about 50 songs between January and September of 1993, and eventually I released 29 of them on Legacy. He got to work with some talented musicians, and it was absolutely the most productive year of his life, musically speaking.
TM: So along with Berkowitz and Sonnabend, Michael literally wrote the book on how to have safe sex in the early '80s. What do you think he would make of our current era of U=U [undetectable equals untransmittable], PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis], and the return of sex without condoms?
RD: I think he would be really pleased. If you listen to the song of "How to Have Sex in an Epidemic," it's Michael saying, "Oh yeah, safe sex is wonderful, hmmm, actually, it's not, but this is what we have to do." He was always willing to acknowledge that it wasn't what anyone would prefer.
MR: '80s, the Whitman-Walker clinic in D.C. put out a poster saying gay men should consider stopping having anal sex, and Michael in 1989 wrote a column, "In Defense of Anal Sex," about why that was totally unacceptable. I'd also like to add that Callen-Lorde has been my primary care provider since 2006, and to say how much it means to me to be part of this event.