The Miraculous Revival of Julius Eastman

I’m pretty swamped by writing jobs at the moment. Mostly for money – Bard pays the mortgage and electricity, but if I want to continue smoking Padrone cigars and drinking Old Vine Red, those liner notes and program notes have to keep coming. But one job I’m doing I’m very excited about: liner notes for the first commercial recording of music by Julius Eastman. Eastman (1940-1990) was a brilliant singer, fabulous pianist, politically aggressive gay African-American, outrageous personality, and one of the important musical figures of the generation just after the minimalists. Peter Maxwell Davies wrote Eight Songs for a Mad King for his versatile, sepulchral voice. [CORRECTION: Oops, this is in dispute, and I'm told the piece was written for Roy Hart; but Eastman became famous for the amazing recording.] Julius somehow let his life go to hell after 1983; at one point he was evicted from his New York apartment, his scores and belongings thrown out on the street by the sherriff, and he ended up sleeping in Tompkins Square Park. He died all alone in a hospital in Buffalo in 1990, and no one on the music scene even knew about it. But I got wind of a rumor, called Julius’s family, “broke” the story, and wrote an obituary in the Village Voice eight months after he died.

Julius’s music has been difficult to reconstruct, but thanks to Mary Jane Leach, Peter Gena, and others, New World has gathered enough good recordings from Julius’s lifetime to put together a well representative three-CD set. Three of the pieces are from a concert at Northwestern University that I attended and assisted in as a student there: three huge, hammering, pent-up-energetic essays for multiple pianos called Evil Nigger, Crazy Nigger, and Gay Guerrilla. As far as I know, the only place they’ve been heard publicly in 20 years is on Postclassic Radio, because I saved the recordings. Without having heard those pieces, I probably wouldn’t have written my Long Night for three pianos just afterward; and an echo of Gay Guerrilla survived in the primary motive of my chamber piece Hovenweep. Julius was a big musical influence on me, and then he nearly disappeared to history.

I first heard Julius perform in 1974, last ran into him in 1989, and got to know him somewhat in several encounters in-between. Some of my stories about him I can’t use in my liner notes, like the time at New Music America 1980 when I unwittingly let him lead me into a gay bar in Minneapolis – it took me a moment to figure out why all these burly men were wearing midriff shirts, but I kept calm, stayed 15 minutes before excusing myself politely on account of other commitments, and thought I handled it pretty coolly for being only 24 and very inexperienced. He used to try to talk me and Peter into trying out gayness in that mellifluous deep bass of his. He griped at us for using deoderant, saying, “Only straights use deoderant these days,” to which Peter would yell, “Julius, whaddaya think we are?!” He was an incredible character. I’m so glad his music is coming out in a big chunk, and proud to be involved. Look for it on New World in a couple of months.

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