Apr 25, 2016

Big Bad Brucie

I am a child of the television era; the tv was on from the moment we got home from school until well past bedtime, except during dinner.  We watched while playing, doing homework, reading, a constant, pleasant background to our lives.

Radio was trivial: the KSTT Top 40 Hits played every morning as we were getting ready for school, and sometimes late in the evening.  It was like an alarm clock.  You never deliberately listened.

Until the fall of 1975, my sophomore year in high school, when a friend told me about a late-night radio program, Dr. Demento.

It specialized in parodies and novelty songs.

The first night I listened, the playlist included:

"Dragnet Goes to Kindergarten"
"Pickle in the Middle with the Mustard on Top"
"Marvin's Duckie"
"Chicken Fat"
"They're Coming to Take Me Away"
"The Lumberjack Song"

And "Big Bruce," by Steve Greenberg.

Well at the beauty salon every morning at ten
Big Bruce arrived and kind of tip-toed in
He wore bell bottomed pants and a polka-dot tie
And whenever he spoke, it was just to say 'Hi'

And everyone knew when he swished into town
You could smell his perfume for miles around
He stood six foot five, and weighed 106
With a curl in his hair and a smile on his lips

He dies when his beauty salon catches on fire, and he goes back inside to fetch his purse.

That's what heteros thought gay men were like in 1975.

Many still do. This is Big Gay Al, from Southpark.  Grant Stone and Trey Parker still think gay men lisp and swish.

I had no idea that gay men existed in 1975, but I knew all about swishes:  boys who believed so strongly that they were girls, that they actually became girls, or rather a monstrous boy-girl hybrid: though male in form, they lisped, minced, swished, carried purses, wore dresses and perfume and make-up, called you "Thweetie," and were usually named Bruce.

Except the swishes I knew were figures of disgust and dread: they waited patiently in schoolyards and back alleys, breathing softly in the shadows, until an unsuspecting boy approached.  Then they pounced!  All it took was a slim, bejeweled hand placed on your shoulder, or a soft lisping whisper in your ear, and you would change, inevitably, into a swish.

Big Bruce was certainly ridiculed, laughed at, and looked down upon, but he was no threat.

"Big Bruce" was first released by Randy Sparks of the New Christie Minstrels in 1961.  He meant it as a parody of "Big Bad John," a Western ballad by Jimmy Dean (the guy who sells sausages)

On the queer music website, Randy Sparks writes: "Most gay men had no problem with laughing at the ditty, but any lesbians in my audiences seemed to immediately take offense, so I was careful where I sang it. I didn't want to make anyone uncomfortable."

I would certainly be yelling "homophobe!" now, but in 1975 it was a pleasant alternative to the horror the swishes usually brought.

The song was very popular in the homophobic 1960s, recorded by several other groups, including The Country Gentlemen (1966), The Faux Pas (1967),  Bill Stith (1973), and most recently Bird & MacDonald (1993).  Steve Greenberg's version is from 1969.

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