You Don’t Have to Be Ashamed: Steven Grossman’s Tender Revolution

Inside his fearless but forgotten expression of gay identity.

by

“You all know I’m bicoastal, right?” said Peter Allen, the gay but cagey singer-songwriter and high-kicking showman, in his 1970s concerts. Back then, glam-rock idols such as David Bowie and Alice Cooper used garish quasi-drag to titillate their mostly straight audiences. Gay men had heard stories about the hidden sexuality of veteran balladeer Johnny Mathis, but those were “just rumors,” insisted the female head of Mathis’ fan club. In the gay lounges of New York, piano men sang love songs to “she” and “her” while customers nursed their drinks and switched pronouns in their minds. To hear anything more candid, they had to seek out underground LPs in gay shops or send checks to shadowy p.o. boxes.

That was the homosexual presence in pop throughout the fledgling years of Gay Liberation: evasive, encoded, expressed mostly through winks and innuendo. “When you see snippets of the gay ’70s, they show Bowie in platform shoes, or Sylvester in an outrageous outfit,” says Richard Dworkin, an out-gay drummer and bandleader. “And it’s like, everyone was out. Well, they weren’t. Peter Allen was beyond coy. Elton John was ‘bisexual’ eventually, right? Gay people knew exactly what the Village People were singing about, but it was invisible, or inaudible, to straight America.”

A breakthrough occurred in 1974, when Lanny Lambert and Bobby Flax, a songwriting, studio-singing and producing duo, launched Steven Grossman, the first artist to release an openly gay album on a major label (Mercury, the home of Bowie and Rod Stewart). In that golden age of confessional singer-songwriters, Grossman, then 22, was a unicorn. Gaunt and long-haired, he looked like Jesus with a guitar, and sang about gay life with a wounded prophet’s gentleness. Grossman shared the hardships of coming out, loving himself, and finding commitment in an age of politicized promiscuity:

All this boozing and cruising does nothing more
Than to give me the pain in my song
And dancing halls and bathroom stalls
Aren’t where I belong

His album Caravan Tonight was hailed by Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone as “one of the most auspicious singer/songwriter debuts of the seventies.” It dealt with gay life “on the everyday level,” not as “chic decadence,” Holden wrote. John L. Wasserman, a star columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, called the record a universal statement: “Those not hung up by traditional prejudices or warped by religious dogma will find a simple fact about Grossman’s lyrics — they apply to human beings.” Dworkin, Grossman’s sometime roommate, still marvels at what his friend achieved. “To do what Steven did with such grace — people don’t realize how incredible it was,” he says. 

But despite the kudos it earned, Caravan Tonight flopped. Never reissued, it remains an artifact of the post-Stonewall fight for gay equality. Seventeen years later, Grossman’s death of AIDS was barely noted, even in the gay press.

In the early to mid-1970s, Grossman appears in a publicity shot for Mercury Records. Credit: Gilles Petard/Redferns.

Up until then, he had overcome a lot. A few weeks before he died, Grossman wrote a 15-page memoir, Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Steven Grossman, in which he wryly laid out the harrowing truth. He was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 1, 1951 to a brutal ex-Marine and his wife. After Steven, the couple sired eight more children, and lived with them on welfare in an apartment above a shop. According to Grossman, his parents sold two of his infant siblings. He recalled being raped at 3 by the brother of his father’s not-so-secret girlfriend. The children were forced to endure their father’s beatings and bizarre sexual abuse, which their mother seemed to condone. Grossman apparently had it the worst. His paternal grandmother sued to gain custody of him. He lived with her until a judge sent him back.

The young man hid his pain from all except a chosen few. By the time he’d entered Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, Grossman had honed a stance of Zen-like cool, partly with the help of pot. Pianist Zecca Esquibel, cabaret reviewer for the 1970s gay magazine Michael’s Thing, remembered him as “very hippie,” with a “floating, soft way of speaking. He was quiet and mild-mannered, not aggressive, not alpha.” Yet Grossman became student-body president of his senior class, and found himself a feminist girlfriend, Bonnie Samet.

At Erasmus he met Judith Casselberry and Jacqué DuPreé, two budding folk-reggae singer-musicians, both black and lesbian. They and Grossman became inseparable. “Steven really liked hanging out with lesbians; he liked their politics,” says Jim Fouratt, the longtime gay activist and film critic.

But panic seized him when he saw two men holding hands at a demonstration. Suddenly he realized he, too, might be gay. Not long after that he had his first sexual encounter with a man; he was so traumatized he asked Bonnie to marry him. But in 1971 he broke up with her and left the closet for good. He later told Neal Weaver of the gay magazine In Touch: “My first feeling, when I really came out, was rage. When I realized how much brainwashing I’d been subjected to from my parents, and my grandparents, from the movies, from every aspect of society, I was furious.”

Needing an outlet, he taught himself guitar and began writing autobiographical songs. His inspiration was Joni Mitchell, whom he adored. Far from being angry, the lyrics sought to heal: “You Don’t Have to Be Ashamed,” “Many Kinds of Love.” The content was unabashedly gay. “What really fascinated me was his courage about being who he was,” recalled the late Christopher Bergman, his boyfriend in the mid-’70s.

Grossman felt sure he would one day make an album. Indeed, a tide seemed to be shifting. In the Los Angeles Times, Gregg Kilday noted that “an emerging breed of gay performers” had begun “asserting itself without resorting to self-parody, refusing to equate homosexuality with decadence.”

But most of them were utterly obscure. According to JD Doyle, creator of the radio show and website Queer Music Heritage: “Finding music was difficult then if you wanted lyrics that spoke to you as a gay or lesbian person. This music was not played on the radio, so you had to be lucky to live in a city large enough for supportive businesses, like coffeehouses and bookstores. Word of mouth was important to even know what existed.”

In 1973, there was a surprising wealth of material. Out of Seattle came the now-fabled Lavender Country, known as the first out-gay country album. Privately produced through donations from the local gay community, it starred former farm boy Patrick Haggerty. He did not mince words: “Your lies can’t deceive me, I know that you’ll leave me/Cryin’ these cocksucking tears.” Michael Cohen, a bearded cab driver from Queens, New York, was signed that year by the respected Folkways label. On it he made two albums of rebellious folk-rock songs about his homosexuality and the responses it got: “A good doctor could cure you/All you need’s a good woman to adore you.”

Veteran record producer Warren Schatz, who went on to work with disco queens Vicki Sue Robinson and Evelyn “Champagne” King, independently released the tender folk album To Be a Man by singer-songwriter Paul Wagner; it contained several openly gay love songs. Silence greeted it. A group of radical lesbians from the Washington, D.C. area did far better when they founded a women’s music label, Olivia Records, which gave a start to such enduring out artists as Cris Williamson and Meg Christian. Meanwhile, the lesbian grapevine enthused about a bright purple LP entitled Lavender Jane Loves Women. It was the debut album of singer-feminist Alix Dobkin, whose onetime membership in the Communist party earned her an FBI file.

For mainstream audiences, though, homosexuality in song fared best when served up as a cartoon, as the glitter- and glam-rockers liked to do. To his arsenal of horror-movie stage devices — a boa constrictor, decapitated dolls, a guillotine — Alice Cooper added cross-dressing, which sparked rumors. Spec, a music magazine for teens, ran a cover headline in 1974: “Alice — A F--???” While Cooper spoke sympathetically about gays to Spec’s interviewer — “I’m not a ‘f--’; you know I don’t like [that word] because it’s insulting to gay people” — he made sure to be photographed with his girlfriend at every opportunity. “Alice Cooper wasn’t beyond employing a few hints of homosexuality to lure audiences into his sideshow,” Kilday wrote. “But once inside it was the same old macho ultra-violence.”

Early on, David Bowie had identified himself alternately as bisexual and gay. But after he toured the States as his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, an androgynous space alien, he recalibrated. “Cherry Vanilla, Bowie’s publicity lady, was reassuring nosy interviewers that Bowie wasn’t really all that bisexual,” Kilday noted. “In fact, he spent more of his time with women than with men. Why, that whole bisexuality thing, that was only issued to create publicity.”

Another glitter phenomenon of the era proclaimed himself a “true fairy”: Jobriath, an obvious Bowie knockoff. His manager, Jerry Brandt, launched Jobriath in 1973 with one of the most aggressive hype campaigns in showbiz history; it included papering New York’s buses with posters that depicted his client as a naked Roman statue. Brandt cajoled David Geffen, whom he had mentored in the music department of the William Morris Agency, into giving Jobriath a cushy two-album deal at Elektra/Asylum, which Geffen ran. Reviews were mostly scathing; Kilday compared Jobriath’s act to a “minstrel show,” explaining: “All the minority-group clichés are trotted out and run through their paces.” In 1983, the singer was found dead of AIDS-related causes in his room at New York’s Chelsea Hotel.

The whole glitter gang, even Bowie, offended Grossman. “I politically disagree with his whole trip,” he said. “I think it is a gimmick that perpetuates a certain stereotype of gay people. They give young gay people just coming out an improper image of themselves.”

Nevertheless, glitter had moved gay into the spotlight, and thus may have cracked open a door for Grossman. In 1973, Lanny Lambert and Bobby Flax, two straight men, were busy creating recording projects, mostly AM-radio novelties, in their midtown Manhattan office. That summer, Lambert rented a house for him and his newlywed wife in Ocean Beach, one of the quieter parts of Fire Island, the strip of beach communities along the southern shore of Long Island. About four miles east of Ocean Beach are Cherry Grove and the Pines, Fire Island’s two gay hubs.

One night the couple took a water taxi to Cherry Grove to have dinner. “I wandered into one of the big clubs there, the Ice Palace,” Lambert said recently from his home in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. “I had never seen a scene like that before. Here were all these guys dancing to dance music. It struck me how big the gay community was outside of our little worlds. I came back the next week and said to Bobby, ‘There’s this whole gay scene out there. We should try to find somebody who writes about the gay experience, maybe a Joni Mitchell-type person.’”

Flax, who lives today in San Diego, agreed. “These human beings were not being heard,” he says. “The stereotypes were horrendous.”

The partners published a classified ad in the Village Voice: Established producers were seeking “a gay singer who sings of the gay experience”; tapes only, please. Grossman read it. At the time he was living in Brooklyn on welfare. Before that he had wandered aimlessly from job to job, working in an orphanage, doing market research, even picking up garbage on the beach of Coney Island. He had kept writing songs but gave only occasional performances, notably at a firehouse in downtown Manhattan that the Gay Activists Alliance used as its community center. Though performing terrified him, Grossman felt safe there. “If I had my way,” he confessed, “I would only play gay places, with small crowds.”

But the Voice ad fired him up. He phoned the number listed and announced that he was the man the two producers wanted. Unfortunately he had no tape; could he come in person? The next day he walked into their office.  “He was this very thin, almost scraggly-looking guy, but there was something about him that was very real,” Flax recalls. Grossman began by informing them that he was not a “gay songwriter,” but “a songwriter who happened to be gay and proud to sing about it.” Then he demonstrated some songs. “Bobby and I looked at easy other like, holy shit — this is exactly what we were looking for,” Lambert says.

They began to book him into clubs, and produced a demo. Small offers came in from RCA and from Mercury executive Paul Nelson, the rock critic and future reviews editor at Rolling Stone. It was Nelson who had signed the New York Dolls, the gender-bending glam band that became a part of punk history. Nelson loved Grossman’s songs, and he won out by promising the singer a gatefold (fold-out) jacket with the lyrics printed inside. He also vowed to censor nothing.

A press photo from late 1973 shows Grossman at a desk, pen poised over his contract, while Flax, Lambert and Nelson stand behind him, smiling. Caravan Tonight was discreetly announced as “the first album from a different kind of singer, singing a different kind of song.” The producers thought it best to move slowly so as not to risk scaring people away. But Grossman had no intention of holding back. He told Boston’s Gay Community News: “All the songs that I wrote before I came out I just won’t sing — they’re lies.”

Care was poured into the production. Flax and Lambert hired star banjoist Eric Weissberg, who had just scored a No. 2 hit with “Dueling Banjos,” the theme of Deliverance. There were strings arranged by Chris Dedrick, who had worked with Peter, Paul & Mary and Simon & Garfunkel. On some tracks, the producers sang backup.

Friends like Austin Noto were there to cheer Grossman on. The title song detailed their breakup: “Austin, you got that gypsy in your eye … Though your head is on my knee, your mind is just outside of town.” Grossman’s ex-girlfriend watched him record “Song to Bonnie,” his account of having left her to pursue a gay life. “Out” was Grossman’s pep-talk to gays who were struggling to be truthful: “Will you try to grin and bear it/Will you hate yourself inside/Or will you walk with me in the sunshine/Because there’s really nothing to hide.” In “Dry Dock Dreaming,” he told of sitting on a pier in Greenwich Village, cruising for a loving embrace more than sex. “I’m turning to stone/I’m anxious and angry and want to go home/But please, not alone.”

Grossman was breaking ground, and Flax knew it. “I remember saying to Lanny, ‘Gender doesn’t even matter in Steven’s songs. These are real human feelings that anybody could relate to.’ We didn’t think it would be a mainstream record, but we thought there would at least be people in the gay community who would appreciate it and want to spread the word.”

To that end, they sent the demo to Vito Russo, a gay-rights activist who was then writing a watershed book, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. They invited him to a show. He wrote back: “I will go see Steve Grossman at Folk City not only because he’s a great talent but because both you and he had the courage to be honest about his lifestyle.” Russo came aboard to handle the gay press. With bulldog persistence, he organized a large advance mailing of the album to gay organizations. Mercury was issuing a single of the title song; Russo compiled a sprawling list of gay bars with jukeboxes.

In May 1974, Mercury issued Caravan Tonight. The reaction was bigger than anyone had expected. Stephen Holden’s Rolling Stone rave appeared on the same page as a review of Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic. Gregg Kilday compared Grossman to Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens.

A tour began. Grossman opened for a remarkable series of straight headliners — the Manhattan Transfer, Loudon Wainwright, Melissa Manchester, Gabe Kaplan (future star of TV’s Welcome Back, Kotter) — as well as his fellow singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy, who had just made his debut on Polydor. He and Grossman shared a bill at Max’s Kansas City, the fabled New York hangout of cutting-edge poets, painters and rockers. Grossman scored his own writeup in the New York Times. Beneath the headline, “Grossman Offers Homosexual Songs,” John Rockwell wrote: “Homosexuality in Mr. Grossman’s case has nothing to do with glitter or trendiness: These are real efforts to compose love songs and to set down personal impressions from a homosexual perspective.”

At various times Grossman looked out and saw Lou Reed and Bette Midler in the audiences, which were mainly straight. “I think he felt like he was at the front of a turning point,” said Judith Casselberry. 

Grossman mailed a copy of the album to his parents, and they sent it back.

But there was a problem. Almost no radio stations would touch his music — and without airplay, the record was doomed. A writer in the Berkeley Barb, an underground newspaper, had predicted tough times for Caravan Tonight: “because it is too truthful, too explicit, and mostly, too gay.” Grossman, wrote another critic, was “bound to be obscure.” The most painful response lay ahead. He mailed a copy of the album to his parents, and they sent it back.

By year’s end, Caravan Tonight had sold under 10,000 copies — far fewer than even the modest fifty for which Flax had hoped. Clearly the public wasn’t ready. According to Jim Fouratt, not even Grossman’s gay brethren had cared. “Steven’s music was like lesbian folk music,” he said. “It wasn’t disco, and it wasn’t Elton or Bowie, that whole slew of artists who were glam and flamboyant. Steven wasn’t flamboyant. Gay men were into anonymous sex, being clones, taking their shirts off in clubs and showing off their workouts.”

Paul Nelson had hoped to forge ahead with a second album, but the higher-ups at Mercury declined. “We’d done everything we could,” Lambert says. “We were disappointed that we couldn’t make him a star, but there was no more money to go around.” (Lambert moved into advertising; Flax became a music attorney, then vice chairman of EMI Music Publishing.)

Grossman couldn’t help feeling disillusioned. He wanted out of New York; he’d grown to hate the city’s “rush-type gay scene — all rapid turnover and no real relationship.” On Jan. 1, 1975, he followed a new boyfriend, Christopher Bergman, to San Francisco. They lived there in hippie-commune style with Judith Casselberry and her girlfriend. To Grossman’s delight, his career wasn’t dead. KQED, San Francisco public television, spotlighted him and Blackberri, another gay singer-songwriter, on a half-hour show. British supermodel and singer Twiggy covered “Caravan Tonight” on her first album. Grossman did a few well-received shows, which gave him hope.

On a trip to New York, he shopped a new set of songs to some industry contacts. They were unimpressed. The work wasn’t commercial enough, they said, and advised him to change the pronouns to she and her. Austin Noto recalls Grossman’s response: “He said, ‘No way, I won’t. All of a sudden I’m not gay anymore?’ I was very proud of him.” Angry and discouraged, he returned to San Francisco. There he wrote a song, “Last Pioneers,” about the businessmen who wanted him to “live a lie.”

He couldn’t support himself with music, so he transitioned from a “would-be singer to an accountant,” as he put it in his mini-memoir. The blandness of his new identity left him wanting more, and Grossman succumbed to the city’s freewheeling gay scene. In it, he said, “commitment was a concept of the past.” He and Bergman broke up, and a new Steven emerged. He adopted the buzzed-hair-and-mustache “clone” look and became a fixture in the city’s oasis of outdoor gay sex, Buena Vista Park. Sometimes he wrote songs there; mostly he cruised. All the while he stayed high on “a seemingly endless supply of Quaaludes, pot, and cocaine.”

His downward spiral had begun. Grossman told of going to jail briefly on a hit-and-run charge. On Dec. 2, 1979, he was brutally beaten on his way to a dance club. It may have been a gay-bashing; he never quite knew. He lost sight in his right eye, and took to wearing an eye patch.

Not until 1984 did he manage to clean up. By this time, AIDS had transformed the rollicking gay landscape he loved into a place of terror and death, yet in it he found a sense of purpose he had lacked for years. Grossman quit most of his drug use and joined a gym. He became an AIDS caregiver for the Shanti Project, a support service for people with life-threatening ailments. Another organization, the Hunger Project, took him on as chief accountant. “And I helped to take care of my friends who were starting to get sick,” he said. 

On Christmas Day of 1986, Grossman met the love of his life, Jimmy Price. Early in the relationship, Price learned he was HIV-positive. So did Grossman. By 1989, both men had crossed over into full-blown AIDS. The following year Price died, and Grossman was getting sicker. Determined to fight, he signed on for experimental drug treatments. 

That September, he flew to New York for a 39th-birthday bash thrown by Austin Noto in his West Village apartment. “He told me he had never had a birthday party,” Noto says. “So I asked him to give me a list of guests he wanted there.” The singer was elated by the turnout, and even performed a few songs. He seemed the picture of health in his tight jeans and half-unbuttoned white shirt. Grossman, said Casselberry, “was not as well as he appeared. But he had an ego, and when he walked in the door he was on.”

His days were clearly numbered, however, and she pushed him to make an album of his unrecorded songs. “Are you just gonna take this music with you?” she asked. He doubted anyone would care, but she persuaded him. Though riddled with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions, even in his lungs, he showed up at the Berkeley studio she had booked. As the day wore on, Grossman blossomed before everyone’s eyes. The songs included the whimsical “Buena Vista,” in which he rolled his eyes at the park’s nighttime ritual — men standing around lighting matches to see who else was cruising — while defending their right to do as they pleased. “Step” was a calm portrait of living with “the big A.” “Something in the Moonlight” was inspired by Jimmy Price, whose spirit kept calling to him.

“Who knows?” said a happy Grossman about the project. “It might turn out really great and I’ll win some kind of posthumous award for best album by a very dead but very sensitive homosexual.”

A few weeks later, on June 23, 1991, friends surrounded him at home as he breathed his last. Nearly 20 years passed before Casselberry and Dworkin released the album, entitled Something in the Moonlight. “Everyone was so busy,” explained Christopher Bergman. “Maybe a little bit not wanting to face it emotionally, too.”

Though he never won that award, by the end of the ’70s a few artists had followed in his path. In 1978, British singer-songwriter Tom Robinson led a sing-along of his Top 20 hit, “Glad to Be Gay,” at a London show. Zecca Esquibel was there. “The glow on the audience’s faces while they were singing it at the top of their lungs was like few things I have experienced,” he says. “It was like they had let the birds out of the cage and they were all in the trees singing.” Six years later, on her first album, k.d. lang recorded Mel Tillis and Webb Pierce’s “Bop-a-Lena” with female pronouns intact (“She’s my gal and I love her so …”). At the 1987 AIDS Walk New York, Peter Allen introduced “Love Don’t Need a Reason,” the song that became the crisis’ anthem. He had written it with two out songwriters, Marsha Malamet and singer-activist Michael Callen, who had been penning lyrics about gay life for years.

But even though there are currently more out pop stars than Grossman could ever have foreseen, few have sung openly about their sexuality; artists who do tend to remain on the fringes. Until now, Grossman’s story had languished mostly inside of defunct gay publications. In one of them, he says: “I like to think that somehow those kids out there will be able to identify with my material, and maybe benefit from it a little.”

Judith Casselberry, today a professor at Bowdoin College in Maine, inherited the bulk of his papers. She read me one of the many letters Grossman had saved. It was sent on Nov. 24, 1974 from Three Rivers, Michigan.

Dear Steven Grossman,

I wonder if you’ll even get this letter. It doesn’t really matter. I’ve written it and poured out these feelings, at least. I’ve just heard “Caravan Tonight” and I adore it!! Thank you for what you’ve done. It is a part of you. I love it. I would love a photograph of you, autographed, even if that’s dumb. I feel like a teenybopper. But who cares? You speak to the inner me. If you don’t get this letter — are you even reading this? — I just want to tell this piece of paper that I love Steven Grossman.

Thank you,
William

Original introductory image courtesy of Significant Other Records.

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