It is well-known that music was a unifying element in the South’s Civil Rights movement, whether through the hymns sung by activists or the calls for integrated audiences at rock and R&B shows, so it would seem paradoxical that music could also be divisive in the years that followed. In this essay, Terry Barr comments on the myths and narratives that accompanied various musical styles when he was growing up in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1970s and ’80s.
Long-Haired Disco Boys
by Terry Barr
“There was long ones, tall ones, short ones, brown ones
Black ones, round ones, big ones, crazy ones . . .”
— Eric Burden Declares WAR
In the lyrics to his 1974 hit, “Long-Haired Country Boy,” Charlie Daniels sings:
“Preacher man talking on T.V.
Puttin’ down the rock and roll
Wants me to send a donation
‘Cause he’s worried about my soul
He said Jesus walked on the water
And I know that it’s true
But sometimes I think that preacherman
Would like to do a little walking too.”
As a Southern rock n’ roller—and later a country/bluegrass star—Charlie Daniels and especially these lyrics have often intrigued me. Daniels insists on his long-haired rocker rights, and perhaps more importantly, his rights to be an individual Southern man who likes what he likes and doesn’t want to be hated or lectured. I understand this deep impulse. Those who “put down” rock n’ roll have shadowed me all of my teen and then adult life. Even in 1988, during my first year as a tenure-track English professor, I listened in wonder as an older white man – our college’s librarian – disparaged The Beatles as if they and their “yeah, yeah, yeah crap” (his words) were merely a passing fad. Later that year, I had to explain to another old, white male colleague, with whom I was planning a course in Media and Society, just what MTV was. He had no idea, and I hope, since he was a very sweet guy, that I exercised all due patience and respect as I described a TV channel full of music videos.
I was eighteen when “Long Haired Country Boy” was popular, and one of my friends and I used to sing it together as he strummed his acoustic guitar. We were long-haired country boys, or at least long-haired, native-born, suburban Alabama boys, and we loved and defended our rock music.
Our white boys’ music.
Preachermen and regular old parental figures tried to dissuade us from this “Devil’s Music,” this “noise.” They tried to get us to cut our hair (and often took offense when we claimed, based on the portraits hanging in our church, that Jesus had long hair too), as if long hair might make us commies or freaks, or in likely their worst nightmares, “fags.”
I don’t know about my friend, but I certainly got called a fag by some of my acquaintances because I wore my hair too long; I didn’t go out for football – actually, I did in 7th grade, for three painful days – but joined the high school Thespian club instead, and I wasn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a Romeo. The name-calling never led to any fights, but had I been even more belligerent than I was, I could have surely received the ass-lickin’ that I know some wanted to give me. Even as I use that phrase “ass-lickin’,” I understand how strange and ironic it is—what some Southern white boys want to do to or with other white boys, or maybe even black boys.
While I loved rock music, especially from the British invaders and the American psychedelics, I had an ambivalence toward 1970s Southern rock. I loved The Allman Brothers, saw The Marshall Tucker Band live, and will always consider “Midnight Rider” and “Take the Highway ” as favorite songs from that time of my life. All of the other Southern “boogie” bands, however, I could take or leave, and mostly the latter. Daniels, Barefoot Jerry, Black Oak Arkansas, Elvin Bishop, Wet Willie: I’m not sure I could pick out one from another were you to play them for me on a deluxe model turntable. Of course, when these bands were popular and playing venues in my regional back yard, I couldn’t proclaim loudly that I didn’t like them. I couldn’t face my friends’ wrath or scorn, or the social stigma and ostracism that would have followed had I denounced any of these sacred sons as fostering the redneck Southern image some of us were trying so desperately to shed. So I held my tongue and nodded as if I agreed that “The South’s Gonna Do It Again.”
By the time I finished high school in 1974, I had seen exactly three bands who were solely or primarily African American: Earth, Wind, and Fire, Billy Preston, and Buddy Miles. Each of these was an opening or middle act, warming everyone up for the headliners: Uriah Heep (who cancelled while we were listening to Earth, Wind, and Fire), Eric Clapton, and Three Dog Night. They were all strong performers — even Miles whose hit song “Them Changes” we ridiculed before, during, and after the show. That he played on Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies album somehow got lost on my friends and me.
Back then, I might have gone to see Billy Preston had he been the headliner. He was the closest thing to a Beatle that I have ever gotten. But my gang in those days fell on the principle that only white rock n’ roll bands were worthy of our time, our dollars, and our cool cache. Of course, in my home area of Birmingham, crossing over the segregated lines could get you into trouble [see Nat King Cole]. Here’s another example of how bad and wrong things were: I used to laugh with my friends when The Chi-Lites’ hit “Have You Seen Her” played through our radio dials. By myself, though, I turned the volume up and sang along, visualizing myself in Eugene Record’s beautifully-haunting images. I was afraid to let my friends know this truth about me, my own closeted life.
In all those rock shows – and I could be wrong; in fact statistics would likely prove me wrong were I to hold them – I can remember only one African-American guy in the crowd, and that was at a Kinks concert at the Birmingham-Jefferson small concert hall. The year was 1979, and this guy, like the rest of us, seemed pretty stoned and ready to rock out to “You Really Got Me.” He was by himself, it seemed, and I’ll always wonder what drew him to the event. Could he have loved white boy rock n’ roll and The Kinks, as I did? Was that possible? Am I that blind, or racist?
In 1979, Birmingham elected its first black mayor, Richard Arrington, Jr. Yet, so many of us were still willingly, blindly, living in a segregated world. To claim otherwise, even then, would be to antagonize those who were still standing their ground for causes lost and irredeemable.
What is it about youth and young manhood, to quote Kings of Leon, that causes Southern males of a certain era to want to beat unlike hearts and minds to a pulp? To want to torture and publicly ridicule, and maybe even lynch those who seek other pleasure? What is our rebellious defiance all about, and why, in the 1970s, did we war against each other—we white boys—and cast each other out if we played or liked the “wrong” music?
For God’s sake, I got into so much trouble just because I preferred rocker Neil Young to his supposed antagonists Lynyrd Skynyrd. I know that Neil started “it” with “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” and I also know that in the spring of 1973, there were at least 16,000 other white people who, along with me, watched Neil perform at The University of Alabama, near the site of where, ten years earlier, George Wallace had tried to block admissions UA of a Black student. We cheered especially those most provocative of Southern songs, too. Just last year, Neil released Tuscaloosa, his live album of that show, and I’m so glad I was there with some of my close friends. We loved it. But when I told other friends, they worried about me:
“Isn’t he anti-South?”
“Ooo, I hate his voice.”
“He sings like a woman . . .”
And so, by inference, he might be one of those . . . fags. Which anyone who knew anything about Neil Young knew wasn’t true.
But so what if he was?
As for Skynyrd, I am proud to say that I never saw them live, although long after the plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zandt and other band members, I did see the vestiges The Rossington-Collins Band live in Knoxville, as a friend of mine was tasked with reviewing the concert for The University of Tennessee’s student newspaper The Daily Beacon. I remember nothing about the show except that we sat in the side balcony, that the band played their one hit “Please Don’t Misunderstand Me,” and that for the climax, the band placed a chair centerstage, shone a spotlight on it, and on the chair placed Van Zandt’s iconic black hat. Then, they played an instrumental version of “Free Bird” that surely lasted fifteen minutes and, if I remember correctly, brought the house down.
And as iconic images or moments go, what says Southern Man any better than “Free Bird,” no matter how or under what circumstances it’s played?
It took me decades to free myself from its influence, and if “Free Bird” was bad – even my hippie college mentor, a stylized long-haired radical named Ron who edited our subversive student paper at The University of Montevallo, loved that song – how did I escape “Sweet Home Alabama?” Short answer is, I didn’t. As an Alabama Crimson Tide fan, I hear it constantly during autumn Saturdays, and after Alabama defeated Florida and white male poster boy Tim Tebow in 2009 for the SEC Championship, my own daughter played the song repeatedly and made me dance to it. Something changed in that moment for me, though it wasn’t my manhood.
Because here’s the Whitmanesque contradiction of my Southern man’s life. I made peace with Skynyrd, or at least “Sweet Home.” I even grew to like “Simple Man,” in part thanks to rock critic/historian Mark Kemp and his beautiful memoir Dixie Lullaby. Yet, I’ll always revere Neil Young but will never find a place for Charlie Daniels, even though I might hum along to “Long Haired Country Boy” if I ever hear it again.
Along with such loves, though, I will confess that back then, and even now, I was a Southern guy who loved disco, that music movement of the mid- to late 1970s, which caused so many white men to retch in their own mouths and decide to start their own counter “Death to Disco” movement—a movement chronicled in many places, my favorite being the recent documentary The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?
So yes, the story or myth of the strong white Southern man defending his heritage, his land, his women, his entire family, and his white boy rock n’ roll is certainly a potent one. It’s simply not the only one.
Less than six blocks from Birmingham’s Boutwell Auditorium on 8th Avenue North, where I once heard Marshall Tucker and yes, Charlie Daniels, play in concert, another, old building used to sit, on 21st Street. Maybe this building, which was at least ten stories high, held apartments or business offices on its upper floors. I no longer remember those details. What I do know is that, in the era when I attended rock concerts, my long hair flying, my flannel shirts breezing away, on the ground floor of this high rise building, a dance club was opened at some point in the 1970s. The club was called Belle’s, named after Belle Watling, the madam from Gone With the Wind.
It was a disco.
A gay disco, and while it’s gone now, with or without the wind, during the several years of its life, it afforded Birmingham’s gay, and some of its straight, population one of the best places to socialize and dance of any venue in the Southeast. On weekend nights, Belle’s was so packed that the moniker “meat market” described everything literally.
Nor was Belle’s the only game, or gay disco, in Birmingham.
There were at least two others that I knew of.
The first, Chances R, was actually the first gay club I ever entered. I was barely seventeen, on a double date with a close friend and her much older boy friend. My blind date, a girl one year older than me, had already been married and divorced, facts I learned only after we picked her up. My mates wanted to go to Chances R to see the drag shows, and not wanting to be the coward, I agreed. I can’t say I loved or even understood the experience, but my date had to sit on my lap during the shows since the bar’s crowd exceeded all comfort and safety. We made out right there at the club and in the back seat all the way home. And after, we never spoke again.
All the following days, however, what I thought about was not my date, or the fact that my close friend and I had gotten in to a bar as underage teens. No, what I thought about was how beautiful many of the drag queens were, and how I would have loved to set up some of the macho bullshit high school jocks I knew with one of those queens, though that would likely have been very unfair and cruel to the queens themselves, and proof of my own blindness and hatred.
I told my best friend about the experience. He would later come out to me when we were in college, but at that time, the fall of 1973, I think we were both amazed that out of the two of us, I got to the insides of a gay club before he did.
I know I remarked about it then, but I don’t think it hit me so hard given the entirety of the experience, that the queens, the audience, and the bar workers were racially mixed as well—definitely not an experience I had at any of the straight clubs I snuck into or legally entered in the coming years.
The other gay disco in Birmingham was the legendary Gizmo Club, way up on 22nd Street in the south side area. I say legendary because my friend and I had heard many rumors about the club from, of all people, our church youth directors who also worked in the Birmingham theater scene. I was fifteen when I first heard mention of the Gizmo. At that point in my life, I had yet to sneak into any club, and when I did, I had my eyes set only on The Crazy Horse, a rock club on Morris Avenue in supposedly “Underground Birmingham.” I had no reason to try getting into the Gizmo, and so over the next few years, it loomed as an exotic venue, something supposedly alien to my high school crowd. Something out there, and even dangerous.
Fortunately, my college friends had other views, and during my sophomore year, I accompanied this group – many of whom also majored in theater – on a Saturday night swing through Birmingham’s bar scene. We started at the old Tide-Tiger club near Birmingham’s Legion Field because one of my friends had a brother who attended nearby Birmingham-Southern College. Her brother, she told us all, was gay and had suggested that, after a few beers at the Tide-Tiger, we go dancing at the Gizmo.
Events and images blur after all these years. The Gizmo was a tiny club with a long awning out front. The gay crowd inside, again, was racially mixed, and if the white men outnumbered the black, it couldn’t have been by much. The dance floor couldn’t have been much larger than my kitchen, yet that didn’t stop everyone from jamming in. It really didn’t matter whether you had a partner or not— just get on the floor and the magic in the club, the city, would happen.
The songs I remember best from this clubbing trip were Silver Convention’s “Fly Robin Fly,” the Isley’s “Fight the Power,” and Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing,” all circa 1975. You know: “I believe in miracles, since you came along, you sexy thing.”
Over the next couple of years, The Gizmo was our club of choice, because the music was edgier, the wildness palpable, and I knew back then that in such a strongly Southern town—a city hostile to integration, to alternative lifestyles, and even once to rock music itself (please remember that the greatest of Beatle record bonfires was instigated by two Birmingham disc jockeys, Doug Layton and Tommy Charles, employed at WAQY-1220 AM)—that if I wanted to be cool, to seem attractive to the people who looked for daring, hip, and even semi-dangerous individuals, this was the place to be. This was it.
My memories and realizations about my disco years rose up again a couple of weeks back when my wife and I watched HBO’s The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.
In one segment, a former New York DJ began discussing what happened to disco when a straight white DJ in Chicago began the “Death to Disco” movement. Crowds filled Comiskey Park one summer night and after watching the game, they spilled out onto the field — totally wrecking it and many actual seats in the bleachers too— to burn disco records. Only, many of the records they burned were soul albums from the ’60s and ’70s by Marvin Gaye and The Ohio Players.
In fact, you have to know that the vast majority of the records burned that night was music from Black artists, because when you look closely at disco music, other than The Bee Gees, and try to start naming the white artists in the genre, you don’t get very far. Yeah, former Rick Derringer guitarist Dan Hartman had a hit with “Instant Replay,” but the pool grows even more shallow after that. Derringer himself spun off of albino rock singer Edgar Winter, a favorite of my white male hard rock buddies in high school. Such degrees of separation failed to impress these friends of mine, whose distaste for and fear of disco were equivalent to their feelings for gay people, or for integration
Of course, much of the disco music from that era was Latin and Caribbean influenced. A lot of black and a lot of brown.
The point that the DJ from New York, himself gay, shows that the disco rage, the Death to Disco movement, was a direct reaction to the gay and black music scene where disco in essence began. It was a reaction to what straight white America couldn’t process and, of course, didn’t want to tolerate or abide.
It’s hard to stay quiet, to bite your tongue, to not be embarrassed or ashamed when a close male friend disparages Donna Summer, or viscerally recoils at the very mention of David Bowie’s name. For in the days before long-haired Southern/country boys became cooly ubiquitous, some of us had to duck and cover to save our bodies and soul from former friends and classmates who called us “sissy” because of the length of our hair, or because we decided to try out for the school play instead of the school football team. You’d never want to tell these friends and classmates that if they looked even deeper into your record collections, they’d find artists like the early Village People (the “Key West” “San Francisco” Village People), or Sylvester whose “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” saturated all the gay discos but never got air play anywhere else.
Such artists and songs exhilarated people like me. They made us want to dance, with anyone. And so we did.
As we did with the new music of crossover rockers. I could have told these friends that, in the late ’70s and ’80s, gay discos throughout the Southeast played extended mixes of songs by artists they told me they loved, like Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” Or The Kinks’ “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman.” Or disco Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” White rockers who had formerly soared from sonic speakers found in basement apartments and old garage rooms turned into practice spaces, now boomed through gilded disco balls swirling above dance floors where people of all colors, and mainly men, understood that grooves are not just rock-induced and definitely not just Southern.
On one level, they must have known, and it makes me wonder what all these guys weren’t telling me, what else they might have liked or loved.
So what am I saying about music in the South, my youthful adventures, and identity of all sorts?
Let’s return for a moment to that radio station, WAQY (Wacky 1220).
When I first began listening to the station in early 1970, one of its main disc jockeys, whose name I won’t reveal here, entertained us daily with his wit and knowing voice. He often referred to himself as “your resident hippie.” He played all the hits, but his personality sold him beyond all he played. He became my crowd’s favorite, even though WAQY was one of those sunrise-to-sundown stations that left us just when the night descended and we needed it the most.
At some point, WAQY switched formats, first becoming a station claiming to be “For Women Only,” meaning that they featured soft rock and pop. By the late ’70s, they had changed again, switching the call letters, too, to WBUL, playing soul and then all-disco. Crazy!
Our favorite disc jockey switched, too, joining a new FM rock station that was part of the AOR corporate movement. It was so good to find him, and now he could let loose playing harder and harder rock, even songs from Bowie like “Fame.” These stations really just played white rock hits, the same ones over and over, though we in our white rocker sensibilities, tried not to see how pop and rock formats tied together so closely.
One day, I learned that the station would be doing a remote in Bessemer, where I lived, at the new Burger King. Rock music and corporate fast food go together more than you think, or more than I thought back in those days when I was sixteen or seventeen, when I was not immune to idolizing DJs, and so, though I didn’t tell any of my friends, I headed out that Saturday afternoon to see what I could see.
Two DJs, actually, were at the remote, and as I listened, I quickly knew who “my” DJ was. He was thin, a bit dark-complected, and he had really long, wavy black (or deep brown) hair hanging down his flanneled back. With my own long red hair blowing behind me, I stood near the edge of the thirty or so fans on this late fall afternoon, and at some point during his break, the DJ walked over to me. He introduced himself and asked what I thought about the station and the crazy “Aardvark Mobile” they were driving (that vehicle was likely a beaten-up and souped up Pinto with giant aardvark ears attached to the roof). He was so friendly, so interested in what I thought. We shook hands. He smiled at me, and even as he walked away, he looked back once or twice.
I was so young. And too young.
At another event, a parade of sorts for the station through downtown Birmingham that passed by the jewelry store where my dad worked and which hired me for the summer, I saw him again, riding in the Aardvark Mobile. He saw me, too, and I know he recognized me. Knew me.
Nothing ever happened, in part because I’m not gay, and for another part, because since he was older, our circles just weren’t ever joined. Or so I thought.
And then one night as I partied with my gay friend at another friend’s house in preparation for going to Belle’s, which had replaced The Gizmo as the premiere disco in town, I was introduced to a guy who looked familiar. His name, though he had varied his given name, sounded too familiar, and though he had cut his hair, I knew him. I also reminded him of how I knew him, but he seemed disinterested or maybe embarrassed. Maybe he didn’t really remember me; maybe he did but no longer saw in me what he previously did.
Maybe he thought I was judging him for leaving the rock world for the gay disco world, but I wasn’t.
What I knew I was doing, though, was admiring the ironies of our world. The likenesses. The ability to hold more in our cups than just one thing, one style of music, one way of seeing and experiencing this world, our southern place.
Once we got to Belle’s, the night spread out as it normally did. We watched tall black gay men executing moves to Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” that we tried to emulate. We danced with our friends without pairing up. Some in the group found new partners and left for greater things. My good friend and I drove home to our respective parents’ houses revisiting the night and listening to corporate rock along the way. I didn’t dance with the former DJ, and at some point at the club, seemingly right after I saw him grooving to Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real,” he disappeared, and I never saw him again, which makes me wonder or shudder or something given all that was in the air back in those disco days of the early 1980s.
My Apple Music library is filled today with some Southern rock, some disco, and as much else in between as I can fit. From Gaga to Best Coast, from WAR to The Black Pumas, I try to keep up with all of these sound cultures. From time to time, my wife and I will dance to the beat of a past time. She and I went to gay discos in Knoxville together; our first date, in fact, included dancing at a club called The Factory, and I remember how excited I was when New Wave faves New Order’s “Blue Monday” played. Now, whether it’s The Bee Gees’ “You Should be Dancing,” The Jackson’s “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground,” or Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner,” we try to keep up for as long as we can, though our bodies, and my long hair, aren’t what they used to be.
I still love disco and always have. Let that be known.
And also let it be known that a while back, as I was playing the Allman Brothers’ eponymous first album, my wife (who is a native of Iran) asked who we were listening to.
“It’s so beautiful,” she admired.
“Yes it is,” I said. “It always has been.”
The disco, the rock n’ roll, white, black, gay, straight.
All of it.
Terry Barr is a Professor of English at Presbyterian College, teaching Southern Gothic Literature, Southern Film, and Creative Nonfiction. He lives in Greenville, South Carolina with his family, and attended The University of Montevallo.