Lesbian trail blazer Maxine Feldman dies

by Laura Kiritsy

Bay Windows

Thursday August 30, 2007

Max Feldman, who wrote and recorded the first song that proclaimed a lesbian identity, died unexpectedly at home in Albuquerque, N.M., on Aug. 17. Feldman, who was 62, died of natural causes, said Helen Thornton, Feldman's partner of four years.

Feldman, who lived for many years in Boston's Mission Hill neighborhood, is best known for writing and performing the groundbreaking protest song "Angry Atthis," a lengthy career as an entertainer in the women's music community and as the host of Oasis Coffeehouse, a Boylston Street performance venue that catered to a lesbian clientele in the 1980s. In later years, Feldman, after long embracing a butch lesbian identity, more fully embraced his transgender identity. Though some who knew Feldman well from his early days in the women's music movement were unaware of this change, most of his friends knew Feldman only as male and said he was most comfortable using male pronouns. Thornton, who referred to Feldman with both masculine and feminine pronouns in interviews and emails, characterized the issue of Feldman's gender identification as a "both/and" situation as opposed to "either/or."

"I think that would be truest to Max's reality," Thornton wrote in an email. "S/he was nothing if not complex."

Above all, Feldman was a trailblazer, living an openly lesbian life in the pre-Stonewall era, when doing so, at the very least, often consigned one to a life of ostracism. For instance, Feldman, a native New Yorker, came to Boston in the early 1960s to study theater arts at Emerson College, only to be forced out when school officials learned he was a lesbian. According to Vaudeville, Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers(Routeledge), Feldman was told he could return after undergoing a year of psychiatric care. At his parents' behest, Feldman underwent electroshock therapy and his relationship with them became strained when he refused to continue the treatment. Around this time, Feldman had also become involved in Boston's thriving folk music scene and found steady work in local music clubs, playing and emceeing events. But according to Vaudeville, Old and New when a local folk denizen began to spread word Feldman was a lesbian, Feldman was essentially blacklisted.

In an April 2002 interview on the radio program Queer Music Heritage, which airs on Houston's KPFT 90.1, Feldman recalled being thrown off the Boston coffeehouse circuit in 1963 "for being queer and bringing around the wrong people." Feldman returned to New York in 1968 and then headed to Los Angeles, where he resumed his education at El Camino College. Fed up with the police raids on gay bars and the mistreatment from their mafia-involved owners - both common hazards of the gay scene of the 50s and 60s - Feldman penned the song "Angry Atthis" in May 1969, a month before the riots at Greenwich Village's Stonewall Inn jumpstarted the modern gay rights movement. In the song, which is named for one of Sappho's lovers, Feldman voiced his anger at having to hide in dimly-lit bars and at having "to tell lies, live in the shadow of fear. We run half our lives, from that damn word 'queer.'" Upon being honored for his contributions to LGBT music by the Out Music Awards in 2004, Feldman had this to say about the climate in which he wrote "Angry Atthis: "I didn't like the way it made me feel - like we were useless and sick," he said. "I felt we were worth a lot more. Stonewall proved I was not alone. It was time for our protests."

In the early 1970s, Feldman met the feminist comedy duo of Robin Tyler and Patty Harrison when they performed on the El Camino campus. Feldman sang "Angry Atthis" for the women, both of whom were out lesbians. "I thought it was fabulous. I never heard anything like it," Tyler recalled in an interview, noting that she and Harrison had come from the mainstream entertainment world. "So, all of a sudden, this woman is sitting on the floor and singing, 'I'm so proud of being a lesbian,' and all this stuff. It moved me. It moved me enough to start bringing her onstage with us." Feldman began opening shows for the comedy duo on other college campuses. And controversy followed Feldman simply because he did not hide who he was. In 1972, his appearance at Ventura College provoked a mid-performance protest from the school's public relations woman, who, according to a newspaper report of the dust-up, complained to Tyler that letting a lesbian onstage "was not in the contract." But Tyler refused to stop Feldman from performing, telling the audience when Feldman finished his song, "we are part of a revolutionary movement and this means freedom of expression for all people." The audience responded with a standing ovation. With Tyler and Harrison as producers, Feldman recorded "Angry Atthis" and released it as a 45 single that same year. By all accounts, it was the first time the music of the lesbian-centric genre that would come to be known as women's music was committed to vinyl. In 1973, Alix Dobkin released the groundbreaking Lavender Jane Loves Women, and the women's music movement took off.

When Harrison and Tyler's audiences, which largely consisted of other lesbians, first heard Feldman sing "Angry Atthis," "they just melted, they went nuts," said Tyler. "Imagine all these years they're hiding, hiding and all of a sudden someone [sings], 'I'm a lesbian.' It was just fabulous."

Feldman, who also did stand-up comedy, went on to perform in a variety of venues across the country, including 15 years at the annual Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. The festival continues to open its annual extravaganza with Feldman's anthem "Amazon." In 1974, Feldman shared the stage of Manhattan's storied Town Hall with Yoko Ono. It was the first time that Feldman's cousin, Judi Sager, saw Feldman perform. "She was very good with her patter in between songs," said Sager. "I mean, really enjoyable." More enjoyable, to Sager's recollection, than Ono's warbling. "When Yoko came on, the whole time, everyone's yelling 'Maxine, Maxine, Maxine,'" she said. "Yoko can't sing for beans anyway," Sager laughed. "It was terrible. It really was. I felt so bad."

Feldman released one full-length album, Closet Sale in 1979. But he barely made a living as an out performer. "She never made more than $8000 in a year," said Thornton. "[Being out] was a career-breaker in that she never made any reasonable amounts of money as an entertainer. But she said, 'To hell with that, I'm going to do it anyway, it's important.' She cared that much. That's just who Max was."

Those who knew Feldman offstage described a person who was alternately sensitive and gentle or loud, proud and, in the words of Tyler, "very Jewish." Most notable was Feldman's sense of humor, said friends of the performer. "He went out of his way to make people laugh," said Emerald Layne, a Los Angeles business owner who befriended Feldman about nine years ago after they met through mutual friends. Singer Susan Abod, who first met Feldman in 1976, recalled her friend's infectious belly laugh. "You would just have to laugh," said Abod. "If she was laughing and telling you a story, you would have to laugh."

Feldman returned to the Boston area in the early 1980s and created the Oasis Coffeehouse, where he nurtured female artists while providing a social space for the lesbian community. Among those who graced the Oasis stage early in their careers was comedian Kate Clinton. Abod also found a home on the Oasis stage when she moved to Boston in 1982 to hone her craft. "She really supported my singing jazz," said Abod, of Feldman. "She was just a great supporter."

Increasing health problems forced Feldman to retire from performing in the late 80s; he suffered from diabetes and lung disease, among other medical conditions. In 1994 Feldman suffered a collapse that was followed by several hospitalizations. In 1999 he relocated to Albuquerque out of concern for his health.

Though Feldman was happy to support fellow artists, he did not always feel supported in return. As early as 1973, in an interview with the New York newspaper Gay, Feldman lamented the fact that gay men were more receptive to him "as a performer and as a human being than my lesbian feminist sisters."

"I think she was challenged by the fact that she wasn't recognized by the women's community," said Abod. Though Abod said she believes Feldman would have forged ahead with his career with or without the women's community, Abod added, "I think she could have used more recognition."

Ironically, while Feldman devoted his musical career and public life to empowering women, it appears he struggled for much of his life with his gender identity. Feldman, said Layne, frequently told her he felt as though he was trapped inside a female body. "Yes, Max was very active in the gay and lesbian movement," said Layne, "but as he got older he was really frustrated and flustered because he wasn't really accepted in the lesbian community because of his masculinity."

Thornton expressed a similar sentiment, noting that Feldman in the 1970s and 80s refused to cave in to pressure within the community to adopt a more androgynous look. "What he used to say was, 'They didn't like me because I was too big, too butch and too Jewish,'" said Thornton. "She used to tell me that had he had the resources as a youngster ... to transition, he probably would have done that." In the mid-1990s, Feldman began to identify as a "transgender butch lesbian," according to Thornton. In the transgender community, she said, Feldman finally found "the validation and support for his masculinity that had been missing all his life. It was a great thing and a comfort."

Local transgender activist Diego Sanchez, who enjoyed a 20-year friendship with Feldman, said that though Feldman did not transition, he found "an identity comfort zone [and] said, 'I'm older, I'm not going to be able to have anything that resembles surgery, so I'm comfortable with my body the way it is.'" Nonetheless, Sanchez added, "Max was all guy."

But Feldman apparently did not engage in discussions about his gender identity with everyone in his life. Tyler and Abod, for instance, said they knew nothing of Feldman's transgender identity. "Towards the end of his life he just didn't have the energy to go there anymore," said Thornton. "It was a private thing that had to do with his self-concept and his ability to think about himself."

Abod, who also relocated to New Mexico for health reasons, says that in recent years, she and Feldman connected mostly around disability issues. Despite health problems, said Abod, Feldman seemed to be in good spirits. They last saw each other on July 28, just three weeks before Feldman's death, when Abod performed at the Hotel Albuquerque. Feldman materialized during Abod's second set. "In she strolls, very regal, slow and she had a walking stick and this incredible, knowing little smirk on her face," said Abod, who hadn't seen Feldman in over a year. Feldman took a seat on one of the couches. "I could see her closing her eyes and smiling and really enjoying [the jazz]," said Abod.

As Abod drove home to Santa Fe later that night, her cell phone rang. It was Feldman, who had a confession to make. "She said, 'I'm kind of a closet jazz person.'" Feldman explained that when he was just 15, his cousin, who played in a jazz band, took him out club hopping. Feldman was treated to performances by some of the biggest names of the 1950s jazz scene. On top of that, Feldman told her, Abod had sung "Blue Skies," one of Feldman's favorite tunes during her show that night. "It was such an amazing connection," Abod said of their conversation. "That phone call was - I don't know, it just felt like a real gift."

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