Lust and Strength: Learning to Love the Questions

An appreciation of the band Kitchens of Distinction

"It takes lust and strength to turn to you and say, ‘I want you and I need you,’" sings songwriter Patrick Fitzgerald of Kitchens of Distinction on the three-man band’s album, The Death of Cool. Intense and thoughtful, Fitzgerald is a poet through command of language and depth of feeling as he explores the pains, pleasures, angers and doubts involved in love and sex.

It is difficult not to like sex as a subject in art, in light of the pleasure and promise associated with sex, the fact that sex is a universal act, and also because it is where the animal, the human, and the spiritual in us meet. It is where one private self meets another. Sex is an act in which we can confront and play with our impulses and possibilities. Art with sex as a subject becomes a ritual for facing a mystery.

An openly gay United Kingdom rock figure, Kitchens of Distinction’s principal songwriter Patrick Fitzgerald has been featured in U.K. magazines and the band listed on U.K. record sales charts. They also have an American following, and I saw them at the club Tramps in New York around 1995, a very good show. Their "alternative" rock music is honest, memorable, and important.

The band Kitchens of Distinction is made up of Fitzgerald on bass guitar and vocals, Julian Swales on guitars, and Dan Goodwin on drums and percussion. The recordings the band has released include: Love is Hell (1989, on One Little Indian Ltd/Rough Trade Inc.); Strange Free World (1990, One Little Indian/A& M Records), and Cowboys and Aliens (1994, One Little Indian/A&M). However, it is arguable that among all of their albums of raw, rough beauty and passion, their masterpiece is The Death of Cool (1992, One Little Indian/A&M). The Death of Cool consists of ten songs: What Happens Now?; 4 Men; On Tooting Broadway Station; Breathing Fear; Gone World Gone; When In Heaven; Mad as Snow; Smiling; Blue Pedal; and Can’t Trust the Waves. The songs have a mostly dry, spare sound with a quick heavy drumbeat, somewhat bright guitars (that sometimes almost sound like pianos and other times like enjoyable noise), with the occasional guest cello or commenting saxophone — sometimes resulting in a hazy swirl. The group’s music has been likened to the bands My Bloody Valentine and The Psychedelic Furs. Patrick Fitzgerald’s vocals are masculine, sometimes contemplative, sometimes tender, sometimes furious, and, to borrow a cliché, he sounds like a man with his feet on the ground and his head in the clouds. This is music one can dream, dance, scream, or cry with.

About the songs

"What Happens Now?" is a song about the wildness and fun of childhood followed by adulthood and conformity, a conformity the narrator/singer resists. Fitzgerald sings, "There’s this ancient knot inside my chest. It works its way into my throat, will not let these stories out. Refusal works, it always wins, too much thought, too few grins. Free you say, free to roam, but down below Father, Mother, always guiding, pointing out a world I refuse to know."

In "4 Men," about desire and fear, the singer acknowledges that it takes desire and strength to proclaim love, but fearfully he ends with: "There were four men in this room. Why did you have to go and pick on me?"

"On Tooting Broadway Station" follows the end of a relationship. It notes the felt need to expunge pain with tears and violence (wanting to burn a lover), and the song starts off quietly with just the singer’s calm voice and a few guitar notes and ends with the singer greedily shouting, "Give me his charred heart, give me his fillings. And god, give me god to forgive me."

"Breathing Fear" is about a young man who is beaten because of his sexuality, then soothed by a lover. The beaten young man doesn’t want to discuss his bruises with coworkers, whose preoccupation with conventional lives leads him to think he’d get no sympathy. For the most part, the only time these coworkers have been faced with the reality of homosexuality is for the annual gay pride day. The narrator says that the conventional world has been "giving us grief for centuries now. Can you never rest? Beaten, insulted, skewered, and branded. Isn’t waking enough? You’re breathing this fear maybe once a year. We suffocate every day."

"Gone World Gone" is a kind of surreal song that seems to be about lovers asleep together, and it has the power of an incantation. The lyrics include these lines: "Sleep is the animal whose name is safety, whose name is angel’s wings, whose name is never will it happen to me, whose arms are the longest the world will ever see, whose voice is Jesus saying ‘Innocence is the child,’ whose breath is warmth and the scent of safety and the taste of purity."

"When In Heaven," an up-tempo song that sounds happy while expressing discontentment, contrasts the imagined perfection of stardom and heaven with the mundane world, with the singer saying, "When Marilyn Monroe woke up in heaven she had everything I need." (The song is funny.)

"Mad As Snow" could be about the aftermath of a love affair gone wrong or a social situation that went badly, the quiet after the storm, at once sad and clear-eyed and generous. It has one person soothing another: "I’ll sit with you, we’ll talk like we’re friends…Was it only last week we made crazy promises, mad as the snow?"

"Smiling" features a man and woman who want more than great looks and great books, who, after growing up with higher expectations, still unfulfilled, conclude that staying alive is the best and only thing they know.

"Blue Pedal" is (after "Gone World Gone") the second most poetic song on the album, and is about the changing seasons, nature, birth and death, and struggling humanity.

"Can’t Trust The Waves," the last song on the album, concludes, "What use are these words? What use are these lips?…But when I’m with you I’m the ocean. And when I’m with you I’ve come home."

The music in context

The erotic candor in the songs of Kitchens of Distinction also could be found in some of the songs released by other bands who produced work during the same time, in the early to middle 1990s; usually, those songs were single instances for those bands. The black rock band Living Colour on its album Stain sang "Everybody loves you when you’re bi." A much-played song by Blur cheerily celebrated "girls who like boys who like boys who like girls." The hard rock group Faith No More bragged "I take it on my knees, I swallow, I swallow" in its hit "Be Aggressive."

"You think you’re a man but you’re only a boy. You weren’t man enough to satisfy me," sang a woman and a man to a second man, their shared lover, in a Vaselines song. "Don’t break my big gay heart," sang (heterosexual) heartthrob Evan Dando of the Lemonheads. The band When People Were Shorter had a male singer perform "My Man’s Gone Now" on its album interpreting Porgy and Bess. Terence Trent D’Arby sang a song of tolerance in "Billy Don’t Fall (in love with me)." There have been the homoerotics, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, of Imperial Teen, Pansy Division, Two Nice Girls, Adele Bertei, Joi, Mark Eitzel, and Bob Mould, and the admissions of Melissa Etheridge and K.D. Lang. "We kissed in his room to a popular tune," sang self-described bisexual Brett Anderson of Suede.

Honesty about love and sex and doubts about gender were expressed in music by David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Tom Robinson in the 1970s, and suggested in the imagery and iconography of musical artists such as Annie Lennox, Boy George, Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson in the 1980s (who themselves seemed to be following the glamorous example set by Little Richard in the 1950s and the glam rockers of the 1970s). In the late 1990s and early 21st century, Rufus Wainwright and George Michael (singing "My baby, he just cares for me…), to name only two, have followed, along with various contemporary theatrical films and even some television shows exploring unconventional sexuality.

Such honesty, in which ambiguity, complexity, and transgression are expressed and accepted, was envisioned decades ago by the feminist and gay movements and also in the work of certain literary writers such as Andre Gide (Corydon, The Immoralist), D.H. Lawrence (Women in Love), Gore Vidal (The City and the Pillar, Myra Breckenridge), and James Baldwin (Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone). The lesbian feminist poet Adrienne Rich has a poem ("Dialogue," The Fact of a Doorframe, Norton/NY, 1984) in which a woman says,

I do not know
if sex is an illusion

I do not know
who I was when I did those things
or who I said I was
or whether I willed to feel
what I had read about
or who in fact was there with me
or whether I knew, even then
that there was doubt about these things.

These lines, like those in certain contemporary rock songs, assume that the self is at once open to possibility and also shaped, limited, or challenged by society.

The fact that alternative (or independent or new) rock is the music that has been the most welcoming place for this courage and candor is partly to do with the circumstances of that music, a music of youth influenced by punk rock and the disintegration of the family, a critique of conventional social and personal values, and the cynicism of the imperial Reagan-Thatcher-Bush years followed by the sometimes embarrassingly blundering Clinton-Blair years that did little to exorcise what had come before. Alternative rock is music of introspection, despair, rage, and sexual desire. Intimate experience — casual, unplotted, unpredictable, daily, ordinary-is the subject of many songs. This was music originally intended as an "alternative" to the big music acts of the late 1970s and 1980s, alternative to glamorous star mystique, alternative to music as product, and even alternative to nationalistic assumptions as many bands prided themselves on regionalism, their particular locality. Yet, this is a music that has subsequently become cross-generational and international in its success, beginning with Kurt Cobain’s band Nirvana and continuing with Cobain’s wife’s band Hole (radical and entrepreneurial, his widow Courtney Love is a bridge).

However, to my knowledge, no band has gone further than Kitchens of Distinction’s The Death of Cool in creating a consistent aesthetic statement of lust, strength, poetry, and transgression. The album’s title, which Patrick Fitzgerald once said was in tribute to Miles Davis following his death, also indicates a willingness to go beyond the appearance of composure, convention, or even hipness, a willingness to embrace realities troubling and true. It’s a provocative name for a recording released into a world often motivated by a desire for approval, status, and trendiness. To be human is to hunger, to be lonely, to rage, to seek solace — and to reach out for love.

In the band’s other albums, such as Love Is Hell, there are also the half-mystical/spooky sounds exploring the grit and grace of love, usually between men and women, and also songs with social themes and metaphysical subjects. Strange Free World has a song in which a woman considers her lover and contemplates warning him about herself, or leaving: "Beware my wings she’d say, my hundred eyes and changing skin." Cowboys and Aliens, which has as its strongest songs "One of Those Sometimes Is Now," about regretted separation in a relationship, and "Here Comes the Swans," possibly about pride, also has a song, "Pierced," in which a woman says, "I want to die really really living." But it is The Death of Cool in which not only the homoerotic emerges unmistakably but also the fierce fluidity of passion is expressed.

A Personal View, A Conclusion

When I first began listening to Kitchens of Distinction, I was participating in the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House in New York City, a multicultural group focusing on art, books, the environment, film, music, philosophy, and politics. Some of the participants had been personal friends of mine — Rebecca, Tom, Larry, Keith, Paul, Curt, Lisa; some were strangers. We discussed relationships, and in one session discussed these questions: "How have you tried to actualize your own progressive thinking about gender in the past, the present, and how will you in the future? What efforts do you make to enlarge and diversify your sense of community? Is the male hesitance in expressing tenderness or uncertainty rooted in the sense that these states render one too vulnerable and are themselves unproductive, ephemeral? Are you comfortable with your own body, and also with the bodies of men and women, or do you feel embarrassment, ignorance, shame, and fear? Can you imagine giving a woman the kind of support you’ve received from women? Which female authorities do you regard highly?" (We also discussed queer artists such as Whitman, Pasolini, Lorde, and Rich.) We were glad of such discussions but left them knowing there were more questions to ask. We had learned to love the questions themselves, something Rainer Rilke advised a young friend in his Letters to a Young Poet, a book a college friend, Sheilla, and myself used to refer to often. No one should have to find his or her identity alone, to paraphrase Adrienne Rich. In producing The Death of Cool, Patrick Fitzgerald and his musical partners have become the listeners’ intimate strangers, advisers, confidants, and witnesses, thus fulfilling the power of art. Whereas philosophy often imposes order, even a false order, on the messiness of life, art helps us to embrace that messiness not as confusion and torment but as richness. Oh here I’d lie between your thighs looking up into your eyes wondering if this is allowed but fear rules me easily. It takes lust and strength to turn to you and say "I want you and I need you." After finding The Death of Cool, I gave it to various friends, thus enlarging a sense of community. Close your eyes. They’ve all gone now. So it’s safe with me now. Was it only last week we got stoned off the sky, flew under the stars? I come back to the album now, in appreciation. I read somewhere several years ago that the group has disbanded, and as I’ve seen and heard no new music from them, I guess this is true. However, in The Death of Cool, we have music we can live with…for years and years.

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