The English film maker Derek Jarman, dying of AIDS in the 90s, did not go gentle into that good night. He raved – raved against a society he saw as uncaring, raved against the Church of England, which he felt had abandoned the gay men dying in droves because they were “sinners.” That rage occasionally spilled into his diaries, and his poems, in the form of some very salty language. F-bombs were dropped in one especially incendiary passage, which became an issue for me when I fell in love with the musical setting of his poems by the English singer and composer Donna McKevitt.
“Translucence” is McKevitt’s song cycle based on poems from Jarman’s book Modern Nature. The songs are bleak but beautiful. The most heartbreaking of all is the concluding song, “I Walk In This Garden” – a desolate farewell to a generation that was allowed, and perhaps even expected, to “die so silently.” At one point, though, Jarman writes the line “Matthew f**ked Mark f**ked Luke f**ked John/who lay on the bed that I lie in…”
It is sung in such a lovely, lyrical way that it could easily go right by a listener, but of course I couldn’t take that chance in airing it. Not only is the F-word still verboten on the radio, but here it was linking the Four Evangelists to Jarman’s decimated gay community, adding a frisson of sacrilege to an already provocative word. So I edited out the offending words and then edited them back in, backwards, so as not to disrupt the flow of the line.
That worked fine, until the time came to present the piece in its first, and to date only, US performance. It was part of my annual “New Sounds Live” concert series, and we chose the splendid acoustics of St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University. For the later broadcast, I could repeat my earlier edit, but for the live performance, it simply had to be the way Jarman and McKevitt (who was also one of the singers) intended it. In the pre-concert talk, we discussed the language and why Jarman would’ve used it. If people were going to be offended, we asked, what was the offensive part? The word itself? The religious context? Or the poem’s larger image of a plague whose victims were being cast as having brought it upon themselves?
After the performance, which left many in tears, a woman walked up to me and introduced herself as the chaplain of St. Paul’s. I guess I knew that a chapel would have a chaplain, but it hadn’t occurred to me that he or she would be at this event. I braced myself for… what? Anger? Disappointed disapproval? Sober, reasoned argument?
“Thank you for bringing this music here,” she said. “We need to get more people thinking and questioning like this in church.”
Of course, I spend a lot more time being a dad than I do being a concert producer. (Or at least, that’s what I try to tell my wife.) And that little four-letter word is such a big issue for parents. The same word I worked hard to present in a sacred space still sounds harsh in my own secular home. But what to do about it? I prefer Kanye West’s “real” version of “Monster,” but I’m not sure what to do when my 15-year old walks through house chanting “I’m a-need to see your f**king hands at the concert.” I can’t very well tell her to shut the f**k up. Can I?
Does the F-word have a place in our culture, and the arts? Leave a comment.