His beat goes on.
Fifteen years ago Jimmy Somerville was English pop's most outspoken out figure. He was the unintentional spokesperson of a gay wave that included Erasure's Andy Bell, Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford, and others who eventually formalized what their fans already knew (such as Culture Club's Boy George and Wham!'s George Michael). As Bronski Beat's falsetto leader, Somerville made gay politics a hot pop topic with such hi-NRG dance floor staples as "Why?" and "Smalltown Boy" and actually managed to crack the American Top 40 album chart with the uncompromising The Age of Consent.
Turning 39 this month, and without a record label throughout much of the world, Somerville soldiers on through what he calls "the wilderness." His most recent album, Manage the Damage, is finally trickling into American stores nearly a year after its overseas release. To promote it, the former face of gay pop will appear at pride celebrations across the United States this summer. But aside from singing "Can't Keep My Eyes Off of You" for the sound track of the sequel to England's hit TV series Queer As Folk, Somerville has for nearly a decade kept his pop profile low.
"I wish I could say I'm involved in this and that," he admits, "but I just keep myself to myself. I cycle around on my bicycle, and I'm very, very happy. I really do enjoy watching the world go by. Yesterday I was in a store in the West End, and there was this tourist--she really was a granny--who came up to me and said, `Oh, Jimmy, are you still singing?' And I said, `Not at the moment, love, just doing a bit of shopping.'"
By his own admission, the former firebrand feels only a tenuous connection to current gay culture. "The gay scene is like a port in a storm where you dock for a while," he explains. "As it's grown bigger and bolder, more body-oriented and looks-oriented, it's become more mercenary. I don't feel that it has much to offer me, but I try not to be too judgmental, because I do feel it has things to give to a younger generation. It's just sad that it can't be a scene that can encompass more shapes and sizes."
Even while singing synthesized remakes of disco standards like "Don't Leave Me This Way" and "Never Can Say Goodbye" with his second band, the Communards, Somerville endeavored to politicize his star status. While most pop acts stayed silent in the AIDS epidemic's early years, the Glasgow-born singer acted up.
"I felt that everyone had an obligation to say something to condemn the hysteria, misinformation, and violence," he recalls. "We now have in England quite a few out celebrities, but they'd rather just show off their kitchen than discuss who and what they are."
As always, Somerville's perspective on his pink-pop peers from the Reagan-Thatcher era remains uncompromising--and a tad unforgiving.
"I've always lived my life as an out gay man from the very beginning," he says, "so I don't feel any empathy with them. I was always using my situation for some kind of political agenda, whether or not it was everyone's cup of tea."
While George Michael and Neil Tennant have evolved into savvy gay spokesmen, Somerville admits that these days he no longer knows his own political agenda. "Doing interviews is strange for me," he muses, "because as awful as it sounds, I don't think I have anything to say. Only when I'm doing my music do I feel I'm connecting with myself and what's around me. I've become such a boring old fart."
To find more on Jimmy Somerville and links to related Internet sites, visit www.advocate.com
Walters writes on pop music for The Advocate and Spin.