I want to share some memories of Max Feldman that most people do not know, and some will remember warmly. Memories of a time before Maxine was widely known as the songwriter and singer who wrote the womyn's anthem "Amazon". Having known Max in the early years, it surprised me in later years, to realize how few gay people were as out and open in 1980, as Max was in 1964. Revolutionary leaders come in many forms, but none were more loving, visionary or gutsy than my friend Maxine Feldman.
It is well known that Maxine Feldman wrote the earliest feminist, openly lesbian song called "Angry Atthis", Max wrote and performed Angry Atthis on May 13,1969 and it was recordd and produced in January 1972 by Patty Harrison & Robin Tyler. Max's album "Closet Sale" was recorded in 1979. Max also performed at the first Michigan Womyn's Music Festival in 1976, and many festivals there after.
Max is quoted on April 2002 episode of Queer Music Heritage as saying: "I went to California and wrote my first lesbian song, "Angry Atthis" in May 1969, one month before the Stonewall riots. I wrote it in about three minutes, in a bar in L.A. Before Stonewall we had mafia-run bars where you were a fourth-or fifth-class person. It was the only place for dykes to meet; we didn't have festivals, or women's bookstores."
Max continued, " At these bars, if you were in butch drag you could be arrested; you had to wear three "female" items by law. And be prepared for the bar raids. I didn't like the way it made me feel - like we were useless and sick. I felt we were worth a lot more. Stonewall proved I was not alone. It was time for our protests. "Angry Atthis", of course, is a play on words. I was "angry at this" lesbian oppression. My brainy girl side wanted to call my piece "Sappho's Song", but then I read that Atthis was the name of one of Sappho's lovers. And "Atthis" began to appear to me as a better statement of all I felt. The song just spewed out of me."
I met Max in early 1964 on Beacon Hill in Boston, and she was already "Out" then. Long before 1969, and Stonewall, Max was an openly Out, proud lesbian.
Despite societal pressure to hide and be ashamed of being homosexual, Maxine, who had suffered discrimination and the indignity of "treatment" for her homosexuality, had grown a strong center of self acceptance. Max Feldman had the unique ability to turn her own personal pain into positive action for herself and others.
Knowing Max changed my life in a thousand ways, both large and small. When we met Max had been an Emerson College student, and had many friends from Emerson. Max sang and played folk music in Beacon Hill and Cambridge coffeehouses like the Turk's Head, the Orleans,and the Loft.
Despite efforts to blackball Maxine, in 1963, she still performied on the circuit in 1964 and 1965, but less often than Max would have liked. It was a time when Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Tom Rush, Steve Koretz and others played in Boston area coffeehouse, it was a vibrant, flourishing music scene.
In 1964 Max had a shoulder length mane of fierce yellow blond hair (which she soon got rid of) and a beautiful Martin guitar, a powerful voice, a giant life force, great humor, a hearty booming laugh, a smile that could melt your heart, and an unconquerable spirit. Her performances always drew good audiences, but after a time, her bookings declined because Max drew a gay crowd that spooked coffeehouse owners, (even the gay ones) who were afraid of losing straight dollars. Max and I also worked together as bartender in a Boston,neighborhood bar, we were both underage at the time. The Bar was in a down and out part of town and we had many constuction workers, homless men and other disinranchised customers, including local lesbians. it was a hard reality neither of us were familiar with, and it was an experience that both cost us and taught us a lot about life, Max and I used to joke that neither of us could figure out if we wanted to be Errol Flynn or Mae West, the simple fact was,that we both were both, 2 spirited to the core, but we had no concept for that back then, just the reality of being it.
From the very beginning of our friendship Max very clearly had "Good Gay mental health" and understood that there was nothing wrong with her, she was just a lesbian. Max had a wonderful group of lesbian friends who lived around the corner and often stopped by the bar. Max was a good and loyal friend, and was well liked by all kinds of people, women, men, gay, straight. Max's humor, acceptance of herself and her sexuality made it hard for people who met her to dislike her, no matter who they were. I know it wasn't always easy for her to be so open and frank, but Max's spirit insisted on being treated fairly and being respected, just as she was.
Max was the first openly,proudly Gay person and 2 spirited person I had ever known, and seeing the world on Max's terms made it very clear that homosexuals were just folks with a normal variation of sexuality, nothing else. In those days my name was Laura and I was still busy being straight, and Max found more than a little humor in that fact. Nothing about Max was in the closet, but neither was she blatantly irritating about it. She was just who she was. Max was angry about being labeled and refused to allow anyone to dimish her or her spirit with their ignorant prejudices. She was courageous, and way, way ahead of the Gay Pride movement. While working together at the Bar, I once asked Max if she thought I was a lesbian, and she told me that in time, I would know the answer, but that no one else could tell me if I was or not.
The thing about Max was that she wasn't "stuck" anywhere,, she liked earrings , and tuxedoes, bright red shoes, overalls, flowers, antiques, and flash. Absolutely nothing about Max was a cliche, She was a woman who claimed all her parts, masculine and feminine and exercised her choices with great relish. Like her longtime friends Kay Gardner, Robin Tyler, and Jeannie O'Leary, Max was an original.
Several years later when I met my husband, he and Max became good friends, He always liked Max's honest, direct stlye and music, and she enjoyed the fact that he wasn't a pig and gave her proper respect. Later, when I got pregnant, Max's lover Emmy made me a beautiful green wool maternity dress, it was the most loving gift that I have ever recieved in my life, and I will never forget it. When my son was born, Max was my first visitor at the hospital and brought my baby a tiny pair of Quoddy mocassins and said "So he can walk his own path through life." Max was a very wise womyn, even in her teens and twenties. When we later moved to New Hampshire, Max would come to visit us and her dear friend Barbara who lived nearby. Max loved New Hampshire in small doses. When I came out several years later, Max laughed her ass off and teased me incessantly about it for years!
Always up for new adventures and experiences, Max spent some time working and living at Alice's Restaurant (of Arlo Guthrie & Alice May Brock fame) in scenic Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Whenever we spent time together Max always spoke of the need for change, change for womyn, change for lesbians, change for the gay community and how essential it was, because homophobia was killing people and destroying the spirits of others touched by the infectious self-hatred that rampant homophobia spread. The needless suicides of gay youth and adults was something that really bothered Max, and she never stopped trying to help change the mindset which created that tragic reality. Max spoke out for equality when others were silent.
At one point, I don't really remember when, Max changed her name to Maxine Feldperson for awhile. We marched together in a Gay Pride Parade in Boston in the early 1970s. I visited Max in New York when she moved back to the city for a couple of years. Max moved to Torrance, California and continued her amazing creative, political, journey. Everywhere she went, Max influenced hundreds of lesbians and gay men by her example of open, courageous, Gay pride, lesbian pride and easy laughter. Max moved between New York, California and Boston on a regular basis for many years, she had friends everywhere. Once again, on the move, Max returned to Boston and ran the Oasis Coffeehouse in the 1980's,
Max had the power to really influence people in very positive ways. Had Olivia Records or Redwood Records ever picked her up, and recorded her music, Max could have influenced and helped many, many more, but alas, Maxine Feldman was too outspoken, too blatantly honest for them, too real, and might be "way too controversial". As usual, Max was still way ahead of the curve and the community hadn't caught up yet, Alix Dobkin's music was unique in the same ways that Max's music was, it was powerful and Out. The fledgeling women's music companies didn't want to risk offending affluent or rural record buying lesbians with anything that might be a bit too political, a bit too confrontational, they wanted lesbian music that didn't offend anyone, lesbian or straight. Meg Christian, Margie Adams and others were seen as a safer, easier, more acceptable, economic bet.
It hurt Max deeply, and also financially that she was passed over that way, It was too reminiscent of being blackballed earlier by the coffeehouses in Boston for being "too lesbain, too Out".; Max didn't understand how you could be too out, too political, too gay, in the new lesbian music business, a venue she had pioneered with Harrison and Tyler. Max's early contributions to womyn's music were largely ignored, and I don't think she ever really understood why. In fact, the women's music biz tried to erase Max entirely, and never, ever mentioned her when they spoke of women's music. It was only years later that Max began to be recognized for her many ground breaking contributions. I am grateful that Max lived to see womyn embrace the gift of music and vision that she had created fot them and their daughters.
Having "Amazon" adopted by the lesbian community and as the anthem of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival healed some of that pain and gave Max a small bit of the long overdue respect that she deserved. It should also be said that Max was a very fine musician, songwriter, performer and comedian.
A lasting tribute to Max would be if a Women's Record Company released Maxine Feldman's album "Closet Sale" on CD and MP3, making this revolutionary voice available to whole new generations of lesbians. The royalties due Max could be paid into a fund in Max's name and donated to a LGBT rights charity, like the National Gay Task Force.
MUSIC HISTORY NOTE - Another LGBT music foremother was Madeline Davis who released 'Stone Wall Nation'/'From the Steps of the Capitol", around the same time that Maxine Feldman released "Angry Atthis", the Advocate reviewed both 45rpm records.
MUSIC HISTORY NOTE - Earlier,the Daughters of Bilit is released a 45 rpm record by Lisa Ben of two Gay folk songs,"Cruising Down the Boulevard"' and 'Frankie and Johnnie." Lisa Ben wrote and performed gay parodies of popualr and traditional songs.
Lesbians and Gays as a secret subculture have always tried to support each other, if they could find each other. It is hard for young lesbians and gays to understand what it was like to be openly gay at a time when there was; No gay pride movement, No womyn's music, No womyn's festivals, No open lesbian pride, No gay pride parades, No Internet, and absolutely No acceptance of homosexuality by society, parents and employers in America. Homosexuality was officially classified as a mental illness until 1973. This is the world that Maxine Feldman lived in when she wrote and performed "Angry Atthis" for the first time. Imagine yourself living without any of today's LGBT support systems and you will understand how revolutionary it was for Maxine Feldman, Alix Dobkin, Robyn Tyler and Patty Harrison, Lisa Ben & Madeline Davies to do what they did.
It was largely because of Max's influence on me that after becoming a jeweler, and opened a shop on Beacon Hill, I chose to increasingly focus of gay symbols and Goddess symbols. Max was very clear that it was important for lesbians & gay men to have something tangible to hold onto to and always have with them to help them remember who they were, and that they were not alone. Only a couple of other jewelers were making these symbols at the time, Carolyn Whitehorn in California, M'Lou Brubaker in Chicago, Lammas in D.C. and myself,,Laura Perkins (aka Abby Willowroot) in Boston, so we had the country covered, and soon you could see lesbians wearing the symbols of their committment to their lesbian & gay identity everywhere!
Max was right again, every lesbian symbol, women's symbol, labyris or lambda that I ever made meant so much to the wearer, and they often told me so with tears in their eyes., The symbols were a major way for gays & lesbians to recognize each other. Wear a lesbian symbol gave women courage and committed them to other lesbians. Max recognized this need before others did. Unfortunately, the contributions of the early visionary women who made these essential cultural symbols for the community have also been totally ignored by "Women's and LGBT history".
Max and I were together at the first Gay Pride March in Washington D.C. in 1979, where Max chastised me soundly for spending too much time with a dear friend and upsetting my then partner & lover (now happily an X). It's funny, even being scolded by Max felt more loving than being hugged by almost anyone else. Max had the ability to still love you even when she was furious with you.
Maxine Feldman was a true pioneer of lesbian and gay rights, but because she spent so little time tooting her own horn or patting her own ego, the Women's and LGBTcommunity have never really given Max her due respect in that regard. Now that Max has gone, perhaps we will all take time to remember and thank her for the enormous contributions she made to lesbian music and lesbian and gay rights, Max gave her entire life to promoting gay, lesbian, transgender mental health, positive self esteem and gender equality.
When I think of Max, I can hear Max's booming laughter echo in my heart. When Max loved someone she/he loved them with all her/his heart and forever, in life, Max loved many, and maintained close friendships for decades. I loved and will always love Maxine Feldman, as do so many others who have been fortunate enough to spend moments of their lives with her. Max never lost the glint in her/his eyes and courage and kindness of her/his heart, The last time we spoke Max was struggling with the awful challenges of living with COPD and many other things. Time had passed,since were young, our lives had taken different turns, but it was if we both were still 20 years old when we spoke and laughed, Max was always Max, and life never conquered her/his indominable spirit. I love the cover of "Closet Sale" because it totally captures Max's energy and the essence of Max' spirit.
Look at the young Max and the older Max and you will see the beautiful face of a person who lived their entire life with integrity and committment to an ideal, and lived it with courage. Always ahead of the times, Max's extraordinary gift for true friendship is one of Max's most enduring legacies. Today, everyone in the LGBT community owes a debt of gratitude to Max Feldman, Max spent more than four decades fighting for their future.
Max passed away on August 17, 2007, and is deeply missed by thousands fortunate enough to have known Max. If ever a life was well spent, a heart well used, and a spirit that replenished itself with courage, it was by this dear, dear soul, Max Feldman.
Copyright Abby Willowroot 2009 All Rights Reserved
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