Triptych image: "Lance"
Credit: Julie Gorton
I WAS ONCE INVITED to write a biopic about Lance Loud by his mother Pat. In the 1970s, the Louds were America’s most discussed clan, thanks to the first-ever reality TV show, An American Family, the experimental 12-part PBS documentary that sought to present unfiltered truth by filming the Louds of Santa Barbara virtually nonstop for seven months. When the series aired in 1973, unexpectedly huge numbers of viewers tuned in. Americans took one look at the handsome couple with their five handsome children and barely submerged problems, and they were hooked by this new way of storytelling. By the time the final installment aired, 10 million people were watching, including every pundit in the country. The chattering class saw the Louds as an example of what was going terribly, terribly wrong in the world at large; the show inspired a virtual phantasmagoria of national projection. To this day the family is still sorting out what the hell happened to them.
In the center of that maelstrom was Lance, the oldest and most vivid of the five Loud children. Just 22 at the time American Family aired, Lance was funny and flamboyant, and in love with the prospect of confronting the world and starting some wild dialog. He is sometimes described as the first gay man to “come out” on TV, but that is inaccurate. Lance just was. His family adored him and didn’t question his “orientation.” That he became a cultural touchstone wasn’t exactly his fault, nor was it his mission. He spent the rest of his short life alternately bemused, befuddled, and, finally, proud that he had accidentally become a beacon for other gays and outsiders and artists who longed to find community in truth.
Lance formed a punk band and became a cultural journalist and had success at both careers, but his most seductive talent was his way of making anyone within his orbit feel like they were in the center of some magically twisted universe. If you were with Lance, whether you were getting gritty soul food at some dive on Avenue D at 4 a.m., or catching the Jobriath concert at the Bottom Line (tickets of course were complimentary; Lance knew everyone), you were where it was happening, and you didn’t want to be anywhere else.
His exuberance was offset by its dark twin, an occasionally morbid obsession with worthlessness and isolation, documented in his sardonic and engaging writings. In his final interview for Details he described his writing as clumsy and dull witted and his work as “some loser’s musings on his own mortality.” On December 22, 2001, Lance died of an AIDS-related illness. He was 50 years old.
I met Pat Loud, Lance’s mother, around 2000, through my longtime best friend Kristian Hoffman (who had known Lance since high school). The most devoted of moms, Pat was seeking a project that would, in a way, extend Lance’s life and bring his buoyant spirit into the present.
After convincing Pat of my credentials (I have 20 produced plays to my credit), she handed over a stack of Lance’s writings, essays and interviews — as well as the entire American Family series on VHS which I’d watched, along with my mom, in confused fascination as a nine-year-old. Ten years later I watched again, this time with an avid sense of appropriation (in the intervening years I had discovered my own gayness and had, like Lance, come out to my mostly accepting family). Off I went to write. But after struggling with the difficulties of trying to capture his mercurial life in what felt to me like the too-strict parameters of a screenplay, I simply gave up. It was just too hard to squeeze Lance Loud into three acts.
Later, I was gratified to see HBO’s Cinema Verité utterly fail at the very same task. Yes, Diane Lane was great (and managed to capture some of Pat Loud’s grace and intelligence), but Lance was portrayed as a high-strung set of dreary clichés on queerness. Worse, the events of the Louds’ complex story were told in a string of tepid generalizations that flattened the family into the easily digestible milieu of a network dramedy. Pat Loud’s book, Lance Out Loud (written with Christopher Makos), is an attempt, through a series of photographs, artifacts, and personal essays, to pull the varied, kaleidoscopic aspects of her son’s life into focus. As it was with Lance himself, the book is an unapologetic ode to individuality and the joys of excess, bringing the impish, brilliant (and at times frustrating) Lance Loud to fully dimensional life. No easy task considering how capricious he could be (and how people’s love for him could slip to irritation and back again on a dime).
The photos, selected from varied sources, are laid out in a seemingly random order, which might approximate the way a mother remembers a beloved son, and no mother and son were closer or more devoted members of a mutual admiration club. We see Lance as a child, already figuring out the comic potential of a false phallus, standing nude behind a clutch of suggestively positioned balloons. Pat does not shy from the mature Lance’s brand of playfulness: the book includes a two-page spread in blurry close-up of Lance’s crotch, a white wig shoved inside a pair of tight black shorts like a stray cat. In between there are shots with celebrities (Brian Eno, Julie Newmar, Ian McKellen), friends, bandmates, and, most compellingly, some heartbreakingly candid family scenes, including a beachside portrait of the five Loud children holding hands as they walk through the surf. They convey as much goodwill and hope for the future as seems possible.
“The Louds found food a constant resource for celebration, salty stories and conviviality,” writes Kristian in his essay from the book, and, as someone who has enjoyed more than a few meals in Pat Loud’s cozy Hollywood home (which she shares with former husband Bill), I can attest to the truth of that statement. Whether serving a four-course dinner or simply deviled eggs and cashews, Pat’s heartfelt mothering instinct comes through in her hosting; it is as if your happiness and comfort were key to her own. I happen to be a pretty good cook, and have hand-cranked homemade pasta Bolognese for 50 people, and yet nothing fills me with as much performance anxiety as making a meal for Pat Loud. The first time she came to dinner I overcooked the lasagna until it had the rubbery texture of a Rusty Warren brassiere. And yet she graciously asked for seconds, a vote of confidence that I’ll never forget. When she asked me years later (over roasted chicken and root vegetables, this time navigated perfectly) why I still got nervous cooking for her, I stammered: “Because you’re the closest thing I have to Mom,” to which she responded, “I’ll drink to that!”
It is well documented that Lance went through decades of a sometimes hilarious, often charming, but occasionally horrifying relationship with mood enhancers, many of them illegal. He had been diagnosed as hyperkinetic as a child, and, whether or not that Jurassic diagnosis was apt, the doctors apparently found that speedier drugs actually helped him slow down. In short, Lance was always searching for that chemical balance that would make him feel more in tune with the world he longed to become one with — a world of vibrancy and color and mystery and adventure — but a world fraught with unforeseen pitfalls and cruelty and disease as well. He knew his follies and he knew his obsessions, however flippantly he could deflect them with an astonishing bon mot, and a cry of, “Where’s the next bakery?”
In an interview with The Advocate a month before his death, Lance shortchanged his cultural legacy when he suggested that his biggest contribution was as a “cautionary tale.” After An American Family aired in 1973, and particularly after the frenzy of media coverage, Lance was forever typecast (in the words of Christopher Makos from the book) “as the poster child for gay, something I wouldn’t wish on anybody.”
This was not a mantle Lance wore easily, and what human being could? But in fact he was, to many hungry, searching incipient artists (including myself, and Ann Magnuson, who was so enraptured by Lance that she moved to New York after seeing An American Family), the exact icon of individuality that he so resisted being. He was the first unapologetically gay person on television; his presence helped to change all of the tropes we’d come to identify with gay culture: the camp sensibilities, the show tunes, the mincing worthy of Paul Lynde.
To those of us watching from childhood living rooms, Lance was first and foremost an intellectual rock star, whose enduring status came as much from his televised embrace of the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, and the cock-of-the-walk machinations of Mick Jagger, as it did from his being the first gay person — as opposed to “character” — that most of us ever saw in our own homes. He was the point man and as such he found himself invariably on the front lines, or, as his sister Delilah so eloquently writes in her essay, “Lance was too impatient to wait for the rest of us, so he ran ahead and scouted the rapids to tell us that the water was fine.”
I think it is the nature of the true original to incorrectly evaluate his own worth. And Lance, more than most, seemed determined to undercut his significance. This theme can be clearly seen on the book’s cover: a photograph on which Lance’s face is partially obscured by the pink squiggles from a magic marker. This might seem a curious, even off-putting choice for a book cover. But it captures the yin and yang of Lance — exhibitionist and self-saboteur.
Lance’s sense of moment was such that, even in high school, with Kristian in tow, he insisted they would both be front of the line at the first showing of Fellini Satyricon in Hollywood (if it were Lance, it couldn’t be the second) dressed in grab-bag costumes pilfered from the Santa Barbara High School production of Romeo and Juliet. But his sense of despair was such that, after drug addled sleepless nights, he would spend hours driving aimlessly up and down Mulholland Drive, weeping disconsolately to Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Heaven Up Here.”
“Explaining him is like trying to capture the will-o’-the-wisp,” Pat Loud writes in her essay. Though later she manages to do just that, saying: “When he became ill, someone asked him if he believed in anything. He replied that yes, he believed in baked goods. I think that what he was really saying is that he believed in life itself.”
In the end Lance’s “art” was not as a journalist or a musician (though he did terrific things in both genres), it was in the art of conversation, the art of friendship, the art of taking our hand and showing us the way to the next adventure. The book’s essays capture the depth of the love he inspired in the people around him. Lance himself was the work of art: being with him was like having a private showing at the world’s most exclusive gallery.