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    Catholic
    Jorge Socarras
    Catholic
    Jorge Socarras and Patrick Cowley

    In 1971 while studying at The New York School of Visual Arts, I remember contemplating the photorealist painting I was working on and feeling suddenly stifled by the canvas's two-dimensionality. Bored with New York, and seeking to explore my new burgeoning gay identity, I left SVA and moved to San Francisco. Eventually I enrolled in the Interdisciplinary Arts Department of the State University, where I started doing performance pieces that were part tableaux vivants, part intuitive ritual, and part detective mysteries. I also befriended an electronic music student who was making all manner of music, inspired by the likes of Tomita, Wendy Carlos, George Crumb, Giorgio Morodor, Bernard Hermann, and Stravinsky. His name was Patrick Cowley, and a few years later he would help shape the sound that made Sylvester a disco legend. Meanwhile, I played the music I loved for Patrick: Velvet Underground, Nico, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, and Phillip Glass, some of which I used as soundtracks for my performance pieces. It occurred to me that Patrick could come up with something at least as suitable, and he jumped at my invitation to compose for a new performance piece. The hypnotic, dreamy track he recorded was highly effective, and soon thereafter he asked me if I'd like to collaborate more with him. Like many art students of the time, I fantasized about having a band, and Patrick, who along with synthesizer played drums and guitar, was a virtual one-man band. This was the inception of the duo that we eventually named "Catholic." While ostensibly the name was an ironic turn on our own lapsed faith and sinful ways, it was also an affirmation, in the word's purer sense, of the kind of all-inclusive music we wished to make.

    Patrick gave me full creative reign in his home studio, and I approached each song much as I might have a painting or performance piece, except now I was translating my visions into aural components. No one could have been more adept at helping me achieve this than he. Destined to become the father of Hi-NRG dance music, he also loved emulating the musicals elements from symphonic, film, 20th century electronic, and new wave music. Each song concept I came up with became a canvas for him to experiment on, layering it with rich textures, novel sounds, and masterful effects. Each song had a different style, and together they encompassed a range of genres that were conventionally regarded as incongruent – namely, electronic, punk, new wave, disco, and experimental. For example, some of the songs married rhythmic traits of disco with the cultivated noise and ambient strains of the nascent electronic genre.

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    By the time I graduated SFSU in '77, we had recorded over an album's worth of material, much of it hard to describe. Although in retrospect the term post-punk has much been invoked, technically speaking our music was contemporary to punk, even though hard-core punks were suspicious of our ambiguity. When around 1979 Patrick played the music for the manager of his burgeoning dance music label, the poor man had no idea what to make of it – it was just too out there and unorthodox. Even a legendary pioneer musician who I played it for back then wasn't sure what to say about it. Such responses, or lack thereof, might have not in and of themselves deterred us from finding a way of releasing our material, but in 1980 I started a band called Indoor Life with which I was soon touring and recording. Then in 1981 Patrick became mysteriously ill, and in 1982 he became one of the earliest known fatalities of what was yet to be named AIDS. At the time, not wishing to involve myself in any brouhaha over Patrick's estate, I did not pursue ownership of our master tape, resigning myself instead to the cassette versions that I figured would serve. Over the years, these became curiosities that I occasionally played for myself and friends, progressively loosing sight of our original ambition to release the songs as an album.

    A couple of years ago while in Rio, upon returning to my hotel from my first hang-gliding experience, I found an email from two gentlemen in Berlin. They explained that they'd come upon an old master tape with Patrick's and my name on it. Attached was a jpeg image of the reel box, and I instantly recognized the handwritten scrawl: "Catholic." Apparently, they'd been blown away by the tracks and wanted to release them on their music label. I couldn't believe the tape was extant, no less how on earth it had gotten to Germany, or these gentlemen had tracked me down. That in itself comprises a long, serendipitous story, but the result was that the Catholic album finally did get released late in 2009 – thirty years after Patrick and I had made our first attempt. Needless to say, I was thrilled by the release, but the critical reviews proved a revelation, shedding light on what had basically been for me a fun project.

    "Nothing quite prepares you for how downright weird this sounds next to Cowley's more mainstream offerings, certainly the reason why this was turned down by the record company at the time... Some of the music is frighteningly current." -Peder Clark, Little White Earbuds

    "What may stun, though, is the actual sound of the album, a multivalent suite of post-punk paragons that not only resemble many of the most important vanguard sounds from this period (sometimes simultaneously) but actually precedes them... Even though Catholic was rejected by its original record company and never heard from again until now, it seems to have found a way to spectrally infiltrate much of the most exciting sounds that followed its disappearance." -Timothy Gabriele, PopMatters

    "It was in fact so way ahead of anything known at the time that it wouldn't sound retro if it was recorded just now." -wordandsound

    These responses to the release tell us something about how we as listeners have changed the way we categorize music, and how this alters our listening experience. The material that proved so confounding then is now easier to appreciate because we have had time to distinguish the respective musical references. Contemporary musical artists such as LCD Soundsystem are acclaimed for hybriding musical genres – notably punk, new wave and disco – while Caribou marries avant-garde electronic music with dance rhythms. There are numerous more examples, but the point is that the post-modern listener has over the past 30 years become more flexible in navigating the interstitial spaces between genres. Indeed those spaces have become subgenres in themselves with more terms than can fill a music store's catalogue labels: electronic, post-punk, ambient, trance, minimal, acid, goth, etc.

    Even sexuality has found its way into musical classification, and while music files tagged "queer music" might still be limited to independent music stores in major gay centers or college towns (the same was once true for gay literature, now a mainstay in bookstore chains), the implications of such a genre reverberate in the following excerpt from Other Music. (Who best to define it as such?)

    "It goes without saying that it's truly a shame that so much queer talent has been lost through the years, but in this age of the reissue, it's beautiful at least to have the chance to discover the more personal and creative side of many forgotten artists who were under-appreciated, misunderstood or virtually unnoticed during their lifetimes, finding their place behind the scenes or behind the boards in helping other artists reach the masses. The Catholic album is yet another example of a great lost piece of work that was not understood at the time, but to a new generation of listeners it plays like a blueprint for the post-punk, no wave, new wave, and art-rock genres that would develop in the years to follow. One of the most inspiring and magnetic reissues I heard this year." -[DG] Other Music

    How fortunate that one member of the Catholic duo survived to see the album released, as well as to read this assessment. Patrick Cowley's music, which San Francisco's gay culture, and, successively, dance-music aficionados at large have identified and strategically positioned in the genealogy of dance music, can also be appreciated in the broader context of "queer." Here the word serves a dual process, both attributing the music to artists identifiable as other than heterosexual, and defining the music itself as being outside the conventional or available genre categories, i.e., relegating the music as a no-fit genre.

    I won't bore the reader with the by-now clich lists of composers and artists whose sexual otherness has at long last come to be considered a part of their artistic biographies. Besides, there's not enough space! But how ironic that Cowley, gay dance music meister, should at last be recognized as a considerably more complex artist by virtue of that same sexual otherness. This tells us also that the stereotypes of what gay culture is continue to expand beyond the parameters of Tchaikovsky or Will and Grace. How doubly ironic Patrick and I chose the name "Catholic" to define ourselves – that indeed it has taken this long for the words' fuller implications to resonate. As Rich Morris points out in his Soundlab review. "...this compilation proves Cowley had far more (here it comes, can't help it) Catholic tastes than anyone was giving him credit for."

    Author's Notes

    The Catholic CD is available on Macro Music.

    About the Author

    Jorge Socarras lives and writes in NY and Barcelona.

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