Strange Flesh

by Steve Slagg

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about

Steve Slagg's third album, Strange Flesh, is the culmination of Slagg’s life as a musician and his work–both personal and public—as a queer person raised in the Christian church (Slagg has been involved for most of his adult life with organizations providing LGBT support within faith communities). The album’s songs mingle intensely personal details from Slagg’s own life with stories that are not autobiographical but could be—the types of stories one hears over and over again when building long-term relationships within a marginalized community. A lot of these songs’ “I”s are really “we”s, and in their triumphs and tragedies, love and sexuality, excommunication and communion, they aim for truth, whether through memoir or fiction.

When choosing collaborators, Slagg chose to highlight his deep bonds within the Chicago music community, working with producers (and longtime friends) Lee Ketch and Kit Shields at Harlot’s Progress and engineer Dorian Gehring at Foxhall Studio. Contributors to the record include members of Mooner, Contorno, Dusk, and The Obleeks, as well as cellist Cathy Kuna and singer-songwriter Allison Van Liere. Ketch and Shields complement Slagg’s sad choirboy vibe by drawing out the inherent camp and humor in these songs, with arrangements that pay tribute to the baroque pop singer-songwriters of the 60s and 70s, as well as queer artists from Queen to Judee Sill to Labi Siffre.

credits

released June 27, 2019

- Steve Slagg (piano, Wurlitzer, Rhodes, organ, vibraphone, melodica, harpsichord, harmonica, micro-KORG, EML-101, other synths & VSTs, vocals)
- Lee Ketch (bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, EML-101, Roland JP-08, other synths & VSTs, percussion, vocals)
- Kit Shields (acoustic guitar, vocoder, EML-101, stylophone, glockenspiel, vocals)
- Andy Ketch (drums, tambourine, shaker)
- John Gargiulo (12-string acoustic guitar, electric guitar, lap steel, acoustic guitar)
- Cathy Kuna (cello)
- Allison Van Liere (accordion)
- Julia Blair (viola)
- David Ketch (guitar)
- Dorian Gehring (synths)
- Choir vocals by John Bagley, Brent Bailey, Alyssa Barringer, Blade Barringer, Julia Blair, Josiahduke Harrist, Lee Ketch, Amy Myers, Kit Shields, Allison Van Liere

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produced by Kit Shields and Lee Ketch
recorded by Lee Ketch at Harlot's Progress and Dorian Gehring at Foxhall
mixed by Dorian Gehring at Foxhall
mastered by Greg Obis at Chicago Mastering Studio
cover artwork / design / digital collage by Allison Van Liere
photography by Jonathan Randall Grant: grantatchurch.com

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thank you to lee & kit, erin mckeown, linford detweiler, karin bergquist, daniel knox, david rubin, tim hunt, allison van liere, matt jones, blade barringer and brent bailey

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for nancy, ray, gramma, and dr. foster

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about

Steve Slagg Chicago, Illinois

God-haunted, gay-of-center weird singer-songwriter with death problems

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Track Name: Strange Flesh
I was given strange flesh
And then for 29 years
It grew and it stretched
From my broadening shoulders
To my muddying shoes
It’s been flogged and it’s been coddled
It’s been worshiped and abused
They still get it wrong in the movies
They still get it wrong on the news
And it leaves me confused
It’s a mystery, but it’s pointing me to you

Boys like us bleed strange blood
It flows out from us like the songs that we sang in our old neighborhoods
Where we walked down the street, but we could never be sweet
Where we flew hand-in-hand, but we could never find land
Where we wanted to be the men our parents longed to see
No, what we wanted
Was to be
Not another sad history to repeat
It’s still a mystery
When you kiss me, it’s complete!

These arms I wrap around you:
They lost a friend
His heart was pumping strange blood right up until the end
Now I carry him in my bones
The world was too much with him, now my heart’s his home
The voice that whispers in your ear:
It sang in a choir
My feet danced in the Spirit, and my chest held fire
Now I sing that tune alone:
Dominus vobiscum, et cum spiritu tuo
But I can also sing with you
You look me in the eyes, man, there’s nothing I can’t do
But you’ll have to share my heart
It lies broken like Communion
And mine is the smallest part

Lover, we make strange love
When I’m with you, I do things I’m proud of!
We’ll walk down the street and go ahead and act sweet
We’ll fly hand-in-hand to every corner of this land
Help me say what I mean
I’ll help you do what you should
Our love may not be clean, but love,
I think it might be good
And if we are wrong, like they have told us all along
Call me a fool, love, cause I am
He’s a mystery, this strange man
Track Name: A Thousand Tongues
Dad, can you help me understand what it means that you're gone?
Just yesterday, I wanted to ask you a question:
What was the hymn that my grandaddy still sang
Years after all language and memory left him?
Was it "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing" or old "Amazing Grace"
in that New Florence nursing home?
Whichever one it was, he knew more verses than you or the hymnal
(But I wasn't singing along
I was in the corner with the TV on)
I wonder why that hymn lingered so long in my Granddad's memory
And did he learn it as a boy
In that same brick church where he was buried in North Dakota?
Or am I mistaken?
Did he move there when he was grown?
I just asked Mom, but she didn't know

Dad, can you pray I learn how to show love
Like the love you showed when Grandpa was dying?
You sat for hours and sang and read to him
From the hymnal 
And the Bible
And when his lips grew dry and cracked
Covered in sores and blisters
You swabbed his mouth with a wetted sponge
"I hope that feels good"
Your voice cracked and you cried
(And I cried a little bit too,
I had the presence of mind to put the TV on mute)
Then, just a few years later, when your own turn came to die
I watched my mother do the same
And go to sleep alone in the bed you'd shared for my whole life

I wonder if my lover ever lingered in the same way
Would I have the strength to care for him?
Speaking of my lover, would you have kissed him like a son?
Or, scared and angry, would you have pushed us both away?
I just asked Mom, but she just can't say

O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great redeemer's praise
The glories of my God and king
And triumphs of His grace

Hear Him, ye deaf; ye voiceless ones
Your loosened tongues employ
Ye blind, behold, your Savior come
And leap, Ye lame, for joy

Ye blind, behold, your Savior come
And leap, Ye lame, and leap, for joy
Track Name: Barbara
Some moments flare out with love
Others, love sneaks silently in
We met on the sidewalk in slanted Spring light
We talked for hours and hours ‘bout the things that bothered us then
It didn’t mean nothin’ but it passed the night

You sat beside me, Barbara
In Blanchard Lecture Hall
The man with the bowtie was church
He said we are beautiful
But the beauty’s not from us at all
Neither one of us believed him at first

Barbara, oh Barbara
I’ll see you in September
When the poplars wear the night air like a glove
Barbara, oh Barbara
I think I’m starting to remember we are loved

When life was shit, we shot it and tossed back rum & coke
And then we learned better and prayed instead
And I still remember the letters
You wrote me when my Daddy died
Those letters were my food for weeks
Those letters cleared my mind
 
Hmmm

(And so we live)

Barbara 
Oh, Barbara
I’ll see you in September
When the longest aisle in Memphis bears you up
Barbara
Oh, Barbara
May this song stand as a witness
We are loved
Track Name: Craters of the Moon
I drove with you through Craters of the Moon
We fought about the air conditioning
We didn't know your time was coming soon
We didn't know that my condition would be worsening
Well, anyway, we had the windows down 
The blackened earth stood stark against the sky
My arm was getting blisters from the sun
Your leg was getting restless from the drive

It was almost like a dream:
The ground grew hot and bubbled beneath our feet
Cause the earth let out a scream
Sixty thousand years ago
And spilled its heat
To scour a path from here way down to Yellowstone
Having lifted up the Cascades and melted Idaho
Where you and I, we fought about the radio
At Craters of the Moon

I knew I'd have to tell this to you soon
I still tell you things, even though you're gone
It's Spring, I'm driving back across the Moon
As I make my way without you to Oregon
I think of how we carried ourselves then
Your neck craned upward in wonder, my own frame doubled over and in
I was horny, scared, and faking
You just stared, slack-jawed at God's creation

We didn't know - Lord, how could we have known?
That death was bubbling up from underneath your skin
We didn't know - Lord, how could we have known? 
That love would make me a stranger to my own blood kin
No, like everybody else, we drove to Yellowstone
To see the sleeping giant for an hour, then go home
And then you drove home to North Dakota
And so did I, was sitting right beside you
And now I Drive West to Portland, Oregon
Cause there are things we just beat up until they're gone
Like that busted, listin' boat we called your body
And how I'm driving in a car that is empty
Track Name: Blessed Assurance
Once
When I was part of something bigger
I’d look up at the sky and feel small
Small
Like a finger on a trigger
One part of a powerful whole
Whole
A word I used without confusion
Irony or anger or fear
Fear
Made its bed with me each evening
I’d close my eyes and know you were near
Now
It’s all in my head
Show me the immanent world
And I’ll climb back in bed
Cause there’s a mystery
That used to live inside me
But for many years now it’s been gone

Gone
Gone without a witness
But the places where you stood still remain
Names on a calendar, the church down by the a corner
And a space in my brain
Same sacred moments spill over
Same ordinary sufferings come every day
No blessed assurance either way
You know, it really fucks me down
You’ve got nothing left to say
Track Name: Dismemberment Song
I saw you and knew
There’d be trouble with you
They told me that trouble’s no good
And to turn my head
I saw you and knew
I wanted to keep seeing you
They told me to gouge out my eyes! 
So I gouged out my eyes

When you said my name
Every idol fell lame!
They told me to plug up my ears
Cause trouble’s no good
You sang me an elegant song
That made the evening grow long
(And I sang along)
They told me to cut off my ear
So I cut off my ear
They told me to pull out my tongue
So I pulled out my tongue
They told me that if I kept up any longer
Trouble and I would be one!

Crawled all over this land
Feelin’ around for your hand
And then I found it
Felt pretty good
I wanna hold your hand
In this godforsaken land
But soon enough, my love, they get to me
And I cut mine off
So you take me in your arms
You and your ten or twelve charms
They say, “How does it feel, my brother?
Does trouble feel good?”
I say, “I guess it kinda does
But other days, it kinda doesn’t
It feels about the same as anything else
In this troublesome world”
So I stood up
I stood up
Right then
In front of you
And me
And God
And us
And them
Scratched with my fingernails
And I scratched with my toes
Then I started pulling at the tip of my nose
Til I was pulling off all my skin
Til I was pulling off all my skin
I’m gonna call it off and begin again
I’m gonna call it off and begin again
Sorta shrug you off and begin again

So make me a new man
Where is the new man?
Make me a new man now
Where the hell is the new man?
Where the hell is the new man now?
I’m waiting on the new man
Where is the new man now?
Where the hell is the new man now?
Track Name: What I Need
When I see your face
What I see is an video screen
Switching between
All the faces
Looking back at me
What I need is your gaze to meet me

When I listen for your voice
What I hear is a scared kid
Same scared kid I’ve heard
Since I was ten
Since I was him
What I need is your hand in mine

When I drink this wine
I don’t believe that it’s really for me
When I touch your body
I feel like a fraud
Cause I am, oh my God
What I need are your arms around me
Track Name: Saint E.
When you remember me
Close your eyes and consider me
Read my letters tenderly
Read them aloud, aloud, aloud
As you tend to me
Don’t forget

When you remember me
You’re my friend and my enemy
Keep the best and worst of me
Because I’m bound, I’m bound, I’m bound
To your memory
Don’t forget

Keep your faith heavy
And memorize my lines
You’re gonna need to know them all, know them all
If you forget me
Or if you have to bring me low
I am yours, and they never can take that away

Love, you’re a stripped live wire
I wrestle you at night when I can’t get tired
It keeps me occupied
It keeps you quiet
I hang on the line all all night
And even if it’s plastic and string
I hold tight
Our broken telephone
It’s all I know

I keep my faith heavy
I memorized your lines
I know I need to hold it all, hold it all
Don’t get to forget you
I take you with me where I go
You are mine
And I never can put you away

Old friend, look at us now, we get on somehow
Old friend, look at us now, we get on somehow
Darling, what I need now is to go lie down
Old friend, look at us now, we get on somehow
Track Name: Learning to Sing
I am a man’s body
Strung up on an old buck fence
In Wyoming
The arms are tied with twine
The head slightly inclined
As though listening
I have never been mine
At first I was a scarecrow
If you look twice, you can almost behold the man
I was chosen to stand for those who couldn’t stand

I am a school-kid walking
Southbound on 71
Ohio is frozen
I’m seventeen years old
I know all about this world
And it’s broken
Why and why and why
Should I call these people my people? 
Why and why and why 
Should I call this place my home?
I have never been mine
Now my body moves the nation
If you look twice, you could almost believe I’m  free
I was chosen to speak by those who wouldn’t speak
For me

When we go out walking
I’m still scared to hold your hand
I’m still afraid
When we go out walking
I’m still scared to hold your hand
I’m still afraid
On Belmont and Halsted
I’m still scared to hold your hand
I’m still afraid
When we go out walking
I’m still scared to hold your hand
I’m still afraid
But I was made to look just like the one who formed me
So hold my body tight, cos it never was for me
Someday I’ll learn to sing
Like those who learned to sing
Before me

Billie singin’ Strange Fruit
Johnny singin’ Lush Life
Nina singin’ My Sweet Lord
Antony sings Another World
Neil is singing Alabama
Randy sings Louisiana
The Duke sings Word on a Wing
My mother taught me to sing
Like my Daddy sang Jesus, Priceless Treasure
Like my cousins sang Great Is Thy Faithfulness together
Like my sister sings Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Like my lover sings Book of Love while he’s undressing
Like Nonna sang the Holy, Holy, Holy when she died
Singing Holy, Holy, Holy
Like Nonna sang the Holy, Holy, Holy when she died
Singing Holy, Holy, Holy
Holy, Holy Holy
Holy, Holy
Holy, Holy, Holy
Track Name: Still Waiting for the New Man
Still waiting for the new man
I built this one with my two hands
He’s funded by the big brands 
But he knows how to please his true fans
He’s put together but he’s hardened
(We gotta get back to the garden)
New heart and mind and game plan
God grant it, God damn it, God save my man

Still working at the saved life
I watched my gramma spend her days and nights
In rare gratefulness and labor
To love the Lord and love her neighbor
Most of her life she went to sleep alone
When the phone rang for Walter, she'd say "He's not home"
New spirit every new day
Little by little I'm learning the old ways*

We will all be healed
O daughters of Zion
We will be washed clean
With a Spirit of judgment
And a Spirit of burning
Don’t be afraid

I woke up this morning
I thought I felt a little warning
As usual I missed it
Though there've been mornings when I’ve kissed it
And seen the light
Shining on my lips like a secret
And felt the heat
Burning on my tongue like a red-hot coal

I’m still learning how to feel good
I like clean linens, I like wildwood
Soft chambray and cologne
The tang of tanqueray on tongue
I like the way you look in half-light
Half-dressed by the bed at midnight 
I'm still waiting for the new man
But in the meantime come and hold my hand

We will both be healed
My lover, my witness
Love will wash us clean
With a spirit of judgment
And a spirit of burning

Small booth for shade
Don’t be afraid