Queer Activist, Teacher Tells His Stories in Music
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Chris Hassett is one of those people whom I’ve known so long I can’t say for certain just when, where or how we met. I’ve long identified him with the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club (now known as San Diego Democrats for Equality) but he’s been active in San Diego’s Queer community almost as long as I have. His career was teaching but he’s long pursued music as an avocation and has got good enough to play live and build a local following. He’s basically a folk singer but his music also shades off into pop, rock and jazz, and with other local folksingers he started the “Friends and Lovers” concerts in 1987 to raise money for local AIDS service organizations. Hassett and several of his friends gave a concert July 20 on the eve of Pride to celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Friends and Lovers” and highlight the continuing need to help people with or at risk for AIDS.
Hassett’s latest CD, This I Promise You, came out last May. It’s his first studio recording of original songs (his previous releases were a 2009 live album called Bring Love Home and a CD of holiday standards released in late 2011). Zenger’s interviewed Hassett in late June and talked about his family, his musical roots, and the wide and varied inspirations for his songs. We also shared opinions of other musicians, ranging from 1920’s singer-songwriter Willard Robison to Lady Gaga.
Zenger’s: I’d like some background on you, your life, your history, and how you got interested in music.
Chris Hassett: I was an unlikely candidate to become a singer. I came out of an Air Force family, had four brothers. Sports were a big part of our life. But my dad, even though he was a career soldier, was very artistic, very musical, and he sang around the house all the time. So I think all of us boys developed a love for music, from classical to Broadway to pop to rock to country, throughout our formative years.
I guess it took the deepest with me. I was the first one to love the Beatles, the first one to love Elvis, the first one to love the Mamas and the Papas, the first one to love Lady Gaga. I never did music as part of my studies, but from college on I always got into pick-up groups and sang, and became known as the guy who would sing; if you knew how to play a guitar, I’d join in. When I was having a career in teaching, coaching and a variety of other things, singing was always something I did on the side, and it was what gave me the most pleasure.
Coming to San Diego 30 years ago, I had a chance to collaborate with some very talented musicians. I started writing songs, putting on benefit concerts, singing at community events. My reputation as a community-based singer, a local star, grew. And that’s fine with me. I love entertaining. I love sharing my music with other people. I love interpreting other people’s music, and I am especially enjoying writing more of my own music now, and performing.
Zenger’s: Also I’d like to get your story as a Gay man.
Hassett: I’m the only Gay man in my family of five boys. I’m lucky enough that, even though coming out was a wrenching experience in my late 20’s and early 30’s, I’m very lucky that, even though I certainly had some apprehension, I never had anything but full support from my family. Maybe it’s the comfort I got from having four best friends, my brothers, who I always knew would fiercely defend me against any and all criticisms or bullying. And they often did. I know that made it far easier for me than for so many of my friends and other people, whose lives really take a blow when they come out to family and friends.
Coming to San Diego was part of my coming out. I chose to go back to school after teaching and coaching, and immediately started showing up at Gay bars and dating men whom I found attractive and interesting. I joined as many Gay clubs as I could identify, everything from running to politics to swimming to religion. I got very involved in the community and found it a wonderful way to participate in a community unlike any community I’d known before, where I felt I could bring my full self to the table and engage people on every level: intellectual, physical, sexual, emotional and everything else. So that was a new experience for me, and a gratifying experience, and I felt that’s when I really came of age, even though I was in my late 20’s and early 30’s.
Zenger’s: I noticed one of the songs on your album, “Never Once,” was, as you put in your liner notes, about your “troubled” relationships.
Hassett: Yes, it’s funny. I wrote a whole suite of songs in one fell swoop. I couldn’t get them through the guitar and onto the paper quick enough. But what I realized after I created them, “Never Once” being the kingpin of those songs, is that they were a catharsis of all the kinds of emotional growing and ups and downs I’d experienced decades ago. I was recalling difficult relationships and emotional funks, and all those other aspects of relationships that I think had obviously still resided in me, and they became grist for this musical mill. I love every one of those songs.
I love them because, even though they might talk about a troubled relationship, I know how much I’ve grown from those relationships and from being able to express them. “Never Once” is a very fun song for me to sing, because it can be a little tongue-in-cheek but it also has a lot of anger. It has a lot of movement, a lot of rhythm, and it’s got this just stinging guitar solo that I pleaded with my friend John Katchur to provide, that succeeded well beyond anything I was imagining in my head.
I was never a great guitarist, but I certainly love playing my guitar when I’m writing music. And that’s where I kind of get the rhythm and the feel, and the rest of the arrangement, in my head.
Zenger’s: I understand this is actually your third CD.
Hassett: It is. It’s my third CD after many decades of singing, performing, recording concert tapes and all that kind of stuff. But it wasn’t until I was turning 60 that I got serious about doing a recording project where I laid down my music, and also interpretations of Broadway show tunes, ballads, jazz. I really love it all. In the last 30 months I’ve put out three CD’s. Obviously there was just a ton of stuff that was waiting to burst forth, and I’m lucky to work with a number of talented, helpful, collaborative people who help me bring these CD projects to life.
I did a first CD [Bring Love Home], which was a live concert with a lot of my favorite songs and original songs. I did a second CD of Christmas music [December], which even though I grew up in a very liberal religious household, I’ve always been a nut for Christmas music. And then a third CD [This I Promise You], which I just came out with, which is originals, love songs, newer songs for me, although some of them date back a few years. But I’m very proud of it. I feel it’s the best work to date. And I’ve got more CD’s coming!
Zenger’s: One thing I noticed about your songs is that none of them are explicitly Gay. You take care to avoid any specific pronouns. I found it amusing that the song “Two Hearts,” for example, which you explain in the liner notes was about a Lesbian couple, but hearing a guy singing, “All my life/You’re my wife,” a lot of people are just going to think, “Oh, he’s a straight guy singing about his wife.”
Hassett: [Laughs.] Well, it’s not that I did these things because I’m embarrassed about being a Gay man. I think that anyone who’s going to take more than a few minutes to get interested in my music or my life is going to come face to face with the fact that I’m Gay, I’m proud, I’m out. I live my life, I don’t shy away from confrontation or controversy. I’ve never hid behind silence. You can take me off the soapbox any time you want, but the music speaks for itself.
I can also tell you that when I do concerts, I never try to attract just a Gay audience. In fact, it’s much more of a success if I have a very mixed audience: old, young, Gay, straight, skeptical, believers. That’s what I think community is all about: willing to try to bridge differences with music, not just try to solidify commonality. That’s what community is all about in my mind, and I think that shows up in my politics, in my music, in my writing.
In the book I wrote with my friend Tom on Gay/straight dialogue, we confronted the male issues head-on: Gay, straight, old, young, relationships, love odysseys, sexual expression. So it’s funny. I think I might have had the same observation you did when I was coming up with some of the songs and I put them all together and I said, “Boy, there’s nothing really raunchy here; nothing really fun; nothing really ostensibly Gay” — unless you look for it.
For instance, in “Roscoe’s Lullaby,” I’m singing my dog to sleep and I say, “Your dads are sleepy too.” Well, you can only have two dads, you know, if they’re Gay partners with a dog as their “child.” And that’s the case with my life. Or in “I Wanna Feel the Heat,” the sequel to my biggest song, “El Centro,” about two Gay cowboys who are in a dance troupe. They’re not in a rodeo; they’re in a dance troupe that’s touring the country, and it starts out, “Eighteen months on the road with Earl, and I’m feeling every mile. My two-step’s lame, my boots won’t slide, and I think I’ve lost my smile.”
I have fun singing it. It gets into very fun storytelling that would only have special meaning for the Gay audience, referring to “drag queen Miss Pearl” who dresses in chiffon and high heels, and cowboys trying to come between me and my man, that kind of stuff. So it’s in there.
I do want to call attention to “Two Hearts,” which is a song I’m extremely proud of. One of the ministers of my church was getting married, and she asked me if I’d be willing to sing at their ceremony. I said, “Of course,” and even though I only had a few weeks I said, “Boy, I want to do more than that. I want to write a song. These ceremonies are so special, these marriages are so emblematic of our time, that I’ve got it in me to write a love song for these two women who were joining their lives together.”
“Two Hearts” emerged from that, and I’m very proud of it. I actually wrote it so they could sing it to each other, and that’s why there’s two choruses that say, “You’re my wife,” and they can say it to each other. They can sing it to each other.
Zenger’s: Were you hoping when you wrote the title track, “This I Promise You,” that it would become a traditional song for same-sex weddings?
Hassett: No, but I would be delighted if that happened. “This I Promise You” is a track that was inspired by a book that a friend of mine wrote. He had challenged me to start thinking about writing some music about what might end up being a movie based on his book. I was especially taken by the relationship between two men in the book, one of them a career prostitute, male prostitute, and the other one, the Gay closeted son of a powerful man in the community.
Somehow they find each other, and they never expected to fall in love or have anything more tender than just a quick night together. But in fact they develop great feelings for each other, and yearn to have a life of dignity and openness and passion and love with each other. I wrote it for that, but I think it’s about the yearning that anyone has to find a partnership, that we do want to make the most ultimate promise we possibly can, because our love is that strong. We feel that deeply about this other person. It’s my favorite song, because I know how deep I reached to bring it out. But if you ask me, every song is my favorite, so — !
Zenger’s: I think I remember one musician who was asked, “What’s your favorite song?,” and he said, “The one I just finished.”
Hassett: That’s about right! And sometimes it’s the one I just listened to! I have favorite songs that are written by friends of mine, and I fall in love — I was just joking with my friend Peggy Watson some time ago, because we used to do concerts together. And I said, “Oh, my God, Peggy, we just have the heart of teenage girls. I fall in love with every song I hear, and I immediately bring it into my life until the next one bumps it out. And then I move with that one.” It’s like my life pulses forward song by song.
Zenger’s: This morning I was listening to your CD, and then I listened to a private-label reissue I got of the 1920’s singer-songwriter Willard Robison. He was from a family of ministers, and though he didn’t become a minister himself, he tapped a lot of religious imagery in his songs. And this was in the 1920’s, at a time when you had all these people writing these articles about “jazz, the music of the devil,” they way they would write later about “rock, the music of the devil.” Some of Robison’s songs have titles like “The Devil Is Afraid of Music” and “There’s Religion in Rhythm” that seem to be his consciously writing answers to all these attacks, saying, “No, this is not sinful. This is holy. This is beautiful. I’m in tune with God when I write these songs.”
Hassett: I’m curious about his work and I actually look forward to looking that up, Wikipedia, hearing some tracks. But like I said, I had to reach pretty deep to come up with “This I Promise You.” It might come off as a simple little love song, but the extent to which you are willing to reach deep is really what creates a good song. And it’s also what makes music forceful in your life as a songwriter. I don’t want to just be cranking out little pop songs with a catchy rhythm. I love some songs that really don’t go more than surface deep, but that’s not what I want to do as an artist.
Zenger’s: It’s one of those things that I noticed when I heard Lady Gaga. As someone who doesn’t generally like that kind of music, I was impressed that she knows how to write a song. They have beginnings, middles and endings. She’s not just barking a few lyrics out over a dance groove and calling it a song.
Hassett: I actually am a fan of Lady Gaga. She’s a phenomenon, and who knows what combinations of tricks and happenstance and look and image and style makes those kinds of things happen, because there’s a tremendous population of people who all, whether they admit it or not, would like to have the level of fame and fortune that Lady Gaga has. But she’s a remarkable talent, and I think she’s representative of a lot of tremendous energy, good energy, that’s going into songwriting and music these days. I would never want to discount newer music just by pointing to the obvious examples that might be a little too ridiculous, frivolous, junky or formulaic. There’s always that. I listen for the good stuff. I enjoy it.
Zenger’s: In fact, she’s on the opening track of the Tony Bennett Duets II album, doing “The Lady Is a Tramp.” My first thought was, “Given that her own music is in such strict dance tempi, how is she going to loosen up enough to sing a song like ‘The Lady Is a Tramp’?” And she did it beautifully.
Hassett: She’s far more than a so-called “dance diva.” You can’t put a quick boundary around her and say that’s all she is. She’s got far more dimension than that. I’m not surprised at all. In fact, it’s her more “unplugged” versions of her hits that I find more interesting musically. So I’m not surprised that she could hold her own with Tony Bennett.
Zenger’s: It occurred to me when Donna Summer died that I always loved the slow introductions of her songs, where she could sing out of tempo, she could phrase, she could show what a beautiful voice she had. And then the drum machines kicked in, the tempo sped up and I tended to lose interest.
Hassett: Well, I like it! I like the expression that comes from singers. I’ll take a ballad and some free tempo and some phrasing over just some throbbing beat anyday. Although I’m a big fan of ABBA and the Pointer Sisters, and that dates back.
Zenger’s: I remember when I was watching one of these “Music Mania” shows, where there were these young bands trying to appeal to the young audience, and in my comments on one of them I said, “They sound like ABBA, and I mean that as a compliment.”
Hassett: [Laughs.] It would be.
Zenger’s: It was like, “How nice to have dance music that actually invites you to dance, instead of making you feel like you’re being ordered to.”
Hassett: [Laughs.] That’s a nice distinction! I think you’re right. It’s got that sound where the expectation is set, “Oh, my God, I have to get up and dance to this boing-boing music.”
Zenger’s: I really liked the song “Each Day of the Week.” When I heard that I thought, “Wow, this is a very jazzy song.” I could see you doing that with a Dixieland band, actually.
Hassett: It could be done. There are a number of genres it would fit in to. I wrote it with the idea of the songs that I grew up loving when I first — just in my early, early adolescent years — realized some of the language of songwriting. And I feel like I rediscovered some of that language when I was writing it. I wanted to write it in a kind of formulaic way that would tell a story, which would have a kind of a gimmick to it, but I knew that I was coming up with something strong enough musically to do a three-part harmony, and have some interesting chord changes and kind of a nice groove to it.
I’m really pleased that you liked it. I have in mind to try to do it in concert with two other male singers, and we would dress up in plaid jackets and look like the Crew Cuts or the Coasters, or one of those “Sh-Boom” groups.
Zenger’s: On the record, are all the voices yours?
Hassett: Yes. That’s the case on all of the songs that have some double-tracking. There’s one song on there that actually has about seven tracks. It’s “We Are the Village,” which is probably the biggest anthem-type song supporting the idea of embracing a global village and the human family and, again, reaching across borders.
Zenger’s: In your liner notes on that one you mention two people that it’s dedicated to, Bill and Nancy Bamberger. I was wondering who they were, and if they actually did live and work in Third World villages.
Hassett: I’ve known Bill and Nancy the entire time I’ve been in San Diego. In their retirement they said, “Hey, life’s not over. We’re going to start a fund to build schools in poor Cambodian villages.” In a few short years they’ve managed to do that. They started the Cambodian Village Fund. They’ve just had a ceremony where they were honored for the brand-new classroom building in a small village in Cambodia. And they’re still going strong. I was so taken by that.
They asked me to do a benefit concert for them, and I was pleased to do that. We’ve done it for a couple of years now, and we’ve raised some money. They’ve had a couple of other fundraising activities, and I am so impressed with what they’ve managed to do with their lives, and just how generous they are. It inspired me. It’s really central to how I want to live my life, in service to good causes, to people who need the help.
Zenger’s: You’ve briefly touched on your involvement with the Unitarian-Universalist Church. I wanted to just ask you what you do for them.
Hassett: I was raised Unitarian, even though my mom came out of a Baptist background and my dad was Christian Scientist. When they got married and the war was over, and they were raising a young family, my mom went on a search to find a faith that she would feel comfortable raising a family in. She took that on, and at some point I think she decided if Unitarianism was good enough for Adlai Stevenson, it’s good enough for the Hassetts.
So we became a member of the church in Orlando, Florida, and every time we moved to another air base they either started or became integral to the fellowship or the church that we were closest to. When I came down to San Diego to go back to school and realized there was a big, beautiful church here, the First Unitarian-Universalist Church of San Diego, I became involved, took part in a lot of committees, was on the board for a while. I’ve always been a featured soloist there but I’ve never been on staff. But I’ve certainly been a prominent member of the community there. And I enjoy my affiliation with that church tremendously. I have tremendous respect for the leadership, the congregation, the social justice programs that they support, and the benefit concerts we’ve done there go to support some of those social-justice programs.
Zenger’s: Any anecdote behind the song “Not a Game to Win”?
Hassett: Sure. “Not a Game to Win” was kind of a reaction to “Each Day of the Week,” the song we talked about a little earlier, which is almost this fairy tale: you meet the person of your dreams on a Monday and by the time Sunday rolls around, or a Sunday rolls around, you’re getting married and launching the rest of your life in an environment of just extreme happiness and bliss.
Well, my first love was not that experience at all. It was in fact not a game to win. I tell the story — although there might be some pronouns missing — of my straight roommate, whom I fell in love with. I had not really come out to myself, much less to the world. And I just found it a very confusing thing that I should yearn to partner with this person in my life who really had no interest, and yet it was just gut-wrenching and difficult to understand.
It’s an uptempo song, again with a great guitar solo woven in there to kind of reflect some of the emotions that I was feeling. You come out the other side, and many years later you find that you are able to put together a life that makes a little more sense, and choose partners that can be more available to you and accept love and give it back, and friends and family, and have comfort in your life. But for me, first love was not a game to win. It’s just something I had to get through. That first man-crush.
Zenger’s: I once said that straight guys who are just entering puberty and looking for dates have to worry about being rejected. Gay guys have to worry about being rejected and being beaten up.
Hassett: Exactly. I didn’t choose that poorly, even though it took many years before it finally came to a head, where we just had to sort things out and move on in our separate directions. It never came to that, even though I put up with a little bit of roughness and some bullying during my school years, I never had to be subjected to that as an adult, or as a Gay man trying to figure out what the hell was going on. And I was probably an easy target.
Zenger’s: Well, maybe not with four highly supportive straight brothers from an Air Force family.
Hassett: Yeah, as long as they were around, I was safe! They’re still my best friend. They’re great guys, just great guys.
Zenger’s: I noticed the song, “I Cried for You,” where you said it was inspired by Patsy Cline. I wrote in my notes, “I wish she were still around to sing it.”
Hassett: [Laughs.] I actually imagine a female voice behind that song, but it was fun for me to sing. Patsy Cline had a huge impact on me growing up. The first time I heard that clarity and that just absolute accuracy and expressiveness at the same time. had it all. What a gift. And it was so expressive that I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do as a singer and songwriter down the road. Decades later that woman is still inspiring people, and always will. That’s the amazing thing about music in this recorded age.
Zenger’s: As you look ahead, what do you think you’re going to do in the future? You said you had more material, more recordings, more local stuff.
Hassett: I’m curious to see how it rolls out. I’ve got about four projects I’m balancing in my heart right now, and I’m just going to have to pick one and run with it. But, regardless of which recording project I do, I am taking time to create some new songs. So when it’s time to do another album of originals, I’ll have the material for it.
I love doing the American songbook, and I’m thinking of doing a series of concerts or recordings around that. Of course that would include the giants: Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and others. But maybe some newer composers as well, like Stephen SondheimI think I have my own unique “take” on interpreting some of those songs. It’s fun for me. It’s challenging for me. It’s a wonderful way to interact with other musicians to interpret music, especially music that has the power of already being in the heads and hearts of the American public, and certainly anyone who would be coming to our concerts or buying our CD’s or downloading our songs. So there’s another CD.
I’m also pulling together a more theatrical event, where the songs that I’ve written create a musical narrative for my life, or it’s woven together with a narrative and it contributes to that narrative. I think it would be a nice way to combine my love for storytelling, my love for music, and my love for performing. That’s something I’d actually like to go on the road doing, as a one-man show. I can’t talk too much about it! There are a lot of directions I could go, and I’m still busy doing some free-lance marketing, and part-time work here and there, and being a family man.
Zenger’s: Yes, as you said on the last song of your album, you have a husband and a dog to come home to.
Hassett: [Laughs.] That’s right! Which I’m very happy about.
Chris Hassett’s CD’s, including This I Promise You, are available from his Web site, http://www.chrishassett.com/
Chris’s friends Bill and Nancy Bamberger can be reached on the Web at http://travelswithbillandnancy.com/
. The Cambodian Village Fund is accessible online at http://cambodianvillagefund.org/index.html
The CD of Willard Robison’s pioneering recordings of his own songs in the 1920’s is available on the Web at http://www.squidoo.com/SUPERBATONE
. Additional Robison recordings, including his performances of songs by other writers, can be downloaded free at http://www.archive.org