Four years after he met Lou Reed, Ezra Furman formed his first band. He called it the Harpoons. He was nineteen and had zero expectations.
“I just thought it was functionally impossible, and that you had to get lucky and have some savior person with power in the music business swoop in and make it happen,” says Furman. “I thought I’d make some demos, play a few shows and have a few fans.”
Instead, he released three full-length records with the Harpoons. He then dropped his first solo record, The Year of No Returning, and two records under the name Ezra Furman and the Boyfriends. Earlier this year, he released another solo record, Transangelic Exodus, a full-to-bursting concept album about high-octane escapes with an earthbound angel and Goodwill finds — specifically, an $8.99 maraschino red dress — that possess the possibility of both total liberation and crippling shame.
Unsurprisingly, it feels Reed-ian in its embrace of outcasts, queer angst and occasionally skittish guitar work. But it also evokes Born to Run-era Springsteen: Album opener “Suck the Blood From My Wound” is as elated an overture as “Thunder Road.” Rock loves a good pair of runaway lovers. In Furman’s case, a narrator and their injured guardian angel fill the requisite roles.
“I write as a dreamer dreams; the images just suddenly arrive,” says Furman. He can’t tell you why he chose to write about angels on this record, only that he dreamed of them, and that was that. But he will admit to a bit of Freudian self-analysis.
“Slowly I’ve come to understand certain possible reasons why I dreamed of angels. Some part of me hopes for a guardian angel to protect me and other people who need protection,” says Furman. “I see beauty in a person who is between realms, out of place like an earthbound angel.”
The album references Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, naturally) and smears lipstick across the book of Exodus — “We’re searching the trunk every morning/We tore out a tracking device/And I pray for plagues to come down on this Egypt/And I dream of blood, fire and lice,” he intones on “God Lifts Up the Lowly.”
It’s a lot of things at once. But so is Furman.
First of all, he’s a queer punk, a label he happily embraces. Furman was raised in Chicago by an editor and now-retired stockbroker (who grew up amid Beatlemania); his own formative influences included Green Day and the Sex Pistols. But his first forays into songwriting as a teenager were closer to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen: “I just tried to sound like them — poetic and angry and worldly. I would never, ever play you any of those songs.
They’re terrible,” he recalls.
He’s also bisexual. He prefers the term “queer” to “gender-fluid,” but if you insist, he’ll take “gender-wobbly.” He maintains that he’s not a drag artist, though he’s no stranger to dressing outside gender expectations. He began wearing women’s clothes in public in his mid-twenties, though he’d been doing so in private since he was sixteen.
“I wear what I want to wear and appear on stage as myself,” he says. On any given night, that might include red lipstick, strands of pearls, dresses cut above the knee, fishnets and bejeweled cat-eye sunglasses.
He’s also Jewish, and practicing. Had music not panned out, he would more than likely be studying Torah. And no, he doesn’t find his religion and his queerness incompatible.
Quite the contrary, in fact.
“My Jewishness and queerness are very interwoven, and, although they sometimes conflict culturally, intellectually and spiritually they deepen one another for me,” he says. “The heart of the tradition is protecting and siding with the vulnerable. I believe an authentic Judaism would legislate total equality for queer people.”
If only the same could be said about his queerness and his genre. Rock’s decades-long and often despicable history of sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism is no secret. Punk has had a persistent Nazi problem since the 1970s, and that’s not even the half of it.
Being Jewish, queer and feminine all at once positions Furman at the fore of the genre’s ongoing sea change — along with Courtney Barnett, Christine and the Queens and Perfume Genius — but he has no desire to change the machine from the inside.
“I don’t negotiate with terrorists. I don’t think it’s ‘rock’ that has taken strides, but queer people,” he says. “Queer people have bravely come out and risked violence and ridicule in order to do our art. It’s good that it’s often easier to be out of the closet than it used to be. Representation is good. Full equality would be better.”
In other words, it’s not his job to fix the problem or re-contextualize that history. It’s his job to make his art. That it celebrates queerness and spits in the face of Nazi punks everywhere is just a bonus.
Ezra Furman, Wednesday, October 3, Lost Lake Lounge, 303-291-1007.
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