To mark LGBT History Month, 2013, Polari asked its contributors to recall a song that had an impact on their own stories.
‘Smalltown Boy’ – Bronski Beat
by Paul Smith
I truly hope I don’t get stranded on a desert island. Kirsty couldn’t get me to select my eight favourite discs so imagine how much more difficult it has been to choose just the one song that has some personal significance. Having followed all the chart hits and hunks as I turned the corner from teenager into my adult years, I may not have had my first boyfriend but I would have let Adam Ant be my Prince Charming and George Michael could take me dancing in Club Tropicana any day. Whilst Boy George had be incessantly singing ‘Karma Chameleon’ every time I opened my mouth, I was also transfixed by Divine’s ‘You Think You’re A Man’. I think my mother guessed I was not like my sporty brother by then.
In 1984, I had just finished university and with the country in the full grip of Thatcherism it was difficult to know what the future held. High unemployment, social unrest, the darkening shadow of AIDS, I was beginning to develop an awareness of the world around me and to figure out my place in it. I was living back home with the folks in rural Home Counties, a green and pleasant and unchanging land, no farmers to tempt me but knowing I needed somewhere more glamorous, more exciting, surrounded by likeminded people.
One tune kept echoing in my head. A strange haunting siren call from Bronski Beat’s elfin-like singer, Jimmy Somerville. ‘Smalltown Boy’ sounded almost like a cry from the soul. Those opening chords ensnared me, plucking away at my heart and beating that rhythm into my head. “Alone on a platform with the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face.” That wasn’t me but I could feel why this poor boy had packed all he had in a little black case and was forced to leave his family behind in search of hope and love. Of course they wouldn’t understand.
“The answers you seek will never be found at home, the love that you need will never be found at home”. It echoed my own thoughts about the need to leave. “Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away”, the voice insisted but I didn’t want to run away, I wasn’t unloved. I had been fortunate not to experience bullying or homophobia but I did feel in a lonely world and I knew that to find myself I would have to seek out the brighter lights elsewhere, to have the freedom to find who I was and to love who I wanted. Maybe I could befriend this sad boy and bring him the happiness he sought. I understood why Bronski Beat were becoming the spokesmen for gay men everywhere. They gave voice to the heart, to shared experiences and feelings – it resonates now with the same urgency nearly 30 years on.
This song became an anthem, urging me onwards to find the courage to do what I knew I had to do. “Cry, boy, cry.” That wasn’t quite an order but it did burrow into my own unhappiness, knowing that home was not where I would find what I needed and as the song faded its refrain “run away, turn away” my resolve was finally made up. I would seek out rainbow pastures elsewhere and whilst Jimmy hailed from Glasgow (and was, incidentally, the same age as myself) it was Edinburgh that called out to me. I was the Newtown Boy and my world has been blessed with wonderful, amazing people ever since. As for the lessons I learnt from Bronski Beat’s ‘Cha Cha Heels’, that’s a different story.