Michael Callen left an unfinished legacy
The Washington Blade
March 4, 1994

First Person

Michael Callen left an unfinished legacy

The day after the first wide release of the movie Philadelphia, I bought the soundtrack recording and looked in vain for "Mister Sandman," which the Flirtations are shown performing during the film's party scene. All I found was a thank-you in the liner notes to "Michael Callan [sic] & the Flirtations." They couldn't even spell his name right! Perhaps they were thinking of Maria Callas (whose aria did make it onto the album), and spelled his name more like hers as a result. They must have decided that there was only room on the album for one diva, so they chose Callas. (Frankly, as sopranos go, I think Michael had far better control of his upper register.)

Michael would have enjoyed a bitchy remark like that. Nothing was sacred to him, and this, joined with his keen intelligence and youthful curiosity, always made conversation with him an adventure. But while he may have been a diva onstage, in private he wasn't the least bit pretentious. He spoke in a quiet (and seductive) voice, and could not go five minutes without finding out if you were single and offering his matchmaking services. He had no illusions of superstardom; after the AIDS Candlelight Vigil on the Mall in October 1992, he wryly recounted how people had shoved past him to get to Liza Minnelli.

During that visit to DC (his last before his farewell performances during the 1993 March on Washington), Michael sang at the AIDS vigil and then rushed across town for a Flirtations concert. Chatting with him backstage, I expressed embarrassment at the Gay Men's Chorus having sung his "Love Don't Need a Reason" on the Ellipse that evening only to be upstaged by his peerless solo rendition later at the Lincoln Memorial. Michael said with his usual candor that he wasn't sure the song worked as a choral arrangement. (Well, what can I say? We like it.)

That's the lot of an artist: copyright law notwithstanding, you can't be sure what will happen to your babies once you've sent them out into the world. In truth, some of Michael's songs on his acclaimed 1988 Purple Heart album achieve such a glowing intimacy that it is hard to imagine anyone else singing them. On the other hand, his music outlives him not only because of his recordings, but precisely because it inspires reinterpretations. He and the Flirts proved this with their a cappella "Living In Wartime," so different from Michael's rock and roll version.

Considering the extent of his pioneering work in response to the AIDS epidemic, it is amazing that Michael had time to compose and sing at all. Areas where he played a leading role include the self-empowerment of people with AIDS; the invention of safer sex; the community-based research movement; and the establishment of buyers' clubs providing low-cost access to treatments. In his provocative 1990 book, Surviving AIDS, Michael scornfully rejected the oft-cited 18-month AIDS survival rate as a "command to die on cue." He himself had already had AIDS for a decade before pulmonary KS began slowly drowning this man who had taught others so much about the art of survival. His perpetual ordeal by experimental treatments, which he recounted with such good humor in articles and interviews, is at last over.

The first blow from Michael's death hit me five months early. It was the end of July, 1993, and I was at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee for a meeting of the Stonewall 25 National Steering Committee. I came upon a poster advertising an upcoming Flirtations concert, and saw for the first time a photo of the Flirts without Michael. Of course they had to take new publicity photos, I admonished myself. And I thought of all the students who would attend that concert, whose memories would never include Michael -- just as mine do not include the late T.J. Myers, who was too ill to join the Flirts for their gig with the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington in June 1990. Our memories are frozen in time, but life and the great cause must go on.

Michael's commitment to our movement's future included his devotion to DC's Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, for which he wrote a fundraising letter while he was dying. The many benefit concerts for SMYAL that the Flirtations did over the years were never through until Michael sang the solo in their rendition of Fred Small's Gay-affirming lullaby, "Everything Possible."

I still wonder how Michael found the determination and stamina last year to lay down enough vocal tracks for a new double CD album. Yet his spirit soared during those sessions, and the few who have heard samples are quite excited about them. The focus and drive of the man astound me still; even in death, he has more momentum than many of us do alive.

But it is futile to question the gods. I only count it my good fortune that my own small efforts to advance Gay culture brought me into contact with a remarkable roving quintet of singer-activists, and that Michael Callen was one of them. His incisiveness, his iconoclasm, his wit, his thoughtfulness, his glorious, eloquent voice, and his fierce will to live will continue to resonate wherever his tours, music, writing, and activism reached. If the fight against AIDS is our generation's war, he was one of its most unflinching leaders.

Unfortunately, his years of tireless service to our community did not make Michael Callen rich, and help is needed to complete his final project. His Legacy album, on his own record label, still requires a lot of expensive work before we can see the finished product. If you wish to join in supporting this very special venture, you can contact Michael's partner Richard Dworkin at Significant Other Records, P.O. Box 1545, Canal Street Station, New York, NY 10013. Tax-deductible contributions toward Legacy can be made to "Highways" and sent to The Highways Legacy Fund, 1651 18th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90404. As Elizabeth Taylor said of Michael, "His life is a shining symbol of hope, strength, and courage. He deserves our thanks and support."


Richard J. Rosendall is a co-founder of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C., and a past president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC. He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.

Copyright 1994 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.