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February 3, 1982: American singer Teddy Pendergrass in concert at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. The singer died January 13, 2010
February 3, 1982: American singer Teddy Pendergrass in concert at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. The singer died January 13, 2010 Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A lot happens in a year, events ripe for exploration but athwart the deadline of a column scheduled to appear only six out of fifty-two weeks. Such was the case in 2009, and I had planned on reviewing The Year in Sex, plumbing the meaning of some of the bigger stories that slipped past, when fresh events intervened: Vanity Fair plastered its February cover with a portrait of Tiger Woods that blends classic beefcake with the essence of a police artist's perp drawing; and death came calling.
I'll get to death in a moment, but first the really morbid subject. That picture of Tiger, grim-faced and naked except for a ski cap, sums up the major sexual theme not just of the past year but of our time, the sexual being as offender. Tiger coerced no child, copped no plea, jumped no bail, whacked no white woman. It doesn't matter. He had merely to bust up the prison of his own image, and the black Escalade became the white Bronco, Tiger became "the new O.J.," with the difference that this time some people cheered domestic violence, wishing out loud that the club-wielding Elin had given her bloodied husband more of a beating.
When mere horn dogs can so easily acquire the tincture of criminality and whet the taste for punishment, it's clear that ordinary rules of judgment have been suspended. And so, plucking just a few headlines from the recent past, it cannot matter that Michael Jackson was acquitted of child molestation, since he was frequently remembered in death as a pedophile. It cannot matter what happened all those years ago between Roman Polanski and Samantha Geimer in a mansion on Mulholland Drive, just as it cannot matter whether others who plead guilty to a sex charge really did it, or whether evidence to convict was nonsense, or whether the guilty serve their time. They can never "pay their debt to society." Guilt is the presumption, forever. One who pleads on the promise of a deal can no more realistically retract that plea than the ex-cons and wrongly accused can shed the label "sex offender." Martha Coakley says she still believes the Amiraults — whom she helped put away on preposterous charges of daycare horror and who were later vindicated — are guilty. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court suggests it may not let other convictions stand on repressed memory alone but it has no problem doing so in the case of defrocked priest Paul Shanley (another prosecution initiated by Coakley), ignoring the reams of scientific research offered by the defense. And dozens of people who have done their time are still living under a bridge in Miami, quaking in the unwonted cold, because the city's residency requirements for sex offenders afford no other place for them. Perhaps the Supreme Court will feel the tug of constitutional duty and rule this year in US v. Comstock that the federal government may not authorize indefinite civil commitment of "sexually dangerous" persons beyond their prison term, as provided in the odious Adam Walsh Child Protection Act. But the definition of sexual danger has become endlessly elastic. Like the terrorist, the sex offender is a new category of human being. Fear will probably stick around a while.
Into this gloom, death comes as a rescuing angel, bearing memories of an erotic world that now seems a different dimension entirely. Teddy Pendergrass, a symbol of '70s soul who helped to shape that world, died January 13. He was only 59, not all that much older than kids like me in the 1970s, picking our way toward consciousness with little more than the culture as our guide. The newspaper obituaries all remembered him as a sexual icon, and for the women who attended his Ladies Only concerts, licking chocolate Teddy Bear lollipops and throwing panties onto the stage, he may have been mainly that. To me, he was a groove master and soul stirrer, a sexual educator when that was something I wouldn't have even recognized. "Wake up everybody," he sang with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, a song as much about living in your skin as in political time. Music was Teddy's text, and with it he taught us how to come into our nature, to feel not only the fire but also the texture of sensual things—the need in his voice, the lushness of Philadelphia sound, the mix of power and vulnerability that defined the sexual being as lover.
Teddy said his calling to secular music came at a Jackie Wilson concert in Philadelphia when a female fan straddled the singer, then on his back, and ground her hips to the rhythm of his song. The adolescent Teddy was bug-eyed. He harnessed that excitement in a mature voice that was deep and emotionally bare, and that carried up from radios on the street in spring through the windows of the city bus I took home from high school—I miss you... If you don't know me by now... It jousted with the sounds of Motown; with "TSOP" and the other hits from Gamble and Huff out of Philadelphia International; with Barry White and Earth, Wind and Fire, and the more liquidy tones of Al Green in songs produced out of Memphis at Hi Records by Willie Mitchell, the old soul genius who left this world a few days before Teddy.
Who knew then, feeling the groove riding through the black and Polish neighborhoods of Buffalo, that the antisex, antiblack, antigay, anti-loveandpeace backlash that would forge so much that is harsh and ugly today, were all in the works at that moment? Not a young white girl who understood only in the broadest strokes that the beat carrying from soul to funk and R&B to disco, the beat that made one dance, made one sigh, was a precarious beat of freedom.
In 1982 Teddy Pendergrass broke his neck when his Rolls Royce spun out of control and crashed. By then he had recorded five consecutive multiplatinum albums, the first black male singer to do so, and it was an easy thing to make a program of music following the full arc of love from first seduction ("Come Go With Me") to final heartbreak ("Another Love T.K.O.") just from his songs. His passenger, a transsexual M-F who'd worked as a prostitute, was treated for cuts and bruises. Teddy, 31, was paralyzed from the chest down. Every obituary I read said that the accident transformed him from sex symbol to figure of sympathy or, at best, inspiration. I thought something similar at the time. But I was stupid and the obit writers still are, because anyone who followed the music and the man should have learned a few more sexual lessons from him.
He had fashioned himself from the start as an object of erotic interest because he sang as if he understood a few things about love, about making love and giving love, sometimes begging for it; about the sexiness of a brain and human transactions more intricate than the missionary position. Paralysis forced him to discover a new voice—less powerful, more supple, still seductive. It forced him to discover new ways to make love, because he believed in singing from experience. He reinsinuated himself into women's sexual fantasies because he didn't stop embodying his sexuality. At his last concerts, about eight years ago, they still threw panties onto the stage. Watching him sing "Close the Door" from a wheelchair after Al Green stomps and shouts a version of "Let's Stay Together" on a 1993 video from the Apollo Theater, I know whose lap I would crawl up into. And maybe somewhere right now some kid is screwing a blue or red light bulb into a lamp socket, waiting for a lover, pulling Teddy from the old-school pile and, nervously, hoping to get lucky.