Lighting the Way
Singer/songwriter & long-term survivor Henry Goldring blazes a trail of song & advocacy
by Chael Needle
Photographed exclusively for A&U by Alina Oswald
Henry Goldring treasures his voice. It allowed him to infuse his memoir, UNBELIEVABLE, with the bitter and the sweet tones of the trials and triumphs of being a long-term survivor, all the while working on his craft as a performer and songwriter in New York and L.A. Adapting his memoir into a musical (his second) allowed him to revisit versions of himself, past and present, as they look toward the future.
His voice has allowed him not only to represent his reality as an individual living with HIV/AIDS, but also to stand up for those we have lost and those still in need. He does not see himself as part of a solo act, though; he has joined a chorus of advocacy.
His voice allowed him to come full circle and heal what cracked his heart, and ultimately move on toward brighter days.
And whether he is mining universal truths in his lyrics or fighting for the needs of the LGBTQ and HIV communities, his voice lights the way, illuminating the dreams of everyone in the margins.
When asked who inspired his musical creativity, Goldring answers: “My first ‘big-boy memory”’was at age five when my grandparents took me to New York City to see The Sound of Music on Broadway. Even at that young age I remember being mesmerized by the music and I couldn’t take my eyes off of Kurt! Then my first movie memory was The Music Man with little Ronnie Howard and—pow—I was hooked. My father was a huge Barbra Streisand fan, before she dropped an a from her name, before “People” and awards and, when her records were available in the early 1960s, he was first in line. So in addition to piano lessons (which began at age four), my musical education and exposure was musical theater and Barbra Streisand, meaning each note and phrase had to be exact and precise.” Goldring later studied music and theater at Indiana University and acting at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.
“Then I saw Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues,” he continues. This wasn’t “Stop in the Name of Love” Diana Ross. This was Billie Holiday in pain and anguish with disjointed phrasing and scooped notes and heartfelt sighs. I never realized or understood you could modify a piece of music by giving yourself [the] permission of interpretation. These were Billie Holiday’s words coming from her soul. Then I discovered Tom Waits and his gravelly, gut-wrenching narratives and Joni Mitchell looking at love from both sides now and realized I had a voice, too.”
Based in Ohio, his home state to which he returned gravely ill in 1995 and where he rebuilt his life, Goldring continues to write and perform, and he is currently seeking producers for his musical. He talked with A&U about his journey.
Chael Needle: You have told your story in at least two ways—through words alone and through song. Why? Which does each form allow that the other doesn’t?
Henry Goldring: Music is magical. Songs come to me from a spiritual place that is undefinable and it becomes a personal meditation between the music and the words and me. Songs take me on an intimate journey and every person listening to a song can create an intimate journey specific to them. When I wrote and now revisited my autobiography after eight years, I needed to create a record of what happened in my life and why it was important specifically to me; my journal. Both are windows into my world. My memoir let me tell the story of a queer, HIV-positive man. My songs let me tell stories of us all.
That makes sense and I would say is much needed—to highlight the universal and particular aspects of living with HIV/AIDS. It reminds me of a passage from your memoir when you returned home to Ohio in very ill health: “I was finally a person without adjectives; simply Steven Henry Goldring and I wanted to live.” What does that moment mean for you now, some twenty-plus years later?
I remember that exact moment. While laying on a hospital gurney in my feverish, hallucinatory condition after being flown from LAX to Cleveland with a long-time friend navigating every step, there was a sudden moment of clarity. It wasn’t a voice, but at that instant I felt somebody or something or some Spirit giving me a choice. It was up to me to decide—right now—whether I wanted to live or die. The feeling was I could just “let go” and be done, or I could actually choose to live. But it was also clear choosing to live was not going to be easy; that for the rest of my life it would be my responsibility and obligation to do something to make it better or easier or sweeter for the next person. And at that moment the Chubby, Jewboy, Sissy, Faggot, Short, Big-Eared, Limp-Wristed boy was gone. It didn’t matter anymore and it meant I was free to evolve into this queer, proud man I am today.
So how does “queer, proud man” translate into your art and HIV/AIDS advocacy?
It took a very long time to get there. For men of my generation (I am sixty-three and can only speak for myself), the word “queer” was always an insult used to attack. However, I remembered something my mother—who was an English teacher for thirty years—once told me when a snotty student shouted in class, “Hey, are you a Jew?” She responded with, “Yes I am and what are you?” She owned her identity without any apology. I now own the word “queer” and wear it as a badge of honor. “Yes I am queer and what are you?” informs everything I do. As one of those “hyphenated” people in the arts (actor-writer-singer/songwriter-playwright) being queer is the subtext for my art. I don’t identify with the term “AIDS activist” but when I sing a song or act a role or write, the reality of being a “queer, proud man” and poz is always there, and hopefully other people can recognize the truth in my life to help see themselves in me. That is my job.
What are your concerns now as a long-term survivor? What do we need to address as the community ages with HIV?
Specifically, money is always a problem. As young [individuals] struggling with HIV and AIDS we lost many years of income, which means little or no retirement resources. This is very scary. Even if disability monies keep you afloat, the hoops that must be jumped through declaring every penny with endless stacks of government paperwork adds to stress and isolation. When I use the word “isolation” I use it broadly because when you cannot afford that new sweater or that ticket to Hamilton or to fly off to that exotic foreign destination for the most recent AIDS conference, many of us feel overlooked and ostracized. It is important to be involved, but endless monthly “get-togethers” and “silent auctions” and “HRC black-tie dinners” with the same cast of characters over and over again becomes stagnant. They lose their power.
What I have tried to do—and it is not easy—is to reinvent myself through my work, which is writing. When I originally wrote my autobiography I was searching for a path forward. However, I found others who read my story found they could relate, too, even though the events are specific to me; [we formed] a community of brotherhood/sisterhood/personhood through hope instead of misery. And now re-releasing my book with a new foreword is a window into my past which I have used as the basis for my new musical, the future. Instead of a gay story ending with death and despair, you go out of the theater humming and singing about life and courage, and not only the HIV community but a message for all. That is my antidote. It may sound “Pollyanna” but we all need to find that individual spark and a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Maybe one of my songs can light the way.
What are you working on right now?
As I mentioned, I am very excited because I am re-releasing my memoir, which was originally published in 2010. I have a new cover, an updated author photo and other than a few typographical corrections and edits, it is the same time-capsule of my life up to that point. As I was writing the new Forward I never realized that my book is actually the 2nd offering in a trilogy of Memoirs; the first being a one-person autobiographical musical And Now, For My Next Life, which was presented in L.A. in 1992, the second is my book and now a third, which is my brand new five-character musical with sixteen original songs titled, UNBELIEVABLE, but true.
I truly believe all the facets of my sixty-three years have brought me to this place and time. For some never-to-be-understood lucky star, I am here to tell my story when so many of my brothers are not. This new musical is my gift, sharing my story with the world. I want people to see that even in the most horrific of circumstances with absolutely no hope or reason, we can and must marshal through. Whether it is chaining yourself to the doors of the NIH or ACTing UP everywhere or singing a song. We must never become invisible.
So my dream is to have my musical produced in New York, then tour it throughout the United States and possibly the U.K. This is not at all an “ego thing”! This is so people can actually see me, a real person at sixty-three with AIDS telling his story by examining the past and looking to the future…with old-school schmaltzy Broadway Ballads!). And I want Netflix to film it so it would be available to a wider audience.
I am also working on a “secret” Netflix project featuring LGBTQ+ people of my generation. LGBTQ media offerings are primarily “young and pretty” and “coming of age” (a phrase I will never understand because how can a teenager or twentysomething person possibly find the meaning of life? Every current media platform—Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO, etc.— is overlooking a huge demographic of people with equally compelling stories which must be told, and told by us.
Henry Goldring would like to acknowledge his medical team: “I have been a patient at The John T. Carey Special Immunology Unit” (SIU) of University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center since 1996. Although I miss living in New York, I cannot imagine receiving such expert hands-on care than I have had in Cleveland. Each person on every rung of the ladder has made my journey seamless. They are all my family.”
Chael Needle is Managing Editor 0f A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.