Love Don’t Need a Reason: The Life & Music of Michael Callen
by Matthew J. Jones
Reviewed by Hank Trout
When Michael Callen took the stage at AIDS Walk San Francisco in 1988, a hush fell over the crowd of thousands of walkers in Golden Gate Park. For most of us (except for the lucky few who had bought his 1987 album Purple Heart), this was the first time we heard the heart-wrenching anthem he composed with Peter Allen and Marsha Malamet, “Love Don’t Need a Reason.” When he finished the last note of the refrain,
Love don’t need a reason
Love is never a crime
And love is all we have for now
What we don’t have is time
all of Sharon Meadow filled with the sound of quiet crying—and then thunderous applause.
Now, some thirty-four years later, comes the biography that Michael Callen deserves. Matthew J. Jones’ Love Don’t Need a Reason is a thoroughly researched, richly detailed, and loving portrait of Callen as a queer music pioneer, a prolific writer, and an indefatigable AIDS activist.
Born on April 11, 1955, in Batesville, Indiana, to a deeply religious middle-class family. The second of three children, Michael displayed musical precocity early on, often waking his family in the middle of the night with very loud chords on the family’s Hammond organ, developing his falsetto by singing along with Julie Andrews, and, after catching Streisand’s “Color Me Barbra” television special, emulating La Streisand incessantly. (He saw in Streisand a “fellow ugly-duckling who would one day rise to stardom as a singer,” an aspiration he shared.) And of course, growing up an effeminate queer boy in 1950s–60s Indiana, Michael endured years of bullying, slurs, and physical attacks in school. His music-making was his respite.
When he moved to New York City, Michael eagerly threw himself headlong into the hedonistic 1970s heyday of queer sexual liberation—in the parks, in the bookstores, in Times Square t-rooms, in the bars and sex clubs. A self-proclaimed insatiable bottom “slut” (his term), Michael estimated at one point (before his HIV diagnosis) that he had had some 3,000 completely anonymous sexual encounters just since moving to New York. And he had no plans to alter that behavior.
Until he was diagnosed with AIDS in late 1982, that is. As a patient of the legendary Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, Michael subscribed to Sonnabend’s theory that AIDS was caused by multiple factors, including but not solely HIV. Working with Sonnabend and others, Michael wrote “How to Have Sex in a Pandemic: One Approach,” the first “safer sex” instruction pamphlet for queer men. Although he clashed with just about every other AIDS activist and organization in New York, he pushed on, writing op-eds for The New York Native and other publications, speaking at AIDS conferences, putting himself out there as an “AIDS poster boy,” and always—even after KS lesions appeared on his lungs—using that angelic tenor to inspire, uplift, and provoke other young queers to take better care of themselves.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this biography is the serious attention that Jones gives to Michael as a pioneer of queer music. Both in solo appearances and with his two music groups, Lowlife and The Flirtations, Michael brought radical queer thought to his lyrics. His legacy as a queer musician and as a ferocious AIDS advocate has now been memorialized in this loving and lovely biography.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick.