Smalltown Boy

I don’t always know why I cry.

Sometimes, finding a cause is like looking at the root ball of a tree upturned in a windstorm, and trying to find the first twisting limb that stretched its way through damp earth from the seed, looking for something to sustain it.

I’ve been told that to understand my feelings, I must first let myself feel them.

I have not always been good at that.

I sit down on the futon, opening up the guitar capo like an alligator’s mouth ready to snap down on the neck, and double-check the chord diagrams on my phone. The song, Orville Peck’s cover of Bronski Beat’s 1984 song “Smalltown Boy,” uses four chords, several repeating refrains, and a common verse-chorus song structure. I’ve already listened to the track dozens of times, keeping it on a semi-constant loop of favorites, and feel confident as I approach playing it.

In my new home, a small duplex hiding among the farmland of rural Western Washington, I’m alone, my partner out for the evening. The refrigerator’s hums echo through the quiet house.

I stretch my hands into familiar shapes, pressing old callouses into the tightly wound steel strings, and pinch them against the rosewood neck beneath. Out of the tiny speakers on my phone, an electric guitar, something like a Telecaster with the reverberation settings all the way up, begins plucking the opening notes. I sync the pattern up with the worn pick in my right hand as a deep baritone voice rises out of the instrumentation, soaked in lament.

I start singing along as the drum-bass pattern locks into my chest. Doing my best impression of the fringed leather mask-wearing country star, I sing, suspending my own inhibitions about my voice, until I forget myself, my place in a physical body, drenched in blood, muscle, and bone.

Before I know it, I’m singing like I’m performing, like there’s anyone but me, two dogs, and a cat in the whole house. Like there aren’t neighbors next door trying to sleep. Like I’m anybody but myself.

After a gentle, crooning introduction, the verse starts and I feel my voice rising up in me, my guitar seeming to ring louder in my ears. The sound from my phone, Peck’s voice in a recording studio somewhere, becomes inextricable from my own sounds, old guitar strings and an untrained voice, as they push around the tiny particles in the air traveling up to my ears.

As the first verses shift into the chorus, I feel the powers holding me up start to fade. The magical experience, being suspended out of my body, wanes and I start to plummet, like a heavy boulder tumbling down a cliffside, into myself.

I feel every suspended moment come crashing back into me. Then, as if the whole song was a ritual for it, as if the songwriters had planned it, the chorus commands me: cry boy, cowboy, cry.

And, at a moment’s notice, I do.

I hadn’t heard the song before Peck’s version.

The song, released as a one-off single, features what looks like a home photo as the cover art. The inherent intimacy of the image, a child cheekily showing off their outfit as if to a parent or guardian, immediately caught my attention. I was seeing this child in such an honest, delicate form, and such vulnerability rarely fails to touch tender spaces in me.

The child in the center, presumably Peck, wears a cowboy hat, bandana mask, cut-off jeans, and a black velociraptor shirt. They have one leg slightly lifted, hands firmly on the brim of their hat, and even from the little I can see above the bandana, I can tell they’re smiling.

I’d been a fan of Peck’s for a while. Growing up in rural North Idaho, country music was usually all I heard outside of my own home. While a few songs or artists would occasionally sneak through into my heart, country-pop songs like Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” or Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” and musicians like Johnny and June Carter Cash or Willie Nelson, in general, I couldn’t stand the genre.

Country music tended to remind me of scenes I remembered growing up: middle-aged men, piss-drunk, scream-singing about red Solo cups as their wives looked on, shaking their heads. Or songs that envisioned romanticized, idyllic versions of smalltown life that always felt closer to stories about alien planets than anything I’d ever experienced.

Orville Peck’s music, about rodeo drag queens and queer truck drivers in love, hooked me in the mouth and dragged me back to the genre.

On my first listen to “Smalltown Boy,” I had no idea it was a cover. I had no clue the original swarmed with synths and falsetto vocals, infecting with a rhythm that begs you to dance, to move your body. The lyrics, while introspective and mournful, could easily pass over a listener’s ears without a deeper consideration.

Peck’s version was different. The deep baritone voice, swelling over slide guitar instrumentation, gave the lyrics a platform in which they couldn’t be missed, in which they demanded to be heard. Peck’s version pulled me in, like the hidden undercurrents in the deep parts of rivers, and drug me off with it.

I grab the chest material of my shirt and pull it up to my face, patting the wetness from under my eyes. My dogs lift their heads from their rest and look over at me, concerned. The cat comes down from her slumber between the duvet cover upstairs and walks along the ridge of the futon behind me, rubbing her head into the curly mess of my hair. Their tenderness finds a delicate space in me and soothes it, like the first rays of sun on tiny green leaves peeking out of the earth.

I play the opening notes again, letting the oscillating strings become vibrations traveling through the wood and out the sound hole of the guitar, blanketing the quiet room in sound.

My index, middle, and ring fingers form the A-minor, a chord drenched in dissident melancholy, then reshape into a comforting G-major. Then, a D-minor, swelling in sorrow, transforms into a C-major that closes the structure. This pattern, minor to major, a chest hollowed out with lonesomeness to a squinting look at a rising sun, carries the song of desperation and grief.

To your soul/to your soul/ cry/cry/cry

I don’t even make it past the introduction, just a few words strung out over reverberating tones, before I break, flooding again in feelings I don’t understand.

The narrative of “Smalltown Boy,” a story of a young queer man leaving his small town to hopefully find a better life elsewhere, is so common in the stories told of queer people from small towns or rural areas, it’s almost a trope.

The original video, released in 1984 along with Bronski Beat’s first album Age of Consent, stars bandmember Jimmy Sommerville as a young queer boy who, as he leaves on a train elsewhere, reflects on his life in his small British town.

Around a table, Sommerville eats breakfast quietly with his family. Old family photos in black and white flash in and out as cereal is eaten, hard-boiled eggs are peeled, and coffee is poured. Silence hangs heavy in the spaces between them.

Later, as he treks alone across a walkway, Sommerville’s attention is caught by the splashing of a young swimmer as he dives into and pulls himself out of the pool. He stops to watch the boy, smiling and laughing with friends as he launches himself from the highest diving boards, and is soon caught up to by friends who notice his attention. Cheeky smiles spread across all their faces.

In the locker room afterwards, Sommerville approaches the swimmer, leaning lightly on the shelf of lockers next to him as he speaks. A few words slip out of his lips, his gaze barely able to meet the swimmer’s. The response comes not as words, but as a look, drenched in disgust and hate, and Sommerville quickly exits the scene.

Outside of a snack bar later in the afternoon, the day still damp from morning rain, Sommerville and friends notice a group of people running behind a motorcycle, headed for them. His friends peel off in another direction and the group lets them go, their violent gaze sharpened to a pinpoint focus. Sommerville runs down an alley, hoping to find another way out, but is caught in a dead end.

Backed up against a wall, bricks still slick with rain, Sommerville watches, terrified, as the swimmer steps forward from the group, a wicked smile spreading across his face.

Afterward, a cop takes Sommerville home, his face swollen and bruised. His mother cries into a tissue. His father shakes his head, disappointed, but unsurprised.

Sometime later, Sommerville stands at the threshold of the door, his parents on the other side. His mother cries and hugs him. His father hands him some cash, but refuses to shake his hand.

The last scene, as past memories fade out and images of train cars and tracks come into focus, is Sommerville, eating a snack, joined by friends. Together, they start to smile, they start to laugh, flashes of hope spilling over their faces.

It may be a trope, but it rarely fails to invoke sadness in me.

I can’t remember the first time I was told not to cry.

The instinct to withhold tears, to suppress my feelings, has baked its harshness into my bones so deep that it’s hard to differentiate it from myself.

Feeling emotions then is work, slow work. It’s picking out the tangles and knots, unwinding messy heaps of Christmas lights. It’s hard, rarely coming easy, and creates pockets of space and time where, seemingly from nothing, I break down and cry.

With the cat still rubbing herself against the back of my head, softly purring as she does, and the concerned look from the dogs still fixed on me, I start playing again.

I make it through the first verse, the first chorus, but feel the swell of sadness overwhelm me in the second chorus. I tense my body, trying to hold steady against some unknown force, but feel powerless against it all.

This time it hurts to cry, like the muscle-contracting pain of vomiting, the feeling of a body rejecting what it has consumed. Tears erupt from some deep, ancient places in me, indiscernible all these years later.

My concerned animals swarm me in their attention. The dogs are up from their slumber, sauntering their low bodies over and placing their heads on my lap as they stare up at me. The cat at the back of my head leans closer, purrs louder.

I don’t know how to tell them that I’m alright, currently. That I don’t know what’s wrong, and I don’t know why I’m crying about old things, ancient history, predating all their time on earth.

Instead, I coo at them, my gentle words and noises like a heavy balm that soothes me as much as it does them.

Had it always hurt to cry? I wasn’t sure. Maybe it was taught, maybe it was learned. Maybe it was the inventive adaptation of a sensitive, queer little boy living in rural North Idaho who figured out that to protect his tender heart, he best produce serrated tears.

The ways “Smalltown Boy” connected with me only hit weeks after putting away my guitar, tucking the bruised case into the deepest parts of the upstairs closet.

I had been listening to the song for an entire summer, letting the sounds echo through the house as I worked, cooked, and lived.

At a conscious level, I’d known the connections between the narrator and myself, both queer people from small towns or rural areas who had moved to other places, but at a subconscious level, I hadn’t realized the deep tunnels that were forming in secret channels between the song and hidden parts in me.

I’d left Idaho two years before. I was, therefore, two years ahead of where the narrator of the song was. Therefore, I should feel better. Therefore, I should feel different. Therefore, I had no reason to cry anymore.

The smalltown queer narrative had told me to get out, told me that I would find salvation in places outlined in blue on presidential election maps. But all I had found was that I felt just as odd, just as strange, and just as out of place as I had ever felt anywhere else.

I felt just as unwelcome in the rain-drenched Washington Coast as I did the snowy backroads of North Idaho. As much at home wandering between Lodgepole Pine and Douglas Fir in the Idaho panhandle as I did walking the rocky coasts along the Salish Sea.

I had no desire to move back to Idaho, having been told both directly and indirectly for years that I didn’t belong there, but had found no comfort in Western Washington either.

I had come looking for a place to love me, but soon realized it was as flawed and as beautiful as any other place, and that I could only barely, in incomplete or hollow ways, love myself.

I cried, then, because so little had changed.

Infusing the tradition of lamenting country ballads into a queer classic, Peck creates a space for the aspects of the smalltown queer experience that are less commonly addressed: that a sense of belonging is a hard thing to come by. No place will love us enough that we won’t also need to love ourselves. And sometimes, when we sing, listening as our voices mix with those of country stars past and present, we may, for no known reason, start to cry.

My Own Private Idaho

Their presence, as out gay boys, created a space and time where there was seemingly none in my life.

After the Honeymoon Phase

To me, Lifetime movies were like fables: fantastical two-hour tales that imparted important morals to live by.