New York Times

New York NY


For Gay Singer, Songs
In Chord of Understanding

Tom McCormack sings about self-acceptance, love and tolerance,
And promotes understanding of gay issues.

Photo: Frank C. Dougherty for The New York Times


The lighthouse overlooking the Atlantic Highlands once guided mariners home with its powerful beams. Tom McCormack, a singer and songwriter who lives nearby along the windswept coast, also helps people find their way through rough waters.

Mr. McCormack draws his inspiration from the gay experience, but his themes are universal. He sings about self-acceptance, love and tolerance. He will bring his message to the Campus Center of Rutgers University in Camden on Tuesday evening in "Hate Speech + Love Songs," a one-man show Billboard magazine called "a wake-up call for prejudiced minds."

Mr. McCormack starts with "Stigmata," a song he wrote about Matthew Shepard, the 22-year-old gay man who was beaten and left for dead in Wyoming. Mr. McCormack also talks about other recent accounts of hate crimes.

"One of the things that's been chilling to me since I've been doing this program," Mr. McCormack said, "is that there are always new stories to incorporate."

His premise is that identity has many parts, but those who use hate speech or commit hate crimes focus on only one aspect of a person. Mr. McCormack urges his audience to put a human face on it when they hear a gay epithet. "Think of me," he says.

In a light pop tenor reminiscent of James Taylor, Mr. McCormack sings of secrets, and the longing to disclose them, of home and the search for self. "He's a really powerful pop singer and he happens to put himself out there as an openly gay man, and that's still unusual in popular music," said Dan Martin, a composer, record producer and founder of Out Music, the National Association of Lesbian and Gay Musicians.

"Just as we as gay people have gotten so much information and inspiration from straight music," Mr. Martin said, "there is a lot of information that gay people have to give back."

Mr. McCormack, 38, grew up in Westchester County in New York. As a boy he discovered music in the sound of a hammer splitting firewood and by tapping on logs. In the sixth grade he started piano lessons. Soon he was writing songs about drifters, shut-ins and people he had never met, part of his life-long fascination with the nature of identity. He was at the piano making up songs when he first admitted to himself that he was gay. That happened in college, but telling his parents took another decade.

Mr. McCormack worked for several years in the promotions department of HBO. After interviewing the record producer Phil Ramone, Mr. McCormack decided he wanted to be a full-time musician. In 1989 he embarked on a career as a cabaret and concert performer, going on to record CD's, and in 1997 starting to tour with his one-man show. In 1998 his music was heard on the soundtrack of a film called "David Searching." Today he also writes music for programs on the Style network of the E! Entertainment Television.

Five years ago, Mr. McCormack and the writer Michael Mitchell founded GLAMA, the Gay/Lesbian American Music Awards, which he continues to help produce. GLAMA has held three awards ceremonies so far and has recognized performers like the singers Ani DiFranco and Melissa Etheridge, the British rocker Tom Robinson, the jazz pianist Fred Hersch, the classical composer Lou Harrison and groups like the Klezmatics.

The awards offer gay performers legitimacy and recognition, Mr. McCormack said. But the gay label comes with a price. "Sometimes it's advantageous because you fit in a niche," he said, "but you also get to be relegated there. You're the gay guy, the gay performer. It's a short-hand way of shortchanging someone. But for good or ill everybody is prone to categorizing people. I understand it."

There have been only a few instances when people have objected to his performing at a college. What has been very heartening, he said, is the response of his audience. The straight audience members will come up and say to me about a song I do about coming out -- I related to that so much," Mr. McCormack said. "Not because I'm gay, but because there are other things I need to realize about myself."

Jean Greenwood, who coordinates the lecture and fine arts series at the Marathon County branch of the University of Wisconsin in Wausau, recalled the reaction to Mr. McCormack's visit. "There were things that people couldn't talk about with anyone else here," she said. "He bridged that gap. He wasn't just a performer."

-- Margo Nash

February 20, 2000

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