Not The Last Dance
Donna Summer speaks out on AIDS, gays and coming out of exile
By Kevin Koffler
Riding up in the elevator to Donna Summer's suite in West Hollywood's Bel Age Hotel, I feel a flood of memories come rushing over me. I remember the exhilaration of experiencing 'Hot Stuff" my first time at a gay disco in New York City. I recall heated lovemaking to "Love to Love You, Baby" on hot, sweaty summer nights in my West Village fifth-floor walk-up. I remember early mornings at the Pavilion in the Pines on Fire Island, when "Last Dance" was never the last dance.
But then I remember that since becoming a born-again Christian, Summer has supposedly turned her back on gay people, the people who created her and made her into a star - their star. The reports of Summer saying, "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," and "I have seen the evils of homosexuality; AIDS is the result of your sins," keep playing over and over in my head like a bad movie.
I'm willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, however. I'm a journalist; I'm supposed to be impartial.
I step out onto the hotel's sixth floor and see Summer standing on her balcony, staring off into the sprawling landscape that is Los Angeles. She looks incredibly peaceful.
I knock on her door, and Summer lets me in. She's still kind of goofy, in a cute- little-kid kind of way, dressed in a black shirt, skirt, and Lycra leggings, with a big black bowler hat. She pours me a glass of Evian and refills her glass of soda, and we sit down in the living room of her suite.
I bite my tongue and suppress the desire to blurt out, "So, I hear you hate gay people and you wish we'd all die of AIDS," opting instead to discuss her new album, Another Place and Time, her first for Atlantic Records. I try to remain impartial, but perhaps at this point I am subconsciously weaving her into my web before going in for the kill.
Summer's new record is her first world-wide hit in over five years. "This Time I Know It's for Real" is her first U.S. Top 40 hit in as long. The album was produced, arranged, and written by the team of Stock-Aitken-Waterman, which is also responsible for the success of Kylie Minogue and Rick Astley (who recently fired the team as well as his manager - career suicide, according to Summer).
"It's a very ''80s-sounding record," says Summer, "but it's the closest thing to my big hits with Giorgio [Moroder]. Stock-Aitken-Waterman probably sound closer to Giorgio, in general, than anyone else has since I was with him."
Summer collaborated as a writer on only two of the album's ten tracks but explains, "I didn't really have less creative control on this record: anywhere they wrote without me was only because I told them to write the song. I'd say, 'Look' I want to go to a polo match; you write,' and they did. They didn't say, 'You can write only this much and we're going to do the rest.' It wasn't anything like that.
"They are much better than people give them credit for. Their desire is to create a Motown for the '90s-discovering new talent and developing that. I'm the exception at this point.
"People's reaction to the new record is really good. I'm surprised almost. I like it, but you never know what's going to happen until you get it out there. Being with Atlantic is like running into an oasis. There's plenty of water, food, and excitement. It's great, and it's been an emotional thrust."
"But," I interrupt, "if the sound you and Giorgio created was so successful and magical, why did you leave him in the dust when you recorded your second album for Geffen Records? And speaking of Geffen, what happened to your deal there? What came down?"
"The record company wanted me to make different kinds of songs and records," sighs Summer. "They didn't think the old way was working. They thought my time with Giorgio had run out. The Wanderer album did very well, but when Giorgio and I went in to record the next album, they stopped us midway, because they didn't like it. They used one of the songs, "Romeo," on the Flashdance album, but they said the rest of the songs wouldn't make it. That's when they made me switch producers.
"Giorgio was my mentor, my guide. He was like - well, I wouldn't dare call him my father, because he would kill me - but he was like my father in the business. All of a sudden, they were taking away everything that was true and dear to me and putting me with people I didn't know.
"As for the record company, it just didn't work out," Summer continues. "it was one of those situations where they didn't have the confidence they needed to have in me. David [Geffen] desperately wanted to sign me as his first act, so he did. I love David. I used to go to his house to write songs. I don't know at what point things started going awry, but they did.
"It might have happened when he got into making Cats and then movies and just got interested in other things. When I joined his company, he made all kinds of promises -'I'm going to put you in the movies, blah, blah, blah.' He never did, and it became apparent to me that I had made a major mistake.
"But that's OK. I had six or seven years to sit home with my kids and to hang out on my ranch." Summer's ranch is situated between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, where she raises "horses, cows, sheep, ducks, turkeys, and porkers." She says her husband butchers a cow every six months; they give half the meat away and keep the rest for the family (although Summer says she can't eat something she's seen alive and walking around).
'I learned that everything that brings you success does not bring you joy. It was a hard lesson to learn, because when I was young, I equated success with happiness. For me, success means work. Sure, people are screaming your name for a week, a month, or a year - however long it is - but the reality is that they are going to forget it as soon as the next hit record is released by someone else. Then they are going to be yelling that name.
"You've got to maintain your level of self-esteem through everything. You are who you are, and nobody will ever be able to take that from you if you don't let them," she adds.
"Sometimes I look at people and I see where I used to be, and I think, That person has more value than what they're doing with their life right now. They don't think they do but when they find out they have more value, it's going to change them. It changed me."
Summer says her life used to be incredibly chaotic, but now it has become normal. "I was either going to OD on some kind of medication, or I kept having these flashes of doing something crazy - like taking too many of the pills I had to take because I was always so depressed.
"I needed to take mood elevators to balance me out, but they would make me manic and crazy. Then I'd have to take Valium to bring myself back down. I was just all over the place. I went through years of walking into rooms of people, unable to remember anyone's name because I was so out of it.
"It's a miracle I was able to get out onstage and remember the words to my songs. A lot of times I couldn't. Certain songs were difficult for me to remember. I'd have mental blocks to them, so I'd write down the words and put them on the stage floor. When I was drugged out, I'd still forget them. Someone in the band would have to hiss, 'It's over there,' and then I'd find them -sometimes."
When Summer reaffirmed her faith in God, she says, she had an immediate deliverance from her addiction to drugs. "It was instant!" she exclaims, clapping her hands to accentuate her point. 'It was quicker than me saving it to you. I was immediately normal, and I hadn't felt that way in several years. It's something you can know only if you've experienced it. It's nothing I can explain to you.
"I know God is real. Anyone can tell you whatever they like - that God doesn't exist, you are God, I am God. Baloney! I cannot make a tree; I don't have that power. I can't stop a wave on the beach. I know there is a force outside of myself that is guiding my life. It's inside of me now too, because I have accepted it there. I have a lot of faith.
"Being a Christian," she continues, "doesn't make me perfect . I have chosen to live my life in a way that will be an asset to others as well as to my children and myself. If someone wants to misconstrue that with all the baloney about Christianity and people who profess to be Christian but are not, that's their problem. Christianity does not make you perfect; it's about asking God to hold you to the commitment to be perfect in a way."
This seemed like the right time to ask Summer the most important questions of our interview: Does she hate gay people? Does she think homosexuality is a sin? Does she think AIDS is God's wrath against homosexuals? And did she ever make a public statement to that effect?
"I did not make that statement," Summer says angrily. "Eight years ago, I made a reference to AIDS. What I supposedly said I did not say, and my reference to AIDS was really an innocent reference.
"At the time, I thought AIDS was a herpes pimple, like you get on your mouth. I certainly didn't have any. idea what it really was, and certainly if I had, in my heart I would not wish AIDS on anyone. I'm not that kind of person. It's one of the most horrifying diseases around. I don't think they're doing enough for it.
"I've lost a lot of friends who have died of AIDS,' continues Summer, tears welling in her eyes. 'I'm hurting as much as anyone else at the amount of people who are gone. Last year was an incredible year in terms of friends of mine who died - people who ran my first album, who were really close to me, beautiful guys, and I mean beautiful guys. It is devastating,
'In the past two years, I've done several AIDS benefits, but I'm not going to do AIDS benefits to prove to someone that I'm not antigay, Some of the most creative people in this country are gay and have given great things. I have people in my family who are gay. I have people in my life, who have been in my life before any of this stuff went on, who are gay.
"A couple of the people I write with are gay, and they have been ever since I met them. What people want to do with their bodies is their personal preference. I'm not going to stand in judgment about what the Bible says about someone else's life. I've got things in my life I've got to clean up. What's in your life is your business.
"I never said, 'If you are gay, God hates you. Come on. Be real. I don't understand that. Anybody who really knows me knows I wouldn't say that.
'I never started a war against gay people. It all started with one newspaper writer [Jim Feldman, in a 1983 review of Summer's post-born-again Atlantic City come-back concert, in the Village Voice). I did not make those statements The guy who wrote it, I think he was angry at me for accepting God. But his attack wasn't on God; it was on me.
"I can't defend myself. People are just going to say, 'She can say anything now. ' But if I wrote a vicious story about you and put it in the newspaper, I guarantee that you would run into it for the rest of your life. It's always going to be in the back of people's minds, whether you said it or not.
"It hurts. It makes me ache. I can't stand to talk about it because it hurts so bad. When I first started, they said I was a man - a transvestite. That too was a rumor. It passed.
"My songs are about people and their relationships to other people. Jesus said, 'Love thy neighbor,' - whoever is next to you. [Christianity] says, 'First remove the log from your own eye, that you may remove the splinter from someone else's.'
"It's tough, but I know what my commitment to God has meant to me, and I know in my personal life it has saved me. I can't deny that. If I was asked to deny that, I'd have to deny everything else, because it's the only reason I'm alive.
"Only that spiritual connection brings you true happiness," she concludes. "It brings you to who you are, and it makes you realize you have importance whether other people recognize it or not. You know who you are. That's the most important thing."
© 1989 The Advocate