I’ve heard it argued that biographies and memoirs should always begin at the end, in order to show whether the life story in question is worth the reader’s journey. There’s something to be said for that. For those like me who prefer a realistic ending, happier than not, Jim Stewart’s Folsom Street Blues vigorously supports the argument.
This book focuses on the seven years Stewart spent immersed in San Francisco’s leather-life from 1975 to1982. It catches the heady ferment of the early years, and the strange evolution of the later ones, when galleries, baths and bars — and the community that revolved directly around them – entered its traumatic metamorphosis.
This book is something of a companion piece to Fritscher’s book Some Dance to Remember, which I reviewed earlier here at Out in Print, so this review carries some comparisons. Stewart’s book is, by my read, more honest and friendly, more intensely personal. It’s also a real memoir, instead of Fritscer’s fictionalized one created primarily as a vehicle for his “homomasculinist” manifesto.
While Folsom Street Blues has the same exasperating disregard for linear chronology that Fritscher’s book exhibited, it has none of the bombast. In addition, Stewart’s approach is perfectly consistent with how he navigates the journey itself: definitely not in a straight line.
Stewart amiably describes his moment-to-moment adventuring, moving from one lover or project or event to another, contentedly along for the ride to find whatever fate offers. And his adventures are varied — from a Santeria ceremony to numberless lines of coke, from his affectionate relationship with his pickup Nelly Belle to his rhapsodic praise of authentic five-spice chicken, from long conversations about cult movies to his creative photography and the shows he mounted — all punctuated by a constant parade of fisting and leathersex partners.
But this is not sensationalist writing. Its matter-of-fact and unpretentious narrative is delivered in a friendly voice that’s easy to imagine coming from the swing on a front porch after dinner. It’s good natured, anecdotal, unpressured, meandering. The absence of philosophical agenda is refreshing. The reader becomes a hitch-hiker traveling with someone who is in no particular hurry to get anywhere. One of the gifts of Stewart’s style is it provides a strong sense of the community that he found south of Market, that he contributed to, and that he certainly enjoyed to its fullest.
Toward the end of his time in California, Stewart spends eighteen months in the Russian River area, doing odd carpentry jobs and getting by, snorting and getting laid. It is there, away from the Folsom Street drama, where his perspective begins to refocus into a longer-term vision of life, which after a short return to San Francisco, prompts him to move on in 1982.
A powerful and essential feature of this book is the large number of Stewart’s photos. They provide the hard images to complement what his memoir paints in softer strokes, and the combination provides compelling and gritty insight into the remarkable culture that erupted in that place and time.
The memoir concludes with Stewart and his long-time partner returning to California to marry in 2008. That’s a realistic and very happy ending, in my book!
Reviewed by Lloyd A. Meeker