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Nervous Gender: A Valentine From a Maverick of L.A. Punk

1:31 PM PST on December 18, 2017

    “What can you do when you’re a martyr? What can you do when you’re a holy mess?” Gerardo Velazquez asks on “Sodomite Song.”

    Its computer rock sound grows more urgent as the tune progresses, forming a tense and tight track that’s catchy and painful. Velasquez is posing a string of questions dripping with sarcasm and anger, bringing together religious imagery and gay identity in a way that lashes out against homophobia and all that it had wrought.

    “Sodomite Song“ is part of Late Valentine Tape, a collection of solo work and recordings with the experimental/punk group Nervous Gender. It was originally compiled as a mixtape and given by late L.A. artist/musician Gerardo Velazquez to a few close friends.

    It was a final gift of music from a life nearing its end. The homemade release was intended to be distributed on Valentine’s Day in 1991, although it was completed later that year. Velazquez died of AIDS in March 1992.

    “He was dying,” said Joe Zinnato, a member of Nervous Gender in Velazquez’s final years. “He knew he was sick. He knew he was going to die.”

    Photo courtesy of Louis Jacinto.

    Zinnato was one of the recipients of Late Valentine Tape. He’s also the person that Velasquez entrusted with caring for his archives after his death. Zinnato has been digitizing Velazquez’s recordings and, through that process, Late Valentine Tape received its second release, limited to ten copies that were on sale as part of the Pacific Standard Time show, “Nervously Engendered: The Art of Gerardo Velazquez,” at Coagula Curatorial in Chinatown.

    Gerardo Velazquez had found his place in Los Angeles’ then-burgeoning punk scene by the late 1970s. With Nervous Gender, he earned a reputation as a confrontational, boundary-pushing performer. Even within the context of punk — or at least what people consider punk today — Nervous Gender was on the fringes.

    They played synthesizers and blurred the line between music and art with an eye towards the future. Outside of the band, Velazquez was a visual artist and much of his work in that realm explored then-emerging digital art technology. Similarly, his music was advanced for the time, and that’s reflected in Late Valentine Tape.

    Photo by Liz Ohanesian.
    Photo by Liz Ohanesian.

    The exhibition came to a close with a listening party for the little-heard collection of music on Saturday night. The mixtape is not available online, so for now, the event was a rare opportunity to hear this work.

    Listening to Velazquez’s voice in this room is to feel a spectral presence. Inside the small gallery space, Late Valentine Tape played repeatedly as guests trickled in to view the exhibition. “Nervously Engendered” brings together Velazquez’s music and visual art with a collection of the artist’s photos, zines and the flyers that he made for the band’s shows. It also includes photos of Velazquez in the early days of the band taken by show curator Louis Jacinto.

    On “Post Modern America,” Velazquez sings of watching the corporate crowd through a window at the Bonaventure Hotel over a synthetic marimba rhythm. He sings of the economy and art, criticizes the system in a song fit for a late-capitalism cocktail party.

    It’s disturbing and relevant listening for the United States as we know it at the end of 2017.

    But Velazquez’s life was also wrapped up in his art and, because of that “Nervously Engendered” is also a time capsule, a document of another exceptionally conservative time in U.S. history. This period is captured and viewed through the experience of a young gay man who had AIDS in a time when fear of the disease and fierce homophobia fostered a climate that was often indifferent and hostile to those who were sick.

    That's reflected in Late Valentine Tape as well with “Sodomite Song” and “Andy's Song,” where he sings: “How could you be conservative, born again, Republican, Christian, homosexual? … Because it doesn’t make sense. You’re homosexual.”

    Tammy Fraser, who played with a 21st century incarnation of Nervous Gender, says that it’s been good to see Velazquez’s art, which is also part of the “Axis Mundo” show at MOCA Pacific Design Center, being appreciated during Pacific Standard Time.

    “I almost can’t even talk about that era, it was very traumatic,“ she said. “It’s been almost healing to see people appreciate it.”

    In some ways, it was really sophisticated and in other ways it was really primitive.

    Zinnato explains that Velazquez would use his computer to make the music, but would also record vocals onto VHS tapes and use those audio feeds in his work. “In some ways, it was really sophisticated and in other ways it was really primitive,“ he said. He recalls rehearsal sessions with Velazquez when the singer would show up with music saved to floppy discs.

    “I think I enjoy it now more than I did then,” says Michael Ochoa, who played in Nervous Gender with Velazquez and said it has been about 25 years since he last heard the music on Late Valentine Tape.

    He points to a cover of David Bowie’s song “Sweet Thing - Candidate - Sweet Thing” (listed as “Sweet Thing” on the CD’s track listing) that is part of the Nervous Gender contributions to the compilation.

    “There’s a weird sense of humor to it,” he said, noting the use of submarine sounds following the line: “We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/Then jump in the river holding hands.”

    Nervous Gender continued with Velazquez into the earliest years of the 1990s. “We were performing pretty much right up to the end,” Zinnato recalled.

    By this time, the Los Angeles music scene was in a time of flux. Nervous Gender was part of the group of electronic and industrial-music friendly bands that played the legendary fetish party Club Fuck!, but Zinnato said that there weren't many spaces available for a band like Nervous Gender to play. That combined with Velazquez’s declining health made their gigs infrequent. Zinnato estimates that they played about six shows between 1990 and 1991.

    They were also working on an album that ultimately never came to fruition. One studio recording from that era is included as a Late Valentine Tape bonus track.

    Like “Nervously Engendered,” Late Valentine Tape is a glimpse into the mind of a talent whose life was cut short, but whose maverick spirit continues to resonate with alternative-minded folks. Velazquez was only 33 when he died, but during his life, he created aural and visual art that not only stood as a testament to his own time, but foreshadowed 21st century life.

    His belated Valentine’s day gift to friends is proof of that.

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