Song Of The Day 6/25/2015: Peter Allen – “This Side Show's Leaving Town”

Pride Week: Peter Allen is someone whose deeper work I wasn’t very familiar with until I started researching this week, but I've always found him intriguing. I knew his most renown compositions as sung by others: “I Honestly Love You” by Olivia Newton-John, “Don’t Cry Out Loud” by Melissa Manchester, “You And Me (We Wanted It All)” by a bunch of people, most notably Sinatra. Showstoppers, all. Power ballads of self-awakening and cataclysm to wash down the aperitifs of uncertainty. I did know his version of “I Go To Rio,” which was also covered by Pablo Cruise, that group you hadn’t thought about in around 35 years until I just now mentioned it. Allen also contributed in a roundabout way to the theme from the movie Arthur, specifically coming up with the line about being between the moon and New York City. I’ll be hiding in the broom closet if you want to slug me later.

Allen had a compelling career and personal arc. He was from a tiny town in Australia and taught himself piano as a kid. He formed a very polite duo with a guitarist named Chris Bell (not the one from Big Star), and they called themselves The Allen Brothers. Allen was “discovered” by Americans when Judy Garland’s husband caught him in Hong Kong; he flew back to America, started performing with Garland, and married her daughter Liza Minnelli in the ’60s. Around that time he started putting out records, which were marketed – very accurately – as part of the restrained singer/songwriter craze that launched in the early ’70s. These records were, as I’ve discovered lately, pretty broody. We’re talking some serious introspection here. Not quite as overwrought as Harry Chapin, nowhere nearly as hazy as James Taylor, and lacking the respite of levity that Elton John possessed.

Of course, one thing that Allen was probably dealing with at the time was his identity as a gay man, and by “dealing with” I mean “sort of postponing dealing with.” I don’t have an authorized bio in front of me, but if the libretto of the Tony-winning musical The Boy From Oz (starring Hugh Jackman as Allen) has any truth to it, then Judy Garland kind of figured out what was going on with Peter and tried to warn Liza. Who apparently had no clue. Nowadays, of course, if one is bankrolled by one gay icon and married to another – well, how can one not see that as two jewels in the Gay Icon Triple Crown? (I forget what the third jewel is. I think it has something to do with being a panelist on Match Game.)

Allen finally did reconcile himself with his sexual orientation sometime after he and Minnelli divorced. Around that time he released the solo album Continental American, which may have dropped some hints here and there, and also contained the remarkably touching song “This Side Show’s Leaving Town.” In the late ’70s Allen turned up the tempo a little bit, developed a more outward stage persona and became one of New York’s most beloved cabaret entertainers of the ’80s, before passing away from AIDS complications in 1992.

Among some of Allen’s more amusing pop cultural moments was a fairly outré bit with David Letterman and Chris Elliott from 1986. Also, and I hate to even mention it but kind of have to, he made a blink-and-you’ll-miss it contribution to the weirdest and probably worst movie musical finale of all time. You are utterly on your own if you hit that link.

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