Sensitive Material

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A musician lucky enough to have a daring, original idea usually runs with it. Frank Rogala crawled.

In 1979, Rogala watched Dinah Shore belt out a brassy number on TV and was struck that a woman could blithely sing the boy part in boy-girl love songs but that a man crossing gender lines would raise eyebrows, smirks and worse.

"I think it was that stupid song that goes, 'I've got a gal in Kalamazoo.' She was just smiling, beaming and singing it out like it was just nothing," the veteran Orange County rock singer recalled.

"I thought, 'No guy would have the [guts] to sing a girl's song.' There was the undercurrent that lesbianism was accepted, and it wouldn't work the other way around."

Rogala decided to try it, anyway. Now, at 40, he will step on stage tonight in West Hollywood and give his first live performance of "Crimes Against Nature," the remarkable album that grew ever so slowly out of that lightbulb moment. He has faced club audiences for 20 years as the front man of struggling, do-it-yourself grass-roots bands. This time, with his new theme of homoerotic love as a controversial wild card, Rogala doesn't know what to expect.

What took him so long?

Mainly, he got sidetracked by years of striving for rock success by more conventional means. He and his younger brother, Vince, started a techno-pop band called Exude in their hometown of Mackinaw, Mich. They landed in Orange County in the early '80s and got national novelty-hit exposure in 1984 with a Cyndi Lauper parody, "Boys Just Want to Have Sex." As Exude morphed into the darker, more rock-leaning NC-17, Rogala's gender-bending epiphany of 1979 remained on his list of things to do.

In 1994, the Rogala brothers and their longtime bandmate, Robin Canada, began working with a novice film director on a feature-length documentary examining the long odds of making it in the music business. (Director Dov Kelemer said the film is almost done and he expects to soon seek distribution and opportunities to show it at film festivals).

The experience shattered any illusions the musicians had about success being just one lucky break away.

"It just knocked the pins out," Rogala said. "The blinders that kept us going were taken off."

Consequently, NC-17 has not played in four years. Rogala first threw himself into work on the documentary. Eventually, he realized he needed to fill the musical void left by the band's continuing hiatus. Off the shelf came the pet idea he owed to Dinah Shore.

But first, Rogala had to reckon with the consequences.

"Do I do this great artistic idea and bring up all these questions, and maybe problems, or do I not do it, or [do it and] try to be coy about it? And it's not just me involved. When you're in a marriage, it's both of us."

"Be honest," was his wife's answer, Rogala said. "She would never want to make me lie about it."

So Rogala embarked on his album, knowing that when it came out, he would too.

In a recent interview at his house in a nondescript tract but lent secluded character thanks to high hedges and an oasis-like koi pond in the frontyard, Rogala acknowledged it is more difficult to talk about bisexuality in a mainstream newspaper than in the gay press interviews he has done.

As he sat on his living-room floor, the tall, slim singer first tried communicating gingerly, in the indirect language of pop-cultural allusion and inference: "On a spectrum of Bon Jovi to Elton John, I'm closer to Mick Jagger or David Bowie," he said with a nervous grin. After noting that it was vital that nobody feel he had made his album as a mere joke or novelty, he submitted some plainer, if complex, facts:

"I'm a married guy in a committed relationship for 20 years." If, he added, the right man had come along before the right woman, that relationship would have been homosexual. "I don't see sexuality as a black-and-white issue."

After giving himself the green light, Rogala said, he looked for ways to "take [familiar] songs and make people hear them in different ways." He didn't want "Crimes" to be a gimmick, but a strong, all-around musical and emotional statement.

"What would be the most embarrassing girls' songs to sing, where you would be most vulnerable? I started looking for the most pathetic, codependent, sick, politically incorrect songs, and I took it from there."

Rogala's wife, Nancy, suggested two of the titles that are among the album's standouts: Liz Phair's "[Expletive] and Run" and Louis Jordan's swing-era nugget, "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?"--which Rogala learned from a version by Dinah Washington.

Rogala's musical partners were supportive too. His brother, Vince, started tuning in oldies radio and passing on song possibilities that would fit the concept. As co-arranger, Canada helped perform radical surgery on the famous hits chosen for the album.

"Crimes Against Nature" spans pop history from the 1940s, with Jordan and Billie Holiday, through the early rock girl-group era of the Angels' "My Boyfriend's Back" and the Crystals' "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)." It winds up in the modern-rock '90s with songs by Phair, Nine Inch Nails and the Gear Daddies. Rogala drastically reworked all of them to achieve an aura of abject, suffering romanticism.

Rogala sings in a grainy, low, theatrical voice that sometimes brings to mind Nick Cave or Lou Reed. He invests "Is You Is" with howling paranoia and a garage-rock drive.

"He Hit Me," a Gerry Goffin-Carole King composition that is sheer thematic poison (guy smacks girl around for seeing somebody else, she takes it as a sign that he really cares), is awash in weird, spooky aura. In a masterstroke, Rogala redeems the number by respecting its profession of love, warped as it might be. His "He Hit Me" is the affecting confession of a pathetic but loving heart.

"My personality is masculine and dominant. I'm not a submissive person at all," Rogala said. "With these songs, I have to surrender myself to feeling things in a different way than I have."

Two of the 11 tracks on "Crimes" are Rogala originals, including the deliberately incongruous last number, "I'm Feelin' Fine," a catchy, sunny, UB40-style reggae song that captures a moment of happy calm amid life's pressures and demands.

"There's been a dark cloud hanging over the gay community with AIDS, and there was a lot of dark stuff going on in the album. I wanted to leave you feeling good with a positive song at the end. It was an old Exude song I could never get Vince and Robin to record."

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For more than a year since the album's release, Rogala has worked on his own, painstakingly placing "Crimes" in record stores across the country and trying unsuccessfully to open a more reliable pipeline by persuading a national distributor to pick it up. He says he wants to avoid having the record isolated in "a gay music ghetto," but he has taken the obvious course of promoting the CD to the gay press.

Susan Frazier, general manager of Goldenrod Music, which specializes in distributing music of gay and lesbian interest, says Rogala faces an uphill struggle.

Frazier likes what Rogala has done musically but declined to distribute it because of her doubts that it can sell.

"The biggest problem we've had has been getting the gay male audience to want to buy something other than dance music," Frazier said from her office in Lansing, Mich. "Until we see a demand, [an album like 'Crimes Against Nature'] will be hard to pick up."

Jeffrey Newman, a New York City-based music writer who contributes to more than 30 gay publications, said gay-male love songs are "becoming more commonplace, and people aren't looking at it as cross-eyed as they used to. But [Rogala's record] is a bold move. Frank is trying to attract a mainstream audience and at the same time grab the gay audience. It's hard to sell a rock or alternative release to a gay audience, or [a male singer's openly homoerotic album] to a mainstream audience."

Rogala says he "was more surprised than disappointed" to find that there was no readily tapped gay constituency for male-to-male rock love songs. Recognizing commercial realities, and nodding to his '80s dance-pop work with Exude, he recently put out "Mixes Against Nature," with reworked, dance-club-ready versions of several "Crimes" songs.

Rogala said he delayed performing "Crimes Against Nature" live because he was too absorbed balancing do-it-yourself record promotion with his day job as a legal assistant in Newport Beach. He hopes tonight's show at Luna Park will lead to a series of live dates this spring. Most of the NC-17 members are in his backing band; Vince Rogala, who produced the "Mixes Against Nature" record and plays sax on "Crimes," says he didn't have time to rehearse a part but will serve as roadie.

Frank Rogala isn't sure what to expect as, for the first time, he faces an audience in the role of homoerotic lover.

"It's going to be interesting. I don't know if people will be uncomfortable. I'm really curious to find out."

There are signs that bias against homosexuals is slowly wearing away, but Rogala is glad he didn't wait any longer to act on that cue from Shore.

"It was important to go on the record while there was still a risk, rather than hiding and being afraid to do it. When an idea like that comes to you, it's a gift. And I would have felt like such a chicken if I hadn't taken advantage of it."

"Crimes Against Nature" is available from 2166 W. Broadway, Suite 268, Anaheim CA. 92804, by telephone at 1-888-Frank-CD, by e-mail at Rksinger@aol.com or at the Web site: http://www.netC-17.com/frank.html

* Frank Rogala plays tonight at Luna Park, 665 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood. 8 p.m. $5. (310) 652-0611.

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