Michael Ely is a gay multidimensional artist whose works helped to pioneer and influence the development and performance of several genres of music, from rock to glam, and from punk to psychedelic. Michael performed almost exclusively with the love of his life Spider (James) Taylor, until Spider was taken by liver cancer.
Today, despite all of the challenges life has put in his way, Michael Ely continues to inspire, create and motivate. And, if you’re lucky enough to be in just the right place, at just the right time, you might find yourself being entertained by a true pioneer of modern music.
The Northern Star was lucky enough to get an exclusive interview with Michael, who can be an very reclusive and introverted man (as many geniuses are), so we wanted to share it with you.
NORTHERN STAR: Hi Michael, thanks for agreeing to let us interview you. Though we’ve learned a fair bit about your life, there’s so much that the world really knows little to nothing about. Do you mind if we pry into the who of you for a while?
MICHAEL: Of course I don’t mind. I’m an open book.
NORTHERN STAR: Michael, your natural abilities in theater and music are completely off the chart. When did you first become aware of your talents?
MICHAEL: Well, from the time I was a little boy, I was writing stories and singing and acting in school plays. I was obsessed with music and theater right out of the gate. That said, I don’t think there was ever a time I became ‘aware’ of my talents. I’m a very, very insecure person, and to this day still question my talent.
NORTHERN STAR: How would you describe yourself as a boy?
MICHAEL: I was extremely introverted. I was very shy, withdrawn, and I had learning disabilities (I’m very dyslectic, something not understood when I was a boy). The other children made fun of me on a daily basis. They ridiculed me for having a big nose, for being awkward, for being horrible at sports, for being strange, and for being different…. and I was strange and different in that I couldn’t relate to my peers. I didn’t fit in. I felt like I was from a another planet. At home, I didn’t feel like my parents loved me for who I really was, so I pretended to be someone else, someone who they could love.
NORTHERN STAR: What were your greatest fears then?
MICHAEL: As a child I was afraid of everything. I was literally afraid of my own shadow. I was a very nervous child, very jumpy. I didn’t like the real world, so I most often lived in a fantasy world of my own making.
NORTHERN STAR: What did you hope for during that time?
MICHAEL: All I hoped for was to escape, to escape to a world where I would be considered normal. I couldn’t see that being different than those around me was actually an asset, that the very things that made me feel different would one day be the very things that I would use as an artist.
NORTHERN STAR: What were your dreams for the future?
MICHAEL: I dreamed that one day I would be a movie star, that I would be a big movie star, and that all the other kids who made fun of me would someday regret it!!!
NORTHERN STAR: What would you say was the most traumatic event of your childhood?
MICHAEL: Everything was traumatic for me. Again, I was horribly bullied at school on a daily basis, and at home I felt like my parents didn’t love the real me. I realize now that in both cases it was because I was a gay child, but in those days there was no support for gay children, no awareness. It wasn’t even discussed. It was considered a sickness, and was one of the worst things you could be.
NORTHERN STAR: The story of how you met the love of your life is so inspirational, and so clearly shows that love cannot be suppressed; not by regime, by religion, or by law. Please, share it again for our readers.
MICHAEL: Spider and I met in a small bar in Sunset Beach, California in 1971 (at the time homosexuality was illegal in the state). We both hitchhiked there (me from Long Beach, and him from Huntington Beach), and we both had and used fake IDs because we were underage. I was sitting in the bar at a small table, just staring at a wall, when someone tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned around, it was Spider. He had long hair and a goatee, an earring, and he was wearing a white lace see-through shirt with tight purple hip-hugger pants. He looked like a rock star.
We danced to a song, then sat and talked for about 15 minutes before he gave me his phone number written on a scrap of pink paper. He then asked me to step outside the bar with him. I did. The bar was located right on California’s famous Pacific Coast Highway, and it was engulfed in a heavy ocean fog that night. Spider came close and kissed me, then said, “I’ve been wanting to do that from the moment I first saw you.”
He told me to phone him sometime, and then he left to hitchhike home. I watched him disappear into the fog, convinced that I had just kissed my soulmate. I don’t know how I knew that, but I did. Within a very short amount of time we became a couple, and stayed a couple until the day death took him from my arms. By the way, I still have that scrap of pink paper that he wrote his number on.
NORTHERN STAR: What were some of the biggest stumbling blocks that you and Spider encountered in the music industry?
MICHAEL: The biggest by far, was being an openly gay couple long before it was fashionable to be gay.
NORTHERN STAR: Has that changed today?
MICHAEL: Absolutely…. but because of all the people who, like Spider and I, blazed the way for other gay persons and artists. Sometimes I think that young gay people today don’t fully appreciate what our generation (and the generations before us) went through so that they could have a better life. On the other hand, I’m glad that young gay people today don’t have to deal with, or even think about, what we had to deal with. They can live their lives in the open, they can be proud of who they are, they can get married, and that makes me happy for them.
NORTHERN STAR: Did you lose many friends to the AIDS epidemic?
MICHAEL: Yes. We lost many close friends to AIDS. It was a fucking nightmare, a nightmare that still haunts me to this day. Most of our friends never even reached the age of 40. My best friend died at the age of 39. I find myself thinking about that now, about all the years I’ve had, that he didn’t.
NORTHERN STAR: What caused you to put down your instruments and take such an extended hiatus from performing?
MICHAEL: We were burned out. We wanted out of L.A. Too many ghosts. We moved to Tucson and started a new and fresh life. We didn’t have anything to do with music for about 16 years.
NORTHERN STAR: At one time Arizona was horribly homophobic. Did you find it that way then, and is it still that way today?
MICHAEL: Yes, Arizona was, and still is a conservative state. But Tucson is very progressive. We are the blue jewel in a red state.
NORTHERN STAR: I urge readers to visit Michael’s website www.michaelandspider.com for great information about their amazing lives and accomplishments, often against great odds.
MICHAEL: Thank you!
NORTHERN STAR: Our condolences on Spider’s passing Michael. It must have just crushed you. How did you cope?
MICHAEL: Yes, I was crushed. In a matter of seconds my whole life was turned upside down never to be the same again. I was completely lost. I felt like I died too. Thank god for our friends. They moved in immediately and kept me busy every night of the week for months. I was like a zombie most of the time, just going through the motions, but they kept me on my feet, kept me moving. Otherwise I would have simply laid down on the couch and stopped living. Today, I’m doing much better, but I still struggle with grief and survivor’s guilt from time to time.
NORTHERN STAR: This must be a very challenging, and in many ways a very sad, transition in life for you. Can you please share how you manage to carry on?
MICHAEL: As I mentioned above, I felt like I died too, and in a way I did. The old Michael went away. I was forever changed. Nothing can, or ever will, be like it was when I was with Spider. I miss him so much, miss the person I used to be when I was with him. I suppose I carry on because I owe it to Spider. I know he wanted me to have a good life.
NORTHERN STAR: We understand that you kept a blog detailing life as you were losing Spider, and of life once he was gone. We respect that it is a very personal site, but would you be willing to share the link with our readers?
MICHAEL: www.my-life-on-parade.tumblr.com. To read from the very beginning, click on archives.
NORTHERN STAR: Have friends and family been supportive?
MICHAEL: Spider and I have always been blessed with a lot of close long time friends, friends who are super supportive of me today. Plus, once I got involved in a band, I met a whole new group of young friends, young friends who keep me on my toes!
NORTHERN STAR: What is the one thing that you still struggle with the most today?
MICHAEL: I wish I could have just five minutes to be with Spider again, to tell him how very much I love him, to tell him how much I miss him, to let him know that I am doing okay. Ya know, he was so worried about what was going to happen to me after he was gone. He wasn’t afraid to die. He was afraid about what was going to become of Michael. He told all of our friends that. I tried my best to let him know that I would be okay while he was alive, but he still worried.
NORTHERN STAR: What have you learned about you now that you’re alone?
MICHAEL: Well, to be honest I’ve had to learn to be independent on my own, as I had been part of a couple since I was 18 (for over 43 years), and on some level, I’m enjoying that independence. But, I would trade it all away if I could have Spider back.
NORTHERN STAR: How do you occupy your time now?
MICHAEL: I keep busy with friends. I write. I sing in my band The Elegant Rabies.
NORTHERN STAR: So, you’re now back on stage to rage, how does that feel?
MICHAEL: It feels wonderful. Here I am at 64 years old, singing in a psychedelic rock band with a group of musicians who are all in their 20’s. How often does that happen?!
NORTHERN STAR: Tell us more about the Elegant Rabies: who they are, what they love, and where they want to go.
MICHAEL: Elegant Rabies is a psychedelic rock band composed of brilliant performers. Ryan Hingorani plays guitar, Kevin Conklin plays bass, and Justin Tornberg plays drums. Also, Nelene Deguzman from the band ‘The Rifle’ is playing some keyboards on our recordings. I love my bandmates. Right now we’re in the studio recording four of our songs for an album. We’re working with a great producer named Matt Randon. As for our goals as a band, well, the band is a side project for my bandmates, and other than releasing our future album, and playing a handful of selective shows, there are no long term goals for the band. And to be honest, at my age, I don’t know how long I can keep it up. Playing in a rock band takes an enormous energy.
NORTHERN STAR: So, when are the tracks going to be released?
MICHAEL: I’m not sure. After we finish recording these four songs we’re going to play a live gig, then compose some new pieces for the album. Again, we’re a side project, so things take longer for us.
NORTHERN STAR: Where can we get more information and some pictures of the Elegant Rabies?
MICHAEL: On Facebook. The page link is www.facebook.com/TheElegantRabies
NORTHERN STAR: We’ve heard rumors that there may be a release of Michael and Spider’s greatest hits in the works. Any truth to it?
MICHAEL: Yes. Michael and Spider’s music is managed by our long time manager, Dave Wade-Stein, who has talked to me about releasing a Michael and Spider anthology CD covering all of our different phases in music. He’s planning to visit me here in Tucson so we can talk about it. Dave lives in Colorado.
NORTHERN STAR: Where can people access samples your works?
MICHAEL: Honestly, I’m not sure of everywhere, but you can find lots of our past work on www.michaelandspider.com, and videos and live footage are on Youtube. Look under “Michael and Spider,” “Red Wedding,” “Hey Taxi!,” “Glass” and “Smoke & Mirrors.”
NORTHERN STAR:What are your greatest fears today, Michael?
MICHAEL: My greatest fear is of spending my golden years alone without Spider. Again, part of me is learning to enjoy being on my own and making my own decisions, but when I think about the life I could have been enjoying right now with Spider, I feel scared… scared that I’m alone. Loss is the hardest thing we deal with as people. It leaves a big hole. At my age, you have a lot of holes. In fact, I feel like a piece of Swiss cheese. But, I try to embrace those holes because each one reminds me that I was loved, that I have loved, and that I am loved.
NORTHERN STAR: What do you hope today?
MICHAEL: For me, it’s just getting through each day, trying to keep busy, trying to remain creative, taking my dog Frappy on long walks, spending good times with friends, and stopping to smell the roses.
NORTHERN STAR: What are your dreams for tomorrow?
MICHAEL: Honestly, I no longer have dreams for tomorrow. I’m just trying to live day to day, and for today.
NORTHERN STAR: Is there anything you’d like to add in closing?
MICHAEL: Yes! Tell everyone you love that you love them every chance you get.
NORTHERN STAR: Thank you for sharing you with us Michael. We know this has been difficult, but we want you to know that your story is one that truly inspires others, and the world desperately needs inspiration today. Please, keep us updated.
MICHAEL: Thank you for all the thoughtful questions, and I will!