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Wicked Little Town

January 4, 2012

John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig singing Wicked Little Town.

Recently my husband and I decided to watch the film “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” If you haven’t seen this film, you should. (Please see my review in the “Movie Review” category in the sidebar.) The film has to be one of the most….insane? comic? tragic? things ever created. It’s about a transgender German girl who marries an American GI and moves abruptly from Berlin to a dinky little town called Junction City, Kansas during the Cold War. What happens next is too strange to really describe, but suffice it to say it is hard to be a transgender person – or any other “other” person – in such a small town where homogeneity is the name of the game. Thus the reference to Junction City as “this wicked little town” in the song by the same name included in the film, a sad, tear-jerking song if ever there was one.

Wicked Little Town is my favorite song, I think. Anyone who has ever felt like they don’t fit in or quite belong will understand why the moment they hear it.

One day we watched the film again for probably the tenth time. Every time I see it, I get something new from it. It’s always worth my time. After watching the film that day, I decided to send an e-mail to Raynard Kington and Peter Daniolos, the new president of Grinnell College and his husband, to check in and see what they were up to and invite them over for a visit. In the note, I mentioned that I had just watched “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and how entranced I was with this song, Wicked Little Town. I then went on to say that this song in particular really spoke to me. As I was typing, my husband looked over my shoulder to see what I was writing. Upon seeing my reference to Wicked Little Town, he quickly pointed out that I should immediately delete any reference to a wicked little town, as Dr. Kington and Dr. Daniolos might think I was referring to Grinnell, Iowa, the town in which we lived and the town to which Kington and Daniolos had just moved from Washington D.C. Although Iowa is a progressive state and Grinnell had welcomed the couple as if they were long lost old friends, he didn’t want them to fear that there was anything small minded about our progressive, liberal little town, or any wicked secrets that might be adversely pertinent to a their decision to move here. I thought about it for a moment and decided he was right. They might misunderstand my statement that the song had special meaning for me as somehow referencing some unpleasant experience of my own  here, so I deleted it and finished the invitation.

We then ran upstairs to watch an extra on the DVD about the making of Hedwig. Stephen Trask, the lyricist and composer for the songs in the movie, is a very talented fellow who my husband, Kevin Kopelson, had met one summer on Fire Island a long time ago, and Kevin wanted to see what he and John Cameron Mitchell, the actor who plays the character Hedwig had to say about the making of the film. It was a fascinating story, and we were glued to the screen.

Finally, Stephen and John got to the part about the making of the song Wicked Little Town. It was noted that, of all the songs in the film, Wicked Little Town is the barest. It exposes the very soul of Hedwig. At this point Stephen began talking about the difficulty he had in writing this song; he simply could not find the words or tone to represent the experience of being transgender in some dinky little town someplace; in fact, he had no personal exposure to small town culture and had no starting point from which to write. He struggled and struggled and just couldn’t come up with anything. What must it feel like to just not belong at all to a tight-knit small community—to just not fit in any way?

He just couldn’t feel it.

A few weeks later, he went on, he and his partner, Michael Trask, were invited by some friends to visit them in a small college town in the Midwest; “Ah, this might be just what I need to clear my head and give me the space to think about and write this song,” he thought. So off he went. As he rode from the airport into the countryside, miles and miles of farmland and open sky lay before him. He rode for an hour in open space before finally reaching the small town of his friends, Jared Gardner and Beth Hewitt. It was two days before he finally wound down enough from his city world to begin to feel the town he was in, to explore, to imagine what it must be like to be someplace where everyone knew who you were and what you did every day. And then, finally, while sitting at a desk in his friend’s duplex – in Grinnell, Iowa – the words finally came.

My jaw dropped; I turned to look at Kevin as he turned to look at me, our open mouths mirror images, our eyes open wide. “Oh MY GOD!” we both yelled at once. “GRINNELL IS THE WICKED LITTLE TOWN!”

And then we were in hysterics for the next half hour, nearly dying with laughter at the irony; at both the IDEA of Grinnell – of all places – as a wicked little town, and our not knowing it was the wicked little town when deciding to delete the reference to Wicked Little Town to keep the new college president from thinking Grinnell might be a wicked little town!

And that’s the story of how Grinnell became the essence of the Wicked Little Town song in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and how we almost spilled the beans to the new Grinnell College president and scared him away.

So “salutations!”to you all from Grinnell, Iowa, – our own wicked little town, better known as one of the “best small towns in America” – where in truth, you could – like Hedwig – be transgender and hardly anyone would bat an eye, but everyone would certainly know it!

David Coster, M.D.

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