“Watch your cruising in the gay bars

Or on Hollywood and Vine

The Vice Squad keeps on breaking up

That old gang of mine.”

– Lisa Ben “That Old Gang of Mine”

I recently wrote a newsletter about my reasons for creating LisaBenography.

As I said in that newsletter, I don’t think you need to understand queer rhetorical analysis or grasp the history of sexological discourse in order to experience the significance of Ben’s contributions. In fact, I don’t think you even need to consider her writing and her music and her artwork as contributions; you can simply think she is witty, or brilliant, or complex, or creative. Today, I want to share a great example of Ben’s creativity and showcase the poignancy of her parodies. In what follows, I rework a section of my disseration chapter, “Surveillance and Agency in Popular Music and Parody,” to share the significance of Ben’s parody of one song in particular.

Raids on gay bars or bars that allowed homosexuals to populate there were often to be expected, and Ben was keenly aware of the surveillance of gays and lesbians at the time she wrote her parodies. She told Zsa Zsa Gershick (author of Gay Old Girls) that she experienced a police raid at a bar in Santa Monica where the police collected names and humiliated a long-haired gay man by forcing him to take down his pants and expose his genitals (59-60). In addition to the threat of arrest and police violence, homosexuals witnessed surveillance in bars via being surrounded by heterosexuals who visited the bars and observed shows. At the time, bartenders sometimes allowed gay and lesbian customers to occupy a part of the bar. According to Ben, “at the Flamingo when night came…the nongay people would come in—the afternoons were for us” (64; emphasis original).

Ben responds to the reality of police raids in homosexual spaces in her song “That Old Gang of Mine.” This song is a parody of the song “Wedding Bells,” a barbershop song written by Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal and Willie Raskin, which was performed by Gene Austin in 1929 and later covered by other male singers, including Steve Gibson (1948), The Four Aces (1954), and Gene Vincent (1956).

Sammy Fain’s 1929 Version

In the original, the heterosexual male singer bemoans the loss of his male friends to marriage, sharing how lonesome he feels and singing that “wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine” (Fain et al.). In Ben’s version, the threat is converted from the wedding bells chiming to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Vice Squad arresting gay people and punishing them with prison time and fines. It is also rhetorically poignant that Ben repurposes the cadence and tune of a song about marriage to describe threats to homosexuals. Homosexual marriage was not legal at the time and wouldn’t be for more than half a century more, and being arrested for loving a partner is the polar opposite to celebrating and legally joining two lovers in the eyes of the state. Additionally, Ben’s song brings gay men and lesbian listeners into camaraderie over their shared experience with police surveillance.

While the original version expresses the singer’s loneliness, it doesn’t offer any alternatives or solutions to his problem. In contrast, Ben’s version functions as a real warning: be careful about undercover cops and raids by the Vice Squad.

Ben uses “Vice Squad” to refer to the Vice Division of the Los Angeles Police Department. According to the Los Angeles Police Department, the Vice Division today “is responsible for collecting, recording, maintaining, and disseminating intelligence data on major organized criminal enterprises within and affecting the City of Los Angeles,” and the official website for the Vice Division highlights the focus on “gaming, bookmaking, pornography, [and] prostitution” (“About the Vice Division”). However, one of the Vice Squad’s roles in the mid-twentieth century was to surveil homosexuals, including going undercover to entrap homosexuals in places known to be gay meeting spaces, such as bars or parks. In Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965, Nan Alamilla Boyd describes the conflation of homosexuality with sex pervision, which allowed it to be controlled by the Vice Division. Although Boyd refers to the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) here, this description provides us with context for interpreting the Los Angeles Vice Squad’s roles:

Between 1951 and 1957, SFPD annual reports distinguish between rape, prostitution, and sex offenses. “Sex offenses” was a new category and a catchall phrase for nonviolent sex-related crimes. It included contributing to the delinquency of a minor, indecent exposure, obscene literature, lewd and indecent acts, and sex perversion. …Because of national trends and a rhetoric connecting homosexuality to violent crimes, sex offenses related to homosexuality became a predominant concern for city officials. (Boyd 78-79)

Whereas the original male singer bemoans the distance he feels from his happily wedded pals, Ben’s song serves as a practical guide to dealing with the Vice Squad’s surveillance practices. We see this rhetorical instruction in the first and second verses, which both open with the warning to “watch out.” Observe verse one of Ben’s version of “That Old Gang of Mine”:

Watch your cruising in the gay bars
Or on Hollywood and Vine
The Vice Squad keeps on breaking up
That old gang of mine.

Now compare this verse to the original one by Fain, Kahal, and Raskin, performed by Gene Austin , which states:

Not a soul down on the corner
That’s a pretty certain sign
Those wedding bells are breaking up
That old gang of mine. (Fain et al.)

Ben’s verse opens with a warning for homosexuals cruising in gay spaces (bars and streets), which are no longer safe from the Vice Squad. The male singer in the original also acknowledges the lack of people on the street corner, except in his case the disappearance is voluntary, whereas in Ben’s the vacancy is a result of police surveillance.

Both songs’ second verses consider romantic perusal. Ben’s is:

Watch your actions in the rest-room
With the fellow next in line,
He might be with the Vice-Squad
Breaking up that gang of mine.

The original heterosexual version’s verse is:

All the boys are singing love songs
They forgot Sweet Adeline
Those wedding bells are breaking up
That old gang of mine. (Fain et al.)

Both verses mention perusal of a lover. In the original, flirting and pining for women has been replaced with declaring love for specific women, but in Ben’s there is a legitimate fear that undercover police may be posing as homosexuals, so one should be wary of cruising. As in Ben’s first verse, the key takeaway is a warning to gays to hide their love, while in Austin’s original version heterosexual love is thriving in a conventional, heteronormative trajectory.

The next verse is in my opinion the most interesting in its repurposing of the heterosexual actions of courting to expose the threats homosexuals faced as a result of surveillance and entrapment. Here’s the original verse:

Well, there goes Jack, there goes Jim
Down to lover’s lane
Now and then we meet again
But they don’t seem the same. (Fain et al.)

Here’s Ben’s version of that same verse:

There goes Jack, there goes Jim,
Off to Lincoln Heights
Guess we’d better play it cool
At home, alone, these nights.

Whereas heterosexual Jack and Jim disappeared down a metaphorical route of love and matrimony, Ben’s homosexual Jack and Jim are removed off to Lincoln Heights, a prison in Los Angeles. According to the Los Angeles Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving historic Los Angeles buildings, at one point “the Lincoln Heights Jail became so frequently populated with individuals being held for sex-related crimes that the prison opened a separate wing for inmates suspected of being gay. The wing was given the derogatory nickname of ‘The Fruit Tank’” (“Lincoln Heights Jail”). Ben suggests that it’s a safer bet to “play it cool” alone and at home, avoiding public displays of homosexuality that could likely result in prison time. This verse may be inspired by Ben’s experience of witnessing a raid on a gay bar in the1940s, after which police waited outside the bar to apprehend people who left alone (Gershick 60). Ben told Gershick that her friends had told her not to leave after a raid, “Because [the police] lurk outside, and if anyone leaves early, then they harass them again” (60).

The last verse covers one more threat of surveillance faced by homosexuals: being fined. Ben’s verse is as follows:

You can get a frantic feeling
Raising dough to pay that fine
So watch out for the Vice-Squad
Breaking up that gang of mine!

The original version’s last verse comes off as blasé in comparison to Ben’s warning:

Gee, I get a lonesome feeling
When I hear the church bells chime
Those wedding bells are breaking up
That old gang of mine. (Fain et al.)

Here, the singer feels lonely when he hears the bells and is reminded of the loss of his pals, who are presumably safe and happy at home with their wives. There’s a vast difference between feeling lonesome and frantically attempting to raise enough funds to pay off fines for being found to be homosexual, or even just for being accused of being homosexual.

So, now that we’ve reviewed the parodic alterations Ben made in her version, what’s the big rhetorical deal with offering a warning via a song?

While “That Old Gang of Mine” lacks the comedic puns of “Frankie and Johnny,” its value in rhetorically educating audiences is strategic. Out of all of Ben’s songs, this one most of all brings tears to my eyes. Ben acknowledges the loss of gay spaces for cruising, the loss of gay friends to jail, and the lonely and desperate feelings that homosexuals felt as a result of Vice Squad surveillance and entrapment. In this way, she rhetorically validates homosexuals’ fears of violence and entrapment while offering support via camaraderie. Imagine her gay audience listening to her version, while in the back (or front) of their minds they recalled the original version’s crooning about the “inconvenience” of marriage, partnership, and safety in homes. Whereas the original heterosexual version subtlety resists the expected progression of love and family-building, Ben’s version cycles like an eerie music box, telling a dark yet credible truth: we may get entrapped, jailed, and fined for loving while homosexual.


Thanks for reading my blog post! If you want to learn more about Lisa Ben, check out my Instagram page @LisaBenography. If you want to learn bout about Lisa Ben or Dr. Kate Henry, check out the links at the top of the page.