Listeners found Beverly Glenn-Copeland. It was time.
By Grayson Haver Currin
When Beverly Glenn-Copeland was 64, he entrusted Elizabeth Paddon, whom he would soon marry, with a sobering prediction: His records would finally be noticed after he died.
For Glenn-Copeland, making music had been both a lifelong pursuit and a lifeline, the unifying thread through six tumultuous decades as a Black transgender man. He grew up in Philadelphia watching his father play classical piano and learning spirituals his mother remembered from her Georgia childhood. As a college student in Montreal, Glenn-Copeland studied lieder and the oboe, then opera in New York.
At the start of the 1970s, he made two albums of yearning folk-rock, his formal training manifest in an ascendant vibrato and audacious arrangements. Despite a manager who worked with Dylan and signed the Doors, a substantive career never materialized. As the ’80s began, music became a private pursuit for Glenn-Copeland, who issued tranquil electronic hymns on tiny batches of self-made cassettes, if at all.
“When I was younger, I was looking at the goal — you get signed, you get heard,” Glenn-Copeland, 76, said recently by phone from New Brunswick, Canada. “I didn’t want fame, but I wanted to share my music with the world.”
“By the time I was in my later 30s, I was no longer looking at that goal,” he continued. “I just knew this is what I was supposed to do, all I knew how to do.”
But only a few years after Glenn-Copeland announced his fatalistic resignation, the world seemed ready to listen. His folk-rock LPs emerged as collectors’ items, auctioning for thousands of dollars. A record enthusiast from Japan asked if he had leftover copies of “Keyboard Fantasies,” the luminous New Age tape he’d made with an Atari computer and a drum machine and released in 1986 in an edition of about 500.
The requests intensified. Taste-making producers like Four Tet and Caribou name-checked the singer, while a half-dozen labels vied for the rights to his work. Still very much alive and writing new music, Glenn-Copeland returned to the stage for the first time in more than a decade, playing prestigious festivals in the Netherlands and lavish halls in London, a resurrection that even prompted a 2019 documentary.
“He accomplishes the ultimate creative tightrope walk — there is so much shape-shifting, but everything sounds like the same person,” said Jenn Wasner, the founder of the bands Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes. She compared Glenn-Copeland to Arthur Russell, whose own polymathic music gained popularity only after his 1992 death. “A thread of very specific emotional resonance unites everything he’s done.”
This month, Glenn-Copeland will release “Transmissions,” a life-spanning mixtape that moves from the mournful torch songs of his youth to joyously soulful odes to survival. There are dances and dirges, reimagined gospel standards and radiant organ jams. But mostly, there are songs for pressing on, anthems for keeping the faith in yourself. During “River Dreams,” the album’s centerpiece and Glenn-Copeland’s first new song in 16 years, he chants wordlessly and reassuringly over gossamer synthesizers and an upright bass’ ostinato strut.
Glenn-Copeland grew up in Greenbelt Knoll, Philadelphia’s pioneering integrated community. But he felt burdened as a Black child there, a representative of “an entire race whenever I went out the door,” he remembered. At the age of 3, he began to realize he identified as a boy — standing in front of mirrors alongside preening friends, he flexed muscles that barely existed.
Still, for 50 years, Glenn-Copeland (who augmented his surname after college to honor a favorite composer, Aaron Copland, and has gone by “Glenn” with friends for nearly two decades) lived as a woman in dogged pursuit of something else. At 8, he began going to neighborhood churches alone; around 10, his mother began taking him to Quaker meetings. As his fledgling career cratered in the mid-70s, he found Buddhism after experiments with a dozen Eastern philosophies. He bounced between Canadian provinces, navigated the Eastern Seaboard by RV and delivered pizzas while living with his mother in Phoenix.
In 1995, while reading the mid-70s memoir of a transgender activist on a Cape Cod, Massachusetts, beach, Glenn-Copeland felt as if he were watching a supercut of his life. He now had the language for his feelings, and he soon began his transition. “I have always been such a roamer,” he said. “But this wasn’t difficult at all. It was so freeing.”
The journey had come with immense costs. His relationship with his mother had been tenuous for decades, though she emerged as his champion before dying in his arms in 2006. As a student at McGill University, Glenn-Copeland’s romance with a woman appalled university officials, who ostracized him until he fled campus.
Glenn-Copeland has been married four times, first after college to a man who remains a friend. (“That lasted 15-and-a-half minutes,” he said, chuckling. “What were we thinking?”) During the next three decades, he wed two women, each relationship another anguishing experience of trying to fix someone else before reckoning with himself.
“A lot of us fall in love with love because we don’t want to be alone. Part of myself was not whole,” he said. “After my last relationship, I finally accepted that I was OK with being alone for the rest of my life.”
In 2007, though, Paddon walked into the wedding of mutual friends. For decades, their social circles had overlapped, and she became his sporadic confidant during the ’90s, just before he began his transition. At one point, Paddon said, she had prayed for a new partner and saw him that very night in a dream.
“When I saw her that day, I tilted out like a sail, as if seeing her for the first time,” Glenn-Copeland said, struggling to catch his breath from laughter. “Of all the things I had needed to learn about myself, I had learned enough to be in a relationship where I could learn the rest — and be happy.”
In the decade since their marriage, Glenn-Copeland has become more vulnerable, relaxing once-ironclad emotional barriers. He’s also become an intense collaborator to Elizabeth, a poet, singer and actor. They have launched a theater school, set one another’s words to sound and created an ambitious musical history of Canada’s Maritime Provinces for the stage.
This summer alongside the sea, a new song arrived to Glenn-Copeland via what he calls the “Universal Broadcasting System,” a kind of mystic link between his subconscious and the energy around him. Captured during “the sunset glow” of his later years, the four verses chronicle his failures and successes, blessings and burdens.
Each verse ends with a simple declaration about singing, a reminder that it’s the force that has always sustained him. “The melody is very simple, but it’s arresting — to me, at least. The only other person who has heard it is my wife,” he said. “She thinks it’s quite beautiful.”