Song Sung Blue
I’ve always been someone who easily veers into depression, and over the years i’ve had to cultivate strategies to avoid tumbling into the abyss. One of my first coping mechanisms was discovered back in 1973, when I realized that repeated listenings on my portable phonograph of my 45 rpm single of The Carpenter’s “Sing” could literally change my mood from morose to joyful. I could escape that persistent, underlying feeling of being different from other kids my age: painfully shy and far more interested in my sister’s barbie dolls than the Tonka trucks and sports equipment my father had foisted upon me Christmas after Christmas, birthday after birthday.
I’d close my eyes, lying on the shag carpet of our home on Long Island, my head next to the speaker on the boxy, plastic-handled contraption. Three minutes and twenty seconds of lyrical happiness would wash over me, followed by ten seconds of the record player’s arm lifting, clicking, and moving back into position to begin all over again. Happy images would fill my head, pushing out the fears and anxieties that usually took up all the space in there. With my music, I was at peace.
“How many times are you going to listen to that song?” my mother or father would invariably ask, as the stylus reset itself yet again.
The answer could be twenty, or thirty, or a dozen times. I would process each and everylyric, gauging the applicability of each and every one of my small collection of 45’s to my own existence. I never tired of a song I loved.
When I reached my turbulent teens, when the fears and anxieties had multiplied exponentially, I turned to Linda Ronstadt for comfort. Though she rarely wrote any of her own lyrics, the river of her voice carried so much nuance, so much emotion, that I could easily start crying when listening to her songs of pain and loss. This is about the time that I discovered that songs of sadness, plaintive lyrics that spoke directly to the kind of pain I was feeling, could also have a soothing effect on my soul. As Bernie Taupin famously wrote for Elton John:
“Guess there are times when we all need to share a little pain
And ironing out the rough spots
Is the hardest part when memories remain
And it’s times like these when we all need to hear the radio
`cause from the lips of some old singer
We can share the troubles we already know”
So i’d share my troubles with Linda, the soulful ballads on her “Hasten Down the Wind” album speaking directly to me, particularly the gorgeous, aching cover of Karla Bonoff‘s “Lose Again.”
The lyrics of that song spoke directly to me: a confused fourteen year old, struggling with his sexuality, hating who he was and hating that girlfriend after girlfriend could not change those very wrong feelings inside, feelings he was certain had been planted there by a certain priest years before. Knowing that each crush I had on male classmate after male classmate could never be reciprocated, and that I was doomed to live a life devoid of love.
“Nothing can save me / from this ball and chain / I’ll love you and lose again.” Right on the money.
I still listened to upbeat songs, those of ABBA were a particular favorite, as were ELO, Blondie, The Ramones…though I generally did so when I was already feeling happy and needed to maintain it, functioning as a sort of aural mood stabilizer. But I always got out the Ronstadt albums when I needed to feel like I wasn’t alone.
When I reached my early twenties, around the time I was beginning to accept my homosexuality – and dealing with all the emotional upheaval that provided me – came Maria Mckee, first with her band Lone Justice, then as a solo artist. Maria’s lyrics and her incredible, flexible, can-sing-the-shit-out-of-anything vocals resonated with me the same way Linda’s had. This beautiful girl had something simultaneously earthy and angelic about her, her big, soulful eyes gazing out from her first solo album’s cover, she resembled – to my Fine Arts Major eyes – a modern-day Botticelli painting. And that voice.…I would close my eyes, walkman headphones firmly clamping my head between them, and listen. And feel less scared, less hopeless, less…less.
“Turning around I see someone / That I thought I used to know / You wide eyed in the crowd / How does it feel to see the world / And not turn cold / I wanna hold you / And protect you from the change / Though I know it’s gonna happen anyway / Take this veil, I’ll dry your eyes / In a world like ours you’re nobody’s child”
And when I finally was living life as an openly gay man, and going through the tumult of constant breakups ( the high number being attributable to my own habit of seeking validation through the physical appearance of my partners) Maria also provided the perfect face-down-pillow-sobbing breakup song, the classic “Don’t Toss Us Away,” (penned by her brother, Bryan MacLean of the seminal LA band Love.)
Back then, I was devoid of any semblance of spirituality whatsoever, having, as I like to say now, chucked the Baby Jesus out with the dirty Catholic bathwater. I am learning to love her canon of brilliant songwriting all over again, having finally, in utter desperation, been reunited with my Higher Power that was taken from me by force when I was still a pre-teen. Her classic song, the inspirational “You Are The Light” is no longer, for me, a paean to a lover, but a song of deep spiritual meaning and a provider of spiritual invigoration. Many of her songs that once spoke to the physical now seem to address the spiritual, with equal, if not more beauty.
Maria’s later solo work continued to provide comfort, as new releases seemed to be eerily timed – content wise – with the continued upheavals in my life. Her composition “High Dive,” detailing a fall from grace and the work required to regain said grace, became my theme song of encouragement while I struggled to rebuild my personal and professional reputation after burning out – catastrophically – from my addiction to crystal meth.
“Blowing my trumpet / Believin’ in something / Courageous and crazy / Nothing could faze me / ‘Till I hit the pavement / And now it’s back to school / Ready to play the fool / Cause I took a high dive into an empty pool”
And when my husband had finally had enough of my drug-fueled escapades and demanded I move out of our home, the plaintive “Turn Away” consoled me for months when I was living in my old bedroom in my mother’s house, a five-hour drive from the man I loved, who refused to speak to me.
“Why am I the one to wear the pain?
I guess I do it with panache
To talk it over now would only be a strain
With our hearts lost in all this trash”
It’s taken me years to find actual happiness, and I’m working hard to maintain it, feasting on gratitude for all the beautiful things in my life that still remain, namely my husband and my physical health. I also work hard to cultivate, to regrow, the things I did lose: my spirituality, my optimism, my mental stability. And again, Maria Mckee has provided the soundtrack to this chapter of my existence. “Power On Little Star” is the song that gets me through my moments of self-doubt, the times when faith feels like it might once again be slipping from my grip.
“Power on with your dying breath,
Power on, no regret.
With the fuse that was lit,
By the breaking of your spirit,
Power on, don’t quit.
And the things that made you
Want to trade in your heart,
Are the very things that
Made you who you are.
Power on, little star.
Power on til you know yourself,
From the voices in your head,
From the bruises and welts,
Power on, like hell.
And if you only make it one more day,
Well it’s one more day,
Than you threw away.
Power on, anyway.
And though you may never make a mark
Or live your dream,
Well at least you may live
To make peace with the memories and defeat.
With a heart that will be slashed,
And your dreams that will be dashed,
Like a weather stain,
Like a sad refrain,
Power on, my little babe.”
All my life, despite my difficulties, I have been blessed to have personally known some of my heroes. Miep Gies, who hid Anne Frank and her family. Mamie Till-Mobley, whose insistence on an open-casket funeral for her murdered boy Emmett, was a dear friend of mine until her death several years back. Having worked in the entertainment industry for many years, and by virtue of being married to a working actor for almost twenty, I’ve also had occasion to meet many people whose talent I have stood in awe of. Sometimes meeting these people is disillusioning, sometimes not.
When a chance meeting with Maria Mckee unexpectedly spawned a friendship, it was a great relief to discover that this woman who had unknowingly guided me through so much pain and sorrow is even lovelier a human being than I had imagined. That my new friend inadvertently set off the chain reaction of introductions that would ultimately lead to my seeking recovery from a brutal crystal meth addiction seems almost pre-ordained, in retrospect.
I continue to find artists who, through the courage of their songwriting, seem to speak directly to me. The phenomenal John Grant (whose lyrics suggest is also no stranger to emotional upheaval) has provided much comfort in recent years. His debut solo album, the critically adored (and rightfully so) “Queen of Denmark,” is filled with songs I could have written myself, had I the talent to do so. “Silver Platter Club” is one I listen to on those days when I feel like I’m just not enough, that i’m missing some as-yet-undiscovered “social acceptance” gene.
“I wish I had the genes of Edwardo Verastegui
That I was effortlessly masculine as well
I wish that confidence was all you could see in my eyes
Like those interviews in locker rooms with talented sports guys
I wish I had no self-awareness like the guys I know
Float right through their lives without a thought
And that I didn’t give a shit what anybody thought of me
That I was so relaxed you’d think that I was bored”
And the title song, whatever it’s actual lyrical intent as an overall composition, includes words that bring me to tears every time I hear them, for they so perfectly describe the hopelessness of being mired in addiction:
Who’s gonna be the one to save me from myself?
You better bring your stun gun and perhaps a crowbar
You better pack a lunch and get up really early
And you should probably get down on your knees and pray
I could blather on for hours about artists who have moved me in one way or another, but I’ve rambled long enough.