Many Voyages en Rose readers are lovers of music. I know this from reading your blogs, and from the odd bit of private correspondence with you. Me too. This lifelong love transcends format (45’s, LP’s, 8-tracks, cassettes, CD’s, MP3’s etc) and genre. From Albinoni to Zevon, preference and predispositions do not readily emerge, and a quick flip through my stacks reveals either refined broad-mindedness or borderline schizophrenia depending on your own muscial points of view.
On the whole though, songs with lyrical content are the songs I go back to. I do like stories after all.
The musical stories that drive most expertly, persistently and deeply into my thinking and feeling are the ones that women sing, expressing their experience, from their perspective, and typically in response to some generalized shortcoming or specific fuck-up doled out by a guy.
And yeah, this goes back to Yvonne Elliman. I first heard her perform on the 1970 pre-Broadway opening recording of Jesus Christ Superstar. For the sonority and range of her voice of course, such a gorgeous instrument she possessed then, and probably still today. This 8 year old didn’t have the language to describe the music, but I had all the instincts I needed to be moved by it, to be riveted in place by it
Her voice, paired with with Tim Rice’s lyrics in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” carried a depth of feeling, an honestly, a fully expressed emotion, that was startling to me. Freely admitted confusion, an understanding of her own weaknesses and worst potentials, complexity, hope, despair, the whole shootin’ works in a 3 minute masterpiece portrait of the full spectrum of human emotion, from high to low.
This stood in marked contrast from such then popular male vocal efforts as Tony Orlando’s “Knock Three Times” and the Archies truly lamentable multi-platinum tribute to all that is transparent, shallow and water soluble, “Sugar, Sugar”.
It was a golden musical era. Female songwriters were getting a shot at telling their own stories on their own terms. Janis Joplin hurled pieces of her heart at us. Carole King made the earth move beneath our feet. Carly Simon called out our vanity for what it was and told the world. Yes, of course, there were many gifted male songwriters doing deeply revealing, sensitive personal stuff (all due praise to Jackson Browne, Van Morrison, and Neil Diamond), and countless songs by chaps that remain potent today.
With that said though, I felt then, and still today, that much of the masculine emotion revealed in song was expressed, at least in part, in the service of getting laid. Soon. Now preferably. And would it kill you, O mighty Creator, to serve me up twins? Do this righteous dude a solid would you?
The female lyrics however seemed enlisted in the service of something of more lasting value. They seemed as to tap in to the wellspring of endurance and patience that women possess as a matter of survival, and nurtured in beautiful contrast to common masculine survival virtues.
I listened so closely to those songs as well because, dammit the women just sounded flat out disappointed by some guy, and by logical extension, me. I felt in some way responsible for the hurt, confusion, despair and weariness expressed in song. Perhaps, if just given a chance, I could make it all right.
O, there was so much to make right too. Guys were clearly capable of and perhaps mission driven to discover new frontiers of insensitivity. The hits just kept coming, the weariness started showing in more unpolished voices, and blown over gaping acoustical apertures, exposed nerves, cracking and creaking, with raw broken china scratchiness, Marianne Faithful, Stevie Nicks, Linda Thompson and Patty Smith.
My 80’s begin with Rickie Lee Jones, end with Sinead O’Cononor, and were punctuated along the way by Kate Bush and k.d. lang, each capable of stamping a nearly toxic dose of honesty, hope and hurt into a 3 minute tune, each terrific long form story tellers too, and each in their way a trailbreaking affront to rock-chick beauty standards.
Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Bjork, Natalie Merchant, Liz Phair, Aimee Mann and too many to name made the relative absence of male singer/songwriters the musical non-event of the 90’s. In hindsight, the guys contribution was simply not required. Beautiful, attractive performers, feminine, unashamed of their sexuality, self aware, easy on the eyes, easier on the ears, and happy to challenge your thinking about exactly what women were thinking.
Musically, the ‘Aughts and our current decade are, for me, mirroring and perhaps anticipating a broader change in society. Our beauty definitions have changed, Cougars prowl with quiet certainty in the beauty of experience. Musically too, the kids have left the nest and the mother is still possessed of a confident come-hither look. Lucinda and Emmylou, Patty Griffin, and yes, god bless her hopeful heart the still radiant Mavis Staples hits the studio and jumps on a tour bus in her 70’s.
These lives and stories, expressed in song have for me always revealed a different view of life. They possess a luring complexity, intricacy, deeper and different learnings taken from the seen and felt world, and have been just as potent a lure to my own curiosity about a woman’s experience as her clothing and appearance.
And so, yes I blame Yvonne Elliman. I thank her too. Whose praises do you sing?