Kelly and Clive

Something has recently caught my eye and drawn me back to opining here on The Middle Lane:

First of all,  I really like Kelly Clarkson.  Years ago her voice had me at the first few bars.  And no, I don’t watch American Idol, ever.  There’s just something in her voice that hits my heart.  Like Dolly Parton’s voice, or Bill Withers’.  Then there’s the fact that she’s not a waif (love!) and has a backbone to boot (love more!)  She’s a gal who wears her heart on her sleeve and is just a strong, beautiful woman in my book.  Yes, the songs are ultra-pop and that’s not usually what I listen to, but I don’t care, I like Kelly Clarkson. 

So a few years back this otherwise-occupied mom heard little bits in the news about a tiff going on between Kelly and Clive Davis.  (Hmmn.)  I didn’t know Clive had anything to do with Kelly.  In my mind she permeated culture because of the TV-show-that-shall-remain-nameless, and mostly because of her fabulous spirit and voice.  In my mind, Clive just got on the train.  But there was acrimony.  I heard some of his $0.02, and I heard some of her $0.02.  I thought Kelly’s was funny.  And her POV was not terribly mean-spirited.  Clive’s was.  (Hmmn…what is a grown, wealthy man doing attacking a spirited young gal trying to make her way through this colossally difficult, anti-strong-woman-music-business - especially a young woman from whom he has obviously profited?)  That rang some bells in my head.  Even though I read an earlier auto-biography of his and was lured into thinking he was important.

We have recently witnessed another gorgeous, important singer lose her life:  Whitney Houston was another Clive “prodigy”.  Clive was in the news constantly at the time of the tragedy.  They credited him for her career.  But we who wanted to know more, read articles and interviews from her family, from her close acquaintances about how unhappy she was with the edifice of “Whitney”.  It was an edifice built by Clive and Co.  She didn’t write her songs.  She never animated the tomboy from New Jersey who longed to be expressed.  I wonder if she ever wanted to write her songs?  I’m willing to bet she (like Kelly) did.  And would Whitney have felt as agonized by the pop persona she projected if she had had a VOICE in the writing?  Would she have felt as plagued by in-authenticity if she had an avenue to write and manifest her truths?  (By the way, it’s the writers that make the money in the end…  would she have had her hand out for money from Arista in her struggling days if she had written some songs on those multi-platinum albums that still today make a tidy profit?)  Would she have felt such need to rebel against the squeaky-clean image imposed by cross-format, ultra-pop-radio tunes likely chosen by Clive, if she had more control in her career and personal expression?  And what would Clive have done if Whitney wanted to write her truths?  Would he have battled and slandered her, too?  What would have happened in the 80’s if Whitney pulled a Kelly?  I bet a career would have been tidily snuffed. 

In my young times of the music business I read books by/about these monolithic ‘Hit Men’.  I was urged to be quiet about things.  One never bit the hand that feeds.  Especially in the music business, a most corrupt business where artists own little-to-none of their intellectual property, there has been the underlying threat of being black-listed and isolated for fear of speaking up.  For women more shame.  Kelly Clarkson’s outspokenness would have meant career death a decade or two ago.   I am now nearly forty-five and I see a female artist speaking up.  I was worried some years ago when I saw the first rounds of Clive’s verbal slander in an attempt to bury Kelly.  But these are different times.  Kelly has a 3M+ fanbase at the other end of an iPhone, tweeting and posting and most importantly, being honest and naming a bully.  She loves her fans.  And they are with her.  Who is going to care about Clive’s mean-spirited opinions in a “book”?  Who’s going to read his book and vote for Clive in hating an ebullient young gal trying to make her way?!  I think Kelly’s 3M+ Twitter fans and 7M+ Facebook fans are going to be a whole lot more supportive. 

This just would not have happened in the 80’s or 90’s - there was no outlet for immediate, personal connection from artist to fans.  This is a mind-blowing, positive aspect of social media and Kelly is a champ in rejecting an antediluvian, constricting self-proclaimed edict by an older man.  In other words:  no more bullies allowed.  We want our artists to live more authentic, happier, more profitable lives.  Longer, healthier lives.  On the positive side of the digital coin, artists can shoot straight from the hip into a web of fans,  building support or exposing injustice.  These are different times, so attention HIT MEN:  the trains you ride now have a hurricane-force VOICE. 

Amy Winehouse

I felt a blow to my heart when I heard the news that Amy Winehouse died Saturday. I’m hurt by another good one going too young.  It’s nearly always the good ones;  the sensitive ones, the ones who actually possess talent.  For the introverts and the gifted care enough to pursue a talent beyond expectation.  It is they who cannot handle the misery of an insidiously blanching spotlight, the shallow obsequiousness of a newly self-congratulatory career, stranded family members, or middle-school-styled vicious criticism (especially now in an anonymous internet world.)  It is usually the sensitives who seek refuge in escapism of drugs or self-sabotage.  It is the humble and the seekers that are inexorably drawn to deep music, for being there is a kind of proximity to Divinity.  It is the artistically ‘touched’ that then feel especially like prey among predators.  Or likely, they as restless searchers are completely bored by the monotony of the road, the vapid tv show appearances, the repetition of the same songs, the need to look good on camera when feeling otherwise.  How does a young woman from working-class London deal with such an ascent? From attending performing arts high school, loving jazz and humbly acknowledging the masters to being in tabloids so young?  One self-sabotages or escapes through drugs.  We’ve seen it too many times.  I’ve said quiet prayers for Amy before this happened.  I wished her to find a strength beyond her margins.  And that hit song “Rehab”.  Why did it have to be that song?  It only fueled everyone’s cynicism.

There is very little artist management of quality in the music business.  There is very little sense of preserving an artist’s personal life, nurturing an artist’s emotional health or mentoring young people to become individuated as business people, parents, success stories in many realms of their psyche.  Often many would rather a singer troubled, skinny, notorious and on heroin than deal with a plus-size in a photo shoot.  Many prop an artist up in front of an audience when he or she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown or unconsciousness.  Rather than an emboldened artist advocating for their time off for Self or family, many would prefer to work with an attenuated scarecrow easily manipulated by his or her dependency on cocaine or a myriad of prescription meds.  (How much easier to control the stakes and make money that way.)  There are too many first-hand stories I’ve heard of too many artists corroborating this.  There are too many deaths of too many good ones.  It makes me sick in my stomach to hear of a “27 club”, for it only serves to romanticize this sad trend of more gifted sensitives.  The music industry needs a collective overhaul.  We expect accountability in other businesses.  Why not the music business?  It just can’t continually contribute to the downfall of artists as they grind down human beings regurgitating their hits for sales.  It needs long-term vision to elevate true artists to long-term success;  catalog success;  60 and 70 year-olds singing in Carnegie Hall for their retrospectives.  We collectively need to support true artists for their voices, not their looks or notoriety.  We need to educate young artists to be their own advocates. We need to listen again like our grandparents did, not watch reality shows.  We need to refrain from publicity that supports stalking, harassment and the inevitable deterioration of the mental health of our talented society members.  If we may glean anything from this tragedy, may we remember the need to be a human race of greater empathy.  Amy Winehouse, may you rest in peace and may your incredible voice live on.  Much love to you, dear soul.

The Roxy

It was 1994, I was all black boots, sheared dye-black hair and a nose ring, and I had just performed at The Roxy, the legendary rock club of West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.  Backstage, my beloved manager Carter introduced me to a man by the name of Bobby Colomby, and at that very moment, a Northridge aftershock shook the house. Bobby and I huddled in a doorway, quieted by the earth’s power.  But then he launched into an obnoxious roast, deriding my whistle solo on “Hitler’s Brother’s”.  My thoughts raced, “who IS this outrageous person?”  He reminded me of a boy in second grade giving me hell!  My New England sense of decorum softened as I was able to read his character further;  a Jazz-head, a Miles-worshiper (like me), a tease, a lover of Paula Cole music.  Bobby was a colleague of Carter’s from their days at Capitol Records, back when Carter resurrected Tina Turner’s career with “Private Dancer”, and the label poured forth hits of the 80’s.  There was powerful synchronicity of the moment, the huddle, the earthquake, the two managers of my career and me.

It was 1997, I was all mittens and a fuzzy hat over long, natural hair, “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone” was soaring and my schedule was becoming one continuous nose-bleed.  I fit in a favor for the ebullient, obnoxious person I met three years prior (Bobby Colomby, he of whistle-derision.)  We met in brittle winter at Sony Studios in Midtown, Manhattan for a live jazz session he was producing.  Being too busy to do any background checks, I asked Carter on the phone, “Who is he again?  A producer? A drummer?”  I was to sing a duet part on an old chestnut, “Call Me Irresponsible” with a voice already laid to track.  This was one standard I didn’t know, so I requested a lead sheet.  “A lead sheet?” Bobby asked…”what vocalist asks for written music to learn a song today?!”  That would be me.  Visual learner me.  (I just absorb it faster that way.  I see the relationship of the chords and points in space - notes.  I don’t know too many people in pop or jazz who are this way, but it’s just who I am.)  So I got to it, recorded my part quickly, reminiscent of the Sarah, Ella and Frank days when vocalists read lead sheets, enjoyed some ad lib freedom at the fade and that was that.  Bobby was intrigued and I was simply happy to be singing some jazz. 

…Years later I find Bobby as producer of Jaco Pastorius’ debut album.  I find him to be the one who convinced Epic/CBS to keep the Jacksons on the label, which then lead to a multi-platinum album and “Off The Wall”.  Bobby sings along to Miles’ solos in the car (and Coltrane’s, and Herbie’s).  I find him as a friend…

Year 2004 with my label-life and hits in the rear view, a broken marriage, a baby and sinking sense of self, Bobby emails Carter asking how Paula Cole is doing.  Carter replies, “She could use a friend”.  We strike online rapport. He asks me to sing more standards.  But this time at Capitol Records studio A, where Frank and Sarah did sing, along with Chris Botti, Vinnie Colaiuta, Christian McBride, Billy Childs.  Again, more fun;  deep listening, interplay and respect among musicians.  And a fast pace, recording in one or two takes.  (In my book, the only way to work.  It’s about the energy.)  This funny guy Bobby is becoming a presence in my days and months, weaving in my life over years;  a familiar friend on a daily phone call, a trusted partner.

I’m back at the Roxy.  It’s 2011, June 7th and it’s Carter’s memorial.  His dear friend Sammy Hagar has generously brought all of us Carter fans together to grieve and celebrate the genius, loyalty and passion embodied in this kind man.  I enter the Roxy with loud amps screaming for soundcheck.  Some wake!  I hug, belly laugh and cry my way through the evening, connecting with the family and friends of Carter.  I perform, as does Melissa Etheridge, The Motels, Sammy and Chickenfoot.  We watch the video testimonials by Tina Turner, Steve Miller, E (The Eels) and listen to the musicians he championed; Bob Seger among my favorites.  Bobby is here too.  We are missing our friend;  the one who connected us in this very spot in 1994.  I have the feeling there is some invisible thread gathering me to this moment, as if I’ve concluded a karmic spiral. This moment, I know, reveals in me something nascent;  something yet to be understood.

Back to Massachusetts

There is a beautiful song by the early Bee Gees with this title.  And I find myself humming it a good bit now that it seems to be a theme song for me.  As I downshift into the slow lane for a moment, I confess I have a blessed, green yard here back in Massachusetts.  (That is something I couldn’t enjoy in New York City.)  I have relatively quiet days and turkeys on my lawn.  My partner and I fill feeders with sunflower seed at “the giving tree” and watch species after species thrive from our quiet, humane support of the local ecosystem.  (This is so much better than T.V., which I haven’t watched in months? years?)  We silently stare out the living room window in right-brain, dream-stupor and feel a sense of Thoreau-bliss-connection to the Universe.  I’m getting closer to my creativity this way, you see.  One must be a dreamer to find one’s inner truths. 

On inner truth:  I combed through old journals yesterday, as I struggled to find any entries I had on Carter (I will perform at his wake…chalk this up as a new performance experience…one I know will become all the more common).  I wanted to feel my younger self, my life impressions of Carter all those years.  I could see how repressed and volcanic I was in my early 20’s when I was impatiently craving for my career to start; as I waitressed, sang functions and weddings.  Tough stuff.  Reading the diaries I watched an arc of my life unfold.  There were so few entries in the grueling touring years, when I awoke in a new city nearly every day.  But a sense of peace settled into the prose as I went about my life.  Turbulence arose again during the unhappy years of my brief marriage.  But yet, the voice in the text was grounded, asking the right questions, fueled by a deeper sense of self-love than she of my 20’s.  What I could see, before my eyes in my scratchy penmanship, was that indeed, life does get better with age.  There is a knowing, a falling away of bullshit when the inner voice of self-confident street-smarts speaks up as soul armor.  There is a tiger defending one’s young.  There is a purpose in small things, like waking up at 6:30am to make the coffee and get the day going.  There is meaning in the perfunctory details that sometimes otherwise depress.  These details are the fuel to an engine of a life.  A life which (God willing) may elevate other life.  And if I find any point at all to living, it is just that.

Or as Henry David Thoreau says, “Be not simply good - be good for something.”

More on Carter

Although Carter wasn’t my manager anymore, he remained a shamanistic presence. We enjoyed re-igniting via email these past few years.  He begged me to start contributing more frequently to my website.  Carter longed to hear my songs.  He reminded me constantly that I am a writer. We picked up the threads of our dialogue, our friendship.  He told me these songs (for “Ithaca”, as well as many others in the running) were some of the best of my career.  He is a part of “Ithaca”. He was genuinely gleeful about it.  My former drummer Jay Bellerose (now with Ray LaMontagne, Elton John/Leon Russell and almost anything by T Bone Burnett and Joe Henry for that matter) recently emailed me saying about Carter, 

"…We had lunch together months ago and I think he had just seen you. His eyes filled with tears as he spoke of you and your gift. "she is writing her ass off! I just love her."

Such was my songwriting champ and kind friend Carter.  He told me to keep on coming with the acronyms on “P.R.E.N.U.P.”.  So the coda there was a last-minute overdub;  another good idea by Carter.  Carter’s constant creative views are indeed part of me. When one speak’s on the phone with someone nearly every day for almost nine years, one’s mind, vocal cadence and humor become unified. You live on in me, Carter. And here I am living out loud under the microscope of the Internet.

Dear Carter

The regret archives begin their insidious, subconscious torture.  But this is not about me.  This is about a kind and good man who loved me and my work.  He championed my writing, my process, my career.  He taught me so much of what I know in this business.  Carter was my manager for nearly nine years.  I met him when I moved to San Francisco in my early twenties, a prolific songwriter and barista at a local cafe, The Tassajara Bakery.  I was a neophyte to the business and to Carter’s particular brand of sarcasm.  He saw my soul immediately.  We had a connection and were off.  He bought me my first gig outfit - a vintage three piece man’s suit from a second hand shop. (You must understand I was living within the poverty level, had three roommates and dedicated any spare hour to music.)  He helped me compile my first demo tape, rounded up a photo shoot, shopped me to some of his label friends and -viola!- we found ourselves a deal with a boutique label who fiercely believed in letting me be me;  Imago.  Imago was a left-of-center, artistic label led by Terry Ellis (formerly the head of Chrysalis, nurturer of Blondie, Pat Benatar).  Their roster included Aimee Mann, Basehead, Henry Rollins. This was the early nineties, Nirvana was exploding with “Nevermind”,  Jeff Buckley was playing the same beloved waterhole as me, Cafe Sine; the music scene was transcendental, passionate.

Carter flew with me on my first business-class flight on TWA at Imago’s bequest to NYC.  I found my destiny there - my future home in the city I love, my career’s zenith.  Carter continued the dialogue with me, through the labels, through the ever-constant process of songwriting, the daily dramas, the sarcasm, the disappointments; the amazing ride.  He was an English major, a poet, a champion of the Paula who I constantly doubted.  He couldn’t wait for my next song.  There will never be another man who gets tears in his eyes and knows my hits first thing off the press. He informed the world of me and paved my path.  I am eternally grateful for the lessons and the friendship.  The fatherliness, too.  (He was the only one courageous enough to tell me I was going after the wrong man.  I then left Carter.)

Carter, I miss you.  Much more than I could ever have expected.  I am left with longings and questions.  I wanted to continue the dialogue.  We weren’t done.  I am standing here with a huge hole in my heart.  Wherever you are, I am still loving you, apologetic for my temper in my 20’s, my losing of the plot.  I am missing you on my path that still stretches before me.  You were my partner on that path, Mr. Proper Nouns and Don’t-Bore-Us, Get-to-the-Chorus.  You were a gentleman.  I couldn’t see just how important you were and are to me and now it’s too late.  Wherever you are, my dear, I am here loving you still.  Always.

As I write from Switzerland, I bear a heavy heart from sad news.  I’ve lost someone very precious and important to me.  Rest in peace dear Carter.  I can’t stop my tears and I can’t stop missing you. 

I’ve just swooped into the fast lane, visiting Barcelona, Spain.  The Spanish language trickles from my cerebral crevices;  I understand more than I’d have believed.  How I love this place!  How I love the people and culture!  The art is a continual birth and revelation.  Gaudi!  How could he have created such work in the late 1800’s?  It still looks modern!  He was a seeker of truth, a lover of nature, applying geometry to architecture with conoids, shapes, and laws of nature.  Snails shells, honeycombs, trees!  All over his cathedrals and works! 

Goya: fearlessly reporting the atrocities of war in his art - all with beauty, horror, realism, magnitude. I see how Goya shaped Picasso (another Spaniard) in his search for meaning.  How Picasso fervently paints the enormous Guernica in one month! Just a month after Franco allows Hitler to try out his new toys of destruction on an innocent Basque town! As Picasso said, “artists are the politicians of the future…” 

This Sunday, my partner and I visited the Picasso museum in Barcelona where the viewer is informed of the arc of his life.  He is born of a painter, he lives a long life ‘til the end painting, creating.  In his teens, he starts precociously winning prizes and gallery showings. This is an understandably derivative time of an artist, copying masters in a learning process.  It’s when inspiration hits and Picasso transforms his process to a personal quest is where it gets fascinating. The Blue Period:  a declaration of intimate, sad feeling as he is influenced by French poets, writers (Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire.)  Of course we see life fly by, children born and on the by-ways as painting remains his focus;  the women subsumed by his career as they flounder in theirs;  the marriages strained, then over and on to the next.  Truly his career is a metaphor for Western History (or as James Brown sings, “This is a man’s world…”).  He finds his voice continually anew, sometimes by following previous masters (Goya as a political voice, El Greco as teacher, Velazquez as artistic counterpoint informing his cubism.)  He finds this childlike cubism.  He paints, sculpts, lithographs, draws on napkins, in sea sand, cartoons himself as a dirty old man, makes posters, paints again.  He never ceases.

I take heart and lesson in Picasso’s proliferation.  He was constantly surrounded by paint cans, strewn paint-stained clothing.  He did not falter in his process of the Great Search;  the anguishing hunt for meaning in a deeply thinking and feeling human life,  the life of an artist.  A true artist is one who uses his or her art to consciously elevate, instruct (personally, universally.)   I take heart and lesson in his example to not stop.  Honestly, I think of stopping all too often, as my Great Search causes me too much pain.  I do see a long life ahead of me and will try harder to not abandon my search, my daily fumblings to create a song; to sing.  I will fly home Friday, con La Espana en mi corazon, remembering how my soul sparkles here.  I will hold onto the lessons her artists give me.

…so the bandwagon of firemen arrived.  I watched them from my car.  They waltzed in with confidence, but then started to pull in the hoses.  (It is that moment you realize your house is either going to be eaten by fire or destroyed by water.)  They opened windows - giant plumes of smoke poured into the sky.  They pulled down their masks, faced the force with their bravery and washed out the fire.  They tossed charred blobs out the windows - the baby blanket my sister knitted for my daughter - now a burnt remnant, shoe pieces, salvages of a bureau, it stopped mattering.

My daughter’s room was gone.  The fire inspector told us that with two more minutes, we would have had a complete house fire, as it was already spreading into the framing.  When the firemen entered my daughter’s bedroom, the flames were lapping out of the walls and dense smoke packed the ceiling to a foot off the floor.  Smoke filled the entirety of our second story.  I was shaky with gratitude for our smoke alarms, the fire department, the timing of it all, the stoicism and coordination with which my partner and I handled such a crisis - hand in glove.  I was fragile in my awe. We easily could have died.

The fire inspector then began to disassemble the chimney pipe, searching for explanation.  22 nail holes.  22 nail holes in a segment of chimney pipe that should be unbreached. 22 nail holes that were then covered up so no inspector, no home owner could see. 22 nail holes that allowed oxygen in, driving up the heat of the pipe, which was surrounded by a collar that was directly affixed to bare wood. 22 nail holes.

The gratitude comes and goes. But mostly it’s a phase that lasts 48 hours. Then the sloppy, burnt bacon smell of one’s house and its contents begins to wear on the soul.  A hazmat team came to the home every day with deafening filters and fans,  we lived in a hotel at its most unbearable point.  My asthma kicked in,  I couldn’t stop coughing.  PTSD’s tentacles creep into the subconcious -  we all have trouble sleeping, the fish dies.  I who love fire feel too traumatized to rock the wood stove again.  It’s a process. 

Once the smell finally leaves my home, and once the insurance claim is all said and done, perhaps then I will return to the largeness and innocence of my gratitude. 

The Middle Lane

                                             The middle way, the middle eight, the middle of the road, middle-aged, stuck in the middle, the middle lane…an apt title for a mid-life gal like me.  Shall we not celebrate the mundane?  Should we not re-examine, reinvent the delicious full body text of our lives?  Let’s start by highlighting new words and terms, like blog, middle and gal… I can’t be afraid of this supposed black void life presents (a developmental stage with no road map or archetypal fairy tales to cling to,  just inevitable disappointment and opportunities to deepen one’s honesty or cynicism.)  I am too aware of the ironies and indignities with which I’m presented in my female 40’s.  What do I even call myself now?  - I like to bring the word “gal” back in to use, as “woman” connotes the serious.  “Girl” = diminishing, trite, suitable for ten year-olds. And “Lady”. Where do I start?  She is somewhere shopping for purses and panties, or perhaps stuck in her bustle in a Victorian salon.  “Gal” is the best our vernacular offers at present.  The feel of the word makes me smile when sung by my Kingston Trio-listening Dad, or our Greatest Generation members.  It just swings with some Doris Day enthusiasm and extra chromosomal intelligence.  I imagine Rosie the Riveter was a “gal”.  Gloria Steinem, too.  So let’s go.Two weeks ago, this gal awoke to screaming smoke alarms after midnight.  The first thing I did after stumbling out of bed, ears decibel-bleeding?  Bash at the smoke alarm.  But then I smelled smoke.  It emanated from my daughter’s bedroom.  (Of all places)  My extra chromosomal information kicked in as the ancient, wise, female body instructed my quickening mind.  I purposefully went downstairs to the wood stove, looked up at the chimney and viewed spectacular lapping flames licking the ceiling and floor to my daughter’s bedroom.  My mind exploding in fright, I called 411 to hear those five little bells. (#$@!!) I then reported our 911 situation to the fire department as my darling partner lept upstairs to carry out our daughter, who was terrified, in fetal position - partially asleep, partly in shock.  I was told to get out of the house, so I gathered my cat in a bag, my heart-of-life daughter and shuffled to the car.  I watched from the garage, through the windshield, as my partner stood on a chair heroically spraying all of our fire extinguisher contents at the red beast, which only grew.  We waited for the trucks.  We held our fear.