In Memoriam: Whitney Houston

Hi, all–

I’ve been putting this one off, too, because, again, there are never just the right words when someone leaves this mortal coil.

I watched part of Whitney Houston’s funeral yesterday, which was live-streamed. I decided I appreciated that, and it was comforting, to hear all the music because that’s really how I’ll remember Whitney — through music, and through the legacy in it that she left.

Yes, I know. She battled many demons, just as so many of us do. She waged her battles in ways that weren’t always the best, and that may have ended up causing her more harm than the demons themselves, but that could be anybody’s story. Any one of us could have lived those aspects of her life, and many of us, I’m sure, have. Some of us beat our demons. Others come to an uneasy peace with them. And still others can’t do either.

The thing I will remember most about Whitney is the sheer, unadulterated, soaring beauty of her voice. Her three-octave range. The technical virtuosity of her sound, with the soulful gospel underpinnings. The exquisite clarity. A voice like that appears once a generation, if we’re lucky, and even when I was in high school and then college, I knew there was something special about Whitney Houston’s voice. Any time a Whitney song came on the radio throughout the 80s or 90s, you knew exactly who it was. Nobody else sounded like Whitney. Nobody else came close. Even now, listening to all the tributes to her through various media, you will not ever mistake Whitney Houston’s voice for anyone else’s.

We’ll never know what demons she battled. And in the end, it doesn’t matter, because she left a legacy through her voice, and through the smooth but somehow approachable elegance of the persona we were allowed to see in the initial years of her career. Whitney Houston’s voice and performances blazed a trail for voices behind hers, in women like Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, and Christina Aguilera, who unabashedly acknowledge it.

Houston was the first African American woman to receive heavy rotation on MTV, and every single one of her albums has diamond, multi-platinum, platinum, or gold certification. She is also the most awarded female musical artist in history, with over 400. The 1992 movie The Bodyguard introduced her as an actress, and she’d appear in a few other movies after that. Her performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Superbowl hit the top of the charts, a salve for a nation entering military action in the Gulf War. After 9/11, that 1991 version of the anthem again hit the top of the charts, as a nation struggled through the horrifying after-effects of the largest terrorist attack on US soil.

Understandably so. Her voice — THE Voice — could both uplift and soothe, provide succor and respite. That voice could also make you dance, smile, and just feel good about your day. Whitney Houston and her voice could make you feel all of these things. That was the magic of The Voice. That was the magic of Whitney Houston.


link, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (1987)


link, “Savin’ all My Love for You” (1985; sorry about the ad before the song)


link, “I’m Every Woman” (1992)

And the song I consider her signature tune (written by Dolly Parton), in terms of the pinnacle of her vocal athleticism and soulfulness (and one that now tears me up every time I hear it):


link, “I Will Always Love You” (1992)

In Memoriam: Etta James

I’ve put this post off for a couple of days because I just couldn’t find the words to express how I feel about the passing of an American legend.

Etta James died this past Friday. Her music has been part of my musical landscape for years. I can’t remember a day when I didn’t know who she was because my parents listened to her music, as well. I finally had the good fortune to catch her live in Nashville in 2007 or thereabouts, and she could still put on a heck of a show.

The quintessential scrappy bad girl, James crossed myriad musical genres. She could sing like a raunchy low-down blues empress one minute, then like an angel with a backing celestial chorus the next. Her personal life was filled with travails, and she did nearly destroy her voice through her addiction to heroine and then cocaine, but battled back so that by the late 1970s and early 1980s, she was opening for the Rolling Stones. She talked candidly about her addiction and rehab issues in her 1995 biography, Rage To Survive.

Etta James isn’t the kind of woman easy to talk about. Instead, you get a sense of who she was through the music she left us. She herself said that

“You can’t fake this music. You might be a great singer or a great musician but, in the need, that’s got nothing to do with it. It’s how you connect to the songs and to the history behind them.”

Indeed. I leave you now with a few of my favorites.

“The Sky Is Crying”


link

“Love and Happiness”


link

“The Wallflower” (Roll With Me Henry)


link

“At Last” (probably the best-known James song)


link

The loss of an icon: Barbara Grier

Hi, all–

I was sad to learn yesterday that Barbara Grier, a pioneer and architect in lesbian and feminist publishing and writing.

Victoria Brownworth at Lambda Literary provided this lovely piece about her. The Washington Post also had a good write-up in her obituary here. How far we have indeed come, that a woman who came of age during which “queer” was a dirty word and when LGBT people were routinely outed after bar raids in local papers and often lost their jobs, families, and friends, would be acknowledged like this in the Washington Post. And that was due, too, to the work that Grier did throughout her life.

For those of you who don’t know who she was, Grier was a founding partner of legendary lesbian/feminist press Naiad, which subsequently helped pave the way to the vibrant and expanding world of LGBT fiction and publishing. Many of us writing LGBT characters today and publishing books with those characters can thank Barbara Grier. Those of you who read in those genres, well, thank Barbara for helping with that.

More on my thoughts here.

Happy Saturday.

Journeys

Hi, all. I’ve had this topic on my mind for a while, not only because I’m a restless soul, but also because I lost my best buddy last week. Taylor was my doggie companion for 14 years, give or take, and a wiser spirit I don’t think I’ve met. She let me know it was time for her to go, and as painful as it was, I let her.

So I’ve spent the past few days thinking quite a bit about her and the silly things she used to do, and about trips we’ve taken all over the country, and time we’ve spent just watching moonrise in the evenings. I found her all those years ago sitting by a highway off the Zuni Reservation in New Mexico, on my way home to Albuquerque from a camping trip to Mt. Taylor (hence her name). I didn’t realize that when I stopped the car that day and coaxed her over, that it would be the start of another journey for both of us. Those of you who have animal companions in your lives, I’m sure, can understand what I’m talking about.

My friends all tell me that Taylor picked me and if that’s the case, then I am indeed fortunate, because I learned quite a bit from her about life, living, and finding moments in each day to treasure.

She taught me peace and patience — two things that I’ve had trouble finding, not realizing that these are things we all have within, and it’s just a matter of remembering where we put them.

She also taught me to take time for all of life’s nuances, including play time, rest, and work. Finding a balance is the key to living well. That’s something else I learned from her. And she would remind me when it was time to take a break from work and do some playing.

And when it was time to get some rest.

And when it was just time to be goofy.

She was with me at several important crossroads in my life, often proving to be a constant, and something that helped keep me grounded and forging ahead on whichever road we took. I wouldn’t be who I am today without having such a wonderful buddy along for the ride. I really miss her, but that’s the nature of some journeys. And that, too, she taught me.

Happy Día de los Muertos, and may the road rise to meet you in your own travels, wherever you go.