So there I was watching the Kennedy Center Honors. They did a tribute to George Lucas, then one to Seiji Ozawa and then Cecily Tyson. All the tributes were lovely. Then they did a tribute to Carole King.
This one was particularly affecting, because as part of the tribute, Aretha Franklin sang “Natural Woman,” and showed us all that her voice was still incredible, and she still was an amazing singer, even though everyone could see that she had aged considerably. She behaved grandly as she should, being The Queen of Soul, but her performance was also so beautiful that it made President and Mrs. Obama cry. I watched the two of them wiping their eyes. Aretha made Carole King cry and she was the one being honored.
It did not make me cry, but it did make me ache. The whole tribute to Carole King made me ache. Here were these people all honoring her, on television, in this grand hall in Washington DC, filled with prominent celebrities and politicians. Some of the performers were people I either knew or had met including King herself. (She probably doesn’t remember it, but I do. I was just the pianist in Odetta’s band on a small tour in 1971.) It made me reflect yet again on my incomplete, interesting and unsatisfying career as a singer, musician and songwriter.
Everyone has a scar or two in their heart for one reason or another. One of the most troublesome scars I have is the one created by my music career. I look back at it and to me it was something like eating Cheetos -- tasted great at the time but was air, no substance, and gave me heartburn later. My actual full-time performing career lasted fifteen years. During the latter seven of those years, I was married. My husband and I performed together, mainly in small clubs and colleges. Before I married, I had early, bright flashes in which things happened for me, but then time and non-existent luck, and some foolish decisions kind of made it all go away. For many years, I was the songwriter in New York whom lots of friends knew had not gotten a deal. Then I got one, and the record went nowhere and none followed. Bear in mind, I do not blame marriage for my professional shortcomings. My husband was and is totally supportive of nearly anything I have wanted to do. The only time we seriously and angrily quarreled was when I decided to quit performing full time and take what we called a “straight” job, meaning working regular hours in an office and making a regular paycheck. I made this decision and went to work. My husband and I adjusted to the change in dynamic, but it did cost me some of his respect and emotional support. He would argue no, but it really did. It took me years to understand that when I quit, I broke a portion of his heart.
Maybe I could have made a name for myself, as others now do so admirably, by marketing and merchandising my work myself, but in those days, the internet as we now know it did not exist, nor did portable digital workstations and all the other paraphernalia and systems that artists now take for granted and use to promulgate their art and promote themselves. Performing artists’ progress depended on numerous subjective decisions made by other people (which did not include the audience, a separate entity to have to win over). There were artist and repertoire people at record companies, publishers, managers, and booking agents, all of whom had to agree you were the greatest thing since sliced bread before you could ever expect to set foot on a concert stage or in a recording studio.
I have some of the present-day benefits now, including a small home studio. I do make and publish my own musical art, but the ambition I carried back then now is gone. I must confess I am relieved it no longer torments me. I no longer feel like somehow if I don’t have major success, I will metaphorically fall off the face of the earth and be gone forever. Instead, I just have this ache in my heart. It does not bother me any more all the time as it used to, but it will flare up every now and then when I see former colleagues, friends and acquaintances appearing in an honors program or themselves being honored. I knew some of these people and in the great race, they pulled ahead, but I never caught up.
I do understand that your lifetime is much bigger and more important than just being famous. Fortune and respect do not necessarily follow or hang around. I had friends who were famous and died young. If there is life after death, hopefully their good names left behind are comforting them now. Age has allowed me to lower my own expectations about posterity, so if I die tomorrow, I don’t worry about being forgotten as much as I used to. All I have to do is look up at the night sky to be reminded that I am an infinitesimal portion of the dot that is next to my hometown on my state’s road map.
Another thing I have come to believe is art does not live in everyone, although more people possess it than might know they do. If you have art, it is a divine gift, and you must allow it to live, even if your art’s expression is only to yourself. I must endeavor to spend what time I may have left (and I hope it will be many years, but I just can’t know) honoring this gift I have been given. I probably will not earn an actual living from any of it, and what art I make may not last after I am gone, but that is not material any more. I saved some paychecks up from all those years I worked the “straight” jobs. Now that I am retired from obligatory work, I can, I must, let these phantoms and sprites, tunes, words and pictures that all run around in my head come out into daylight at last and make themselves known and real.