Part One (Detroit, Michigan)
The first I remember truly actually singing is in church. We went to St. Vincent's, Catholic, it couldn't've been more white, but there was soul. It moved through me, a toddler in her mother's lap. "Gloria in excelsis Deo", a Christian hymn, the long ribbon of it coming out my throat, hitting all the notes. They put me in the choir and said a lot of formal things I didn't care about: my range (3 octaves), my pitch (perfect), an alto soprano, a gift from God. There was love in my heart, I sang it, why hesitate, at that age who knows a damn thing about dynamics? You either loved me or hated me. I was unashamed.
listen: In Excelsis Deo
Those hymns and gospel spirituals, and then the popular music my mother loved, which seemed to begin with Christmas songs. There was something about winter in Michigan that brought singing out; in the Oldsmobile and then the Nova, driving around to just feel something of adventure, she was either smoking or singing. Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney. "The Christmas Song" was maybe the first song that really made me cry. I loved it. I wanted to live there.
listen: The Christmas Song
My mother had lp's and a stereo in the living room with very humble furniture, a worn green carpet, a few lamps, lots of books, newspapers, encyclopedias. At about 3 or 4 (so tiny!), I fell deeply in love with vinyl, as an object - first I would stare at the album cover, inside and out. Then I'd take the lp out of its sleeve, stare into it deeply and fall into a trance. This could go on for hours. It was then that I became obsessed with the "Thoroughly Modern Millie" soundtrack, the paper sleeve, the art work, pen and ink drawings, the music - specifically the title song. There just weren't enough hours in the day! It was a wonderful place. Also, the encylopedias.
AM radio in Detroit was powerful stuff, and it was everywhere. Baseball games, morning shows, the music coming out at you, Motown. I can't put a finger on when I first heard those voices and songs, they were just always there. Stevie Wonder, the Miracles with Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, the Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Spinners, Isley Brothers, Edwin Starr, David Ruffins - it just goes on and on. That music is so embedded in my psyche it's dna. I hear the opening notes of any one of those gems and I'm time traveled back to my childhood, everything felt. It's a pre-verbal knowledge. Blindfolded, you could find your way.
listen: You Really Got A Hold On Me
My mom thought it was important for us to witness the '68 riots. Or she was compelled to get out into it and couldn't leave us at home alone. Either way, there we were, while something tremendous was rolling, I could smell and feel it. I was in kindergarten. At this point, we were living in one of the first suburbs of Detroit skirting the northern edge of the city, straddling the racist white-flighters and the poorer communities living on the outer edges. For us, in one direction it was safe (toward the city/family/poor people), and in the other it wasn't (toward the developing suburbs/rich people). She loaded us into the car and drove right downtown. My grandparents still lived there, she had friends there, she was in love with Detroit, it was home. Earlier than I can remember singing, I knew Detroit. But it felt different - a gigantic energy surged around us, it felt like drifting away on one of my night visions; I wasn't afraid, I was lucid dreaming. Our car overheated and a big black man helped her put water in the radiator with a hose. There was my mom, leaning against the hood smoking, people talking to each other, voices joined together, chanting, singing, humming, hugging, searching the horizon for what. Maybe we were in her childhood neighborhood, maybe we were just on a street she knew. I can't place it on a map but I can place it in my body - right here, the heart. I was so young, it was so visceral, and the songs I heard were Motown, which felt like protest songs, spirituals, gospel, pure Detroit. Those visions stay, and that singing carried me away.
listen: Precious Lord Take My Hand
In third grade, I started acting in school plays and in sixth grade, I got the lead in an operetta being staged at my elementary school. Pretty sophisticated stuff, which is why my mom moved out of Detroit in the first place: to get us just over the school district line so we could go to Oakland County public schools. The arts programs couldn't be beat. Having already gotten a great buzz from making people laugh from the stage, it was during this production that I realized I had the power to make people cry - finally realizing my Nat King Cole dreams. It wasn't that I wanted to hurt them, it was that I felt a large inherent sadness in the world that I wanted to give voice to. I've searched for the lullaby that did it and alas, it's slipped into the ether. The lyrics, "Go to sleep my baby dear, go to sleep and do not fear, little fingers little toes, like petals of a rose." A woman in the front row was sobbing. I never felt more alive.
Sometime around then, I adopted my sister's ignored records, saving them from a slow death in the basement - lp's and 45's, paper sleeves, all that art. The record player moved into our shared bedroom, cloth-covered speakers moored to it with tangled wires. Pennies, then nickels, taped to the needle arm, to keep it from skipping. Grooves! I had to chase them.
listen: As Tears Go By
"December's Children", The Rolling Stones. I'd play the side with "As Tears Go By" with Marianne Faithful singing, for hours. "It is the evening of the day, I sit and watch the children play, smiling faces I can see, but not for me, I sit and watch as tears go by." Leaning on the windowsill, staring out at the big trees. Yep, that was me - that was really just me.
listen: I Think We're Alone Now
Hairbrush singing 45's: Stevie "Signed, Sealed, Delivered"; The Miracles "You Really Got A Hold On Me"; Tommy James and the Shondells "Crimson and Clover", "I Think We're Alone Now"; Aretha's "Dr Feelgood"; The Beach Boys "Wouldn't It Be Nice?"; Bee Gees "To Love Somebody"; The Rolling Stones, tip to toe. Were there no Beatles? The Beatles were everywhere but I don't remember singing them in the mirror.
listen: To Love Somebody
Now I'm hitting 12, 13. Was I still singing in the church choir? I quit when things started going off the rails at home, just before my mom started beating and torturing me, before I was driven into homelessness and got raped. Music has always been the spiritual tradition that's kept me alive, I didn't know it til I almost died.