I just read one of those lists magazines and blogs and VH1 like to make. The list always makes it easier to contain stuff. Not make life and our troubles and even passions seem like a tidal wave drowning us.
But I read the article: 100 Greatest Singers of All Time in Rolling Stone
because I wanted to drown, no, swim in the joy of great singing. I wanted that feeling. That moving feeling of going someplace else altogether and being right HERE in my self. Finding my Self through the honesty. Safely held through the notes. But how to get that through words? I’m a comic and while it’s often said we all want to be singers, all we got are words. Where are the notes to hold us?
I was rewarded by some words in the very second piece. Billy Joel said this about Ray Charles, “When he sings, he’s not just singing soulfully. He is imparting his soul. You are hearing something deep within the man.”
I liked that bit so much I put the magazine from the coffee shop with me. I wanted to touch some of that.
It’s where I want to get. It’s what I’m working for. It’s what I love and admire in the performers who’ve inspired me.
Over and over in these pieces you hear the same things. Jackson Browne says John Lennon “always told the truth,” Bono says Dylan could “sing the most melancholy tunes and not succumb to sentimentality,” Booker T Jones says Otis Redding’s range was limited but it was “all intent….all emotion…[t]his guy is definitely not singing for the money.” These singers are “believed” and often more than that…felt. They make you feel.
They break down all that not wanting to feel people do. They give it company. And, I realized for the first time today, they don’t just comfort you by holding you, putting it out there just the way you feel it so you feel recognized. Seen. (“Yes, yes that’s it’s exactly Aretha. I’m feeling that thing.”) Nope, they are doing it with you, more than you. They are feeling that feeling 100% without some little string of irony holding them down to the ground and protecting them just in case someone might judge or criticize well, then they could always comfort themselves knowing they didn’t “really mean it.”
There’s no apology and irony in great singers. They’re not hiding behind the combover of snark. Any irony that comes only comes from the shame you feel about the world outside that’s making this piece of absolute truth washing over you the opposite of whatever we’re all forced to live with out there: a popular lie held in place by fear.
All comics want to be heard. All comics want laughter. But you can easily trade the latter for the former. And if they can’t see you. If the very reason you get on stage in the first place is that the genuine you is not seen, not reflected back, except in some deep song, well then you’re gonna get up there and make these people see you.
I learned so much playing with Margaret Cho not long ago. Because her heart is in it. “She’s not singing for the money.” She’s not hiding behind a wall of snark. She will take the room as far as they think their “edgy” asses will go, and then push them farther. And she’s got so much to go through to get the whole picture seen, to get all of her heard. And her fans love her that much more because she does that and she sees them. And she does it without notes to rest in.
Another comic performing that night who’s deservedly busting out, Ali Mafi
quietly asked her backstage about playing audiences who dropped their love as soon as he came out to them. This was no complaint, so a how to. Cho didn’t miss a beat, “You’ve got to be funnier. You’ve got to make them.”
There’s no apology or irony in great comics. And comedy right now is populated by the alterna white boy snark which is a post all in its own for another day. The laughs are there to be sure. But what about the soul? What are you imparting?
I’ve been thinking about Cho’s advice it ever since I heard it. More you. Less fear. The closet isn’t gonna help. It’s the laugh and that’s gonna come from the truth. The truth getting bigger, not smaller. The truth that everyone, not just you, can recognize. It can make the impossible happen. It can get people over themselves. Out of themselves. To wail like Mary J Blige, to not back away from the truth even though you’re speaking it in words, like Richard Pryor.
But the only way there is to do it as your Self. That’s the constant search. That’s my aim. It’s a high high aim. I’m sure I’m failing it all the time now. But I’m not gonna stop trying.