Memorial Day, and the masculine smell of barbeque wafts through the air. A cool sunny Oakland afternoon on which, as usual, I’m a contrarian — here with only my cat, working.
But I’m satisfied. I had some fun and healing yesterday in Sacramento with a friend who’s known me since our first year of college. The kind of friend who’s seen me up, down, and in between, who knows my parents and who’s seen a husband and boyfriends come and go. Who loves me no matter what. We talked, laughed, almost cried, walked, threw the ball for the dog, hot-tubbed, and then ate barbecued steak, salad, artichokes, and a few cherries with her sweet husband.
Yesterday started out differently. Driving up Highway 80 to Sacramento as a night person barely awake, it took all I had in the bright 11 a.m. sunlight to forge ahead through the green-brown-billboard-filled landscape, holding my own amid the jostling aggressive SUVs.
I was listening to a 1995 Decca reissue of some of Carmen McRae’s songs. She has influenced me tremendously. Dan Morgenstern writes in the liner notes, “No jazz singer has paid more attention to words than Carmen McRae, and she bluntly stated that ‘lyrics are more important than melody to me.’… in a very real sense, she was a singing actress.”
Compounding the morning’s incongruity was Carmen’s 1955 take on “Good Morning, Heartache,” which seemed to resonate the darkness of evening. But as I listened, I realized how fitting it was – it’s about the strangeness of finding the night’s sorrow still there in the morning.
Of course, Billie owns the tune. I haven’t heard her sing it in awhile, but in my mind’s ear Billie’s voice on it is searing, plaintive, her tone as raw as a fresh wound. Carmen is more nuanced. She expresses pain, but she has some distance from it. She takes stock of her situation, she bargains. Even when she pleads, “Stop haunting me now,” her voice, with more bottom than Billie’s, radiates self-possession. Then she gives the slightest of laughs — ironic and intimate — when finally inviting heartache to sit down. Billie is tragic, whereas, as Dan Morgenstern writes, “Unlike Billie, Carmen is not resigned to fate.”
Carmen descended musically from Billie, and she always paid her homage. We descend from each other in music as well as life.
And so as I drove up Highway 80 with the morning holiday road warriors, I was not only taking notes as a singer, I was also comforted as a person, a woman. I thought, so I’m not alone in my incongruous gloom. So heartache does linger for you too, day after day. It’s not a flaw or a sin. Sometimes it’s a condition of life. You too are obsessive, disappointed, unable to forget. Well, we make music out of this, don’t we — and the song is our memorial day.
Oh, and despite Carmen’s assertion about lyrics being more important than melody to her, she ends the song on a gorgeous note — a major 7 against a dominant chord (in which the 7 is flatted by the musicians), it sounds like to me. It has a haunting feel, a dissonance that doesn’t quite align with what the musicians are playing — her very own note, evoking her solitary condition, in the end.
Fittingly, I’m still plowing ahead — plowing through the many tasks related to setting up the release of “The Poetry of Groove” on August 1. In the past week, I’ve made great strides in putting together my promo team for print, radio, gigs, and more (a leading-edge Lisa B iPhone app is even on the horizon!). After months of work on the music and its package, it’s been exciting to talk with some great folks in the music business who dig what I’ve done and have creative, enthusiastic ideas about how to get it out there. (Keyed-up sigh of relief.)
Now it dawns on me that my new title track starts with a spoken lyric of heartache (“I walked down the street,/I was one into two./I split like a faultline, I split into you./My mind closed in/like a girl in the dark/and my legs sliced the sky/while you chewed on my heart”). But it moves through it (“I remembered how to swim/up through the dark water,/rise to the light/where the sun burns hotter…), and finally finds the poetry of my own groove, singing to the listener about how s/he can do the same.
So in my negotiation with heartache, I descend from Billie and Carmen, extending their legacies into modern territory. I’m deeply comforted to know it as I drive ahead. I may be steering the car alone for stretches, but I carry their wisdom beside me in the front seat.
copyright 2009 Lisa Bernstein