Aching For It All To Get Better: On Andrea Gibson, Mary Lambert, & Nicole Reynolds
Trigger warning: this post contains references (some brief, some not) to growing up gay in a homophobic world, living with mental illness, self-harm, and sexual assault. Readers are encouraged to put themselves before reading.
So the next time I tell you how easily I come out of my skin
don’t try to put me back in.
Just say, “Here we are” together at the window
aching for it to all get better
but knowing there is a chance
our hearts may have only just skinned their knees,
knowing there is a chance the worst day might still be coming
let me say right now for the record,
I’m still gonna be here
asking this world to dance,
even if it keeps stepping on my holy feet.
You, you stay here with me, okay?
You stay here with me.
Illinois, 1999. I can’t breathe unless I stay in bed and keep my eyes closed (please don’t make me), but they say it’s not that bad. At school, they show us pictures of car wrecks and I sway in my chair, dizzy and nauseous. And the man at the front of the auditorium — who speaks too loudly — says, “the kid comes running toward me, both wrists broken, looking like a fa– sorry — like someone sexually challenged” and he laughs when he says it because he’s not really sorry. Afterward we crowd around the teacher’s desk, my friends and me, outraged, (this cannot be ok). We crowd around her desk and she says, “you’ll have to learn to deal with people like him; you’ll deal with people like that all your life.” I can’t answer; I can’t talk unless it’s typing (please don’t make me); I can’t go to school (aren’t you feeling better?); I feel like I’m on fire from the inside out. And they tell me, these are the best years of your life, you’re fine, you’ll be just fine, it will get better.
And I hold my breath, stay home again. I write poems. I turn the music up.
It’s 2013 and I’m in a dark bar/ cafe, twenty-five feet from the stage. Mary Lambert’s sitting at a piano; I’m wedged between the bar and someone’s booth. A crowd of lesbians and queers surrounds me. Us. Mary Lambert says, “I’ve spent the past year traveling the country telling everyone how gay I am. And instead of getting murdered, we went double platinum.”
Everyone laughs and cheers. My girlfriend and I included.
I wonder, Does this mean it’s gotten better?
My girlfriend, Melissa, and I lean together, surrounded by the standing-room only crowd, listening. Mary Lambert sits at the piano. Her red hair and piano spark easy memories of Tori Amos, the constant companion of my adolescence. Like Tori, she sings about heartbreak and abuse and not knowing how to survive your own crazy brain. I hear my own teen years in between the chords, and I wonder — what would it have been like to have music like this at thirteen, fifteen, nineteen?
Maybe I did.
I remember Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, the raw dark ballads that I held like ski poles as I slalomed through my own development. How different would it have been, to have songs like these? Maybe not that different. Maybe I already had them.
Mary Lambert sings about being gay, talks about being gay, writes about it. She uses female pronouns when she sings love songs. I listen and remember the first time t.A.T.u. came on our car radio, in Southern Illinois in 2002. I remember freezing in the passenger seat of my dad’s Saturn, remember how my breath caught in my throat, remember thinking, I can’t be hearing this right. I remember how my ears perked, even though I wasn’t out yet, wasn’t even questioning.
Not then. Later. Later I would question and later I would joke, tell people, my music collection knew I was gay before I did. And it’d be a stretch, maybe, but only a slight one. Unlike “this music is one reason I survived” which would be, if anything, an understatement.
I listen to Mary and remember the way my breath caught, listening to t.A.T.u., before those girls were the props of a straight porn director, when they were still — as far as I could tell — just like Mary at her piano: two girls singing love songs about girls.
I listen and feel the folks around me, and I remember my first concert — my first real concert — years ago: Ani DiFranco. (Of course). The concert just before I dyed my hair blue, before I’d (quite) come out. I remember the venue — the Pageant in St. Louis — and how in an hour, every lesbian in the city seemed to pour inside of it. An impossible number of us, present and accounted for. Spread across the city, we diluted; that night, concentrated that way, we were a massive force. That night, my parents sat five feet behind me, and I stood in the dancing crowd and let the music use me, like a metronome, to hold the beat.
The next day I went home and did what half-crazy introspective teen queers do: I wrote a slam poem to remember it. That night. That night I didn’t just see Ani DiFranco, I became her. There was some sort of cord between us, invisible but solid. When she looked into the crowd, her eyes rested on me, impossible but true, and yes, those were my callused fingers flying against the guitar strings; those were my vocal cords, vibrating in that throat.
Years later, I would say music gave me a language when I didn’t know how to speak for myself. There’s a Dar Williams lyric, I would say, she gave me the language that keeps me alive. There’s a Winter Machine lyric, I’d say, learn to use the voice that gets you through this life the best. When I had no words of my own, I had lyrics. I would try to explain. How that became mine, somehow. How the poetry of Tori Amos was the best translation I had for the fog in my own head.
Years later, I would see Ani again, in Santa Cruz. She’d be older, singing new songs about marriage and motherhood. I’d stand again in the thick of the crowd, and all around me, couples – lesbian couples – would dance, twirl their kids around, stack them on their shoulders for a better view. We’d revisit “Shameless” with another generation, the music of our youth transforming into music we passed onto them. I’d look at those families and, for the first time, imagine a future for myself that included this. Crowded kitchens, dinner tables. Family.
I once touched a tree with charred limbs
The stump was still breathing
But the tops were just ashy remains
I wonder what it’s like to come back from that
Sometimes I feel a forest fire erupting from my wrists
And the smoke signals sent out are the most beautiful things
I’ve ever seen
Love your body the way your mother loved your baby feet
And brother, arm wrapping shoulders, and remember
This is important
You are worth more
The night I see Mary Lambert, I’ve been out nearly 10 years. She’s opening for a queer singer-songwriter I’ve never heard of, who walks on-stage, all sweet butch babydyke. Nicole Reynolds. I see her and I think how, lately, I haven’t found any new queer artists to love. I’m still playing the same Melissa Ferrick albums I was in 2003; I could use some new material. I flash on that cord between me and Ani DiFranco, at that performance years ago. I catch my breath and wait for Nicole to blow me away.
Before her first song she tells a story. Says she saw a mother beating her kid in Walgreens that morning and she told the mom her kid’s will grow up to hate her. She says she does this now, when she sees kids with psycho parents, because she had a psycho parent and no one ever said a thing. Then she tells a story about abuse. It’s not the first story of abuse that’s told on stage that night. It’s not the last. I think how common this is, at events tied – by any thread – to the spoken-word world. How rare in general. The vulnerability is shocking, simultaneously impressive and uncomfortable. Nicole begins to sing.
Nicole Reynolds speaks like a child and writes like a crone. Her lyrics are layered, intricate, and heartbreaking. I think how much I would have loved this set as a teenager. How desperately I needed music just like this.
As a teenager. Which is to say … what, exactly? What is it I need now?
I listen and, gradually, I realize that I feel older than this woman. Protective. Her songs sound like my memories. They have no sense of current journals. She’s at the microphone and I’m in the crowd and her voice is vital but it’s not my voice.
And I wonder if that means it’s gotten better.
believe what you feel and question what they say
everyone’s really just guessing anyway
i thought that you should know this
[…] i love who i love who i love like the ocean
The finale: Andrea Gibson, slam poet laureate of the queers, takes the stage to thunderous applause. She has the hair of Tegan or Sara, the weathered look of Melissa Ferrick, the style of Joan Jett. She refers to the past few months as the ‘fuck shame’ tour and she performs accordingly, spinning lyrics about white privilege and queer love, heartbreak and hate crimes, murder and survival.
I think about the first time I saw spoken-word. I was a middle-schooler, watching PBS in our basement. Arthur had given way to the News Hour and I hadn’t changed the channel. Likely, I was multitasking – doing homework during the commercials. The segment was short – fifteen minutes in my imagination, three — maybe — in reality. It was a report on the national slam championships, featuring a few excerpts from winning poems, including one by a 10-year-old boy. I listened to the roar of that kid’s voice, buzzing like its own applause, and the electricity powered me onto my feet; I flew up the stairs. This, I told my mom. This is what I want to do.
I started writing spoken-word immediately afterward, and I never attended a slam without that same feeling buzzing through me, the quickening heartbeat, the sense that I had to write, had to, now, now, go. Now, Andrea Gibson is performing, and the words are flying out of her mouth faster than I can run up stairs. And before she finishes, she performs the poem that has (I suddenly remember) become something more, some sort of mini-movement. I think, not for the first time, of the friend who first shared it with me, still so young and raw, still fighting so hard to survive on so little. And this poem, this last poem sounds like a love letter to her, to all of us in our worst moments. A promise to somehow live through what is unlivable, and a plea to do the same: you, you – stay here with me. Chills curl across me. A gratitude stretches deep as the pit in my stomach. I listen. I remember. I think these words are beautiful, and I think, what a thing, to have more than this, to survive on.
Not for the first time, I think that it getting better is a matter of us getting away. That there’s a direct correlation between our autonomy and our survival. It gets better if and when we’re able to get the fuck out of dodge, to find these bars and cafes where girls with asymmetrical haircuts make out with girls in suspenders. It gets better every time we have the means to drive three hours across rural highways — fiending for street lights, wincing at Cuccinelli bumper stickers — to find that café tucked into a strip mall, where voices like this are heard. It gets better when and only when, we have places like this, where people like us can listen to artists like us speak and sing about living with the crazy, with the body, with the bullshit, and the desire.
In 2013, I stand in the Jammin’ Java in Northern Virginia, listening. My girlfriend kisses me, repeatedly, in public, and I wrap my arm around her waist. I rest my head on her chest, and don’t pull away. Don’t pull away. Don’t worry who will follow us to the car.
Mary Lambert sits at a piano and sings a cover of a Wheatus song that was popular when I was a teenager. She says, “When this came out, I thought it was a lesbian love song.” I think of “All The Things She Said.” She says, “Turns out it was just a guy with a really high voice.” But — nested in her breath — it becomes what she knew it as, originally. A lesbian love song. Haunting.
In 2013, it gets better and worse and better and worse, and for some more than others, and for some at others’ expense. I stand in a café and bar listening to queer lyrics, again, again, now, and I wonder, is this how it felt at Stonewall? I don’t think it’s gotten better; I think, this – here — has always been. There has always been this space, carved out, secret, after dark. Heavy with all we bring into it and light with all we let down.
There has always been this space. Here. Here, where it never had to get better. Which – sometimes, when we’re lucky – allows us to survive the rest of it.