excerpt from Dancing About Architecture
The five of us – me and my wife G, Eric and his wife-to-be Susan, and our friend Russell – made our way across the parking lot and joined the crowd that was forming outside the Universal Amphitheater. I had long ago given up going to see big venue music concerts – about the time I saw Peter Gabriel’s Security tour in Chicago in 1982 and paid a gob of money to sit a mile from the stage and listen to some drunk fan sing Shock the Monkey really badly – but this was a special occasion. T-shirt vendors had set up booths near the entrance and people were lining up to buy souvenir programs, but none of that interested us. We came because we just wanted to hear kd lang sing.
I was first turned onto kd lang while living in Brooklyn. (And for the record, it is kd, not KD, just like old man ee, although I’m not sure if it’s for the same reason.) An acquaintance of mine played some of Shadowland for me, and I was immediately smitten. This was not long after I had finally given up my knee-jerk reaction to country music as a result of listening to Patsy Cline. So it’s no surprise that Shadowland caught my ear, as it was produced by Owen Bradley, the producer largely responsible for the groundbreaking sound of Patsy Cline. Owen Bradley dusted off country music and smoothed its rough edges – gave it a new suit and invited it into the concert hall. Although many purists regarded his arrangements as blasphemous, the lush strings and tinkling pianos he added to county music helped it gain a wider audience and, ultimately, helped make it the most popular form of music in America. Of course, it wasn’t all Owen – Patsy certainly had something to do with it – but he established the “countrypolitan” sound and it’s for that reason that kd sought him out.
kd lang didn’t win many fans with her early claim that she was Patsy Cline reincarnated. Patsy was, after all, one of the saints of country music, preserved forever by dying young, and it was one thing to say that you were inspired by her, but quite another to say you were her. But if anybody could pull of that assertion, it was kd lang, who possesses one of the most glorious voices I’ve ever heard. I rushed out and bought Shadowland and its follow-up, the wonderful Absolute Torch and Twang, shortly before leaving Brooklyn.
If I was smitten with kd lang, my wife-to-be G was swept off her feet and thrown on the back of a wild stallion and dragged away across the countryside, never to be seen again. G has always had a fondness for altos, the dusky female voice lights fires in her soul, but kd took the cake, and G was positively mesmerized. It’s easy to understand, really. Her voice is as strong as steel and as smooth as mayonnaise. She’s got perfect control and perfect pitch, but she doesn’t sound like the sanitized clinically perfect classically trained voices that I hate. At the bottom of her astonishing technique is an undeniable well of human emotion, and it’s this potent combination that makes her such a powerful singer.
After Absolute Torch and Twang, kd would change directions to reach a larger audience – much like Eurythmics did after 1984. But where the Eurythmics were leaving behind their new-wave synth pop roots to graze larger, greener pastures, kd turned away from the music that nurtured her as a youth and that her core audience loved her for, country music. It’s a risky move, trying to broaden your horizons at the possible expensive of your fans, but it’s what drives the creative process, and many artists would rather starve following their muse than be locked in a gilded cage, bitterly singing the same song over and over again.
kd lang’s next album was released shortly after we moved to LA. It was a difficult time for us. Neither of us had jobs, what little money we had saved and had received as moving presents was quickly disappearing and there was nothing to take its place. I had proposed to G during our move, in a motel room in Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska (I’m quite the romantic), and now here we were, betrothed and broke, trying to get a toehold in LA.
That we moved to LA at all was entirely my fault. G was happy as could be in NYC, and her career was well on its way. I, however, was floundering badly. I couldn’t find any work at all in my chosen field – film and television – and grew increasingly depressed watching my life drip by while I prostituted myself as an office temp, making bad money to wear ill-fitting suits to work with people I didn’t respect in companies I couldn’t stand. Something had to change and as my friends started abandoning one coast for the other, I decided to go west while I was still a young man.
We were both old enough and had been through enough new situations to know that moving to LA was going to suck for a while, but it didn’t soften the blow. It still sucked. We moved during what the rest of the country considered fall, but what is known in LA as Santa Ana season. That’s when, for a few weeks, the winds change direction and instead of blowing in from the west, over the inviting, cool, humid Pacific, they blow in from the east, over the unforgiving, hot, arid desert. Thermometers scream red and the air is so hot and dry that it cracks your skin and toasts your sinuses. LA is not a particularly pretty city – especially in Hollywood, where we found our first apartment – and the scorching sun and thick layer of smog that accompanies the Santa Anas did nothing to improve matters.
Fortunately, we did have a lot of friends who had also just moved to LA and were also struggling to find some niche, so we were able to take comfort and solace in them. Plus, since we were all broke, we were able to hang out with each other and share meals and movies and lots of other cheap thrills. But the cheapest thrill of all was sex and, as it was sort of pre-honeymoon, G and I took full advantage of that. Too poor to eat out or go to concerts or even drive anywhere interesting, we found ourselves tumbling into bed after frustrating days of fruitless job searches and taking free comfort in each other’s arms. They were bad days, but the nights were pretty good.
Eventually, thanks to the aforementioned Russell, I did manage to get a job as an apprentice film editor for a company that makes straight-to-video “horror” films (horribly written, horribly directed and horribly acted – but well edited). It was a time-honored method for breaking into a business that everybody wanted to do, and there was some satisfaction that I was actually learning the trade I wanted to pursue, but I wasn’t actually getting paid for it, so it didn’t help our financial matters much. It was at this job that I first learned to love KCRW, as the first assistant listened to it all day, every day. Chris Douridas, the morning DJ, started playing a few cuts from kd lang’s upcoming album, Ingénue, and I already knew I was going to get it before I heard it, but hearing it made me want it even more. It had a different sound, something more polished and urban and sophisticated, and I went to Aron’s records the day it was released to by a copy for my beloved.
Except I couldn’t find it. It wasn’t on the wall that featured new releases and it wasn’t in the L bins – in fact, there wasn’t any kd lang in the L’s at all. Then I thought to look in the back of the store, in the country music ghetto, and I found it. It was a common problem at the time, kd had started off as a country singer and that’s what a lot of people knew her as, but this new album marched off into different territory, something less easily pigeonholed, and a lot of people didn’t know what to make of it. I snapped up a copy of Ingénue and rushed back home to wait for G’s arrival.
She had gotten a job working at a children’s center serving one of the worst areas of downtown LA, a place that was too scary for most people to drive through, let alone actually get out of the car and walk around in. It was a hard job, and she’d come home tired and depressed, trying to help care for people that society has largely abandoned and, though she knew she was doing good, she certainly wasn’t doing well, and it took a lot out of her. When I saw her climb the steps that led up from the courtyard of our building to our apartment, I slipped the CD in the player, and pressed play.
She opened the door, brow furrowed and bone weary, and plopped down next to me on the couch. She sighed and closed her eyes, happy to be at what passed for our home. I didn’t say anything. After a moment, she opened her eyes and looked around, listening intently. She glanced at me quizzically, and I produced the CD case. She grinned, gave me a kiss, and settled back into the couch to soak it all in.
G had been a fan of kd’s from the time she first heard Shadowland, but this new album was something else entirely, and its seductive siren song pulled G deep into the dark, soothing waters. And truly, Ingénue is a wonder to behold. Perfect, timeless pop songs in the tradition of the best popular songwriters (think ’40s instead of ’80s), impeccably arranged and gorgeously sung with supreme grace and confidence. Deeply personal, yet universally accessible, Ingénue marked a quantum leap for kd as an artist, and signaled her maturing style. We must’ve listened to that album a hundred times that first week, and when tickets for her concert went on sale, we eagerly sought them out, breaking open the piggy bank.
As we worked our way to our seats, I noticed an interesting mix in the crowd. The confusion that her genre hopping had induced at Aron’s was in evidence in the crowd who had come to see her sing. Half the audience was dyed-in-the-wool country fans from Orange County, kd’s first fans. There was big hair and bad clothes and lots of people in their ’50s, people who remembered Patsy and wanted to see and hear her sing again. Then there was another strong faction.
Rumors had been running rampant that kd lang was a lesbian, which the lesbian community took to heart. They quickly claimed her as one of their own and came out in strong numbers to support her. In fact, with her beautiful voice and boyish looks, she quickly became the equivalent of a lesbian teen-idol, and nervous tattooed and pierced lesbians could be seen wringing their hands and hyperventilating in anticipation. It made for very strange bedfellows, this ultra-conservative older crowd from Orange County and this radical lesbian crowd from West Hollywood, and I can’t imagine any other single performer able to bridge that chasm. Enjoying the pre-show show, we settled into our seats and eagerly awaited kd’s arrival.
When kd hit the stage, the crowd went berserk. Grown women were screaming and crying. G had warned me that the one person she might leave me for was kd lang, and I could see her watching kd’s smooth movements and powerful presence with hungry eyes. At one point, early in the show, some nervous young fan approached the edge of the stage with a large bouquet of flowers and, trembling, held them up to her idol. kd came to the edge of the stage and kneeled down, graciously accepting the flowers. Then she looked into her star-struck fan’s eyes and said, “for the rest of the night, I’m singing all of my songs to you and only you”. The audience roared with approval and the young woman flushed and ran in tears back to her seat.
The concert was phenomenal. kd’s voice was frighteningly good – solid and strong and smooth and stunningly beautiful. I have never heard a voice like that anywhere in my life and it made the hair on my arms stand up.
She sang most of the songs from Ingénue and a sprinkling of material from her older albums, including a song from her extremely rare first album, issued only in Canada, from whence she came. For the most part, she stayed faithful to the arrangements on her albums, with one notable exception. The song Big-Boned Gal from Absolute Torch and Twang was a pretty straightforward country song on the album – a high-energy square-dancey sort of tune. But for the performance, she and her band rearranged the track into a fantastic Indian dance fantasy – like the soundtrack for some frenzied film from Bollywood. It was an astonishingly unexpected musical transformation, and was the musical highlight of the show for me.
kd certainly had heard the rumors about her sexual orientation, and she played it up that night, to the obvious delight of her fans – or half of them, anyway. At one point, she came down to the edge of the stage and addressed the audience. “You know, there’s been a lot of talk about me and my personal life and what I like. And I want to set the record straight. I’m here at home in LA and I feel comfortable and so it’s time to drop pretenses and come out with the truth.” You could hear an excited murmur spreading throughout the audience. “And the truth of the matter is that I am a…” and here she started drawing out a long “L” sound, while the crowd simmered, “L-L-L-Lawrence Welk fan!” The band kicked into a wunnerful wunnerful arrangement of Miss Chatelaine as the stage exploded in bubbles and the crowd went berserk.
But her crowning achievement came during the final encore. Her perfect voice and magnetic charm had completely captivated the audience and we all jumped up and yelled and screamed for her to keep singing. After a couple of encores, she quieted everybody down, and then the band started playing the stately opening chords of Roy Orbison’s classic barn burner, Crying. We obediently shut up and sat down. Her glorious voice, which had mesmerized us all evening, took on a new depth and power as she worked her way through the well-known chestnut. Roy Orbison was famous for his melodramatic musical histrionics, and Crying is one of his most outlandish tunes, building up to an unbelievable emotional crescendo (I think part of the reason he is popular among teenagers is because his musical excesses match an adolescent’s emotional ones). Knowing the song as well as I do – as well as most of the people in the audience did – I sat and waited for her to climb the crescendos at the end. Her voice was literally unbelievable, it seemed impossible that such a sound could come out of a mortal, and I understood the oft-repeated notion that all instruments aspire to the quality of the human voice.
kd started her approach to the end of the song – started climbing the staircase to heaven – and I could feel shivers crackling up and down my spine. I turned to G and saw her completely lost in rapture, her whole body shaking. Next to her, a classic “diesel dyke” in a flannel work shirt and the kind of boots my friend Mel used to call shit kickers was sobbing uncontrollably, tears pouring down her face. kd hit those last stratospheric notes and it felt like the top of my head had blown off. The lights went out and the audience roared. Before we were cheering because we hoped she’d sing some more, but this time we knew that was it, there could be no more. What else was there to say? So after paying our tribute, we all walked out of the auditorium in a daze, speechless at having our souls opened and filled with light and love and the beautiful voice of kd lang.
After Ingénue, there was really nowhere to go but down. kd lang officially came out of the closet and became a pin-up for lesbians – in some of the same ways that Morrisey had been for gay men. She continued following the path of classic popular music on her subsequent albums and was tapped to provide the soundtrack to Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. She and her long-time musical partner Ben Mink broke up, which harmed her music as far as I’m concerned, and, like Annie Lennox and countless other divas before them, she recorded an album of her versions of pop standards, although, again, she chose her pop standards with her own generation in mind, reinterpreting the likes of Steve Miller and T-Bone Burnett. The power and polish of her voice is as strong as it ever was, but there’s something missing for me, something in the material, something in the production, something lost in the transition from relatively unknown, genre-busting maverick coming into her own to certified, official pop icon. She’s still a phenomenal artist, but the blush of discovery is off, the innocence has been lost, and kd is an ingénue no more.
The other day, G finished a huge chunk of work and was rewarded by reaching her vacation. We decided to celebrate by going to her favorite restaurant, LA’s best Indian kitchen, Bombay Café. Years before, we had had our best celebrity sighting there when we were seated next to Harrison Ford while taking my folks out to dinner (they were quite impressed). On the way to G’s celebratory dinner, we started talking about kd lang and I mentioned that she had a new live CD out and should I buy it for her? She shook her head reluctantly, expressing regrets at the different paths she and kd had taken on recent albums. We got to the restaurant and G and Owen, our son, and I took our seats, ordered, and nibbled on appetizers. I glanced up while G was talking and was stunned to see kd lang sit down at the next table, directly behind G. As nonchalantly as possible, I encouraged G to turn around. She casually turned around and then whipped her head back, meeting my gaze with giant saucer eyes. She begged me to trade seats with her and then nervously fretted the whole meal away, wondering what she should do. Towards the end of our meal, I took Owen outside because he was fussing and I encouraged G to carpe diem. She gathered her nerve and quietly interrupted kd’s dinner. Her idol turned warily towards her. G quickly and nervously told her how much her music had meant to her over the years. kd burst into a huge grin and thanked her, and G quickly ran out of the restaurant before she embarrassed herself, annoyed kd, or passed out from sheer bliss. I asked her if she wanted me to pick up her new album now. “No,” she smiled, “I’ve got everything I’ve ever wanted from her already.”