I believe I can fly
I believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day
Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar
I see me running through that open door
I believe I can fly
I believe I can fly
I believe I can fly
– Lyrics from “I Believe I Can Fly” by R Kelly
I must admit I’m not upset about saying goodbye to 2016. In fact, I’ve been feverishly organizing my calendar for 2017, trying to pack as many positive, aspirational personal self-care parties as I can in advance so that I’ll be prepared for some really great times and spectacular adventures. Unlike 2016 which seemed so much like loss and endings, I’m determined to make 2017 the year I dust off my dreams and get back in the saddle.
When I think about the New Year, I’m reminded of my childhood. Every year I would make a New Year’s resolution centered around my hopes for the future, how I was going to be successful and make my family proud. My parents weren’t the type to tell me I could do or be anything. They were more like, if you can’t do and be what you want, find the next best thing.
From an early age, I wanted to be an artist. I loved to draw, paint, write. My disposition was foreign to my analytical, practical parents. And while they didn’t necessarily discourage my potential, they would point out some outcome I hadn’t thought of. For example, in school I was considered a decent sketch artist and watercolorist. I dreamed of being a female Picasso or Matisse. My parents said, well your art is good but it looks like advertising. Fine art it isn’t.
Believing they knew best, I took my art to the streets and began creating posters for friends and painting storefronts for money. I designed board game packaging with gothic themes as templates for toy designers. My parents were totally down with that type of expression, especially if I was earning something. Little did we know in our tiny suburb that ad agencies in big cities pay lots of money for graphic artists. By the time I figured that out, I was on to my endeavor.
When I graduated from college the one talent I had been cultivating since I received my first piano at age 8 was music. I had taken lessons, learned to play by ear but because I’m essentially lazy at practicing, I never developed my skills beyond a rudimentary grasp of theory and chord structure. Instead, I used the piano as an emotional prop, composing songs and writing melodies. My adult dream was to sing and write songs professionally. I had been told I had a pretty enough voice but I had never tested it in public. I didn’t necessarily want to be famous, just flush. So I started vocal training with a series of coaches, trying to find my ‘voice’ in different techniques. In my spare time I studied music and songwriting. One night I jumped onstage at a local supper club and began singing with the jazz quartet. Surprisingly, the band invited me to come back and soon I had a regular weekend gig. Inspired, I began plotting my escape from suburbia into the music industry, while supplementing my income with random modeling gigs in San Francisco.
One afternoon I head into a gas station and an African American man in his 40s is pumping gas behind me. He tells me he’s a psychic and that I’m a singer. I say, “Hi”. We begin talking and he calls me out as an Aries (I am). Says there were lots of successful singers that are Aries. I tell him I’m going to model as I had an audition in a few weeks at the Ford Models black division in New York City. He gets really annoyed, goes to his car and pulls out an astrological calendar. On the March/April pages are listed the names of black women entertainers who are Aries: Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Chaka Khan, Mariah Carey, Billie Holiday. He tells me if I go to New York, I will never be famous. I need to go to Los Angeles.
At this point, I thought he was crazy but because it’s me and I’m forever intrigued by crazy people, I give him my number. Initially I thought he was hitting on me. Then I realized he really was hell bent on trying to influence me. For the next few weeks we would talk, sometimes at 3 a.m., arguing about my fate and astrology. At some point, he gave up and said, “I’m done with you. You’re stupid. Do what you’re going to do.”
I never heard from him again.
My parents, unsurprisingly, were not encouraging. “You should have started earlier (I was 23). Musicians starve”. My grandmother was a little more menacing: “Don’t let me see you singing on a street corner.” Because that was akin to prostitution.
Making It Happen
I never thought of the consequences of making it or not making it in the music business. I simply wanted to try. So I did. Once I returned from New York, I decided that although I loved the city, it was too harsh a climate and environment for me to thrive in. So I headed to Los Angeles and never looked back. Over the years, my progress was impeded by a lot of excuses and obstacles, a shortage of free time and money, general support, illness, proper playmates. But I managed to sing in sessions, films and commercials, front a band, get featured in Rollingstone and become a BMI and Grammy member. Perhaps that psychic was right and I should never made that detour. But what I did manage to accomplish was all as a hobby. Imagine if I had really tried.
I never stopped wanting to sing or earn money from my craft. But along the way, I began to notice that there was something rather sinister in the business that made me less and less enthusiastic about pursuing it full time. I knew going into it that many great artists die young, get taken advantage of. But as I began to work behind the scenes and behind the microphone, I started to see some serious tragedy: Artists who were illiterate, artists who were bipolar and suicidal. Major front people with not just the garden variety drug addiction but who also had phobias, who didn’t like to be touched. I met artists who could not count change and therefore had to pay a manager to buy things for them. Others couldn’t carry on a basic conversation that didn’t involve them or their needs. I didn’t meet anyone like me, from a relatively normal, middle-class, educated family. Instead, I witnessed a lot of lonely, desperate creative people who seemed to have it all but instead felt unloved and would do anything, including act out on stage, to get that feeling. The world witnesses these people crash and burn every day, often way too young. Yet in their art, they soared. Their gifts far transcended their flaws. Flying high on the wings of creativity, they are in the enviable position of, for the space of a concert, able to become who they’ve always wanted to be.
I Believe I Can Fly
There is a price for soaring. My father, a chemist, used to suggest to me when I was young and partying and eager to dive headlong into chaos, was that the nightlife has its own special siren song, playing to the emotional fibers of people who worship by the light of the moon. He would say, “Babe, entertainers stay out late, putting their body through a process that is unsustainable. The human body wasn’t meant to be nocturnal. These people burn out quickly because their bodies don’t get enough sunlight.” Based on his theory I would imagine a lot of artists who left us before their time in 2016 didn’t get enough sunlight.
I’m equally sure there are a number of happy, creative, successful people in the world, in all walks of life, who will lead long, balanced lives. As for my dreams in 2017: I have a few left in my pocket. I still believe I can fly and hope many others do as well. And if we find ourselves soaring into the stratosphere, let’s hope we get enough sunshine in the process.
To You and Yours, A Very Happy New Year!