In the beginning, there was Herman’s Hermits and “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.” I was five and sang it in an English accent.
Next came Beatles ’65, every tune at the top of my lungs, and a love letter to Ringo. Yes, Ringo. I was six. My thing for drummers started early.
Then there was my mother, who played the piano. She was no virtuoso but a great lover of music: jazz that swings, sophisticated pop, musical theater. Not any old musical. Just the good stuff. Ev believed in good art and bad art and she believed she knew the difference. In short: Andrew Lloyd Webber is a scourge, Sondheim is a deity. She liked Stevie Wonder and James Taylor and was fond of the Elton John song “Take Me to the Pilot,” which cracked me up. Ev wore her discriminating palette like a badge of honor and considered no artifact more emblematic of her exceptional taste than the Rodgers and Hart songbook that lived on the piano in our Los Angeles living room. “Have You Met Miss Jones?” and “Spring is Here” were her favorites. “Little Girl Blue” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” were my mine. In her third daugther, Ev found a domestic partner in song. A pint-sized tomboy of a partner, but when the two of us got going her fingers flew and I belted and crooned in ardent approximation of a grown-up. Sometimes Ev added a low harmony. We were a spirited, if modestly gifted, team.
Landing the lead in the Oakwood School’s production of “First Impressions,” an obscure musical version of “Pride and Prejudice,” wasn’t a function of talent so much as opportunity. With a student body of a couple hundred, competition for roles wasn’t fierce. Oakwood was an arty school with hippie roots and a lot of guitar players. It was the 1970s. We sang “American Pie” and “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number” and “Getting in Tune” and “So Far Away,” although Carole King songs were tricky because her kids went to Oakwood and god forbid someone was mangling “I Feel the Earth Move” in the courtyard on her carpool day. We sang at assembly, on the floor of the locker room, at the park down the street where we had P.E. unless there was a smog alert and we went ice skating. I became a pop music fanatic and was happily relegated to the community theater chorus, third from the right.
During my lost years (a few months in Paris, many more at the Pottery Barn) I fantasized about making a life in music. I really loved songs. My incredibly talented friend Paul and I made recordings of some of his originals. But I was an unremarkable singer, and for reasons that continue to baffle given that creative expression was valued in my world, it never occurred to me to write my own songs. So when the time came to choose a career I stayed as close to music as I could without actually making it. I worked as a critic for 25 years and sang my children to sleep. And that was that. Until it wasn’t.
Recently, I sent my sister a snippet of a song I’m working on. She was surprised by how different my voice sounds. It’s not that I sound older, although of course I am. I think it’s more that I never had a voice, not one of my own. Now that I’m writing songs I have to find one, and the one I’m finding surprises me, too. It’s plainer than it used to be. It’s not trying to be pretty. It’s screwing up its courage to be heard.