A FEW MINUTES WITH… Melissa Etheridge
Interview and story by Don Wilcock
Drawing by Charles H. Haymes
Ya gotta love Melissa Etheridge’s Attitude with a capital A. At 54 and on a solo tour that brings her to Albany’s The Egg on Saturday (October 3), she’s gone indie with This Is M.E., an album that pushes the passion button like a teenager in June at midnight. On “All The Way Home” she sings about “shooting down the road” at 70MPH to get home to her lover: “I got lightning in my eyes and a fire down below/an aching in my thighs that I can’t control/And if I push this any harder/I’m gonna run right off the road.” This from a lesbian breast cancer survivor with four kids. She ends the hard rocker with: “When I break down the door/You know your hip slide like a riptide/And honey I’m a surfboard.” Creatively, she has a child-like freedom of expression linked to the eroticism of a nubile but professionally focused as a reformer on fundamentally changing how society views the world.
“As I walk through my life, there’s just something inside that is (my) guide. You know when something feels real, and I’ve always called that truth,” says Etheridge. “And when I started walking this walk publicly over 25 years ago, I decided the only way I can really play this game or succeed and walk through it and not just get blown up is to just hold onto what is truthful.”
Married to television executive Linda Wallem since May 2014, Etheridge has four children, the oldest a freshman at Columbia. Her Grammy-nominated debut single “Bring Me Some Water” established her as a female Bruce Springsteen with confessional lyrics driven by intense emotion and delivered with a growling intensity backed by hard-rocking melodies. When I interviewed her in 1989, I wanted to capture her eroticism in her own words by flirting with her on the phone. I failed. I didn’t know she was gay.
“Yeah, it’s funny ’cause I was ‘out’ to my father when I was 18 (in 1979), and I’d always lived out. I was discovered in lesbian bars, so I always thought, ‘Oh, this is going to come out any minute,’ but there was sort of this ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in the press, and so one album came out (in 1988) and nobody asked. And the second album came out. Nobody asked. And I really thought they were gonna ask on the third album, and they didn’t, so I finally went, ‘You know what? I’m just going to have to come out. I’m just going to have to make some big announcement.’ I thought I was going to do it on ‘The Arsenio Hall Show’ at the time, and it turned out it just happened at the inauguration. I just announced, ‘I’m so proud to be a lesbian.’ I just hadn’t stepped over that line where I said, ‘Yes, I’ll talk about it publicly.’”
In 2015 Etheridge is a very public and successful example of the new majority that endorses the Supreme Court’s decision making gay marriage legal. And as a cancer survivor who went through chemo in 2005 and performed bald at the Grammy Award ceremonies that year, she is on the cutting edge of turning a minority of the public that believes in legalizing medical marijuana into a majority. When I interviewed her in mid-September she was preparing her keynote address for the Cannabis World Congress and Business Exposition.
“I’m gonna talk about my experience going through cancer and finding such relief with medical cannabis, and then I hope to inspire people to be strong in their understanding and belief in this plant medicine and how much it can do and not hide and come out of the closet as cannabis users and help people understand the fear of it.”
There are still those in the media who treat rock culture as a cartoon. Walt Disney elevated cartoons to an art form with his full-length animated features. Similarly, artists like Melissa Etheridge turn the stereotype of the rock culture as crazy youth rebellion into a platform for social change. If art imitates life, Etheridge’s rock is an art form that not only imitates life, it changes the way we look at our lives.
Jerry Falwell proclaimed that 9/11 was God’s retribution for society’s disobeying His commandments against gay love, and forced us all to ask who’s crazier, the rockers or the conservatives. Now even Pope Francis is relaxing the Catholic Church’s monolithic rules about society’s relationships. Water cooler conversations today often revolve around a discussion of the world going to pot, literally and figuratively. Melissa Etheridge with 12 albums, two Grammys and 17 nominations is using her rock star status as a platform for espousing her views on the new freedom.
“(That status) gives me amnesty from everything. (People say) ‘Oh, what are ya gonna do, she’s a rock and roller!’ I think it trumps everything, and I use that. I respect that, and I use it very sparingly. Yet I do know that I can talk about cannabis and not be afraid I’m going to be fired or something. They’re going to see I’m a person and a mother and a businesswoman, and, yeah, I can be all these things. That acceptance, that just reaching out and having someone go, ‘Oh, yeah. Of course that’s you. That’s a beautiful part of you and no big deal,’ is huge, especially to those who are a little older than me.”
She sees the openness towards gays, especially among the older generation, as being “like watering a plant. It’s really beautiful.”
The quietest song on This IS M.E. is “Who Are You Waiting For.” She used it as her wedding song. “It actually was one of the songs that took the longest. I think it was the first song that I wrote for the album. I started it, and then I went off and I worked and then I kinda came back and wrote the second verse a few weeks later. Then, ’cause we were also planning our wedding, I realized that this is my wedding song. ‘Who are you waiting for? Wait a minute. I’m waiting in the aisle,’ then the last verse I wrote right before our wedding, and I decided to actually sing it to my soon-to-be-wife. I asked my vows, and it just all fell together.”
One of the early lines in the song is, “Broken again/shards of the years that I lost/stuck in my skin/And the scars the least of the cost.” She chuckles. “You know, sometimes it’s just easy to go wow. That’s exactly where I’m at. Thank you very much. Broken again, yup.”
In the end, it all comes down to balance. How do we make it across the tightrope of all the things we assign ourselves to accomplish in life? I asked Etheridge what she’s most proud of as a mother.
“Oh, you know what? I’m just proud that they have their own fire and their own light and where they want to go. My oldest is in Columbia. She got accepted at Columbia University, and my son is a snowboarder on the Aspen Snowboard Team, and my little eight-year-olds are loving life. They don’t have to achieve anything for me. I just want them to find their own joy every day in their life. And I’m proud to show them that path.”