I heard something over the weekend that broke my heart.
For a guy who took voice lessons and sings a little Italian to sound impressive, I’m not that big on opera. I like certain songs, mainly the biggies everybody’s heard – O Solo Mio, Nessum Dorma, etc. – but overall, not my cup of tea. Given the choice between going to a dive bar to listen to a little three-piece blues combo or heading to the Dallas Opera to sit through La Boheme, I’ll take the dive bar.
(Downtown to watch a rap crew or the Dallas Opera? Opera, every time. I am so very, very caucasian.)
For a dude not all that down on opera, I do love me some big, over-blown operatic rock tunes, though. Paradise by Dashboard Light, I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That), It’s All Coming Back To Me Now, Making Love Out of Nothing At All, and my all-time favorite, Total Eclipse of the Heart – total rock opera, baby, and I LOVE THEM. The melodic, almost music-box beginnings; the build up in thematic intensity; the choral back-up singers; the big crescendo – I mean, DAMN, what is not to love?
Those with a serious musical background will notice more than just a theme running through those songs I picked: they were all written by the great Jim Steinman. Steinman was the composer, lyricist and/or producer on the epic Bat Out of Hell and Bat Out of Hell II/Back into Hell albums with Meat Loaf, which would be enough to guarantee his inclusion into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, but he’s also worked with artists as diverse as Billy Squire, Barbra Streisand, Barry Manillow, The Sisters of Mercy, and The Everly Brothers in his storied four-decade long career. If the song has that epic rock opera feel to it, chances are it was written and/or produced by Steinman.
Two of my favorite songs by Steinman appeared in a movie nobody but I and about three other people saw when it came out in theaters, Streets of Fire. Streets of Fire, directed by Walter Hill, is touted as a “Rock and Roll Fable,” and it tries really hard to deliver on that regard: the sets and wardrobe are all straight out of the 1950’s, but the music is all 1980’s pop and bar rock. The story is ridiculous: the leader of the outlaw bikers from across the way, Raven (played deliciously by a young Willem Dafoe) decides to kidnap the home town girl does good, rocker Ellen Aim (a barely legal Diane Lane, looking ever so rock n roll) for his own nefarious delights; Ellen’s ex-boyfriend, bad boy Tom Cody (Michael Paré, hot off of Eddie and The Cruisers), gets called in to rescue her; and along the way meets up with a tomboy ex-soldier McCoy (Amy Madigan playing against type), manager with little-man syndrome Billy Fish (the perfectly cast Rick Moranis), and doo-wop quartet The Sorels (featuring the then-unknown Robert Townsend); Elizabeth Daily and Ed Begley, Jr. also show up in the film because it’s the 80’s and they were in everything else back then. The film ends with a showdown between Cody and Raven featuring pickaxes, and Cody leaving Ellen to pursue her music career Bogie-style, driving off into the night with new best friend, McCoy.
You don’t watch Streets of Fire for the movie – you watch Streets of Fire for the music. The soundtrack is awesome – incidental music composed and performed by Ry Cooder, and features songs written or performed by Cooder, Dan Hartman, Stevie Nicks, The Fixx, and Jim Steinman. The two Steinman songs are the two tunes Ellen’s band, The Attackers, perform at the start and the end of the film: Nowhere Fast and Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young. Both songs are performed by session musicians under the name of Fire Inc., with lead vocals handled by a blending of the voices of vocalists Laurie Sargent and Holly Sherwood. Nowhere Fast is a hard-driving rock anthem with a great beat, but Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young, with The Sorels joining The Attackers on stage to fill in all the choral parts, is pure unadulterated Wagnerian rock opera.
I found the song on YouTube and played it for my Lady Fair, who immediately added it to her list of tunes to add to her mp3 player. We were driving out to my parents’ house for a day of poker and smack talk, when the tune came on – my lovely wife was piping her mp3’s through the SUV’s stereo – and the Lady Fair commented that while she adored the chorus, she kinda hated the verses.
“Hate the verses?” I responded. “How can you hate the verses? The verses are great! The verses are cheesy and sugary and over-emotional and completely overblown – I LOVE the verses!”
“I’ve got a dream ’bout a boy in a castle
And he’s dancing like a cat on the stairs.
He’s got the fire of a prince in his eyes
And the thunder of a drum in his ears.”
“But it’s only a dream and tonight is for real
You’ll never know what it means
But you’ll know how it feels
It’s gonna be over (over)
Before you know it’s begun
(Before you know it’s begun).”
“It’s all we really got tonight
Stop your cryin’ hold on (tonight)
Before you know it it’s gone (tonight)
Tonight is what it means to be young.”
My wife kept looking at me like I was speaking Klingon. “Sweetie, the song is about being 19, 20, 21 yrs old; old enough to start making a mark in the world, but still young enough not to have given in to cynicism, to still believe you can conquer all as long as you keep your faith. It’s about feeling your blood flow and your heart race, too inexperienced to know why, but just mature enough to realize you have to act on that emotion now before you lose the momentum. And it’s about sharing that momentum with someone else, some other young maverick, if only for one night, in that one perfect moment. ‘You never know what it means, but you know how it feels – it’s gonna be over before you know it’s begun, Tonight is what it means to be young.’ DAMN. That’s EXACTLY how I felt at 21.”
I got serious, and pointed at the radio. “When I’m on stage with the band, and everything is gelling – the guitars are in synch, everybody is feeling the beat, the crowd has joined in and the entire band feeding off that energy, and I hit that one note strong and true, and it soars, and the crowd responds – THAT is what it feels like. THAT is why I’m trying so hard to make this band work: so I can keep feeling THAT.”
For a long moment, she didn’t say anything. Then my Lady Fair, the love of my life, my soul and inspiration, looked at me with tears in her eyes and admitted, “I’ve never felt that way in my life.”
And my heart broke.
I never met my father-in-law, he died of cancer my wife’s senior year. The sickness had been slow and ugly, and as much as it pained everyone involved, his passing had also been a relief since it meant the suffering was over – it also meant my wife’s childhood was over. I’ve spoken before about my Lady Fair’s ongoing struggle with Depression, but I haven’t mentioned her struggle with dyslexia and its lesser-known cousin, dyscalculia (just like her letters, my lovely bride gets her numbers out of order, making it almost impossible to do long-division or algebra). Back in the 70’s and early 80’s, back before everybody and their dog admitted they have learning disabilities, my wife’s pretty freakin’ obvious problems were just dismissed by her teachers and administrators. My mother-in-law, bless her heart, didn’t know how to respond, so she just went along with the school’s assessment – as a result, one of the smartest women I’ve ever met grew up thinking she was dumb; and not just dumb, but unteachable. My wife – who can take apart and reassemble the VCR, wired the living room for surround sound, and installed the battery and battery cables in my Mustang – was flat-out told she’d never be able to attend college. “You don’t have the capacity, dear, but don’t worry – not every little girl is meant to get a higher education. You’ll just need to find yourself a husband, be a good housewife.” Because she wasn’t part of the norm, my Kristi was ignored; worse, because she was a girl, my Kristi was written off.
And I knew all of this, knew about the blow she took from losing her dad, knew about the learning issues, knew most of her teachers never gave her the attention she needed or deserved, knew it all contributed to decimating her self-esteem – it just never occurred to me it all contributed to my beautiful Kristi growing up without inspiration, without passion.
I still think it’s counter-productive to give out awards to kids for just showing up on game day, but I also think it’s vitally important that kids feel supported in whatever they feel passionately about, that they be given all the help and tools they need to be successful. No one deserves to be ignored or written off, everyone deserves to feel the passion and inspiration I get to enjoy as a band member, writer and artist. I am very, very lucky, but right now I’d give anything to give any and all of that luck to Kristi.
Go hug your kids.