tremble clef

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Phyllis Hyman, "Living All Alone" (1986)

I once took a class which was organized around three American poets: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman. What do they have in common? Ding ding ding! That's right: they were all confessional poets who killed themselves. The seminar was Party Central. We engaged in deep intellectual conversations while scarfing down pizza and drinking beer laced with arsenic. Week after week we obsessed over the question of how far one should read biographically -- or, to be more precise, the question was really how one could not read that way. The shadow of suicide hung over each rhyme, each broken meter. Every word felt like a predictor of the end that we knew had come.

It is of course likewise impossible to listen to any recording by Phyllis Hyman without similar thoughts. The soul singer killed herself about ten years ago. Possibly bi-polar, she struggled with depression all her life. The posthumous release of the album that she was working on before she died, I Refuse To Be Lonely, was the most explicit of these addresses, intentional or otherwise, to her problems and her contemplation of a possible solution.

This song came earlier, but is no less tinged with a kind of primal sadness. It's the title track of a 1985 album, which was produced by the legendary Gamble and Huff for the Philadelphia International label. Phyllis's performance on this tale of the aftermath of a broken relationship is incredibly raw and moving. It's like listening to an open wound, and, a few nights ago, lying in bed while this came on the iPod, I didn't know whether to look away or stare it in the face. So I played it again and again, but am still none the wiser.


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