tremble clef

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Melissa Manchester, "Home To Myself" (1973)

One story I could tell you about my relation to Melissa Manchester might begin with a panning shot that settles on a nine or ten year old boy lying in bed under the covers. He's distraught. The setback in his life is, especially in retrospect, absolutely minor, and may have something to do with his fear that the next day will bring an annoucement, via a report card, that he is no longer the smartest boy in the school. As he thinks about this, he hilariously sinks deeper and deeper into self-pity, and is either in, or on the verge of, tears. But then he recalls Melissa's sage advice. "Don't cry out loud," she counsels. "Just keep it inside. Learn how to hide your feelings. Fly high and proud. And if you should fall, remember you almost had it all." Wise words, even if his situation didn't have much to do with the circus coming to town, or affairs with clowns. He sniffs one last time, and decides he would bravely keep his chin up. He needs to be stoic for the world. In his imagination, the people around him even start to slow clap for this boy's incredible courage. He drifts off to sleep, and, on waking and going to school the next morning, finds that his worries were all for nothing.

But such a story would be too embarrassing. Even for someone who loves the power of cheap music, it's twee and, lord, oh so gay. So say it's untrue, and instead take refuge in a more impersonal close reading.

Before Melissa Manchester made wonderfully OTT power pop ballads in the late 70s, before she put out, in the early 80s, gloriously cheesy drum majorette pop songs like "You Should Hear How She Talks About You" that Gwen Stefani would give her firstborn for, she was a sensitive singer-songwriter. The title track, cowritten with Carole Bayer Sager, of her debut album, for example, is a quiet, simple song about being alone. (I sometimes wish it could have offered Phyllis Hyman some comfort.) It's a tough genre. Perhaps it says more about my (now) bitter cynical heart, but few songs about the joys of solitude convince. It's too easy for such songs to sound like they protest too much; sing "I know we're cool" one less time, and you don't make your point strongly enough, but, more likely, sing "I ain't missing you at all" one more time, and it sounds like you're trying to fool yourself.

But "Home To Myself" is never too much. "Think to myself/My own best friend/It's not so bad all alone/Coming home to myself again." Life alone is not great. It's just "not so bad." And it's a verdict that Melissa arrives at, instead of one she emptily reiterates in order to convince, most of all, herself. "Now I understand/Whatever I feel is whoever I am/Watching my life, how it's grown/Looking on back to things I've known/And it's not so bad all alone/Coming home to myself again."

One way to end this story is to flash forward and replace that little boy with a grown-up version, in bed again, who thinks about how he was paying attention, all those years, to the wrong Melissa Manchester song. "I've come a long way/Got a long way to go." But there are, one hopes, other endings.


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