Sunflowers on our dining room table earlier this week.
Below, my piece on Wendy Waldman from Michael Montlack's anthology, My Diva. It seems appropriate to put this up today given that the friend I talked about yesterday listened to a lot of Wendy Waldman in the last year.
Off to Philadelphia in the morning.
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Seeds and Orphans: Wendy Waldman
from the anthology My Diva, edited by Michael Montlack
If I played Wendy Waldman for you for the first time, I wouldn’t be wounded if you didn’t get her right away. I wouldn’t pick a fight if you made a crack about “Seventies California Singer Songwriters” and heard only the indulgences of the genre: the earnestness, the sunny harmonies. You might say, “Where’s the irony?” and I might say back, “What irony?” And I’d be just as likely to point out that she’s not a consistently assured singer, or say she’s written too many songs that don’t bear the stamp of personal signature, as if they’ve been intended for other voices. As for the whole earth mother spirituality thing—Well, where’s the edge?
The truth is that her contribution to songwriting is hard to articulate, and I‘m wondering if that's part of the reason she’s worked, for the better part of the last thirty-five years, on the margins. As far as I know, she’s never dressed in feathers to the Oscars. She’s never cast aspersions, at least publicly, on another female performer, or been voted “Old Lady of the Year” in Rolling Stone. When I look past the heap of frizzed-out hair, the gypsy skirts and bracelets on her early album photos, two things come to mind: sweet, quick-to-laugh. She’s the earthy, smart Jewish girl who might have been your high school best friend; she’d sit across from you in the cafeteria and do her best to cheer you up when some clown called you a fag. But she’d be careful not to take up too much space about it, and she’d certainly leave you alone if you wanted to mope. Someday she’d even ask you to play in her band. Maybe the most noteworthy extra-curricular fact about her is that she was Linda Ronstadt’s opening act at the height of her stadium-era fame. Also, she’s the daughter of Fred Steiner, the film and TV composer best known for writing the theme to the old Perry Mason Show, with its kitschy associations of both testosterone and striptease.
But none of that’s exactly fodder for the journalist. And it probably hasn’t helped that her music is difficult to categorize. There’s been a country Wendy Waldman, a hard rock Wendy Waldman, a symphonic Wendy Waldman. Early in her career she was known as the “West Coast Laura Nyro,” which makes a kind of half-sense: both share a knowledge of American songwriting tradition—whether it be blues or Broadway—and its metaphors. But other than that, Wendy’s her own animal—or many animals. In a song on her first album she’s the daughter of a vaudeville performer, who’s learning the tricks of pleasing the crowd from her old ham of a father. In “The Walkacross” on her most recent, she’s the matriarch of a family running ahead of a flood. Where is the self behind these gestures? Who is Wendy Waldman? But that’s part of what’s engaging about this work: the disappearance into character, into the mask it’s trying on. It would probably be pushing it to say that Waldman knows her queer theory, but I’m sure one of the reasons she matters to me has something to do with her fluidity, her refusal to be any one thing. Why wear one costume when you could be a blues guitarist one minute and a tarted-up girl on the town in the next? How else to keep yourself awake before the mirror?
Of course the modesty of this strategy has come at some cost. Unlike Joni Mitchell, she doesn’t have her “Help Me,” which hammers down the persona: the hunger for attachment alongside the need for sexual freedom. She doesn’t have PJ Harvey’s “Big Exit” with its exuberant pistol waved at anyone in her way. She’s finally more character actor than leading lady, and since her interest in inhabiting multiple voices isn’t the explicit subject of her work (as it is in, say, Dylan—or at least in Todd Haynes’ queering of Dylan), I suspect that her achievement has been hard to see and hear.
What Wendy Waldman excels at is writing wised-up, tender songs. They’re not especially concerned with extremity. They’re not interested in revenge or outcry. Some are bold enough to engage old-school sentiments like hope and joy. In that way they’re closer in spirit to the best songs of the forties, by which I mean a musical landscape that assumes its listener is living in hardship and doesn’t need to be reminded of that every two seconds. (Imagine the old World War II-era standard “I’ll Be Seeing You” in gauzy pants with little bells around the hems.) Not that they offer cheap consolation, but they put a high value on intimacy and contact, as if they believe those things are sustaining. I’m thinking about my favorites from Seeds and Orphans, which have the eerie sense of being addressed to a lover who never was, who might—or might not—be dead. But the moves are subtle, easy to miss if you don’t give them your complete attention. You can pay taxes or scrub vegetables to them and trick yourself into believing they sound like a dozen other songs, but then you’d be missing their little gifts: the leap of melodic line, the unexpected harmonic shift.
Maybe years from now Waldman’s music will get the recognition it deserves. I’m talking about that distinct category of praise we reserve for the neglected or the underdog. I’d like to think that she’ll be held up regularly alongside Joni and Laura, and younger counterparts like Feist and Joan Wasser, but Wendy Waldman proceeds as if reputation and fame are distraction. Occasionally you hear the tug of missed possibility inside her voice, the shock of something huge left behind, but it’s never a whine, or laced with entitlement or self-pity. She might have a better sense of these matters than I do, anyway. In “My Last Thought” on My Time in the Desert, she sings: “Nothing much around here’s going to stand the test of time. / The things we fought and died for will all be left behind.” That insistence on ongoingness, without futurity, without descendents, yet open to experience—doesn’t that sound familiar to what many of us might know about ourselves? She soldiers on. She writes beautiful songs in an era that doesn’t care about beautiful songs.
Wherever You Are - Wendy Waldman