Steven Tyler is my boyfriend. Every time I listen to him on youtube I fall in love. There is something in the undisguised pain his voice lays bare that pulls me in – heart, head and pussy. I understand perfectly that I am needed when I hear that much pain. I know how to devote my time and intelligence to that. He sounds like he could use a whole lifetime of me.
I am out at the Gibraltar Point, Centre for the Arts, on Toronto Island. I have been surfing hours and hours of youtube clips, listening to old rockers – mostly male (there are so many more of them) as well as a few women…thank god for Ann Wilson of Heart! I am treading a path and as I walk this pilgrimage it dawns on me what I am seeking: sustainability. I want to know who has been able to survive the life-ride called rock n’ roll….the challenges of performing in a sports’ arena with a monstrous acoustic and just too many people listening…the ridiculous pressure of having everyone think they are your girlfriend. I want to know who has been able to sing into his/her 60s with a voice that is still expressive and flexible and generous of spirit.
I listen to Steven Tyler again and again, adolescent pleasure in my obsessive thrill. There are two clips in particular that move me: one I have known for years, and one I have just discovered surfing within the mouldy walls of the old school house Artscape rents out to writers and painter. We are just spitting distance from Lake Ontario…and the chill of my wintry beach walks holds nothing over the chills I get listening to Tyler’s voice.
Watching the 2010 Kennedy Centre tribute to Paul McCartney I see that everyone is there: President Obama and his wife Michelle, Oprah, Paul with his new and younger girlfriend, Justin Timberlake, a star studded event indeed. For the fourth act of an eighteen-minute musical tribute Steven Tyler walks out, long coat billowing behind him, hair loose and flowing, grabbing a microphone stand draped with his signature scarf. He sings a four-song medley from Abbey Road, the B side. He sings each song like he needs to sing each song, need and virtuosity combining. Seeing him admit to the longing, the weakness and urgency of primal want, and still display his musical prowess strikes me as very volatile and courageous business. The experience is revelatory, useful. There is something new in it for me.
Joyous abandon from the first…
Oh look out!
Steven jumps off his cliff taking me with him.
She came in through the bathroom window.
His voice hovers on the thrilling sill of debauch.
Protected by a silver spoon.
He knows this woman. I follow his abandon, his unbound self, looking for my own wantonness.
But now she sucks her thumb and wanders.
I hear the size of my obsession, want my need met by a man crying out with such vitality.
By the banks of her own lagoon.
I am alone with Steven Tyler and he is breaking my heart.
Once there was a way to get back homeward.
The pocket these words sit in is right beside the muscle of his heart…I can feel its exact location in my own body, feel its emptiness.
Once there was a way, to get back home.
I am amazed by the looseness of this man’s articulation. His enormous, malleable mouth opens excessively and occasionally he sucks air as if he has a death sentence…
Sleep pretty darling, do not cry.
The sound is naked, empty, bereft.
And I will sing a lullaby.
Can one adult sing another adult to sleep?
My capacity for solitude, my own wet creativity…as an artist I want these tools to be available to me for my own expressive needs. As a woman I want to engage with other human beings who can be articulate about need…understand its give and its take.
Today I hate my father – really hate him. He is sick – decrepit – a prisoner of his imbalance. I wonder if he has ‘locked-in syndrome’. I don’t even really know what that is – but he seems imprisoned and hardly communicates. I have been pitying him, looking for some kind of benign compassion that would allow me to see him regularly without too much emotional consequence. It’s not working today.
I walk into the room he and my mother share. Everything is as it should be. Family pictures on the wall, bed nicely made, his half now a hospital bed so that he will wander less at night, the floor recently replaced with solid hardwood to better handle any ‘accidents.’ I look down at the wood forcing myself to imagine my father lying naked in a puddle of urine. I know he has started to fall recently and that mum can no longer get him up and has had to wait hours with him for help – for some reason not calling an ambulance – waiting for dawn to ask my brother to come and lift him back into bed. I can hear his small groan of pain as Chris lifts him onto the sheets; Dad never betrayed too much. But today Dad is dressed well in pressed pants and a button up shirt. The colours look good on him. My mother cares for him so well in their current terrain; she makes hell attractive.
Things I have learned from my father
1) be private
2) don’t show weakness
3) don’t show need (for him this may be the same as weakness)
4) explode when necessary…somewhere past the end of your rope.
I look at him lying on his bed. I want to know how he is, what he would like. I try over and over again to see if he can understand me – simplifying each statement – I sit beside him, draw closer. He shrugs the smallest shrug I have ever seen; he does not know how he is. In my family we feel that much has been accomplished if we are able to get a single sentence from him over the course of a full day. In his current state everything must seem like weakness. We hang on each shrug, every virtually invisible nod or shake of his head. He is part of me – inside us all – and we want to know how that part of us is doing. I join him, lying down on my mother’s half of the bed. I am exhausted – from trying to figure out what I should do, how I should be. I do not know how to help.
When I was growing up my father was angry all the time. We tried not to provoke it and the lesson I learned was to fuel myself just like he had. Aggression, drive – seemingly safe channeling of things I did not have the time or patience to sort out – a way to escape my own sadness and disappointment. As a singer I sang my anger, sang my sorrow. I was drawn to opera, tragic scale, bona fide drama, and it met me. I discovered, through his business colleagues, that he liked it that I sang, that he talked about ‘his daughter, the singer’. This affinity I have had for singing dark material, sad stuff…when I get some distance on it…I can see that not only was I singing my own emotions but that I was working with my father’s backlog as well, his inheritance. You know, until just recently, I honestly had no clue why anyone would want to sing something happy.
Steven Tyler is in church. He looks rough, he sounds rough, but he is joyous as hell. He is singing the hymn Amazing Grace with Juliette Hamilton. He wanders, a bit lost, the top of his voice cracked with light; Juliette is dark aged wood, stable and certain, swaying gently from left to right, her core is so visible. They are two sides of faith, anchoring one another through the flawless musicality they each possess; pitch perfect effortless phrasing. I see them trust their differences, following the common emotional thread the song provides, grinning shared delight. Their grace is real.
My father is in the hospital for the third time this past year. We don’t yet know that this is his last week of life. My mother has the flu and so my brothers and I visit each day. I am to go to the Yukon on Friday to work with a group of young adults with intellectual disabilities; we have a variety show the following week. I spend two evenings alone with him before leaving. The first has an extreme sweetness, he seems to be hallucinating a horse and when I ask him he tells me about delivering bread for his father’s bakery when he was about six or seven years old. The second night is intimate in different ways. He is more restless and I help him with the most basic things, eating a few squares of Swiss chocolate, using the toilet. Each night I stroke his head till he falls asleep. My mother and brothers, the doctors and nurses, everyone as far as I can tell, think that dad will come out of the hospital soon. We anticipate a little more loss with regards to his faculties, but none of us believe he will die; we shrug just a little as we reassure each other of this.
On the Saturday my eldest daughter Magda visits him and I use the opportunity to call and have a three-way conversation from Whitehorse, Yukon to Hamilton, Ontario – two iphones and my daughter’s sensitive interactions connecting me to my dad. He listens to the stories I tell and I hear his voice, phlegm and scratch, still a Swiss accent after sixty years in Canada. I can imagine his intense dark eyes peering from behind his glasses. It won’t be till after the funeral that Magdalena tells me what he was actually saying, but I can hear his enthusiasm despite not making out the exact words. It is the most I have heard from him in a few years, and his fragile voice seems to stream through the little speaker on my cell phone. Vunderful, Vunderful! He thinks what I am up to with my northern troupe is Vunderful!
Looking back on that conversation and the preceding week I swear that my father lightened, lifted, let go, revealed himself. I wonder what he needed in order to do so. I know how strong his grip on life was. I feel it in my body everyday…in actions that need much less effort than I give them, in feelings I could allow myself to flow through with a little more ease…need I could express, weakness I could show. Remembering him in those last days I see so much light. I can understand how the word ‘vunderful’ could spring from his lips.
The light I witnessed in my father as he neared death is the same light I hear at the top of Tyler’s voice. The ‘resonance cracks’ that allow a person to cry are the same ‘cracks’ needed to laugh. As much as Dad would have been horrified by so unbound a performer as Steven Tyler, I am now seeing an essential connection between the two, both of them sensitive, intense and charismatic men.
Steven Tyler does not need me as his girlfriend; his wailing charts sadness expertly. He radiates joy doing this work. He lets me lean on him and I sink into his voice with my own cares and sorrows. I don’t need to cry on his behalf.
In the weeks following my father’s funeral I lessen my teaching load. In that void I accept a few invitations to sing and step out publicly with my voice; over and over again celebrating how wonderful it feels to communicate freely through vocal sound. I sing for myself, I sing for the sake of beauty, for the sake of pleasure, for the ears and hearts of others as well as my own. I simply have a good time, feeling need and fulfilling need; not questioning its rightness, trusting my own ability to give and to take.
Dad at 20…before immigrating to Canada.