I am from that generation of people who listened to Bruce Springsteen really, really loud — on a record player — with the speakers precariously perched on the window sill of their dorm room so everybody else could hear the news that they were tramps like us, born to run. It was a time — the late seventies and early eighties — when he occasionally played in little clubs, like Toad’s Place in New Haven, and if you were smart, you went to hear him. (Not me, though. I stayed home and studied because, and let’s not mince words here, I was an idiot.) I am still a big fan. I like plots in my music, and characters, and the struggle to live a decent life. And I like it that he’s not afraid to talk about politics.
But if I ever thought about his wife, it was only to wonder why he’d marry a back-up singer (actually, I also wondered why he married that other woman, the one who was a not very good television actor, but then I decided it was a youthful infatuation with the dream girl, one he seemed to get over pretty fast.) For some reason, the other day, I saw somewhere that Bruce Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa (which is pronounced “SKAL fah”) has a new album out, a solo album called Play it As it Lays. I listened to some of it, and then I bought it. And I listened to it for a few more days, and then I bought the other two albums, Rumble Doll and 23rd Street Lullaby.
All three are really, really wonderful, although 23rd Street Lullaby is my current favorite, because it so intelligently and beautifully looks back on what it was like to be a young woman coming to New York City to make music. It’s A Portrait of an Artist From Jersey, written and sung by a woman who sounds a little like Rickie Lee Jones, but you know she’s not doing a lot of heroin, and the songs, which are very simple, are emotionally smart, and honest, and make you feel like she knows all about you. The three albums, listened to together, chart a woman’s life from her thirties to her fifties, a time period that’s not much written about, a time when women are supposed to quietly disappear, be the back-up woman, wear good clothes, furnish the house, and have nothing to say about sex, or love, or loss.
What’s wonderful about these albums is that it turns out that she has plenty to say about sex, love and loss: all of it really interesting and moving. There are big gaps between the three albums, because she has three children, who are teenagers now. The trajectory of her career is not so different from that of a lot of women I know, except Scialfa is a little ahead of us — about five years or so. When you have children, you might still work at the thing you love, but you also go underground some, and you might not have time to put into that passion. But it doesn’t die, that’s the good news. Because for some people, the most creative and fruitful time is just later — after your children are more independent and you have more time. We don’t hear a lot about this, but I think we should, because stories like Scialfa’s are a lifeline for women who’re younger, and think they’ve lost themselves a little — or a lot — when they choose to have a family and step off the track and maybe stop doing the thing that’s their passion, or do it a lot less. That this need not happen forever, and that you come back into that part of your life much wiser, and with the kind of devotion and energy you can only feel when you’ve had to put that stuff to one side for a while, is news we all need to hear. But it’s all too often buried under other news about women as they age, the sort of news that’s just louder than this story because it’s more destructive, and nastier — the news that women, as they age, are back-ups, invisible, somebody’s wife, not somebody. The message here for me is that I need to listen harder for what’s underneath THAT tale, the one that diminishes all of us.
I leave you with this, her explanation of her musical choices on Play it As it Lays, because I just like the way she sounds: “I think the reason I went more into the soul music genre this time around is because women have traditionally allowed more freedom of expression in rhythm and blues,” Scialfa explains. “Those were very adult records. That’s why Aretha was singing ‘You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman.’ That’s one reason the blues and soul music are so wonderful. Those women always had a long list of complaints and they could belt them all out in a very beautiful and powerful way. Now that I’m 53, I had to find a way to write inside my skin and have it feel timely to me, so moving more into the R&B direction felt like the right place to go.”
That’s it then, I want to be HER when I’m 53. (Although I don’t so much care about the husband, the one I have being pretty wonderful himself, and, it turns out, just right for me.)