BETTYE LAVETTE / “Bettye LaVette Mixtape”
Speaking of music, Bob said “when it hits, you feel no pain.” Instead of the obvious meaning that music itself is good to us, he could also have been saying that music is an anesthetic, that it numbs-down whatever pain is riding you. But somewhere on the opposite shore from Bob sings Bettye LaVette, and, boy, you really, really feel the pain when she sings. There is a swift cutting straight razor in her throat, and she expertly wields her melodic weapon. The only singer who was better at emoting pain than Bettye was probably Billie. Maybe.
I say maybe for Billie because Bettye got a mojo all her own.
There is a resolute insistence in Bettye’s approach that borders on masochism. Like a friend who enjoys shocking you with the news of all the hard times they’ve been through, except it seems all the pleasure has been sucked out of the sound. We enjoy her the way we enjoy a stiff drink or a hard workout, like we run a mile further and can barely breathe when we stop, bent over, hands on the knees, barely holding on to consciousness, sight is fuzzy, we feel like we just want the feeling to stop, that we should have quit some ways back—but didn’t.
And at the same time there is this gripping fascination, this fire that pulls us forward even as the heat damn near singes our face. I suppose this might best be described as music for losers, for lost love, for what’s left after everything has been taken away, or walked away, or never bothered to acknowledge a call, a plea, the return that never came back. Most of us have had at least a minute of this emotionally astringent liquor fouling our life mouths, at least one moment when we were bereft of hope, when we have been done wrong by a trusted someone who we bet our hearts would never betray us.
Who has never been hurt in love is a rare and lucky person; for the rest of us, for most of us there is the music of Bettye LaVette. Bettye is from round Detroit way. She was even signed to Motown for a minute. Many of her neighbors and friends found at least a few moments of fame, and more than a handful made modest fortunes. But Bettye LaVette, well, you probably don’t even know her name.
Imagine looking at yourself in the cracked mirror in a dingy dressing room after thirty years on the road and doing whatever ritual you do to persuade yourself that going out there and singing your heart out is worth it.
Bettye got a 2007 Grammy nomination for Scene Of The Crime, her second to last album. Bettye wryly noted that though it was an honor, the truth is she is older than the Grammys—before the first trophy was awarded she was already a veteran. And consistent with the twisted trajectory of her career, Bettye did not win. After so many circles on the un-merry-go-round trying to snatch the elusive brass ring, the biggest and hardest trick is to figure out how to avoid getting vertigo and falling off.
Her voice is ravaged, no longer smooth. Instead of glissandos, one hears jagged jumps across intervals that are craggy canyons. And it seems like she has only two gears: hard, and harder, plus reverse is broken and neutral doesn’t work at all. I suppose in the final analysis, this is the sound of old America delivered by a veteran.
I like the way she interprets these songs, most of which were hits for other artists, most of them last century ago. Yet, Bettye is still here with us. Bearing witness to both the barrels of bitterness and the little teaspoons of sweet that she and most of us have sipped. And what is remarkable is that there is no nasty aftertaste.
The way Bettye sings makes it possible to swallow daily shit and still resolutely carry on if not with a smile, certainly with a shrug. Listen to what she does with “Round Midnight,” or better yet how she gives a whole new meaning to “Lush Life.” Her latest album is 13 interpretations of British rock songs giving them a soulful interpretation far beyond how they originally sounded. What she does is twist heavy metal into heavy life.
But Bettye also takes something contemporary like Zap Mama’s “Damn, Your Eyes” and turns it into a curse—“damn you” is more than a casual figure of speech when it jumps out of Bettye’s clenched jaws. Bettye LaVette is a master at pushing determination through the prism of pain and emitting a beacon life that encourages us to keep going. Her obvious secret ingredient is a heavy dose of the blues, but not pro-forma blues rather we’re talking about stuff dredged up from the gut and filtered through the heart, stuff that turns the average brain to mush and requires the most truthful tongue to articulate.
There is a lot of artistry in how Bettye sings. Indeed, unlike most pop artists in their sixties, she sounds better now than she did when she started. Back then she sounded similar to a bunch of other singers, both those who had made it and those who were “want-to-be-es,” just another beautiful body and attractive voice among many trying to be the next big thing. I believe the big difference is that today Bettye is singing out of the experience of being who she became, who she is today, rather than trying to sing like she used to be.
This is no retro celebration of old music, of bygone glory, but rather this is the sound of an esteemed elder singing the life lessons extracted from a long time on the hard road that is the misnamed yellow-brick-highway of the American dream. Bettye Lavette sings about surviving the slaughter of modern American life and debt; an inner-emotional-state that runs coast-to-coast, great lakes to gulf; a journey full of exorbitant emotional tolls and a myriad of unplanned detours; a life path full of roadhouses and very few final destinations, especially so when at first (and second, and third) you don’t succeed in reaching whatever you thought was your goal. This is the music that celebrates the reality of most of us.
Music for most of us—no surprise that it’s far from happy, light and mindless. Ultimately, this music is both a blessing and a benediction. A toast to all of us still alive after thirty, forty, fifty years of surviving. Amen.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Bettye LaVette Mixtape Playlist
01 “Down To Zero” - I've Got My Own Hell To Raise
Change Is Gonna Come Sessions
02 “Ain't No Sunshine”
03 “ 'Round Midnight”
04 “Lush Life”
Let Me Down Easy In Concert
05 “Damn Your Eyes”
The Scene of the Crime
07 “Talking Old Soldiers”
What's Going On
08 “What's Happening Brother (featuring Bettye LaVette)” - Dirty Dozen Brass Band
Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook
09 “Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood”
10 “Isn't It A Pity”
11 “Salt Of The Earth”
12 “Love Reign O'er Me”
13 “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad”
14 “Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me”
This entry was posted on Monday, July 12th, 2010 at 12:57 am and is filed under Cover. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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