k.d. lang, Meet Alice; Alice, Meet k.d. lang (Part Two)
December 4, 2012
k.d. lang entered the apartment waving a bouquet of red roses. “Hi, Alice!”
Alice squinted at her visitor from across the room. “Is that really you?”
And then, as the visitor approached: “It is you. Oh my goodness!”
I’d explained on the way from the lobby to the apartment that even though she wears hearing aids, they don’t really help much with Alice’s kind of hearing loss. She relies on reading lips. Because of this, I’d moved a chair up close to Alice’s chair, and k.d. sat down and leaned forward as they reached for each other’s hands to say hello.
She handed Alice the flowers and some stickers that read KD LANG AND THE SISS BOOM BANG SING IT LOUD on them (the name of her new CD) and said something about Alice maybe putting the stickers on her walker. Or… She looked around for other logical places to put CD stickers and, finding nothing, laid them on the desk next to her.
Alice passed the bouquet of roses on to me and gazed at her guest.
k.d. sat back and seemed fully present, open to being exactly where she was, nowhere else, and willing to engage and make Alice’s day special.
Her clothes signaled that she’s fitting right into Portland, loose-fitting jacket and slacks in two of Portland’s favorite local colors, gray and black. She also wore a simple braided necklace and a bracelet made, I think, of Tibetan prayer beads.
Her relaxed manner, too, seems to fit. It’s an unpretentious kind of city. Even visitors can sense it. Only the day before, for example, Bruce Springsteen had shown up at 24 Hour Fitness to work out before his concert. The majority of the live-and-let-live gym members let him exercise in peace.
Of course, how cool all these Portlanders were about The Boss sweating right there next to them made the 10 o’clock News, but the news people were probably desperate. It had done nothing but rain all day and then, without incident, night fell.
As I said: gray and black.
Alice happened to also be dressed in these colors.
k.d. held Alice’s gaze. She did not look away as people sometimes do when encountering the very old. I knew from the moment I’d seen her approach the building that I could count on her to be sensitive to whatever my nearly 100-year-old mother’s needs might be. Just as she’d arrived, an elderly couple had been moving slowly toward the front door on their way out, both pushing walkers. She had hurried to the door to hold it open for them, standing aside and out of their way, nodding politely as they thanked her, this helpful, young, 50-something stranger.
I pulled a chair up to the other side of Alice. When she can’t follow what a visitor is saying, she turns to me to translate. The cadence of my voice is similar to her own, and she can understand it.
After the initial excitement died down (“I can’t believe…!” “Well, here I am…” etc.), they moved on to geography. Alice wanted to know how k.d. liked Portland.
She does like it, she said, and asked, “Have you always lived here, Alice?”
A look of stunned surprise from Alice. Heavens no! She’d moved here, she said, only a few years ago (a brief glance at me, the cause of displacement), adding that she came originally from a little prairie town. This led quite naturally to k.d.’s little prairie town. She said she was born in Edmonton, Alberta, but she grew up in Consort, not far from Edmonton.
Alice expressed her dismay with the huge size of Portland and asked what part k.d. lived in. “Downtown” was the answer.
To Alice, downtown means the dentist, creeping traffic, way too many stop lights, men and women in extremely tight-fitting clothes (“How can she even walk in those jeans? What must it feel like when she sits down?!”), and the sad absence of trees.
“All right,” she said.
And then, as if to make up for what might have sounded like disapproval, she reached out and lightly touched k.d.’s knee. “I mean, that’s nice.” Her hand drew back quickly. She turned to me. “I touched k.d. lang!” She giggled and k.d. laughed along with her.
Alice doesn’t stay in any territory too long, so she quickly moved on from the sudden electrical storms of amazement she was feeling and into what they both really loved and what had brought them together: music.
Alice loves music but she can no longer enjoy it. Nerve deafness scrambles it as it travels between her ears and her brain. It shatters into dissonant sounds and blocks of notes she can’t connect.
A certain line from a k.d. lang/Joe Pisapia song called “Inglewood” always brings Alice’s anguish about this hearing loss to mind:
Take me to a place where music sounds good again.
Of all the things Alice could imagine the afterlife she doesn’t believe in to be, she has said the restoration of hearing would be at the top of the list. She once drilled holes in the floor of her bedroom closet in order to drop wires from the stereo down to a speaker she’d installed in the basement laundry room. She especially needed music while washing and ironing for all six of us. She needs and wants it still.
And so music, even though it has almost entirely disappeared from her life, was the subject she wanted to discuss. Familiar mostly with the likes of the Italian guys pushed at her by the music industry for years (Al Martino, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, etc.), Alice bore up until the box broke open and out leaped Elvis.
“I loved him,” she told k.d. “I loved his voice,” she said, “and all the songs he sang.” She thought this over. “But I didn’t like his personal life. Over time, I felt quite disappointed in him.”
“Well,” k.d. said, “fame is a mighty beast to wrestle with.”
Alice looked hard at her, trying to understand. What was she saying?
k.d. repeated the statement.
Alice turned to me.
At first I tried repeating the exact words a couple of times, but it wasn’t working. I sensed that it wasn’t the words but the metaphor she found confusing. She and I keep things short, simple and straightforward, and I guessed she was probably imagining something like this:
I tried a new approach. “Fame is hard to deal with.”
“Oh,” Alice said. “I suppose it is.”
No enlightened compassion for Elvis’s bad behavior forthcoming here. Plain talk can be efficient but so often it doesn’t reveal anything new.
But then, on reflection, Alice told k.d. that she has had her own brush with fame, and it, too, was kind of a problem but not for the usual reasons.
k.d. wanted to know what happened.
Alice had entered a contest to name the new coffee shop at her residence, which she calls The Place.
There had once been a small enclave off The Place’s dining room, a rather dark cubby reserved for the guests of residents so they could eat with their family members in private gloom. By executive decision somewhere in the faraway offices that determine all major changes at The Place, this room was to be renovated so residents could come together in a brighter space for coffee or tea.
It had taken a month for the refurbishing. Everybody was curious about how it would turn out. When it was finished, the executives announced via The Place’s newsletter that they were holding a contest to give the cheery new gathering place a name.
“I wanted to win that contest,” Alice told k.d., “but I sat here and thought and thought, and I couldn’t come up with a name. This is supposed to be a village here, they say, but nothing about that came to mind. So I told Andrea I wanted to win and she said to try calling it The Village Cup. And I entered that name, and I won! But I really didn’t, if you know what I mean.”
She recalled how there had been around seventy people, including residents, staff, and a cluster of suited-up executives themselves, all waiting to congratulate her at the opening ceremony for the new coffee shop with its new name as soon as she emerged from the beauty shop one afternoon.
She’d forgotten all about the contest and so she knew nothing about any of this. With her hair freshly permed, she had walked innocently out into the hall and received a kiss on the cheek from the Great High Administrator himself, along with a round of applause from all the assembled. Much fuss, and all the while Alice stood there feeling both abashed and quite pleased with herself.
The award was a coffee mug with her name on it as well as THE VILLAGE CUP in big block letters. Plus, she can have all the coffee she wants, free of charge for the rest of her life. Imagine!
She pointed to the winning coffee mug to prove it. She was famous.
k.d. laughed. She liked this story.
Yep, there you have it. Fame: Pleased and abashed at the same time.
They threaded their way back to music. The appearance of one of k.d.’s heroes, Roy Orbison, on the scene had given Alice no end of pleasure.
“Yes,” k.d. agreed. Her too.
But the first time Alice had heard k.d. lang’s voice it bumped her right into to the realm of rapture. She was the first in the family to recognize the greatness of it, and she invited us, her grown children, and her husband to watch k.d.’s early TV performances with her. “You have to see this girl!”
Part of the pleasure of seeing k.d. lang on television was watching Alice fall even harder than she had for Elvis.
“Oh, that voice of yours,” Alice said now to the woman who had wowed her so long ago. She shook her head. “Where does it come from?”
k.d. lang herself seemed equally mystified. She shook her head too, dismissing all pride of possession. “I don’t know.”
How poignant this visit was, I thought. The person with the voice Alice had treasured more than any other was now sitting across from her, but even if k.d. lang had burst into song, Alice would not have been able to hear her.
They continued to connect anyway, most surprisingly over a musician you’d never imagine was on k.d. lang’s own list of favorites.
Part Three of the visit between Alice and k.d. lang coming soon…
A part of the song “Inglewood” mentioned above is on this sampler (at 8:50) from k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang Sing it Loud CD:
You can also find several performances of that song on youtube, but they are all live and not very well filmed; most definitely none are as great as the CD production.
By the way, the sticker did find a place on Alice’s walker (and thanks, Kerry, for the idea of tie-dyed duct tape to hold that seat on).
NOTE: Obviously, I’m not able to get this whole wonderful event from Alice’s life into one or two blog posts. More about k.d. lang’s visit with Alice coming soon.
If you’re new to Alice and want to get in on the rest of the conversation with k.d., you can subscribe by clicking EMAIL SUBSCRIPTION (right under the photo of Alice’s shoes) on the right-hand side of this page. There’s no regular publication schedule going on here, but you’ll get an email notice as soon as a post is published. And it will be soon, I promise.
Please feel free to share news of the generous-hearted k.d. lang’s meeting with Alice on Facebook, Twitter, etc., below.
Also, in case you missed it, Part One of how this all came to pass is here.
And finally today, my brother Michael, the child most like Alice and the most musical of all her children, during the dawn of the Elvis years:
- He would have loved hearing about this meeting. When he was in his early 60s and very ill, he once called his best friend of forty-two years, Mike, when the Roy Orbison concert, A Black and White Night, popped up one evening on television. He wanted them to watch it, at their separate houses, together. And so the two men each held a phone while watching and listening to Roy Oribson, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, k.d. lang, Jennifer Warnes, and JD Souther.
- Sweet boys, Michael and Mike. Sweet men. More like brothers than friends.