Melissa Etheridge on Music, Parenthood, and Coming OutPosted by Mike Schumacher
‘Helloooooh! How are you doing? “I’m fine, I’m fine.” Melissa Etheridge takes around three seconds to warm up to. The American singer-songwriter has gone through a lot in recent years, but she isn’t grumbling about it. For someone who has been through so much — Etheridge’s 21-year-old son, Beckett, died of an opiate overdose last year – she has a remarkable ability to emphasize the good. And she does exactly that for the next hour and a half.
Etheridge has a swaggering self-assurance and a soulfulness about her that would make her an excellent existential cowboy. She’s enjoyed international chart success (with the notable exception of the United Kingdom), won Grammys for her songs Ain’t It Heavy and Come to My Window, and received an Academy Award for I Need to Wake Up, a song she composed for Al Gore’s climate-change documentary An Inconvenient Truth, in 2007.
Etheridge’s open-book existence is almost as well-known as her singing. She is one of the first openly lesbian rock stars in the United States. Yes I Am, her fourth album, was released in 1993 and has sold over 6 million copies in the United States.
“People asked me whether I thought coming out damaged me, and I said, ‘Oh God, no!’ Coming out boosted my career tremendously.’ It helped me stand out at the time.” She laughs loudly and joyfully. “In the 1990s, the world was changing. The LGBT movement was gaining traction, we were well-organized, and it was the ideal moment for me.”
She became a campaigner for LGBTQ+ rights, the environment, and the medical qualities of cannabis. Her action, however, was always grounded in reality rather than polemics. She did demonstrations, but what she excelled at was freely discussing the topics that touched her. So she and her then-partner, Julie Cypher, discussed having children using a sperm donor (singer-songwriter David Crosby).
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She also informed us about how she and her then-wife, Tammy Lynn Michaels, used an anonymous donor to have twins. She disclosed her breast cancer diagnosis with the world, and after undergoing chemotherapy, she performed at the 2005 Grammy Awards with a bald head. She has done what she usually does in the wake of Beckett’s death: she has talked it out.
She just published One Way Out, an album of previously unreleased songs. She composed these when she was just starting out in her profession and was concerned that they were too personal. She’s starting to question what was bothering her in the first place.
One Way Out demonstrates the depth of her abilities. She rasp-rocks at her bluesiest best on the title tune. I’m not a saint. My own personality is delicate and honest. Life Goes On, a defiant song composed in 2002 but might just as well have been sung about Beckett in the previous year, closes the CD.
Etheridge, 60, is speaking with me through video chat from her home in Santa Monica’s Hidden Hills, a gated enclave. It’s a far cry from Leavenworth, Kansas, where she grew up in an interesting, albeit problematic, household. Elizabeth, her mother, was a brilliant secretary who rose through the ranks to become a top computer programmer but was never recognized for it.
“Have you seen Hidden Figures?” she inquires, alluding to the 2016 film about three pioneering African American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s. “She worked for the army after programming these gigantic computers.
She rose to the position of GS-15, the highest civilian rank available, but she was paid half as much as everyone else, and all the generals claimed her work as their own. So she was sour, sour, sour, but she performed this fantastic job.”
Her mother developed into a high-functioning alcoholic who drank herself to death each night. John Etheridge, Etheridge’s father, was a history teacher who also coached the college basketball team and was loved by Etheridge and his pupils.
From the age of six, she was physically and sexually molested by her elder sister, according to her book from 2001. “I know that all kids experiment and play doctor, and that may have been all Jennifer thought it was,” she wrote, “but it sure wasn’t to me.” She now claims that she has no ties to her sister.
“It’s understood between the two of us that there’s nothing there except that we shared a tumultuous childhood.”
She claims that her family was suppressed in an English manner. They never recognized the volatility that was going on behind closed doors, preferring to act as though everything was perfect. Her rescue came in the form of music.
She began taking guitar lessons at the age of eight, and by the age of ten, she was composing songs and playing in local taverns with a country band.
Her church choir instructor informed her she had an unusual voice, but she realized rockers like Robert Plant and Janis Joplin had unusual voices as well, and she could sing like them. Bruce Springsteen was her hero. “I didn’t think to myself, ‘I can’t be like him because he’s a boy.’ I felt I could make the same decisions and compose the same quality of music regardless of my gender.”
She dropped out of Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, after a year and moved to Los Angeles, where she played at lesbian clubs. Chris Blackwell, the founder and CEO of Island Records, saw her in her mid-20s and signed her to the company.
She traveled around radio stations after releasing her debut album, requesting that they play it, only to be informed that they already had a woman on their playlist. Despite this, her first three albums were commercial successes in the United States, and her fourth was a big success.
However, the world was a very different place back then for lesbian couples. “Being gay meant you couldn’t have children when I was growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s.” Was it anything that bothered her? “No, I was like, ‘I want to be a rock star,’ so I didn’t mind.”
Then, in the 1990s, I met someone who said, ‘Hey, I want to have a kid.’ Etheridge, at this time, also desired children and realized that doing so would be a statement. “The more gay people who have children, the more normalized it becomes.” People were approaching me and saying, ‘Thank you for showing me that we can have children.'”
But she recognizes that the fight against homophobia is far from over. She takes a drink from her bottle of water. “When Beckett died, it was one of the things that crushed my heart. “Everyone will say, ‘See, they can’t have children,’ I reasoned. Bailey, Beckett’s elder sister, has just finished a master’s degree at the London School of Economics, she informs me proudly.
I inform her that I recently had an interview with Crosby. “Oh yeah!” exclaims the speaker. Isn’t he hilarious?” Is he only a donor in her eyes? “No, he is devoted to them.” We picked him as a donor for a variety of reasons, including the fact that he is a father.” She smiles. “There are a lot of them.” He’s still looking for kids.” How many does he have? “At least seven or eight,” says the narrator. Bailey contacted me a few years ago and said, “We found another half-sister!”
No offense, but why did you select the decadent Crosby out of all the guys in the world?”
Because, for starters, he relinquished parental rights. Bailey chuckles at this: “I was very good friends with Brad Pitt at the time.” I contemplated Brad for a while, but he was so desperate for children. “He’s not going to stand back and not be a father and not be in their lives,” I thought.
Crosby’s wife, Jan Dance, was also a major supporter, according to Etheridge. “They had struggled with infertility and received some assistance. ‘We are so thankful for it,’ they said, ‘that we would want to carry this on.’ It was an extremely affectionate relationship. The youngsters had David’s appearance. They had the cheekbones and the eyes. Beckett had the closest resemblance to David.”
Is it true that Crosby, a recovered addict, holds himself responsible for Beckett’s addiction, believing it to be hereditary? She smiles and nods. “However, he is unable to do so. Everyone has the ability to make decisions. ‘Oh, that’s David Crosby’s kid, therefore…’ isn’t going to cut it. That isn’t going to work.’ Is this anything she’s told him? “I tried,” she says. Is he willing to accept it? “I hope so, because no one is to blame.”
She discusses Beckett’s difficulties. “He just glowers at me,” teachers would remark. She grins as she recalls the incident. “He appeared to be angry all of the time.” And who was he, exactly? “I believe he was scared.” He was an exceptional snowboarder. He began using painkillers after a severe injury, which led to his opiate addiction.
I’m curious as to how a parent copes with the loss of a kid. Etheridge responds gently, “You don’t.” “I’m thinking about him all the time.” Constantly. His photos have been posted. We had a discussion about him.
I make myself OK by intentionally refusing to chose guilt or shame. In his last year, I told myself, “I need to make decisions now because there’s a chance he won’t live.” I need to know that not only did I do all I could for him, but that I also looked after myself. It isn’t my responsibility to rescue him.
I can’t give up everything to attempt to persuade him not to use heroin or painkillers. That is not how people are created. I came to terms with the fact that he was an adult who was making his own decisions a few months before he died.”
She takes a breather. “When I say ‘peace,’ it’s not as if I’m saying, ‘Oh, fine, he’s dead.'” She claims that after her cancer, she researched a wide range of topics, including quantum physics, quantum biology, and ancient faiths.
She was attempting to make sense of her surroundings. In the end, she realized that she could only make people happy if she was happy herself. She also realized that blaming others was worthless since she had blamed her family for her tumultuous upbringing. “How can I then blame myself for my son?” I made my own decisions as far as I knew, and Beckett did as well.”
Despite his habit, he had relocated to Colorado, where he was still able to mountain bike and ski. “I assumed he was going to be content. However, the epidemic took a toll on him. The seclusion. The parks were suddenly closed, and he collapsed.” Three times, Etheridge sent the cops to check on him. They discovered him dead for the third time.
Beckett passed away 18 months ago. Grieving, according to Etheridge, is futile. She would rather honor him. “I feel I am connected to my son when I think about him in loving ways. His spirit is still present.
Because I don’t believe such things exist in the non-physical realm, I think I’m far away when I’m mourning and sad, therefore you have to be in a loving condition to connect with loved ones. He wouldn’t want me to waste my days by thinking bad thoughts. So it’s my responsibility to be in a condition that allows me to connect.”
Do you think she has any pleasant memories? “Oh yeah!” exclaims the speaker. He was really sensitive. I believe that this is a regular occurrence in individuals. At 11 years old, I would have the most profound discussions with him. We’d discuss everything, including spirit, the world, history, and existence.
When it came to things like school, he didn’t want to do anything if he couldn’t do them precisely. As a result, he’d never begin anything. It just serves to stifle you. I sat with him and his schoolwork for years, telling him, ‘Just take up the pencil.'”
I inquire whether she felt relieved when he died. She pauses once more. “There is a certain amount of relief if I dig down and think about it.” How relieved I feel, that’s really tougher for me when it comes to the guilt. I’m simply telling it like it is. For years, it was really difficult.
It was making me sick once again. Everything was impacted if he was in difficulty. There was a great deal of grief when he died. Horrible. But it was a huge comfort to know that I didn’t have to be terrified to glance at my phone anymore.
I felt relieved not just for him, but also for myself.” Felt it difficult for her to confess that she was relieved for herself? “You’re one of the first persons to whom I’ve confessed it. When I spoke to my wife, she says, “There is definitely relief.”
Etheridge has been married to Linda Wallem, an actress and writer who co-created the TV series Nurse Jackie, for 11 years. They have the same birthday (29 May 1961) and almost everything else in common. “It’s a ridiculously wonderful relationship,” she adds. “We’re enraged at each other.” It’s fantastic that we spend every day together.”
Etheridge’s past long-term relationships with Cypher and Michaels also ended miserably. Despite looks, she claims she didn’t trust in herself at the time. “I was attempting to have the other person improve me.” And it’s never successful.” So, what exactly does she mean?
“I used to believe I wasn’t attractive. And if someone I believe to be really attractive loves me, I must be attractive. “I’ve been validated.” She laughs at the folly of it, declares that those days are over, and returns to Linda. “We laugh because she has a great sense of humour.” She’s also quite clever, which is very appealing. She’s also kind.”
“They are magnificent, gorgeous,” she says of her 15-year-old twins. She can’t help but think of Beckett’s torment when she thinks about her three surviving children. “When I look at the other kids, I think they’re all right.” They’re all ecstatic to be here.” She claims she can still communicate with Beckett as long as she has a cheerful attitude. Overall, she claims she has nothing to complain about.
Etheridge is a true survivor of life. Her capacity to overcome the atrocities that life has thrown at her is incredible, and her joy is contagious. I find myself repeating the chorus of the last song on her CD at the top of my lungs for hours after we say our goodbyes. “La la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la …” la
Thanks to Simon Hattenstone at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.
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