Chris Nickson's biography of Melissa Etheridge explores the pop star's life and music. Born in Leavenworth, Kansas, Melissa Etheridge faced years of struggle and hard work to make it in the music business. But through it all, she's remained determined, and now has multiple platinum records and Grammys to her name and an original sound that's all her own. Nickson tells the whole story in this biography fans are sure to enjoy.
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
|File size:||819 KB|
About the Author
Chris Nickson has written biographies of Melissa Etheridge, Denzel Washington, Ewan McGregor, and Will Smith.
Chris Nickson has written biographies on David Boreanaz, Melissa Etheridge and Matt Damon.
Read an Excerpt
ONEKansas is Middle America in more than name. Geographically it's the very center of the country, the heart of the heartland. Most of the communities in the state are small, towns that serve the farmers who try their best to make a living from the soil. Even today, when agribusiness on a massive scale has become the economic watchword, there are still plenty of spreads in Kansas that have been handed down through families for generations. Some do well for their owners, making them rich. For the majority, though, it's a tough life, long hours and hard work for a return that's not much more than subsistence. Still, they keep at it; it's the life they know, and persistence has always been part of the midwestern creed.Leavenworth sits in the northeast corner of the state, almost at the Missouri border, above the Missouri River. Forty thousand people call it home. Kansas City lies some fifty miles to the south, accessible, but still far enough away to feel distant.If Leavenworth is known for one thing, it's the federal penitentiary located there. Al Capone served his sentence in it, and duringits history it's been home to any number of America's most famous criminals.The town of Leavenworth is where Melissa Lou Etheridge was born on May 29, 1961. Her father, John, taught math and was the athletic director at the local high school, while her mother Elizabeth was employed by the U.S. Army at nearby Fort Leavenworth as a computer specialist.The Etheridges already had one child, another daughter called Jennifer, who was four by the time Melissa was born, and now their family felt complete. It was a time when the American Dream still seemed a real possibility. A house, good, steady jobs, two kids--John and Elizabeth seemed to have it made.Even living close to the prison wasn't a worry, as Melissa recalled in the New York Times: "Because the prisons were in the town, when the prisoners escaped they always went to the neighboring towns."If life was good for John and Elizabeth, it hadn't always been that way. John was from the South. Born just before the Second World War, his childhood had been nomadic, following his own father, a migrant farmer, from place to place, job to job, often without money for essentials, let alone luxuries. His father was an alcoholic, using drink to block out the hardships of everyday life.It would have been easy to remain trapped in the cycle of poverty, but John was determined not to let that happen to him. With help he was able to graduate from high school and go on to college, where he studied to become a teacher, settling finally in Kansas, where he met Elizabeth.Her father, too, had been an alcoholic. Like John, she wanted to forget her past, abandon it as another country and start life anew."They did not have a drinking problem," Melissa said, "but they lived with that, and the emotional stigma was still passed down."The couple married, bought a house, and settled in for a comfortable life. At least, it was comfortable on the surface. TheEtheridges weren't rich by any means, but hardly on the breadline, either. Emotionally, though, there was a real paucity of spirit."If I needed something, I had it," Melissa recalled in Rolling Stone. "But there was no feeling. There was no joy, there was no sadness or pain. And then if there was pain, it was just a nod."Communication wasn't at a premium. Many things that might have been explored went unsaid. Part of that undoubtedly stemmed from John and Elizabeth's unwillingness to delve too deeply into things, lest it bring up the past. Both John and Elizabeth, according to Melissa, had grown up with a lot of emotional turmoil, and their way of making sure it never returned was to simply avoid situations where it could occur. But that was also the way of the Midwest; feelings might be experienced, but they were hidden and rarely discussed."I was not shown as a child how to be angry; my parents kept their anger in, so I never grew up with examples of how to do that. I always thought, 'Well, that must mean that if I get angry, the world ends.'"Despite this, there was love in the house. Melissa and Jennifer were both well cared for, even indulged, as much as the family budget allowed.Almost from the first, Melissa was a ham, a performer. One of her first memories, from the time she was three, was of dancing for her parents and their friends, relishing the attention and the spotlight.Given the time, it was almost inevitable that pop music would claim her. Jennifer, four years older, would leave the radio playing in the house."I was hooked on radio. It was the middle of the sixties, so we're talking the Beatles, Tommy James and the Shondells, Steppenwolf," Melissa recalled. But there was also the rhythm and blues, beaming out of Kansas City on small stations, and the more mainstream music her parents listened to: Neil Diamond, The Mamas & the Papas, Johnny Mathis. It all became part of her melting pot,and it wasn't long before she was doing the same as boys and girls all over America and forming a group with other kids on the block, using tennis rackets for guitars and pots and pans for drums. Melissa, naturally, played the tennis racket and sang, dreaming not of being a Beatle or a Stone, but an Archie. Specifically, Reggie."He was definitely the coolest. I wanted to be Reggie. He was dark, he was bad."Surprisingly, though, she wasn't a natural singer."Early on, she didn't have a great voice," her mother remembered. "The music was in her; she was strumming the tennis racket from the time she was a toddler. I think some people are born with a singing voice, but I don't think she was. She just realized that was part of what she wanted to do, and she taught herself."Soon it became quite apparent to John and Elizabeth that their younger daughter's obsession with music wasn't about to go away. Posing with a tennis racket had been fine for a while, but it didn't make noise; it wasn't the real thing. So, for Melissa's eighth birthday, they bought her a Harmony Stella six-string, and signed her up for guitar lessons with Don Raymond, a local jazz musician."He was real strict about timing. He tapped his foot really loud on an old wooden board. He's the reason I have really good rhythm," she said.But jazz wasn't the kind of music she was looking to play at the time. What Melissa needed immediately was the basics, and as soon as she'd mastered those, she was happy, taking her guitar down to the basement and just playing for hours at a time. It became her way of dealing with her emotions and problems, taking them out on the steel strings, strumming and picking.Within a couple of years she was writing, too. When she was ten, Melissa composed her first song, "Don't Let It Fly Away (It's Love).""I rhymed everything," she recalled years later, "love, above; bus with Gus."The fact that she could do something like this, write a song likethe ones she heard on the radio, was a complete revelation to her. Once she realized the possibilities that it raised, another girl was lost to music. She wanted to be a rock star. She knew she'd become a rock star, and went around telling everybody. It wasn't intended as a boast, just a simple statement of fact. Never mind that she didn't know of any female rock stars; that didn't matter. It was what she was going to do with her life."Melissa always had an amazing amount of self-confidence," Elizabeth Etheridge told Rolling Stone. "She never, ever said, 'If I am able to do something in music.' It was always when."To anyone growing up in the sixties, music was a powerful force. But the ones it truly touched, those like Melissa, became enraptured by it.Songwriting became the perfect way to deal with all the frustration and sorrow she felt. For a few minutes she could become the center of attention.Even at age ten and eleven she knew that within her family, "underneath there was a lot going wrong. I didn't know how to tell them what I was feeling. That just wasn't done. But I could sit down and sing 'I'm so sad,'and they'd say, 'That's just marvelous.'"Although she finished one song, more material didn't come flooding out. Another year would pass before the next one, "Lonely as a Child.""It was really sad. It was about war in a land--because the Vietnam War was going on--and it was about a child in that land, and the mother was killed. It's just lonely as a child waiting for her mother to come home."It was also the piece she performed when she appeared in public for the first time, entering a talent contest at the local mall, Leavenworth Plaza Tower.She was nervous, but Melissa quickly discovered that she liked the stage, having people watch her and, more than that, being able to affect them with her words, her singing, and her playing.Small towns build big dreams. At some point almost everyonewho grows up in one just wants to leave, to vanish into the wide world and never return to the stultifying atmosphere. For many the feeling passes, and they settle back to an ordered and happy life. But others know somehow that they're destined for something different, and that's the way it was with Melissa. Her experience of the world outside Leavenworth was limited to television and a few trips to Kansas City, but she already knew her future lay well beyond the heartland, in her fingers and her voice.With the talent contest under her belt, she began spending more time than ever in the basement, learning new songs and continuing to write, including a piece for her grandmother, who'd recently passed away. For the most part, the material she composed was folky ballads, like "Lonely as a Child," which had brought such a good response at the mall."I think that's why my music was sad, and I could actually get a response from people. It was OK to make people cry, but it wasn't OK to cry, you know?"Very soon her songs were getting positive responses all over Leavenworth and the surrounding small towns. The eleven-year-old with the long, straight hair and the big guitar would get up and entertain at teachers' conventions, churches, and nursing homes, her father driving her to and from the shows, standing quietly at the back while she entertained.John Etheridge was a person who believed in politeness, in being nice, and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. It was a trait he passed on to his younger daughter. She was a good girl, respectful of her elders, always remembering his advice to thank her audience--something she still does.Melissa had discovered her own way of dealing with the family's lack of communication, channeling it into something creative and useful. Her older sister, though, didn't have that option. She became the girl who hung out and listened to loud music--which opened Melissa's ears to newer, louder bands like Humble Pie and Jethro Tull."She externalized it. She got angry. She was the bad kid. She always got in trouble," Melissa told The Advocate.While John and Elizabeth were trying to deal with that, Melissa was expanding her horizons almost every day. At twelve she was becoming something of a veteran on the local music scene. Along with nursing homes and churches she now included bowling alleys, supermarket openings, Knights of Columbus Halls, and lounges on her circuit. She even made one appearance in a local jail. To many kids that would have been terrifying, but she reveled in the attention."Prisons have the most enthusiastic audiences," she explained to Out. "It's like playing for two thousand people who all want to be entertained." She added elsewhere, "I would go in and do a couple of my sad, original songs ... that was fifteen hundred people. I was hooked."Missy, as everyone had taken to calling her, just loved to play. It came naturally, and just felt right to her, to be up on stage, singing and playing. The hours up there, the hours in the basement, writing and practicing, fulfilled a need in her. And along the way she'd discovered something else about herself--she was a natural musician. Almost without effort, she was able to pick up the rudiments of almost every instrument she touched. So, in terrifyingly quick succession, she learned to play piano, drums, saxophone, and clarinet. And, after trying a twelve-string guitar, she used the money she'd earned to buy herself one, just loving the fullness of sound it offered to accompany her voice.What Melissa really needed, though, was a band to back her up and really let her belt the songs out, but Leavenworth was not exactly bulging with young rock bands willing to give a thirteen-year-old girl a chance.It did, however, contain a country outfit called the Wranglers, and they were more than happy to accept the teenager on board to sing "Stand By Your Man" ("which is an amazing song just toholler" said Etheridge) and all the other Nashville favorites for the dances put on by Parents Without Partners and other organizations in the area.Before too long, the Wranglers with Melissa Etheridge were beginning to win a bit of local reputation, and more bookings were coming in, including bars. By law Melissa shouldn't have been allowed in the bars, but that was where she'd be on Saturday night anyway, strumming a guitar and singing her heart out.Her parents didn't drink, and if young Missy had ever wondered why not, when most of their friends did, those evenings provided the answer."I was watching these grown-ups drinking and getting sick and stuff. And I said, 'Hmm, that's disgusting.'"It provided her with a very quick education in the ways of the adult world. But country music, although it was fun, didn't fill the creative urge that kept driving her onward. At home she was still spending most of her free time in the basement, working on her playing. Music became the center of her life, everything from Carole King and Tapestry to the Who's rock opera Tommy."I remember listening to Exile on Main Street and thinking 'What the hell is this?' ... When I got to Sgt. Pepper, it totally blew my mind," Melissa told Musician magazine. Although the album had been out for several years by then, the power it held over an adolescent musician wasn't at all diminished. "One summer I listened to it every single day. It totally changed my life. I started realizing, words are important. Melodies are nice but words can make you think. You can get to people's bodies with music, and if you can make somebody think, then you've got their whole attention."That was important to her. Her writing was becoming more and more proficient as she listened and learned more about her craft. As she entered those confused teenage years, it became a way to unleash her emotions, to express the things she couldn't really talk about at home.Melissa's stint in the Wranglers didn't last long, but it taught hera great deal--how to work with a band, how to play to a noisy crowd out to be entertained, and how to project herself onstage.In high school she "hung out with the music and drama weirdos. We were very creative and very strange." But at Leavenworth High, where her father taught, she was also quite naturally well-behaved. Music class, in particular, enthralled her, and gave her an opportunity to demonstrate what she could do, maybe even to show off in front of the others a little bit. Lester Dalton, the teacher, was willing to indulge her."Melissa had a real gift for improvization and composition," he recalled. "She could come up with a song virtually at the spur of the moment."The other kids were supportive. They already knew, because Missy had told them, that she was going to be a singer."I would play, and they'd say, 'God, you're good. You're going to make it. I'm going to say,"I knew you when."'"But that point still seemed a long, long way off. Melissa was taking the best that her hometown had to offer--"the Ramada Inn in Leavenworth, making twenty-five bucks a night"--but it wasn't going to make her famous. There were also some gigs with bands, anything and everything from Top 40 to country, just for the experience, but she knew there was something beckoning beyond all that.Still, as long as what she was doing connected with music in some way, she was happy for the moment. Whether it was playing Dorothy in a school production of The Wizard of Oz, or being the entertainment at her own junior prom ("Commodores, Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac. So unalternative."), every tiny little thing helped. Then she could go home and sing along at the top of her voice with someone whose music she'd recently discovered, and who was to prove a major catalyst in her writing: Bruce Springsteen."I used to go home from school, plug my eight-track tape in, listen to Bruce Springsteen, and dream," she'd tell the crowd at her "MTV Unplugged" performance.He might have been singing about New Jersey, but even in Kansas Melissa knew exactly what he meant. His words--tales of getting out, breaking chains, driving forever without speed limits--spoke to her. And his band had all the adrenaline burst of great rock 'n' roll. "Born to Run," "Darkness at the Edge of Town"--she played them over and over. If any one person truly inspired Melissa, it was Bruce. One of the dreams she had while listening to his albums was of playing on the same stage with him one day. In 1978 that was pure fantasy: he was a star and she was sitting in her basement still trying to write songs that might someday live up to his. Seventeen years later, fantasy became reality when she asked him to join her for part of her "Unplugged" performance."It's like someone reached into your brain, plucked out your most secret fantasy, and gave it to you," she explained nervously.One thing that passed her by in Springsteen's songs was the tales of young love. Between her music and schoolwork there simply wasn't time, even if she'd been especially interested. She did date occasionally, and when she did, she went out with boys. It wasn't just that she hadn't yet discovered she was a lesbian; the entire concept of lesbianism was foreign to her. It was more a case of relating to the individual rather than the gender."I was sixteen years old the last time I dated a man," she told The Advocate. The other girls at school might have been obsessed with boys, but Missy just didn't see the attraction. Like everybody, she experienced a few crushes, but nothing she wanted to follow through on.By the time she turned seventeen, she'd become a "strange, butch guitar player." She'd also realized where her sexuality lay, beginning a relationship with a girlfriend. "I kiss my first girl, and fireworks go off, and music is playing. And then it's just ... clear."It was a revelation to her, and suddenly she understood the giddy emotions and sensations of love that everyone else had been feeling.At school a lot of people seemed to guess about her orientation.Graffiti like "Missy is a Lezzie" began to appear on the bathroom walls. Melissa was different from all the others. She stood out, and that made her a target. But the fact that she could get up and perform, write songs to let her feelings go, helped her cope with it. It also gave her some grudging respect from her peers. So, in the long run, she really didn't care what they wrote on the walls. Her time in Leavenworth was running out. She knew she'd be leaving; let them think what they wanted.One thing she did, however, was come out to her father. She'd always felt closer to him than to her mother. He was the one who drove her to the endless series of gigs all over northeast Kansas, the one who'd offered her an example of how to live and treat people by the way he intereacted with his students. Even if his background had left him emotionally stunted, Melissa wanted to be honest with him. She wanted to break the pattern of noncommunication.It wasn't easy. Coming out can be traumatic enough for an adult. For a teenager, going through a terribly confusing time anyway, to come out to her dad had to be one of the toughest things she'd ever done. But she sat down with him and talked, building up the conversation until he understood she was going to say something very important."And I finally said, 'I'm a homosexual.' And he said, 'Is that it?' He thought it was just going to be something really terrible."John Etheridge accepted his daughter's admission quite calmly. But Melissa would be twenty-three before she could sit down and talk about her lesbianism with her mother. Elizabeth had known for quite a while--John hadn't been asked to keep it a secret--but the topic had remained unspoken and the feelings unresolved, largely because of Melissa's "relationship with my mother. It was strained as a child, and I think that adds to my attraction to women. It's about what I didn't get as a child; that female energy I crave. But I think I had to be born [a lesbian] first."Once she'd sorted out who she was and what she was, life beganto make a lot more sense. Still, this was the late 1970s, and Kansas wasn't full of out lesbians to offer her any examples. The only thing she could do was what came naturally, what felt right."It's bad enough being straight and dealing with adolescent sexuality," she said. "It was very hard, very lonely."All-consuming as this seemed, it had to coexist with her music. There were regular gigs to play, practicing to be done, and plenty of new songs just waiting to be written. A new life with a girlfriend had to happen in moments stolen from that, finding a balance between the two. And just because Melissa was out to her father and the kids at school thought they knew what she was didn't mean the relationship could be open. It was still the love that dare not speak its name.Inside it felt right to her, so she knew it couldn't be wrong, but she did keep it quiet. The songs she wrote couldn't be addressed to a woman. So she began writing to someone genderless. She knew she was writing to, and about, women, but her audiences never suspected that the original material interspersed with their favorites had so many undertones.There was, of course, no thought about coming out publicly. This was still the Midwest, and perilously close to the Bible Belt. A lot of people still saw homosexuality as a sin; a number of states had laws against homosexual acts in the statute books. It might have been the 1970s, but enlightenment for many remained beyond the horizon.Melissa knew that Kansas held no future for her. Once she'd graduated from high school, she planned to leave. Playing hotel lounges, nursing homes, the circuit she'd put together for herself, was fine for a kid. The experience had been invaluable. But it wasn't going to help her music develop. It didn't expose her to all the other influences she needed, the loud blast of rock 'n' roll, the interaction with other musicians who could stimulate her. It had been a great place to start out, but it had given her everything shecould use. It was time to begin thinking about fresh challenges, in a place where she could more openly be herself, where being that strange, butch guitar player was acceptable.She was ready to try her wings. After all, there was a whole world out there to be conquered by her music. But her parents wanted her to go through more formal musical training, and that meant college."I didn't want to go to college, but I wanted to leave Leavenworth. So I thought, 'OK, maybe I'll go to a music college. This could be a compromise.'"Initially they suggested the big schools like Juilliard and Eastman, but Melissa wasn't having any of that. Granted, she could play a number of instruments quite well. The problem was that these schools were immersed in tradition. Neither offered a guitar major, which was what she really wanted. Instead she'd have been forced to major in voice, "and can you hear me singing opera?"Melissa countered it with another suggestion: Berklee College of Music, in Boston. The emphasis was different there, far more on the contemporary, and it welcomed good guitarists. Since it was a college, and it had good credentials, John and Elizabeth gave in and let her apply.Meanwhile she continued to play her circuit, writing songs, and seeing her girlfriend as time and circumstances allowed. There was always something that needed to be done.By now Melissa was chafing to be away from Leavenworth, from Kansas, from the Midwest. When the acceptance letter came from Berklee she could begin to count the days to leaving.What she didn't realize then was how much of it she'd be taking along with her. The small-town sensibility of Leavenworth had shaped her values, her work ethic. She knew to treat people the way she'd like to be treated, to give her job--her music--everything she could, every time. It was hardly a surly, dismissive rock 'n' roll attitude she was carrying, but that was all to the good. Her waywould carry her much further. Like her hero, Bruce Springsteen, she looked at life from a blue-collar perspective, not so much an observer as a participant.In Leavenworth the biggest employer was the Hallmark factory, making greeting cards and candles. As graduation rolled around and the class of '79 made their plans, some of them were hearing the call of the plant. It was steady work, secure, well paid. That was what they wanted, a future all mapped out for them. They could work, party on the weekends for a couple of years, then go steady, marry, and have families. Take a vacation every year in the Ozarks or somewhere farther afield. Retire at sixty-five and enjoy life.To Melissa that was hardly better than being a prisoner in the federal penitentiary down the block from her house. Growing up in a small town had been fine. But as soon as the chance to escape came, she needed to take it. When she was young, the family had occasionally taken the trip to Kansas City for home and garden shows. Back then the lights of the city, its noise and bustle, had appealed to the girl. It was somewhere she wanted to be, to feel herself surrounded by its energy. She'd never forgotten it.The summer passed slowly. Everyone she'd known in school gradually took on other, more adult lives. The days were hot and sticky and endless. She spent her time in the basement, working on her guitar technique, writing some new songs. Although she couldn't see it closely, the image of Boston and Berklee grew stronger in her mind. A place where no one would be writing "Missy is a Lezzie" on the wall, because they wouldn't care. Where she could be herself, and Missy and Melissa Lou could vanish, to be replaced forever by just Melissa.While she had high hopes for the things she could learn about music at college, she knew that college wasn't an end in itself. It was a tool to help her along the way. Deep inside she understood that her future was in rock 'n' roll. It had given her so much while she was growing up. It had comforted her, taken her places. And now she was ready to start giving something back.July and August ticked by. Labor Day came and went, the air filled with the smell of family barbecues. John Etheridge returned to the high school for a new year of teaching. All Melissa had to do was pack. Her clothes were selected, her records, her guitar always ready to travel in its hard-shell case.Finally it was time to leave, to cram everything she was taking into the family car, kiss her mother good-bye, and let her father drive her to the airport in Kansas City. After all the anticipation and the idea that leaving home made her an adult, she felt like a little kid again, passing through the streets of Leavenworth, then watching the town disappear in the rear view mirror--just like something from a Springsteen song.The airport bustled with activity. At the gate, people sat, casually reading magazines or glancing out the window. This was the point of no return. As soon as that plane took off, Melissa was beginning a new life.When the boarding call came, she found her seat and settled in. The noise of the takeoff was loud. Climbing into the sky, she found herself looking back, at the scenery, at her life, until Kansas became just a memory below the clouds.She had plenty of dreams to sustain her during the flight, hopes for everything the future might hold. She wanted the big time, and she was willing to work hard for it. At home everyone had told her she had the talent to make it. In Boston, in the big city, she'd begin to find out if that was really true.MELISSA ETHERIDGE. Copyright © 1997 by Chris Nickson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.