Essential Music #5

When it comes to music, the world can be divided into two types of listeners: (1) those who are spiritually stoked by music, who treat it as something holy, whose hearts beat and blood flows to whatever strains happen to strike their fancy; and (2) those for whom music is intermittently pleasant, occasionally something to be tolerated, but mostly a kind of aural cotton in the aspirin bottle, something used to fill up the space between their ears. For the first type, music is closely related to and sometimes takes the place of religion. For the second group, well, that’s why they invented Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, and Michael Bolton. (The advantage to being in that second group is that there are plenty of poisons from which to choose.)

Lou Reed, himself a musical zealot who, by the sheer uncompromising nature of his music, inspires true believers, back in 1984 wrote and recorded “Doin’ the Things that We Want To.” A paean to Martin Scorsese and Sam Shepard and to the power of art, either you got it or you didn’t when Reed sang:

I wrote this song ’cause I’d like to shake your hand…
In a way you guys are the best friends I ever had

Heather Eatman got it. Originally from Jacksonville, Texas, as a teenager in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, she was a loner. She felt alienated, apart from the crowd. So far apart from the crowd that she needed binoculars just to find it. She didn’t help matters much by slicking back her hair and sporting vintage sharkskin suits. “I looked like Mia Farrow trying to pass for Frank Sinatra.” The first time we talked, over ten years ago, speaking from backstage at the Celebrity Theater in Phoenix, Arizona, before opening for John Prine, her tiny voice belied her true vocal ability. She agreed that high school is a traumatic time for everybody, “although that’s sort of a secret at that point. I think everybody feels like they’re the only one that’s going through hell.”

Music was a “wonderful escape” for Eatman. “It was like a drug. I didn’t recognize myself in the world until I ran across some cool people like Robert Johnson and Tom Waits and Keith Richards.” And Lou Reed.

“Meeting” these individuals through their work gave her insight into herself and provided her with the means to set free whatever she had locked up inside. “I wanted to learn about writing songs and playing music just for my own enjoyment and sort of a therapeutic thing. I never really thought when I was in high school that I could actually do anything with it in the real world.” Nevertheless, she found herself playing dorm assembly rooms, coffeehouses and NYC nightclubs. Having moved to Manhattan, where she secured a day job as staff designer for New York Daily News, one snowy February night in 1994 she came to the attention of somebody from John Prine’s Oh Boy Records.

Mascara Falls, Eatman’s debut and one of 1995

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