Kevin told me over the phone this morning that Etta James died, and my sister emailed to say "I just heard the news...thinking of you guys!" Isn't it funny how the musicians, writers, and artists we love can become such a part of our lives that we think of them almost like family? We carry their words, songs, and images with us into the most important moments of our lives. They become part of our own stories.
In December of 1999, I was finishing up my last year of graduate school. Kevin and I had been dating for a year, but he had finished his degree the previous spring and moved back to Los Angeles. He wanted me to come visit for his birthday, but I (ever frugal and goal-oriented) dragged my feet. It would cost a lot. I had my thesis to finish. Come, he said. It'll be worth it.
When I arrived in L.A., I opened a newspaper and gasped. "Etta James is playing at the House of Blues this weekend!" I cried. "Let's go!" Kevin shook his head and pointed to the SOLD OUT notice stamped on the ad. Besides, he had other plans for that night.
Plans, indeed. First, he took me to a swanky restaurant where I had the most elaborate dessert of my life. A cream puff swan in a pond of caramel next to a chocolate gazebo. I kid you not. It was art of the most delicious kind. And with my dessert, the waiter delivered a sweet anniversary card Kevin had made up ahead of time. Aw.
Kevin had other ideas.
In fact, Kevin had been acting weird all night. Sweaty palms, easily distracted. And now he didn't want to look at the scientific games. He wanted to walk up the hill. The hill? But the telescope would be locked up in a matter of minutes! Kevin pulled me away from the crowd so we could look up at the stars. And then he went down on one knee and held out a sparkly ring. Honestly. After a few tearful kisses, we even had time to go look at the moon through the telescope before the park closed.
As we drove home, we neared the House of Blues and I sighed. The night we'd had was better than an Etta James concert, but still...
And that's when Kevin turned into the parking lot. He'd had tickets to the concert all along. We walked in, a new ring on my finger, a flutter in my heart, and listened to Etta James sing. Only she didn't just sing. She crooned, she howled, she poured everything she had into those songs. Honesty, frustration, sadness, and joy. I will never forget that on one of the most important nights of my life, Etta James let it all out for us to share.
“A lot of people think the blues is depressing,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1992, “but that’s not the blues I’m singing. When I’m singing blues, I’m singing life. People that can’t stand to listen to the blues, they’ve got to be phonies.” (From today's NYT)Etta James: Sunday Kind of Love