|A promotional disc of Love’s Gonna Find You|
Last night I read this essay she wrote in Elle magazine and was struck by how our mothers were the same: creative women forging a career in an industry that can be brutal, but also more fulfilling than anything put before them otherwise. The creative world is that way. And with mother’s day approaching, I thought it appropriate that I write about my mother’s experience as well.
Houston’s mother ran away as a teenager to New York and Broadway and made a living on the stage, even touring with Bob Hope. At a late age she met Houston’s father and started a life as a wife and mother. Houston recalls that her mom often mentioned the life she’d left behind. Her mother sounds like a woman who did work that she loved most of her life and missed it terribly toward the later years, and Houston credits her mother for giving her ambition. It certainly sounds as though she did, because running away to New York and making it work is quite an achievement. That took courage and determination.
The difference between our mothers was that mine began her career after starting a family, and so we were around for the ride. After my first brother was born my mother soon realized that the life of a homemaker was financially out of her and my father’s reach. She decided that if she would be forced to work, then she’d do something she loved. She started singing in clubs shortly after, progressing to recording, producing and finally movie acting and did it all as a divorced mother juggling four children. For her the issue wasn’t that she gave anything up for us, but that she hit many, many walls erected by a mostly male establishment that often attempted to manipulate her and her career to fit their needs. But for as many that tried to block her, there were some that attempted to help and her mantra to us was: You can do anything. You want it? Go for it.
It’s a mantra that is an invaluable lesson for anyone going into a profession as tough as that laid out for a writer, musician, actor or artist. My mother didn’t just say it, she showed us how to do it. When she wanted to be the leader of her own band she was brushed off and when she wouldn’t give up was told that she’d have to join the musician’s union to do it. She couldn’t play an instrument, but she took a tambourine into the offices of the union and banged away at it until the man couldn’t take it anymore and signed the form and waved her out.
When disco arrived and the clubs closed and the opportunities for performers who sang jazz were replaced by a spinning disc and bright lights, she looked for other options. She headed to Second City to learn acting, dragging us to sit on the side because she couldn’t afford a babysitter. And during that time she had a side gig booking punk rock acts, an interesting development for a woman who sang the standards. She loved Sinatra, yes, but to her, music was music and all types of performers were welcome and interesting. She booked Iggy Pop and I recently found an old contract. It mentions a poster. I wish I could have found it in her things after her death, but I suspect she gave it to Iggy after the show.
When she wanted to record a demo and was turned away from the bigger companies, she filed for a record company license (controlled by another set of gatekeepers) and bought studio time. Her demo turned the big companies around and she landed a contract with Warner Curb. She did the rounds of radio stations without any real money for promotion and when her song started trending it was quashed for another’s who was pushed ahead. That performer had that one hit only and disappeared from sight. She, though, kept going. She put her Second City training to work and started landing roles in movies and television shows.
And through it all she showed us that going for it was the base line. Failure was always around, rejection too, but forging ahead is better than living with regret. I’m glad she showed us that, because it’s a lesson that usually only comes with age and wisdom and I was lucky enough to be taught it as a child.
When my mother died one of her oldest friends came up to me at the funeral and said, “Your mother showed us what was possible.” It was a lovely thing to say, and it sums up her life perfectly.
And so for those who struggle in this creative world that we love, keep going. The walls are real but so are the ways around them. In the words of my mother: