Sunday, March 6, 2011

Punch-Drunk Singer

Me on the left and Pam at a cabaret she arranged at The Slipper Room, New York

Singing has been a big issue in my family. From as early as I can remember I was forced to sing. Oh come, come Jane 'forced' is a strong word isn't it? Not in my book I say, twitching nervously. I have been blessed (or cursed?) with a robust singing voice, and since my mother passed it on to me she thinks she gets a say in what I do with it. Singing was the be all and end all to my mum. For God's sake don't tell her about this bloody post. Look mum if you do happen to read this, I love you it's just some of your hopes and wishes for me that were hard to take OK? Anyway the pressure was on from the start. I am the eldest of three girls and since Pam came in last she kind of got overlooked in the singing department not to mention everything else. A memory that encapsulates this for me is Pam as a baby in a baby bouncer. They’d just come in fashion so Pam got to test-drive one. She would droop over in this contraption as she fell asleep and just well hang there. A little baby hanging by a thread. Anyway being gentle by nature Pam didn't have a loud screaming voice so she mostly wasn't heard in our family.

I’ve got to the point in life where I’ve stopped singing. It has lost all its joy for me. I got all the praise and the pressure around it. I had a panic attack when I was seven whilst singing my first solo at Sunday school. It resulted in me singing the same line over and over as I watched the expectant grin on my dad's face turn into a look of horror. Then a teacher kindly led me away. This event may well have been a pivotal moment regarding my future as a singer. Anyway I’ve been pushed too much and now singing sticks in my throat. I’ve lost the will to sing. If I hear my parents complain one more time because I am not on the X Factor (English version of American Idol) I think I'll have to be locked away in a padded cell. This is how I feel at the mention of the S word now...

I did join a madrigal group last summer and this I enjoy, no overtones of Frank Sinatra here. Instead a welcome hey diddle diddle of country fayre a far cry from the crooning that now makes me feel like throwing up. The whole sorry business was summed up for me after Pam’s memorial service when we gathered at mum’s golf club. About six friends of my parents were left chatting with us when dad suddenly said, “Jane are you giving a song?” You know like it was any old party. When I declined a woman friend of theirs who runs a night club, grew up in the fifties and has severely latent and blatant 'Rat Pack' tendancies said, ‘Well I’ll say this much Jane, what a waste of talent!”  I should have said, 'Oh sorry Norma you are quite right,' grabbed my top hat and cane and started singing ‘Give me the moonlight give me the girl and leave the rest to me!’ That would have been so fitting don't you think?  

Pam on the other hand didn’t realize she could sing until she was in her thirties. She didn’t even try to sing before that, well it wasn’t her place, she was the flute and piano girl. So one night at our parent's house mum was watching the Three Tenors on TV, her then favourite. Pam started to sing along in the next room and proceeded to surprise herself by how good she sounded. Mum shouted out, 'Is that our Jane singing?' To which Pam replied, 'No it’s me!' That was the start of Pam singing and she didn’t stop. I was already well on my way to my current dried up singer on the shelf self so as far as I was concerned she could have it. You see there was also the small matter of us being a highly competitive family so this could have been a problem. But since it took the pressure off me I was delighted. Although it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to muster enthusiasm for the business of singing no matter who was doing it. I had to snicker to myself at parties during Pam’s coming out years though. ‘Friends’ of the family would strongly imply in my general direction that Pam was by far the better singer. That old competitive spirit rearing its ugly head again. Who was competing? Not me, I’d had a belly full. Still it was nice of them to remind me what a precocious, big-headed singer I used to be thanks to the grandiose praise that had been lavished on me by my parents in their hope that I live out their dreams and become the next Barbra Streisand. Funny thing, it turns out Barbra suffers from nerves singing on stage too. Have you seen the film Shine? Let’s just say I relate. Not that I am in any way as gifted as this you understand...just the film is about too much pressure on him from his father..

Anyway Pam sang and she sang and she sang after that. Like a bird. She could sing like a coloratura and go much higher and faster on the trills than I could. This might have had something to do with the fact that she could make her eyes go very fast from side to side too. Quite amazing to see, like a nature spirit. She made lots of opportunities for herself to sing. She joined a band for a while in New York, sang in church every week and in the last year before she died she joined a dinner theatre cabaret in Newport. She could always be heard singing and whistling in the house something I never did. She could sing opera and even got into a prestigious music college in Leeds, which she decided not to pursue but that’s another story. She loved to sing that’s the top and bottom of it. She loved it, she wanted it and she did it. I’m so glad about that now.

 I have been transferring DVD tapes onto my computer, the ones that aren't getting chewed up by my stupid old camera that is. Oh I have to save them! There is a lot of footage of Pam that I can't transfer for fear of ruining it all completely. I do have some though like the Christmas I spent with her at her place in Long Island in 2002. Watching this film is heart-breaking. It is like she's just walked into the room, as I watch I feel how totally and utterly whacko it is that she is, you know... dead.  WTF?  Honestly I can watch it for a minute and then I have to turn it off because it is so freaky. That Christmas, just the two of us, I spotted an old Jackson Five Cd so I put it on and started singing along loudly, 'Whoooo's lovin you..' I was in the Jackson Five fan club when I was a kid and used to sing my heart out to them. So off I bellowed somewhat territorially, well I had been in the fan club! Pam became furious, her eyes flashed. She went into her 'I'm the youngest and I'm always last in line' stuff.  Like I said at the beginning of this story, singing is an issue in my family.  

Below is a hilarious recording of me singing along to the Jackson Five just like I used to when I was a girl. I taped it last week because I figure Pam would want me to sing. So I'm singing when I remember to. Every time I listen to this it makes me giggle I hope it makes you smile too! You never know I might rekindle a desire to have singing be a part of my life again..

Want to hear something lovely?

Click below to hear Pam singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow, 2008


  1. It must be lovely to have singing talent. When I sing, the cat runs and hides. Seriously. Of course, it doesn't keep me from being a musical snob.

    Love you. Great post.


  2. Thanks for saying so's funny but it's so easy to forget that it is a gift after being force fed on it! Ha! Thanks for the reminder..I'd love to hear about your musical snobbery! love to you too xx

  3. Jane--love your story here! Nice to hear you singing along to the Jackson Five....;-) And Pam's song is hauntingly gorgeous.

  4. Well you do have a lovely voice. What a waste . . .

    Just kidding!! :-)

    This write is quite a revelation to me. It never occurred to me that a singer would tire of it, but in the context of the pressure you were under, of course! It makes me sad. Not that you aren't singing still, but that it was such a pressure to perform that it drove the joy of it right out of you.

    It is very touching that you love Pam so much that you can rejoice in her joy in the singing. What a complicated mix of layered emotions in this life we carry along. I really love reading how you think and feel and express this story, Jane. Thank you.

    Signing off listening to Pam . . .

  5. Thanks it's so interesting to get feedback from those who consider themselves to be non singers. To ponder on someone who might wish to be able to sing like SB now that makes me feel more interesting in singing.. but nagging put me off.. thanks for reading..and listening..

  6. hi jane-

    thank you so much for coming by my blog! my own mom reads it, too, and lots of her i am happy to have you! i am going to check out the book you mentioned. blessings ~

  7. good to hear from you Sadie... hope you like the book!

  8. This is such a poignant journey for you and your sister, Jane. I have three sisters and we too used to compete over singing, among other things. Now we listen to our children sing and we try not to compete.

  9. It is Elisabeth..that is if she still is around somewhere..which I have to believe she is else I'd top myself. That rivalry though ohh why do we have to have that? It so gets in the way of everything. It's daft really..but that's the way we are made I guess.. thanks for sharing that..we were not the only ones then..

  10. First, I LOVED listening to the music, you and your sister have equal talent IMHO. Slightly--grin! differing style of vocal technique

    Second...well, parental pushing, sibling rivalry, etc., I identify TOTALLY with that stuff.

    All my life I played a violin, swore I could not sing, even proved it to myself. About 2 years ago, signed on to a catholic church choir, found I had a quite decent bass--and a bonus in that choir, could read all the clefs, and sing in tune LOL...

    Thank you for commenting today--like your you!

  11. Steve thanks so much for saying so! You are an inspiration I love your blog. Enjoy your singing..I envy your ability to read the music. I can pick it up fast but to those who can read it and sing it just like!

  12. hi jane, stopped by to say hello and to become a follower (no Kool-Aid, ok?)
    this is rough for me; so much of my life has been defined by the loss of my brother...but i want to honor your loss and that lovely Somewhere Over the Rainbow-singing sister of yours.
    oddly, i have a strong attachment to Newport RI: when i moved here, to south portland, ME from NYC a little over a year ago, i was also considering Newport...i love it there. so seedy and so elegant.

  13. Susan you've made my day! not sure what you mean by kool aid though.. is it an American thing? Anyway it's rough for me you know all to well, I'm sorry about your brother. Today I felt like I have to find a way to write more about's hard to look at though..I'd love to talk to you about your brother sometime.. was it long ago or recent? Thanks for following Susan...

  14. yes, in mentioning Kool-Aid i am making a peculiarly American allusion to the mass suicide of the followers of the cult leader, Jim Jones, who led something called the People's Temple. the mass suicide was done at Jim Jones direction; his followers drank poison dissolved in a sugary, instant summer drink called Kool-Aid. (this is all on Wikipedia, if youre interested). so people use the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" as short-hand to mean blindly following a cult leader. so when i said i had signed up to be a "follower" of yours, i was making a joke. sorry :(
    my brother died at age 35 of cancer, almost 20 years ago. he was my only sibling. it was not an accident, like your sister's death, which if possible must have been even worse. i have posted about my brother. if you want, i'll find a few of the posting dates. but i do things like you probably do, of making elaborate constructions of dates...he would have been blah blah on this date; when i say almost 20 years, it is with a sinking heart that time has gone on so callously without him. also, this may be a feeling you know well: i remember having insomnia for quite awhile after he died, which i loved because it meant that my grief was intense and i knew someday that my grief would diminish, and i hated the coming of that inevitable day because grief was all i had.

  15. I should have known...I was watching a docu on cult leaders the other day and saw footage of that moment. A woman on tape calming discussing with him just before drinking it that she thought it might not be a good idea. Yes I don't want to be a cult leader ha!

    I'd love to read your posts about your brother. My god what a shock that must have been so young. And your only sibling.. may I give an internet hug? ((())). I got to have nearly 10 more years of Pam. But who's comparing? My grief is not as painful lately and I write to Pam daily to apologise for not crying so much anymore..

  16. jane: see, i knew you'd understand about not wanting to let go of the intensity of the grief...
    how did Pam end up in newport, RI? if you talk about this in previous entries in your blog, i apologize for asking. i havent read all the entries yet--but i will. witnesses, and the telling, are so important.
    some old stuff, from my previous blog:

  17. wow susan these posts are incredibly touching..i left a comment on one of them. my heart goes out to you. Life eh? Pam went to Newport with our cousin for a little holiday and fell in love. She got a job in a B&B and ended up staying. I went to work with her at one inn for the summer.. there is a post on here called I Remember Sky and the photo is outside that inn.

  18. you know, jane, not to be the last person on the planet to say this, but...your writing is terrific. i poked around a bit yesterday; i *love* your short story The Girl and the Empty Well. i'm so glad you found me; i really look forward to reading new posts from you!! thank you so much for connecting!
    and your singing! on, I Remember

  19. susan..THANKS! I need all the encouragement I can get! don't we all! and coming from a writer put's a big smile on my face. you like my story! yippee! i really want to get into writing more but have no experience except for one class i've done. any advice would be much appreciated. thanks for listening to the singing too. as you now know it's a hard subject for me.. i'm so glad we connected too.. I love your blog... the name Twisted Knickers always makes me grin...

  20. Thankyou for sharing the music Jane - brilliant that you are singing for a laugh now. It's meant to be that way (for most of us anyway) :)
    All we need is a bit of little Michael J. I like how you know all the words!!

    The Rainbow is one of my favourite songs. And your sister has the loveliest trills.

  21. Thankyou so much Shaista for leaving a comment here... How lovely .. I'm thrilled .. all the very best to you

    Jane xx