Saturday, December 12, 2009

We Are Family: We Were Family Edition

This week, we have had songs by brothers, sisters, and by parents and their children. But no one else has tackled married couples. Perhaps this has to do with a question: when should two (or more) people in a committed relationship of choice be considered a family? Surely, a same-sex couple, who can not legally marry, are no less a family than a heterosexual couple that can. And were Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer not a family because they never actually married? I wouldn’t think so. Still, society has its opinion, and those would have been controversial choices.

There is also another aspect to this. Were a couple who have since broken up a family while they were together? I don’t think the answer has anything to do with whether or not they had children together. I think the closeness they felt when the relationship was at its best is far more relevant. And the music they made together is often the best clue to this. Let’s look at three examples.

Richard and Linda Thompson: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight


The most obvious example is Richard and Linda Thompson. They were married shortly after Richard completed his original stint with Fairport Convention, and they were together for many years. Their recordings together were always billed as being by both of them, and they achieved a style together that is demonstrably different from how either of them sounds on their own. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is a fine example of that sound.

Joni Mitchell: My Secret Place


Joni Mitchell’s jazz period ended after the Mingus album, (how do you top that?), and the death of bass player Jaco Pastorius. At that point, she did two things that would have been unthinkable to those who had followed her career to that point: she married bass player and producer Larry Klein, and she decided to rock out. The albums from this “rock” period are some of Mitchell’s least known work, and her most uneven. The best songs from this time, however, are as good as any in her catalog, although stylistically different. Mitchell’s marriage to Klein eventually ended, but he worked on her most recent album, Shine, although they were no longer married. So I would say that Klein is still part of Mitchell’s musical family.

Suzanne Vega: In Liverpool


My last example is also the most problematic. Suzanne Vega’s marriage to producer and keyboardist Mitchell Froom only lasted for one album, 99.9 F degrees. I remember that the reviews at the time of the albums release hailed the album as a bold new direction for Vega. And I remember reading an interview with Vega at the time where she talked about how excited she was.

I saw Vega live a few years later, after the marriage was over. Vega reached a point in the performance where she was ready to take requests from the audience. But first, she cautioned us that she would not play any songs from 99.9 F degrees. But, to my ear, there was one song on the album that sounded like the rest of Vega’s material to that point. So I blithely shouted out, “In Liverpool”. Sure enough, that was the one song she had done with Froom that she was willing to lay claim to at that point, and it sounded great that day. So I don’t know how Vega feels about Froom or these songs nowadays. But I also don’t know if that answers the question of whether, however briefly, she and Froom were a family.

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