The first version I heard was Patsy Cline’s, as old-fashioned as her name, as passé as her side-profile on the album cover: tight red “pedal pushers,” black bouffant hair, a cardigan. I must have been a child then, living Way Up North in a worn house on a granite-pebble road, no running water, no telephone, no TV. But we did have a radio that sat on top of the fridge. Was “Crazy” playing on an AM country-western station? No, it must have been someone’s album, the edges worn white. Patsy’s strong voice, authoritative, well-articulated, yet countrified with that slight yodel-y sound, was a voice to believe.
But the words she sang were not strong. They were weak words, words for women, it seemed to me, not for men: “I’m crazy…crazy for cryin’, crazy for tryin’, crazy for lovin’ you.” The background singers contributed their Ooooh woos and Ahhhs, their Mmmms, their fum, fum, fums. The guitars were well-mannered. So much manufacturing to make a commercial sound, a recognizably consumable and acceptable sound with no sharp sides, no untoward blurting of forbidden topics. So clamped down and cleaned up, like the Italian and Mexican names of singers anglicized and Frenchified, the konked and honkeyed hair and v-neck sweaters of black singers. So fifties.
Yet all that schmaltz could not kill the life in Patsy’s song. Something forbidden came through: abject desperation. To say, not “I’m crazy about that girl,” a mere cliché, but “I’m out of my mind. I’m insane,” was a step toward acknowledging the depths.
The song offered up a picture of a person at war with herself, unable to control her feelings: “I’m crazy for feeling so lonely.” The harsh rebuke of the self against the self. And “I knew that you’d love me as long as you wanted, then someday leave me for somebody new” opened the question: why do we dive in when we know disaster awaits? Why do we put our hand in the flame when we know it will burn? The song riveted me. It raised its questions higher and higher: “Why do I let myself worry, wondering What in the world did I do?” Confusion about the relationship and oneself, anguish, self-blame, self-denigration held the thrill of exposed secrets.
Later, in college, Linda Ronstadt with her powerhouse of a voice, so beautiful and vulnerable in its vibrato, sang her version of “Crazy.” That album, however, was stripped of fifties fashion. Instead, a bare shoulder gleamed against a black nightscape, and a large white flower pinned in her blue-black hair linked Ronstadt to nature and the dark. Her hair was styled, yes, but much less so than Patsy’s. She sang the same haunting words, “crazy for thinking that my love could hold you.” Those were loser-words, cringe-worthy, yet she said them out loud, the cloak of self-confidence and self-esteem ripped away. How taboo in a time of feminism, of Ms. magazine, of women becoming doctors, lawyers.
That was during college, a time of confused drama. I lived in the city by then, far from the woods and fields of my past. Through apartment floorboards, I heard Stevie Wonder’s obsessive beat like someone running up and down stairs. I heard doors slam. I heard sobbing and yelling, the hoarse words, “I love you!” And I was fascinated. This was a new psychological world. Downstairs, nothing was under wraps. Nothing was under control. Upstairs, I was still cautious, the queen of two dates followed by excuses. A bit later, I would manage the one-month “relationship” with everything left unsaid.
But downstairs, they lived another way. I listened as hard as I could to the sounds, but missed some of the situation. Was it a break-up? Infidelity? One thing was sure: it was emotional exposure. How did one continue to live after such nakedness?
I was a new feminist then. I read on bathroom walls, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” I marched in Take Back the Night rallies. I read Adrienne Rich, Gloria Steinem, and Shulamith Firestone. I went bra-less. Marriage and motherhood were loathsome to me. I was absolutely determined never to have my mother’s life of ten children, no driver’s license, little self-confidence, no travel, education, nor accomplishment.
Two hundred and fifty miles from home, an intellectual immersed in heady language, I was independent, impermeable, even superior. On the surface. I quoted Judy Grahn’s words, “the common woman is as common as the best of bread and she will rise.” But I wanted to be more like the woman she criticized, the one whose ambition was to be “more shiny and metallic.” I would never humiliate myself by living for men, waiting for men, rearranging things for men, giving things up for men, focusing on men.
On the surface.
Beneath the surface, a rickety base wobbled. Most of my intense discussions with close women friends, even if they involved criticism, revolved around men and relationships. What was a certain guy thinking? Was their hope for a relationship? What should I do or not do? What was the relationship of X and Y like? I sat cross-legged beneath my socialist-realist poster of a telephone repairwoman high in the heavens, fixing a wire in a thunderstorm, not a man in sight, and I daydreamed about men, obsessed about my problems with them. Why couldn’t I let go? Why couldn’t I stop suffering? What I did and undid and redid and failed to do were all crazy.
The singers of “Crazy” were abject and admitted it. They clung desperately to impossible love, longed for someone incapable of appreciating them, castigated themselves for not being enough. And, I realize now, they showed a kind of courage, the courage to tell the inner truth as well as the outer truth, a courage I didn’t have.
In private journals, I could dance on the edge of truth-telling intimacy. By myself or with close friends, I sang the song, pouring emotion into it. But I still didn’t completely acknowledge that this was my own situation. I would rather have died than admit it to a man. To be that vulnerable filled me with so much dread. To expose myself that way would have seemed crazy. The danger of exposure and loss of control was so great that I could only listen in, a sort of peeping Tom, and be amazed.
I tried to figure out men indirectly, often through their music. How well, I remember, as a junior, lying beside my boyfriend on his bed, feeling that to lie next to him listening to his Ronstadt album, was perfect bliss, all I needed and wanted. Something I couldn’t explain or define suffused me, and it was infinitely addictive. I wondered what Ronstadt’s songs meant to him. I wondered what he thought of her alluring photo. I wondered, but I didn’t ask. I loved him passionately, but never said so. I treated our connection as a triviality and made a big deal of his being slightly younger, patronizing him by calling him, “the boy.” When he talked about his plans — to be a high school guidance counselor and live in a small town – I didn’t comment, but could not see myself joining him. I could only imagine it as stifling, a cage. When he began to distance himself, I could not see or admit it was the end. Like Patsy, like Linda, I was crazy, in denial, but unlike them, I could not say so out loud. When he finally told me it was over, my body went cold with shock. And when he left the room, I broke into sobs, unable to maintain a surface layer of control.
Years later I discovered to my astonishment, that the song, “Crazy,” was written by a man. Yes, Willie Nelson, cowboy outlaw, was the original author. Once again I marveled at another secret exposed to the world: men could feel like that too! I hadn’t thought it possible. But it was (in spite of the fact that at least one man turned down the opportunity to record it because it was “a girls’ song,” per Wikipedia). It was. I had lived in a world of suppositions and guesses, projections and phantoms, neither knowing myself nor others as fully as I might have.
That was a time of protests, of shouting out loud all kinds of slogans, some true enough, a time of pointing the finger relentlessly outward. It was a time of running away from complex longings that didn’t fit a prescription of power and strength. It was a time of compressing and containing the frightful and forbidden. Certain feelings and experiences beckoned toward a confused and mystifying world, threatened to break down protective walls, and leave me exposed, a terrified and wounded child. That child had to be walled up at all costs, contained, suppressed. She had to be called crazy.
And yet she was ever-present, intoxicated by forbidden songs, obsessed with unworthy topics. In time, I would recognize her as a friend.
Photo used under public domain.