#495: Bonnie Raitt, "Give It Up" (1972)

I get most of my ideas in the shower. It might be the action of lathering—the fingers massaging my scalp, preparing it like a surgeon about to lift my head’s heavy lid. I like the clash that occurs when the body zones out on autopilot, allows the mind to wander. Sometimes I'm surprised to rediscover what was intuitive to me as a child: that boredom often contains inspiration. 

The shower, increasingly, is also the only place where I sing, where I like the way I sound. Here is a place of safety: of ideas and resonance. This morning, stepping out of the tub, I slipped on the damp tile before catching myself with a hand on the counter. It’s a cliché, I know, that people die like this: one moment, upright and drying off, the next, splayed and splattered on the bathroom floor. I imagine the sound it would make, traveling up the entire body, through the windpipe and out the mouth: whoomp. One final stroke of body-shaking percussion.  

Undeniably, I am getting older. This is something I tend to notice the most in the shower, with my body right there for examination. But once I was a child, and there are some things my body still displays that bear proof of this:  a livid white stripe on my shin from an afternoon I spent jumping from twin bed to twin bed, eventually bashing my leg open on the bed frame. Another, smaller wedge of a scar on my kneecap from tumbling down the stairs. Another faint stripe on my hand, a burn from trying to save a crumbling Pop-Tart from the toaster. So many of these, accumulating across my body like snow, leaves.

It startles me now to think how I used to catapult my body around without even paying attention to it. I also used to sing everywhere: in the shower, outside the shower, in the living room, without being embarrassed. And when I say sing I don’t mean the benign, passive nature of humming to yourself as you cook dinner, of whistling while you work—I mean belting. I was really trying: I was young enough to lack any learned apathy or shame. 

Growing up, my house bellowed with the constant rotation of The Cranberries, Eva Cassidy, and Bonnie Raitt. I wanted all that they had: their powerful voices, their wisdom, how they could suddenly change tenor and key. My sister and I would put on our mother’s and aunts’ old dresses, swimming in the collars and waistlines, and dance, assuming what we thought were the rigid roles of adults, grabbing each other’s palms and swaying around the living room carpet, dipping and spinning one another like the people we saw waltzing in tuxes and gowns in old black-and-white movies. Bonnie and her cohort in our CD deck represented an adult world that I had yet to inhabit. Bonnie with the flaming red hair. Bonnie who knew what she wanted and how to go about getting it.  

Their music offered a disturbing spectrum of emotion that I could sense was, at that time, beyond me, winking far off like a shard of glass on the street. That music, Bonnie’s leaping voice, is my first memory of songs conveying something so big and abstract, something outside myself; that wordless chords could connote an emotion.

As a kid, I daydreamed about being a musician simply because I loved music. That’s only partly true. I see now that I wanted to be a musician because singing and playing an instrument seemed to be a way to have creative control over your life: a way of growing up without ever having to a grow up, to have fun all the time. The adults I knew—my parents, and the friends of my parents, and the parents of my friends—stood over pots of chickpeas on the stove. They sat on a couch and talked about boring things I didn’t understand, and the books they read were set in small type with no pictures. They read the newspaper while wearing slippers, and drove minivans and talked in parking lots to other adults while dropping off their children. In other words, the adults I saw in my day-to-day life were nothing like Bonnie, as far as I could see, or any musician for that matter.

I did not envy them. I wanted instead to be the beam of energy spilling through the speakers. I wanted to be as electric as the white streak punctuating Bonnie’s hair.

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

In many ways, I felt like these singers were asking me: So, what kind of person are you preparing to be? What kind of woman? It’s interesting to go back now, years and years later, and really listen to Bonnie Raitt, especially on Give It Upand hear all these discrepancies I never noticed as a child, to hear Bonnie as a powerful woman singing with confidence and authority about how helpless she feels, how down and out, a woman who needed a man to love her, a woman who would not make it on her own. I know this is, of course, somewhat essential to the blues, and, more widely, to the entire medium of song. This slippage is what makes her intriguing, her music full of contradictions. Isn’t that healthy? Isn’t that what being an adult means—being human?

Whenever I sang along with Bonnie, my mind would clear and smooth itself, a sheet settling over a bed. I felt, almost, like I could control time by losing myself in a song I knew as well as myself. Dancing and singing and falling and slipping: my dumb body just trying to navigate its way through the world. Bent over backwards at the waist with my sister’s hand on the small of my back, my head flung upside down, blood pounding in my ears, it was easy for just a second to forget where I was, to forget entirely about where I was going to step next.

—Lena Moses-Schmitt