"And I knew there was something that could be louder than that, but didn't know where to find it. And I found it was me.”
– Little Richard
Maybe it’s this: too much TV and not enough real conversation.
The first Little Richard song you hear isn’t even really a Little Richard song. You’re a few years old, watching a segment on Sesame Street done by the California Raisin people. An orange clay ball with red lips bounces and stretches to her theme song, which is a play on “Lucille,” only you won’t get that yet. It’ll burrow into your brain like all the other stuff you watch. You’ll understand references later—opera because of Bugs Bunny, Citizen Kane because of The Simpsons.
You’ll see and hear Little Richard properly soon after, on a VHS copy of Mother Goose: Rock 'n' Rhyme, a trippy-as-hell musical for kids where celebrities dress as nursery rhyme characters. Listen, it doesn’t matter what it’s about. You’ll only remember one thing, and it’s Little Richard. He’s a dreamy sugar confection, tall and glittering with a shiny, two-foot crown atop a mane of baby-pink curls flowing down his shoulders. He’s in a magenta suit, a hot pink feather boa trailing behind him, his shoes thick black high heels.
Then it’s like you can’t stop seeing or hearing him. You’re mesmerized. He does the Magic School Bus song, the theme of live-action Casper. “Tutti Frutti” is in It Takes Two, that Olsen twins movie your sisters love. He ice skates with Pee-wee. He pops up in episodes of Martin, of Blossom, of Full House. He sings “America the Beautiful” at WrestleMania X. You catch him on Sesame Street, but this time it’s really him, and he’s singing “Rubber Duckie.”
Your eyes don’t rest as a kid. You sit too close to the TV and you watch and you watch and you don’t say anything. You never say anything.
Maybe it’s this: fear.
It starts at like five years old maybe. Teachers call you “soft-spoken,” forget you’re even standing there, stuff like that. Like you aren’t really a person but more of a nerdy gentle breeze occupying a Catholic school desk. You keep to yourself, read lots of library books on dogs and insects, dress in baggy flannel, and grow your hair super long, like ridiculously so, like your hair is trying to overtake you, hide you, envelop you into Cousin Itt oblivion. And part of you would love that, too—just to fade absolutely, completely into the background.
At home, alone in the living room, you sing along to your mom’s Beatles Live at the BBC four-CD set. You listen close. They’re playing some Little Richard.
But at school? Anywhere else but home alone? You turn crimson when anyone talks to you. You spend hours sliding down spirals of doubt in your head. You watch other kids interact, watch normal human behavior go on in front of you and you just can’t participate. You freeze up.
It’s like you’re not physically capable of talking sometimes, of making yourself known. You could have the words halfway up your throat but then your jaw will stay locked tight. You’re stupid, you’re wrong. You don’t want anyone looking at you, anyone mad. You don’t want to cause a commotion.
You feel the fallout from this early. In second grade, when a kid chokes on a cube of cantaloupe, the teacher makes you run to get the nurse—you of all people. The nurse is on the phone so you make the decision to wait quietly (you were taught to be polite, not interrupt; you weigh pros and cons) until she finishes up her call. That kid could’ve died because you didn’t want to bother anyone.
Your nerves are shot by the time you hit third grade.
What are you afraid of, anyhow?
Maybe it’s this: God.
Maybe you’re so quiet and guilty-feeling and nervous all the time because you were raised Catholic. Something infected you early. Something happened while you were standing in line waiting to confess your sins at seven years old, struggling to come up with what you were going to say because you’ve got to have something to confess, right? Didn’t you disobey your parents? Didn’t you get jealous? Don’t you want to go into a little room with an old man and tell him how bad you are so he can give you a way to make it up to God?
At thirteen, just as you start public high school, you’re dragged back to your church and forced into confirmation classes. It feels wrong to go back, like you’re opening a closed book. Your teacher is some 80-year-old guy—just some guy, not even a priest—who talks to you and a group of your former classmates about being sinful and being teenagers and how the two things just go together. He weaves other boogiemen into this narrative—Muslims, gay people. You never understood this talking-out-of-both-sides-of-your-mouth thing, how God is supposed to love everyone but, you know, not everyone everyone.
You know God wouldn’t want you to lie to Him and get confirmed if you had doubt, if you couldn’t machete through the thick forest of people talking. Talking, talking, talking.
But you, not talking.
You fold. Genuflect. Take Cecilia as your confirmation name. She’s the patron saint of music, and music’s all you’ve got.
You sit in the pew and pull at the little clamp that used to hold people’s hats a long time ago. It’s worn and you can feel the metal smell dirtying your fingers. You pull and ease it back down. The pressure for it to snap is great.
You wonder if God hates you for lying. But if you’re sorry, if you come back to Him, you are forgiven.
You pull pull pull the hat clamp up. You wince.
Maybe it’s this: sex.
In high school, your friends talk about the crushes they have. They date and they kiss. You say you don’t like anybody even when you do, for fear your friends will tell your crush. For fear of complete rejection. For fear of a pity date. For fear of his eventual disappointment.
At fourteen, a boy comes to you, and you’re in such shock that you’d do anything to keep him. You don’t eat in front of him, you say yes to things you shouldn’t say yes to. You forget yourself. What are you afraid of, anyhow?
You are outside your own body, and when he leaves you, you can’t find a way back inside. The door has locked. You live the rest of high school viewing yourself as a cautionary tale, as trash. You watch your body from above.
Teenagers and sin just go together.
Your favorite college professor is a gay Jewish woman. She tells stories about how she was arrested for protesting years ago. She tells the class that sex is a mitzvah. That sex is a joy, a celebration.
You come out as bisexual in an essay you hand to her. You feel some kind of weight move—it’s not gone, the weight, but it’s shifted slightly.
You hadn’t known about the joy, how there’s supposed to be joy.
Maybe it’s this: introversion and obsession.
When you’re older, way after you dye your hair black and cut your bangs short and start digging through dead people’s trash to find novelties from the ‘50s, you listen to Here’s Little Richard in its entirety, like really listen. You try to undo all the pop culture association and corny covers and all that, try to undo what time and parody have done to it. Uncake the glitter and candy and sequins a bit—just a bit—and think of this meteor hitting people in 1957.
You watch clips of him online. You watch him in 1972 in a jeweled headband, telling an interviewer he’s never been shy, that he lets it all hang out. You read about orgies.
You watch him when he’s old, when he says Jesus is coming back and we better be ready. You listen to his gospel songs, the ones he made each time he abandoned rock and roll. His voice is deeper, a dirgey warble.
You watch talk show interviews from the ‘90s. You hear him say his dad told him he’s half a son.
You play the album more and more. The first track is “Tutti Frutti,” a song so iconic you assume it’s just always been there. You remember it’s the one playing in that Olsen twins movie, right when Steve Guttenberg gets pelted with a bowl of mac and cheese. You learn it was originally about anal sex.
Your favorite is “Can’t Believe You Wanna Leave,” a slower song that opens with such a raspy rumble it sounds like he’s practically eating the microphone. He starts each line with that deep growl, but then flows into falsetto-y yelps at the end. Then a few songs later, in “Baby,” he’s practically cooing at the start. The whole album sounds effortless, like it’s pouring out of him.
You look at the back cover of the record. It shows two sketches of Little Richard, and they are both blood red, his pompadour slightly pointed. He looks like the Devil. He’s crouched below the copy, screaming, open-mouthed as if he’s vomiting up the track listing.
The back is a tall tale version of his life, his name capitalized at each mention, in black or red. You read the last lines, where it says Elvis “showed his admiration by recording four of LITTLE RICHARD’s songs,” that Pat Boone and others did the same. Admiration, they call it. Not whitewashing, not de-sexing.
You think about duality in words, pictures, appearances. You think about duality in people. You think about the complicated mess inside you, and how it’s in everyone. Only sometimes, they just live it out loud. You think about how heavy everything inside you feels.
Maybe it’s this: anything, anything, anything, just a fluke in your DNA.
Maybe it: doesn’t matter.
There are two places you feel normal enough to quit being quiet. One is when you’re at a rock and roll show, when it’s dark except for a glow over the band, when the bodies are packed tight and the music’s so loud that you could scream the words until your throat’s raw and still not be able to hear your own stupid voice.
The other is when you’re alone like this, and you put a record on, and you dance. You never dance in front of anyone—you are too aware of yourself, of your body from above, not within, how strange it is to never speak, how odd it is to be you. If you think about it too hard, you’ll surely quit. But don’t quit.
Turn the volume up as loud as it goes. Little Richard is screaming at you. Put your hand up to the speaker and feel the vibration, like it’s breathing. Sink closer, put your ear to the speaker. He’s pressed up somewhere on the other side. He is screaming to you, for you, and you close your eyes and imagine him so hard you can almost see it: soon he’s pressed completely through, each molecule of his shining being squeezed through the tiny holes like Play-Doh and then there he is, standing over you. He’s not young Little Richard. He’s Old King Cole.
Hey baby, he says. He is beautiful. His skin is glowing, glittering. His hair shines in the dim light.
Get up, he says.
And you say—no, you scream: I’m here, and I’m listening, and I want to be as loud as you, oh Lord do I want it.