The Electric Dress

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The Electric Dress

It takes an unusual woman to sing blues and soul. She has to be half crazy. If it’s real blues. Now I am not talking about “Chain of Fools” and all that silly ass shit. I’m talking about hard blues. Chicago. Mississipi. Memphis.

It is in fact a man’s music for the most part. Dominated by men. Created from men. There are great women in blues and great writers as well. But in the end it is a man’s game. And you better be a hell of a man in a woman. There are many that would argue with me on this—but I don’t give a damn.

Now singing blues is the thing that makes me feel most alive.

It’s like putting on an electric dress—the dress has to fit just right. If it’s too tight I can’t breathe—if it’s too loose the lines of who I am remain unseen.

Singing blues for me is a direct channel to something over the edge—raw and exotic—even erotic. I’m talkin’ God here of course.

Singing blues is telling a secret to strangers. And hoping they will understand. And tellin’ it in a secret language. Only the gifted players know this language of innuendo made up from bent lines, dark tones, and finally space in the perfect place.

Singing blues is also a great discipline. It requires great physical strength. Great timing. It’s like entering into a boxing ring and getting hit sometimes over and over throughout the night and staying on your feet and inside the curve of the wave.

Now there are two kinds of musicians in this blues business: the pop artist who sings to “get over” and the artist. The pop artist chooses material so that they “get over.” They watch like a hawk in the rafters for what works for others and they mimic it. They pick songs that they think will keep them working. They usually pick blues because they can’t make it in another idiom. They think it’s easy. They see an opportunity.

And then there is the artist who stays true the language at all times and doesn’t give a damn what appeals to anybody. The artist sings or plays because they have to remain sane. It is the cork out of the bottle that’s about to blow up.

The pop artist is a business person by in large. And they do fool. Often. But it doesn’t matter.

Because artists know one another in the end. It’s in what you choose—what story you choose to tell—that defines you. In the end. And if you can manage to stay in the ring. With blues it doesn’t matter if you have a trained voice and a huge range if you ain’t got grease.

You see that’s the other thing I didn’t mention: grease. Grease is soul. Whether you are a pop artist or an artist in blues the thing that will distinguish you is grease. You either got it or you ain’t.

I was having a conversation with a well known blues musician the other day—driving along the freeway—talkin’ about other blues musicians and I made a coment sayin’ “He’s a white man.” Now only a Southerner would understand that line. Hell—only a Southerner would say it. But my friend understood it completely. And he agreed.

I’m not talkin’ black or white; I’m talkin’ raw. I’m talkin edge. Without the edge you have nothing in blues. Edge has nothing to do with gender or upbringing or color. It has to do with depth of soul. You either got it or you don’t.

Blues is raw. It’s honest. It’s dirty and nasty and at all times it’s sexy. Blues is about fuck ups and fuckers and fucks. The great fucks. And there is no greater joy than getting your lover back by writing a song about him so you can fuck him all over again. My lovers have not understood the songs I have written about them. One lover in particular thinks it is a form of revenge. It is not. I write the songs to keep him close to me. It is to revive him. And to warn him.

About my pride.

You have to understand the lyrics of the great songs to be a good blues singer. You have to have those crazy thoughts and feelings in you: how you wanna shoot some man because you love him so much that you can’t stand the idea of him out there riding around town with another woman. You have to have handled a damn pistol at least once—thought about lifting the pillow out from under his head. Now I didn’t come up with those blues lines—Memphis Minnie did—but I am workin’ on it daily.

And of course underneath all this crazy raw stuff is the humor—like c’mon—would I really lift a pillow out from under his head and place it on his face and fold his arms and shoot him? Would I?

If you can’t pull that line off get out’a town darling.

Last week I was in my electric dress. I felt the flight. And I wore nothing under my slinky silk black skirt –only stockings. And I died my hair jet black. Everywhere. And I put my red lips on and I sang my heart out. The more the songs come to me the better I know I will survive. In the ring. Because these are now becoming my songs and my stories. My town, baby.

My electric dress is like no other. When I‘m in it it’s like a great lover. Who carries me up to the heights of a place I can finally “be” in. Where troubles don’t touch me long. If the music is right.

It has taken me a long time to put on this electric dress. I have been afraid of it. I have tried to destroy it. I have been damned by it. I have been lost without it. And finally I believe it will save me.

I have traded in my dress for something that was not me and have had to re-claim it. It is after all my damned dress built from my own demons. And it is the only dress that fits me. In my whole life.

The dress is exciting to wear but it has to carry me a ways. I have to take care of it or it becomes thread bare.

It is not easy to sing from 22 to 27 songs in one night and then do it again the next night.

It’s funny that I chose in some respects the most difficult musical idiom of all to sing. Blues. Because it requires a punch. And a punch can take its toll on the voice. Especially a woman’s. For a woman to sing blues well a strong build helps—like a boxer. If you don’t believe me look at the great singer’s of all time and take a look at their build. Little Willie John, James Brown, Tina Turner, Big Mama Thornton, Mavis Staples.

I would not want to be in the ring with any of ‘em.

Some would argue that I am crazy. That Blues is made up of simple chords and simple lines that can be half shouted—easy to play and easy to sing.

Now to half shout may be somewhat easy. But to sing and shout requires skill and muscle. There is a technique of pushing the sound out through the top of the skull to make it carry. And to do that you need hard muscle. And a big nose. And a huge mouth and big strong shoulders and a thick neck. And confidence.

And to pull back and just sing quieter notes is even harder. To pull back from my own personal combustion is for me the hardest thing of all.

It is now only about the challenge of the dress. To put it on and keep it on. It’s a black dress—and it clings—but not too tight. Not too constraining. It requires stockings and opened toed high heals. To embellish. It requires a material that will let me sweat. Drips rolling between my breasts—sweat inside my knees—dripping down into the inside arch of my foot.

If you ain’t sweatin’ you ain’t singing.

And it requires more.

It requires a leap of faith. Not sure where you land but you take the chance to try. I have stood on stages that looked like the jaws of hell opening up to swallow me. My hands would shake so hard that I couldn’t hold a glass of wine. But I would always take the leap.

The other night I had full voice for a last song that lifted me up so high I felt like nothing could ever take me down again. Nothing. Not a broken heart. Not missing a certain man. Not being broke. Not being scared shitless over money. Not any of that.

I forgot everything in that last song and just danced into it. Just moved through it. Like a great burning flight. And it was beautiful. I sang with my entire body.

That rhythm guitar man was driving a beat so perfect in time that I couldn’t help but enter an electric world. And when the bass and drums kicked in with him all I could think of is “This is SO RIGHT—I’M DIVIN IN!”

Then the horn player hit some punches that were just so delicious I thought I would wet my pans. If I had any on.

It was a made up thing—a funk in C: “Might Fool Them but You Can’t Fool Me.” My song from a decade past that no one could ever play right. And that rhythm guitar man took it to an E flat that was gorgeous to behold. Bodies on the dance floor were just swaying away. Beautiful. Waves. Everybody like grass in the wind. It worked.

I just hope to God somebody can remember what we did so we can do it again.

Christ. All we needed were some hits. I’ll work on those hits.

I have no idea why I came upon this electric dress except it was meant to save me. It is my purpose. It is the one thing that no one can ever take away from me. Everything else I can lose but not the electric dress.

I can lose love and wild sex, money, THE material world, but the dress gives me all of that and more.

Because it is mine.

Now hit me! Come on! Hit me na! AGHGHGHGHGH! I need a hit again—that same one—same one….

Cathy Lemons

© December 13 2012