For All Gigs Left Unplayed

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the author, in wicker park, chicago

“Take your broken heart, make it into art.” — Carrie Fisher

My sophomore year of college I fell in love for a week, with a boy who had curly hair and an elfin smile. He was big eyed, slight — I probably outweighed him by fifty pounds at least, if not more. After a week of talking for hours, late night conversations that turned into delicate, shy kisses, he avoided me for several days then finally told me, I just don’t feel the way I did a week ago.

After that, I called my friend with a car and we drove into the city to buy a guitar. Something told me that words weren’t enough for this heartbreak, I’d need to sing it, too. The salesperson at the store was a woman and I think that made all the difference. She showed me how to play a G chord to check my reach on the neck of several guitars. I bought an acoustic Alvarez that I named Daisy Mae. I began writing dozens of songs, mostly about this boy I’d loved for a week, to the exclusion of almost everything else, including my course work. Thank goodness I was taking an English class then with my favorite professor. I told him what was going on and he told me to take a day to stare at the ceiling and get it out of my system, but that I really need to turn in my papers and show up for the final.

People, especially the boy who had broken my heart, didn’t understand how one week had impacted me so much. I didn’t understand it, either; I only knew it had, and the only way of consoling myself was by learning guitar until my fingers blistered so I could write songs to sing my pain to.

“Heartbreaker, you’ve got the best of me, but I just keep on comin’ back incessantly. Oh, why did you have to run your game on me?” — Mariah Carey, “Heartbreaker”

In college I continued to write songs, and would sporadically attend open mics, or sometimes blues jams. There are few things more excruciating than being a white girl with a bunch of heartbroken folk songs wanting to play at a blues jam. However, I had some of my college music friends with me for support, and the old blues guys were surprisingly welcoming. They recognized that even if I was playing in a different genre, I was still authentic, and full of feeling.

After college, I continued writing, singing, and playing. I played open mics and little gigs at coffee shops. I had to listen to feedback on my songs and my performances (and appearance) whether I wanted to or not. I had drunk men insist on tuning my in-tune guitar for me, and tell me that I’d be prettier if I smiled, or ask me why all of my songs were about my feelings. Why can’t you write about ideas? Or important things? they would slur, then tell me about their favorite Dylan tune.

I never enjoyed those times, but my love of writing, singing, and performing outweighed these minor incidents. I persisted.

“Your love is like a tidal wave, spinning over my head, drowning me in your promises better left unsaid.” — Pat Benatar, “Heartbreaker”

Eventually I moved from Rock Island, IL, to Chicago. I was suddenly no longer one of the best songwriters on the scene — I was just one of dozens of performers making their way in the city. I began hitting open mics every week, meeting other songwriters at various levels of experience, working on my songs and my stagecraft.

I wrote one song, one of my favorites and I think one of my best, in my head as I walked from my train to my job as a preschool teacher. Two different songwriters wrote replies to that song, which, for a songwriter, is the highest kind of compliment.

I went to Seattle and recorded a beautiful EP with help from some friends. I played some shows. I made poor decisions about men, learned from them, took my broken heart and turned it into art. I had no pretension that I’d ever be famous or well known. It was enough to write songs and sing them. It was enough.

Then I fell in love with someone who, in the beginning, seemed wonderful — smart, funny, interested in books, with great taste in music. To make a long story short, it didn’t stay wonderful. Eventually everything that went wrong for him was somehow my fault. He began to say cruel things to me. One of the cruelest was, “If none of your songs are perfect, why do you even bother writing them?”

Why? I didn’t know. So I stopped, for several years.

Now, this same man posts on facebook, calling out men behaving badly. The irony. Put your own house in order, first. And maybe he has? But what good does that do — it doesn’t give me back the years of songs I lost.

“There are no girls in the Heartbreakers!” — Tom Petty, to Stevie Nicks

Eventually, after a long time of healing, recovering from both that man’s cruelty and the loss of my mother (who died of a broken heart, you cannot tell me otherwise), I started writing again, and began performing with another musician as a duo. But it was never the same, after what he said. I didn’t have the same drive or passion.

So little about the music scene in Chicago was actually about making and performing music. I was so tired of attempting to book shows and never hearing back. I was tired of being the only woman on all-male bills. I was just tired.

Everything was so hard. Booking shows was so difficult, and no one came anyway. Open mics were full of drunk old men who wanted to touch me without my permission, or ask me repeatedly out to dinner no matter how many times I said no. One night after a gig at a bar where I’d always felt fairly safe, after I’d spent a good part of time between songs railing against sexism in the music scene and how tired I was of it, a man walked past me as I sat at the bar and grabbed my breast. I yelled at him, and yelled at the people he’d come with. I was trembling and out of control. Why was this happening? Didn’t I just talk about how I was tired of this shit? Watching the smile on his face fade and turn into a look of fear was equal parts thrilling and defeating. Why does it have to be like this? I thought. Why can’t I go out and play a show without wanting to beat everyone’s head in at the end of the night, including my own?

“Mama couldn’t tell me about the feeling, and all them lovesick songs — well, they got true meaning.” — Alabama Shakes, “Heartbreaker”

For years I limped along, writing songs in sporadic bursts (usually after a fresh heartbreak, imagine that, so original). I learned to play the ukulele, and the novelty of a new instrument provided some inspiration. Still, the thought of booking shows, of recording an album (I have at least three album’s worth of unrecorded material, if not more; I’ve lost count), made me so tired and scared and mad. All of these things seemed to involve being around men, having to deal with all of the same shit. And I was too tired. I was defeated. What did I have to say, anyway? What did my voice matter? How many songs about broken hearts did the world need?

“This situation just don’t seem so goddamn smart.” — Ryan Adams, “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart”

The day before Valentine’s Day, 2019, I read the article about Ryan Adams. With every line my anger grew. I’d long suspected that Ryan was a douchebag, so nothing in the article surprised me, really, except the part about the underage girl, Ava, and that haunting line in the article: “She never played another gig.”

Reading that line, I wasn’t tired anymore (I mean, I’m still tired, who isn’t, but I have enough angry adrenaline to power through). I was raring to go. I wasn’t going to hide anymore. I was done with letting men silence me and keep me from doing what I loved, from doing something I was good at.

I wanted to do something to release this anger, and to make a statement about this whole bullshit situation. So taking a move from his own playbook, I decided I was going to re-record his entire debut album, Heartbreaker, through the lens of a nearly forty, fat, mouthy, unsuccessful female and feminist singer songwriter.

So Love Taker came to be. Recorded in a handful of weekends with my partner in music and life, Charlie (one of the good guys, and how I know #notallmen, so save your anger okay), this is a product of rage and love and the sheer joy of making music. Any money this thing makes (before we’re ordered to take it down by a lawyer) is going to be donated to organizations that help girls and women make music, because we’ve lost too many important voices already, and I’ll be damned if I let us lose any more on my watch.

I dedicate this weird album to Ava, Phoebe, Mandy, Courtney, Kate, my mother, and all the other women who’ve had their creative endeavors poisoned by men.

Let’s take our broken hearts and turn them into art, on our own terms.

Love,

Julie

Listen, I’m telling you stories.

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