‘The Weakness in Me’: Notes on Joan Armatrading

An attempt at “converting” you into a devotee of a brilliant singer-songwriter

There are certain albums I pair exclusively with cassettes. Maybe I am thinking about this since we’re in the midst of a modest cassette tape revival. For cassette listeners of a certain age, myself included, we continue to dub copies and take out write-protect tabs in our dreams.

My personal cassette canon includes Squeeze’s Singles 45s and Under, which one hot afternoon fused onto the top lip of the stereo in my 1972 Ford Country Squire and remained there for months. There’s R.E.M.’s Reckoning, which I purchased after hearing “Radio Free Europe” on a college kid’s stereo. Oh, and Face Value, Phil Collins’s solo debut, was the only selection me and this dude who wore a confederate wool cap could agree on playing as we mopped up hallways at my Catholic grade school.

And then there’s Joan Armatrading’s Track Record, which I bought on impulse one day at a Sam Goody. I only had an interview in Musician magazine to go on. That and the cover: a woman with her not insubstantial afro, who crouches in profile atop a grand piano in runner’s starting block pose.

I never heard of Joan Armatrading, but it seemed that she knew me.

“I never heard of Joan Armatrading,” a full-page ad from New York magazine reads, “but she knew me.” In the ad, a woman with a Sandy Duncan hairstyle sits on an oriental rug, headphones off to the side. She sips tea and stares into the eyes of the Joan Armatrading, pictured on her third self-titled LP from 1976. This is the LP with her breakthrough songs “Down to Zero” and “Love and Affection.”

“I discovered Joan Armatrading,” the ad continues. “An incredible artist who happens to be a woman. She’s been in the places I’ve been, felt the feelings I’ve felt.”

I now know that I first heard Joan Armatrading under ideal laboratory conditions: a rain-filled day, alone in a house, wearing headphones, drinking tea.

In 1984, there wasn’t that much difference between myself and the Sandy Duncan haircut lady. I bought Track Record after a series of girls had turned down my offer of being their date to the junior prom. I now know that I first heard Joan Armatrading under ideal laboratory conditions: a rain-filled day, alone in a house, wearing headphones, drinking tea.

I write this a few months after seeing Joan Armatrading on what has been billed as her final world tour. I sat in the fourth row, accompanied by my wife and friends, for what I regarded as a bookend to that afternoon more than 30 years ago. This was one of a few occasions where I wanted others to hear music I had listened to for years, in some attempt to “convert” them, or at least appreciate what I appreciated.

It’s been a mostly impossible task over the years (or too effortful, to use a word my old therapist used) to try and balance enjoying live music and making sure my companions aren’t in hell while we stand in front of bands with names like Lubricated Goat or the Blue Aeroplanes.

But I try.

Armatrading’s career spans four decades, twenty-plus albums, a catalog filled with songs about love and losing love and relationships and solitude. Born in 1950 on the West Indies island of Saint Kitts, Joan Armatrading moved with her family to Birmingham when she was three. A 1977 New Yorker Talk of the Town piece focuses on her modest upbringing: her house and large family in the slum housing estates; the lack of formal musical training, the first guitar, purchased by her mother in exchange for two baby strollers; dropping out of school to work in a factory at 15.

Armatrading left for London to join the touring cast of Hair, then spent a year on the dole to write music with a partner, Pamela Nestor, with whom she split after her first album, 1972’s Whatever’s For Us. The record label bigwig, the story goes, had focused more on Armatrading’s voice, and so she was signed as a solo act rather than as a duo. That split with her only songwriting partner is one of the few points of intrigue I can find in Armatrading’s past, and even that isn’t so juicy. Nestor produced one reggae-ish solo single a couple years later, and eventually dropped out of the music business altogether. Other than an abstract for her Ph.D. thesis, there’s no sign of her online.

Writing this, I find myself trying to dig up conflict or an arc in Joan Armatrading’s story, if only to bring some shape or context to my love of her music. And I know, although it’s not necessary for me to know about people’s personal life to enjoy their art, it would be dishonest if I said that sometimes it helps me round out and even increase my appreciation.

Take Dennis Wilson, the troubled late drummer of the Beach Boys. The main story behind the Beach Boys is of Brian Wilson, Dennis’s brother, the troubled genius who wrote the majority of the band’s classic songs. But there’s a subplot with Dennis Wilson, who died in 1983 at 39, drowning in shallow water after blacking out. He had recorded a single solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue, an uneven collection of Beach Boys-like tunes, in 1977. If Dennis Wilson wasn’t a member of the Beach Boys, and I didn’t know about his troubled life, I wouldn’t find myself rooting for him as I listen to Pacific Ocean Blue, overjoyed to hear the full realization of a minor songwriter’s talents. Without that story, I might have listened to the record once and sold it back to buy a Dire Straits CD.

There’s really no drownings or scandals to attach to Armatrading, no core narrative at all to think about while listening to her music. This is largely by her own design. This is frustrating at times. Part of what sets her apart from other recording artists, besides her music, is who Armatrading is: namely, she’s a black woman who makes music in what has been, and still is, a white male genre of highly instrumental pop music. Maybe Joni Mitchell, another female artist, will pop up when coming up with other examples. There are a few others, too — Rickie Lee Jones, Bonnie Raitt, Chrissie Hynde. Over the course of her career, Armatrading has been most often compared to male artists — everyone from Jackson Browne and Elton John to Van Morrison.

“Ms. Armatrading’s music may be too tough or original for instant mass success,” John Rockwell wrote in the New York Times in 1980. “But she would seem likely to appeal to the same audiences that buy Bob Dylan, Neil Young, or Bruce Springsteen disks. Perhaps one obvious reason she hasn’t sold well so far with them is that she is black and female, and a strong-sounding woman to boot, all of which is still hard for some white, macho rock fans to accept.”

Perhaps it’s this pronoun confusion that explains why her songs strike me as so intimate: her songs are a direct address to the listener, mostly out of an effort to avoid giving away her own sexuality.

If there’s one thing I know about my fellow male fans, macho and not-macho, it’s when it comes to our worship of male rock stars, we need to know something about who we’re listening to. We are no different than teenyboppers who need to know which member of One Direction just got a tattoo. We establish thumbnails for each: Neil Young does whatever he likes. Bruce Springsteen works really hard. Elton John is gay, but it’s OK. Van Morrison acts like a prick to his band.

Try to come up with a similar précis of Joan Armatrading, and you come up empty-handed. This explains journalists’ inelegant and often stupid comparisons of her to Tracey Chapman and Odetta, basically because they’re the other black women singers who play acoustic guitar, without much else in common. Armatrading has been a good sport. One 1988 Newsweek article focuses on the “flood of comparisons” to Tracy Chapman she’s gotten. Armatrading said she’s never met her and has only heard snippets of her music. What might they have in common is never really spelled out, only that they share a “throaty style of singing”?

‘The aural equivalent of wrestling with a very strong woman.’

The main appeal of Armatrading, besides her songs’ blend of jazz and pop, is her voice. Attempts to describe it can be measured by the degree to which they avoid failure. Joan Armatrading’s voice has been described as deep, husky, lyrical, flexible, throaty, genuine, gripping, no-nonsense, dusky, Odetta-like, headstrong, deceptively angsty, natural and artless, satisfyingly unpredictable.[1]

Also: eclectic, richly warm, gruff and percussive,[2] commanding, espresso-dark, cigar-smoky, a deep alto, and gruff mezzo.[3]

Also: a “mannish, fluid alto, which at times recalls a young Nina Simone.”[4]

Also: “the aural equivalent of wrestling with a very strong woman.”[5]

The one real enigma has been Armatrading’s private life. Dubbed “Joan Armour-plating” by journalists, for decades she’s been cagey about her love life, her friends, sexuality. Questions about her private life have always been off-limits.

“The world doesn’t need to know what colour my bedroom walls are,” she famously told one reporter. But people do. Her songs are almost exclusively about matters of the heart, lovers and love. You would figure out something personal from all that.

Her choice of pronouns is maddeningly confusing — she prefers the second person, “you,” as opposed to a “she” or “he.” In many other songs, the speaker addresses two people. Here’s lyrics from “Down to Zero,” one of my favorite Joan songs and one of the greatest songs every recorded, if you ask me:

Brand new dandy
First class scene stealer
Walks through the crowd and takes your man
Sends you rushing to the mirror
Brush your eyebrows and say
There’s more beauty in you than anyone

So, who is the “you” here? A wronged woman? Man? Is Joan Armatrading hitting on the “you”? In the next verse, a “she” pops up.

Oh remember who walked the warm sands beside you
Moored to your heel
Let the waves come a rushing in
She’ll take the worry from your head
But then again
She put trouble in your heart instead

Perhaps it’s this pronoun confusion that explains why her songs strike me as so intimate: her songs are a direct address to the listener, mostly out of an effort to avoid giving away her own sexuality, which is all but certainly confirmed as a lesbian — more on that later — but the end effect is you’re listening in on an ongoing conversation among lovers, and you, dear listener, are one of them.

There’s a certain species of singer-songwriter who surrounded herself by rosters of crackerjack musicians. The list of star sidemen enlisted to play on Armatrading’s albums reads like a who’s who of British rock. Andy Summers played on her 1975 Back to the Night Album two years before he joined The Police, to name one noteworthy example. Mark Knopfler plays his Dire Straits guitar on the later album, 1986’s The Shouting Stage.

The quality of an album doesn’t necessarily coincide with the musicians’ star power, but for my money it’s the early ‘80s trio of LPs — 1980s Me Myself I, 1981s Walk Under Ladders, and 1983s The Keywhere sidemen lift Armatrading into the stratosphere. Me Myself I has David Letterman band players Paul Shaffer, Will Lee, and Anton Fig on most of the tracks, along with the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemmons. Walk Under Ladders features Thomas Dolby on synthesizer, XTC’s Andy Partridge on guitar, and the recently deceased Rico Rodriguez on horns.

My impression had been that all these musicians volunteered to appear on Armatrading albums out of admiration of her work. But, after reading Sean Mayes’ unauthorized biography, I learned it’s more complicated than that. Producers like Glyn Johns and Steve Lillywhite lined up the musicians, and Armatrading often clashed with them in the studio, explaining her compositions and the sound she was trying to put together.

There was a universal respect for Armatrading’s gift as a songwriter, but not many warm memories from these sessions.

I have to admit that I never gave her sexuality that much thought until the last time I saw Joan in concert at the Tower Theater in 1990. I looked around and scores of women were holding hands. I was 22, eight years since buying Track Record, and it was only then that I realized this Joan Armatrading person might in fact attract an audience other than straight white men with mullet haircuts who played unironic air guitar to her music. I bought a biography on e-book for young adults recently, and that was how I found out Joan Armatrading had recently married her partner of many decades, Maggie Butler, in Shetland back in 2011.

These realizations seem obvious in retrospect. They also might explain how I rarely mentioned my love for her music to anyone else.

“The Weakness in Me” is one of those love triangle songs. I never related to threesome songs: I hardly could recruit one lover, let alone two, to loves me at the same time. I never broke many hearts. The lyrics of “The Weakness in Me” add up to a fairly straightforward portrayal of someone who “has a lover who loves me,” while mulling over another offer, culminating in singing “I need you, and you.” It’s found several lives as backdrop to countless homemade fan videos dedicated to romances, real and imagined, on film and TV. Sometimes it’s the Melissa Etheridge piano and vocal cover of, but more often it’s Armatrading’s original.

A partial list of “Weakness in Me” fan videos [playlist here] include Andy and Sam from a show called Rookie Blue, Ashley Wilkes and Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With The Wind, Kate and Jack and Sawyer in Lost, a 2006 tearjerker called Loving Annabelle, Battlestar Galactica “(Starbuck, Apollo, Sam and Dualla…an unfortunate love story”), so many from House dedicated to House and Cuddy (sample comment: “It really looks like Cuddy is the one seducing him — an interesting view!”), Carla and Liam from Coronation Street, another German show called Hinter Gittern (Kirsten and Sascha), The OC (Marissa and Volchok), Gray’s Anatomy, Instant Star, Hanna and Carla in German soap opera Verbotene Liebe (Forbidden Love), Emma and Sean in Degrassi, Twilight (name of video: “Bella’s Choice”).

Some feature voiceovers with key dialogue. Others have lyrics from the song in Spanish or Thai or German superimposed on the screen.

I wonder if the people who create these videos are familiar with Armatrading’s other work, or if this song has taken on a life of its own.

The recent show in Albany was underwhelming. Armatrading’s voice is still in fine form, but it was a solo show with unfortunate choices in guitar tones and a slide show that featured images of 9/11 and World War II battles, as well as a screensaver-like backdrop that distracted from the music. I sat too close to the stage speakers and had to strain to hear Joan’s voice. She seemed at times to be going through the motions. It will be some time before I go through another Armatrading jag, listening through her albums. I know it will happen.

But most of all, I miss those days alone with headphones, listening to a cassette, rain falling outside.

[1] Nat Hentoff in The Nation, review of Show Some Emotion.

[2] John Rockwell, New York Times, 1975.

[3] John Rockwell, New York Times, 1979.

[4] Stephen Holden, New York Times, 1983.

[5] Playboy magazine, of course

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