Monday, September 17, 2012

Cry Like an Angel: My Review of Diamond in the Rough by Shawn Colvin

Diamond in the Rough: A MemoirDiamond in the Rough: A Memoir by Shawn Colvin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I remember where I was when I first encountered Shawn Colvin. I was in a Best Buy in Bloomington, Illinois, in the spring of my freshman year. Her album Steady On was sitting on an end-cap display in the new music section; it looked good, and I was feeling consumeristic, so I bought it. I probably, quite frankly, put it on my Discover Card, as I was wont to do back then, which means I'm probably still paying for it. That being said, it was worth the money.

Shawn Colvin's music has shown up at a lot of significant moments in my life. Her cover of "Every Little Thing He Does Is Magic" was playing while my wife and I enjoyed a poolside meal at a resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, during our honeymoon. I sat with my sister on the floor of the student center at Northwestern University while Colvin moved effortlessly from her song "Polaroids" into the chorus of "Just My Imagination" by the Temptations. I bought her album Whole New You in a Borders Bookstore that no longer exists. And on September 11, 2001, I sought solace in her song "Cry Like an Angel" as I tried to make sense of the violent deaths of more than three thousand people.

All the feelings associated with those moments came back when I learned that she had written a memoir, Diamond in the Rough. I gobbled it up and enjoyed every nibble, although I'm not sure I would have been as enthralled had I not already been a fan. Diamond in the Rough isn't so much a memoir, in the sense of a book that mines an event or setting or relationship for some universal meaning, as it is an autobiography. It's a book for fans, first and foremost. I don't mean that disrespectfully, but I do think if someone saw my four-star rating for a memoir and bought it without prior connection to Colvin, they'd be disappointed with their reading experience.

That being said, it was, for me, a great reading experience. Colvin is a singer-songwriter, and such people are uniquely gifted storytellers, if not always the most articulate interpreters of stories. Songwriters tell stories in song, and so the meaning is usually intentionally obscured. Not so in a book, though: Colvin tells her life story compellingly, taking us through several distinct chapters--a childhood occasionally disrupted by family relocation; a young life on the road as a traveling musician; a more settled but arguably less stable life as a New York musician; an award-winning recording career; a post-major-label singer-songwriter's schedule--all with a through line that involves addiction, depression, anxiety and turbulent romantic relationships. No great surprises or big new insights here; we sadly have come to expect substance abuse, emotional hardship and complicated relationships of our celebrated artists. They're sad stories in many cases, but they're told here with the perspective of time passed and life recovered. Like a good storyteller Colvin can find the grace and humor in each chapter.

I think one of the best reason for reading books by musicians and other artists (such as Steve Martin and Joe Jackson, for example) is the window such books provide into the artistic mind and the creative process. Colvin's songs are in the foreground of her later chapters--once she's committed herself to songwriting and recording. I learned a lot about the songs on Steady On that has since enriched my listening; I learned about her later albums as well, having my suspicions confirmed, for example, by her comments about the first line of "Polaroids": "Please no more therapy . . ."

It's not just her music, of course; Colvin was part of what might be considered a folk renaissance in the late 1980s bleeding into the 1990s. Her experience writing with Jon Levanthal, touring with Buddy Miller, even just hanging out with Joni Mitchell offer insight into where artists find inspiration and how such inspiration is translated into something that can be received and embraced by an audience.

It should by now be obvious that I struggle in vain to have objectivity about Shawn Colvin. More objective readers might write a more robust critique of her book. More power to them; me, I'll remember it fondly as a story that touches ever so faintly my own story. "If you could show me the story of love," she sings in "Climb On (a Back That's Strong)," "I would write it again and again." If she did, I would surely read it at least once.

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