Betty Buckley Story Songs

By Michael Gardner
Runs With Brushes blog
April 11, 2017

I think when you have a voice like Betty Buckley, and for me, she is singular in this aspect; I mean, no one, simply no one, has a voice like hers, that it must be both an enormous opportunity for giving and a burden of responsibility. I can only imagine.

I have tried to imagine so often over many years of listening closely, a metaphor for what it is I hear in her. Recently, I was given some incredible insights to life when I asked, “…in a world of illusions, what is real?,” and the most profound answer was simply, “…breathing is real.” Betty’s voice is like this. It is like a breath set free as a skip above a vast ocean of water, where the rest of us are submerged. It shimmers across the surface reflecting the light of the sun, and as such is ephemeral and bright, translucent, and simply a mirror of something else, not hers entirely, and all of it also, purely herself, and that which she brought into this life as a person and artist at the same time.

I first heard Memory, from Cats, on vinyl, in the bedroom of my best friends house. We were both in junior high and beginning to become interested in musical theatre. Riveted, I am sure I had him play over and over this recording, of this one miraculous song, of this unbelievable voice, from this odd and mysterious show, Cats.

I was to see my first Broadway show, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, some years later. Of course in the lead role would be none other than Ms. Buckley herself, playing this boy, Edwin.

A few more years passed and I was a student in New York. Instead of purchasing materials for class projects at F.I.T., I spent what monies I had to see Betty perform at The Bottom Line. Numerous times did I see and hear her perform there. The Bottom Line offered a close proximity to the artist and this was a large part of the draw. The setting was intimate and rough, sexy and old school, with a touch of glimmer from its star studded history imbued into the walls. Betty adding to this.

She sang from Joni Mitchell, and offered me a first encounter to her work:

Oh I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints
I’m frightened by the devil
and I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid

Surely she was directing this right to me, as it described me immediately. The voice she gave to a lyric; the turn of a phrase, and the sound created with the musicians backing her, was place-changing for me. She took me into another space, creating new frames of reference with her artistry, informing and illustrating new ways to enter into life, and for me, see as a painter.

When her CD, Children Will Listen, was released in 1993 it brought me back to her performing at The Bottom Line. From then on in my studio in New York I played Betty’s recordings. Over and over I listened to her within a small loop chorus consisting of Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush, Emmylou Harris, and Joni Mitchell to near exclusivity of other artists while I worked. My collection of her recordings grew over the years as she did, each new release offering access to her routinely, in turn giving me access to that small and young, trusting and open artist within.

Recently I met Ms. Buckley while working on a production of Grey Gardens. To meet one who has had such impact, while coordinating a fitting for costumes is always something I have to negotiate inside myself very carefully. My feelings of awe and deep respect filed away. I did my work, was friendly but kept to myself as I have learned to do over the many years working on Broadway, and in film, and television. What I have always considered my, “waiting tables so I can paint,” job, which gratefully I have been extremely successful with.

As rehearsal moved along I would spend my days with Betty, along with of course the other actors, getting to know them as they shared. Often actors don’t make themselves too available. They are working, and necessarily so, focused on the work they must perform on stage. Friendships are rare, let alone genuine friendliness, so I, as I have done for many years, was friendly in return but kept to myself. I am a professional. I know what my priorities are, where boundaries must be set. Betty was an example as a star of the show in her daily kindness and availability and this wasn’t lost on me. I slowly shared with Betty my deep appreciation of her work, and how much I admired her. I could see she was a private person. Her sensitivity toward others around her as she worked was genuine and a new respect grew for her. I was always considerate of these things so when we became friendly, it was gentle and slow, over the weeks we all were together.

One beautiful summer night I was at the Hollywood Bowl where Sting and Peter Gabriel were performing. As Peter sang, “Don’t Give Up,” one of my favorite songs, I closed my eyes to take it all in, sensitive to where I was in my life, the joy of being there, the emotion of the music, and that incredible song. In my minds eyes I saw Betty singing “Don’t Give Up,” and thought how perfect it would be for her.

The following night at the show I mentioned this to Betty. She lit up and exclaimed what a great song that was, and then asked if I had any other songs to suggest, as she would like to consider them for a new show. I could read her sincerity in this invitation, and taking it seriously composed a list of 11 titles for her, from which she chose the Peter Gabriel song, and one by Emmylou Harris, “Prayer in Open D.”

Many weeks later I went to see Betty at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in her show Story Songs. She had been performing this show in many cities, and this was one of the last stops on the tour. Friends in New York had been texting me when she performed at Joe’s Pub, that she spoke of me during the evening. I was stunned, she spoke about me? I couldn’t imagine this, and was curious what she was saying. I knew she was going to sing both songs I suggested within the context of the show, and realized this must be what she was sharing.

So that evening as she presented, “Prayer in Open D,” she spoke to the audience of our meeting and the list of songs I gave her; I couldn’t help but feel shock and a kind of out of body, time travelling distance coalesce from all my visceral memories of her and her work, her voice, her performing, and ultimately now, herself, there looking at me from the stage. Tears brimmed my eyes as she sang the Emmylou song. I sat still as I could, but all the while nearly shaking inside, removed from the space and with her connecting spiritually to the words of the song.

There’s a highway risin’ from my dreams
Deep in the heart I know it gleams

Being an artist, a painter, a writer, I know from experience the road is long. I am not lonely though, my box of paints is quite full, and I am no longer scared of the devil. There are angels along the highway, showing and sharing the way. Betty is one such angel. Her new recording Story Songs is brilliant. Brilliant like a star one finds in the deep dark night sky, multi-pointed and twinkling from afar. It is much like herself; deep, resonant, spiritual, nuanced…and that voice. I will always have this to listen to; as I paint, drive, meditate, connecting to more than I am with her music, and now can personally share with her my love and appreciation as a friend and fellow artist, too.