Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hear Me Roar

by Dick Mac

My car has a CD player. Instead of playing entire albums, I like to make mixed CDs that include a variety of musical styles. Generally I do not include classical, opera, or jazz instrumental cuts on these CDs because they are not always the most enjoyable driving sounds. My desktop jukebox makes 80- minute random mixes based on some vague criteria that excludes the above-mentioned genres, songs that have already been put on a CD, or songs that have been marked as "adult."

So the songs, artists, and genres are pretty diverse.

This morning's CD included "I Am Woman," by Helen Reddy.

I remember when I first heard this song in the Autumn of 1972. I went with a group of Catholic girls to a birthday party for one of their classmates. So, there were going to be a lot of Catholic girls there and that sounded like a good party to me!

The birthday girl lived in newly constructed public housing deep into Roxbury. This development was not near a subway stop and the buses that ran in the area only ran at rush hour. So, we took the subway to a stop we rarely used, found a pay phone, called the girl, and huddled in the freezing cold awaiting the arrival of a car that would take us the rest of the way.

The party was amusing, but heavily chaperoned. Eventually we got to the gift-opening phase of the party. There were the pieces of costume jewelry, posters for the bedroom wall, t-shirts, assorted accessories and school supplies, then the best part. The best gifts I ever received or watched someone else receive during my childhood: the 45 RPM singles. Seven-inch pieces of vinyl magic that would transform the dankest dullest saddest day into a Hollywood production. The selection was rather dismal, mostly Top 40 crapola including a record that most of the girls were quite excited about: "I Am Woman," by Helen Reddy.

It went right on the record player and everyone stood in total silence listening to the song. I had one of my regular experiences of misheard lyrics when I heard "I am white, I am invincible, I am woman."

I thought this was a rather odd line in a song. And why were all these girls, many of whom were not even remotely white, singing gaily along with the singer?

Some other songs played, conversation was had. I don't remember any dancing. I finally got some time with the birthday girl, who was floating from the excitement of it all. I was floating from a half-tab of acid I'd taken as soon as we arrived. She was turning sixteen, and as a 14-year-old I was just a little kid to her. So, she deigned to speak to me with her eyes looking everywhere but at me. I didn't really care one way or the other, I was having fun and would talk to anyone. I could barely understand what they were saying anyhow with the buzz of an acid trip rumbling at the base of my brain. The song stopped and somebody changed the record and it was "I Am Woman."

Suddenly, it seemed, all the girls seemed to know all the words and were singing along. It was really fun and thinking back to it, was a rather powerful thing to watch: all these young American women basking in the light of the women's liberation movement, all expressing strong opinions and making big plans for their futures.

When the song ended, I did what what I always do with misheard lyrics, I said out loud to the birthday girl: "I'm surprised so many people like this song when it says "I am white." The birthday girl, who had earlier explained to me that she was one-part Native American, one-part Chinese, one-part Puerto Rican, and one-part black, looked at me with her jaw dropped. She explained: "It's not white, it's WISE!"

Yes, a number of other party-goers heard the conversation and the nervous laughter from all of us was not necessarily an expression of people being amused.

I don't remember what happened next, or how I dispensed with my humiliation, but the party went on, and I chatted with more people, and "I Am Woman" played another dozen times before the end of the party.

On the ride home, I was tripping even harder and the conversation in the car was primarily about this song; and the opinions of 16-year-old Catholic girls about women's liberation was engaging, but not necessarily amusing.

For the rest of the night, that is the rest of my acid trip, the song played over and over in my head. I took a liking to it that would last my entire life, but it was not the kind of music I generally listened to, nor the kind of music my peers expected me to listen to. So, I never owned the record and never played it in my home until almost 20 years later.

In the late 1970s, when some punk bands were remaking pop songs of eras gone by, I would suggest ironically that some boy punk should remake "I Am Woman" and sing it as a really angry girl. It never happened. (But, The Hollywood Brats covered "Then He Kissed Me" which was an excellent consolation prize.)

In the early 1990s, I was in my thirties, I was now working a real job, in a real company, and was fortunate to be surrounded by a wonderful group of co-workers. We made the work fun and we produced a lot of work. "If I have to, I can do anything," became my slogan, and "I Am Woman" became my theme song - the soundtrack of my professional life.

The song has been in light rotation on my stereo and in my brain ever since.

This morning, when it started playing on the car radio, my 7-year-old daughter said, "turn this up, please."

I was thrilled and started singing along. I told her it was one of my favorite songs. I hope it becomes on of hers.

Nearly forty years after first hearing it, I offer you this video of Helen Reddy singing "I Am Woman" on Midnight Special:

Helen Reddy, at Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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