Portland Anonymous: Fragment Eleven

Benefit concerns have a long history in rock & roll and other genres.  In 1971 there was a benefit concert to help those in Bangladesh after the horrors of their war of independence against Pakistan.  Then there benefit concerts for starving people in Africa in the eighties and noughties, and Farm Aid for those from rural America in the eighties as well.  It is just that there are some subjects that we did not think to do benefit concerts for because no one wanted to dwell on such subjects for a long time, and #N/A chose to shine a light on one of those dark areas, and for that we can definitely be grateful.


I was really happy to be invited by #N/A to perform in a benefit concert for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.  He knew about one of the songs I had written and sang about it, and had even covered it himself with my permission for the studio double album that was associated with the live album from the concert that we did.  I had become familiar with a shelter that helped survivors of child abuse, many of whom had become runaways and dealt with the horrors of life on the street for the vulnerable, so it was an issue I cared about a lot, and I was pleased to see an opportunity to encourage a wider understanding of the problem than often existed.  Normally we tend to think of child abuse in small areas, in particular problems, and not part of a larger system or with all of the larger repercussions, but I was definitely pleased to see a concert that focused on those implications.


“It is easier to build a strong child than to repair broken men.”  Like many people, I was familiar with this Frederick Douglass quote, but also like many people I didn’t see how it was applicable to many of the problems that we saw around us.  To be honest, in this area like so many others made me feel a bit uncomfortable about #N/A.  As a feminist, and as someone who was pretty vocal about the sexual abuse of women, I championed #MeToo and events like “Take Back The Night.”  In that kind of atmosphere it is easy to think of men as the violent aggressors and women as the victims, but people like #N/A can be pretty fierce in challenging that kind of simple picture.  Without being politically strident about it, he showed that abuse was something that was a broader phenomenon than I had realized, and that it cut across all kinds of lines.  I must admit that made me feel uncomfortable and still makes me feel uncomfortable, but I think that was the point.


People always want to know the autobiographical stories behind songs.  When I wrote “Simone,” I wrote and performed it in a way that people would know the situation if they understood what was being meant, but that they might just think it a pleasant song if they didn’t already know what I was singing about.  Not many people pay attention to song lyrics anyway, they’re more concerned about the mood of a song.  So a song like “Simone” might be seen as a pleasant but somewhat boring lullaby to some and an inspirational song of moral courage to others.  And #N/A definitely got what I was trying to say in the song, in that I was comforting someone who had lived a terrible and rough childhood and it was amazing to me that he had been comforted by the song as a teenager when it came out and that he wanted me to perform the song in concert and to play piano on his version.  I was also pleased to be able to sing with my duet partner for “At The Beginning,” which was a sweet way to bring some closure to what was otherwise a pretty emotionally draining evening for most of us.


Like many people, I had been fascinated since my youth with the interplay between Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience as poetry.  U2 did a concept album of sorts about it, so it wasn’t like it was an original thought on my part to do the same thing as a double album myself.  But I’d like to think that my framing of it was a bit unusual.  I was doing it as a cover album in which every song on one album had a counterpart in the other.   I conceived of it like the movie “Sliding Doors,” where a single decision made by a survivor of child abuse would determine a very different course.  Does one will oneself to live decently and as innocently as possible or does one live promiscuously and lose sight of the difference between the nightmare of one’s past and the nightmare of one’s present.  Does one believe the lie that someone is worthless simply because they are treated as such, or does one resist the lie even at some cost to one’s own peace of mind?  It’s a tough choice, but one that all survivors of child abuse must face.  Do we do unto others as we would want to be treated or do we do unto others as we have been treated?

And so I made a double album of covers.  We have songs like “Children of the Night” juxtoposed with “Simeone.”  We have songs like “Strip” contrasted with “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off.”   We have songs like “Dreaming Of You” by the late Selena contrasted with “Dream” by Forest For the Trees, and on it goes.  There are different ways that one can see the albums and the songs in them.  Each of the albums has a progression from the experience of child abuse through the struggles one faces in life over identity, the result of one’s trauma, how one chooses to deal with it, and the results it has on one’s hopes and dreams.  Likewise, there is also a contrast that one can make, to see the repercussions and difficulties of the choice on the one hand to maintain innocence as much as possible and on the other to revel in the filthiness and degradation that one has been treated with.  I could have done the same thing with original songs, but I thought that by using covers I could not only pay tribute to the past but also to make people aware of the fact that these struggles are faced not only by people like me but also by a great many others as well.  I’m a private person and I didn’t want to overwhelm myself or the audience with too raw of a performance of my own emotional feelings about the subject, nor did I think I could really do justice to a choice I didn’t make when it came to how to deal with the subject for myself, so I thought the idea of doing covers as a good one.

After that, though, I thought of how it would be if we had a group of people performing the same songs live.  Of course, there were some performances I would do, in part because the original performers had died.  Selena, of course, was killed just before she got famous in the English-speaking world, and Jermaine Jackson died of AIDS years after having performed “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off.”  Having never worked on the logistics of that kind of large charity project, I first wanted to broach the idea with some of the performers whose songs I had covered for the studio double album, and they were really enthusiastic about it, especially when they saw what I was trying to accomplish when it comes to giving honor to all of the survivors of child sexual abuse and their struggles, without adding gender politics that only recognize some survivors and not others.  I shared with Donna Lewis my own story of how I would use her “Now In A Minute” album, especially the song “Simeone” as a way of getting myself to sleep after really tough days, and that really resonated with her own purposes of the song as a way of encouraging people to let go of their past and try to live their best life possible in the here and now afterward.  So after we had a few people who agreed to it, it was easier to talk to venues, and we were able to do something really big, and do the concert live on cable and in some theaters across the United States for those who wanted to support the charitable work.  It was pretty exhausting to do all of that work, but I think it worked out well and it not only was the first time I had done a live performance of that kind but also helped to introduce people to who I am and what sort of struggles I have had.

There are always risks in opening oneself up like that.  There are a lot of people who will try to invalidate one’s own views because of that kind of experience, or who will view someone as a potential threat because they believe that someone who suffered and continues to suffer from child sexual abuse will inflict that same kind of torment on others.  Likewise, there are many people who have the same experience oneself, and it can be a bit overwhelming to hear other people unburden their stories when they know that someone can understand where they are coming from, only increasing one’s own burden.  That’s the price, though, of people knowing the internal life of someone who is famous.  Humanity in general is very damaged–how could we not after generation after generation of sin and suffering–and people view the suffering of celebrities as a way of validating their own struggles.  And there are plenty of people who want to exploit what they see as the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of others as well, all of which is difficult.

But of course, I knew that when I became involved in covering the songs and wanting them released as a cover album and I knew that when I became involved in the benefit concert.  Of course people are going to want to know why it is that I would care about a subject, and once they knew why I cared, then they would be able to draw whatever sorts of conclusions and inferences they would want to from it.  And of course, once one becomes known for that sort of issue, then one has to become a spokesman for causes related to it, and all of one’s works become read through that light.  I suppose it made my “High Anxiety” debut album more readily comprehensible as anxiety is a common mental health struggle related to PTSD.  Likewise, the hyperarousal that young people may engender also becomes easy enough to understand in that sort of context as well.  It is a bit uncomfortable giving people that easy of a grasp of one’s own work, but I suppose it was inevitable.  Any time you present people with a mystery, people want to solve it, and what is reductionism and oversimplification to one person may be a Pareto analysis to another to look at the biggest factors and influences behind a given work.


I remember being somewhat surprised when he talked to us about doing the benefit concert.  At first I remember thinking, this guy has one hit song and he wants all of this free publicity and venue organizing, but then when I heard how many others were involved it was something to take seriously and we worked to make it successful, and it was.  I never got the feeling that he was someone who wanted to profit off of suffering like some people do, and he was pretty laid back and not very demanding in the way that some celebrities are.  You know, sometimes people are fussy about all the brown M&Ms being removed from the candy bowl or only certain brands of water or soda or anything else being used, but he wasn’t like that.  He only insisted that there be no mangoes in any  fruit trays, but given his massive allergies to that, that was something I could easily understand, and it wasn’t a hard demand on his rider.  Otherwise, he was genuinely friendly to our staff and did a good job working with our staff at the venue in making the performance work out and he was good about rehearsals and the details that help make events run smoothly.  It was a joy to work with him and after it was done I would gladly have worked with him again if I had had the chance.


Benefit concerts can be tricky business.  Sometimes they are viewed as being opportunities for stars to virtue signal to others, but I think in this case it was something decidedly more complex.  #N/A wanted to share his own story, at least part of it, but in a way that would allow other people to share their own stories, including the inspiration that people drew from their own experiences and those of others to craft songs and other creative works.  And by pointing out how he and others have been inspired by their own struggles with abuse in themselves and friends and family and loved ones, he inspired other people to draw courage and inspiration from their own experiences well, and I think that’s something we can all treasure and take to heart, and that’s a good legacy to have, I think.


Thank you all for being here tonight.  I’m a pretty shy person much of the time, and it’s not always easy to address the subject of tonight’s concert.  Although estimates vary about how many people have suffered childhood sexual abuse, it is clear that there are many millions, perhaps even tens of millions or more, who have dealt with sexual abuse during their lives.  And that is a lot of stories to tell, a lot of ways for people to feel less alone by knowing that there are others who understand and who are not going to take advantage of them.  I hope in some small way we can make it so that talking about our struggles is not taboo, that it is not something we have to feel secretive or ashamed about, and something that can be an honest aspect of our social conversation.  You probably don’t want to hear me lecture for the next few hours, so I would like to introduce the first of our acts today.


I’ve known #N/A for a long time, long before he became famous, and he’s always been someone who struck me as brave in a way that other people didn’t readily understand.  How many people would show themselves in their honest and anxious and awkward self without drugs or alcohol in that kind of public venue?  I mean, sometimes you look at celebrities and you see how different they are than they were before, but with him you could see him as the same sort of person he had been otherwise.  I’m not sure he felt good about that, but I know I felt good to see that he was the same person he had always been and that fame hadn’t corrupted him or changed him from who we had remembered him to be.


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in NaNoWriMo and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Portland Anonymous: Fragment Eleven

  1. Pingback: An Introduction To The Portland Anonymous Project | Edge Induced Cohesion

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