Helen Reddy, Welcome Home
Divas are a part of every gay man’s life. It doesn’t matter what certain gays resisting stereotypes say about not liking divas: every gay man has a diva – even if it isn’t a typical one. Maybe it’s a tv show diva or a movie diva; maybe it’s a Broadway diva or a rock n roll diva. It could even be a political or literary diva – the point is that, yes, true to stereotypes, every gay man has a woman or women with strong, fierce, individual personality traits that rank her as a diva.
I have a lot of divas. I am greedy that way.
There is, though, one who has been with me longer than any other…
Mama was my first strong woman. She has always been strong, fierce and individual; and she has always affected my personality, my opinions, my thoughts, my likes and dislikes. That is why the other diva who has been with me longer than any other is Helen Reddy.
Long before I was out in the world as a child, going to the picture show, checking books and records out of the library, watching the tv programs of my choice, I was listening to the music that my parents played in our living room. Long before the influences of the outside world gave me leave to make my own decisions about my personal tastes in the arts, the influences inside of the Mosher household were the options open to me. My father listened to Buck Owens, Roy Clark, The Mamas and The Papas, Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson and Carmen McRae. My mother listened to Bobby Goldsboro, John Denver, The Carpenters, Carole King and Carly Simon. They both listened to Helen Reddy. Saturday mornings were filled with sunshine, the smell of Windex, coffee and pancakes as mother did her weekend cleaning and made us breakfast. The record albums LONG HARD CLIMB and I AM WOMAN were, regularly, the underscoring of these Saturday mornings. The songs Peaceful, A Bit Ok, The WestWind Circus and The Last Blues Song came to symbolize my mama and sunshine for me. There were occasions when Mama and Daddy would roll up the rug in the living room and dance around to the song Dance In The Old Fashioned Way (this is, by the way, where my love of dancing was born; absolutely). When I became old enough to spend my allowance on record albums, among the first vinyl (or 8 track) to be added to my personal collection were the records Free and Easy, Love Song for Jeffrey and Helen Reddy’s Greatest Hits. During the years that we lived in Europe, each summer, during our trips home to the States to visit family, my trips to the record stores were to find Helen Reddy records, which is where I discovered one of the most significant records from my youth, MUSIC MUSIC; and during the years in Switzerland, if I didn’t have money to spend, I would go to the record stores and sit at the listening kiosks, playing WE’LL SING IN THE SUNSHINE and EAR CANDY until the store employees knew me by name. Eventually, I would have enough allowance saved up to purchase the albums and mother and I would sing and dance around the living room to songs like Blue, Long Distance Love and Catch My Breath. When I put together a dance routine for the annual talent show at the International School of Berne, I chose the song Ready Or Not; and when I was an angry teen needing time in my room to be moody and depressed, the song was I’d Rather Be Alone.
And, of course, there was the legendary You and Me Against the World, which always mirrored my own relationship with my mother.
Yes. It can definitely be said that Helen Reddy has been the singer I have loved longer than any other. Along the way I have discovered many other divas, ladies and artists that I have added to my list of (what my husband calls) “Stephen’s Ladies” but Helen was always there first.
I have seen Helen Reddy perform live several times. The first time was in a gay bar in Dallas, sometime in the 80’s. I traveled, with my husband, to Rhode Island to see her as SHIRLEY VALENTINE! Then there was the five times I saw her on Broadway in BLOODBROTHERS, as well as a benefit concert she (and her castmates, including Petula Clark and Carole King) did for a crew member of the play whose family was in need. I took my parents to see the lady sing at The Rainbow Room and introduced them to our rock n roll diva, after — one of my favourite moments in my life. I had the great opportunity to photograph the above-mentioned benefit concert; but I also had the honour to photograph Helen for THE SWEATER BOOK (a story I may tell, one day, another favourite moment in my life) and Pat and I actually joined Helen and our friend Richard at the movies, where we were the only white people in a packed Times Square Cinema for a showing of WAITING TO EXHALE. The last time I saw Helen in person was when I joined throngs of fans at a book signing for THE WOMAN I AM, Helen’s frank, honest, entertaining and moving autobiography (I had to have a signed copy for myself and for my mama). I didn’t see Helen again for a long time, save for Youtube check-ins for reposting on my Facebook page.
I was aware that my rock star had retired and was living in Australia, pursuing other interests, living a life of peace and quiet. I was also aware of when she started singing again. I could not make it to California to attend any of the concerts; but, as luck would have it, there were two dates planned for B.B. King’s New York, right in the middle of Times Square. Knowing, full well, that the chances of my having to work on the Saturday and Sunday nights of Helen’s club dates were strong, very strong, I bought tickets anyway and prayed, for weeks, that I would not book a gig, as I am completely out of vacation days and a vacation day would be the ONLY way to get off for the show, should I book work. For weeks, I prayed and watched my email in box for news of a booking at work. Finally, ten days before the concert, I texted my boss, desperate to know if we had anything in contract for that night. No. It did not look like it. It looked like I would be able to see the show.
Well. I took my husband and my camera and got there early. We chose a great seat from where I could see (and photograph!) my beloved star in action and, as the minutes ticked away, the excitement grew in me, as well as the other fans at our table, indeed, the fans at every table. I had heard that the evening before had been PACKED, which rather seemed to surprise Helen when she came out. This evening was also packed; and when Helen came out, the expression on her face was a happy one, indeed. She opened her mouth to sing and her voice is completely and totally the same! I know nothing about singing except what I have been told by others; and one of the things I have been told is that women’s voices lose strength as they age. Helen is very frank about her age, when discussing it in the show: she is 71. Now, I may know nothing about singing, but I do know music (as a fan) and I DO know HELEN’S music (as a devotee) and I am telling you: she sang every song in her original keys and she sounds the same as she did when she sang the songs the first time – indeed, even better, because of the emotional journey she has traveled through the years. She brought herself, her stories, her experiences, her love of singing and her distaste for singing songs she didn’t want to sing (over the years) to her act (she is wonderfully outspoken about the songs Ruby Red Dress and Candle on the Water). In this act, Helen sings the songs SHE wants to sing (happily, many of them, my favourites). It was astonishing to see my beloved idol, looking much the same as she did the last couple of times I had seen her and singing exactly the same. Strong, vibrant, beautiful. Interestingly, there were moments (a LOT of moments) when Helen reminded me of my own mother. The outfit she wore, the way she moved about the stage (especially when dancing to the music), the quirky and quizzical facial expressions, the frankness with which she chatted with the audience, her short and sassy haircut… many, many times, I thought I was watching Mama Mosher up on the stage of BB King’s and, the next day, I asked my husband “Was it me, or did Helen remind you, at any time, of my mother?” and he laughed and told me yes. So, it wasn’t my imagination.
Ninety minutes. Helen Reddy, at 71, walked onto the stage and sang, balls to the wall, her voice blaring like a trumpet made of crystal. She treated us to the songs The Stars Fell on California (one of my favourites), Best Friend, a mash up of Delta Dawn and That Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady, Loneliness, Birthday Song, Long Time Looking, You and Me Against the World, Long Hard Climb, Bluebird (one of my VERY favourites), Angie Baby (a thrill for everyone), Hold Me In Your Arms Tonight, Nice to be Around, Mama (honestly, after Bluebird, Long Hard Climb and Mama, she could have left the stage and I would have been content), an astonishing treatment of I Am Women in which she recited the lyric as a poem and segued into the musical number, encoring with That’s All… every song, every note, every moment filled with emotion and nuance, beauty and technique, humour and honesty for one and one half hours, before collecting an enormous bouquet and leaving us, her final message to love one another.
This concert was filled with screaming fans of all ages; people who love Helen and her music and who have missed her for the decade that she was retired and living Down Under. All these people are people who are beside themselves that she has gone back to singing and who are praying she will release a new cd. I know I pray that she will go back to recording and that she will be back in NYC for a concert, soon, very, very soon.
I did not wait to see Helen after her show. There were throngs of fans. I couldn’t be one of them. I was fairly certain she was exhausted and I want to take nothing from Helen Reddy, not even a moment of her time for a photo with her after an exhausting tour and performance. I had to opportunity to go backstage because we share a dear friend in Richard Hillman.. but I have met Helen; I have told her what she and her work have meant to me, in my life. I have photographed Helen. I need take nothing more from my diva. Now, all I wish to do is give back, even if it is a moment more to herself after her show. What I DO have to give back, though, is my continued devotion, unwavering, and support, unending. I will never not be there to buy a Helen Reddy record, to see a Helen Reddy concert or to tell any person too young to remember that there was once a decade called the 70s, during which an incomparable, totally original, unique, individual, strong, invincible and enormously sassy, bawdy and funny woman ruled the pop charts and changed life with a sound that, to this day, is entirely her own.
That’s my diva, Helen Reddy.
Please note: the photos seen in this story were all shot by me (he said, chest puffed up with pride).