k.d. lang: Flawless, Fearless

Posted on Nov 2, 2016 in Feature Pieces
k.d. lang: Flawless, Fearless

It wasn’t the first time I heard k.d. lang’s voice that carved out a forever place for her in my heart. It was the first time I saw a photo of her for, in it, I saw a reflection of who I was or, more likely, who I wanted to be. It was 1990, maybe 1991, and media representation of those of us who are “masculine-of-center” was sparse, at best. But there was k.d., handsome and heartfelt, staking a claim for all of us… even those still nestled safely in our closets.

Actually, in 1991, k.d. wasn’t out yet, either. Not publicly, at least. She had released Friday Dance Promenade (1983), A Truly Western Experience (1984), and Angel with a Lariat (1987); recorded a Grammy-winning duet of “Crying” with Roy Orbison (1987); performed at the Winter Olympics (1988); released Shadowland (1988); and won another Grammy for Absolute Torch and Twang (1989), all of which rightly endeared her to lovers of classic country crooners like Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells.

Musically, k.d. put her reverence and respect for the form and its icons at center stage — her first band was called the Reclines, after all. But, stylistically, she injected a sharp wit and a cow-punk ethos into her earliest works, much of which she learned from another country legend — Minnie Pearl. On those first few albums, k.d. still considered herself to be a performance artist, playing with gender by sporting a crew cut while donning a cowgirl skirt and horn-rimmed glasses. By the late ’80s, her look had settled into the tomboy version of a cowboy, letting denim, boots, and short hair frame her prairie-born good looks.

Because her talent was undeniable — and she wasn’t yet waving a rainbow flag — country music fans could abide by their own version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and just enjoy her utterly stunning voice. Heck, Patsy Cline’s beloved producer, Owen Bradley, helmed Shadowland and recruited Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Brenda Lee to sing on it. Doesn’t get much more classic country than that.

But then, in 1990, the avowed vegan caused an uproar among said classic country folk for appearing in a “Meat Stinks” ad for PETA, earning herself a lifetime ban from country radio. A sign proclaiming Consort, Alberta, to be ”Home of k.d. lang” was even burned in effigy. Naturally, k.d. was bothered by it all, but she never wavered from her convictions. Instead, she doubled down.

Within a couple of months of that kerfuffle, k.d. was waltzing toward the adult contemporary music space with a contribution to the Red Hot + Blue Cole Porter tribute compilation benefitting AIDS research and relief. Her performance of “So in Love” was a highlight of the platinum-selling album, showcasing her extraordinary gift as an interpreter of song. She finalized her transition in March of 1992 with the absolutely captivating collection that is Ingenue. Flourishes of pedal steel here and there were, really, the last remaining vestiges of country music in k.d.’s sound.

In June of 1992, before “Constant Craving” led the album to multi-platinum sales and a third Grammy Award, k.d. came out as gay in The Advocate, confirming the open secret that everyone already knew, but dared not speak. That year — along with the Indigo Girls’ — k.d.’s courage and conviction, artistry and activism made a bigger impact on my life than anyone before or since.

I still remember sitting on the edge of my seat in the first row of the balcony on August 7, 1992 for the entirety of her first-of-two performances at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles. Having already come out, k.d. introduced the gender-play that is “Miss Chateleine” with a comic bit meant to put everyone in the crowd at ease: “There’s been something I’ve been meaning to tell you, something that’s been on my chest for quite some time. So I’m just gonna conjure up the gumption and spit it out.” [drum roll] “I… AM… A… LLLLL… AWRENCE WELK FAN!”

The show was one of the best I’ve ever seen. EVER. And it was a show: k.d. is not just an incredible singer; she’s a captivating entertainer, paying attention to every detail, from the punchlines to the performances. Summing up his review of the show for the Los Angeles Times, Chris Willman wrote, “Even the most die-hard meat industry activist would be hard-pressed not to switch-hit and walk away from this one a closet… LLLLLLLANG FANATIC.”

Less than a month after that fateful night, I too became an avowed vegan and, in November, I became an out queer. Doubtful I could’ve, or would’ve, done either without having k.d.’s lead to follow, without having her image to reflect. Seeing k.d. stand so gloriously in her truths inspired me to find and live my own. Though I didn’t yet have the capacity to understand or accept it, I’d known since I was a kid that I was queer. But growing up in rural Louisiana did more damage than good, where understanding and acceptance were concerned. (Funnily enough, the same could be said of not eating meat: Of all the left-leaning things in my life — moving to Los Angeles, working with rock stars, being a homo, living in a meditation ashram, and being a vegan — the one thing my Southern-born and bred father could never get a handle on was me not eating meat.)

So when I finally saw someone who looked like me, lived like me, and loved like me, I started moving toward the light that she was shining. Turning toward that light meant turning into myself — digging into my own identity and drumming up my own courage. That process of discovery, sparked almost entirely by k.d., uncovered who I was at my core… and who I continue to be today — an Eastern philosophy-abiding, activist-minded queer who works in music and doesn’t eat meat.

k.d. continued to shine lights and blaze trails from there on out: Having Cindy Crawford straddle her in a barber’s chair on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1993 is the stuff of legends (and of dreams, if I’m being honest). Wearing a jacket emblazoned with “HOMO” on the 1995 VH1 Fashion Awards is right up there, too. Though I had long copied her style, the extent to which I emulated her, consciously and not, became crystal clear when, for Christmas that year, a dear friend gave me a sweatshirt embroidered with “HOMO.”

In 1993, she and her long-time co-writer, Ben Mink, were working on the soundtrack for Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and I was buddies with their engineer, Marc Ramaer. Knowing I was a huge fan — but also that I was cool — Marc invited me to come hang with them at Dave Stewart’s studio, then again at Skip Saylor. I jumped at the chance, not knowing whether or not k.d. would even be there. The first two times, she wasn’t; but those third times really are a charm.

A friend at k.d.’s label, Warner Bros., had procured for me an Ingenue poster, so I showed up, walked into the control room to, once again, only find Marc and Ben plugging away. Then, as we were joking around, the door opened and in strode k.d. I had unfurled the poster so the guys could sign it and she said, “Oh, man. I never liked that photo” (or something pretty close to that). Still, she scratched out an autograph while I decided I should cut my losses and make myself scarce. For whatever reason, I instinctively smiled and winked at her on my way out. How mortifying.

Two years later, the boys were back in town working on All You Can Eat and I got another invitation to hang and hear some tracks while they were being mixed. There I was, 25 years old, getting a sneak preview of my hero’s new record… again. Unreal. At the time, I was working with Vonda Shepard, so I took her along and we invited the guys to her upcoming show at the Troubadour. They came and, not too long after, I got a call from k.d.’s manager asking me about the drummer (Abe Laboriel, Jr.) and bassist (Oneida James) in Vonda’s band. Marc and Ben were so impressed, they wanted them to audition for the All You Can Eat tour. Neither ended up on that run, but Abe would go on to become one of k.d.’s main collaborators on 2000’s Invincible Summer. (And, yes, I take a wee bit of credit for that musical match-making.)

Because of those very loose ties, that series of records — Ingenue through Invincible Summer — will always be bound up together in my mind. In them are k.d.’s heartbreak and humility, her vulnerability and her valor, her truth and her triumph. From the wrenching ache of “Save Me” to the quiet confidence of “I Want It All” to the gentle resolve of “Only Love,” those albums are filled with songs that serve as signposts of a truly soul-filled journey.

What’s more is that, from 1992 on, she didn’t need to use pronouns in her love songs as all of us to know about whom she was singing. And that normalization meant everything to her fans. For better or worse, we knew who she was dating and when they broke up, so there was no need to highlight the feminine objects of her affection at the potential risk of alienating the wider audience. After all, k.d.’s disarming charm knows no bounds. You can’t pin her down or fence her in. So why even try?

That tabula rasa approach to her art and her audience is the key to k.d.’s universal appeal. She wants men and women to be drawn to her in whatever way works for them. When she stood center stage in a three-piece white suit at the 2010 Winter Olympics singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” some folks might not have known how to feel about her, but they sure knew how to feel about her voice: There are not many better. As Stephen Holden wrote of a 2004 performance in The New York Times, “Few singers command such perfection of pitch. Her voice, at once beautiful and unadorned and softened with a veil of smoke, invariably hits the middle of a note and remains there. She discreetly flaunted her technique, drawing out notes and shading them from sustained cries into softer, vibrato-laden murmurs. She balanced her commitment to the material with humor, projecting a twinkling merriment behind it all.”

Even though her music strayed out of country long ago, every move k.d. has made over the past 30 years has been informed by that original cow-punk ethos of hers that refuses to color inside any lines or rest on any laurels. And that value set doesn’t just apply to her music, either. Somewhere along the way, k.d. turned her spiritual gaze toward Tibetan Buddhism which sidles up quite nicely to her animal rights activism, contemplative songwriting, and humanist life approach. While I’m much more of a Taoist/Vedantist, myself, I have great respect for the deep compassion of the Tibetan Buddhist path, so I count that as yet another intersection between the two of us with “K” and “D” as our initials.

Though I haven’t been as dedicated a follower as I should have been, the past 15 or so years have seen the release of several more k.d. collections and collaborations, including her 2016 project with Neko Case and Laura Veirs, aptly monikered case/lang/veirs. When their tour brought them to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on August 6, 2016 — the Mother Church of country music and long-time home of the Grand Ole Opry — k.d. greeted the crowd with a big ol’ Minnie Pearl-style “HOOOOOW-DYYYY!” before reminiscing about how she’d been kicked out of the Ryman on several occasions. Both Case and Veirs seemed to understand the gravitas of k.d.’s triumphant return, and everyone else in the room understood it, too, by the end of her rafter-raising cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless.”

As soon as I heard the song’s opening plunks, I let out a big ol’ “WHOOP!!!” and moved to the edge of my front-row balcony seat, just as I’d done 24 years (minus one day) earlier. And I hung on every note, remembering all that she has meant to me over the passing decades. Quite simply, k.d. lang is one of the greatest singers of any generation, with flawless pitch and fearless control. She is also one of the greatest influences on my life, with flawless talent and fearless style.