Hers is not a face they’d put on the cover of “Rolling Stone”. The woman who plays one Friday night in a hole in the wall called Le Café Club. There are ten tables in the place and a bar. It’s about a third full. The bartender walks over to the corner that’s a small stage, too small for more than two people. “Tonight we have someone special. Hope you’ll like her.”
Nobody applauds. From behind a side door, a woman walks over to the stool next to the mic. She is small, seems fragile, her hair all frizzled about, a dishwater blonde. Her face filled with red splotches. A black patch covers her left eye. Her nose looks like it’s been broken not just once but several times. Her mouth is too large for the face and she doesn’t have much of a chin. Her body is thin in a dark blue jumper, almost skin and bones. She takes the six-string Martin guitar from behind her and rests it on her lap, then pulls the mic to her the way a lover might pull her lover close.
Several people get up to go, not happy about the appearance of the woman.
Her fingers graze the strings, then strum. “If you’re traveling in the north country fair,” she began Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country”, her soft voice filling the room with a mournfulness.
Those who are about to leave stop and return to their tables. They are stunned at what they are hearing.
I feel the wind and the cold north country. It is beautiful and sad, that voice. It is like a dream, listening to that voice tell the story of a girl whose love leaves her in that cold, north country alone. The song ends sudden-like. The room is quiet. Not a sound, not even of a pin dropping.
The woman leans into the mic. “My name is Sam. That’s short for Samantha but you can call me Sam. Two women. One from the north country called Amanda. One from a southern place, Brazil. Rio. Her name is Inez. Two ladies with only one thing in common.” All the time she speaks she strokes the strings of the guitar. Then she’s got a different voice, this one cool and dancing like a samba, “Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking.”
“When we’re young, we can recover from that first love lost. But we always remember, don’t we? Our northern girl hopes and dreams, and soon she’s believing again. So,” the voice speaking, then singing Amanda-like, “Somewhere over the rainbow” fills the room with its longing for something better. Then the southern girl gets her turn, “I’m as restless as a willow in a wind storm.” It’s spring and the listener just knows love is going to come around.
A guy, call him Bill, comes along, promises Amanda “All of me.” But Inez, southern girl that she is, wouldn’t fall for that. So the guy, he’s a Jorge, is giving her, “I’ve got a crush on you.” That crush is just enough to get her to go for the fellow.
Just when our two girls are falling in love, Bill gives Amanda the old goodbye. And Sam, the singer, is singing “I’ll Be Seeing You.” There’s such tears in that voice as if Bill really means the words. And Inez hears her goodnight too as Sam sings Jorge’s words, “Goodbye, no use leading with our chins” and he’s wishing our Inez bluebirds in the spring and he’s wishing her love most of all. Disappointment moves through the room like smoke. Amanda experiences “Autumn Leaves” and the days grow long and winter’s coming. How will she survive the loss? And Inez of the south finds herself looking everywhere and “Maybe you’ll be there” Sam sings, the sadness going deeper than I ever thought sadness could go.
We in the audience are with Amanda and Inez on their journey of lost love, thanks to Sam’s voice and her guitar, sharing the betrayal both women know. It’s hard to look for a rainbow or spring, that voice tells us.
“The women take on their loss in different ways,” Sam goes on. “Amanda picks herself up and decides she’s may not have true love but who knows. At least, she may have a Summer Romance.” Her voice goes high and a little breathy with the words, “Maybe we’ll meet at a dance.” And then Sam’s speaking again,, “It’s hard to keep a good woman down, don’t you think.”
Somehow we have forgotten how distorted and out of whack the singer’s face is. How fragile her body. All we know is the songs she’s singing and the words she’s saying. “Inez goes for the booze and there’s ‘Scotch and Soda’.” The strings are slow, then pick up with, “Dry martini, gigger of gin.”
Summer Romance is not enough for Amanda, she’s crying “For you, there’ll be no more crying.” And Sam’s giving love a funeral with Christine McVie’s “Songbird”. “The songbirds are singing like they know the score, and I love you I love you like never before.” It’s just Sam’s voice, no guitar. Then Sam hits a string, then another string, and there’s a spring in Inez’s voice as she singing, ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right.” There’s no getting this Inez down. To heck with the booze, she’s getting her “cool” back.
Amanda goes back to nature and “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars”. And those nights help Amanda get her cool back too. But Inez, being a city girl, is not one for the quiet. She wants the “Beautiful Noise” of the city. “What a beautiful noise coming off from street,” the words tumble out of Sam, noises of horns honking and people laughing coming from her Martin. Suddenly It’s a new world and the women are ready to fly. Amanda of the North and her “April in Paris”, “A Foggy Day” in London town for Inez. Out of the fog true love appears for Inez and Paris is the best for Amanda. Just when they think they are running away, they run toward. Amanda’s making whoopee with her guy Pierre while Inez, not as worldly as she thought she was, skeptical and asking Peter, “Can I trust you?” Sam’s voice pours out the fear Inez feels.
Sam’s fingers hit three strings pianolike and there’s the true love for Amanda we hear in “Unforgettable” and “Never before has someone been more Unforgettable in every way.” Inez’s new love treats her to “sangria in the park and “problems left alone” and “you made me forget myself”. It’s a “Perfect Day”.
“Two women,” Sam says, “one from the north country, one from the south, now have love. They’ve taken it by the hand and it’s paid off. Maybe, maybe not. But at least they haven’t given up. So here’s one for each of you.”
“Hello, young lovers,” her voice sending us off into the night with the best of farewells, a close for the evening, something to believe in, “whoever you are.” She looks with her one good eye deeply into each one of us. “Be brave, young lovers, and follow your star.” And the song is over.
The audience, me included, are on our feet, applauding, scream our thanks to the vocalist now down from her stool and bowing, the guitar sagging to the floor. This night we have been taken on one heck of a roller coaster ride. I found myself completely drained. Then I walked out into the chill of the night a new man. Believing in the power of music and of love, and ready to let them take me wherever.
The Songs in the Piece: