If you’re anything like me, (and if you read my blog you probably are), you’ve found yourself inexplicably singing a Helen Reddy song. You might be walking the dog and suddenly start singing “Delta Dawn.” “Where the hell did that come from?” Perhaps you begin humming “I Am Woman” while you’re shaving. It’s okay. It happens.
Early yesterday morning, as I lay in bed with my Brussels Griffon, Oscar, wavering in that odd space between sleep and consciousness like the tremulous flutter of Helen’s thin vibrato, I was struck like a lightening bolt by “You and Me Against The World,” her number one hit from 1974. And I stayed struck—for at least an hour and a half I couldn’t get the damn Kenny Ascher/Paul Williams song out of my head. “You and me against the world/sometimes it seems like you and me against the world/when all the others turn their backs and walk away/you can count on me to stay..”
My favorite part of the record has always been the introduction where Helen’s daughter Traci plaintively says “tell me again, Mommy,” and the coda where she coos “I love you mommy,” to which Helen reassuringly replies in her lilting Australian accent “I love you too, baby.” How could someone not be moved by such a tender exchange?
Not well-remembered today, Helen had an impressive run in the 1970s. In 1972, “I Am Woman,” which she co-wrote, became the unofficial anthem of the women’s liberation movement. When I hear it today, it’s immediately 1972 again. I clearly see my newly separated mother with long hair parted in the center singing along while working on a needlepoint of her own design that said “Fuck Housework!” in an Old English font over a broken broom. Just to prove she meant it, mom hung the finished piece in the dining room, where to me it seemed less an exclamation of women’s liberation than a framed explanation of why I was so embarrassed about the depressing condition of our home.
All told, Helen Reddy racked up a formidable string of ten top twenty hits, including three that went to number one: the aforementioned “I Am Woman” and Delta Dawn, as well as the wonderfully sinister “Angie Baby,” a mid-tempo ballad about a neighborhood girl with schizophrenia that could only have been a hit in the 1970s. “Folks hoping you’d turn out cool/but they had to take you out of school/you’re a little touched you know, Angie baby..”
I have fond memories of my Aunt Sue driving the kids to Dr. Barofsky’s for our weekly allergy shots and listening to the 8 track tape of Love Song For Jeffrey, the 1974 album that contained “You And Me Against The World.” “Jeffrey” was husband Jeff Wald who was unfortunately also her manager. As predictable as a chord change in one of her hits songs, Wald ended up stealing all of Helen’s money, which may explain why she sings “You and Me Against the World” to her daughter instead of to him. It may also explain why Helen got so grumpy later on.
Back for a moment to the big years. In addition to her many AM radio hits, Helen is perhaps best remembered today for her earnest, inspiring turn as Sister Ruth, the folk singing nun in Airport ’75 who comforts the ailing adolescent Janice Abbott, played by The Exorcist’s Linda Blair, who is travelling to get an organ transplant. Who can easily forget Helen gently strumming the guitar and singing the lilting ballad “Best Friend to Myself,” just moments before the plane crashes and stewardess Karen Black has to land the plane? For this, her film debut, Helen received a Golden Globe nomination for “Most Promising Newcomer,” a category which no longer exists, but in no way diminishes its significance.
As the mood of the country changed in the latter part of the 1970s, disco and punk changed the musical landscape. Top 40 radio began its decline, and Helen started to seem old-fashioned. In 1977, when radio summarily turned it’s back on the Australian songbird after her last top 20 hit, a treacly cover version of the old warhorse “You’re My World,” Helen began the really Long Hard Climb; the one where you have to head back toward anonymity. In the 1990s, she turned her attention to the musical stage, enjoying some success on Broadway with Blood Brothers, before finally retiring to a quiet life back in Australia.
In the mid-1990s, by a very strange coincidence, one of my closest friends named Mark lived with a friend of Helen’s who was helping to manager her. Times being tough, Helen essentially became Mark’s roommate when she would come to New York. Mark liked her. She was bawdy and fun, so he said.
During that period, Mark took me to see Reddy’s club act at the now-defunct Rainbow and Stars room high above 30 Rockefeller Center. Long gone from Capitol Records where she had been a top priority, she was promoting her album Feels So Young, which was released on Helen Reddy Records, where she was its only priority, thus proving that Helen had truly internalized the meaning of her Airport ’75 ballad, “Best Friend To Myself.”
Sadly, the show let me down. Judging by her sluggish energy level and very questionable pitch that evening, the title “Feels So Young” may have been more aspirational than factual. Because of my in with Mark, I went backstage to greet the legendary lark. I was so excited because compared to the world at large, I was a veritable Helen Reddy expert. Moreover, I was filled with good will toward Helen, whose cultural relevance had by this time been reduced to being a pink wedge question in Trivial Pursuit or a Jeopardy answer in the category “Singers of the 1970s.”
For these reasons alone, imagine my disappointment when Mark repeatedly tried to introduce us and Helen did to me what Top 40 radio had done to her in the late 1980: she stopped paying attention and then gave me her back. Momentarily crestfallen, I returned to my seat to wait for Mark and comforted myself along the way by humming Helen’s 1973 number three hit “Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress)”which suddenly seemed both appropriate and ironic, imbued with layers of meaning that would never have been possible just moments before.
This unfortunate anecdote supports one of my Theory of Mental Stagnation at the Peak of Stardom (TMSPS), which explains the phenomena whereby a celebrity essentially freezes time at the moment of their greatest success. So for Helen Reddy, we weren’t in a cramped dressing room after a poorly attended cabaret show in 1998, but actually backstage at the Grammy Awards in 1975, an altogether better place for Helen. TMSPS is also related to my Theory of Arrested Emotional Growth (TAEG), which posits that it is impossible for stars to grow emotionally once they become famous for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that from the moment they are no longer regular people, no one ever again tells them the truth. If you use this theory it is easy to gauge the true age of a star making it completely unnecessary to ever again have to cut off their legs and count the rings.
But listen, I’m not grudgy. I still enjoy the occasional Reddy song as much as the next guy and I know that on that night in 1998, underneath the armor of her I’m Helen Reddy and it’s 1975 veneer, Helen knew that the world had turned the dial.
You may also enjoy:
On The Perils of Combining Affirmative-based Cognitive Tools, the Jungian Shadow, and Singing “Don’t Cry Out Loud” in Public