The year was 1984. My wife Catherine and I were living in Lancaster, CA, a small, blazingly hot town on the western edge of the Mojave Desert, where she and I had moved to help care for her sick mother.
Here’s pretty much exactly how I will always remember Lancaster—especially since this is right where we lived:
I understand it’s now much grown, but during the time we were there, kids in Lancaster dreamed of making it in—or just to—Bakersfield, some seventy miles to the north.
This is an excellent shot of Bakersfield:
huge parts of which also look like this:
Here is the Bakersfield airport:
The point being: Bakersfield is a “big city” like a piece of fried corn-dog coating is filet mignon. (And I know of what I speak: after Lancaster Cat and I lived in Bakersfield for nine years. Whoo-hoo! We lived the dream!)
Anyway, back to Lancaster in 1984. Cat and I were at the annual Lancaster County Fair. To give you some idea what that was like, many of the fair “displays” were just stuff people had dragged out from their garages, barns, and repair shops, and simply dumped onto the fairground grass. You were just supposed to walk around and look at piles of old farming tools, vacuum cleaners, water heaters, broken lawn furniture. Dilapidated refrigerators. Ancient bicycles with no wheels. Shoes. Frayed bits of rope.
What made it fancy was that the assorted piles were located on ground that was in the shade. That’s why I stayed looking at the stuff: shade! Lancaster is the deserteriest of desert towns: over 100 degrees for weeks on end was typical. A nice, cool summer night in Lancaster is 80 degrees.
At the fair were also things like pigs and goats; Lancaster was a very 4-H kind of place. (To be clear: I love 4-H.) There were a bunch of live chickens stacked in wire boxes that you were supposed to look at. Baked goods were also on display, sort of: in a Quonest hut a bunch of card tables stood holding Hostess Cupcakes with whipped cream sprayed on top of them. Twinkees decorated with bows. Ding-Dongs carefully arranged on paper plates. I remember there was a cherry pie that looked like it might have been good once.
I’m being obnoxious about it, but the truth is I loved the Lancaster County Fair. I’m a complete freak for county fairs. If I go to heaven, and it turns out to be nothing but small town county fairs, I am going to be one extremely thrilled after-lifer.
Anyway, guess who was playing at that year’s Lancaster County fair?
Poor thing. What at that point had happened to her career? Did her agent hate her? I have no idea, of course. But I do know that when she walked out onto the stage in the cavernous main auditorium of the Lancaster County Fair that year, my wife and I were sitting smack in the center of the front row.
Our seats were not difficult to obtain. In the entire auditorium there were only fourteen other people sitting in the ocean of metal fold-out chairs. I know because I counted each of them. I wanted to make sure that I never forget the time that I saw Etta James perform at a hick county fair before a total of sixteen people.
It was at the end of a long, hot day. The other audience members were mostly kids who had spent that day working at the fair: they were all wearing or holding food-crusted aprons, and looked positively exhausted.
Etta was then very heavy: when she came out, it was clear how much her body had become her enemy. She was about as overweight and out of shape as a person can be; I remember being afraid her legs would fail her. She held herself in a strange, bent sort of posture, as if, knowing her body would at any moment collapse, she wanted to at least lessen the distance it fell.
There were no stage lights, or anything like that: the huge fluorescent light fixtures hanging from the ceiling bathed us all in the same pale, greenish-yellow light.
It was the gig from hell, basically.
Etta came out, looked out as us, scowled a bit, turned to her four-person band, and signaled them to start.
She started singing. She wasn’t exactly into it. It was just another show.
It wasn’t to Cat and I, though. This was Etta fucking James.
Cat and I don’t do a lot of things well, but we know how to let musicians and singers know that we appreciate them. So—what with our being right in front of her, and all—we started in letting Etta know that we knew who she was, that we were delirious to be listening to her, and that she sounded every bit as great as we knew she would.
And then the change came over her. She started to go deep inside herself. I don’t know if it was Cat and me cheering her on, or the heat, or the despair of having to do that gig, or what. But, right there in front of all sixteen of us, Etta James became Etta James. She sunk into a place so blue it was pitch black—and then came back up with it, roaring, crying, wailing, singing it into all the sweet, terrible pain this world can bring.
The guys in her band looked around at each other, nodded, and ratcheted their business up. Things had just gotten real, and they weren’t about to let the smokin’ Etta James train pull out without them.
Etta laid into her singing, hard—and stayed right there, at the most painful, real place on earth. She didn’t just deliver it. She knocked on your door, came into your house, dragged you up into your bedroom, and worked you with it. This was more than a woman singing. This was more than the blues. This was a woman who had become the very heart and soul of everything that the blues ever could or would be.
Cat and I turned to each other with our mouths hanging open. The kids beside and behind us were in paroxysms of joy.
It was the kind of moment you have maybe once in your life. Maybe twice, if you pay attention. Maybe never.
And that moment lasted, for all of us, for fifty of the most solid minutes there ever were.
There was a three-year period of my life when I made my living as a music journalist. I’ve seen a lot of live music. In my whole life I’ve never seen a performer do what Etta James did that day.
Rest in peace, Etta James.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.