Melissa Etheridge’s car, a 1995 BMW 740i, fills her with a deep and profound sense of well-being. It is shiny and black with a cushy interior of tan leather. It may even be Corinthian leather. “Watch this,” Etheridge says with relish as we head toward Duke’s, in Los Angeles, a cheery greasy spoon near the Whisky that is favored by the nose-ring set. “Call home,” she commands, Knight Rider-style. A discreet dialing noise fills the cockpit. Suddenly, Etheridge’s tinny voice is saying, “We’re not home, if you’d like to leave a message.” She grins. “Isn’t that great? And look at this.” There is an interior-temperature monitor, set at a comfy 71 degrees. “You gotta love it,” she says, slapping the dashboard.
Etheridge punches the buttons on the radio, and the strains of her most recent single, “I Take You With Me,” float through the high-tech stereo system. “I still get a little thrill when that happens,” she says contentedly.
The car glides past Tower Records. Wait a minute. What’s this? Painted on Tower’s parking-lot fence is a giant Melissa. Farther up the road is the Whisky. “No matter where I am, I take you with me,” Etheridge’s radio voice croons. What the. . . ? Looming on the Whisky’s wall is . . . a giant Melissa. This is beginning to feel like a spin around China with Mao.
It’s a Melissa Etheridge world these days. Last year’s quadruple-platinum album Yes I Am, her fourth release, is still cranking out the hits and gets a sales boost after each career milestone: Etheridge’s memorable Janis Joplin medley, for instance, at Woodstock ’94; a second Grammy for Best Female Rock Performance; her stuffed-to-the-rafters sellout at Madison Square Garden, in New York, last December; her recent Unplugged set with a drop in, one Bruce Springsteen. Turn on VHl any time of the day or night, and there is Etheridge.
Her North American tour kicks off this month, and attendees will range from 13-year-old boys to thirtysomething women wearing frayed 1989 concert T-shirts to parents with Chianti and lawn chairs. In the not-too-distant past, she was known as Melissa Etheridge, the Lesbian Singer. Now her fame has swelled to the point that there are some neophyte fans who are completely unaware that she is gay.
Her road to true success – and, really, nothing illustrates this better than the fact that there’s a Muzak version of “I’m the Only One” – was paved by nights singing Barry Manilow tunes in cocktail lounges. Etheridge’s homespun appeal, however, and her confessional, straight-from-the-heartland songs have made her a working-class hero, as Springsteen and Bob Seger were before her.
And now that Etheridge has arrived, she is going to enjoy it, by God. “I love it here,” she says about Los Angeles, without apology. “Always have.” Indeed, she has embraced the town and all that goes with it: the good (her backyard overlooks the twinkling lights of L.A.), the bad (a personal trainer) and the ugly (a hot tub).
Many of her pals, in fact, are in showbiz – not the B-list Pauly Shore types, either. Etheridge and her longtime love, director Julie Cypher, regularly entertain such chums as Elton John, Ellen DeGeneres and Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern (who play pinball on Etheridge’s Jurassic Park pin-ball machine) and Brad Pitt.
Ask Etheridge about this year’s Grammy ceremony, and she says, “The thing I’m realizing more and more is that Julie and I know these people now. I mean, I’m sitting there in the front row, and Bonnie and Michael are next to us.” (That would be Raitt and O’Keefe.)
Etheridge breezes into Duke’s, past an autographed photo of herself that says, To Duke’s – You Thrill My Tummy. “And there’s Bruce and Patti. [That would be Springsteen and Scialfa.] And I don’t even feel like ‘Oh, I’m out of my. . . .’ You know, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t.’ I do know these people. And they’re wonderful people.”
Etheridge is about as far away as she could possibly be from her hometown of Leavenworth, Kansas, a town where it seemed every car had a bumper sticker that read, We’ve got a lot in Leavenworth. Trouble is, it never bothered to explain what, exactly, they had a lot of.
Bright Sunshine Fills the airy Hollywood Hills abode of Etheridge and Cypher. It is tastefully decorated in what is best described as Spanish Funky. There are antiques, pets and photos throughout. A black grand piano stands majestically in the corner of the living room. Etheridge’s latest Grammy glints on a window ledge. “I don’t quite know what to do with it,” she says, laughing. We walk to the kitchen, where a cat is sprawled on the large, rough-hewed kitchen table. It lifts up its head, sees us and puts its head back down.
Cypher and Etheridge are discussing Cypher’s musical sensibility. “I value what Julie thinks a lot,” says Etheridge, “because she’s not, you know. . . .”
“Musically minded,” finishes Cypher. “I’m a good example of the music listening of the average Joe.”
“She couldn’t tell you one song that Courtney Love belts,” says Etheridge, teasingly.
“I could so,” says Cypher.
“You could not.”
They do a lot of that, bickering back and forth like an old married couple. Which, in a sense, they are, having been together for five years. The two met in 1988 when Cypher was an assistant director on Etheridge’s video for “Bring Me Some Water.” Etheridge was smitten, but there was a slight obstacle. Seems Cypher was married to actor Lou Diamond Phillips. In time, however, Cypher began to fall for Etheridge. Cypher and Phillips separated in 1990 (they divorced the following year), and she moved in with Etheridge.
The two complement each other nicely. Etheridge, 33, is warm and expansive, laughing loud and often. Today she is wearing her usual jeans and T-shirt, with a long shirt over the whole ensemble. As for makeup, she rarely touches the stuff. Cypher, 30, is a sharp-witted provocateur who likes verbal give-and-take. She is chic and beautifully dressed, with flawless tan skin. (“She has beautiful skin,” I remark at one point, “very smooth.” “It’s like that all over,” says Etheridge, arching an eyebrow.)
They walk out to the backyard. “This is why I live here,” says Etheridge, pointing out the view, the pool, the fruit trees. They settle into a chair, and talk turns to the more surreal events of the past year.
“Having Elton John over for dinner,” Cypher offers.
“Mm. That was weird,” says Etheridge. “We ran in two different directions,” says Cypher. “She ran to find a piano tuner.”
“First thing, first thing.”
“And I sanded and waxed our kitchen-table benches, which have splinters,” says Cypher. “So that the Versace wouldn’t catch.”
“Then there was meeting the president,” says Etheridge, tossing a ball to the dog Angel.
“A friend says, ‘Let’s tour the White House,’ ” says Cypher. “So we do, and he says, ‘Y’know, Bill might be available.’ Next thing, we’re in the Oval Office chatting with Bill. He’s asking questions about Woodstock.” She smirks. “Melissa. Tell us what you said after that.”
Etheridge looks pained. “Well, I said, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to tell you, if I ever had the opportunity, that I used to spend my summers in Arkansas,’ ” she says, her voice rising. “And it means a lot to me, knowing the dreams I had as a kid, another kid who grew up in Arkansas grew up to be president.”
“That’s what you would have said,” remarks Cypher.
“No, that’s what I said. So he says, ‘Oh, your mother is from Arkansas? Where does she live?’ And I could not remember. And he realizes that I’m losing it. I choked.”
“She turns around and says, ‘Help me out here,’ ” says Cypher, who supplied the name of the town. Leavenworth threw a Melissa Etheridge Day last November.
“It’s good to let people know you can come from a small town and not have to hate it,” she says. “They can embrace an open lesbian rock & roll singer.” She played the high-school auditorium, just like the old days. “Man, the memories, boom, right back there. It was just . . . just a great experience.”
This is a vintage Etheridge pronouncement – sincere but downright corny. Love is a word she uses frequently: She loves her friends, her house, her guitar, French toast, the stage. A self-described “real Midwestern girl,” she is wont to sprinkle her conversation with Kansas terms: “People know that it’s all bunk,” she declares of the rumor that she had an affair with Martina Navratilova. She has supreme self-confidence, but she is not suave. When her friends tease her, she doesn’t fire back a witticism – she’s more likely to say something along the lines of “I do not!” And while she can wear leather pants as well as Slash does, she could not bring herself to approach Eddie Vedder at this year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame awards ceremony. “He was like the cool dude in school, you know?” she says with a small shrug.
For all of her Hollywood swingin’, in fact, Etheridge is very Up With People in her attitude. Indeed, every guitar tech and limo driver in Los Angeles can’t wait to tell you of her kindnesses. Instead of destroying a hotel room, Etheridge is more likely to leave the maid a very nice tip. She always wears her seat belt. She doesn’t do drugs. She prefers cozy nights at home with a few pals to hitting the clubs. She rarely drinks.
“When I was in high school, I was playing in bars,” Etheridge says. “I was watching these grown-ups drinking and getting sick and stuff. And I said, ‘Hmm, that’s disgusting.’ ” Etheridge is the picture of moderation until she hits the stage. Once she picks up her guitar, all the fire that simmers within her is unleashed mightily. This is a woman who consistently makes them jump, be it in a small club or an arena. You will never come across the term half-assed to describe one of her shows, even if it’s her 14th in as many days. But for the record, Etheridge has been known to have a cocktail a few times a year. “I love [See? That word again.] tequila,” she says, leaning back in her chair. “On my birthday I’ll do, you know, four shots real fast.”
“Oh, quit trying to be rock & roll,” Cypher scoffs. “She barely ever drinks. OK?”
I‘ll have a margarita, blended, no salt,” says Ellen DeGeneres, who has joined her friends Etheridge and Cypher for dinner. The waiter at Atlas, a jazzy L.A. restaurant near the Wiltern Theater, can barely contain himself. “I’m sorry, what?” he says, doing an unsettling jig by the table. “I can’t believe this, I mean this is really exciting.” He is babbling incessantly and is soon replaced by a two-waiter team.
They are gathered here today because Etheridge is being saluted at the Wiltern for her contributions to L.A. Shanti, an organization that provides services to people with AIDS. DeGeneres will bestow the award.
“I first met Melissa in the early ’60s,” DeGeneres says, picking at some quesadillas. “OK, that’s not true. We started hanging out six years ago. The first time I heard her, I was in a car, and her song ‘Bring Me Some Water’ came on the radio. ‘I Need a Glass of Water’ or whatever it was called. ‘I’m Thirsty, Could Somebody Give Me Something.’ ‘I Would Like Some Liquid If Somebody Could Help Me Out.’ And I’m just saying, ‘I’ve got to know who this is.’ ” DeGeneres says they met in a lumber-store parking lot. “I never went up to people on the street, but I said, ‘You’re so great.’ She was nice. I think she said, ‘Do you need some change?’ She was there to buy speaker wire for a party she was having that she didn’t invite me to.”
“I didn’t know you!” says Etheridge.
“Everyone was invited,” DeGeneres says. “I’m driving around that night, no traffic, nothing.” Etheridge leans against Cypher, laughing. DeGeneres suddenly gets serious. “I’ll tell you, everything about Melissa is very grounded,” she says. “Very calm. She’s just so opposite of what she sounds like. This wildness that comes out in her voice. The first time I heard her, I thought she was Tina Turner.”
Etheridge was not always able to belt it out, according to her mother, Elizabeth, a retired computer analyst living in a small town in Arkansas. “Early on, she didn’t have a great voice,” she says. “The music was in her; she was strumming the tennis racket from the time she was a toddler. I think some people are born with a singing voice, but I don’t think she was. She just realized that was part of what she wanted to do, and she taught herself.”
This single-mindedness has been a part of Etheridge’s life since she was in Pampers. “Everyone that knew me knew that I was going to be a rock star,” she says, “because I told them that. I always had my head somewhere else, going forward.” Her mother concurs. “Melissa always had an amazing amount of self-confidence,” she says. “She never, ever said, ‘If I am able to do something in music.’ It was always when. Where did it come from? I have no idea.”
Melissa Lou Etheridge was born in a town where folks leave their keys in their cars, despite the fact that it’s the site of the federal penitentiary that housed, among many, many others, Al Capone. She got her first guitar at 8, and as Etheridge says, “I learned three chords, and that was it.” At 11 she penned one of her first tunes, “Lonely as a Child.” While other children her age wrote songs about duckies and horsies, Etheridge’s song was about a kid in a war-torn land whose mother had been killed. It was clearly a signal that young Etheridge had songwriterly depth if not a serious need for some fresh air and sunshine.
“Melissa had a real gift for improvisation and composition,” says her high school music teacher, Lester Dalton, who posts “every clipping, oh, my, yes” on the music-room bulletin board. “She could come up with a song virtually at the spur of the moment.” Etheridge’s childhood was steady and secure, but she (known as Missy back in the day) describes her home life with her parents and her older sister, now a Kansas housewife, as “very bland. A family that was low on emotion. The conversation at the dinner table was, ‘How was your day?’ but there was a dark undercurrent underneath.” Etheridge found an emotional outlet in performing, which she did at nursing homes, the state prison (“A thousand people going, “Yeaaah!” They were way into it”) and at any Elks Club function within 50 miles. Her schoolteacher father, John, who died in 1994, tirelessly schlepped her to the gigs.
While Etheridge’s career path was established by the time she hit high school, her personal life was quite another matter. The self-described “strange, butch guitar player” dated boys, but there were no skyrockets, as Bobby Brady might put it. She didn’t feel that anything was tangibly missing because “I never knew what love was. I was 15. What do you know? All you know is, ‘OK, I can talk to this person.’ “
Not only was Etheridge unaware that she was a lesbian, she was unaware that lesbians existed. Remember, this was before the era of k.d. lang, lesbian-chic magazine covers and Sandra Bernhard’s character on Roseanne. In Leavenworth “there were no movies, except in the early ’80s, there was Making Love, which starred two men and Kate Jackson,” Etheridge says with a laugh. “Then, flash forward two years later, I kiss my first girl, and fireworks go off, and music is playing. And then it’s just . . . clear.”
Although Etheridge felt a bit different, she has “amazing memories” of classic high school experiences: She played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz; she went to her junior prom (as the evening’s entertainment, that is, playing “Commodores, Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac. So unalternative”).
A brief stint at Boston’s Berklee College of Music was memorable because Etheridge went to her first women’s bar. “I was like ‘My God, look at all these people,’ ” she says wonderingly. “And they’re all dancing with each other and having fun.” Boston was also the site of her short career as a security guard in a hospital: “I had the uniform, the whole bit.”
She headed back home, where she briefly took up smoking to have something to do with her hands at the women’s bars she frequented in nearby Kansas City. “In my experience the only place you could meet other gay people was in a bar,” she says. “And the worst thing in the world is to sit in a bar alone, right? So a cigarette could be your best friend.”
Etheridge then had to sing at a gig and found that she couldn’t because of her newfound smoker’s hack. “I went, ‘OK, no matter how lonely I am. I have to sing.’ “
Etheridge soon realized L.A was her lady. Thus, in 1982, she enacted a scene straight out of a bad Bon Jovi video: On her 21st birthday she packed up her guitar and drove away as her mama cried. Once ensconced, she headed for every music venue in the classifieds, at one point auditioning as a singing waitress. “It was at a place called the Great American Burger Co., I think. It was a family wedding. This little girl looked at me and stuck out her tongue.” She played the lesbian bar scene in Long Beach, California, for the next six years.
“Melissa was always able to support herself with her music,” says her mother. “She was always able to make a living, no matter what.” Among those in one of her many audiences in 1986 was Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records. Etheridge says he told her, “You’re a real rocker, and I’ve always felt that the next big rock star is going to be female.”
In 1986 she handed over 10 songs to Blackwell, who hated them. She coerced him into giving her one more shot, then cranked out a straight-ahead rock album in four days. Blackwell was pleased. Her debut, Melissa Etheridge, with its single “Bring Me Some Water,” brought Etheridge her first Grammy nomination and her first shot at the celebrity limelight. (It was also her Girls! Girls! Girls! phase. “I was young,” she shrugs.) Brave and Crazy, released in 1989, and 1992’s more experimental Never Enough – which earned her a Best Female Rock Performance Grammy for the single “Ain’t It Heavy” – solidified her reputation as dynamic stage performer as well as a skillful songwriter, with her recurring themes of love, longing and anger.
The following year, Etheridge came out publicly at the gay and lesbian Triangle Ball, during Clinton’s inaugural celebration. She hadn’t planned it, but after k.d. lang announced that coming out was the best thing she had done all year, Etheridge stepped onto a balcony and blurted, “Well, I’m proud to say I’m a lesbian.” The crowd went berserk. Etheridge has no regrets about it. “It felt great,” she says. “Very liberating.”
Etheridge says that her coming out hasn’t hurt her image or, as far as she knows, lost her any fans. “Also, being sort of high profile and gay,” she says, “it’s been interesting to watch people adapt to it in these special social situations. Recently, Julie and I were on a plane, and the stewardess made us fill out a customs form and said, ‘Oh, since you have two different last names, you will have to fill out two forms.’ And it was compassionate of her, addressing the fact that yes, we are indeed a family.” She does not, however, support outing. “The community is just coming out right now,” she says, “and it needs to be a safe place.”
After her emergence, Etheridge headed into the studio to record 1993’s Yes I Am, which spawned two Top 10 hits, “I’m the Only One” and “Come to My Window,” and is still kicking. This year the disc hit quadruple platinum. Yes I Am Very Famous.
This fame makes itself known at weird times. Witness the scenario at the aforementioned L.A. Shanti awards ceremony. Etheridge has come off the stage at the Wiltern, having accepted her award from DeGeneres and having sung a raw-edged “Come to My Window” and “I Take You With Me.” She strides off the stage, grinning and clutching her award.
Waiting in the wings is Bette Midler, who is about to go on. She is fabulous in 3-inch gold high heels and a sparkly dress and is swiveling her upper body around in circles – a strange yet hypnotic warm-up exercise. Someone offers water. “No,” she barks. Suddenly, she spots Etheridge.
“Hiiiiiiiii,” says Midler, and the two air kiss, a good eight inches of space between them. Midler clutches Etheridge’s arm, and there is a brief exchange between tiny, sequined Midler and rangy, leather-pants-clad Etheridge. This is also hypnotic.
In the dressing room someone asks Etheridge what was said between the two. “I don’t know,” she says, bemused.
Since we’re all in different places for M.E.’s birthday, we’ll just have to make some sort of pact to celebrate wherever we happen to be. This is my proposal: first, bowling. This would be followed by german chocolate cake with fudge frosting or angel food cake, depending on your preference.”
This was written by a person who has never met M.E. and most likely will not any time soon. Etheridge is hunched over a computer screen, checking out what fans have to say about her on the Internet. “I love this,” she says, clicking onto another missive. Etheridge herself never responds. “I don’t even know how to run a computer. I just let them be. I like it better that they’re there, and I’m here. I mean, what would I have done if I was 20 and Bruce Springsteen answered me?”
“Is Melissa’s version of ‘Happy Christmas, War Is Over’ out anywhere?” someone types. “No, it’s not out,” Etheridge says. “No, it’s not out,” somebody types in. From another fan: “I finally got to see the new video. It’s a little weird, but God, is she hot.” A Holy Roller appears and proclaims that Etheridge is going to hell for being a lesbian. He is subjected to the on-line version of being beaten about the face and neck by an angry mob. “If Melissa is going to hell, I hope I go, too,” one writes. “At least I’ll finally get to meet her.”
There are many fans who would follow Etheridge to the infernal regions. She gets “massive amounts of mail,” much of it tear stained and crumpled. She doesn’t answer. “I couldn’t answer all the ones I’d like to. It would just be too all-consuming. Where would you draw the line? And it would take a lot out of me. I’d rather put it in my songs and write.” Fans toss their bras onstage. “Bonnie Raitt said to me, ‘Girl, I never got no bras onstage,’ ” says Etheridge. They give her antique jewelry. Last year she was flooded with dream catchers, those quasi-American Indian tchotchkes. Fans cry uncontrollably when they meet her. A large number of them want to hug her. “If the energy’s too intense, I won’t,” she says. “But I’ll take anyone’s hand.”
It was mentioned in a recent article that Cypher collects bowling balls. Soon, heavy packages started arriving in the mail. When Etheridge played Madison Square Garden last year, there was a group of hardcore fans in the first 10 rows who had procured tickets from the Melissa Etheridge Information Network (“Keep up to date on all Melissa Etheridge news and events. To join, send $17”). When she launched into “Silent Legacy,” a song about a 14-year-old who is thrown out of her house for having sex, all 100 fans fired up their lighters at once. Etheridge burst into tears. “All my stage composure went poof.”
Etheridge is sometimes held up as a sort of lesbian role model, which makes her chafe. “I have made mistakes,” she says. “And I think I should be allowed to. If my life can be an example, great, but people should live their own life and live their own path.” She clicks on another message. “Last night I watched the Unplugged. It was fantastic! And I had no interruptions from my father.”
Hi, Doll,” says the security guard as Etheridge swings her Beemer into the gates of an L.A. recording studio. Inside awaits her solid tour band, who will record with her for the first time: guitarist John Shanks, bassist Mark Browne and drummer David Beyer. Also present is British producer Hugh Padgham, mastermind of Yes I Am.
The small mob is laying down tracks for a November album. “Hi, guys,” says Etheridge breezily, flinging down her fake leopard-skin purse, upon which is pinned a Marcia Clark button that reads O.J.’s Prosecutor, Fighting for Justice. “It’s Julie’s,” she says.
“We were just reading Black Sabbath road stories out of this magazine,” says Padgham. “One time the drummer wanted to set the bass player on fire. ‘Excuse me. May I set you on fire?’ ‘Not now, I,m working. How about later?’ ” Everyone laughs, but Etheridge is fidgety. She is rarin’ to go.
“I’ve got all these new songs that I wrote last year, and I’ll definitely write more,” she says. This process has been unchanged for a number of years: It’s just Etheridge, her guitar and a spiral notebook. She is thinking about penning another song that tells a story, à la Yes I Am’s “All American Girl,” but she hasn’t yet. “I’m trying to do more of that. Bruce Springsteen’s The River inspired me as a writer. ‘You know, Then I got Mary pregnant.’ You’re in their lives, and you 100 percent believe and feel that.”
Today, however, she is polishing up “basic rock & roll” tunes like the loping “I Want to Come Over,” “Shriner’s Park,” about a trysting spot in her hometown, and the driving “She Wants You.” The songs do not digress from a road-tested formula: strumming guitars, passionate lyrics, fire-up-the-lighters ballads. With the exception of the oft-criticized Brave and Crazy, her one funky departure, Etheridge has stayed with the same program. Folks are going to snap this one up. “Let’s try ‘She Wants You,’ ” says Padgham.
“It might need a hair more distortion.”
“A hair more distortion,” the band mimics in English accents. They imitate his voice incessantly. Padgham just smiles mildly.
Etheridge steps into the booth. “She’s tall, and she’s strong, her legs are tan and long,” she croons. The song builds to a swelling chorus. “I can tell she wants you, oh, I know she wants you, just like I want you, she wants you so bad,” Etheridge sings longingly. It boggles the mind to see her call up this emotion from thin air. “Gotta go into the booth,” she’ll chirp, and a nanosecond later she’s pouring out her guts, mournfully yelping, “She waaants you.” They do a few more takes. “Like buttah,” Etheridge says.
“Sounds great,” says Padgham. “Shall we eat our little things?” He means lunch, and everyone breaks except Etheridge. She is jazzed from recording and begins to talk excitedly about future plans. “I hope amazing things come from this record,” she says. “I want to do a stadium tour in the next few years. I don’t know of any female rock musician who has done one. That’s a big goal of mine.”
As is . . . acting, believe it or not. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” she says, noodling on her guitar. “So I’ve been looking around a little bit. I don’t want to play the part of, you know, ‘the rock & roll singer.’ ” (So, replacing Joan Jett in Light of Day II isn’t in the picture?)
Etheridge would like to legally marry Cypher. “Julie and I talk about it a lot,” Etheridge says. “I think it will be barefoot. And we’ll both wear dresses. But it won’t be traditional.” (“Been there, done that,” says Cypher.) Also on the agenda is the pitter-patter of tiny feet. “People tell us, ‘If you wait for the right time, it will never come,’ ” Etheridge says. “But the urge is happening more and more.” How they will do this is “personal, closed to the rest of the world.”
For now, Etheridge is content to plan her birthday party – “I want some music, I want some dancing, I want everybody I’ve ever known” – and to look around and just grin to herself.
“In your twenties you think you know everything,” she says. “And then you find out you don’t, and there’s a real freedom in that. Turning 30 wasn’t traumatic for me – it was a marker for more to come. And it’s just been better every year.”
“I’ll tell you,” Etheridge continues. “I have lots of plans and lots to do, and I have an exciting life.” She looks around the studio musingly. “I certainly feel young. I’m 33, but I feel very brand-new.”