The Gift of Grief and ‘Girl Bros.’

In celebration of Wendy & Lisa’s brilliant ‘Girl Bros.,’ released 4 September 1998, I decided to re-post a blog I wrote in 2014 about how the album has guided me through tremendous loss and how the music endures all these years later.

October 1998. 

I had just moved to Burbank, and was getting settled into my tiny but wonderful apartment a block or so away from Disney Studios, where I had recently begun a year-long writing fellowship program. Not too long after arriving in LA, I had already identified the wreckastows I would haunt to get my music fix and expand my ever-evolving CD collection. One of the new CDs I picked up—and certainly one that I had eagerly awaited—was Wendy and Lisa’s Girl Bros.

Now.

Anyone who knows me, knows how I ride for Prince. We’ve been down since the early ‘80s, when I was entirely too young to be listening to him, let alone singing along. Ninety-nine percent of the time I didn’t know what he was talking about anyway, although that didn’t assuage my mother’s consternation (honestly, I’m still not sure I understand everything he was talking about back then; a friend of mine and I were just wondering the other day who exactly was masturbating in “Darling Nikki,” and what role the magazine played in it all. But that’s for another conversation, at the end of a very late night). But along with my childhood idolization of Prince came first a fascination with and, shortly thereafter, a deep admiration for Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. As members of the Revolution, they figured prominently in Prince’s songwriting, composing, arranging, and performance—arguably more so than other members of the band at that time. While I don’t have absolute proof, I have frequently surmised that they were largely responsible for the sweeping arrangements that characterized much of Prince’s work from Purple Rain through Parade; his post-Revolution oeuvre, after Wendy and Lisa’s departure, offers a markedly different musical perspective which seems to make it more than obvious how their sensibilities influenced him. And naturally, you hear his influence in much of their solo work (particularly on 1989’s Fruit at the Bottom).

So it naturally follows then that I would take a keen interest in Wendy and Lisa’s post-Prince releases. With their self-titled debut in ’87, W&L pulled off a relatively straightforward pop album that coincided perfectly with my tween-aged musings. I spent many a Saturday afternoon dancing in front of the mirror in my bedroom, singing along to “Waterfall” and “Sideshow.” “Stay,” which I honestly believe is one of the most perfect songs ever written (the guitar solo gives me chills to this day), spoke of unrequited affections merely hinted at in my lived experience to that point; and when I found a vinyl maxi-single of “Honeymoon Express,” which featured the slick and funky “To Trip is to Fall” on the b-side, I put my young producer skills to the test by recording myself singing “Honeymoon” over the instrumental. Like, background vocals and all (thanks, dad, for the sweet karaoke machine!).  

By the time Fruit at the Bottom dropped in ’89, I was in high school, and it, too, seemed a perfect soundtrack for that era of my life. That cassette, along with the Batman soundtrack, Sign O’ the Times, Parade, and a copy of The Black Album I’d recorded from a friend’s vinyl over one of my sister’s Bob James tapes (oops), stayed in my book bag all school year and in heavy rotation on my Walkman. This incredibly funky album remains the Prince-yist  of Wendy and Lisa’s body of work (“Are You My Baby” and “I Think It Was December” being the most obvious nods), but what made it even more intriguing for me was the fact that it featured all women musicians (Jesse Johnson makes a special appearance on “Satisfaction”).

1990’s Eroica was quirky and a gorgeous sonic departure from the first two albums. Released during the seeming resurgence of 60s psychedelic and protest music (this was, after all, the commencement of the first Gulf War), the album found its way into my collection alongside Sinéad O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got and a bunch of Jimi Hendrix tapes I ordered from Columbia House Records. A bit more cerebral and sophisticated, it took me a little longer to fully appreciate the work in its entirety, although songs like “Strung Out,” “Crack in the Pavement,” and “Turn Me Inside Out” resonated pretty quickly. My best friend used “Why Wait for Heaven” at a critical point in his production of LeRoi Jones’ Junkies are Full of Sh*t for his senior directing project, which opened that song up to me in a new way.

In the years following Eroica, while W&L did not release any new studio material they swiftly established themselves as one of the premier composing teams in Hollywood, scoring films like Dangerous Minds and Soul Food, and TV shows such as Crossing Jordan, Heroes, and Nurse Jackie (Emmys and the ASCAP Shirley Walker Award would follow). 

Which brings us, albeit perhaps somewhat anachronistically, back to 1998, and Girl Bros, and what it has taken me 17 years to fully comprehend about the album.

I remember reading in early reviews of Girl Bros. that the album was inspired by Jonathan Melvoin, Wendy and (her twin sister) Susannah’s brother who had died of a heroin overdose in 1996. I’d also heard or read that the song “The Love We Make” from O)+>’s Emancipation was also inspired by Jonathan’s death, and of course in reading the liner notes inside the Girl Bros. CD it was clear that the album was dedicated to him. What I missed, however, in those first listens—from the first track, “Reaching One,” to the final track, “I’ve Got No Strings” (made famous in Disney’s Pinocchio, and which takes on a whole other energy and direction when voiced by an adult woman)—was grief. Because, see, to that point in my life, I had never truly experienced grief. When my maternal great grandmother, Mama Brock, died when I was in high school, I was deeply saddened. That loss mattered. When my maternal grandfather, my dear and wonderful Papa, died on New Year’s Eve 1999, my heart broke. It ached not only because he was gone, but because I watched my mom, my aunt (her sister), my Granni (their mother), and so many of our family members experience that loss. Still, it was a different kind of thing. Great grandparents and grandparents are at an age and stage in their lives when you understand that they will be gone soon, so from my perspective and that generational distance, I could more easily incorporate that loss as something that happens in the grand scheme of things. It isn’t that their deaths did not count as significant, it’s just that they made sense.

28 June 2009.

In one of the most extraordinary twists of fate in the history of twists of fate, Wendy and Lisa performed a rare string of shows in Los Angeles, and as soon as I found out about it I ordered a ticket. Mind you, I lived in Dallas. But my sister, Dawn, was an American Airlines flight attendant, so a quick trip to LA would be relatively simple to pull off thanks to her flight privileges. And wouldn’t you know it, when I arrived at Largo the evening of the show, the seating lottery placed me smack dab in the front row. 

The show was incredible. I think I started crying the moment Wendy, Lisa, Susannah, and their band stepped out onto the stage. Stanned all the way out. 

And then, they got to “Jonathan.” By now, anyone familiar with the Girl Bros. album knew that this song was obviously about their beloved brother, and in listening to it on numerous occasions since getting the album I’d always understood the sadness and loss the song spoke of. But that night, watching Lisa struggle to get through the first verse, and then watching Susannah break down in tears midway through, and then Wendy playing through the song even while Lisa and Susannah wept…that was the moment I began to understand the grief. I remember reflecting that night on how I could not even begin to comprehend what it must be like to lose a sibling. As the youngest of 5, I imagined my sisters and brother and I would all grow very, very old and even more cantankerous together.

And then.

20 December 2009.

My eldest sister, Dawn, died by suicide. And that day, every single song on Girl Bros. became the story of my life from that moment on.

I’d always loved the elegant, lush arrangement of “I’ve Got a Big Bowl of Cherries,” and the melancholy in the lyrics; I’d always cranked “Reaching One” sky high, grooving to the opening sleigh bells and digging the backing vocals and harmonies; I’d always been somewhat haunted by the imagery of “Bring You Back,” as it reminded me of the images evoked in Sinéad O’Connor’s “I Am Stretched on Your Grave.” But after my sister’s death, those songs—and every other song on the album—told an entirely different story.

With each subsequent listen to Girl Bros., the grief reveals itself to me, makes itself plain and clear. It has become kin, in a way. In the five years since my sister’s suicide, I have yet to write the songs I thought I’d write to deal and to heal. And yet, in every song I’ve written since she died—and specifically, most if not all of the songs I’ve written since 2012—there is so much grief hiding in plain sight. The chords I instinctively go to drip with it; the words I choose are heavy with it. Cleverly disguised as songs about romantic love, these songs of mine are all somehow connected to that place in me that is still raw and wide open.

Still, Girl Bros. is not an album you throw on so you can sit with the lights out and slip down deep into darkness (no, for that, you put on Meshell Ndegeocello’s Bitter). What makes it such a glorious experience is that, not unlike grief, which often comes in unexpected waves even long after the initial shock of a loss appears to have subsided, the album embodies the emotional highs and lows that come along with grief. It neither ecstatically uplifts nor completely deflates you; rather, it gives you room to dance, to reminisce, to fall apart, to move forward, to question.  

They say that grief brings with it many gifts, which tend to reveal themselves over time. Girl Bros., for me, stands out because of the many ways it addresses grief, loss, and sadness both directly and through inference. In a similar vein, extending somewhat from the ground broken by Girl Bros. and certainly offering a variation on the theme (replacing grief caused from death with that which emerges at the end of a relationship), Wendy and Lisa’s most recent album, White Flags of Winter Chimneys (2008) offers more space to explore grief and loss. In particular, the opening track, “Balloon,” and the album’s closer “Sweet Suite (Beginning at the End)” possess an emotional heft that explores territory similar to its predecessor. The songs’ dark qualities sit there, quietly hanging, but present. 

As I continue to navigate my own grieving and healing process, music remains my primary source of comfort, and Girl Bros. is certainly my go-to whenever I need a release through song. And for me, that’s all the time.

—Rhonda Nicole

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