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Queer rock icon Melissa Etheridge opens up in new memoir, 'Talking To My Angels'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

(Reading) You may know me as a rock star.

So begins a new memoir. And indeed we do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING ME SOME WATER")

MELISSA ETHERIDGE: (Singing) Somebody bring me some water. Can't you see I'm burning alive?

KELLY: That's Melissa Etheridge and her 1988 hit "Bring Me Some Water." She is a Grammy winner, an Academy Award winner, the star of an upcoming Broadway show. But Etheridge's memoir goes well beyond those accolades into deeply personal places. It's called "Talking To My Angels." And when we sat down to chat, I asked about a moment when those public and private lives collided, when she came out as gay at the Triangle Ball for Bill Clinton's first inauguration.

ETHERIDGE: Yes, January 1993. Well, I just really was sure I was gay when I was 17. That's when I started relationships with women and understanding, oh, this is what's comfortable to me. This is what I am. And that was in the '70s. The '80s came about, and I spent the '80s in Southern California surrounded by activist women, mostly, fighting for women's rights. And I played in lesbian bars, so it was known professionally that I was gay. And once I started touring with my first album, there was always a percentage of my audience that was lesbian. I was out to friends and co-workers, and it was funny. The business in the late '80s was very much don't ask, don't tell.

KELLY: Yeah.

ETHERIDGE: And...

KELLY: I remember. It was that exact phrase. Yeah.

ETHERIDGE: Yes. Yeah. And so nobody asked me. If anyone had asked me, I would not have lied. I'd have said yes, and - but no one asked. And so I was invited to the Clinton inauguration because I helped getting him elected in that year. And so when I was there, surrounded by these powerful gay people, I was just like, yeah, I'm gay, too. And the rest is history, and I spent the next two, three years just talking about being gay.

KELLY: I mean, in the book, you're writing, of course, about your own experience, and there were a couple of places where my heart just broke for you, where you were going through a breakup and you felt this judgment and pressure. You write, you know, (reading) I imagined the wider world would be whispering a thousand I-told-you-sos and warnings about gay marriage and gay couples having children and gay rights in general - all of it.

Talk a little bit about what you felt - that judgment.

ETHERIDGE: Oh. I knew that I was seen as some sort of groundbreaker in the gay and lesbian world and that, you know, I could be considered a role model and that I was someone - well, she's gay, and she's not crazy. And look. And now she has kids and a partner. And I was like, look. This is what it looks like. And then I couldn't keep that relationship together. I couldn't. For my own health and sanity, I couldn't do it. And I just felt like, oh, wow, you know, I'm letting everyone down. But I had to get out of a toxic relationship. I had to do that. Ultimately, it's not about what everyone thinks about you. There's - the only person judging you is yourself, and that's what can do the most damage.

KELLY: Does that come through in the music that you were writing or as you were performing in those moments?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, my gosh. Yes.

KELLY: Give me an example.

ETHERIDGE: Well, the album I made was - during the breakup was called "Skin." And it starts with, you know, "Lover Please." You know, where are you going dressed to kill tonight?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVER PLEASE")

ETHERIDGE: (Singing) Oh, this one's going to hurt like hell.

I kind of go through this. You know, there's a song called "The Prison." You know, I've been in this prison. And by the end, the last song is "Heal Me." It's like, I'm going to heal myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAL ME")

ETHERIDGE: (Singing) I just surrender to this evolution.

You know, isn't it crazy? I thought I was going to die. But something's coming alive now. So you just - you kind of got to go through it and believe in yourself and know that the one who's going to do the most damage to you is yourself, so you might as well be your friend. You might as well put some of that kindness toward yourself.

KELLY: You dedicate this book to your son Beckett, who took his own life in 2020. And I'm so sorry. The specific dedication reads, (reading) for my son Beckett, who is with me every day in the nonphysical.

I'm a mom, too. I think I kind of get it.

ETHERIDGE: Oh, any mom does.

KELLY: Tell me what that means to you - in the nonphysical.

ETHERIDGE: Well, part of the spiritual understanding that has come to me in the last 20 years is that we are all spiritual beings, and we're having a human experience. We exist in that nonphysical. And I believe that the nonphysical space, whatever you want to call it, is pure positive energy. And so he's there. And when I am in my joy, I feel him. When I'm not in my joy, he's still in joy, and it's up to me to find my joy so that I can be on that energetic level again where I can access that.

KELLY: That's a lovely way of putting it. Although you're a songwriter and I could - as I was making my way through your music, you're clearly wrestling with all of this in the music.

ETHERIDGE: Oh, yeah.

KELLY: That song, "Here Comes The Pain"...

ETHERIDGE: Yeah.

KELLY: Tell me about that one.

ETHERIDGE: Yeah. That was written when I really understood that my son was addicted, when he was struggling with pain.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COMES THE PAIN")

ETHERIDGE: (Singing) Here comes the pain.

He had had a hard journey even in his, you know, childhood, in his teenage years. He thought the worst of the world, and he thought the worst of himself. And his one thing that brought him joy was snowboarding. And when he broke his ankle snowboarding, the doctor gave him pain relief at the time with Vicodin and opioids. And once you have pain relief, why wouldn't you, you know...

KELLY: Keep choosing that. Yeah.

ETHERIDGE: ...Keep choosing it? And so I understood it. And the song - that's a song that I probably won't sing much in my life, but, you know, I had to put it out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COMES THE PAIN")

ETHERIDGE: (Singing) Here comes the pain.

KELLY: You know, people listening will be getting the gist that your book deals with all kinds of really tough stuff and you finding a path through them. I want people to know that as we were sitting down and, you know, starting to record, you were saying, it's such a beautiful morning in New York. I'm great. You're doing OK.

ETHERIDGE: Oh, yeah. That's my journey. My happiness is my own, and it's my responsibility. So I find my joy every day. I have three living, gorgeous children. I have a gorgeous wife. I have a lovely life. I have a sweet dog. You know, I'm...

KELLY: (Laughter).

ETHERIDGE: I do. I have - you know, I have so much that I can...

KELLY: What kind of dog?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, my God. They call it a Maltipoo, but I have no idea. It's, like, Maltese poodle...

KELLY: Yeah.

ETHERIDGE: ...Like, crazy little. And so I'm enjoying this. And the only reason I felt pain about my son is because I loved him so much. And I'm grateful that I have that love and that ability to love, but I do not let that dampen any of my joy. I'm joyful every day.

KELLY: Well, Melissa Etheridge, it has been a great pleasure, a joy to speak to you.

ETHERIDGE: Thank you so much.

KELLY: We've been talking about her new memoir, "Talking To My Angels." And I wonder if there's a song you would point us to play out on.

ETHERIDGE: Well, there is a song called "Talking To My Angel," so maybe that's the one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALKING TO MY ANGEL")

ETHERIDGE: (Singing) I've been talking to my angel, and he said that it's all right. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.