Sometimes, one gets by me–I missed Valerie Carter’s passing a year ago. Having just learned of it (as usual while I was looking for something else) I wanted to say a word.
Valerie Carter had the misfortune to be born with lead singer talent, leading lady looks and the soul of a woman who preferred remaining in the shadows. Absent the first two qualities, she would have been left alone…and probably lived a much happier and longer life. Since she had those qualities in abundance, she was pushed to the front early and often–it must have taken an iron will to get back to the obscurity she preferred and stay there.
There was no more startling experience in late-seventies record buying than coming across either of Carter’s first two solo albums in a stack of vinyl somewhere. The eyes looked straight through whatever camera had taken her picture and, staring off the album covers, straight through you.
One of the few things that equaled that experience was getting the records home and finding out that the voice on the black wax inside was a match for those eyes.
Just a Stone’s Throw Away, in particular, spent a lot of time on my turntable in the eighties, which is when I discovered Carter (she recorded these albums in the late seventies–I saw them in the bins several years before I bought them on Dave Marsh’s recommendation–for irony, see bellow). I used to think of her as a great lost talent–but I realized, from bits and pieces I picked up over the years, that she was one of those who maybe just wanted to stay lost. Her friend Linda Ronstadt was one who, a decade earlier, had been in the same boat. Ronstadt went through the whole process–the soul-killing compromises, the slings and arrows of jealous competition and even more jealous rock-crits (Marsh took it the furthest in Stranded, where he professed he would rather have the records he was taking with him than Ronstadt herself–now that’s bitterness–but he had plenty of company)–and made it to superstardom. I sometimes wondered if Linda ever put a word in Valerie’s ear suggesting it wasn’t really worth it.
Whatever happened, it was the world’s loss.
The lady could sing…
…a fact recognized by Ronstadt, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and the legion of others who kept her on speed-dial whenever they needed a backup singer for the next few decades.
And she was a pretty good muse too…
She died last year at 63, of complications that were doubtless rooted in years of the self-abuse so often endemic to those whose souls seek the shadows even if their talent begs for the spotlight.
From reading about her life, it doesn’t seem like she found much of the peace she brought to others while she was here.
I pray it’s hers by now.