There’s a strange magic about the years of toil, heartbreak, and humiliation—but only when you can look back on it all from higher ground. For Bettye LaVette, with her backstory of unreleased albums and singles, cancelled tours, and a logjammed career, her appearance at Lincoln Center last month came as a much-deserved Cinderella finish. Her comeback began in 2000, with the release of her mysteriously shelved 1972 Atlantic album, Child of the Seventies, continued through 2005’s magnificent I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, and has finally reached its perfectly pitched crescendo with her Grammy-nominated The Scene of the Crime, which debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Blues chart. Just writing these details gives me a chill, as did seeing her sing in the Allen Room in front of floor-to-ceiling windows with a glittering length of Broadway at her feet, as part of Lincoln Center’s “American Songbook” series. And, judging by the response she got, every single person in that audience must’ve felt the same. But at the same time there was a feeling of everyone—LaVette included—holding their breath.
The last time I saw LaVette perform was in Paris in 2006, at the venerable Montmartre music hall Le Cigale. At that show, she wore the years of toil, heartbreak, and humiliation on her sleeve—with attitude: She introduced her 1962 song “You’ll Never Change” by saying, “This was my second recording, and it did not sell one copy. Not one. Don’t know why you all didn’t buy it.” At her New York show, standing in that elegant room before that incredible vista, she said, “You could never make me believe forty years ago when I was living on the streets of New York that someday I would be here.” But here she was, demonstrating from the very first song perhaps why her career had stalled, but likewise its uncompromising greatness, as she kicked the band into Free’s “The Stealer.” Her material has always been eclectic: Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” Ron Davies’ “It Ain’t Easy”—covered by Three Dog Night and Long John Baldry, but maybe best known for sitting weirdly at the end of Ziggy Stardust—and Kenny Rogers’ “Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was in).” And on The Scene of the Crime she retools Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Talking Old Soldiers” in a way that makes the song utterly her own story. That night, her interpretation of “The Stealer” showed off her genius: by turns funky and rockin’, while all the time referencing gospel and blues. She reached back into the bad old days a magical three times, first for 1965’s “Let Me Down Easy,” her signature song, and then even further for “My Man—He’s a Lovin’ Man,” the single she cut at age sixteen, and then to “Right in the Middle (of Falling in Love)” from her only Motown album, 1982’s Tell Me a Lie. “Close as I’ll Get to Heaven,” from her 2003 W. C. Handy Award–winning CD A Woman Like Me took on new coloration. When she performed it at Le Cigale it was bittersweet—perhaps this was as close to heaven as she was gonna get—but here, with the city at her feet, it was as sweet as a triumphant homecoming, especially when she sang the line “This time for sure I know I’ve broken through the right door,” with everyone at the tables in frontw smiling and nodding.
She followed that up with “Before the Money Came (the Battle of Bettye LaVette),” from The Scene of the Crime. As the title announces, the song, written by LaVette with Patterson Hood (of the Drive-By Truckers, her backup band on the CD), chronicles the bad old days and celebrates success—with reservations:
There was a time when I would call it luck
If I got me a gig for fifty bucks
Now I got all these big decisions to make
Never thought success would be hard to take
When something appears, something else disappears, and at this stage of the game some artists have suffered some sort of loss. Often it’s their talent. But that’s not the case with LaVette: Her voice is more powerful than ever, her interpretations of material more revelatory. As at Le Cigale, she sang her final song—Sinéad O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got”—alone on the stage, a capella, with special emphasis on that last word, “got.” In 2006 she was almost there. Now, here, what will success’s strange magic impart and at the same time take away? It’s an interesting moment for Bettye LaVette, and for all those who’ve been with her this far.
Sharon Mesmer’s latest poetry collection, Annoying Diabetic Bitch, was reviewed in last month’s Rail. Her next collection, The Virgin Formica, will be out soon from Hanging Loose Press. She was a recipient of a 2007 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in poetry.