Friday, September 05, 2008

An Open Letter to Shawn Colvin

Dear Shawn,

It feels odd to write a letter to you knowing that there's a good chance you may actually read it. I've thought of writing many times before, but shrugged it off as an improbable long shot, a waste of time. But with your forum, and with your Myspace account, I have faith that the virtual note in the bottle will eventually find its way to you.

Your music has threaded its way in and out of my life many times throughout the years. I keep coming back to it, the allure as perennial as it was the first time I saw you on TV in 1995.

I'm a New Yorker by birth, but I had married a French woman and we had settled in London where her sister lived. I remember as if it were only weeks ago... the BBC had a program called Words and Music, and James Taylor had just finished explaining and playing Sweet Baby James. You came on next and played Polaroids, and I was hooked.

I slowly began collecting your albums, especially Fat City which I bought on cassette and played a lot. In 1996, I bought Sunny Came Home and, again, loved it. The internet was just taking off and I learned from someone's fan site that you were coming to tour in London. I made special plans to attend that concert—no small feat on my modest income. Around the same time, my mother called to say my father had injured himself while mounting some kitchen shelving and had ended up in the hospital. I spoke to him and he seemed fine. I even asked him if I should fly back and said it wasn't that serious. So I continued on with my regular life, including my plans to see you in concert. Within two days of that call, my father died at the hospital.

My life was thrown into turmoil. The only man with whom I had felt a solid bond was gone forever. This wonderful man who taught me gentleness, and love, and joy... gone. Having grown up in the South during the 30s, my father had come from a fairly sexist generation, but he rose above that and taught me it was fine to do "feminine" chores like dishes and cooking in the kitchen. He littered the house with countless clever "jerry-rigs" that always somehow worked. He was a great father, he was my father, and he was gone.

On that night—November 7, 1997—with my wife out of town, and separated by friends and family by an entire ocean, I found myself totally alone. I collapsed on my bed and felt a sear of immeasurable anguish. My cat, perhaps sensing something was awry, let me snug my index finger inside the palm of her paw. This simple cat, the only being to share my limitless grief, gave her single paw to me, and that tiny paw was enough bodily warmth to ease my pain. She purred, I wept.

My father had smoked almost his whole life, so it came as no surprise that there was more to the story than a mere kitchen shelving accident. It was obviously lung cancer. Of course, if anyone had told me it was that serious, I would have been on the next plane, but everyone assured me it wasn't serious. I was young and hadn't fully learned how suspicious the context of the events were: my father's age, he was a smoker, he was in the hospital. Oblivious, I had continued to look happily forward to a musician's concert.

From that point forward, your music was forever bittersweet, married to an utterly random and tragic event. This never diminished my love for your music, but only deepened it, as if I could play one of your songs I'd heard years before and be transported to a world where my father were still alive somewhere, creating some bizarre fix-it around the house. Although you had no say in it, your music and picture have turned into a touchstone for my father's memory.

After my father died, I felt a dam of emotion had been torn open. I found it easier to tap into my melancholy when listening to evocative music... in 1996, I remember being entranced by If These Old Walls Could Speak and sobbing to its haunting refrain. Not long thereafter, the BBC broadcast your live show at Shepherd's Bush and my fondness for your music grew even further.

Your music is special. It touches me.

Not simply because it reminds me of my father now, but because your ethereal voice and steel guitar fuse melody and harmony flawlessly. It was true the first time I saw you sing Polaroids or I wouldn't be writing this now.

I hope, then, to have offered you something greater than the money you would get from a concert ticket or an album, or even the prestige of a Grammy Award. I hope I've offered you a sincere appreciation of your art, a recognition of your accolades in reaching out with your music to affect listeners.

And while you didn't even know my father, I thank you for your music which lets me remember him once more.

Yours Most Sincerely,

Ross Pruden

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