Rick Berlin is a Boston-Jamaica Plain singer-composer-pianist-bon vivant. Learn more about him here.
at 9. first as a cub scout with a whiffle and singing a Pinafore solo (soprano). that was the first time i remember doing anything like this. the unfamiliar rush in my skinny chest in front of a crowd of easy-to-love-you parents. i think i’d seen my dad in the Pirates of Penzance and was bowled over. (close to that tree.) the lights, color, make-up, huge bellowing voices and pit band killed me, as well as the on-the-road Broadway musicals that hit Philly i went to with my family. the stage was lit up like a forest fire with dancing, gesticulating big busty broads and (did i know it at the time?) gay gay gay chorus boys. what was this? why did it hit me so hard? how was i drawn to this flame? this had to have inspired my show-n-tell boyhood. i’d whip a cape around my shoulders and jump through windows onto the lawn as if to save the day. i busted through a barn wall into a room-within-a-room and imagined myself Flash Gordon. i would mind-wander out a 3rd story window into an other-personality night sky and fantasize a dream cloud Neverland to which i belonged. i banged out ‘original’ piano improvisations at the Prout’s Neck talent show. but when it really took hold was in choir and chorus at the Episcopal Academy. trying out with my thin reed of a voice, singing scales with earnest eyebrows and hoping to impress the choir master with my little boy/girl’s voice. which i did, making choir-boy and chorus-kid. i was exuberant and red-faced in my (brief) tremulous solo at the Big Moment spring concert. i giggled in chapel over smothered farts-in-robes, a hard in-the-pants pencil up against the boy beside me. it weren’t just foolin’ around. it instigated a transformative shiver in the soul, all this showing off in front of any audience. i can’t remember a time, since the cub scout Gilbert & Sullivan, when i was not in a play, chorale, glee club or living room show-and-tell. at Yale my entire social life revolved around singing groups. the white-tie prestige, the complex arrangements, the dazzling eyes-that-won’t-let-go-of-you effect on girls and closeted boys. the fat sound, acapella, that could fill a hall. i joined choir, glee club, The Duke’s Men and The Whiffenpoofs. we were ginned-up songsters with tinkling cocktails leaning against mantle pieces, champagne badges of courage in a faux demi-monde, an icicle- keening tenor bounding across a college yard in the autumn frost. sex, music, art, performance was a steak bomb sandwich i ate up. still, i was singing songs i had not written, that didn’t express my inner or outer life. when, years later, on a borrowed upright in an over-stimulated New Haven house, i began to write my own songs and my own music, a shift occurred. i was not filling another’s shoes, but standing in my own. i’m thinking about this now because a friend asked me recently why i perform. i didn’t know what to say. i’d never been asked. i hadn’t thought about it. Bob Dylan said ‘the only time he felt like his real self was on stage’ (off stage being less authentic than ‘real life’). it is the exact same for me. i am my most-est self when i perform. in captivating ears, eyes and hearts one imagines an electric synapse with another. one synthesizes his microscopic view of self, life, friends, loss, trauma, love and sex on a safe proscenium, offered up risk free. and then there’s The Zone. if you give it all you got, if you ‘leave it all on the stage’, you occasionally inhabit an ego-vanishing dimension. your ‘you’ vaporizes. you transmogrify into an energy that is not from, but through the Self. your ‘muse’ weegie boards an art wave. this is intoxicating and let’s face it, you love the love even as you wonder how to win the anonymous heart. you invent reciprocity. the nightmare, the other side of the coin, is the uncertainty that lurks above every singer’s watchtower. the hell possibility of fakery, of when you’re ‘acting and not being’ spits on your face. ‘who the fuck do i think i am? i suck! they hate me! my voice is gross. my songs are horrible! i’m overdoing it. anyone is better at this than i am. i’m wasting your time. etc etc.’ – crash, burn, explode. or when the narcissistic star fucking groupie blow job staggers past an open door, or when the i-need-to-get-high post coital sadness storms in after leaving all your everything on stage, or when the intense need to be loved but no one’s there hurls you into the dank house of horrors. ‘they loved me minutes ago, where are they now?’ it’s lonely at the top (or the bottom), even for a weekend blues warrior, a fat Karaoke singer, a zit-faced shedding teenager doing ‘moves’ in front of a sweaty mirror with a hard-on in his shorts. for all these reasons, pro or con, i do what i do on any given night on any stage that will have me. maybe, like the tenor Jussi Bjorling or like Mark Sandman, i will drop dead performing, no regrets, with slow-motion flowers falling like snow upon the stage.
(By Rick Berlin)