My friend David is heavily involved in Rent Party, an ongoing charity event in Maplewood, New Jersey, to help the homeless/hungry in that community. Through Rent Party, he created Back Pack Pals, where volunteers gather food and pack nutritious lunches for children in need. You can donate to both of these organizations at those links. Rent Party has been going on for years now: Bands, singers/songwriters are booked to play shows, all the proceeds go to charity. I’ve been to a couple of these events (and my talented sister Siobhan O’Malley was one of the performers in its earliest incarnation). Rent Party used to have its shows at The Elks Club in Maplewood (where I holed up with David and Maria, post-Hurricane-Sandy), but it’s since moved to a much larger venue, once the event picked up so much steam.
Last week, David texted me that Wanda Jackson would be playing Rent Party. This is their largest star so far. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. I saw her a couple of years back, during Elvis Week no less, and it was an unforgettable evening. David said if I came early, and did some setup work, he could get me in free. So that’s what happened. I helped the bartender unload ice bags into buckets, I put cans of beer in various buckets, and basically played Girl Friday. It was also an opportunity to reconnect with David and Maria, neither of whom I have seen in ages. Maria showed up and we sat down at a table in the back, each with a can of beer, and – as Maria said later – “VOMITED” a conversation: it was a catch-up talk to end all catch-up talks. We had months to go through, not to mention the election. I’m proud of us because we got it all in. We used our time wisely.
At one point, before the show began, David murmured to me, “Here’s Wanda.” I looked up and there she was, husband at her side, coming through the door. She was hunched over a walker, and her hair/wig was black and high (as always). She helped change the world. And here she was, in a small town in New Jersey, coming a couple of hours before the show for the soundcheck.
I left her alone, of course. About half an hour later, she and her band (she has about 8 bands around the country in different regions who come to join her at her shows) came up on the stage at the end of this old-time dance hall (which is what it was, once upon a time) and ran through their set-list, working out arrangements, tempos, sound levels. Wanda had to sit. Her husband sat in a chair down on the floor. The whole place was empty. (In the back of the hall was a flurry of activity with bartenders and volunteers racing about). It was totally cool – and not weird or intrusive – to stand up close and watch them work. A couple of people were doing it. Wanda was the conductor, in terms of pacing, asking the piano player at one point to do his part an octave up, using her hand to signal when such-and-such should happen. One of the things I found incredibly moving was watching how – as they went through the numbers – every single guy (they were all guys, ages ranging from 60 to mid-20s) kept their eyes glued to her. Following her. Nodding, like, “Okay. Keep the pace up here, yup, got it, Wanda.” RESPECT. PROS. This is what it is all about.
I stood there quietly, soaking up everything, watching Wanda work. No nonsense, that one. She was wearing a comfy black outfit, but I knew that before the show she would change into something bright with her signature fringe.
I mean, come on.
It was an honor to be there, especially for the soundcheck, because that was all about process not performance, and how often do you get to witness something like that? A peek behind the curtain.
At one point, I moved to the back of the room to hang out with David, who would be working the door. It was an about an hour before the show, so the only people in the joint were the folks who would be working the gig (Wanda, included). Still relatively quiet. As David and I were talking, two people walked in the door. One was a small woman, skinny, head to toe in black, with black hair fringed all around her face. The guy with her had on a little porkpie hat and a black jacket. She glanced at us, and I saw that it was Joan Jett. She said to us, “I’m Joan. I’m here with Wanda.” I nodded, she moved past, and then I fainted.
Not really. But my knees did go weak at the sight of her. I gasped. I am a child of the 80s. She was EVERYTHING in the 80s, before Madonna came along and took up all the oxygen. I like Madonna. But – as with so much else – there was only room for one female superstar. Joan Jett’s image – tough and snarling and confident – not “playing up” to the boys but ONE of the boys – was a much more aspirational image (for me, anyway) than Madonna’s sexuality. Joan Jett was an incredible sexual archetype, one much closer to my actual essence. And there she was. Coming to see Wanda Jackson.
“I’m Joan. I’m here with Wanda.”
The best two sentences I’ve ever heard.
The hall was still empty and Joan sauntered up to the stage, and Wanda greeted her rapturously, reaching out her hand to her from the chair. Joan reached up to hold her hand. Then they talked for a while, and it was a moment to witness, I’ll tell you that. Talk about Woman Power. They own it. It’s not even a question.
The show was wonderful. The place was packed. All ages. Geezers with canes, and tattooed rockabilly 20somethings. My peeps. Wanda appeared. As expected, she had changed into a blazing bright pink fringed outfit. It was similar to the show she did at Maxwell’s. Lots of talking in between songs. “I am going to take you on a musical journey,” she said at the opening. People listened in rapt silence. She has had some health problems. She sat through the whole show. But she was peppy and funny and her voice had that telltale sexy growl that still goes right through you.
At one point, before launching into Amy Winehouse’s “I’m No Good,” she said that at a recent show in Los Angeles, she had run out of breath – “and the audience helped me out and sang the rest of it. So if you don’t mind …” This huge burly guy standing behind me shouted, “DON’T YOU WORRY WANDA. WE’VE GOT YOUR BACK.” I almost burst into tears. And she DID run out of breath, and the whole crowd took up the slack and sang the rest of it. Her smile of appreciation was blinding.
She talked a lot about Elvis and his support of her. She talked about dating him and “going out for burgers and a milkshake.”
She talked about visiting him and his parents (at the Audubon Drive house), and he took her into his bedroom – the whole audience started making “whoo-hoo” noises – and she said, “Now, now, remember. This was 1955!” – Elvis took her into his bedroom because he had a turntable there and he started playing her all of these different records, showing her the “new sound,” the sound of the thing they didn’t even have a name for yet. Wanda Jackson wanted to do country music. She had always assumed she’d be a country singer. He was encouraging her to expand her repertoire a bit. Give the faster stuff a try. “So when I stood on that stage being inducted into the Rock and Hall of Fame … I thought of Elvis, and I felt such gratitude to him, because he helped me be where I am today.” I was swimming in an ocean of my own tears, people.
She sang her hits, old and recent. She introduced Joan Jett, who was standing on the floor, down at the edge of the stage. Joan is producing Wanda’s next album, and they were going into the studio starting the following day. I had hoped Joan would come up onstage and sing something with Wanda. But it was okay: it was Wanda’s night and Joan – a legend herself – knew that. Wanda sang “Heartbreak Hotel.” She sang “Funnel of Love” and “Let’s Have a Party.” She sang “Mean Mean Man.” (Her band was amazing.) Everyone was dancing and bopping around and singing along and cheering. She ended with a small introduction about her love of the Lord, before launching into “I Saw the Light.” Everyone sang along. Everyone clapped to the beat. This is Hank Williams we’re talking about. Hank Williams still … STILL … brings down the house.
At one point during “I Saw the Light”, I glanced over at Joan Jett, who was standing a couple people over to my right. And she was rocking her head up and down, tilting her body back and forth to the beat. To Hank Williams.
It was a beautiful night. Emotional and rich. Threads of our culture, threads of different eras, intertwining. Co-existing. We need to immerse ourselves in that – believe in that – more than ever now. You could FEEL it coursing through that huge room.
Because of 79-year-old Wanda Jackson.