It was just another typical June summer night. I was fresh out of high school and wandering around aimlessly unsure of my place in the world (some things never change.) My friends and I were bored, creative, and confined to an existence within the parameters of a tiny western New York town. We overpacked our cars and drove aimlessly up and down the empty streets. We amused ourselves in vacant laundomats, or the 24 hour donut shop, or the empty the town square. It was 1993 and we were a pack of self-proclaimed nocturnal freaks making the most of a small village that went to be at 11pm.
On this particular night we decided to pass the time by wandering up and down the aisles of the local Walmart. We went there often and usually only left with only a few cans of Mr. Pibb and a bag of chips. We always spent a lot of time in the music aisle checking out the latest releases, making fun of Mariah Carey cover art, or getting philosophical about how much Nirvana had changed the world. I was all Stevie Nicks and Madonna while my friends were all Rage Against The Machine, Throbbing Gristle, and Kate Bush. No matter whose turn it was with the car stereo – we all had a profound and deep-reaching connection to our personal music tastes. The world misunderstood us, but our singers didn’t. That also hasn’t changed.
Kristen – my fellow Donna Summer fan in the summer of 1993
For some reason, on this night, a Donna Summer CD captured my interest. I grew up in the 80s so I wasn’t very aware of Donna’s disco songs. My experience with Donna Summer began and ended with “She Works Hard For The Money”, “There Goes My Baby”, and “This Time I Know It’s For Real.” None of those songs were featured on the track list of the CD I held in my hands: ON THE RADIO: GREATEST HITS VOLUME ONE AND TWO. As a teenager I spent hours pouring over rock and soul music history books – so many of the songs titles were familiar to me. But the only song from the album I could sing off the top of my head was “Hot Stuff”. Once I held the CD in my hand it was as if it were glued. There’s been a half dozen or so times in my life when I was called to a new artist, and this was one of the times. Also in the “Donna Summer” section was the SHE WORKS HARD FOR THE MONEY CD. I decided I didn’t need that one, but had to have ON THE RADIO. Until I left the aisle, at which point I realized I could not leave the store without both Donna Summer CDs in my hands.
After my ON THE RADIO purchase we all planted ourselves at the Perkins across the street for our too-familiar ritual of sitting for hours, drinking endless cups of hot chocolate, and leaving a really bad tip for the waitress, Tina. This evening felt different though. Donna Summer was with us. I felt so connected, comforted, and intrigued by an album I hadn’t heard yet. (For some reason this copy of ON THE RADIO came with an extra booklet, and for that entire summer we brought that picture of Donna Summer with us everywhere we went.)
Me and my Donna Summer photo went everywhere together in 1993
Over the next few weeks my friends and I dove head first into ON THE RADIO. The endless suite of hit songs was intoxicating, exhilarating, and intriguing. The lyrics. The songs. The deliveries. ON THE RADIO was like a massive dose of adrenaline and euphoria in our drab grunge 1993 lives. Feel the love we did.
Soon enough we’d fallen so deeply in love with ON THE RADIO that we needed more Donna Summer. In those times before the internet, and with the closest music store being an hour away, it wasn’t going to be easy finding more music for our summer with Summer. But over the course of the next two months we traveled hours and miles seeking our Donna Summer’s discography. Armed with maps, phone books, and ambition we hit every music store and every thrift store we could find. I collected the CDs. Kristen collected the vinyl. The rest of our friends sat in the back seat and enjoyed every minute of one of the final teenaged summers of our lives.
Soon our collections began to grow. LOVE TO LOVE YOU BABY, A LOVE TRILOGY, ANOTHER PLACE AND TIME, LIVE AND MORE, THE DANCE COLLECTION, THE SUMMER COLLECTION, MISTAKEN IDENTITY, and WALK AWAY were amongst my earliest finds. On the vinyl end of the deal Kristen found the same albums…plus THE WANDERER (my favorite) and CATS WITHOUT CLAWS (her favorite).
By the middle of the summer I’d added FOUR SEASONS OF LOVE, BAD GIRLS, and ONCE UPON A TIME to my collection. With the discovery of each album came a gleeful exploration of Donna’s discography. Almost as thrilling as discovering the brilliant deep album cuts was hearing for the first time the full length album versions of the singles that were edited on ON THE RADIO.
Particularly memorable was walking into a music store in Erie. Far back on the shelf sat a copy of the DONNA SUMMER album on CD. I begged with the clerk to let me have it. It was his only copy he said, and it was an import. I remember him asking an outrageous $20 for the CD (we were broke teenagers!) and I remember buying it anyhow. Little did I know how rare that CD would be years later.
On one of our final trips that summer we went to a place called House Of Guitars in Rochester, New York. The CD section of the store was an absolute shambles. Thinking back, I miss these days when seeking out music truly was a treasure hunt. Through the massive piles of CDs and records we dug for Donna Summer. I was triumphant with my discovery of ALL SYSTEMS GO (if only I saved that long box) and the newly released DONNA SUMMER ANTHOLOGY. As we packed in the car for the long ride home I immersed myself in the booklet of the anthology. Without the internet even learning information about your favorite artists at the time was a process. On that car ride it was the first time I learned about the aborted I’M A RAINBOW album. Before reading that booklet I could never understand why Donna went from her most brilliant album (THE WANDERER) to one of her most mediocre (DONNA SUMMER). Learning there was an unreleased album floating in the universe was intriguing.
Like all good dreams the summer ended. Kristen went away to college. I got kicked out of my parent’s house and began the long, wild adventure of my own life. The final Donna Summer album I purchased before being thrown to the street was a Japanese import of THE WANDERER. Back then, buying import CDs entailed strange mailing lists, checks to unknown addresses, and long waits by the mailbox. I remember the feeling of completeness I felt the first time I held my WANDERER CD in my hands. I saw myself in those songs more so than any of the others. Broken, strange, defiant, and infected with deep feeling. Being an Atheist I still found solace in THE WANDERER’S closing cut “I Believe In Jesus” because the way Donna sang it, she made you believe. I found hope within her hope. (My very first public concert was in the fall of 1994 at a small coffeehouse in Fredonia, New York called THE GALLERY. I closed my set with a cover of Donna’s “I Believe In Jesus”.)
After being homeless during the summer of 1994 I moved back into my parents but found myself hanging out in Jamestown, New York. I spent many evenings ripping out and remodeling the basement of a house full of drag queens. The situation at my parent’s had gotten so volatile I had no place to go. With crow bar in hand I planned to turn the basement of this house into my own lair. During one boring Jamestown afternoon my friends and I took a trip to the Salvation Army. While perusing the CDs I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the only Donna Summer album I was missing on CD – CATS WITHOUT CLAWS. For $2 I bought my copy – and my Donna Summer CD collection was now complete.
Instead of moving in with the drag queens I once again moved back to Fredonia during the fall of 1994/winter of 1995. During this time I had the opportunity to add my first “new” Donna release to my collection, the holiday album CHRISTMAS SPIRIT. I remember how thrilled I was to have new music by three of my favorite singers (the trio being completed by Madonna’s BEDTIME STORIES and Joni Mitchell’s TURBULENT INDIGO).
Shortly after when the greatest hits compilation ENDLESS SUMMER was released I fell under the spell of its new track “Melody Of Love”. To this day “Melody Of Love” is one of my favorite Donna Summer songs.
During this era I attended college – and naturally my entrance exam was entitled “How The Music Industry Destroyed Donna Summer’s Creative Muse”. I was proud to be accepted in college via an essay detailing David Geffen’s unfathomable decision to shelve I’M A RAINBOW.
I spent the next few years of my life moving a lot. I tried out a career in Buffalo as an underground folk singer. I then went back to my hometown to live in the closet of a house inhabited by the experimental noise band Another Dead Sharon. Our friend Sadie talked us all into moving to Atlanta that fall – 1996. The mix of personalities in that van to Atlanta was explosive. It was a tense trip.
Settling into Atlanta was met with a lot of discord. Arguing friends, bad neighborhood, bad relationships, and a general feeling of hopelessness. I’d done well in Buffalo and I’d gotten used to people screaming my name on stage and knowing the words to my songs. To move to Atlanta and to be a nobody was a humble and rigid ego check. Quite often I felt suicidal.
One hazy Atlanta afternoon found us at a mall in Tucker. Even if I owned every CD by my favorite artists I still checked their slot in the music store, just in case. And it was during that afternoon in 1996 I nearly dropped to the floor in amazement when I saw Donna Summer’s I’M A RAINBOW album on CD. The lost Donna Summer album. In my hands. On compact disc.
My tenure in Atlanta lasted roughly half a year. There’s been a few times in my life where I felt suicidal but this was the first. To keep myself moving and around people I’d spend hours on the Marta subway, just watching strangers with no destination. The deeply personal and experimental I’M A RAINBOW kept me company during those nearly impossible times. I was mad at life for turning so bleak. I was even more mad at David Geffen for fucking up Donna Summer’s genius creative streak. I’M A RAINBOW remains my favorite Donna Summer album, along with THE WANDERER. Had that music not come into my life at that time I may not be here to write this.
Also in heavy rotation at the time was Fleetwood Mac’s TUSK. In many ways I’M A RAINBOW was Donna’s TUSK – wildly rebellious, out of the box, and misunderstood. Both albums are growers and not showers. Using TUSK, I’M A RAINBOW (and Joni Mitchell’s double opus DON JUAN’S RECKLESS DAUGHTER) as prototypes, I survived Atlanta by writing and releasing my own strange double album SONGS ABOUT STUPID PEOPLE.
The next couple years found me jumping from city to city aimlessly. After a long period of orbit I landed in Tampa, Florida.
The clubs in Florida were so foreign and chilly to me. Early on I had a feeling of displacement. Coinciding with my arrival in Tampa was the release of a new Donna Summer track called “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partido)”. In the middle of that sweaty dance floor, feeling like a stranger in a strange land, I took comfort in hearing that familiar and friendly voice singing her new song to us. I never take it for granted when my favorite artists come out with new songs and they are played in public. To hear a new Donna Summer track in 1999 was such a treat.
When the LIVE AND MORE ENCORE album came out it was great to see Donna so energized and to have her within the public’s consciousness again. For a minute it seemed as if everyone was talking about Donna Summer. Me and my friends at work used to play the “Donna Summer live” game where they’d sing a sexual song and during the dirty words the backup singers would take the lead – much like Donna did during “Hot Stuff” during that era. “I’m looking for some ___ ____ baby this evening!”
For nearly the next decade Donna came out with a series of greatest hits packages. I sadly wasn’t a fan of her autobiography, and it seemed as if many of the singles she was releasing were generic dance tunes. I listened to them but none of them caught my ear. I saw Donna live in 2005 during one of her tours. I cried for nearly the whole concert. To hear that voice reverberate through Ruth Eckerd Hall was religious to me. It was one of the best concerts of my life.
When news broke of a new Donna Summer album called CRAYONS in 2008 I was skeptical but excited. 2008 was a great year for music. Cyndi’s BRING YA TO THE BRINK. Mariah gave us E=MC2. I loved Carly Simon’s THIS KIND OF LOVE. Even Madonna’s HARD CANDY got more spins that it probably should have. (Let’s not talk about Janet’s DISCIPLINE album!) When purchasing CRAYONS I expected to give it a few spins but to be overshadowed by one of those many other anticipated releases. Upon first listen I was floored. I approached CRAYONS with the expectation of an album full of color-by-numbers gay house anthems. To instead find out that Donna Summer, the artist, had made her triumphant return floored me. I spent a lot of time with CRAYONS in 2008. I found it to be her most invested, inspired, and varied album since 1984‘s CATS WITHOUT CLAWS. Every track was different, and every track was a winner. “Science Of Love” bursted with longing and desire, while “Sand On My Feet” was gentle and romantic. “I’m A Fire” placed Donna on the dancefloor – but in a very trippy chill-wave setting far removed for any tired Thunderpuss remix. Even “Mr. Music” with its iPod reference in the lyric was infectious and irresistible.
I remember buying CRAYONS at Target on my way to a friendly dinner date with a straight guy who was kind enough to humor me. I paid for his dinner, gave him a hug goodbye, and didn’t mind when I drove home alone because I had CRAYONS to keep me company.
After CRAYONS I once again lost touch with Donna. Her single “To Paris With Love” came and went without much interest to me. I occasionally checked the tribute site for news of the next album. I figured I’d see her live again when she came though. Here and there I’d pluck out one of the old albums and give them a listen. It was cool seeing Donna guest judge on the show “Platinum Hit”. Although the show didn’t do well in the ratings I was a fan.
When I got a text from my friend Alex on the afternoon of May 17th I was caught off guard. I opened his message and it said “Sorry About Donna Summer”. My first impulse was to do a news search and sure enough the news story was there. Donna Summer, my hero and my friend, had died of cancer.
In the week since Donna Summer died I find myself crying every night. When a friend of mine at work challenged my sadness with the statement “why are you sad, it’s not like you knew her” I found myself even more upset.
Me and my Donna posters today
As I coast though life I find myself always distant. I’ve been unable to cultivate a long term romantic relationship. Much of my family is dead and many of the ones who are alive are estranged. Even my closest friendships are filtered through my own walls and barriers. But the one place in my life where there has never been a wall or a filter is when I am alone in my bedroom, or my car, or with my iPod listening to the songs that speak to me. I’ve never found a God to be close to…but where there’s no God there has always been music.
My entire existence is marked out by the songs I love. I’ve lived euphoria of “I Feel Love”. I’ve housed the desperation of “Breakdown”. I’ve harbored the sadness of “Can’t We Just Sit Down And Talk It Over”. In a world full of artificiality and guardedness Donna Summer’s music has always stood by my side – more sincere and real than most anything I have even known in my lifetime.
And I sit here knowing there will never be a new Donna Summer album, or another Donna Summer concert, or to know that beautiful and kind woman is walking somewhere on that same earth with me.
A lot of people called Donna Summer a queen but I never thought of her as such. A “Queen” is a title for a manufactured ranking within a man-made kingdom. Donna Summer didn’t seem like the kind of woman who would be bothered with such artificiality.
Donna was the songbird. The singing spirit guide.
She is gone now. I used to play “To Turn The Stone” whenever one of my friends died. Tonight I play it again. Wherever you are, Donna Summer, thanks for being my life support when I found it really hard to find air in my life.
Next time I see a rainbow I’ll know it’s just Donna smiling at me.