Still in Rotation is a feature that lets talented writers tell Midlife Mixtape readers about an album they discovered years ago that’s still in heavy rotation, and why it has such staying power.
My friend Vikki Reich and I share a haircut, and an ongoing concern that on bad hair days we resemble Hermie the Elf. After reading this essay I realized we also share the experience of having Shawn Colvin’s Steady On be a formative soundtrack for a time of young and unsteady love. So honored to have her with us today.
Steady On (1989)
by Vikki Reich
It was the Spring of 1990 and I was a junior at Grinnell College. Melissa Etheridge had just released Brave and Crazy and the campus lesbians were convinced she was a lady lover. The Indigo Girls had released their self-titled album and everyone was feeling Closer to Fine and Shawn Colvin had just released her first album, Steady On. It was a great time for women in music and for women who loved women in music.
And this is where I must share with you my deep, dark, musical secret: I have not listened to Melissa Etheridge or the Indigo Girls in years. This is lesbian blasphemy but Melissa Etheridge is a terrible lyricist and the Indigo Girls’ harmonies aren’t as captivating as they used to be. But, for me, Shawn Colvin’s lyrics and voice stand the test of time and she will always hold an honored place in my music library.
But back to 1990.
I had absolutely no idea I was gay. I was not struggling with my identity, was not keeping secrets. I was simply bounding through college life with the insight of a Labradoodle. There were rumors and gossip that I was a lesbian and I found the attention flattering but it didn’t lead to a single moment of introspection. My brain was busy with important things like playing guitar for hours and rugby and figuring out when Chicken Filet Day was at the cafeteria.
Then one night, I went to an off-campus party at a friend’s house and spent the evening drinking cheap beer and playing guitar. My friend had a friend in from out of town and, after we finished playing a song, my friend leaned in and kissed her visitor, and I tensed, a physical reaction that came with no accompanying thought. I sat staring at them for a moment and then packed up my guitar and music, made an excuse and bolted.
When I got home, I teased apart everything I was feeling and realized that I felt jealous, that I was attracted to my friend, that I was a lesbian. And that night, I pushed play on my cassette player, curled up in bed and listened to Steady On.
I knew that my life would never be the same and took comfort in the lyrics of the title track:
China gets broken
And it will never be the same
Boats on the ocean
Find their way back again
I am weaving
Like a drunkard
Like a balloon up in the air
I am needing a puncture and someone
To point me somewhere
I’m gonna keep my head on straight
I just hope it’s not too late
Open up the gate I go straight on, steady on
This album centered me in the coming months as I came out to friends and family, as I began dating. I fell in love to this album and when I fell asleep in a woman’s arms for the first time, I did so to the haunting tune of Dead of the Night. I remember lying there, listening to her heartbeat and thinking, “Yes. This is right.”
When my junior year ended, I headed to southern Missouri to spend the summer at my mother’s house. I hadn’t planned to come out to her until the summer was over but she asked and I was honest and our relationship fell apart. That summer, I had my tapes and my guitar–that’s how I survived–and I sat in my room and taught myself to play Cry Like An Angel, finding comfort once again in the words:
So look homeward baby
Keep your eyes on the sky
They will never forgive you
So don’t ask them to try
This is your party, I know
it’s not your ideal
May we all find salvation
In professions that heal
That was all 24 years ago. In those intervening years, I fell in love with my partner and had two kids and watched as my mother held each of them without judgment of their parents. Steady On was the soundtrack of my coming out–the good and the bad. When I listen to it now, I feel nothing but gratitude for the music and the words, for being on the other side of figuring it all out. And any time I’m feeling a little lost, I remember that boats on the ocean find their way back again.
The music stands up to the test of time. Wish I could say the same about the video.