The first time I heard Whitney Houston sing was in 1985. I was in a car. I can't recall who was driving, where I was, or where we were going, but I remember the song coming on the radio, Saving All My Love For You, and my reaction, which was "Who is THAT?" What a voice. Hitting notes that were astonishing. Interpreting words that raised goosebumps on my arms. Her voice and the song were perfect. Beautiful. Timeless. I knew then I was listening to a star on the rise.
Fast forward a few years. I was living my life and Whitney Houston had become a part of it. Granted, not a big part. She was a voice I heard on the radio, a face I saw on award shows, in interviews. So beautiful, so much life in her eyes, such talent. She became part of the swirl of music and celebrity that surrounds us all.
Fast forward a few more years. Suddenly I'm watching, with peripheral vision, Whitney getting thin. And thinner. There is talk of drugs and of falling. A falling down of another lovely star for whom fame is too much. Too much money, too many cameras. I found myself in Spain on business one year and had a dream about Whitney. A dream that she had died. I came downstairs in the hotel and told a person with whom I was working that I was worried about Whitney Houston. Ridiculous. I should have been worrying about whether or not my clients were happy and instead I was wringing my hands over a women who did not and would never know my name. But I couldn't get past it. Yes. Ridiculous.
A few years ago I was passing through JFK and saw Ms. Houston. We were both standing on the curb outside the airport. I was waiting for a taxi, she was waiting for a limo. She was surrounded by battered silver trunks and a dozen other suitcases. There was no entourage, no photographer. A fellow passing by remarked that the silver trunks looked like they'd been traveling. I was about three feet away from her. She was skinny and bundled, a knit cap pulled over her head. She was wearing sunglasses, I guess to hide her identity as it wasn't really sunny. Not looking so good. She smiled at the guy and said "Yes, those trunks have been around." I wanted to approach her and say something. Say, "I had a dream about you." Of course I didn't. Her limo arrived as did my cab. She'd seen me staring and we exchanged a glance as my taxi pulled away. I thought about hearing that first song back in 1985. My mind whispered, seeing her thin frame grow smaller there on the curb, "Take care of yourself. I had a dream..."
I was so...disheartened I guess...to hear that Whitney Houston had died. I wasn't crushed or devastated. For heaven sake, I didn't know the woman. Disheartened is the only word I know to use because it's disheartening to hear of another person joining the ranks of so many gifted artists who can't take the pressure of fame. They turn to drugs, illegal or otherwise, and seem unable to pull themselves far enough away to realize the money and the accolades and the rest of what comes with being known isn't, in the end, worth it. They give their gift -- and ultimately their very lives -- to the public, and we the public suck them dry. So here is this pretty girl, this mad-talented woman who through her successes and her gifts and her struggles touched the hearts of so many people, ending up dead in a hotel bath tub.
There are moments when I want to be famous. I want everyone to know my name, to talk about me as a brilliant writer. Well, okay, let's get real. I'm a decent writer, can certainly string sentences together and can spin a story better than some, not better than many. Could I be fiction-famous? Maybe. If I had the right connections and if I set aside walking the dog and socializing for 20-hour writing days...yes, perhaps fame could be mine. Would I turn to drugs if suddenly I couldn't walk outside without photographers and fans mobbing me? What if I couldn't go to WalMart without a disguise? At this stage in my life, I imagine I could endure the price of fame without Xanax or Valium or gin or heroin. But who knows? And I think of Whitney. Maybe she thought that, too, back when she was just a sweet girl singing at church, thought she could handle the massive pressure of millions of eyes watching and judging. There's no way to tell, really, what might happen to any of us if fame knocked at our door and we were there, smiling, to answer breathlessly,"Yes, here I am; take me on the grand ride."
Many people will be wringing their hands over poor Whitney for a long while I suppose. I've done my hand-wringing about her, when I was in a hotel in Spain, and again curbside at JFK. She was a remarkable person, now standing alongside other remarkable people: Michael Jackson and Heath Ledger and Billie Holliday; Elvis Presley, Amy Winehouse, Brian Jones, John Belushi; Jimi and Janice and Marilyn. And all the rest. Will these fame-induced drug deaths never end?
All this just makes me sad.