2006 Commencement Address: Melissa Etheridge '80, '06H
What an honor and a pleasure, class of 2006. Good morning ladies and gentlemen. It is such a pleasure and an honor to be here.
I attended Berklee College of Music 27 years ago. I didn't even realize that until a couple of days ago. I said, "Jeez, how long ago was that? Ten years . . . 15 years? Twenty-seven years ago. You weren't even born yet."
If there's anything I want to impart to you this morning, it is that you are the keepers of the dream of music. You have come here to this college because you believe in music, you found music, or music found you.
You were born. Maybe some of you were lucky enough to be born into a musical family. Wouldn't that be nice to not be the strange one in our family? But most of us were born and a couple years went by. I know for me three years went by and the angels of music came down and spoke to me through a transistor radio. I remember very, very well standing in the gravel driveway in Leavenworth, Kansas, hearing the amazing music of the angels:
Oh yeah, I'll tell you something
I think you'll understand
When I say this something
I want to hold your hand
I was never, ever the same. There was no turning back. I was struck at that moment. I wanted that—whatever that was that was coming out of that little piece of electronics. That's what I wanted. Teachers, other grown-ups, would come up to me, as I'm sure they did you: "What do you want to be when you grow up? A fireman, a nurse?" "I want to be a singer." "Your child is strange." You go through grade school and you know you're a little different. You know you are. You finally find the instrument that you can put this feeling in, this emotion in. You finally find it as you go through the years.
For me, I was eight years old in third grade . . . But in between second and third grade they allowed us to try out for band. There was still music in my grade school then. And I wanted to play the drums. It was 1968 and I wanted to play the drums, and of course they told me, "No, girls don't play the drums." I showed them. So I picked up the clarinet, an amazing instrument. And I started to learn this language called music, with these notes that go after one another, and create this amazing sound.
I would go home and I would receive my inspiration from the radio and from the records my parents and my sister had. Thank God they had good musical taste. My parents would bring home Simon and Garfunkel and I remember when they brought an amazing album called Amazing Grace. I sat and bathed in the amazing music of Aretha Franklin. Music was a way to communicate with my family. We didn't have much to say, but we could listen to Aretha Franklin. We could feel that way. I would take all the tennis rackets and badminton rackets and jump around. I would make my friends play band with me: "You're the drummer, you're the guitar player, you're the other guitar player." They would put up with it for a while then say, "I'm going to go ride my bike." I just wanted to be in my basement, listening to records. That's our childhood . . . We were strange because we were keepers of the dream of music. It came to us and it never let us go.
We entered high school and we were strange, we were the music weirdoes. Some of us could pass off as cool because we didn't say much. We had this gift. It didn't matter what you looked like or where you came from. If you could do music people would stop and listen.
I learned to play the guitar. My father brought a guitar home—I thought for me, because, of course, he had to know how insane I was about music, but no, he brought it for my older sister. I begged and pleaded when I was eight years old and they said, "No, an eight-year-old girl can't play the guitar." I showed them.
The guitar teacher: Don Raymond, Leavenworth, Kansas. He was a jazz guitar player who had lost his fingers in a horrible accident and he would now play left–handed, still amazingly well, on this gorgeous jazz guitar. And he just barely had enough time for a little eight-year-old girl who wanted to play the guitar. I was terrified of him and I wanted him to think I was good more than anything in the world. I practiced until my fingers bled—and I practiced, and I practiced, and I gained his admiration and his respect. And I remember him tapping his foot and it would echo all the way through the halls of the practice space and he would tap his foot and say, "I don't care what notes you play, just don't ever go out of time." He taught me that. He introduced me to jazz and many other kinds of music.
I went to high school. I was strange but I was respected in a very strange way. And when my parents—bless our parents' hearts. They have such dreams for us; they want us to be doctors and lawyers. They just want us to have a job. And when we finally keep insisting that we are going to go into the music business, they give in and say, "at least go to college." And in 1979, I said, "Well, it has to be a music college," and no other music college would have me, except Berklee College of Music, a contemporary music college where I could major in guitar.
I studied and I got back with Don Raymond, that amazing guitar teacher, and I learned my diminisheds and augmenteds and I was ready to go play my guitar in the Berklee College of Music. I arrived here in Boston straight from Leavenworth, and I walked into my first classroom, and you cats were so good. I remember walking through the dorms and it was coed dorms and there were boys and girls. There were lots of boys; there were not very many girls, but anyway . . . I was suddenly surrounded by these amazing musicians, these incredible musicians wondering, "Where have you been all my life, you who share this dream of music, you who have been looked upon and blessed with this amazing gift of music? Here you are playing for hours and hours like I have always loved to do, play for hours and hours just playing so good, and I can't play that well."
I sang. I wrote. I went to Berklee College of Music for a few weeks, for about a semester-and-a-half. And I have to say as a side note to last night, it was such an incredible honor to hear my music performed by you all. And in the little video that introduced me, it said that I played around some Boston clubs. That was very nice but I played some restaurants in Boston. And it would have been nice to think that I was playing my music in some cool, groovy club, but I was singing Barry Manilow medleys at Ken's by George across from the John Hancock Center. But I was in the world and I was taking my music with me. I was singing for people. I was making a living at music.
I called my parents and said, "I know you put a second mortgage on your house just to send me to college, but I'm gonna stop going now." I pursued my dream and I made a living here. I went back to Kansas for a while, made a living there. Then I went to Los Angeles where I wanted to see my dream of being a musician—a successful musician—as far as I could. And I wanted to write my songs, and sing my songs, and in the meantime life was happening to me. And that's another thing I want to impart to you: Music can be very powerful. It can overcome our lives. But you need to realize that you are in the middle of your life right now. You are here and now. This step that you are taking, this day that you are in right now, be in that. We have so many dreams. We live our life in dreams. I spent so much time thinking about what would happen when I got there, when I got that Grammy, when I got that record deal, that I didn't spend enough time in the right now. That's where life was happening.
I went to Los Angeles. I played in bars here and there. I discovered myself. I discovered my sexuality. I remember, it's not so easy being a musician, and I do remember dating a young gal—you do know I'm gay. I was dating, and this girl was kind of coming out and she decided it was time to call her parents and tell them she was gay. And she called and said, "Mom, Dad, I'm gay, and I'm dating a musician, and this is what I am." And there was a long silence and kind of a grumble. And she said, "Well, gee, I didn't think you would have such a hard time with me being gay." And they said, "Oh no, it's not that. But really, honey, a musician?" All the rest they can take but, oh, dating a musician!
So we have a lot of pressure on us as musicians, because we are living and taking the dream. We are keepers of the dream of music. And if there is anything else I can impart on you, it is that, yes we go through this, yes, there is success. There are many levels of success, whatever it is that you are in. If you want to be the one to lift the music up, who records the music, who sends the music out there, who keeps the music going, be that. Be that in your truth, be truthful in it. Do what moves your heart. Don't take on the fake, the not real. You can tell when someone's trying to take the magic of music but it's not really coming from their heart. You know when that happens.
I have seen and heard my music being performed on American Idol, and last night you reinvigorated my hope in the music industry. There is much talent out there despite what we see nowadays. And it is in you, and it is you who will come into this business, this music business that I have been in for 25 years now. I have lived it, I have done it. I have always said that when I get there I'm going to have a celebration. There is no there, there. You are there now. Walk this path, walk it, believe it, always be in your truth. Whether you are singing, whether you are wrapping your arms around your instrument and playing it, whether you are listening to it and mixing it and knowing exactly who goes where and what, whether you are trying to figure out the best way to bring the music to the world, that is the truth. That is what the world needs today.
Now be it, bring it. You were given this gift. You were chosen. You were absolutely chosen. This is you. Success is not measured in money or fame. Believe me, I have had both, and I am grateful for both, but that does not bring the satisfaction that makes it feel whole to me. It is knowing that I can put my truth into music, and every time I have made a choice to speak my truth, to be in my truth, I have been immensely rewarded.
Be in your truth, be in your light, be in your love. Go out there and be the musician that you are. Be the keeper of the dream of music.
Congratulations, and thank you very much.