Patsy Cline is primo late-nite music — whether or not you have a bottle at your elbow. The way she sings every note convinces you that she’s lived everything she sings about personally — it never really enters our minds that perhaps she’s just putting on a persona for a song. Nuh uh. She’s been there, done that, lived through it all — tearstains on the pillow, cheating hearts, long midnight walks, and all.
Whenever I listen to Patsy Cline, I picture a woman who’s on the verge of cracking, someone who’s barely holding it together as a functioning human being and for whom the wrong word will bring all her pain and hurt and confusion flooding into the world very publicly, but yet someone who paints on her lipstick, fixes her mascara, takes a deep breath, and keeps it together if not for the rest of the day, at least for an hour. Her makeup, the face she presents to the world, is just a very thin veneer that’s covering over the fault lines that are threatening to split apart her personality — all the tragedies, heartache, and rejection she’s endured, and will still endure. But she lifts her chin and does the hardest thing of all — she goes out and faces the world. She tries again tomorrow. I don’t know if that’s actually present in her music (or the fact that I hear it there says more about me than about her), but I admire that.
It’s quite an accomplishment to sound as if you’re about ten minutes from jumping off a bridge, on the one hand — so utterly and thoroughly despairing — and yet still be elegant and poised, never mawkish, insincere, or histrionic. Part of it is Cline’s voice. Good gracious, that voice. So rich and resonant, I get chills up my spine every single time she crescendoes in “I Go to Pieces”…Every. Single. Time.
I know the songs were recorded at different times, but her “12 Greatest Hits” is practically a concept album when you listen to it — watching her life fall apart by stages, as the wheels come off in slow motion. Only “Back in Baby’s Arms” is entirely upbeat and positive, and we almost wince, feeling sorry for how happy she is, knowing it won’t last (the poor fool). And sure enough, it goes downhill from there.
Perhaps it bottoms out on “Why Can’t He Be You”. She has a man who is good to her, who loves her even; she has a man who she is deeply in love with. Problem is, it’s not the same guy. The song is one great big “if only” — if only the man who loves me that I’m with would be you, without your boorish habits, cold arrogance, and totally self-centered worldview. If only the one I loved so consumingly I almost feel sick was actually good enough to love me back. Yeah, that’s all it would take to make her happy. You feel her sense of isolation inside her own head and heart, the hopeless frozen feeling that if the slightest thing changes or the slightest word about her true feelings will be whispered, it would cause the world to shatter into a million pieces. She sounds like a woman about to have a violent mental break with reality, with no way out — except the impossible. “Why can’t he be you?” Does that not sound like a recipe custom-made for a lifetime of the most exquisite, soul-rending unhappiness? And all without having her class or her poise drained out of her. “She’s Got You” is the same sort of song, only switched around.
It’s a pity that Patsy Cline died so young. Just imagine the music she could have gone on to make. Even just her album “12 Greatest Hits” (the only one of hers I happen to have) is enough to swim in, dissect, ponder for years. It transcends mere pop music to speak something universal that touches all of us at some point, if we are fortunate — or unfortunate — enough. Enjoy the clip and make sure to toss back a shot of something strong, or doff your cowboy hat, to Patsy Cline – a true original.