Melissa Etheridge’s storied career has been marked by all sorts of accomplishments: The singer-songwriter has been nominated for 15 Grammy Awards (with wins for best rock vocal performance in 1993 and 1995), she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and an Oscar (for her original song “I Need to Wake Up” from the documentary An Inconvenient Truth). But it was a devastating personal loss that inspired her to reflect on her life — the successes and the struggles — in her new memoir Talking To My Angels.
The book is a dedication to her son, Beckett, who she lost to an opioid addiction in May 2020; it explores her process in accepting his death, and how she’s forging forward for her other children. Angels also looks back at her journey to musical stardom, from her early days learning to love performing in her hometown of Leavenworth, Kansas, to her proudest accomplishments on the biggest stages.
Here, in this excerpt from the chapter titled “Waiting on a Dream,” she retells her memories from her earliest days in Southern California.
The summer of ’82, I drove west from Kansas to California on my own, determined to put all that came before behind me — the burdens of my childhood, my attempts to be a so-called normal girl and date guys, my brief stint in Boston — and to chart a new life for myself. I had three hundred dollars in my wallet as I set out for LA.
I’d saved to buy a brand-new car: a 1982 Mercury LN7 — a sporty 1980s yellow hatchback. I absolutely loved that car. It had a 1.6-liter two-barrel engine with a lot of guts. The car had AC (a ﬁrst for me) and a cassette player, and I’d sprung for JBL speakers. I’d made a box of cassettes and couldn’t wait to blast my music with the windows rolled down — Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna album, Joan Armatrading, and Tom Petty.
I had mapped out my route on one of those oversized atlases that sat next to me on the passenger seat. I knew where I was going, following the same route my dad and I had taken that summer we drove from Kansas to LA years before.
By the time I moved through Phoenix and made my way across the last bit of desert, I was welcomed to LA by rush-hour traffic.
I had just turned twenty-one, and thought I knew it all — and crazy as it sounds, I drove without fear, all adrenaline and determination. I was ﬁnally independent from my parents, and eager to meet other women like me. I instinctively felt that LA was a place where I could be myself — professionally and personally. I was absolutely determined to make it.
Doubts crept in. When the music faded to the background and my mind began to drift, I’d think to myself, What’s my story going to be? I’m just a girl from Kansas — am I really going to hit it big?
I’d shake my head and just keep driving. As if ambition were gasoline, I was pressing on that pedal with a fury.
My three hundred bucks wasn’t going to last very long, so I immediately started looking for work, and just like I did back in Boston, I scanned the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times for bars and clubs that offered live music. I got a gig at the Candy Store, an all-Black cabaret on Sunset Boulevard. I didn’t make a dime, but I got to play — and shake hands with Stevie Wonder. That was such an LA thing — to bump into people on their way up… or down.
Then I got hired at the Pink Flamingo, a women’s bar in Silver Lake, near where my aunt lived. I played there a few weeks, but the money wasn’t great. I did meet a woman who I asked out on a date. Running low on cash, I had to pawn my typewriter in order to pay for the date.
Terry lived in Long Beach, a beach town south of LA, so after I picked her up, we went to a women’s bar called the Executive Suite, which used to be a steakhouse and had an old piano in the corner. The look and feel of the place was a welcoming mix of cool and laid- back… and very lesbian.
When I had ﬁrst encountered the gay bar scene in Boston, this Kansas girl was a bit scared until I made friends. The leather scene was unlike anything I’d ever seen back home. Really butch guys dressed head to toe in black leather or latex alongside drag queens, and a few random men in business suits. The scene was still underground, and I didn’t quite know what to make of it.
But in California, things were different! There were men’s bars and women’s bars. The men’s bars were all about dancing — disco was still raging. The women’s clubs were more subtle — some had dancing, like at the Executive Suite, which was super popular then. But the other women’s bars in Long Beach were smaller, clubs with no live music.
Well, I was going to change that.
A few nights after that ﬁrst date, I went back to the Executive Suite and asked if I could play — my kind of let me audition for you. They hired me on the spot, and I started playing ﬁve nights a week and making twenty-ﬁve dollars a night for a ﬁve-to-nine p.m. set — real money to me then!
Within a few months, I had almost singlehandedly created a small music scene in Long Beach.
My relationship with Terry had come to an abrupt end when she discovered that I had enjoyed a few one- night stands with women I’d met at the bar — not something I’m very proud of, by the way — and I was more or less living out of my car. In my twenties, I would deﬁnitely describe myself as an enthusiastic dater, more into the chase than a real relationship. I soon discovered that Long Beach had a lot of options! There was something manageable about it. It didn’t have the oversized ﬂash and sparkle of LA, and maybe that’s why I settled into it for a bit. Long Beach made me feel comfortable and relaxed. The clubs were small. The women were right there— out, proud, and welcoming.
There was also a trickle-down effect from Cal State, Long Beach, where a number of feminist academics were developing a thriving department, which eventually became the college’s Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies program. The work they were doing inﬂuenced many of the women I was hanging out with and I welcomed reading again — as if I were catching up on what I had missed I in college.
This awakening to women’s history and to the ongoing quest for equal rights pushed my ability to believe in my own experience and trust my feelings and way of seeing and being in the world. I began to apply this newfound insight into the legacy of all women to my music — I wanted my voice, my lyrics, and my music itself to ring with this emerging feminist awakening, through my music. The combination of ﬁnding my stride as a working performer and becoming part of a supportive and thriving community of out- and-about lesbians were powerful forces in my development as an artist.
Robin Trower, the creator and producer of the West Coast Women’s Music & Cultural Festival, approached me one night after a show and asked if I would be interested in playing. I was honored.
At the time, the festival was held in Yosemite, and it was a bare-breasted, back- to-Mother-Nature extravaganza. I didn’t think my music really fit in with the more indie-folk scene — I was more old-school rock and roll — but Robin encouraged me to go.
It became a proliﬁc time for me. I began writing a lot and started testing out original songs when I performed at Vermie’s in Pasadena and the Executive Suite in Long Beach. This is the time period when I wrote “Like the Way I Do” and “You Used to Love to Dance.” I still love these songs because of the rawness of the feeling and how they captured me at that time in my life.
I was developing a real following. I’ll never forget the ﬁrst night a woman requested one of my songs— “Like the Way I Do.” People always got the title wrong — “Like the Way You Do” or “Do It Like Me” — so many varied mashups of titles to that song, which is funny but also understandable. No matter, I was thrilled — they were liking my music!
From the book Talking to My Angels by Melissa Etheridge. Copyright © 2023 by Melissa Etheridge. Published by Harper Wave an imprint of HarperCollins. Publishers. Reprinted by permission.