Ronee Blakley: The Profligate Poet

"The singer provides an explosive artistic experience that is denied the writer or the actor. The ideal singer has a slavish devotion--a sort of bondage--to the art, which is to say the song. The ideal singer has a discipline toward the body, the voice, the mind, the means of expression. The ideal singer has an abandon in the giving of the song and ... to an audience, and this form of artistic intercourse is found in no other endeavor, because it is the singer alone on that stage, serving the song and serving the audience. It is a sensation writers can only dream of." Tennessee Williams

Women no longer came to Tenn in dreams or from a fog that clouded his mental theatre when he closed his eyes, so he persistently faked the fog by sitting for hours in movie theatres, watching the television screen with his typewriter or pad nearby, or listening--over and over--to particular albums. "There is a voice or a form that will speak to me," Tenn told me, "and I am going to be ready for it. There will be fog and there will be words, and I will know this artistic intercourse again."

So many names were on the various sheets of paper crowding Tenn's life, but one was especially dear to him. "I have a tendency toward the baroque and the histrionic," Tenn admitted, "and I would like to see what might happen on the page if I worked toward and within a different style."  Truman Capote's Music for Chameleons had been published two years earlier--and dedicated to Tenn--and in its preface Capote had written of his desire to write prose as clear as a country creek: he insisted that most writers overwrite.

"I may be forced to agree with Truman," Tenn said, "and I may be forced to look again at my notes." There were piles of notes on that bed in the Royal Orleans Hotel, but Tenn found several that he wanted me to see.

They concerned Ronee Blakley.

"I am seduced by the strings--in songs as well as in plays. The strings we attach to the people we love, the people who are in our works. The strings are feelings and memories--our memories. But they must be heard musically; they have to sound like orchestral strings to have their effect. The sound is what I imagine in moments of extreme intensity and vulnerability. I pray to have the ability to evoke through words what wonderful orchestral music can accomplish--or even tawdry jukebox ditties that pull out a string to move a person. I can recall times in my life when I would be walking down a street--a street in El Paso or Provincetown, Hollywood or New Orleans, Dallas or New York--and from a bar or an open window, I might hear the sound of strings and with it a voice that competed with its cry, its teasing wail. It's a sound that stops me cold, literally. I stand there and I'm transported to another time in my life when I had a similar feeling, when my heart hurt so much, from longing or hunger or rage. I can remember being in that bed, in the dark, in St. Louis, sent to bed hungry by my father, my radio removed from my night table and hidden, and through the open windows all around our house I could hear Jack Benny The Shadow and Lux Presents Hollywood and strings! And those strings were saying to me that life was rotten, small, and worthless, but life, this life could be escaped. Follow the strings."

Life could be escaped, endured, manipulated, turned into art if there were musical and emotional strings to pull one toward expressed emotions, toward what Tenn called "shared experiences that can make us understand each other." 
Some of the most beautiful strings belong to Ronee Blakley.

Photograph by Allan Tannenbaum
"There is a purity to her singing and to her acting that cannot be fully understood until we somehow fully understand her, because whatever she does is filtered through her emotional reality and her innate generosity in sharing it.  She has remarkable strings that attach her voice and the words she writes and the notes she plays to primal emotions that are then embedded in the listener: she enters you, making for an especially invasive form of artistic intercourse, but one that is uncomfortable only in what it reveals to you from your own past.

"It's a sort of magical transfer.

"I have never been aware on her albums or in that performance [in Nashville] of a forced or false moment--it is a violently lived gift.  While she offers us big emotions, the performance is lapidary, incremental, it drips as steadily as a faucet, but this is a faucet that brings us something extraordinary before the inevitable flood.

"I would like to write for her a wonderful part, or I would like to see her take on something like Alma [in Summer and Smoke]. While I do not sense any repression in her music, she has a remarkable ability to convey that all is not being shared; there are dark corners; there are aspects to her that only the bravest might consider examining. I wonder if her singing is when she is at her freest, and I wonder if she feels she must restrict herself when acting because her instinct is to give everything away, to open all the valves, to pull all the strings.

"It could be that she is that rarest of things: the disciplined profligate.

"I have a recurring dream about a fortress-like hospital in New York--turrets and domes and ghosts. Once full of cancer and round rooms that could not retain germs and disease, it later housed the discarded and the unloved. I had friends who were there both for cancer and for neglect--two horrible diseases, both epidemic. Across the street from this castle, Central Park is full of jagged rocks that rise black and high--as rough and mean as the dream that keeps taking me there. Near this castle are apartment buildings with ornate balconies and terraces from which characters from past plays and future ones call out to me as I run from this haunted neighborhood. I'm running from cancer and neglect and fear toward a fog, and I somehow find myself back at a phonograph listening to Ronee, and I somehow feel that she will deliver me from certain things and toward others.
"I suggest you find her."




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