The perfect goodbye to 2016, "River" is a song about love, loss, and saying goodbye, something anyone living with HIV understands well. Brown chats with us about his cover.
When did you first hear the song?
Being a late bloomer with everything I’ve ever done in my life, I didn’t actually hear this 1971 song until the early ‘80s. My roommate had borrowed Joni Mitchell’s Blue album from a friend to make a cassette copy, the way we all used to share music before computers. He made me a copy as well, and when I heard the “River” track it just floored me. I was in my mid 20s then. It was that bleak period right after finishing college and before you have a real career…that time in your life when you hock your class ring and detach yourself from reality a bit. I guess I was feeling sorry for myself because I would play that song over and over on my little Radio Shack tape player. I practically wore it out.
Why do you love it?
Lyrically, the song is about how a person feels when they break up with a lover, but the subtext for me (and yes I majored in theater in school) was simply great loss. Most of my actor friends were headed to New York City to “make it or break it.” I didn’t have the courage to do so. I stayed behind and got an office job in the complaint department at a local Sears. The funny thing is, this melancholy song wouldn’t leave me. As depressing as it was, it had a singular beauty that is hard to define. Maybe it’s was Mitchell’s honest delivery on the recording. Maybe it was my own loneliness. Whatever the reasons, I came to love the song like a mini movie that I could act out and sing along to when I needed some audio therapy. In 1983, my favorite vocalist, Karen Carpenter died and once again that feeling of hopelessness covered me. I had always wanted Karen to cover “River," such a perfect match of artist and lyric. But now, that could never be.
Do you see how this song resonates with people who have lost someone to HIV? In the late ‘80s, I was trying to get my life together and I’d gone back to school for another degree. I decided that I would make a great teacher. After all, I was a good storyteller and I figured students would like me. It was also the decade when HIV and AIDs were snowballing from big cities into small towns. People were afraid to breathe. Just as I was finishing up grad school, I learned that three of my friends from college had died from the disease. These included two acting buddies with whom I had shared the stage performing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and one of my “always ready to disco” college dorm roommates. This time the feeling of loss was not distance or lack of courage…it was from the death of people I cared about. I searched through shoe boxes and dusty closet shelves until found my old copy of “River.” You see, I had never bought the LP. It was the old tape that held the memories and I played it a lot that Christmas. I can say without a doubt the song helped me though the pain. When you’re blue you have to be blue, there’s no way around it, even if you’re hanging lights and staring out frosted window panes.
Your sister inspired you a bit too.
It would be 30 years before I would sing and record the song. I had made the right decision to become a teacher. I was good at it and my background in theater hadn’t hurt a bit. In 2010, I was voted Teacher of the Year, and I began writing children’s plays, which have been nationally published and well-received.
It was also the same year that my sister and only sibling learned that she had breast cancer, which had spread to her bone marrow. She was a music teacher, a marvelous vocalist who received numerous awards in her community. She was also the kind of sister who I could talk to about anything, knowing I would receive her full support. She encouraged me to start singing again. She knew how much music meant to me. Even though I don’t consider myself a real vocalist, I do know how to tell a story. The two are similar expressions.
In 2013, I recorded “River” using an online studio called Singsnap, which has a huge following of Karaoke lovers.I took my vocal effort to play for my sister that Thanksgiving. She adored it.
We would lose her in July of 2015. It was the first time I had been with someone at the moment of their passing. She was a good girl, a singer’s singer, a teacher’s teacher.
Just hours before her spirit left us, I was able to tell her what a wonderful sister she had been. Then, somehow I found the courage to say to her “I hope I’ve been a good brother.” She was able to look me in the eyes and say “You have.” They are the most precious words I will ever hear.
What do you hope to inspire with your rendition?
When people listen to “River," I hope that they let it sink in all the way. Joni’s song is a work of art as deep and as moving as any Van Gogh painting. It’s no wonder that Mitchell is also a gifted painter in her own right. If you just think it’s just a pretty song, you’ve missed the point. It says that it’s OK to love and it is alright to feel like hell when you lose someone. And in some strange way, that paves the road to more love and better days.
We’ll all lose those we love at some point, but that is the point — we loved them knowing we wouldn’t have them forever. And that is life.
Listen to Brown's version of "River" below.