Can You Hear the Artist’s Life in the Song?

On Sunday, May 22, 2011, Joseph Brooks — the writer of the song “You Light Up My Life” — was found dead in his Manhattan apartment, apparently having killed himself while waiting trial for the sexual assault of more than twelve women. Prosecutors claimed that he brought women to his apartment through an online ad saying he was giving auditions for a movie role, and then he allegedly drugged and raped them. According to some reports, he would sometimes show the Academy Award he won for “You Light Up My Life” to help gain the trust of the young women. In killing himself, the 73-year-old Brooks wrapped a plastic bag around his head and attached it to a helium tank. On top of those allegations, his son was arrested five months earlier for strangling his girlfriend to death.

A jury had yet to hear the case against Brooks, so we do not know the extent of his guilt or innocence of the charges. His 3-page rambling suicide note left no clues about the alleged crimes and alluded to his health problems, as he had suffered a stroke in 2008 followed by declining health.

For those of us who grow up hearing Debby Boone’s version of the song “You Light Up My Life,” it was a sad coda to the story behind the mega-popular song, which originally was sung by Kasey Cisyk for a movie of the same name. Actress Didi Conn lip-synced the song in the movie, which was written and directed by Brooks. The song won the 1977 Grammy for Song of the Year and an Academy Award, and Boone’s version set records as the biggest hit of the 1970s. But it was so overplayed, I doubt that many people listen to the song nowadays except at weddings. “You Light Up My Life” is still a very good song, but we are just sick of it, on top of the covers by LeAnn Rimes, Whitney Houston, and others. Still, I cannot help wondering how the news about Brooks will affect how people hear the song.

In music, can you hear the artist’s life in the song? In addition to Brooks, consider producer and convicted murderer Phil Spector, and how his conviction might affect how we view the great songs he produced throughout his career. Maybe because Spector was a producer and not the performer, his troubles do not hinder my enjoyment of his songs, such as one of my favorite songs of all time, “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes. But I do sometimes think about the man when I hear the songs, wondering if the madness occasionally peeks through the swirling layered sounds.

Brooks’s ending may tarnish “You Light Up My Life” more than Spector’s life may tarnish his songs. Spector’s work was so broad with different artists, while Brooks’s work will always be summed up with “You Light Up My Life” as his one gigantic hit song. Thus, while each Spector-produced song may carry a little part of his madness, “You Light Up My Life” bears the entire weight of Brooks’s demise. But it is also true that the relationship between the artist’s crimes and her or his music may diminish over time, such as in the case of other artists like Lead Belly or Chuck Berry.

To a large extent, most of us probably enjoy music because we like how it sounds, not because of the life of the musicians. I enjoy music by jerks too, but when the artist is a decent person, it can add something. It may be something unconscious in the back of one’s mind, but I like to think that upon listening to the whole body of work of some artists, their decency may come through into their songs. I feel fortunate that two of my favorite artists have been Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle, not only because of their great music but because they have struggled to live good lives. Like all humans, they are not perfect, but I was lucky that after I was drawn to their music I later discovered their work for good causes and attempts to be decent men. You may find it in other artists you like, such as John Lennon, Emmylou Harris, Elton John, or U2, which has been involved with causes such as Amnesty International.

Can I find the troubled mind of Joseph Brooks in “You Light Up My Life” now? I may be imagining what I hear in 2011 in the song that won the Academy Award and the Grammy so long ago in 1977. But now the sadness of the song stands out a little bit more. I hear it in Debby Boone’s recording, and I hear it in this 1979 version below by punk rocker Patti Smith on “Kids Are People Too.” In Smith’s performance, she is accompanied on piano by a young Joseph Brooks, decades before he knew how his life would end.

At around 3:10, Smith, who also performed the song in concert, begins explaining why she chose “You Light Up My Life.” With the brilliant Patti Smith, though, one may speculate there is more to the reason she often sang the song. Brooks appears at around 3:45.

Do you think the lives of the artists affect how you see and hear their work? Do hidden stories, like the story behind “Heartbreak Hotel” affect the music? Leave a comment.

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    7 thoughts on “Can You Hear the Artist’s Life in the Song?”

    1. oh man, that was my back up karaoke song. I definitely won’t pick that one any more. As for other artists, I think my biggest challenge is always Jackson Brown whose music I love dearly. But it’s hard to like someone who’s a beater. I just can’t reconcile the songwriter and the man.

    2. When you mention the singer-songwriter, it makes me wonder if we are more accepting of past actions by musicians in different genres. Maybe we expect more sensitivity from our singer-songwriters but give more leeway in other more music genres? And bad actions may reflect worse on an artist when we start out liking them with a different impression. Thanks for the comment.

    3. thank you for such a wonderful, compassionate and fair article on joseph brooks…i am a big fan of “if ever i see you again” and am of the opinion that since that was such an obviously auto-biographical film, he must have had a breakup that “was that bad, man; it was that bad.” i may be reaching here but have a feeling that’s why he wanted such very young call girls and the girls he dated and was accused of raping were likewise very young…is it possible that he was emotionally stunted and still seeking the approval and love of his mythical “jennifer corly?” madam kristin davis said he would give the girls a script wherein they had to say how handsome he was, how much they loved him, and that they wanted unprotected sex. that’s my theory anyway…watch the movie and see what you think. he was obviously very sick emotionally. i found out his parents divorced when he was just 5, and that’s the same time he developed a stutter and started writing plays. perhaps his parents’ separation and then a teenage crush gone awry tainted him terribly. he was also brutally criticized over and over by the critics, and tried to make it as a singer with joey brooks & the baroque folk…when that didn’t work he was hugely successful in jingles and won 21 clios…but his emotional roots were still damaged…then he had a terrible time getting “you light up my life” picked up by any record label or movie studio…he rented out 4 theaters, did mass advertising at his own cost, and had to cajole dj’s to play the song. the critics thrashed the film…then he did “if ever i see you again” and was again eviscerated even though lots of people love the movie as do i…it was brilliant. the critics did it again when he brought “in my life” to broadway in 2005. maybe he just couldn’t take the emotional beatings anymore…coincidentally, after “in my life” is when his cocaine use and drinking and use of escorts began or spiraled out of control…i think he was an insecure man with an exaggerated sense of self who was so very talented but kept getting rejected…by parents, girlfriends, his wife, critics…you name it…and according to martin davidson, who worked with him on several films, he was very emotionally needy and would make it impossible for those he needed to have him in their lives…how ironic and sad and tragic…rest in peace joe brooks…you hopeless romantic you…

      1. Thanks Judy for the interesting background. You have me curious to watch “If I Ever See You Again,” although apparently it is not on DVD. I did find this “tribute” to the film that captures some of what you discuss:

    4. hey there, thanks for your speedy reply! it’s so nice to bounce ideas off someone besides my husband, whom i’m driving crazy with my joe brooks obsession. i worshiped him since i was 16 and i just turned 50 so you get the idea! you can buy this movie on vhs…just google it and usually someone is selling a copy on it is very autobiographical it seems so one can glean a lot about this very brilliant, sensitive yet ultimately self-destructive man. also of interest…check out youtube for the 1977 grammys, when he won for his song “you light up my life.” his acceptance speech is much less than gracious…he tells the whole audience how all the record labels there rejected the song and everyone held his/her breath…then he said they rejected it a second time, and concluded by saying “that makes this so sweet…” thank you very much…and walked off the stage to tepid applause…he sure held grudges and if you crossed him, he destroyed you…his wife left him and he wouldn’t let the children go home to london and hired fancy lawyers and convinced the kids to criticize their mom…then his daughter reached out to her a year later after terrible verbal abuse and he let her “visit” her mom, only to send her a letter telling her to never come back to new york and that she was “dead” to him…she tried to write and call over the next few years with no response…she was only 14 at the time, and he threatened his poor son to never contact her or his mom or he would be cut off from his trust fund…look at the poor boy now…at riker’s island for the supposed murder of his gf sylvie cachay at soho house dec 9, 2010…nicholas brooks is a tortured young man who turned to drugs and booze and escorts to drown his pain…and i guess he couldn’t take being abandoned either, just like his sweet daddy…so tragic…so many lives left in shatters….

      1. Thanks for the information. It does sound like Nicholas had a troubled life from growing up with his troubled father. An interesting article from New York Magazine about Nicholas’s arrest goes into detail about his childhood.

        Regarding the award speech you mention, I did find it. Here is Joseph Brooks accepting the 1977 Grammy for Song of the Year for “You Light Up My Life” (tied with Barbra Streisand and Paul Williams for “Love Theme from ‘A Star is Born’ (Evergreen)”):

        It will be interesting to see what happens with Nicholas. Thanks again.

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