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.
(Some Related Chimesfreedom Posts)