“I may not win,
But I can't be thrown.”—“Out Here On My Own,” lyrics by Lesley Gore, music by Michael Gore, sung by Irene Cara on “Fame”:The Original Soundtrack From The Motion Picture (1980)
It’s hard for me to believe that Lesley Gore died in Manhattan of lung cancer at age 68 a year ago today. As a child, I grew up with her hits of the Sixties—“It’s My Party,” “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” “You Don’t Own Me”—constantly on the radio, and recall her guest appearances on The Donna Reed Show and Batman. She was a special source of local pride as well, growing up in Tenafly, the town just north of me in Bergen County, N.J.
Lou Christie, who started out when Gore was at her teen zenith, recalled his friend in a blog post written last year by Scott Mervis for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“Lesley was a protected new star who seemed way above it all until you had some time alone with her. She was fun, smart and talented with a sense of humor that was her secret glory. Her taste in music surpassed any teen angel that was on the charts at the time. Raised on jazz, show tunes and standards, Lesley could sing them all and did. The smokey timber of her unforgettable sound was hers and hers alone. I loved her independence, loved signing with her, loved every hit record she had.”
And then…It seemed that she dropped off a cliff. When she went off to Sarah Lawrence College, she might as well have been dead to the record industry that couldn’t get enough of her work just a couple of years before. Folk music was in vogue at that point. Pop music—especially her kind, released in her teens and increasingly regarded as childish—was not a favorite of deejays.
But Gore would not be “thrown.” She re-emerged over a decade later, this time as a creator of songs rather than just an interpreter of them, with her work on the Fame soundtrack.
“Out Here on My Own,” co-written with her brother Michael, is an excellent example of how an artist can create mainstream music, within the context of a song meant to serve the plot of a film, and yet still spring from the deepest wellspring of experience.
The Oscar-nominated song begins tremulously, with lyrics filled with loneliness and fear—not just what a youth hoping to find herself might feel, or even (as in the film) what a student at a demanding performing-arts school might experience, but also what Gore, a lesbian, would have felt when her orientation was not widely accepted by the public and needed to be hidden. (“Make believing is hard alone.”) It ends at the most realistically hopeful point—not with conquest, but with survival, in itself a form of victory. (For Gore's own fine rendition, see this YouTube clip from 2011.)
Songwriting assured that Gore would indeed survive, broadening her audience even as it enabled baby boomer fans to see that she was not simply an oldies act, frozen in time. That is part of the reason why I chose this particular photo of her. An image from her Sixties heyday would have been more instantly recognizable, but would have not reflected the hard-won creative and personal triumph she gained in adulthood just for being herself.
A concert Gore gave at the College of Staten Island in 2009 somehow seems symbolic of her career. Midway through a well-received set, she was interrupted by the smoke alarm. She resumed with an equally fine second act, telling her appreciative audience, "Sorry for the inconvenience, but nothing can really stop me from singing."
Nothing, as it turned out, but death itself.