Band Romance: Musical Couples Through the Years

Music Features

Does it really matter who was the inspiration for the Beatles’ song, “Julia?” After all, the songs that make the biggest impact are not those that tell us the most about the celebrity singer’s life but those that tell us the most about our own lives. “Julia” is a great song not because it provides tabloid gossip about a woman John Lennon knew but because it gives shape to our feelings about someone we know, because it captures the calming delight of morning love, when the lusts and worries of the night before have been exhausted and we are glad to bask in the affection of someone with “seashell eyes, windy smile…her hair of floating sky,” someone as relaxed and optimistic as Lennon’s acoustic-guitar picking.

And yet….

And yet, we can’t stop ourselves from wondering: Who was that woman? How is this piece of fiction related to the real world? When we listen to songs, we’re always trying to find their connections to our own experience, and it’s natural to ponder how the song connected to the singer’s experience. And how did it connect to the woman’s experience? What would she say if she could speak for herself? Would she second Lennon’s account or alter it?

For one of the strange things about popular music is that most songs are monologues. We get one person’s side of a relationship but not the other’s. It’s a bit unfair. Anyone who has been friends to both a husband and a wife in a troubled marriage and has heard each one’s version of events knows that the truth lies somewhere in between. But we rarely get both viewpoints in pop music. The obvious exceptions are lovers who are both singer/songwriters. Because today is Valentine’s Day, now’s a good time to look at musical couples who give us two sides of the same story—both while they’re in love and after.

“Julia” was titled after Lennon’s mother, who was killed by a car when John was 17. But he admitted in the 1980 Playboy interviews that, “It was sort of a combination of Yoko and my mother blended into one.” “Ocean Child,” one of the key phrases in the song, was Lennon’s nickname for his new lover, Yoko Ono. And she, unlike Lennon’s mother or first wife Cynthia, was a singer/songwriter herself who was able to respond in the same pop-music arena that Lennon worked in.

Maybe you liked what Ono had to say and how she said it, and maybe you didn’t, but at least you got to hear the entire relationship, not just half of it. You never got to hear Jane Asher, the actress/girlfriend who inspired many of Paul McCartney’s greatest songs, give her perspective. Even Linda Eastman, who married McCartney and became his keyboardist, never wrote songs about their relationship. Pattie Boyd, who inspired two of the greatest love songs ever—”Something” by her first husband George Harrison and “Layla” by her second husband Eric Clapton—never provided the answering songs. Ono did.

The ultimate example of this, of course, was Double Fantasy, the album Lennon and Ono released just three weeks before his 1980 murder. For the most part, the disc’s 14 songs alternated between those written and sung by him and those written and sung by her. It was far from the best music Lennon ever made; it wasn’t even the best music Ono ever made, but it did allow a rare glimpse into a marriage revealing itself in pop songs. The fact that the man and woman singing the songs on the album were actually sleeping together didn’t negate Lennon’s sentimentality nor Ono’s archness, but it did provide a two-sidedness that few albums can match; it made it easier to connect the songs to ourselves, because we knew how the tracks were connected to the singers.

If the sinful sense of eavesdropping on a private relationship delivers a weird thrill on audio recordings, the zing is even greater when it happens in live performance. Those old videos of Lennon and Ono singing in bed, at a music festival in Toronto or on The Mike Douglas Show are perversely compelling, because you can see her face and body language responding to songs that he wrote about her—and vice versa.

While it’s fascinating to see couples on stage while they’re still in love, it’s doubly fascinating to see them on stage after their romance has curdled. While they’re still attached, while they’re smiling, cooing and complimenting one another, there’s always a suspicion that maybe they’re just putting on a brave face for their fans—as so many of us out of the spotlight do for friends and family. But once the bonds of love break down, the façade usually does too.

One of the strangest shows I’ve ever attended was a 1981 George Jones and Tammy Wynette show at Maryland’s Painters Mill Star Theatre. The couple had divorced in 1974, and now they were both managed by Wynette’s current husband, George Richey. She insisted that Richey come out of the theater’s shadows and into the spotlight where she could show him off. “It takes a heck of a husband,” she crowed, hugging his arm tightly, “to work with an ex-husband.” Later in the evening, Jones would refer to Richey as “my husband-in-law.”

Here was a classic country song about a romantic triangle played out in full public view. Here was a woman who wanted to do right by her current man—stable and dependable, if no star—but couldn’t entirely let go of her former man—an unreliable drunk, perhaps, but still a charismatic charmer. After Wynette, primly attired in an ankle-length white dress, coasted through a lackluster first set, Jones came out and showed why he’s the greatest pure singer country has ever known. On “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will),” he reached deep into his big Texas voice to explore the pain of living after losing the one you can’t live without. One can only assume that it was the nearby presence of his ex-wife that pushed Jones into a performance that transcended the recorded version. The line, “Lord it’s been ten bottles since I tried to forget her,” was kind of a joke on the record, but he wasn’t joking that night.

Midway through his set, Jones announced, “Give a big round of applause to my favorite lady, the first lady, Tammy Wynette.” He greeted her on stage with a suspiciously warm hug. When they duetted on the old Flatt & Scruggs hit, “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” Wynette sounded like a completely different singer. Apparently stimulated by her partner, her first-set stiffness evaporated and her soprano started dipping and darting as if chasing his tenor. When he ad-libbed, “I’m gonna lay around the shack till ol’ Tammy comes back,” they both broke into big grins.

At the end of “Near You,” Jones gave her a big kiss. During their old duet hit, “Golden Ring,” she altered some lyrics herself: “He’s standing there with Linda on his mind.” “How’d you find out about her?” he complained. “At least I keep mine legal,” she retorted with a nod toward Richey. Jones came back with, “That’s why we could never get along.” There was just enough tension behind these rehearsed jokes—and behind their gorgeous duets—to let the audience know they were seeing more than an act. We were witnessing an actual, unresolved relationship unfold a little further in real time. Would we have noticed that tension if we had never read the gossip mags? I think it would have been too obvious to miss.

How do they do it? How do some people manage to stay friends with their exes? How do some even continue to work with folks they once slept with but no longer can? Is it harder when you’re well-known musicians, and it seems the whole world is watching your every move? Or is it easier, because you have the financial incentive to stay together as an established act than to start over as solo artists?

There’s no shortage of examples of people who’ve made it work. Jack Gillis not only took his wife Meg White’s last name when they married in 1996 but also named their duo The White Stripes. Even though they hadn’t made much headway in their career when they divorced in 2000, they stayed together and shared their eventual success when they released three top-10 albums between 2003 and 2007. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein were a couple when they co-founded Blondie, but they remained friends and bandmates after their romance ended. Harry even took time off from her own career to take care of Stein when he contracted a rare disease.

Perhaps no couple has done a better job of negotiating this transition from lovers to friends than John Doe and Exene Cervenka. The two met in 1977 in Los Angeles as obscure, neo-beat poets who wanted to see if their rhythmic verse might work as punk songs. They formed the band X to find out, worked with The Doors’ Ray Manzarek as producer, became critical heroes and chart also-rans, got married in 1980 and got divorced in 1985. After spending so much of their adult lives as lovers, spouses, co-writers, co-singers and co-bandleaders, they weren’t sure they could go on with their public lives now that their personal lives had changed so dramatically.

“There were fleeting moments when we weren’t sure if we could stay together,” Doe told me in 2000, “but the band was doing well, and we loved the band. Eventually we realized that the musical union was more important than the other stuff. It helped that we started out as friends rather than some huge romance. We’re still good friends today. We still write songs together, which I find incredible.

“My only regret was that on Ain’t Love Grand!, the album about that split, the production wasn’t as personal as the songs. We’re masochists to a small degree, and we were willing to take an unflinching look at what happened. The production kept the listener at arm’s length; it should have been more accessible, as unflinching as the songwriting.”

Almost as unflinching as Doe and Cervenka were the three songwriters in a very different Southern California band, Fleetwood Mac. When the relatively unknown American duo, Buckingham & Nicks, joined in 1975, the group was transformed from a middling British blues-rock band into a Beatlesque pop-rock juggernaut, with Lindsey Buckingham playing the iconoclastic John Lennon role, Stevie Nicks the mystic George Harrison role and Christine McVie the Tin Pan Alley Paul McCartney role. Giving this lineup’s debut album, Fleetwood Mac, an extra squirt of juice was the public knowledge that Buckingham and Nicks were longtime lovers, while McVie was married to founding bassist John McVie. Hearing them sing about each other on the album was mesmerizing; seeing them glance at one another across a stage while doing so was even more so.

The album was a huge hit, but success shattered all their relationships—even drummer Mick Fleetwood’s offstage marriage. With immense financial incentives before them, they decided to soldier on together. They took their problems as an artistic challenge as well as a personal challenge, however, and wrote a suite of break-up songs that became the 1977 album Rumours, a commercial and critical triumph. Emblematic of that album was its No. 1 single, “The Chain,” credited as co-written by all five members. Describing coupledom as a chain in two senses—as an indissoluble bond of loyalty and as a prisoner’s restraint—the song raced along so quickly that neither the singers nor the listeners could decide which was the more apt comparison. There was no time for pondering, because a decision had to be made immediately: “If you don’t love me now, you will never love me again.”

It turned out to be a false choice. When the passions had cooled, when Fleetwood and Nicks had ended their own affair, the five musicians realized that they would never again be in love as they had but wouldn’t have to hate each other either. They settled into a wary coexistence and created three more very good albums—1979’s Tusk, 1982’s Mirage and 1987’s Tango in the Night—before Buckingham left in 1987, Nicks in 1991 and Christine McVie in 1998 (Buckingham and Nicks returned in 1997). But they would never again be as passionate with love as they were on Fleetwood Mac nor as passionate with anger as they were on Rumours. And that’s proof enough of how real-life relationships can provide the fuel for the fiction that pop songs are.

It’s a cliché that great art comes out of bad relationships, and like most clichés it has a kernel of truth. Think of Tina Turner belting out some of the greatest R&B of the ’60s while being abused by her husband Ike. Think of The Mamas & the Papas expelling John Phillips’ wife Michelle for having an affair with third member Denny Doherty, while fourth member Cass Elliott nursed a crush on Doherty, even as they were recording their brilliant second album, 1966’s The Mamas & the Papas. Think of Wye Oak making their best album, last year’s Civilian, just as the duo’s romantic relationship was crumbling. Was it worth it? Tina Turner didn’t think so. On the other hand, George Harrison called Ike & Tina’s epic declaration of love, the 1966 single, “River Deep—Mountain High,” “a perfect record from start to finish.”

Think of Richard & Linda Thompson, the British folk-rock duo that made the greatest record of either one’s career, 1982’s Shoot Out the Lights, as their marriage was falling apart. While touring the U.S. to support the album, Richard told Linda that he was leaving her for another woman. In the liner notes for the album’s reissue, the duo’s producer Joe Boyd writes, “Linda kicked Richard in the shins during a guitar solo in Providence and threw a bottle at him in the Buffalo airport, but sang with an intensity I’d never heard before. Gone was the hesitant tone; the heartbreaking ballads poured out of her and mesmerized audiences. The band, meanwhile, kept their heads down and amazed the Yanks with their precision and power. Richard was his usual genius self, only more so.”

A very good book, David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street, was written about Bob Dylan’s extended affair with Joan Baez and about the marriage between Baez’s sister Mimi to Dylan’s friend and fellow gifted singer/songwriter Richard Farina. A not-very-good reality TV show was devoted to the dysfunctional marriage between Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown. Some musicians can’t stop themselves from marrying their colleagues. Cher, after all, married her duo partner Sonny Bono and then married Gregg Allman. Elvis Costello’s second wife was Cait O’Riordan of The Pogues; his third and current wife is jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall. The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde had a daughter with The Kinks’ Ray Davies and then married Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr. Bonnie Owens kept her stage name even after she divorced Buck Owens and married Merle Haggard.

The past is full of musical couples: Michael Jackson & Lisa Marie Presley, Les Paul & Mary Ford, Patti Smith & Fred Smith, Mick Jagger & Marianne Faithfull, Smokey Robinson & Claudette Rogers Robinson, Jennifer Lopez & Marc Anthony, the Captain & Tennille and James Taylor & Carly Simon (Simon’s “You’re So Vain, though, was believed to be written about Warren Beatty, not Taylor). Even today there are plenty of musical couples: Bruce Springsteen & Patti Scialfa, Jay-Z & Beyonce, She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel & Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (recently divorced), No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani & Bush’s Gavin Rossdale, Alicia Keys & Swizz Beatz, Paul Simon & Edie Brickell, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon & Kathleen Edwards, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore & Kim Gordon and Blur’s Damon Albarn & Elastica’s Justine Frischmann.

It’s not surprising that country music, which takes marriage as its primary subject, would have more stars married to one another than any other genre. In the current generation, you have Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood, Blake Shelton & Miranda Lambert, Buddy & Julie Miller, Ricky Skaggs & Sharon White, Marty Stuart & Connie Smith, Vince Gill & Amy Grant and Tim McGraw & Faith Hill. In previous eras, you had Johnny Wright & Kitty Wells, Waylon Jennings & Jessi Colter, Glen Campbell & Tanya Tucker, Sammy Kershaw & Lorrie Morgan and Guy Clark & Susanna Clark. Country musicians marry each other and record vocal duets, even when one of them can’t sing (cf. Hank and Audrey Williams, Johnny Cash and June Carter).

No one understands the ins and outs of musical couples better than Rosanne Cash. She married her first producer, singer Rodney Crowell, and then married her current producer, guitarist John Leventhal. Rosanne is the daughter of Johnny, the stepdaughter of June Carter, the step-granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter, the step-grandniece of A.P. & Sara Carter, the stepsister of Carlene Carter and a sister-in-law to Nick Lowe and Marty Stuart. She even recorded a terrific version of Yoko Ono’s song about John Lennon: “Nobody Sees Me Like You Do.”

Like many couples of their generation, Cash and Crowell spent the 1980s struggling to balance two careers with the demands of raising a family. Unlike most couples, they not only both worked full-time but did so in the same industry—and much of the time in the same workplace. When Crowell was producing his wife’s records, they both spent hours in the same studio and then came home to fix and eat dinner. The situation put a magnifying glass on the tensions of this new kind of marriage. But there were compensations too.

“It’s the most intense time we get to spend together,” Cash told me in 1982. “I love it. There’s no competition between us. He has a great sense of organization, and he enjoys having an overview of things. He knows that brings out the best in me. I don’t have any problems working with my husband. I used to. We used to fight a whole lot about it in the studio and then we’d take it home and fight about it at home. We were both young and inexperienced and didn’t have a lot of confidence in what we were doing. We didn’t really trust each other because we didn’t know what we were doing. Luckily he’s been successful as a producer, and I’ve been successful as an artist, so it’s not the exact same thing. It’s still hard, but it’s a lot better.”

As difficult as it was, there was a definite payoff. Because they were interacting not just sexually and emotionally around home issues but also intellectually around work issues, they enjoyed a whole new dimension to their marriage that more traditional marriages lacked. When it clicks, the workplace can provide pleasures commensurate with the bedroom or dining room.

The flip side of working too closely together is working too far apart. For anyone whose career entails a lot of traveling—and few people travel more than professional musicians—marriage involves a lot of time spent apart. That’s a different kind of challenge but one that’s just as tough. “If one of us is on the road, the other tries to be home with the kids,” Cash pointed out. “That makes it hard for us to spend time together. I don’t think we’ve been alone since November, and I was seven months pregnant at the time, so it wasn’t much fun.”

She tackles this challenge on the song that opens Somewhere in the Stars. Crowell’s lyrics for “Ain’t No Money” bluntly state the unwelcome truth: You may prefer to stay home with your family, but “there ain’t no money in the ones you love.” And there ain’t no satisfaction in creating art that no one else experiences. So you have to hit the road. Crowell writes eloquently about the tug-of-war between home and work as if reflecting on it afterward, and that’s how he recorded it for his 1980 album, But What Will the Neighbors Think. But Cash’s version on Somewhere in the Stars brings out the song’s inner drama by putting herself in the moment of decision and letting her voice get yanked one way and then the other.

“I get frustrated at being pulled between my family and my career,” Cash added, “but I know which one’s most important. So it’s not hard for me to turn down gigs. There’s frustration sometimes when I feel like I’m stagnating. I haven’t written anything since I wrote the songs for Somewhere in the Stars, and it’s been a year since I wrote those. All my time and energy have been put into the kids. That causes a lot of frustration and guilt, because I feel like I have potential as a writer and I’m not developing it.

“I have a real life and a fake life. My real life is here when I’m with the kids, and I’m just doing stuff with them all day. Then I go to New York for this glamorous press conference for my new album. That’s fake. Then I come back to my real life of changing diapers and things. But if I don’t do anything else but take care of the kids, I go nuts. I have to have a separate life, too.”

In the internal debate of this quote lies the central dilemma for Cash—or for any musician who tries to create an egalitarian marriage to another musician. How do you take advantage of the marriage’s advantages—the mutual stimulation, the shared experience, the double artistic perspective on the relationship—while neutralizing the challenges—the fishbowl public life, the competition and the long periods apart from children and/or each other? As long as there are musicians, there will be musical couples facing these same questions.

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