Last week I stumbled upon Variety's positive review of Diner, a musical running for a limited time at Arlington's Signature Theater. The production, based on Barry Levinson's 1982 film, Diner, teamed Levinson up with Sheryl Crow. For the first time, Crow has scored a musical, and the result is a sold-out show for seven weeks. As I read the review, I battled conflicting emotions: happy for the play's positive reception and angry that I wasn't on the East Coast to see it -- disappointed that I'd miss this latest turn in Sheryl Crow's refreshingly unpredictable and musically liberated career.
Sometime during the fall of 1993, I was driving home from middle school with my mom listening to WNEW, New York City's now-defunct legendary rock 'n' roll radio station. At the time, it played mostly classic rock standards, but on rare occasions a contemporary artist would slip through into rotation. These were still the days when DJs could handpick songs for their shifts and, if a new artist filtered into sets of Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton, listeners noticed. I was sitting in the front seat of the car and had already begun flipping through my math homework when I heard Scott Muni's gravely voice interrupt his daily 3 p.m. block of afternoon music. "This is the first time we're playing this here on WNEW," he began. I could hear him fumbling with the plastic CD case and flipping through the liner notes to read from the track listing. "She's Sheryl Crow, a singer from California, and this is her single, 'Leaving Las Vegas.'"
The drums started, a simple beat amid handclaps. But when Sheryl Crow started to sing, the crackling rawness of her voice broke the song open and out poured a barely optimistic tale of a woman whose desperation to leave one life behind allowed for splinters of hope to start anew. It was a mesmerizing sound, a captivating tale -- and something that filled a critical void in contemporary music. By the early-1990s, I was conveniently flopping between two musical landscapes: grunge had exploded and permeated my school hallways, but having Baby Boomer parents, I also grew up on the musical greats of the 1960s and 1970s. When I heard "Leaving Las Vegas" for the first time, it was as if these two musical eras had collapsed into one.
A month later, when I bought Tuesday Night Music Club at the local record store, I felt as though I had finally found my music. The album was a whirlwind to listen to -- a fluid trip through sounds and emotions that had the lyrical angst of the mid-1990s Gen X culture, but the music of a modern-day Big Pink. "The Na Na Song" spit out a force of cosmic-manic energy that somehow balanced "I Shall Believe" with enough poignancy to close the record with a pleading hymnal beyond just a gentle ballad. I'd listen for hours, painting pictures in my imagination of the characters in those songs. I promised myself that when I got older, I would travel through life to find my own set of characters -- to grasp the excitement and adventure that Tuesday Night Music Club awakened in me.
For the next 20 years, Sheryl Crow's music played against the background of my life, becoming a steady companion through adolescence and into adulthood. There was the summer after high school graduation when my friends and I sang along to "Everyday Is a Winding Road" as we whipped our cars around deserted country roads into the early morning hours. Or the night of September 11, 2001 when I left a candlelight vigil and cried in my car listening to "Riverwide" in the parking lot, too upset to drive. Or those endless months of 14-hour workdays when I walked home from the subway on cold, snowy Brooklyn nights listening to "There Goes the Neighborhood." Or the day that I moved to Los Angeles and played "Long Road Home" while I carried boxes into a new apartment in a new city. Every album was like a new book with each song telling a unique story of a specific time and place -- sometimes through the linear reality of everyday life and others through an existential journey of amorphous self-realization.
I thought about these memories as I learned more about Diner and read about the "delicious harmonies... enhanced by insightful lyrics" that Crow had written for the 1950's rock musical. I wondered how, in this post-MTV age where it is rare for musicians to maintain careers beyond a flash of massive popularity, Sheryl Crow has navigated decades-long relevance within a swiftly changing musical and cultural landscape.
Sure, there's the versatility of her songwriting -- and years of touring and promotions. But, there is also a willingness to stray from any singular musical path that audiences have come to expect from Sheryl Crow. This freedom to take risks -- to release a contemporary country album on the heels of a Memphis R&B soul album, to duet with Pavarotti, Loretta Lynn and Kid Rock -- has led to one of the more winding musical paths of any singer-songwriter in the past 20 years. And somewhere along the way, audiences began to invest in the mystery of what twist may come next, because what is playing in a diner in Arlington today could become a new masterpiece tomorrow.
Diner will be playing at the Signature Theater in Arlington, VA until January 25, 2015.