Like a lot of other beating hearts on this planet, I haven’t been able to muster myself into any sort of creativity lately. I haven’t written, I haven’t collaged. Those pages sit blank. I’ve only managed to make some horrible postcards that fall apart in the mail and appear at their recipients’ houses mysteriously blank. (A sign from above?) These were slapdash creations glued together and doused in glitter and swathed in washi tape, the only “art” I could squeeze out of myself.
And so I turn to Céline.
The only flow I can get into is playing certain songs on a loop, someone else’s art blasting into my ears. One of those is Miss Céline Marie Claudette Dion’s rendition of “All By Myself.” It is a symphony of cheesery and so, so comforting, even as it articulates the pang of longing for companionship. A bit on the nose, perhaps, for those in lockdown alone, but with Céline in your ears, you’re not really alone.
I may not be able to belt it out right now (or technically, ever), but Céline always has and always will. In my time of need, the desire to create something, anything, but coming up short every time, this woman comes through like the Titanic headed for the iceberg. The song may be an emotional tsunami, but Céline makes sounds that register as something that whales would respond to. Plaintive and wailing, but also a form of navigation out of the dark depths.
The music video is a master class in ‘90s adult contemporary visuals. In black and white, Céline is walking around in a choice of a haircut in some green room decorated like a Tucson nightmare. She walks onto a stage, emotes in front of a droopy fabric background. Oh, but then, some color! Mostly white, though. She’s by herself, ok! When she dials the telephone, nobody’s home. Back to monochrome, she’s on stage singing it out in front of her many fans, in pleather. She doesn’t want to live by herself anymore! Anymooo–ooo–oorrr-hooo–orree!!
A bit under three minutes in, Céline holds a note for about 10 seconds, screaming into the first half and then modulating the shit out of it. The lung capacity, my god. Does she have a cave in there? Into whatever void in me, that note reaches.
Why am I obsessed with this song? It is cheese. It is the fromaggiest of fromage. Eric Carmen wrote this in 1975, stealing from the late Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov (the second movement from the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor) for a good chunk of the melody – along with its ambience, I would argue. Carmen actually wrote this trash barge of sadness and put it out in the world. He didn’t pour it all out and then come back later thinking, you know what, this is too much. I have to respect that – efficiency is not everything, especially in my throwing-spaghetti-at-the-wall internality.
The song feels heavy, like a box in the corner full of old stuff you can’t get rid of. One of the basest human fears, that of being alone, laid out in minor key. The original version is over seven minutes long. (Interestingly, that one has almost eleven million more listens on Spotify than the single edit at four minutes and thirty seconds.) It has a slide guitar solo plus what I can only think of as a piano cadenza, as if Carmen thought of this as his homage to the foundational concerto. The main words beyond “all by myself” are “never,” “alone,” “nobody.” It’s a huge mess and I can only applaud its immoderation.
Another thing that delights me about this song is that Rachmaninov is credited as a songwriter/composer on it. Yes, this was the right thing to do, but it’s also insane. Rachmaninov! Dead in the great beyond, decomposing, and thirty years after he was put in his grave, some American dude slaps a song credit onto his catalogue. Excuse you, sir?? And Carmen didn’t even acknowledge it at first – the Rachmaninov estate had to contact Carmen after the song’s U.S. release to inform him the composer’s music is not in the public domain outside that country.
(“All By Myself” is also not the only time Carmen has borrowed from Rachmaninov – he used material from Symphony No. 2 for “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again.” Truly, Carmen never did anything all by himself, so perhaps this whole thing is a lie and I need to reevaluate everything.)
Anyway, it’s nice to feel something that isn’t general malaise, and Céline is there for that. The song may be a garbage heap of sloppy emotions, but at least it exists. At least it’s out there. By the end of the music video, Céline is doing one of the many things she excels at – reaching lots of people, spotlit, singing the shit out of anything. She is a musician, a performer, a lighthouse.