AMIDST the gloom of Yorkshire in the late English winter of 1992 when I arrived in the United Kingdom, two bright things stood out.
The first were the swathes of daffodils, bringing colour and joy to a colourless and often joyless landscape.
The second were the signs blazing from music shop windows – the enlarged signature of an artist I’d long admired, because at last she’d recorded her first solo album.
The thrill of seeing that name in iridescent red against the steely greys of Britain really sum-up for me the power and presence of Annie Lennox.
The pop-rock duo Eurythmics (comprising Lennox and David A. Stewart) had announced a sabbatical after over a decade of collaboration, and with no new album since 1989, word in the media was that it might be all over.
But when the British Music industry gathered to celebrate the life of Freddie Mercury at a tribute concert in early 1992, a duet of ‘Under Pressure’ with David Bowie and Annie Lennox was announced.
Apparently they made a pact to go all-out on their costumes. Bowie’s 1970s outfits had, after all, been a great inspiration to Lennox.
But Annie Lennox outdid Ziggy Stardust. He was rather reserved in a suit, while she appeared in a full-length tulle skirt, eyes masked with a spray of black, ginger hair slicked-back, a signature red-slash of lipstick … every bit the androgynous icon that made her name a decade before.
Hers was a weird, awkward, emotional performance that went right to the heart of loss. The loss of Freddie. The loss of a generation of artists to the AIDS epidemic. It took guts, and it brought the house down.
Duet aside, a solo career was born.
Annie Lennox first hit my consciousness in 1983, as Eurythmics’ album Touch carved its way through the charts with a string of video clips on Countdown. Lennox was a harpy, a romanticised heroine, a robot, a man, and she sang like the great gospel singers.
Nobody else I knew liked her or Eurythmics, but to me she was pop perfection – an intense, misunderstood butterfly in a constant state of metamorphosis.
The release of 1984 (For the Love of Big Brother), fronted by the single ‘Sex Crime’, in the same year I became aware I was gay, was almost too much.
For a closeted gay boy, Lennox’s thundering Orwellian vocal: “How I wish I’d been unborn, wish I wasn’t living here … Sex Crime” was a chant of affirmation.
But Eurythmics didn’t remain the beloved of nerdy closeted boys for long. From 1985 to 1989 they dominated the pop-rock scene, with a string of hits and world tours.
In a rare egalitarian moment, a large group of my school year put factions aside and made a booking to see the Eurythmics at the Sydney Entertainment Centre in early 1987. I already had all their albums, and knew the answers to everyones’ questions about the duo. For one week in summer I felt cool, accepted, in-touch and cutting-edge.
Although it wasn’t until Lennox’s solo career took off that I came to understand why I liked Eurythmics so much.
Of the Stewart-Lennox duo, she was almost exclusively the lyricist, and her words covered the human experience from unbridled joy to the deepest sorrow.
But the tone of the music was not dark. Stewart took Lennox’s poetry and placed it in an uplifting context, so that the result had a tension to it. What she sang about was dark, but it sounded up-beat.
Sometimes it worked the other way around – the words were uplifting, but the music that underscored them was moody.
Think ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ (a reminder that there is danger in joy); think ‘Love is a Stranger’ (a recognition that there is pain in romance); and think ‘Missionary Man’ (a warning that there is chaos in order) … Eurythmics’ writing was an ever-evolving exploration of opposites.
But on her own, without Dave Stewart’s musical lift, Annie Lennox seemed to revel in darkness on every track of Diva, her 1992 full-length solo debut.
Compared by critics to Carole King’s 1971 album Tapestry, yet much closer to the confessional power of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Diva is unfiltered pain made mainstream. The songs are a line-up of loss, regret, and loneliness.
“Take this gilded cage of pain, and set me free. Take this overcoat of shame, it never did belong to me” (Lennox’s lyrics from Diva’s penultimate track ‘The Gift’) became an anthem for everyone living with feelings of guilt.
Across the Grammy-winning long-form video for Diva, in addition to her jaded showgirl persona, Lennox inhabits angelic imagery – modern urban angel; traditional decorative angel; healing and restorative angel.
By year’s end she’d countered all that with her turn as a grief-stricken vampire in her contribution to the soundtrack of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Unlike Joni Mitchell and Carole King, Annie Lennox’s Diva masquerade was complex and complete.
Another solo album, Medusa (1995), a Eurythmics reunion, another world tour, and then, in 2002, a detailed biography followed, which as an ardent fan I received as a birthday present and devoured.
There, in all its unauthorised glory, was Lennox’s rise to fame laid bare. Her early false starts, her breakthroughs, her burgeoning solo career, her achievements as a human being apart from her fame and fortune, and something else … the revelation that despite all her fame, which bred more fame and more opportunity, Annie Lennox regularly couldn’t see her own creative achievements.
After all that success, Annie Lennox got depressed!
By then I was at an age when my creative ambitions had not been fulfilled, knowledge that came with the stark realisation that they may never be. Around me I witnessed the pain of addiction; the hope of recovery; and the competitive process as drama school colleagues jostled for power and influence. Some of us gave up at that time, or changed-tack, went overseas, or, like me, returned.
That one of my creative heroes, who’d achieved about as much as it’s possible to achieve in her field, still felt the same feelings of depression and frustration that she’d felt before she became famous, was a devastating thought.
For this fan, the angel did indeed have a tarnished halo.
But Annie Lennox had much, much further to go with her music. During her return to collaborating with Dave Stewart, there had been an intriguing hint of what was to come in one unassuming track on their 1999 album Peace.
‘I’ve Tried Everything’ became the supreme example of crashing Lennox lyrics given wings on Stewart’s composition. The song begins in the upper reaches of her register, builds slowly through the poetry of someone telling themselves what a loser they are, before meeting at the bridge, where Lennox chimes: “I should be cool, but I’m burning hot. I should be good, but I fell apart. Don’t look at me now, don’t even start, ‘cos I’ve tried everything, yeah I’ve tried everything …” before the duo drives the song home to its relentless, inexplicable finish, joy and pain intertwined to the strains of Annie backing herself, repeating “loser, loser, loser.”
I asked anyone who would listen what they thought this darkest of songs was about. Few had the self awareness or the guts to respond.
It wasn’t until Annie Lennox released another solo album in 2003 that she stripped away the masquerade completely, allowing us to see more of her journey in everything from lyrics to revelatory title: Bare.
The cover image references one of the most iconic photographs of the singer-songwriter – the sleeve shot of Eurythmics’ album Touch, released two decades prior. In the older image, Lennox sports her signature cropped carrot hair and bears her arms like a shield before her, wrists and palms together, a black mask framing her intense gaze.
On the cover of Bare, Lennox’s arms and wrists are similarly held together, and they draw the eye to her face, which bears no mask and is powdered to reveal the patina of age, eyes front, vulnerable not defiant. Despite the use of make-up, there is no hint of concealing the truth.
Lyrically, Bare is Lennox’s courageous right of reply about her mental health journey.
The opening lines of the first track: “Every day I write the list, of reasons why I still believe they do exist (a thousand beautiful things); and even though it’s hard to see the glass is full and not half empty (a thousand beautiful things),” set the scene for a deeper exploration than Lennox had ever publicly undertaken.
Sometimes she references well-worn mental health vocabulary (“tell it like it is, like it is, like it is ..”) and at others through desperate, lonely prayers (“Oh God, where are you now?”).
Lennox portrayed herself as nothing but human on Bare – there was no diva or angel, no music videos, only interviews in which she revealed that she was the photographer who shot her own cover image.
Appearing on Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope, when he questioned Lennox about the nature of her crisis, she said, simply: “Listen to my album. You can hear about my crisis.”
It had taken half my lifetime to realise this real place was always where the essential darkness of Eurythmics came from, and their essential joy. Below the surface of the 1980s celebrity, the tarnish was always there, we just hadn’t seen it.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.