Indie-pop innovator George Usher suggested, for our Songs to See Us Through series, his poetic and striking song “Don’t Be Afraid to Love” (see video below), from his 1995 album, Miracle School.
Usher is currently staying home, not only because of the social distancing required by the coronavirus but also because of significant health issues. He writes to me from the safety of email, rather than at a coffee shop in his West Village neighborhood of many years, which would be an unthinkable option. The world is presently unrecognizable with sounds of silence that are deafening.
Co-written with Richard Barone in the midst of the AIDS crisis, “Don’t Be Afraid to Love” conveys the currently relevant message that the perfect cleansing storm for a time when fear is everywhere is love.
“A couple years after Richard (Barone) and I wrote and recorded ‘Clouds Over Eden’ (for Barone’s 1993 album of the same name), we wrote ‘Don’t Be Afraid to Love’ around the same subject,” Usher said. “Things regarding AIDS had gotten marginally better in the early ’90s, especially if you remember the weird, frustrating ‘there’s nothing here’ from the government … But the religious right was beginning to really rear its head at that time and right-wing talk show hosts were going from fringe, regional voices to national impact … so we wrote this.”
It’s difficult to avoid hardening your heart and retreating in the days of coronavirus, when every social contact brings the threat of contagion and death. Usher brings us out of our misery with his gorgeous, Beatles-influenced song. It has a dreamy quality and the catchy tune is hard to turn off once you’ve heard it.
“George Usher is hands-down one of the best songwriters ever — I put him up there with Petty and George Harrison,” said James Mastro (of The Bongos and Ian Hunter’s Rant Band), who produced Miracle School.
Usher’s warm, sincere voice and elevating sound dazzle me, creating a moment of sun on an otherwise rainy day. I woke up this morning humming the song and reciting Usher’s words:
Eyes looking down, so full of loneliness
Wondering what could be worse
Hearing a voice, angry at everyone, misquoting chapter and verse.
Don’t be afraid to love, don’t be afraid to love.
Eyes full of tears, heart full of emptiness
Watching the world in reverse
Seeing a face, distorting everything, changing a prayer to a cure…
There’s a chance that you might find the love we make is left behind
And there’s a truth that cannot hide, even when your loves’s denied.
“We wanted to capture that dreamy ‘come together’ late-’60s vibe on the recording,” Usher said. “Jane Scarpantoni played cello, Richard (Barone) and I played everything else, as I remember. All the vocals, mellotrons, guitars, xylophones, organs … when I visit it every few years, that mellotron solo stays in my head for days.”
I feel that same way.
Usher’s lyrics break the surface of longing for those we miss, which is palpable now, but can also be experienced during a breakup. “Don’t Be Afraid to Love” reminds me of Hoboken singer-songwriter Kate Jacobs’ words in her song “George Says” from her 1995 album What About Regret?, which recounts Jacobs’ conversation with Usher. She sings: “George says, ‘Love is never wasted.’ ” It seems that Usher has a lot to say on this subject and offers sage advice.
Reflecting on his song’s connection to the pandemic, he said: “The first verse mentions ‘collective loneliness,’ while so-called religious leaders lay blame where it suits them and misled us. The second verse mentions our ‘watching the world in reverse’ as our whole structure shuts down. The bridge offers hope, much like that is found in Kate’s song. The love we make is left behind, even if we pass and even if it’s denied. And the last verse still has us in the wilderness, doing what you and I are doing, ‘Speaking for everyone, changing the tears to a song.’ ”
This is the time to collaborate to deal with the virus, as well as the collapse of our economic and health care systems. That takes love. So many patients die without family members by their side. Nurses step in to offer comfort. That takes love.
Usher has been making poetic and engrossing songs since leaving Cleveland for New York in 1977, when he played with the power-pop band The Decoys at CBGB, Max’s Kansas City and other venues until about 1982. Then he brought his distinctive voice and style to Beat Rodeo and The Bongos, with whom he was a satellite member. He’s led his own groups (House of Usher, The George Usher Group) and played with The Schramms, Edward Rogers and Lisa Burns.
He’s released 12 of his own albums and played on many others. “I’ve gigged everywhere,” he said.
In 2010, he was diagnosed with cancer. “The treatment crippled me,” he said. But, he added, “here I am now, writing songs with Jack Skuller of the Skullers.” Two of those songs, “She Denies Herself the Things She Loves” and “Out of the Garden,” ended up on a Skullers EP.
During the pandemic, Usher has been working from home for Peermusic, a music publisher that has employed him for decades. Peer refers to Ralph Peer, the legendary A&R man who discovered the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers in the ’20s. “The company is still family owned and is worldwide, so I’m grateful they’re still looking after me, while I do my best to look after them,” Usher said. “I’m currently in the financial department, So, reports, facts and figures are still going out from my laptop.”
“Don’t Be Afraid to Love” contains a message that remains important, even during a pandemic: stay isolated physically, but remain connected and community-minded. Love can motivate us to stretch our resources and look after each other. The heroism of first responders have been massively impactful, especially for vulnerable populations, but their work could not be performed without an effort to be open to empathy and love.
Usher has a lot to say about love. “Don’t Be Afraid to Love” also reminded me of his captivating “Somewhere North of the Sky” (see video below), the opening track of his 2009 album Yours and Not Yours. The song tells the listener that “love is always waiting, somewhere north of the sky.”
It’s not a sentimental verse, more like a truth Usher shares that grabs your heart and gives you hope that “love is waiting.”
The album is “a collection of relationship songs told from different points of view,” said Usher. In it, he’s not always focusing on his own relationships.
“I was throwing a much wider net than that and it wasn’t about me. But I started the album with this song and this message, ‘Love is always waiting.’ ”
He added, “I’ve put in 36-hour days, trying to be an artist, since I was about 7 years old. I’ve never made much money … but, yes, I’ve experienced a lot of love along the way. I can always speak to ways for others to find it.”
His musical influences include the Beatles. “I’m one of so many who saw the Beatles on ‘Ed Sullivan’ and famously said, ‘That’s what I wanna do!’ and then, had my life ruined,” he jokes. “Along with Dylan, the Byrds, Beach Boys … I grew up working in record stores, so I was exposed to just about everything. That was my actual education. And the older guys running the stores were among my actual teachers.”
Usher lives on West 4th Street in Manhattan. “Positively 4th Street,” he said. “About 100 yards from where Dylan set up camp in 1962. There’s an undefinable vibe that is still here from those early ’60s folk music days. Washington Square Park is down the street. NYU campus is right here, so college kids are always coming and going. But over the years there are a lot of abandoned storefronts. NYU landlords sitting on real estate, waiting for their big kill. It screws with the daily living. I grew up in Cleveland, a great rock ‘n’ roll town. It’s fitting that I’ve spent the last 20 plus years in New York’s West Village.”
When I asked Usher for a link through which his fans could support him, he said, “Let anyone who hears my message take it to their heart and not bother about their purse.”
Even his emails are poetic. He called the Songs to See Us Through series, for instance, “an important sunbeam into a bleak landscape.”
Usher is currently in between websites and I look forward to seeing what he creates. He was planning to perform at “A Celebration of Ronnie Lane’s Music” at The Cutting Room in New York on April 1, but like all other gigs, it was cancelled by the coronavirus.
He was planning to sing “Annie,” from Lane’s 1977 album Rough Mix, a collaboration with Pete Townshend. There’s a verse in the song, which I understand is about Lane’s children’s babysitter, that goes:
Winter has come, Annie,
No friend in the sun, Annie,
And when it’s gone, Annie,
Where shall we be?”
I wonder where we will all be this winter. With any luck, listening to Usher’s warm, rich voice at a rescheduled Ronnie Lane tribute show.
NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series is designed to spotlight songs relevant to the coronavirus crisis and encourage readers to support the artists who made them (and won’t be able to generate income via concerts at this time). Click here for links to all songs in the series.
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