Every once in a while something comes along in my life that significantly affects me and makes a long lasting impression. It may be a poem, a person, a flower, a song, or a group of words. Melissa Etheridge is just one of those people; she seems to be an extension of my feelings. I relate to all of her songs, but most especially her song "Royal Station 4/16." I still remember the first time I heard it. I was riding in a close friend's van (which has an awesome stereo system) and we had the radio turned up all the way. Melissa Etheridge's music and sexy voice came blaring out at me, into me, and through me. I felt an instant and complete connection with the song. The combination of music and words reaches into my soul and touches that part of me that's always alone. The triad of music, lyrics, and Etheridge's voice work together to instill an undeniable sense of isolation, but also acceptance.
"Royal Station 4/16" comes off of Etheridge's second album, "Brave and Crazy," which was released in 1989. Since the release of it, she "came out," and has become well known as a lesbian musician. While her sexuality is really independent of this song, I feel it's important because it endears her to me, as a person, even more. Melissa Etheridge wrote this song herself and plays the twelve string guitar throughout it. The other instruments present in this piece are the bass guitar, played by Kevin Mccormick; the electric guitar, played by Bernie Larsen; the drums, played by Mauricio Fritz; and the harmonica, played by Bono.
The song contains a metaphor comparing a train Melissa hears outside of her window and the lover she appears to be losing. She expresses her feeling that the train is encouraging her to leave. She sees it as a way to escape and get away from the pain she's experiencing, but she doesn't go. Then the train somehow changes meaning in the middle of the song and begins to almost represent her lover. As the train finally moves on down the track, she mentally lets go of her lover, and says goodbye. The end of the song indicates an acceptance of the situation and a sense of continuation in spite of it.
The song commences with a single guitar playing a repetition of several high-pitched notes; this same tune is later repeated several times throughout the song. Then a lower pitched guitar joins in, followed by the percussion instruments. Mauricio Fritz commands the drums to sound like a train starting, slowly and softly at first and later speeding up and getting louder. Next, a harmonica joins in, reminding me of a train whistle and adding a feeling of the blues. There is no singing for almost a full minute into the song.
Suddenly, the sensual, husky voice of Melissa Etheridge breaks through with the first lyrics of the song: "It's so hard to listen to these trains." These dragged out words are followed by a sound like a train whistle. Etheridge conveys her sense of captivity and isolation by showing that she is inside: "...outside my window here it comes in...," once more the train whistle sounds again. Here the song changes speed by getting faster, as if the train were gaining power. The singer's emotions also start churning more quickly as she expresses her desire to run away and follow the train.
The chorus of "Royal Station 4/16" repeats itself twice, sounding virtually the same each time. The music is loud and active in the background as Etheridge sings: "I refuse to believe/it could happen to me and you/It's lonesome and it's hard and it's true...." She wants to deny that her lover is leaving. After the first chorus, the music slows again and Melissa Etheridge moans out the next stanza in which she says, "I ain't got nothing to soothe my aching soul..." Soon the chorus sounds again, but this time the music continues to escalate as the lyrics refer back to hearing the train again The instruments then slow to a crawl again with the line, "Why your love is so sweet and wild/Is something I'll never know ..." The crack in Etheridge's voice on the word "sweet" is heart-wrenching.
After that line, there's a short break, where the music starts to gain intensity again, increasing in speed and force. Etheridge's voice breaks through with a screeching effect that pierces my ears. Her pain, anger, and sorrow shine through as she compares the sound of the train leaving to how she feels about her lover leaving: "It sounds like crying/ It sounds like letting go/ Breathing and lying/Sinking and dying slow..." The music once more begins to slow. And again Etheridge expresses her captivity and isolation as she sings, "I watch from my window/ touching the cold glass sky/ As the train rolls down the track/ I say goodbye" -- this is hard for her to say, but she says it strongly.
This would seem like a natural place for the song to end, but Melissa Etheridge is not done. I find this an important aspect in the song because it represents real life and real feelings. Just because we realize and accept what must happen in a relationship, for example, does not mean that we still don't feel the pain or sorrow that often lasts much longer than the initial pain. While the lyrics in the song are now over, the music takes control and expresses ideas and feelings perhaps beyond words.
Although the instruments quiet after the last word, "goodbye," they do not slow down. Then they begin ascending and building, getting louder and faster and more intense. This intensity holds for a much longer time than expected, and suddenly Melissa Etheridge's voice joins in as yet another musical instrument. She manipulates her voice so expressively and skillfully it brings tears to my eyes. She sounds so alone and full of sorrow and anguish. And then she holds a long treble note, and proceeds to sing a shorter sound like a train whistle, repeating it three times. Her voice is heard no more. Then the guitars, drums, and harmonica repeat the same five note sequence several times. Abruptly it all comes crashing down with a little bit of harmonica trailing off at the end; as if it was not quite ready to give up. The silence after the song has ended feels intense, in a cathartic way.
To be honest, I feel inadequate trying to convey such a richly aesthetic experience into words on a page. Nonetheless, having tried, this I now feel even more in tune with Melissa Etheridge's song "Royal Station 4/16." After picking it apart and examining it, the song lost none of its magic and only gained more meaning for me. Yet there is still an element of raw passion in her voice, as well as the music, that I have not been able to capture in this paper. I can only describe it as a mix between the butterflies you get in your stomach with nervousness and that painful lump that grows in your throat with sadness. I have no idea if I have been able to instill in you the feelings Melissa Etheridge has instilled in me. All I know is that this song is the musical manifestation of an isolated corner of my soul -- and I love it.
Cohen, Rich. "Melissa Etheridge: The Rolling Stone Interview." Rolling Stone, 29 Dec. 1994:110-116.
Melissa Etheridge. "Brave and Crazy." New York, Island Records, 1989.