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The Madonna Timeline: Song #74 – ‘Dear Jessie’ – Spring 1991

{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}


Baby face don’t grow so fast
Make a special wish that will always last
Rub this magic lantern
He will make your dreams come true, for you
Ride the rainbow to the other side
Catch a falling star and then take a ride
To the river that sings and the clover
That brings good luck to you, it’s all true…

Once upon a time I played the oboe. I wasn’t horrendous at it, but I certainly wasn’t the best. The oboe is not an easy instrument to play, and its temperamental home-made double-reed nastiness is not the easiest thing to master, but I did my best. No teacher in the Amsterdam School District had a strong-enough background in the oboe, so if I was to excel I had to get private lessons from someone outside the area. My goal, half-concocted by my parents to pad my extracurricular activities for my college career, was to make it into the Empire State Youth Orchestra.

Thus began my oboe lessons under the tutelage of a Mrs. Green, who lived a few towns away, in Ballston Spa. It was about a 45 minute trek through the back roads and winding woods of upstate New York, heading from Amsterdam towards Saratoga. Not at all an unpleasant ride, if you’re making it for happier reasons than weekly instrumental lessons, and not the most fun in the treachery of winter, but a pretty enough journey nonetheless.

It can also be a long road when a tortured adolescent is not speaking to his family, so perhaps both my Mom and I were glad for the silence-filler of Madonna on perpetual play. For some reason, this song stands out as representative of those journeys, especially in the Spring to Summer of 1991.

A cut from her majestic ‘Like A Prayer’ album, this was Madonna at her most sensitive and thoughtful, singing whimsical lyrics in a love letter to childhood. With its orchestral intro, string-laden melody, and brass bridge breakdown, this was closest to a “classical music” song that Madonna has ever attempted. As such, it’s an anomaly in the Madonna canon, but a gorgeous one.

Pink elephants and lemonade,
Dear Jessie hear the laughter running through the love parade
Candy kisses and a sunny day,
Dear Jessie see the roses raining on the love parade.

The back-story is that Madonna wrote this for the daughter of her main producing partner at the time, Pat Leonard (the person responsible for some of her most powerful and iconic songs, such as ‘Like A Prayer’, ‘Live to Tell’, and ‘Papa Don’t Preach.’) In that respect, it marks one of the only Madonna songs that is clearly about a specific, and named, person; usually she takes the universal route, one of the calling cards of lasting pop songs. Leonard was an integral part of the now classical period from 1986 to 1989 that cemented Madonna as an icon, and this song is the least she could have done for his child.

It doubles as an ode to innocence and the magic of being a child. So much of Madonna’s persona has been tinged with a childlike, slightly mischievous, impetuous nature (the very anti-thesis of the coldly calculating woman that many mistakenly believe her to be) that this is, remarkably, a rather revelatory dreamscape of pretend.

If the land of make believe
Is inside your heart, it will never leave
There’s a golden gate where the fairies all wait
And dancing moons, for you
Close your eyes and you’ll be there
Where the mermaids sing as they comb their hair
Like a fountain of gold, you can never grow old
Where dreams are made, your love parade
Pink elephants and lemonade,
Dear Jessie hear the laughter running through the love parade
Candy kisses and a sunny day,
Dear Jessie see the roses raining on the love parade.

For me, it was a last grasp at a childhood that was fading just as that Spring and Summer matured. In the car on the way to those oboe lessons, the afternoon sun rendered dappled beneath the bright green canopy, I sat in the backseat, reading or grabbing a nap or simply looking out the window, watching for the tell-tale signs of the seasons. The land seemed greener then, less hot and dry, and summers stretched out without any end in sight.

I honed my oboe skills, learning to make my own reeds by hand, running beeswax alonog the string, soaking the stems until malleable, delicately shaving off the tips to find the perfect sound. Reed-making was as much about luck as science for me, a tricky little part of being a decent oboe player. While other oboe-players ordered pre-made reeds, I was not allowed such ease, and it made me a better player. I understand the result of hard work, and how much more it meant. That summer, I practiced and improved, and by Fall I was ready to audition. Even if I wasn’t as good as the first oboist (I eventually made it into the Repertory Orchestra, and then the Youth Orchestra), I had the satisfaction of knowing how to make a double reed, the pride in crafting my own sound, from my own hands.

On the merry-go-round of lovers and white turtle doves
Leprechauns floating by, this is your lullaby
Sugarplum fingertips kissing your honey lips
Close your eyes sleepy head, is it time for your bed
Never forget what I’ve said, hang on, you’re already there…
Close your eyes and you’ll be there
Where the mermaids sing as they comb their hair
Like a fountain of gold you can never grow old
Where dreams are made, your love parade

It paid off, and whether it was the oboe or my grades or my application essays, I made it into every college to which I applied. (I still remember the recruiter from Boston College challenging me as to what extra stuff I had to offer the school, to which I said I was in several orchestras: “Yeah, but unless you play something like the oboe you’re not that different from everyone else – what instrument do you play?” Yeah, the oboe.)

My heart, however, did not belong to the instrument. I didn’t like performing in concerts (I was a nervous wreck), and I didn’t have the drive or ambition to go much further than the college orchestra at Brandeis (which I was dragged into after much kicking and screaming, and only for one year). I also didn’t have the love for the oboe that a truly great musician must have. The orchestral stints, the practicing, the reed-making – they were simply a means to an end – the end result being getting into a good school. It was a cold and calculated move, devoid of the passion and heat of which any worthy artistic endeavor should be comprised. There was a lesson there too, a very valuable one.

I’d gone into Brandeis with a vague notion, mostly instilled by my parents, that I should major in something scientific. While it was no secret they’d have been thrilled if I went into the medical field, I wanted nothing to do with that. Up until that moment, I’d done what I supposed to do – and my oboe playing, even with its moments of enjoyment, was not something I would have pursued on my own. When given the chance to give it up, I did. Not with anger or resentment, but with the realization that it wasn’t for me.

The same went for my scientific career. After a tough “Brain: From Molecules to Perception” course, in which I managed to go from an ‘F’ to an ‘A’ in the course of a semester, I had to admit that my strengths were not in the sciences, but in the realm of words. It was exactly the opposite of the vision my parents had for, and about, me. I went to my adviser, and changed my major at the end of the second semester. I felt relief, freedom, happiness, and hope. It was the first of many moves where I went against what I was supposed to do, and in the end became richer for it.

Pink elephants and lemonade,
Dear Jessie hear the laughter running through the love parade
Candy kisses and a sunny day,
Dear Jessie see the roses raining on the love parade.

Madonna was leaving her past behind too, saying good-bye to the 80’s – the decade in which she “ruled the world” – and entering the brave new world of the last decade of the century. The rocky period of adulthood loomed ahead of both of us. For now, though, there was this song of childhood. We could hold onto it for a little while longer.

Your dreams are made inside the love parade
It’s a holiday inside your love parade.
Song #74 – ‘Dear Jessie’ – Spring 1991
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