The Madonna Timeline: Song #9 – ‘Promise To Try’


{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.}

Keep your head held high, Ride like the wind,
Never look behind, Life isn’t fair,
That’s what you said, so I try not to care…

Before the specific memories of this song are expounded upon, a brief history of my relationship with Madonna – as fan and admirer – must be written first. The iPod has shuffled to ‘Promise To Try’, from 1989′s ‘Like A Prayer album. It was a non-single, and to be completely honest, I must have skipped quickly past ‘Promise’ when I first heard the album. See, I wasn’t always the superfan I am today. In fact, the cassettes of ‘Like A Virgin‘ and ‘True Blue both originally belonged to my brother. It’s true – I was more of a singles guy back then, and while Madonna is quite possibly the greatest singles artist there was and ever will be, I didn’t bother with her albums much. It’s strange to think of that – and it makes little sense, because hers were the only albums I ever learned inside and out, loving each song, filler or not. So when ‘Like A Prayer’ was released, it was the first full album of hers that I bought myself. And on first listen, I didn’t like it. Not only did I not like it, I was actually offended (scared) when I heard ‘Act of Contrition’. The whispered prayer opening, the blast of electric guitar, and the closing bit of blasphemy – it was all too much for this Catholic altar boy to take, and I thought for sure that God would punish me for even listening to it. Now here’s the bit that makes me sound a little crazy – even for me: so scared was I that God would not be happy with me even having the cassette in my house, I took it outside to the backyard, found a large rock, and was about to smash it to pieces. I lifted the rock over my head, ready to bring it down on the sad little cassette tape, but stopped. I cannot say why, or what prevented me from going through with it.

Maybe it was the memory of innocently dancing around the bedroom to her songs, or maybe I thought there was something holy in that tape itself, but I went back inside and pushed the tape to the very back of my desk drawer, and to the back of my mind.

A couple of hits later (‘Express Yourself’, ‘Vogue’) and I was ready to forgive, so when I heard her Blonde Ambition Tour was being broadcast on HBO, I asked my brother’s friend to record it for me. And it happened all over again – the performance of ‘Like A Prayer’ was just too much, and Catholic guilt and fear rushed to my head. I quickly taped over it.

{Moment of silence}

(Father, forgive me for I have sinned, it has been an eternity since my last confession, and this is my sin: I taped over my recording of Madonna’s only Blonde Ambition broadcast.)

Again, time passed, and a few hits later (I loved ‘I’m Breathless’ cause it was basically a Madonna showtunes album) I was back on board, but I didn’t become a superfan until I heard ‘Promise to Try’ in ‘Truth or Dare. To show you that I wasn’t a proper fan just yet, I had no idea what the song was, or where it might be found. (I actually asked for the ‘Truth or Dare soundtrack at one record store.)

And then one night in the Fall of 1991, when insomnia was having its way with me again and adolescent angst was threatening to end my very existence, I thought maybe… just maybe… that song is here somewhere. I found the ‘Like A Prayer’ album and put it into my walkman (yes, walkman – it seems so long ago). I fast-forwarded through ‘Express Yourself’ (okay, I probably listened to some of it) – but I definitely fast-forwarded through ‘Love Song’, and almost all the way to the end of ‘Til Death Do Us Part‘, though I listened to its fade-out, and all of a sudden the piano chords that I knew so well from repeated rentals of ‘Truth or Dare’ rang out, in their entirety and without Madonna’s gravesite voice-over, and I was hearing the plaintive words of a little girl who missed her long-lost mother. In an instant I was a superfan – whose love and passion for all things Madonna would not waver for the next two-plus decades.

Back then, ‘Promise to Try’ became the theme for that lonely Autumn. Suzie had gone away to Denmark, and on every mix tape I made her (and there were many) I included this song at some point. I remember listening to it on my walkman as I raked piles of brown oak leaves in the forest behind our house. The air was bitter, the sky was gray, and I didn’t even want to be – but I listened to Madonna, and there was solace in her longing, hope in her loneliness, and inspiration in her strength.

A somewhat-comical side-note on this song: one of the lines almost made it as my yearbook quote, but wiser heads fortunately prevailed and I did not use one. (Though looking back at the Guns ‘N Roses and Tesla quotes of the time, mine would have held up far better.)

I fought to be so strong,
I guess you knew I was afraid,
You’d go away too…
Song #9: ‘Promise to Try’ – Fall 1991 
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