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The Madonna Timeline: Song #82 – ‘Live To Tell’ – Summer 1986

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{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.}

I have a tale to tell
Sometimes it gets so hard to hide it well
I was not ready for the fall
Too blind to see the writing on the wall…

It was the summer of 1986. In many ways it was the last summer of my childhood. ‘Stand By Me’ was in the movie theaters, and around every corner was an adventure that could only be reached by bicycle. In the stifling heat of the garage, sitting in the station wagon, my Mom and I waited for my brother. The bitter scent of exhaust filled the hot space. At odds with the sunny day, the dim wood and oil-stained cement lent the moment a purgatorial feel. Despite the rising temperature, I was not uncomfortable. That’s one of the tenets of childhood – you don’t notice the extremes of hot or cold. Getting in the car after a day at Disneyworld was nothing back then, and going out in a snowstorm was a cakewalk.

I stared at the door going into the house, willing my brother to appear sooner rather than later. On the radio Madonna’s ‘Live To Tell’ was playing. At the time, I didn’t like the song (a sign that I would later love it – see ‘Frozen’.) It wasn’t that I actively disliked it, I simply preferred her dance songs, something more upbeat. I liked my pop songs to be a form of escapism. On this day, however, something changed.

A man can tell a thousand lies
I’ve learned my lesson well
Hope I live to tell the secret I have learned, til then…
It will burn inside of me.

The mysteries and secrets of childhood were all around me. The unfairness of being a child was always in suspense, waiting to be released in a flood of messy tears and red-faced anguish. What secrets can a ten-year-old hold? You’d be surprised. Time moves differently when you’re a kid. The magnitude of minutes can be immense, and a year can feel like an eternity. Everything is magnified, everything means more. The intensity of childhood equalizes its carefree aspects, and that’s a precarious balance. Shift in either one direction too far and disaster is imminent. We don’t give children enough credit sometimes. We don’t know how much of what adults do weighs down upon their shoulders. Luckily, as children, we don’t always know either.

I know where beauty lives
I’ve seen it once, I know the warm she gives
The light that you could never see
It shines inside, you can’t take that from me.

On the verge of turning eleven, I was lucky that summer. I had not quite turned the corner to adolescence. Any notions of sexuality or being gay were too far in the distance, and though there were definite signs, I could still operate within the safety of childhood. My parents could still love me unconditionally. If you can make it through the first decade of life relatively unscathed, you might stand a chance. In that way, I was fortunate. But something told me the luck was about to run out. In the ticking of the song, in that moment of waiting, the last bit of sand was squeezing through the cinched waist of the hourglass.

A man can tell a thousand lies
I’ve learned my lesson well
Hope I live to tell
The secret I have learned, til then
It will burn inside of me…
The truth is never far behind
You’ve kept it hidden well
Hope I live to tell
The secret I knew then
Will I ever have the chance again?

The song suddenly stopped, or I thought it did. The low hum of a single synthesized bass was lost in the car. Then, slowly, a few chords sounded. At the moment that the powerful bridge began, I distinctly remember opening the door of the car. I paused there, the door handle in my hand, as the song filled the garage.

If I ran away, I’d never have the strength, to go very far,
How would they hear the beating of my heart?
Will it grow cold, the secret that I hide?
Will I grow old?
How will they hear?
When will they learn?
How will they know?

That’s when it all changed for me. The song. The innocence. The childhood. It all broke – not for any specific reason, not for any dramatic turn of events – it simply happened. In so many ways, I grew up then. That it was Madonna who guided me through it was fitting. I did not know how much she would come to influence me and see me through the difficult times. I did not realize that she would be the perfect person to raise a gay son. I did not understand how much I would have to do alone.

There, in the midst of the heat, still waiting for my brother to come out, I felt a chill. Call it a premonition, call it foreshadowing, I just know that at that singular moment my world shifted. Though it lasted but half a minute, it has stayed with me, frozen in time and memory, for all of my existence. Something in the song called to me from what was to come, some strange but vital message from my future whispered that I would need these words to survive, that, someday, Madonna would save my life.

It may sound silly and stupid as an adult, but nothing is silly when you’re a kid. I ran into the house and shouted for my brother. Back in the car, the rest of the song played on. Patiently, my Mom and I waited. It was dark in the garage, and we were probably going somewhere I didn’t want to go, but I still didn’t want to be late.

A man can tell a thousand lies
I’ve learned my lesson well
Hope I live to tell
The secret I have learned, til then
It will burn inside of me.

As for its place in Madonna’s storied career, ‘Live To Tell’ was (at least according to a 1995 interview promoting her ‘Something to Remember’ ballad collection) one of her favorites. Oddly enough, she has only performed it on three tours. While I loved the confessional Catholic drama of her Blonde Ambition rendition, it was her Christ-on-a-cross pose for the Confessions tour that stands as my favorite. Witnessing the rise of that arresting image was a highlight of the show – the deliberate droning of a church organ playing tensely in-between verses, and Madonna in a crown-of-thorns singing for the children, for the lost, for the crucifixion of innocence.

The truth is never far behind
You’ve kept it hidden well
If I live to tell
The secret I knew then
Will I ever have the chance again?

Song #82 – ‘Live To Tell’ – Summer 1986

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