Promised Land album cover
I knew that when I decided to write this 20-year retrospective of Queensrÿche's album Promised Land, that it would be difficult (for reasons that will become apparent as you read on), but now in light of recent events surrounding Todd LaTorre and the loss of his father, it just makes this blog entry that much more difficult. A part of me wants to scrap it altogether. But the more I dwell on this and give it serious thought, the more I think this needs to be written; if only for my own personal reasons, to show what a healing quality music can have in dark times. Because that's why I chose to write this in the first place.
When I decided to do this, I struggled with how I would approach it, because writing this piece would require baring my soul and letting my readers in on a part of my life that I would prefer to keep private. At first, I thought about just keeping it on the surface and only intimating at the events in my life that made this album so personal to me. But now that this tragedy has happened, and Todd's personal life is on display for all to witness and to comment about, I feel that I must be completely honest and go through the painful exorcism of sharing things that I have kept mainly to myself for the better part of 20 years; things that only a handful of people who are close to me know about. There are going to be some people reading this who have known me for the majority of these last 2 decades and will learn things about me that they never knew. They are not sinister or devious things; they are just things that hurt too much to talk about all the time, so I just don't. I am not a person who wishes to feed on self-pity, and I do not care much to live in sadness. So a lot of these things I have put behind me are not because I am trying to deny them or pretend they never happened, but because I choose not to be a victim.
If ever a biography about my life could be described by music or condensed to one album, Promised Land is that album for me. In case you are not a Queensrÿche fan or are not familiar with this album or their material, to say this particular album can sum up my life is not necessarily a good thing; at least not as far as content goes. This is a dark album that speaks of heavy subjects; it's about a band who experienced the highs of success and found that the tragedies we all experience in childhood were not magically cured simply because they were now financially secure or sold award-winning albums (as we are all somehow led to believe). So you're probably wondering, how does this relate to me? Obviously I'm not a multi-millionaire or an award-winning recording artist, so how can their tales about the dark side of fame apply to my teenage life at the time?
Although this is not a concept album, there are several connecting themes throughout the album; the main one being about dealing with the emotional scars left over from childhood (and trying to cope with them as an adult). My upbringing was far from a happy one, so I could not only relate to the album's message, but it came along at a time when I most needed to hear it.
Let's go back to the year 1994, which was what I often refer to as the worst year of my life, if only for the fact that so many consecutively bad things occurred in such a short span of time. There have been greater tragedies in my life since then, and other time periods that were just as difficult; but never before or since have I experienced a solid calendar year where it seemed like one bad thing after another kept happening. When I look back on it (which isn't too often), I know how I survived all of these terrible things. It's something so simple, yet so profound. Music saved my life. More specifically, the album Promised Land saved my life. I am not saying this facetiously or to be over-dramatic. I am completely serious when I say it because it's true. When Promised Land came out, I had just turned 16 and as if the typical stress and strain that come with average teenage life wasn't enough, I was going through all these other problems that it seemed my friends or classmates were not experiencing and could not possibly understand. This album came into my life at a particularly low point when my home life and my school life sucked equally, and my already-unstable world was completely falling apart. This album literally saved my life during a time when I didn't think life was very much worth living.
What was so horrible that happened to me? I guess I will now have to tell my story.
Where do I start? On the very first day of 1994 when shortly after midnight on New Year's, I was almost sexually assaulted at a friend's house, by some bastard who tried to force himself on me? That might be a good place to start. Fortunately, he was not successful at his attempt; but the panic over what could have happened left me with a deep feeling of mistrust. Unfortunately, it's not the worst thing that would happen to me that year. If anything, that incident should have been a foreshadowing of how bad a year this would become. Even going through the Northridge earthquake a few weeks afterwards would be a piece of cake compared to what 1994 had in store for me!
When the year began, I was still 15 years old. Being a teenager is a difficult time for everyone, so it was no different for me. Couple that with being bullied every day for having physical disabilities, and my high school life was complete hell. I had a few friends, but I was far from being the popular kid in school, and I was certainly not the girl that had dates lining up at her door every Saturday night. Most of the time I was happy enough in my own company; if I ever wished to be popular, it was only so that the other kids would stop bullying me. For some reason I thought back then that being popular meant that everyone in school liked you, and therefore you never got teased or bullied. Oh, if only my teenage self could have met her current incarnation: what things I could have told her! (Something like those “It Gets Better” ads, only more metal?)
My home life was no better. I didn't live with my parents, because they had serious addiction problems, which kept them from being the most stable people to live with. I went to visit when I could because I had younger siblings that still lived with them, but they had a rocky marriage and their arguments could get quite heated. I am thankful that I had an aunt and uncle to live with, and they took care of me when my parents could not, and I had a cousin who was 3 years older than me and he looked out for me at school, making sure no one bothered me. I can't say it didn't please me to see some of my former bullies tremble in fear a little whenever my cousin walked with me down the halls. For a while, I felt safe and protected. The New Year's incident completely shattered that feeling. I started carrying a knife to school again, because there would come a day when my cousin left high school and I would still be there, with no one to watch my back. I carried it for protection, because I could not turn to my elders if another bully tried to trip me or jump me from behind. These were the days before anti-bullying campaigns; when teachers and school authorities looked the other way on such matters and felt that kids should handle those sorts of problems on their own. Where oftentimes the teachers would see kids being bullied and offer sage advice such as “get over it”, “no one likes a tattle-tale”, or “grow up”.
Meanwhile, in spite of all the ways my parents were not exactly fit to be parents to the kids they already had, they were about to have another one! A part of me was furious at the idea: I had to live with my aunt and uncle because they couldn't provide enough stability for me or my siblings, but here they were having another kid? What made them think this was a good idea? Well, obviously babies are seldom ever planned in advance; certainly not for people like my parents who probably thought that planning ahead for things was lame.
However, I think I knew the real reason my mom was willing to put herself through another high-risk pregnancy: my father constantly lamented the fact that all of his children were girls, and he didn't have “his son” yet. He made it more than clear that we were a constant disappointment because we were not born boys, and he was a selfish enough asshole to where he thought risking my mom's life so he could get the boy he wanted was a perfectly OK thing. The ends justify the means, right?
It goes without saying that music was what kept me sane through those years. While I certainly liked the grunge music that was popular in the '90s, my personal musical tastes were vastly different from the kids in my school. I loved rock and metal. One of my favorite bands was Queensrÿche, whom I had discovered just before I turned 12 years old. The years from 12 to 16 seem like an eternity to people that young, so in all that time I had not heard any new music from them or owned anything that had not already existed for years (with the exception of the “Real World” single, from The Last Action Hero soundtrack). This probably seemed very old hat to the kids in my school, considering that I was listening to a band that had not made any new music since we were all in junior high school (which, to teenagers, was a lifetime ago!), and probably gave them more reasons to pick on me. But I didn't care.
To me, they were the first band that felt like they were my own personal discovery. They were not a band I knew about from the music my parents listened to, nor were they one of the popular bands all the kids in school listened to. It was something that belonged just to me. Even though I had a friend in school who liked them too, I still felt like Queensrÿche was my special secret. Being that I was a kid that read a lot of books, had a vocabulary that far surpassed my grade level, and liked to write in my spare time; I felt their music was something I could relate to. It spoke of important issues and serious subjects, but never in a way that was beyond the grasp of the average listener. They wrote about things other than wanting to get laid or party every night; which at that point in my life, was most definitely something I could not relate to. Their music always felt like there was a whole world waiting, and they were inviting you to share it with them. An exciting world far beyond the borders of my broken home or my apathetic school. Their music took me far away from all of those things and reminded me that life wouldn't always be this way. Someday I would grow up and leave this place. Someday I could have the life I wanted.
But until then, I had to deal with my at-present situation. About a month or so into the New Year, my newest sibling was born, and he was the son my dad had always wanted and felt he deserved after getting 4 unwanted girls. Yet it wasn't without its share of difficulties: my mom nearly died, and my new baby brother was born prematurely with complications. Seeing as how I was born a preemie, my hardened heart began to soften towards my brother, even if I didn't show it right away. I was still angry at my parents for being so irresponsible as to bring another child into the world; especially now that it seemed he would struggle through life and would need extra care the way I did. Would they foist him on to my aunt and uncle when his needs became too much to handle, like it seemed they did to me?
I couldn't worry about it one way or the other, as I had to get back to my life at my aunt and uncle's house. I just had to hope that maybe this time, my parents could get their shit together and try harder for my brother's sake, and for the sake of my 3 sisters. I was only a couple years away from being an adult and out on my own. My siblings were still very young and needed my parents more than I did.
As spring of 1994 arrived and was well under way, I saw my brother a few times, whenever I could get enough time away to visit for a weekend. I was able to visit during spring break, which was the same week that Kurt Cobain died. Little did I know that death was about to hit much closer to home.
It was the last day of April, a Saturday. I chose not to visit my parents, but instead chose to go to the street fair with my aunt, who was constantly working and seldom had a day off, even on the weekends. It was a rare opportunity for us to spend time together doing something fun, and I could visit my parents anytime. I remember what a great day we had, and coming home to check the messages on our answering machine to see who called while we were away. We received several messages from various family members, urging my aunt to call immediately, but not saying why. As the tape reached the final message, one of my other aunts gave us the news that the other callers had been reluctant to leave on an answering machine: my brother had died earlier that morning. We would come to find out later that he had died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
I do not remember my initial reaction. I do not remember whether I screamed, cried, or stood silently in shock. All I could remember was wondering to myself: why? My brother was not yet 3 months old. How could he be dead? I knew that young people died just as much as older ones did, but it still made no sense to me. After everything my mom went through for my brother to be born, for all the years my father longed for a son, how could this have happened? I blamed myself, thinking that if I had not harbored so much anger towards them about having another baby, perhaps he wouldn't have died. Maybe I was being karmically punished for thinking such thoughts.
The days that followed were a nightmare. I went to my brother's wake, and the image of my mother sobbing as she clung to my brother's little white casket in refusal to let go...I knew that was an image that would haunt me for the rest of my life. I remember after that scene, I couldn't take it anymore. I fled to my aunt's car and stayed there, listening to my Queensrÿche tapes until it was time to leave. It was the only way I could cope. It was the only way I knew how to block out all the misery happening around me. I could turn the music up as loud as I wanted until I could no longer hear anyone crying, until I could not hear even my own dark thoughts, until I could not hear the silence from the absence of someone who should have been there. To this day, I do not recall seeing my father at my brother's wake, and we still had a funeral to get through.
I remember waking up on the day of my brother's funeral in early May, and asking the same questions in my mind over and over again. I somehow felt that this was a mistake. Why was he taken, and not me? He was the treasured son that had always been wanted. I was just a second-rate daughter, and a daughter born with disabilities, at that. I wasn't pretty or popular. I already had the stigma of being born a girl, and I had no redeeming qualities that made up for having been born a girl. If it had been me instead, my family could have carried on just fine. I didn't think they would suffer any loss if I was gone. I don't remember how it happened, but the next thing I knew I was sitting in the bathroom with a razor in my hand. I don't know what stopped me from going any further, but I didn't. Somehow I could not bring myself to do it. The pain I felt inside was still there, but there was something else there too, whether I recognized it or not: a will to live. In spite of everything, and even though I felt that life was about as shitty as it could get, I still wanted to live. Why, I didn't know. Maybe it was because I knew that as much as I wished it could be so, what I was thinking of doing would not bring my brother back. I could not trade his life for mine.
I ended up staying home that day and not going to the funeral. Going to the wake had been a traumatic enough experience, and no one begrudged me for choosing to remove myself from the situation. I wasn't the only one not in attendance. Neither was my father. Obviously, this was another harbinger of things to come.
In just a matter of weeks, my father moved out of the house and separated from my mom. By summertime he was already shacking up with another woman, leaving my mom to pick up the pieces. On the one hand, it was a separation that should have happened long ago because they made each other miserable, and it was probably all for the better that it finally happened. But it was the worst possible timing.
If I had been infuriated before by their collective irresponsibility, it was nothing compared to the seething rage I had towards my father. How dare he? I was not angry for his separating from my mom, because she deserved better. But how could he have the nerve to walk out on her and his family at our lowest point? For all the years she put up with his drinking, cheating, and verbal abuse, he was walking out on her? I guess he figured that she was of no use to him anymore; he wanted a son, now that son was dead, and my mom could not give him any more children, therefore what use could he possibly have for her now? All she gave him were a bunch of girls that he never wanted. I suppose as far as he was concerned, he had no use for any of us, so why stick around? Why stay with an old wife and her sub-par daughters, when he could find a new wife to give him all the sons he wanted? What a coward.
Far as I was concerned, I never wanted to see him again. He was dead to me. But this only built my wall higher, and made my trust issues far worse. I pushed away anyone who tried to be close to me. I sought further refuge in solitude, and the comfort of my books and music. I immersed myself in the world that Queensrÿche's music had opened up for me.
During the summer of '94, there was literally only one piece of good news: there would finally be a new Queensrÿche album. I would finally get to hear new music from them for the first time in my years as a fan. That doesn't seem like much in the grand scheme of things, but at that point it was like being thrown a life preserver as I drowned in sorrow.
One thing about living with my aunt and uncle was that they supported my love of music, even if they didn't understand it. When I became excited over the news over the Queensrÿche album-to-be, my aunt promised that no matter what, we would go to see them in concert when they came to town. It was the silver lining in my dark cloud of life. I had something to look forward to, however small it may have been. After the long months of sadness, I was relieved to know that I could still care about something, and that I could still smile.
The album was due a couple of weeks after my 16th birthday, and I still recall the excitement I felt when the local radio station played those 30-second snippets of the new music as a “teaser”. I recorded those sound clips and played them over and over! I remember staying right by the radio when the first single was played, a song called “I am I”. Personally, I loved the song and couldn't wait to hear more. I looked forward to the album's release date, October 18th, more than I did my own 16th birthday earlier that same month.
I will never forget that day. I remember my aunt writing me a note to excuse me from campus during the first break of the school day, so that my cousin could pick me up and drive me across the street to the mall so that I could be the first person in the store to buy the first copy. To this day I still think that is one of the coolest things anyone has done for me. I could have very easily gone to the mall after school to pick up my copy, or given my cousin the money to get it for me while I was at school; but my aunt knew how much this meant to me, and wanted me to have my copy as soon as the store opened, even if that meant leaving school grounds for a few minutes to get it. I asked my cousin to take my new CD home with him so I did not give in to temptation and try to listen to it at school (since portable musical devices were forbidden, and the last thing I wanted was to risk getting my new Queensrÿche album taken from me before I had the chance to hear it!). I was back on campus before the bell rang for class.
Later that night, I came home, went to my room, and listened to the new Queensrÿche album. I opened the CD booklet, which folded out into a sort of poster, with the lyrics printed on the back. I had read magazine interviews with the band, saying that this album had songs that were deeply personal to them and focused on darker lyrical content than its predecessor, Empire, which had been commercially successful with its radio-friendly material; love songs like “Jet City Woman”, songs of heartbreak like “Another Rainy Night (Without You)”, and beautiful ballads like the mega-hit “Silent Lucidity”. As I listened to the music and read the lyrics, it was plain to see that they did not build another Empire. This was something much different.
With each song, I found myself being able to find something in a lyric or verse that I could relate to or that had personal meaning to me, most of all the song “Bridge”, which was a song about a broken father-child relationship. I felt that song could have been written about me. It echoed everything I was going through in my life at that time. So did the song “Damaged”, which talked about getting down to the root of our childhood traumas that shape us into what we become as adults. “Disconnected” perfectly summed up my apathy towards the world around me; the utter disgust I felt towards my shallow teenage classmates who thought that things like getting a zit right before Friday night's big date or not getting on the cheerleading squad was the end of the fucking world; while my brother lay in a grave we could not afford to buy a tombstone for. But all of the songs connected to me on a personal level in some way; even the title track, which spoke of the sacrifices one makes for success. I felt that same alienation among my schoolmates, as I struggled through things they had not. “Someone Else?” was the first song that ever made me cry the first time I heard it. The more I listened to Promised Land, the more it seemed to speak directly to me and almost felt as if the band had taken a peek into my own life and written songs about it.
For the first time since all these things had happened, I did not feel alone, or that no one understood. This music was a clear indicator that there were other people who felt the same way as I did. More than that, they were people I respected and admired. They, too, had experienced hard times of their own, and had the courage to write about it. Sometimes, just knowing that there are other people in the world who have felt what you feel and have come through the tough times can make all the difference. They were not these untouchable superstars that somehow lived on a different plane than I did. They were real people with real problems just like me. Through their music, they were telling me it was OK to feel the things I did. It was OK to cry. It was OK to get angry. It was OK to feel pain. It was OK to finally grieve for my brother. There was no shame in any of those things, because we all feel that way sometimes.
Promised Land became the balm for my wounded spirit, and I would turn to it constantly for solace and comfort. It gave me something to lean on when things got rough. It was just the thing I needed in my life at that time; and I needed all the consolation I could find, because as it turned out, 1994 was not quite finished with me yet.
After my father left our family, it wasn't easy for my mom at first, but even she was doing better. She had met a nice man named Paul who treated her right and adored my sisters. I was skeptical at first, but after meeting him, I could see how easy it was to love Paul. He was a great guy, and my mom deserved to be happy. By Thanksgiving, they were making plans to be married once my parents' divorce was final. It seemed that I would no longer have to worry about my mom, or wonder if my sisters were being taken care of. She had someone in her life that wanted to care for her and my sisters too. Now that there was love and security in my mom's life, maybe she could begin to provide it for her kids as well. Perhaps now that she had someone in her life that encouraged her to be her best instead of living with someone that fed her addictive personality, she could break the cycle of substance abuse. At any rate, my mom seemed happy for the first time in a long while. I couldn't wait to call Paul my stepdad.
But as it had been all throughout 1994, once it seemed there would be some happiness in our lives, something came along to take that all away. In mid-December, there was an argument among some neighbors where my mom lived. Paul tried to break it up before it got violent, and as a result, he was stabbed and killed. It was a devastating loss to us all, especially my mom. How many tragic losses could one person take in such a short time? Even when the scum that killed Paul went to jail, it did nothing to ease our achng hearts. Understandably, my mom could not handle yet another senseless death; and after Paul died, she fell right back into her addictions, something she struggled with for many years afterward.
Through all of this, at some point during the long months since my father walked out, he finally tried to contact me, and I wanted no part of it. My cousin told me that I should at least tell him how I felt so I could get it off my chest. I didn't know what to say to him, so I did the only thing that felt right to me: I typed out the lyrics to “Bridge”, put them in an envelope, and left it there at my mom's house for him to see next time he came over to see my sisters. I would not waste money on a postage stamp, nor would I give him something so personal as my own words in my own handwriting. I apologize to Chris DeGarmo for copying down his words and putting them in this message, but considering the context in which I did it, maybe he would understand it and forgive me. I typed out those lyrics and it felt just as good as shouting them in my father's face. No longer would I feel shame in being a daughter. No longer would I apologize for something that wasn't my fault. No longer would he hurt me. “You never built it, Dad.” I was free.
I wish I could say that after 1994 ended, that my life got back on track and that it's all been uphill since then. But that's not real life. Hardships and sadness are a part of life; it's how you get through them that makes or breaks you. It's always good to have some weapons by your side as you face down the demons in your life, and everyone wields a different weapon. Writing is my weapon, but music is and will always be my shield. It shelters me when I need refuge. It keeps me safe when the pen is not mighty enough a sword. It offers me protection when I am outnumbered by all of life's burdens.
This album is my proof of the healing quality of music and how a song or an album can reach those corners of your soul so as to put you in touch with those feelings you try to deny or bottle up because it's easier than facing them. An album like this is a good example of what music fans mean when they say that music is better therapy than going to a shrink. Personally, I think that Promised Land did more for my healing process than talking to somebody ever would have done; I was so guarded and unwilling to be open with anyone at that time, because in my experience at that point, trust resulted in getting hurt or being betrayed. Music was a place where I could work through these issues without fear of criticism or judgment. The album's very theme encouraged this idea: “Promised Land isn't a place, it's a state of mind.” In other words, I knew I had to create my own happiness. I couldn't sit around waiting for someone to rescue me or to give me the answers. I had to take charge of my own destiny.
I had the chance to meet the band in 1997 and while I would have loved to tell them what this album meant to me and thank them personally for giving me an anchor during those turbulent times, I couldn't find the words. Even now, I would find it difficult to say this to any of them in person. This album means as much to me now as it did then, and I still find myself listening to it when I feel down or need a good cry. So while Empire was the album that sparked my love for Queensrÿche, Promised Land is my heart and would forever cement my loyalty to the band's music, even when they went down a musical path that I could no longer follow.
Many fans gave this album grief when it first came out; feeling disappointed in waiting 4 years after Empire and getting something that, to them, was not the sound or musical direction they'd been hoping for. For some, the introspective lyrical content was too intense to handle, even for a band like Queensrÿche, who have always been known for diving in deep waters.
However, it seems that over the years, Promised Land has gotten its rightful recognition and appreciation by the band's fanbase these days; heralding it as their “last best album” from the DeGarmo years. Maybe it's because these fans are 20 years older and wiser, and can better understand the themes addressed on this album. Or maybe the years have matured us all, and people who didn't care for Promised Land back in 1994 now have the ability to go back and appreciate what this album was trying to accomplish instead of complaining that it was not a sonic duplicate of earlier albums. Perhaps in other respects, it's because the band has accumulated newer, younger fans over the years who do not have a set idea of what their sound should be, or are not personally biased towards certain albums or certain points in the band's musical evolution.
Whatever the cause for this, it's nice to see that Promised Land is finally getting the love it has always deserved; while it's better late than never, for me it is nothing more than everyone finally recognizing what I have always known. This is not to sound boastful or to sound like a music snob; it was because of the things I experienced in my life that enabled me to identify with this album right away, and I can't expect everyone to have the same connection. Some people may never understand it, and that's OK too. That's what's great about music; there is something for everyone, and no two people ever listen to the same song in quite the same way. But for me, I will always have a special love and appreciation for Promised Land, the album that saved my life.