Islands in the Stream
Excerpt from I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton
BY LYNN MELNICK
The first night I was in rehab, in 1988, at fourteen, I had to stay in the detox room. It was basically a hospital room, with a hospital bed, and all those tubes and wires and machine hookups. It was made for patients with such serious dependencies that they’d suffer medical risks like fever or vomiting or even seizures when detoxing. I was not that—most of the other kids on my floor weren’t that—but I do recall the room being used for a girl named Jennifer, who was a PCP addict and who detoxed pretty hard for a while. “Why don’t you wash your hair,” the nurse said to me that first night, not meanly, nor gently. Her neutrality made me realize I was, in fact, alone. I’d never gone to camp; I’d never stayed away from home without my family longer than a night at a friend’s every now and then. It felt scary and weird and, though I was locked in, freeing.
The few weeks prior to arriving had been my worst. I wasn’t sleeping, I was very much trying not to be sober, and things like teeth brushing and showering were not something for which I could muster the energy. I kept my energy for hiding things, like the clothes I’d change into at the bus stop, the money from the rabbi stashed in my old coin purse, my very broken heart. But I was mostly kind and polite, if moody like every teenager, coming home and hiding in my room after school. I still sat with my family for Friday night Shabbat services; I was fairly obedient. My parents knew something was wrong—they had, after all, already seen me expelled from school for alcohol use on campus—but they couldn’t have known how wrong. I took the generations-
long impulse to walk stoically through pain very much as a mantra. More than not wanting to get into trouble, I didn’t want to trouble anyone with the fact of my self. I wouldn’t realize until decades later that this is a classic trauma response.
The mellow, buoyant sounds of “Islands in the Stream,” overheard earlier at check-in, were still in my head as I stepped under hot water that first night in rehab. I’d been putting my hair up for months while never brushing it and it took a very long time to untangle. I had to rip the knots out, the sound was a crunching. I have a lot of hair. I have big Jewish hair. Humming Dolly and Kenny Rogers because I hardly knew the words, I scrubbed my body in the shower, my skin feeling tingly, pink. I felt excited for the possibility of life. This was my detox. When my hair dried, a thick mane of brown waves, it was majestic.
“Islands in the Stream” was written by the Bee Gees— Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb—originally for Marvin Gaye or Diana Ross (reports conflict) but ultimately winding up with Kenny Rogers, who’d just come off of his first pop crossover hit, “Lady.” In the studio with the Gibbs, Rogers almost decided to scrap the song; he’d sung it for four days and it wasn’t working. “I finally said, ‘Barry, I don’t even like this song anymore,’” Rogers recalled to People in 2017, “and he said, ‘You know what we need? We need Dolly Parton.’” Some kind of serendipity was happening that day because Dolly— coming off her own pop crossover hit, “9 to 5”—happened to be in the same studio. “She came marching into the room,” Rogers said, “and once she came in and started singing the song was never the same. It took on a personality of its own.”
The above story seems to change with each telling, but the gist is the same: Dolly rescued the recording. The song takes its title from the posthumously published Ernest Hemingway novel about fishing, and drinking, and sons. I remember staring at the spine of that book on my father’s bookshelf; he’s long been a fan of the whole Hemingway thing, that very midcentury, white masculinity. The New York Review of Books was less favorable in a review from October 1970. “There is the reducing of life to the sensation and the sensational,” wrote Christopher Ricks. “And there is the problem of how much in the end someone can know about men who know so little about women. It was a disaster for Hemingway that he had no daughters; it might have been a disaster for them if he had.”
A woman and a daughter myself, Hemingway was always pretty lost on me, but I did find this particular title to be a catchy one. The similarities between the song and the book end there though. The book is an “elaborate refusal to say what is wrong,” Ricks wrote; the song is a laid-back, wide-eyed look at love going right, at the first flush of love and that moment where it starts to slide into comfortable, yet still exciting, reliability. This isn’t a crush or a summer fling; this is the start of an enduring romance.
The two had met and sung together before, but the song was for sure the start of the enduring friendship between Dolly and Kenny Rogers. “Islands in the Stream” first appeared on the Rogers album Eyes That See in the Dark and then on about a gazillion of each of their many Greatest Hits releases. They’d go on to have one more huge hit together, 1985’s “Real Love,” from Dolly’s album of the same title, as well as to record the terribly touching “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” from Rogers’s 2013 album of the same name and Dolly’s 2014 Blue Smoke. In a 1985 clip of Rogers at the Portland Rose Garden (now called the Moda Center), Dolly joins him onstage for his hit “We’ve Got Tonight” (originally sung with Sheena Easton), and the moment Rogers hears Dolly’s voice—“Deep in my heart . . . ,” she sings as she enters and then walks through the arena, surrounded by bodyguards, her voice strong and unwavering, finally climbing onto the stage joyously—he drops his mic a bit and closes his eyes.
I’ve watched this moment dozens of times. It’s at 1:03 in the YouTube video. Rogers is overwhelmed with love, in part for his friend but also in the way we’re all overwhelmed when we hear Dolly’s voice rise from the void: clear, reassuring, a signal of the beauty and goodness in the world. It’s how I felt when I first heard her in the waiting room at rehab all those years ago. Dolly as clarion, as rainbow, as beacon. Throughout most of the recording of “Islands in the Stream,” the two sing some of the verses and all of the chorus together, but when Dolly takes the lead in a later verse, firmly stating that without love, little matters, she brings her deep feeling; she does that thing where her voice wavers, to show emotion, but stays completely in control so the encounter as a listener isn’t marred in worry, just filled with shared experience.
Rogers’s voice is kind of straightforward. Affably gruff. “That’s what magic is supposed to be,” Rogers says of Dolly’s work on the song. “I sang the first verse in the studio,” recalls Rogers in a 2013 special on the Great American Country channel, “and I’m singing along and doing my thing, and all of a sudden here comes Dolly marching into this song.” Dolly giggles demurely, but she knows. She also knows exactly what they are together. “This is a sound,” she says, of the way their voices blend, but also the way they blend in general. Watching them together is a pleasure, the affection between them a delight. Dolly is comfortable in a way we rarely get to see, her words less measured. By the end of the interview she’s leaning forward, her legs not only uncrossed but parted—unladylike, as my maternal grandmother would have said. Then she lets out a true guffaw. It’s startling to see beneath the veneer of Dolly, even briefly.
“Islands in the Stream” is a groovy song, kinda hot for Lite FM but definitely a Lite FM staple. The keyboard does a lot of not-sucky work here, despite the early-’80s-ness of it all. The horn break two-thirds through is a kick, but never such a kick that we lose the mellow spell of it. Musicologist Jocelyn Neal wrote that the song “perfectly encapsulates countrypolitan as a musical style in the early 1980s, speaking to how disco, country, and pop were merging, with the song becoming popular in the easy-listening category too.” Like Dolly, the song is all things to all people. Even her singing, Neal notes, uses the 1980s pop and rock style of switching from a big belty moment to a demure, breathy moment.
Released in August of 1983, it’s a summertime groove, and that year I’m sure it was everywhere. By the end of 1983 it had gone platinum, and it was later nominated for a Grammy and for Country Music Association awards. It kicked Bonnie Tyler’s classic of histrionic brilliance, “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” out of the number one spot on the pop charts and went on to top several US charts and a handful of charts around the world. It was a capital-H Hit. Recorded in Los Angeles, it feels like it was recorded in Los Angeles. Dolly traveled just southeast from her apartment on Larrabee (near the famed Whisky a Go Go, and later the Viper Room) to Kenny Rogers’s own studio, Lion Share, which is probably most famous as the location where “We Are the World” would be recorded a couple of years later.
I was nine years old when “Islands in the Stream” was recorded, within walking distance of my family’s apartment. If I heard it before the night of rehab check-in, I don’t remember. By 1988, I knew Larrabee best for being near where a van drove us most nights from rehab on Pico to an AA meeting on Sunset Boulevard. I loved those meetings and I was scared of those meetings. I loved getting out of the hospital, into the “real world.” We traveled with the adults from rehab, who were usually on a different floor. I became friendly with a man named Stanley who was a decades-long smack addict. He seemed old but he was probably in his mid-forties, as I am now. He had long hair and wore loose-fitting Hawaiian shirts. He’d lost his family, his job (he’d been a sound engineer on movies), and his home. He was on his third or fourth “last ditch effort,” he would say. He had great stories peppered with celebrities, as if that’s all it took to validate failure.
The AA meetings were intense because the adults had lost a lot more than we kids had. It was like staring into the future. The other teens would get so impatient and squirmy, but I always felt I had to be respectful, like how I’d always felt in shul with my family. My brother, Cliff, would squirm and get reprimanded but I would sit still and zone out. At fourteen, I was a wreck, had already been kicked out of ninth grade twice, but it wasn’t rebellion that I felt; I still went to shul with my family many Saturdays, swallowing the prayer rhythms that would later reform inside my poems, watching the slow body signals between elderly couples in nearby pews, listening to the prattle of the rabbi’s sermon. I still felt those people, and the people at the AA meetings, had something to teach me.
The adults in rehab all had great stories of the before times, the times when they could get high up and down Sunset in the late ’60s, the ’70s, even through the early ’80s, and it was fun, they said, and trippy, and sometimes you felt like shit but everyone did and you’d just get up the next day and make music, or build a building, or whatever you did and feel that Southern California sun going through your skin. I get it. It’s a kind of aliveness I’ve never felt anywhere else. Those rays wash out consequences. It’s like you can’t see the gum stains and pools of spit anywhere on the sidewalk. There’s a term for it: air light, “light scattered or diffused in the air by dust, haze, etc., especially as it limits the visibility of distant, dark objects by causing them to blend with the background sky.”
Even still, the glossy Hollywood of the early ’80s had, by 1988, let in those dark objects and given way to a seriously spent and rundown Hollywood. Grit was glamorized. Hair-metal guys abounded at the AA meetings, guys from bands like L.A. Guns or Poison, or guys who just styled themselves after hair-metal musicians. They seemed very old and sophisticated, but they were in their early twenties and shockingly misogynistic, though I didn’t realize what that was at the time. Poison’s song “I Want Action”—which peaked on the charts at number fifty in July of 1987—is straight up about rape. If he can’t have her, Bret Michaels sings in his wan but kicky way, “I’ll take her and make her.”
I messaged my friend Jess recently: “A lot of adults would be there, musicians, and I always felt like this tiny nerd person, just a total shit show, and all the older people at these meetings seemed so fully formed and together.” I was certainly not one of those teens whom the rockers would call “jailbait” because they looked over eighteen. I looked eleven, but with big boobs, and was an otherwise small, dorky mess, with tape keeping my pink plastic eyeglasses together. Jess wrote back, “My first instinct is that your view of self was way screwed.” And then she added, “I’m not sure that your fucked-up perspective was you, but rather, how much credit you tossed to everyone else.” I think I still assume everyone else has it much more together and might be much more important.
One night, when I needed to go to the bathroom in the basement of the church on Sunset, where the Glen Recovery Center van would drive many evenings, Stanley offered to go with me. He could see the younger men leering at me— although I didn’t know why they would be, given the older, sexier, more interesting women in the room—and I took Stanley up on the company because I was nervous about even finding where the bathroom was and I had to pee from all the free coffee with too many creamers I’d drunk from little Styrofoam cups. The building was so mazelike, and everywhere in the basement were discarded pews, and also there was a statue of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers but also of bachelors. Stanley was leaning against the wall between the ladies’ room and men’s room when I came out of the former. He pulled me to him. “I’m so lonely,” he said. I didn’t know what to say. I knew about loneliness, but not the particular loneliness of a washed-up, middle-aged, white man with long, thinning hair. I wasn’t compassionless, just confused. For a girl who’d already experienced things many adults never will, I was kind of innocent.
Stanley, easily over six feet, with wide shoulders and huge hands, pulled me, fully grown at just over five feet one, into a stall in the men’s room. I didn’t understand about rape culture—although the normalization of sexual violence, harassment, coercion, and misconduct were the drugs we were all on—or toxic masculinity or the toxic celebrity culture of Los Angeles, where worth was measured in proximity to celebrity or else the curves of your body, but I did know what it meant when a grown man pulls you away from the group. You pleasure him. So I did, and was paid with Stanley crying to me about his lost family and me feeling so grown-up and helpful, telling him this time he would get better, this time it would stick. He ran his fingers through all my newly spectacular hair.
We rejoined the meeting as it was ending. All the cookies were gone but a lanky young man with a leather jacket and a scarf tied across his forehead let me smoke a few of his cigarettes. I’d only started smoking in rehab. The counselors freely handed out cigarettes, which seems absurd to me as I type this, the parent of a fourteen-year-old. Still, when I think of Sunset Boulevard, I think of those cigarettes studding the steps of that church near the Strip, of all the butts lighting up the night like string lights at the end of the world.
Hollywood’s grit of the late ’80s would turn back around, if not strictly to glamour, as in its heyday, to some kind of prepackaged notion of fun and entertainment and glamour. I moved to New York City in the summer of 1994 just as it was being ruined, many New Yorkers would say, by that very turn back around from grit. Times Square got rid of overt sex workers and porn theaters, Bryant Park was swept for drug dealers and on its way to being a hipster lunchtime haven, with a carousel and free ping-pong. I grew up visiting the New York City of the ’80s and I was thrilled to finally get there, so in 1994 I didn’t care what was going on in Midtown and I’m pretty unsure that grit is great; I’ve met grit. Up in my apartment on 112th Street, I felt like I was finally home. My grandparents were out in Queens but I had no friends in the city, so my first week there, with no work yet and no school, I rode the subway each day to a different part of town, watched a movie in air-conditioning, and felt such a thrill with all of it. I had packed so quickly in California that I had very little with me. I bought a small radio with a cassette tape player at a Love’s drugstore on Broadway and at a Duane Reade I found a bunch of cassettes in a bin, including a collection of Dolly’s hits, which I wore out, like the several I’d had before.
That fall, to some people’s surprise (including my own), I started graduate school at Columbia University. I had “Islands in the Stream” in my head constantly, up through to my first-ever snowfall, the day before Thanksgiving. I was walking down my block, wondering at the grandeur of real weather, really hitting Dolly’s part hard—“No more will you cry!”— thinking I was singing quietly on a street emptied by damp chill, when a man walked by and said, “You really sound like her!”
Excerpted from I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton by Lynn Melnick, © 2022, published with permission from the University of Texas Press