Azure Miles Records ~ the Music of Michael Robinson

Writings about Music by Michael Robinson

Batiked by an Apsara: Catharine Buchanan

After college, the same year I moved into Manhattan, my girlfriend introduced me to a close friend of hers from high school in Georgetown: Catharine Buchanan, who she knew as “Amy” before she changed her name to “Catharine” after high school. By any name, Buchanan was startling beautiful, sensitive, and friendly.

The previous year, pianist Don Shirley had commented to me that people who were uncommonly attractive in a physical sense frequently faced a daedalean quandary because an unintentional and unconscious sexual allure and/or ocular intimidation often overshadowed that person’s inner self and merit. To my bewilderment, Shirley then included myself in this category. Concurrently, while working together at the Patelson Music House, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Vlahos (now a stage director), also startled me by enthusing that I was substantially more handsome than most classical musicians. Like many of us entering middle age, I suppose, I used to be better looking than now.

Back to the introduction: After dinner and drinks, including Catharine ordering champagne that I really couldn’t afford, we went back to Buchanan’s Lower East Side apartment because she was excited about showing her music studio to a composer.

To this day, when I remove the Indonesian batiked sarongs covering the equipment in my studio, the memory of Catharine explaining how she used the richly hued and patterned cloths to protect against dust washes over me unpredictably. Using the sarongs is an aesthetically pleasing and practically useful custom I learned from Buchanan that evening in New York City.

You see, together with reading about travails musicians face in Culture Counter Culture, horrific traumas from Madonna Ciccone’s past were in the news today, and the combination conjured the memory of Catharine. At the time we met, she had recorded an intricately riveting song composed by Ciccone, and produced by Jellybean Benitez: Sidewalk Talk. Catharine is the lead vocalist, and Madonna sings important accompanying vocals, together with some of the lead. The song reached number one on the dance charts in 1984, and number eighteen on the pop charts in 1985. Listening to her rhythmically charged, natural sounding singing on the song, it is evident that Buchanan was on the threshold of a promising career. (Several YouTube entries for Sidewalk Talk fail to mention Catharine Buchanan, whose first name is frequently misspelled elsewhere.)

Some time after meeting her, Catharine moved to London, and we fell out of touch. When the news filtered in that Buchanan had perished following an operation in 2001, it was incomprehensibly tragic. Today, I learned online that Catharine had become a florist at Claridge's, and I wonder what events led to her apparently leaving music because the only other recording that seems to exist is Love Is, a song she composed and recorded in 1988, released in Europe on Arista. Perhaps there are more recordings somewhere, together with other songs she composed. (After originally writing this, I found Love To Choose and Sharp Angel online, both composed and sung by Catharine, who also plays keyboards. The songs were recorded in 1990, with producer Steven Sevenin, who also plays bass and keyboards. It sounds like both songs had not yet reached their final realizations, which is unfortunate because Catharine's songs and singing possess a unique and captivating beauty. Sharp Angel, quite unlike any song I've ever heard, includes string arrangements by Martin McCarrick.)

I never did have a chance to thank Catharine for the elegantly soothing and preservative decorative element that enhances my studio, and I wonder how she navigated the challenging circumstances described by Don Shirley in her brief life.  That night in New York City, Catharine was an inspired and ambitious artist in her twenties swimming upstream against a world that tended not to take her seriously because she was not only too physically attractive in general, but also because she was an extremely attractive woman, where the discrimination Shirley believed in is much stronger than that for men. I wish she was still here making music, afterwards draping a varicolored batiked sarong over the new keyboard she once excitedly showed me.

- Michael Robinson, October 2013, Los Angeles

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