I never got to experience joy as a kid. The carefree days of childhood escaped me, though most people back then never would have guessed. I had two parents who provided for me and my siblings, our close-knit extended family welcomed me into their ethnic traditions, and the homes along our country road provided a slew of playmates. There appeared to be nothing that would have kept me from joy. But something always did.
After I realized I was gay, at ten years old, the exhilarating high of happiness was always just out of reach. When I learned what gay meant from a schoolmate’s wisecrack, I knew for certain that’s what I was and it didn’t take me long to figure out that being who I was wasn’t going to be much fun. No one in my 1960s conservative hometown identified as gay, so not only did I begin to think of myself as different, but also alone. Things weren’t much better beyond my town’s borders: every TV show, book and song on the radio informed me it was all about boy meets girl. In an attempt to fit in, I hid my gayness, and life became like living with a slightly elevated temperature: I could function, but I never felt great.
I didn’t realize what a childhood without joy meant until many years later, after finally breaking through the chains of my denial. As happens so often in my life, it was a song—“Good Morning Starshine”—that helped me reclaim my lost joy. In case you aren’t familiar with the song or haven’t heard it for a while, take a listen: “Good Morning Starshine”
“Good Morning Starshine” got me reflecting on my joyless youth when I was driving one day a few years ago, my car radio tuned to an oldies station. The deejay mentioned that “Starshine” was a major hit from 1969. I thought back to my 14-year-old life, my truth deeply hidden, while the world, with its escalating Vietnam war, Woodstock mania and race riots, seemed out of control. To forget about the inner and outer chaos I’d listen to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 radio show. Casey always had interesting details about the hits, and I remember him explaining that this version of “Good Morning Starshine” was by a singer named Oliver. He’d adapted the song from the Broadway musical Hair, a groundbreaking play drawing huge crowds due to its actors performing in the nude. I liked “Starshine” enough, though back then I wouldn’t have been able to figure out why. Only after hearing it decades later, riding in my car, did I understand why this golden oldie sounded so invigorating.
“Starshine” starts out like any easy-listening pop song from the 1960s: light percussion marking the beat, guitar strumming dreamy chords. Then the song takes an unexpected turn. As if from a distant planet, starting quietly and then building in intensity, Oliver’s voice swoops in with one long la-a-a-a-a-a-a. After a breath, he lets loose with another 14 seconds: la-da-da-da-da-da-da-da.... Take another listen to the song’s first half-minute: Intro to “Good Morning Starshine”
When Oliver finally gets to the lyrics, we’re treated to a song that’s fitting for a musical about peace and free love. But, riding in the car that day, it wasn’t the words to “Starshine” that surprised me so. It was Oliver’s voice. He sounded like joy.
As I listened to “Starshine,” quivering in unexpected elation, I had to remind myself I was driving on a busy highway. My brain was working overtime to process it all: Why had I never heard the song’s joy—why had I never felt it—before? Safely arriving home, I logged onto YouTube, typed in “Good Morning Starshine” and kept replaying the beginning, filling myself with Oliver’s joyful intro, making up for lost time.
YouTube also had the Broadway cast of Hair’s version of the song, so I clicked on it, hoping to get another jolt of joy. Instead, I was shocked by how pale their version sounded, which skipped Oliver’s exciting intro altogether. Who was this Oliver guy, anyway, and how did he decide to interpret “Starshine” the way he did? A Google search provided details. Oliver’s singing career barely lasted a year. After “Starshine” became a top five smash, his second song, “Jean,” released the same year, also hit big. But after those two songs, Oliver never cracked the Top 40 again. Discouraged with the music business, he switched careers and began managing a pharmaceutical firm. It’s hard to imagine him breaking out in some ecstatic la-las doing that kind of work. Never returning to his career in song, he died at age 54.
The spontaneous joy that Oliver brought to his music may have been short-lived, but what an enduring gift he gave me. Today, whenever I’m caught up in joy—yes, that feeling often comes my way these days—Oliver’s voice appears. Sometimes all it takes is a walk on an early morning, breathing in the promise of a new day, and I hear his intro to “Good Morning Starshine.” I always sing along, because when you’re filled with joy, it feels so good to share it with the world.
Is there a song in your life that feels like joy to you? What song do you automatically sing when happiness over flows?