Judith Owen, the Welsh singer-songwriter, actress and wife of comic actor Harry Shearer, was waiting for me inside the Paramount Hotel on a recent dreary Saturday afternoon.
She was on her second coffee and I was running late. My bad!
Had I been meeting, say, Natalie Merchant, I would have been there five minutes early, but I hadn’t seen Ms. Owen perform yet; I didn’t know how talented and funny she was.
I’d met her twice before. The first time was by chance outside Barneys back in 1993. I was with a female mentor, she was with Mr. Shearer, and the four of us were staring at Mr. Shearer’s installation of TV sets showing footage of presidential candidates getting pampered before going on the air. Bob Kerrey looked like an alien while practicing his smile. (I played charades with Mr. Kerrey in 1996. During one of his turns, he pretended to be a Nazi and someone yelled “Pat Buchanan!”—correct.)
I recognized Mr. Shearer, chatted him up. Perhaps I was intruding (he was then in the process of courting Ms. Owen), or maybe it was clear I hadn’t fully grasped what he’d created in that window. Don’t blame him. Guy was in the pilot episode of Leave it to Beaver, wrote for Laverne and Shirley, played Derek Smalls in This Is Spinal Tap and co-wrote it, has been in a slew of those Christopher Guest spoof movies, was on Saturday Night Live, voice work on The Simpsons from the very beginning, and I was a 25-year-old intern. Ms. Owen, looking wan and hippie-chick-ish, didn’t say a word.
Then this September I was reintroduced to Ms. Owen at a gallery in Chelsea that was exhibiting footage of politicians from Mr. Shearer’s collection. Ms. Owen—his wife of 15 years now—was chatty and supremely confident as she told an amusing story about how a famous actor became a sex addict. Blue eyes but not the kind that make you dizzy. I mentioned that we’d met in ’93 and Ms. Owen said she remembered me.
I believed her.
She brought me over to her husband, who said he’s been on the lookout for footage of Sarah Palin. “It’s very simple,” he said. “I would like to get footage of her reading to see whether she moves her lips.” He added that he recently made a video in which his wife impersonates Ms. Palin, singing a song called “Bridge to Nowhere.”
Oddly, I was hoping Ms. Owen could cheer me up. My September had really sucked. Before I left the gallery, she smacked me hard on the cheek and we made plans to meet.
I was late to the Paramount, but Ms. Owen didn’t seem to mind. As soon as I turned on the tape recorder, she was off and running. Within two minutes, she was talking about her struggle with mental illness and how, when Judith was 15, her mother took her own life.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, while thinking, Uh-oh. Can I get a coffee first?
“When I met Harry I was probably at my lowest ebb in my entire life,” Ms. Owen said. “I’d just done a week at Ronnie Scott’s, great jazz club in London, BBC were all over me, managers trying to get to me, people getting all excited. I could not speak to one person because I was all front and there was nothing inside except utter fear.”
While she said this I was thinking: I’m broke and haven’t gotten laid in a week.
Next Ms. Owen brought up her “very frightening and dark” childhood. Her father was an opera singer, her mother beautiful but fragile. Ms. Owen, who shares such tales of woe during her jazzy-folkie act, segued into her musical upbringing.
“At the time I knew that music was everything,” she told me. “I couldn’t read a note of music! Ha-ha-ha! It turned out that I have perfect pitch, and a great ear, and I copied my sister playing Debussy when I was 4 or 5 and my parents were like, ‘Oh my God, she’s going to be a concert pianist.’ Cut to ‘this child is incapable of reading a note’ because I can’t take in certain things. I read an article by Dick Cavett, the comedian and he explained that people with depression can’t read things well. And they can’t take in music and can’t take in information. Because they have to keep going over it and over it and over it to take it in and because you can’t absorb. Because your brain is so full of crap going on all the time and voices and it just—you’re constantly worrying and obsessing and obsessing and obsessing, there’s no room”—
I mentioned how I’d been thinking about the suicide of David Foster Wallace and—
“Ah! See, broke my heart,” she said. “You can imagine my reaction to that. I mean, it was like when the monologuist that jumped off the back”—
“So when Spalding Day. Guh. Spalding. Gray. Died. I’m only on my second coffee, I just can’t form words. I had the exact same feeling, which was, I’ve been down this road, I know exactly what happened. As in, I know.”
Had she ever been on antidepressants?