The way you make me feel

Sylvester: Mighty RealAS I’M FOND OF pointing out, popular music pushes some crazy ideas into the minds of impressionable adolescents (and all the rest of us). The other day I was talking about how other people can’t make us feel bad or sad or guilty or mad…or glad, for that matter.

This is kind of basic, yet we forget: all of our feelings are self-generated. The good ones are. So are the bad ones. It’s no wonder we think otherwise, though. How many hit songs contain the words “you make me feel” in the title? I came up with these off the top of my head:

I’m sure there are others. I’m happy to see that these are all about being made to feel something positive, but it doesn’t change my point. Nobody can make you feel anything. They might be a catalyst, and we end up feeling something as a result of their actions, but that all happens in our own mind. We get to choose how we feel. Always.

Aretha Franklin: Natural WomanI like the expression “push my buttons,” as in, “That annoying co-worker really pushes my buttons,” because that kind of describes how it works: they initiate a chain of events that results in one’s reacting a certain way; but to say that person made you feel a certain way is like saying they made music come out of a radio speaker by switching it on. They didn’t do it. The radio did.

So, it would probably have been more accurate for Sylvester to have sung in his soaring falsetto, “You did something that caused me to generate a mighty real feeling.” But you can’t really dance to that, can you? This is a dilemma.


That was gay?

IT’S KIND OF FUN to look back at songs I knew growing up and to find the hidden gay subtext. Oh sure, one can argue that the songs aren’t really gay — and, believe me, there are a lot of people on the Internet investing a whole lot of energy in the argument: Oh, those horrible, pathetic gays think everything’s gay! — but the point is not the songwriter’s intention so much as that some of these hits can be interpreted as gay without any stretch of the imagination…at least no stretch of a creative, gay imagination.

To me, the more interesting examples of this aren’t the obvious ones, but those that flew under the gaydar, as it were. The Holland-Dozier-Holland classic “Band of Gold” (1970) by Freda Payne is a perfect example. Give it a listen and tell me it doesn’t sound like it’s just dawning on Freda that she accidentally married a gay man.

We kissed after taking vows
But that night on our honeymoon
We stayed in separate rooms

I wait in the darkness of my lonely room
Filled with sadness, filled with gloom
Hoping soon
That you’ll walk back through that door
And love me like you tried before

LiberaceRight? “Band of Gold” came out when I was 10, so I not only missed the gay subtext; I didn’t know what that meant, or that there even was such a thing. Gay? What’s that? Seriously. I had no idea. (Still not convinced? Sylvester covered the song in 1983, oh-kayyy?)

A few years later, I had lived through some David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, and Lou Reed, and so I was at least familiar with the concept when Steely Dan came out with “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” (1974). Was I aware of the gay storyline? I honestly can’t remember, but I do remember liking the song a lot, listening to it over and over, and wondering about what it meant.

We hear you’re leaving, that’s okay
I thought our little wild time had just begun
I guess you kind of scared yourself, you turned and run
But if you have a change of heart

You tell yourself you’re not my kind
But you don’t even know your mind
And you could have a change of heart

Steely Dan: Pretzel LogicThe rumor is that the song is about a woman named Rikki that Donald Fagen went to college with, but really, I don’t care. I think the Steely Dan boys deliberately chose a gender-ambiguous name so that the song could be read either way. It certainly works as the story of a gay (or closeted or straight) guy scared off by the singer’s advances. Big time. (Check out all the crazy theories about this song here.)

In researching this blog post, it came to my attention that “The Way of Love” (1972) by Cher is a totally gay song. I know, I didn’t get it for the first 41 years either, but check out the evidence. She’s addressing her song to someone, giving advice:

When you meet a boy | that you like a lot
And you fall in love
| but he loves you not

…and so on. At the end of the song, she reveals she’s singing to a lover who’s left her — just the way that you | said goodbye to me — so, wait a minute, that can only mean one thing: Cher’s lover left her for another man. The lover could have been a man or could have been a lesbian who went back to men. Either way: gay!

Elton John famously danced around the issue for a couple of years before busting out of the closet. His early repertoire is filled with love songs between himself and songwriter Bernie Taupin, but it wasn’t until the release of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy in 1975 that I finally put it all together. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” indeed.

Elton John: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt CowboyIt’s one of those cases where, looking back, you don’t know how you missed it — damn if he doesn’t look like Liberace on the cover of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road…but then, a lot of people in my parents’ generation were oblivious to Mr. Showmanship’s sexuality (and pretty much everyone else’s, too, come to think of it).

By the time the Village People came on the scene with their thinly veiled (and that’s being generous to those who didn’t get it) gay anthems — “Macho Man,” “In the Navy,” and “YMCA” among them — the jig was pretty much up. Gay was in.

In the 1980s, we started getting gay music by gay artists who were out about it: The Smiths and Bronski Beat made Boy George look kind of closety for a little while there. I’ll write a post about ’80s gay music another time. The 1970s’ gay music was kind of fun because it was hidden — it could be fun to crack the code. But am I glad we’ve moved beyond all that? Hell, yeah.

I heard the news today, oh boy

Prince: Purple RainTHIS IS A POST about those songs that use phrases you almost always associate with a different song. Like that purple rain song. Oh, you mean there’s another one? America famously sang about purple rain in “Ventura Highway” (1972) more than a decade before Prince even more famously capitalized on the phrase and all things purple with the song (covered by Tom Jones and David Gilmour below), album, and movie of the same name in 1984. (And Janet Jackson went on to sample the America song’s opening guitar riff for her groovy 2001 hit “Someone to Call My Lover,” but we’ll talk about sampling another day.)

Sometimes a phrase gets reused in a way that feels like homage — it’s a conscious reusing of someone else’s phrase, maybe altered slightly, as in the Beatles’ I read the news today, oh boy from “A Day in the Life,” which was recycled by David Bowie as I heard the news today, oh boy in 1975’s “Young Americans.”

There were a few of these instances of songs sharing unusual phrases in 1975 (the year being about more than just fandangos, apparently). ABBA recorded “Mamma Mia” that year only to compete with Queen’s famous mama mias in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (As luck would have it, the two songs were consecutive #1 hits on the British charts, according to our friends at Wikipedia.)

That one feels like a coincidence, as does Freddy Fender’s crooning We may never pass this way again in “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” (also 1975, the only year Freddy Fender was popular); that line was, of course, sung repeatedly by Seals and Crofts in their 1973 hit of the same name. “We May Never Pass This Way (Again)” always struck me as a very strange use of parenthesis in a song title.

Seals and Crofts: Diamond GirlThat was also the theme song to my junior prom. I never connected the two things until just now, but I went to my first real concert — seeing Peter, Paul & Mary as a child with with my dad doesn’t count — that same year: Seals and Crofts at the Providence Civic Center. It was 1976, and I went with with my prom date. I don’t think either of us was particularly obsessed with Seals and Crofts (really, was anyone?), and I don’t think I’d blame them for the relationship’s failure. There were plenty of other good reasons for that. No, it was just another of those crazy mid-1970s coincidences.

(As a side note, when I did a multiple-choice trivia contest about myself a few years back on Facebook, the question, What was my first concert?, was the only one not a single person got right.)

Where was I? Oh yes, those phrases you associate with one song but they show up in another. One is a lonely number in the Grass Roots’ “Two Divided by Love” (1971) was clearly inspired by Three Dog Night’s One is the loneliest number (1969). The two groups shared a record label and were a lot alike, so maybe they had worked out a deal.

“Da Doo Ron Ron” hit #1 in 2 different decades by 2 different artists, the Crystals (1963) and Shaun Cassidy (1977) — nothing so strange about that, since everyone was reviving something in those days. But, to get back to the theme of this post (which seems to keep slipping away from me), in another #1 hit, none other than Neil Sedaka, a recording artist famous for being popular during the time of both “Da Doo Ron Ron”s (or is the proper plural Da Doos Ron Ron?), but not for most of the time in-between, sings loads of da doo ron rons, or something very similar, along with Elton John in “Bad Blood” (also 1975).

Who would have thought back in 1963 we’d find those lyrics at the top of the charts again a generation later, much less twice again, much less in a brand new song by a recording artist we thought we’d heard the last from? (…and in the same old song by an aging teen idol’s half-brother who I swear sounds a lot like Boy George. Has there ever been a public sighting of Shaun Cassidy since Boy George came on the scene in 1982? Interesting. But I digress yet again.)

I’m sure there are many, many more instances of this phenomenon. I mean, not that exact phenomenon — I think it’s safe to say there are no other instances of what happened with “Da Doo Ron Ron” — but you know what I mean: unlikely phrases showing up in more than one song. What are your favorites? The more unlikely, the better!

Going to California

Michael Jackson ThrillerWoke at 7 AM, got last items together, Mom packed us some food…

THIRTY YEARS AGO today I started my first-ever journal with those words. It was also the day I started my driving trip to move to San Francisco, a trip I took in my pale-yellow Subaru with my sister. Culture Club, Prince, Toto, and “Billie Jean” provided the cassette-and-radio soundtrack to the cross-country drive. Without getting too dramatic about it all, February 9, 1983, could also be seen as the start to my real adult life, since I’d be living on my own for the first time. (In some respects—most, maybe—I was a late bloomer.)

I don’t think I saw it as such a big deal at the time. I had been on a few cross-country driving trips already, and so this felt like another one of them, except the car was loaded with all my worldly possessions. (Well, not quite all—I had my books and records shipped.) I had bobbing-head animals glued to the car’s dashboard and a set of pink flamingos I’d set up for a photo in every state. I was going to California to live, though, and the closer I got, the more I realized I was taking a big leap, leaving the house in Americana Terrace I grew up in and nearly everyone I knew for the opposite edge of the continent.

Gone are the days you can just load up the car and head to San Francisco with a few dollars in your pocket and no real prospects. A college friend had been living here, and she introduced me to her friends who in turn lent me a couch and pointed me to Roommate Referral…and the rest is, as they say, history.

It’s embarrassing to lDave X Robb in 1983ook back through the pages of that journal, to see how dumb and green I was. I even spelled espresso with an x, for god’s sake! But it’s not the spelling errors and writing style that make me wince so much as the evidence that I was pretty clueless about everything, including especially my own cluelessness.

So, I won’t be serving up excerpts from those pages. It’s just too awful, too unconsciously self-conscious in the worst possible sense. It was 1983, so even the fashion was bad. I was trying so hard to forge some kind of post–art school, post-punk, post-breakup (with a girl!) identity, trying to find myself. I earnestly wanted to do something with my life, which was pretty much a blank slate at that point, at least from today’s perspective.

Although I wouldn’t begin coming out, even to myself, for another year or so, I find it impossible to imagine that I didn’t choose to move to San Francisco, at least on a subconscious level—I was very deep in denial—in order to explore my sexuality in a city that offered acceptance and support for that kind of thing.

I’ve come a long way in 30 years. I joke about what a loser I was back then, but I realize it was just me doing the best I could with what I had, as we all do. At least I knew how to cook a chicken or grilled cheese or spaghetti and meatballs. I knew how to do housework. I bought good records. I knew how to use a library and how to type a resumé. That’s about all. But, as it turns out, that was enough.


ABBA__1976-1_976ABBA HAS JUST COME off the turntable, and 1976 is a wrap. Bring on the Xmas music! I was just finishing 1980 at this time last Christmas, which means I’ve played exactly 4 years of records in a year. I don’t know if that’s good or bad or indifferent — it’s not a race. It does mean I’ll probably finish playing all of my records by mid-2014 if I keep playing them at the same pace, barring any disaster.

What does all of this mean? Nothing. But, ABBA…

I did hear an ABBA lyric tonight that is just so outrageous, I have to share it with you. It’s from “Honey Honey,” and it goes there’s no other place in this world where I rather would be. You’ve heard it, right? Actually, most of the lyrics to that song are pretty crazy (honey, to say the least, you’re a doggone beast, for example), but that line is the worst grammatically.

They’re also really into the repetitive song titles — not just “Honey Honey,” but the triple “Money Money Money” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man after Midnight)” (which, incidentally, I heard at least 3 separate times while traveling through Peru earlier this year. I have no idea why that song is so popular there. The pseudo-flutes, maybe?) and the quintuple “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.” You’ve gotta love it.

I’ve always found ABBA to be such a bizarre group, and I mean that in a good way. I think part of the oddity is owing to their grasp of English, which seems to be so off. In fact, I remember making a similar assertion, that they sing as though they haven’t the slightest idea what they’re saying, way back when they were on Saturday Night Live in 1975.

Abba_Arrival_CThey were singing my favorite ABBA song, “S.O.S.” (incidentally, the only top 40 hit ever where the song title and the group name are both palindromes), and they’d say “good” and “understood” as though they rhyme with “food” instead of “wood.” Hoo-boy. I wish I understewed? That was my first clue. But it’s not just their pronunciation; the lyrics are downright bizarre as well. I challenge you to find an ABBA song with no bizarre lyrics. There isn’t one. Unless you count “Arrival,” which is a bizarre instrumental with bizarre chanting and bagpipes, or pseudo-bagpipes (or something). I love it! 

Anyway, when I said that about ABBA to whomever I was watching SNL with, they tried to make it sound like I suffered from a horrible lack of worldliness since everyone knows everyone in Sweden studies English all throughout their school years, so their English is very good (which rhymed with “wood” when my friend said it). This friend was quite defensive. Don’t make fun of them, they’re trying; I’d like to see you do as well in Swedish seemed to be the unspoken subtext. Granted, most Swedish schoolkids probably speak way better English than I’ll ever speak Swedish, and that was probably also true in 1975. But I think the members of ABBA went to school right before English became a mandatory part of the curriculum. Or so it would seem.

swedish_flagI still like them. It doesn’t make Björn and Benny and Agnetha and Anni-Frid bad people! I told you how brilliant “The Visitors” is. Bizarre, but brilliant. (And I’m not just saying that because I’m afraid one of them will read this and call me out.) Did you know they came up with the group name by combining their initials? They liked these cute little word games a lot.

I wish I could remember who it was I had my little debate with that Saturday night in front of the tv so long ago. They are almost certainly not a friend of mine anymore…though I doubt it’s because of the ABBA thing.

It was the third of September

CB radioJust started on the 1976 records, and not yet anywhere near ready to sum up the year, but I will say if 1977 was the year of cocaine, 1976 was surely the year of CB. While listening to “Convoy” the other day, I noted that the mighty convoy of lore got underway on the sixth of June, prompting me to want to plot on a calendar all of the dates mentioned in popular songs.

Just a day later, I was reminded by a friend that it was the third of September, that day I’ll always remember, yes I will, as the day that Temptation’s no-good, rolling stone daddy died. And so began my quest to fill in the calendar. I found that it wasn’t so easy — the songs that mention specific dates (as opposed to just days of the week or months or years or holidays) are somewhat few and far between.

A couple other easy ones came immediately to mind: “Saturday in the Park” by Chicago — and a slew of other songs — mention the fourth of July, the only holiday that most often goes by the name of the calendar date (Who says Independence Day anymore?). That got me thinking, should it count if they mention a holiday that falls on the same day every year?

I could see maybe counting “New Year’s Day” by U2 as January 1, and any number of songs that mention Valentine’s Day or Christmas, but would not count something that mentions those floating holidays like Thanksgiving or Sadie Hawkins Day.

June 3 famously figures in “Ode to Billy Joe” and also “Desiree.” I wonder if Neil Diamond took that into account when he wrote his song, which came later. This song about Neil’s most memorable one-night stand gets double credit since it mentions June 4 as well. (I wonder what happened June 5.)

U2: WarBob Dylan married Isis on the fifth day of May, James Taylor was heading down the turnpike December 1 in “Sweet Baby James,” Earth Wind and Fire remember the twenty-first night of September, and by May tenth, Richmond had fell — we’ll overlook the grammatical issue for now; chalk it up to dialect — in the Band’s (but not Joan Baez’s, interestingly enough) version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

A few other historical dates crop up: Martin Luther King’s assassination April 4 is referenced in “Pride (In the Name of Love)” by U2, John Kennedy’s assassination November 23 figures in Jefferson Airplane’s obscure “Hijack” (which also anticipated the group’s later Starship incarnation), and “April 29, 1992” by Sublime — named for the day the Rodney King riots began in LA — mistakenly names April 26 in the actual song (though they got it right in the title).

Others? There must be some obvious songs I’m forgetting, but still, I have a feeling I’ll never fill in all 366 days unless I commission some of the songs…and that would be cheating, kind of, wouldn’t it?

What is love?

My last post raised some good questions, and because I think the topic — “Love Hurts?” — is so important, I’ll elaborate a bit. This idea that love cannot be painful runs so counter to what we’ve been told, what we’ve sung along to, and, most importantly, what we believe we’ve lived, it can be hard to take in.

We’ve felt the pain, dammit! And we want to believe we’ve loved, deeply. Hell, I’ve been there. Some people have had their hearts broken so badly, they give up on love.

Gang of Four: Is It Love?Is it love? The truth is, we feel pain and hurt in the context of situations we call being “in love,” or, more accurately, wanting or trying to be in love or no longer being in love. My argument is with the definition: that “being in love” as we know it, as we’ve all been taught it over the years listening to pop music, television, movies, and whatever else is echoing around out there, is not really love in the true, adult sense. This is good news!

What is love? Best definition I’ve heard: selflessly, unconditionally wanting the other person to be happy. The dictionary will tell you it’s some other things, too, including attachment. I think it’s important to distinguish between the different definitions we bring to the word “love.”

I describe attachment as a kind of self-cherishing grasping, “loving” the other person for what they can give you. (In Buddhist terms, attachment is a delusion, an agitated state of mind.) Attachment can also have positive connotations, as in connection, helping, relying on, and supporting one another — I do believe we are all connected and need each other; that’s what gives life meaning, and I’m all for it. But the difference is in how we do it, whether we do it for ourselves or for each other.

Wings of DesireWe can want to hold space for those we love in our lives, or we can want to hold in a grasping way. To share a great analogy Mark Epstein uses in Open to Desire, we can compare our ways of loving to how we hold something — say, a precious stone — in our hand, either on our open, upturned palm or in a tight fist. One is real love, one is attachment.

I don’t mean to say this stuff is easy. It’s hard to throw off a lifetime of conditioning. In some sense, we are all trying to get back to the loving, nurturing, dependent experience of childhood. Wasn’t that nice? We want to feel safe. We want to feel supported, like someone will catch us if we fall. Those are all good things to wish for, and in a good relationship, we do those things for each other. But, as adults, we also know we can stand on our own. We might not prefer it, but we can.

For those whose childhoods were not nurturing, the problem can be much harder as we try to connect as adults; we might be more likely to attach in a childlike way to receive the safety of unconditional love we never got. A book that really opened my eyes about all of this is How to Be an Adult in Relationships by David Richo. I hope you get as much out of it as I did.

This stuff gets hard-wired into our brains and can be incredibly difficult to break through, even if we are aware of it and trying…but I do believe, in almost all cases, we can. I read a fascinating book about how our brains work, physically, when it comes to the emotional, which comes to the same conclusion. That book is Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, and I highly recommend it and his blog.

I hope this helps shatter your delusions of love, to paraphrase Stevie Nicks. Don’t give up. Learn to love better.