Category Archives: Music

The Musical Magnificence of Mika

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It’s been a long, long time since I’ve purchased an actual CD from a physically-standing store, but on my last visit to Boston I saw the new album by Mika,  ’The Origin of Love,’ in Barnes & Noble, so I picked it up for the car ride home. There are only a few artists whose music I would buy before hearing any of the songs – Madonna, Shirley Horn (sadly no more new music), and James.

On this record, the music sounds like the love child between Daft Punk and Erasure – making it both of-the-moment but also timeless. In other words, an instant classic that manages to sound both completely familiar and entirely new. Such musical magic is difficult to conjure, but Mika has managed to make it happen on all three of his albums to date, progressively revealing a darker yet still-accessible side on cuts like ‘Make You Happy’ or ‘Overrated.’ He continues to craft some of the frothiest pop out there today, as in ‘Popular Song’ (which gleefully borrows from ‘Wicked’) and the gorgeous ‘Kids.’

Such stuff might at first seem tailor-made for over-production and saccharine sweetness, but Mika wisely veers clear of such pitfalls, stripping things down for the title track. Filled with ambivalence, and shot through with treacherous questions on faith and religion, ‘Origin of Love’ is a powerful reminder of the potency of Mika at his best. It begins somewhat slowly for the bombastic guy responsible for such rousing anthems as ‘Grace Kelly’ and ‘We Are Golden’ but it grows into something richer and more lasting.

Even when he’s being snarky and sardonic, as in the beautifully blunt ‘Love You When I’m Drunk,’ the music is so light and bouncy it takes away a bit of the edge, but in doing so lends it a more sinister impact. He may cut you, but it’s going to feel and sound so good you won’t mind as much.

That’s Mika’s greatest weapon: he’s an aural assassin, and his music can slay the staunchest enemy. Any lashing out comes from a displacement of hurt, deliciously disguised as he shuffles along on marvelous melodies and resounding choruses.

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The Madonna Timeline: Song #107 – ‘Like A Virgin – 1984

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{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

The woman stands alone in the spotlight. Thousands of screaming fans surround her, watching her every move, but she is undeniably alone, and, dare it be said, perhaps a little lonely. Her hair is disheveled, her body is both beautiful and a wreck – bound by a corset, restricted by lace, and held only half together by her trademark fishnet stockings. She looks a bit broken and fiercely forlorn. The familiar pop chirp and breezy bounce of the signature track is almost unrecognizable in this waltz – and the woman, almost three decades after she first sang the song, imbues the performance with a tragically ironic take on all that is shiny and new. This is Madonna and her latest incarnation of ‘Like A Virgin’ – the emotional high-point of the MDNA Tour. She sings to a plaintive slowed-down ballad version, with world-weary fatigue and heartrending abandon. Here, then, is our Queen, laid low by life. It is a mesmerizing moment from a woman who has made a career of transcending the boundaries of pop culture.

‘Like A Virgin’ is the album that catapulted her into the pop culture stratosphere, and it remains her best-selling album in the United States. As for the title song, it had a bass-line influenced by Michael Jackson, and the synth-heavy production so favored in the 80’s. It also had a universal message, particularly when you take out the mundane literal readings of the lyrics, and nothing that has lasted all this time could ever be seriously dismissed as a novelty song. Madonna herself has always claimed that ‘Virgin’ was less about losing one’s virginity and more about a freshness, a feeling of newness and wonder as befits the beginning of any relationship. There was a sexual aspect running through all of it, however, one that even she couldn’t deny, but to peg it solely as a sex song is largely missing the mark, and ignoring its lasting cultural influence.

I made it through the wilderness, somehow I made it through
Didn’t know how lost I was until I found you
I was beat, incomplete, I’d been had, I was sad and blue
But you made me feel, yeah you made me feel shiny and new… 

Going back a few years before the opening scene, she gave the song an electro-twist, riding around on a futuristic abstract horse on the Confessions Tour in 2006, while x-rays of her recently-broken ribs flashed across screens behind her. In that version she was the triumphant rider, returning to the scene of a crime in Madonna-fashion, defying that which struck her down a few months prior. By that time, ‘Like A Virgin’ was already a well-tread warhorse of its own, having undergone such drastic tinkering as 1993’s Girlie Show incarnation.

For that circus-like romp, Madonna donned a top hat and tails, channeling Marlene Dietrich in full androgynous glory. It came, right after the ‘Sex’ book and ‘Erotica’ album, with a comforting wink and nod (and only one phallic rising that was more comical than offensive). At the very moment that her career was saturated with sex, Madonna made ‘Virgin’ the unlikely heart of a rather family-friendly portion of an otherwise erotic-heavy show. That’s defiance. That’s the power of the shiny and new.

Like a virgin
Touched for the very first time
Like a virgin
When your heart beats
Next to mine.

It’s withstood the test of time due in large part to Madonna’s varied performances of the song, from a silly throwaway mash-up on the ‘Who’s That Girl‘ Tour to more magnificent executions such as in the epic Blonde Ambition Tour documented in ‘Truth or Dare.’ To this day, the latter remains my favorite rendering of the song. Maybe it was the time period that ‘Truth or Dare’ was released – the summer of 1991 – and its coinciding with my budding adolescence, or the infamous golden Gaultier cone-bra, or the simple brazen act of someone who had the nerve to rub one out for all the world to see, but for whatever reason, that’s the rendition of ‘Like A Virgin’ that means the most to me.

Gonna give you all my love boy
My fear is fading fast
Been saving it all for you
Cause only love can last.

“So, what’s considered masturbation?” the diminutive woman asked as she adjusted her head-set beneath the tangle of her blonde, Barbie-doll pony-tail.

“When you stick your hand in your crotch,” her brother sheepishly answered.

Such was the exchange that Madonna had with her brother Christopher before going on-stage in Toronto for that night’s show. It was, by many accounts, the pinnacle of her outrageous power, and her masturbatory performance of ‘Like A Virgin’ was the centerpiece of sexual provocation. Forget the cone-shaped bras strapped onto the male back-up dancers, the harem-like Middle-Eastern revision of the song, and the red velvet bed on which our tainted heroine draped her body – it was the simple act of self-satisfaction that had so many in an uproar, and this boy in rapt wonder and awe.

Watching her command the audience, and the world, with a brush of her nether-regions, illustrated the power of sex. It was titillation, it was promise, it was tease and release. It was a woman in control, with men as supporting players at best (and likely gay and uninterested to boot.) With a single touch, she brought a parochial world to its knees. With a simple grind, she felled centuries of male-domination. With one final flourish, she cried out to God and released the tormented torrent of the life of a woman.

You’re so fine,
And you’re mine
Make me strong, yeah you make me bold
Cause your love thawed out
Yeah your love thawed out
What was scared and cold.

As a gay boy, I didn’t quite get turned on by the proceedings, instead I took a different lesson: the power of self-love. Literally. Tied in with that was the power of sex and the power of seduction, along with the power that comes from being the object of desire, untouchable but for her own hands, isolated and alone yet watched by thousands. It was a daring show of raw sexuality and unabashed self-pleasure that left jaws-dropping wherever the Blonde Ambition tour landed. It is the image of ‘Like A Virgin’ that I retain to this day. It’s a far cry from its original version.

Like a virgin
Touched for the very first time
Like a virgin
When your heart beats
Next to mine.

Back in 1984, a lot of the world hadn’t quite heard of Madonna. I myself missed out on her debut album – including ‘Holiday’, ‘Lucky Star’, and ‘Borderline’ (I was, after all, only nine years old) but by 1985 ‘Material Girl’ brought her into my life, and my life into sudden-focus. Its infectious beat kept me glued to the rest of the ‘Like A Virgin’ album. Even so, the title song, and its accompanying Bride-in-Venice video didn’t do much for me. It was catchy enough, and I sensed in the title a certain degree of naughtiness, but at that time in my life I listened, shrugged, and fast-forwarded to ‘Dress You Up.’

 

You’re so fine, and you’re mine
I’ll be yours til the end of time
Cause you made me feel, yeah you made me feel
I’ve got nothing to hide.

Looking back, I wish I’d paid more attention to this moment and that first flush of Madonnamania. My wanna-be years were a bit further off, but something must have touched me. Now, it means a little more. ‘Like A Virgin’ tugged at my ears, at my pants, at my head, and at my heart. As it grew in resonance over the years, it came to mean different things at different times, but always the hope of starting over, the freshness of a new beginning, the bright bursting of a heart newly in love. If I listen closely enough, if I close my eyes and let my mind wander back, I can remember the innocence of childhood – and there it is again, all shiny and new… for the very first time.

Song #107 – ‘Like A Virgin’ – 1984

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A Capital ‘F’ In It

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A seagull pokes its head over the sand dune. Among beach grass and scattered feathers, it peers at us from a distance, then flaps its wings and disappears. The wind is strong on this day, scattering sand into waves that echo the ocean. Examined closely, the grains are fine, and the sand here is soft. In-between our toes, it sifts as if in an hourglass. I bury my foot deeper. The breeze is cool on the tip of Cape Cod, and for this overcast day the beaches are relatively empty. It’s late in the season – end of August or early September – and Suzie and I have made an impromptu trip to Provincetown. The year is 1995.

We had driven over in the rain, and somehow Suzie found us lodging for the weekend. The fall semester was set to begin in a couple of days. We didn’t want the summer to end. On our last day, instead of hitting the road, we made our way to the beach. Not the gay beach – it would be a few years before I learned the long and winding way through the marsh and dunes to make it there – but a quiet stretch of shoreline where only a few other brave folks withstood the chilly wind. I would have left early in the morning, but Suzie wanted a day at the beach, and in the first break from the rain, and our last hours on the Cape, we took it.

I listen to the waves crash rhythmically upon the shore. Their roar is muffled beneath the rushing wind. I put on a pair of headphones, as much for the music as to shield my cold ears. A Shirley Horn song begins as my eyes follow a fellow walking along the beach.

He is my fate,
with capital “F” in it,
Now in my dreams,
there’ll be someone definite,
ring down the curtain,
I’m certain at present,
my future just passed.

On a plaid pillow, I lean back. Suzie snaps a photo, likely at my insistence. The sun looks as if it wants to break through, but a layer of clouds prevents it. There will be no direct sunlight today. That doesn’t bother me as much with Suzie by my side. I don’t know then that this moment will be one of my happiest memories, before the entanglements of romance began for both of us, before the break-ups and breakdowns. For now, the hope and possibility and excitement of love looms beautifully on the horizon, just ahead of us, and the only thing bothering me is the impatient anticipation involved: I cannot wait to find it. To find him.

Don’t even know if he has been spoken for,
If he is tied, the ties must be broken, for,
life can’t be that way,
to wake me then break me,
my future just passed.
Stars in the blue,
though you’re at a distance,
you can assure me,
but sometimes a girl encounters resistance,
help me to win this boy.

I don’t know what he’ll look like, but I’ll spend the next several years searching, and seeking out the one. Some will come close, and I’ll try to force them into the place of my heart where I most want someone to fit, but I begin to doubt that anyone will fill that hole. Even those who love me, at least for a moment, seem ill-suited for such treacherous and tedious environs. I watch them pass on. I watch them walk away.

Here are my arms,
may he find illusion there,
Kiss my two lips…

There is passion I find along the way. Enough to sustain, enough to maintain hope. And there is love. Even when it is fleeting and ephemeral, it matters. I believe this because the alternative is too grim to fathom. When the world turns dark, and loneliness cries forlornly like the whimper of a trapped animal, you will believe in almost anything.

Now that I’m loving,
I’m living at last,
my future just passed.
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Hunk of the Day: Adam Lambert ~ A Second Coming

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Maybe it’s the new facial hair, maybe it’s the new haircut, or maybe it’s his front-man status for Queen, but for some reason Adam Lambert just got a whole lot hotter, hence his current re-crowning as the Hunk of the Day. (Alongside such double-dipper-strippers as Alex Pettyfer, Todd Sanfield, and Ronnie Kroell, Mr. Lambert joins an elite group of guys whose hotness exceeds a single Hunk of the Day post.) He’s stomping through Queen’s tour in Freddie’s platform shoes, and from all accounts he’s slaying it as if to the manner born. His cocky, sexy, flamboyant showmanship is an ideal draw for filling stadiums with howling fans, while his larger-than-life charisma reaches the very ends of the earth.

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The Madonna Manifesto

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It is a moment pregnant with possibility. She stands on the precipice of something great, and almost every time this has happened in the past (and there have been many such times), she’s jumped off and soared. That anticipation is in the air again, but still I find myself wanting something more. She is, after all, Madonna.

Despite playing on Instagram and teasing bits of what may musically come, she’s been largely quiet of late. A pristinely-photo-shopped romp with Katy Perry on the cover of a magazine gave fans a slight bone, but we’re salivating for more. Traditionally she averages about two years between albums, bridged with soundtracks and other projects, so we’re almost due for a new one – the first since 2012′s powerful if slightly-unappreciated ‘MDNA’. That colorful record was a driving, if at times dark, exercise in exorcism, dwelling on her divorce (‘Love Spent‘, ‘Gang Bang‘) and balanced by fluffier fare (‘Girl Gone Wild‘, ‘Gimme All Your Luvin‘, ‘Turn Up the Radio‘) but it wasn’t the miraculous pop moment she’s conjured in the past (‘Ray of Light‘, ‘Like A Prayer‘). The world awaits a proper return to form, but this world is drastically different from the world in which she rose to prominence three decades ago. Can she still cut it? Yes, but only if she goes back to her roots.

For the past several years, Madonna has, quite shockingly to some of us, kept largely to the same hairstyle. While this may seem trivial and off-focus, I bring it up because it’s a key feature to her career, and the point of this post. “Everyone always says, ‘Oh, she reinvented herself,’ but the thing is, I just get a new haircut every year, which everyone should do,” she once said. This was powerful, even if you think it’s frivolous. When was the last time you got a new haircut? Not any haircut – not the one you usually get, not the one your stylist lovingly knows so well – but a brand new color, a brand new length, a brand new look. I’m guessing most of us haven’t done that in years – if ever. Madonna used to do that with charming regularity, and drastically different results each time. It was a part of her success, and part of the unexpected thrill we got when each new image morphed into the Madonna canon.

Yet since 2005′s ‘Confessions on a Dancefloor’, she’s kept mostly to the reddish-blonde soft-frame of curls she still sports – it’s the look she wore for her H&M ads, the Reinvention/Confessions/Sticky and Sweet tours, and her impressive appearance at the Superbowl. It works for her, but to me it’s starting to feel, dare I say it, stagnant. That’s the one thing Madonna is not. Shape-shifting, jumping, and executing hairpin turns at a breakneck pace, she has never stood still or waited for very long. But her reliance on the tried and true, as well as her work with of-the-moment hit-makers, points to a recent tendency to play it safe.

What I want from Madonna is for her to go back to the beginning – to go back to being brave. I want her to age with dignity and defiance. I want the perennial ‘Fuck you’ attitude to re-surface and carry her into maturity in a way that once again redefines and challenges the ways in which society has slowly and predictably been trying to trap her. She falls prey to that with every round of face-filler, with every photo-shopped worry-line. Rather than skirting those issues or chasing the elusive quest for eternal youth (and there’s a good chance that some of us worry about that more than Madonna does), she would be the best one to champion a graceful yet empowering way of aging.

I’m not saying she needs to tone anything down – if anything, I’m suggesting the opposite. And in simply continuing to do what she does, she’s already, in a sense, defied a bunch of rules. Though the rebel in me secretly hopes for an earth-rattling ‘Sex‘ or ‘American Life‘ moment that pisses off more people than it pleases, she’s probably wise not to go for simple shock value. There have been delicious glimpses of it – her nipple-baring antics and butt-cheek peep-shows, which excited and thrilled even this staunchly gay character – and she still gets pages of press for something as small and silly as popping in a set of gold grillz. But I want her, more than anything, to be real. That was the real power of Madonna in my formative years. She glammed it up as her fame and money increased, but you always got the sense – and the photos to prove it – that she was willing to get down and sweaty on the dance floor with the gay boys. She didn’t isolate herself from humanity, she reveled in it, taking it in and transforming it into something else, something more.

In the writing of this, I’ve once again confirmed her power. She is more than pop star or show-off, she is a mistress of mirrors, reflecting back whatever ailments, shortcomings, failings, powers, magics, darkness, and light we each project. Madonna has, strangely, not always been about Madonna, but about what we think about Madonna, what Madonna makes us feel. It’s the key, and often-overlooked, component in why she remains such a fascinating creature, and why she will continue to remain so.

If her long and storied past is proof of anything, it’s that we should never count her out. In fact, such moments of doubt and wonder usually portend something miraculous in the offing. After thirty years, we know her better than she thinks we do. (And when she proves us wrong – again – it will be even better.)

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Poses & Roses

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He had invited me earlier in the year, when the winter raged, and thoughts of the garden were all that kept me sane. In his lovely way, he asked me to visit him “when the roses bloomed” and then he included his address and contact information. His name was Lee Bailey, and he was the man who wrote my gardening bible, ‘Country Flowers’ – the first book I ever read on the subject. I’d written him a fan letter when I was only eleven or twelve, and he’d written back then, pleasantly surprised by my age and interest. I thought nothing of it until a decade or so later, when I wrote him another fan letter, and he responded with the invitation to see him in the city.

I didn’t make it down until the end of June or early July, passed the point of the first flush of roses, at the height of heat and the nastiness that accompanies summer in New York. At the Chelsea Pines Hotel, in some starlet-themed room of garish and gaudy excess, I stood before the raging air conditioner, cooling down before my meeting with Mr. Bailey. ‘Poses’ by Rufus Wainwright was playing in my mind, its references to Fifth Avenue and flip-flops an apt correlation to my time there.

Out on the street, the heat was instantly intense. It was only a few blocks to his penthouse, but I knew they would be grueling. Taking it slowly, I stayed in the shade, waiting in vain for a breeze that never arrived. Normally I’d have slipped into shorts and, yes, flip-flops, but for this meeting – for the first face-to-face with an idol – I donned khakis out of respect, and a short-sleeved button-up shirt, with  few buttons undone in deference to the heat. Something told me, in the friendly and casual way he had of writing, that Mr. Bailey wouldn’t stand on ceremony when it came to clothing or attitude.

On this sunny summer day, on a sticky and somewhat stinky sidewalk of New York, I made my way to my hero. Writers and artists and gardeners were always more impressive than Batman or Superman (but perhaps not Wonder Woman.) Suddenly I was very nervous about meeting him. In some ways, it was a moment that was a decade and a half in the making. He was someone who’d been with me since I was a child. Even if he had no idea, he was there guiding my choices, aiding in my decisions. Mostly it was in garden matters, of course, but there were other lessons cloaked in the guide of caretaking and tending to plants and flowers.

All these poses such beautiful poses
Makes any boy feel like picking up roses

In the lobby of his building, I paused, trying to cool down before going up in the elevator. I had never been in anyone’s NYC penthouse, and as the doors opened and deposited me in the hallway of his place, I felt wholly removed from New York, and almost everything I’d ever known. I’d seen similar things before, and had spent time in several mansions and the occasional Senator’s home, but it always impressed me to see how the other half lives. There was an ease to it, a grace you don’t always feel when you’re struggling, even if I knew that such wealth and comfort had its own sets of problems and worries. So much was simply relative.

His assistant brought me into the main living room, flanked on two ends by French doors that were open to the wrap-around balcony. That would be where the roses bloomed, I surmised. She offered me a glass of water and I accepted. Shortly after, Lee Bailey entered his living room. Walking with a cane, he exhibited the passing years since ‘Country Flowers’ had been published, but the spark was still there, and the wit and charm that seeped through his prose were still in evidence now that he stood before me in person. We sat across from each other, on parallel couches, and shared a lovely chat.

I don’t recall the specifics. Mostly, I just marveled at the pinnacle of a journey that began in the winter nights of my childhood, when I pored over the photographs of his flowers, imagining the expanse of his gardens, and drifting to sleep with the hardcover by my side. I explained, in slightly faltering form, how much he had influenced me, but it’s never easy to get across how much it had meant.

We talked of things other than gardening, too: men and boyfriends and his friend Elaine Stritch. He knew several other celebrities whom I would later see at one of his parties – Joel Schumacher, Liz Smith, Hal Prince – but they were merely his contemporaries, people who populated his past like Suzie or Chris populated mine. Though it seemed like my silly life had paled in comparison to his, he treated me as an equal, and such gracious respect would be one of his great lessons.

All these poses such beautiful poses
Makes any boy feel as pretty as princes
The green autumnal parks conducting
All the city streets a wondrous chorus singing
All these poses oh how can you blame me
Life is a game and true love is a trophy
And you said
Watch my head about it…

Our waters done, and sweating on a pair of coasters, we rose and I helped him toward the balcony. He apologized that the roses were done blooming for the moment – and recounted their beauty from a few weeks ago. Here was where the breeze lived – cool and refreshing and so very far from the sidewalk down below. We walked once around the entire length of the balcony, and then I sensed it was time to go.

He promised an invitation to his holiday party – a promise he kept, and a party I would attend right before Christmas – the first of a couple, and I was honored to be included. On that day, we parted quietly, easily, as if we’d known each other all our lives, and for one of us that was kind of true.

Back on the street, the heat had not abated, and I undid another button of my shirt. Mr. Wainwright came back to my head, and a gently meandering piano line plotted my return to the Chelsea Pines Hotel. I’d met my idol. The day was filled with promise and sparkle, with a melancholic undertow that scored all things bright and beautiful.

Reclined amongst these packs of reasons
For to smokes the days away into the evenings
All these poses of classical torture
Ruined my mind like a snake in the orchard
I did go from wanting to be someone now
I’m drunk and wearing flip – flops on Fifth Avenue
Once you’ve fallen from classical virtue
Won’t have a soul for to wake up and hold you
In the green autumnal parks conducting
All the city streets a wondrous chorus
Singing all these poses now no longer boyish
Made me a man, but who cares what that is?

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Hunk of the Day: Eli Lieb

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He is the thoughtful singer-songwriter behind the music of this touching ad. His name is Eli Lieb, an openly-gay music-maker who has been named the Hunk of the Day as much for his easy-on-the-eyes appearance as for his stunning musical talents. The Hunks that excite me the most are those who offer more than just a pretty face and defined body – they’re the ones who are doing something with those gifts, and making the most of others. Mr. Lieb is a perfect example of this.

His music is moving, inspirational, and authentic. Self-producing his first eponymous album, he brings a melodic gorgeousness to sometimes plaintive themes, somehow finding hope and encouragement in the darkest hours, as in mini anthems life ‘Safe in My Hands.’ His covers are unconventional and unexpectedly powerful (witness his incandescent stripped-down version of ‘Wrecking Ball’ originally sung by Miley Cyrus or his reworkings of the work of Lana Del Rey, Britney Spears, or Adele – simply amazing.)

Check out his video for ‘Young Love’ below – a hopeful and thrilling encapsulation of those first heady moments of falling in love:

In a world of pre-fabricated pop stars and carefully-crafted images, Mr. Lieb is a refreshing dose of genuine musicality and passion. He has claimed that Transcendental Meditation has kept him grounded in the whirlwind of a musician’s life. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working.

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Wicked Summer Game

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The school year had come to an end, and the days were full of ripe promise. In the heat and bright light of day, it seemed there were no wrongs in the world. Hollyhocks climbed into the blue sky, and the beetles that marred their foliage were picked off and drowned in cans of motor oil. Summer could be a messy business, but the iridescent wings of the doomed looked very pretty as they slowed and stilled themselves in the thick fluid.

There is a memory within a memory here, as a glass mason jar filled with dead beetles and oil gets replaced with an empty one, and I chase fireflies around in a corner of the backyard. Near a hedge of euonymus, I corner the pulsating bugs, lit from chemicals within, as they try to capture mates or call to friends or whatever the neon green light is for. Little stars of Gatsby’s great green dream glow and tease, just out of a little boy’s reach. It is a cruel thing, sometimes, to give a kid that kind of hope.

The world was on fire and no one could save me but you.
It’s strange what desire will make foolish people do.
I never dreamed that I’d meet somebody like you.
And I never dreamed that I’d lose somebody like you.
No, I don’t want to fall in love (This world is only gonna break your heart)
No, I don’t want to fall in love (This world is only gonna break your heart)
With you (This world is only gonna break your heart)

In the bedroom, when I was a little older, say the summer of ’91, I watched the street from my window. A book by Dickens fell to the floor. The CD had long since reached its last song. At night, all was gray, all was shadows, and the light of the moon crept in over the floor, over the bed, over the tendons of my wrist. Skin was somehow more true in the light of the moon. Strange how that happened, and I studied myself in the echoes of the sun’s reflection.

I wanted to marry the fireflies and save the beetles and go back and fix everything I had done wrong. I reached for the moon but it stretched farther away. ‘Don’t go,’ I whispered to no one, startling myself with the words. ‘Stay with me,’ I whispered to the night, but the night remained silent, moving slowly onward.

What a wicked game to play, to make me feel this way.
What a wicked thing to do, to let me dream of you.
What a wicked thing to say, you never felt this way.
What a wicked thing to do, to make me dream of you and…
I want to fall in love (This world is only gonna break your heart)
No, I want to fall in love (This world is only gonna break your heart)
With you.

In the years to come, there would be men who whispered to me of love in the night. It’s always easier to whisper such things in the darkness. Safer, too. You stand a better chance of not being laughed at, or at least of not seeing the smile of victory, because there is always a victor in these matters. Usually it’s the one who is told they are loved who holds the power. True love, it is said, has nothing to do with power or victory marches, but the fact remains that the one who is told gets to hold the cards. Even if the teller is the more courageous soul.

Nobody loves no one.
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Dance With Me… Right Now (Yes, Now!)

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One fine day,
you’ll look at me
And you will know our love was meant to be…

Sometimes you don’t need a specific memory for a song to have an impact on your life – in this case, I have no memory or story attached to this one. I didn’t see the George Clooney/Michelle Pfeiffer movie that bears its namesake, nor do I have any recollection of any time I heard it prior to this moment. (Of course, I have heard it, but no specific time in my life sticks out in correlation to it.)

If I did have a memory attached to it – or, more accurately, if I could attach this song to a memory – it would be of a September weekend in Ogunquit, as Andy and I walked along Main Street and the Marginal Way for the first time. The sun was shining, the summer was still burning, and the first flush of love was on our cheeks.

The arms  I long for
Will open wide
And you’ll be proud to have me right by your side…

These days, this music just makes me want to get up and dance, and any time that happens I take the song and play it to death, because we all need a little more dancing in our lives.

I’ll keep waiting, and someday darling
You’ll come to me when you want to settle down…

While the original recording by The Chiffons as seen above will be its classic incarnation, I do have an affinity to the following rollicking version by the writer herself, the majestic Carole King. Both versions beg you to move your feet. Go on, you know you want to… and I promise I won’t tell anyone, so long as you do the same.

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Every Time We Say Goodbye

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My time in Minneapolis had come to a close. In the short set of days I’d been there, it had quickly become a comfortable place – the weekday bustle of the downtown, the maze of the Skywalk, the leisurely strolls along Nicollet Mall, the arts and the food and the friendliness of the people – and I suddenly found it sad to be leaving this bridge of a vacation between jobs. It helped to be away, and such thankfulness for a place and time always pings the heart, in much the same way any end of a vacation does.

Every time we say goodbye,
I die a little,
Every time we say goodbye,
I wonder why a little,
Why the Gods above me,
who must be in the know.
Think so little of me,
they allow you to go.

Who else but Ms. Fitzgerald could so perfectly capture the bittersweet poignancy of such a Sunday morning? The tea cup from breakfast sits forlornly on the desk. A rolled-up tie awaits snug placement in the suitcase. The rumpled sheets of a bed only briefly mine spill onto the floor. All the things that held such an exciting allure for the past few days are suddenly deflated with the morning of goodbye.

As often happens at this time, my mind wanders back to the first few moments spent in my hotel room.

When you’re near, there’s such an air of spring about it,
I can hear a lark somewhere, begin to sing about it,
There’s no love song finer, but how strange the change from major to minor,
Every time we say goodbye.

Preparing to depart, I take one last look around the room. Aside from the messy bed, and the pile of towels in the bathroom, it looks much like it did on the day of my arrival, now that the suitcase is packed. The difference is in my countenance. Resigned to return to upstate New York, my head is already partly there. It will make it easier for when I do touch down.  Unlike most of my last-days-of-vacation, I am due to spend most of the day in Minneapolis. My flight isn’t scheduled to depart until the evening, so I walk to the Walker, but I’ve already told you about that.

An airport is either the happiest place on earth (at the start of a vacation) or the saddest (at the end) and rarely is there an in-between. By the time I walk through the Minneapolis/St. Paul hub (which smells much better than any other airport I’ve been in, thanks to the aroma emanating from Aveda), I am content and at peace with this goodbye. Minneapolis has been good to me, and the people have been kind. Sometimes that’s more than you can find in the comfort of your own home.

When you’re near, there’s such an air of spring about it,
I can hear a lark somewhere, begin to sing about it,
There’s no love song finer, but how strange the change from major to minor,
Every time we say goodbye.

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What I Need…

james out to get you

It was one of the albums that shaped my life. There are just a few that have done that ~ Shirley Horn’s ‘Here’s to Life’, Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’, and REM’s ‘Automatic for the People’ come to mind – and to that ‘Laid’ by James must be added. Nowhere is that more evident than in the opening track, a quiet beginning to the maelstrom of emotions that the rest of the album would release. I like quiet beginnings.

I’m so alone tonight
My bed feels larger than when I was small
Lost in memories
Lost in all the sheets and old pillows
So alone tonight
Miss you more than I will let you know
Miss the outline of your back
Miss you breathing down my neck
They’re all out to get you
Once again they’re all out to get you
Once again…

As 1993 turned into 1994, and winter turned into spring, and my first year at Brandeis turned into something that was coming to a close, I sat up in my small twin bed, sheets twisted around my legs, the gray light from an outside lamp spilling in like some lame approximation of moonlight, and wondered at the predicament of being alone.

My roommate was gone. I felt relieved, but alone – always alone. Yet not lonely – not yet.

The red numerals of an alarm clock took rigid stock of the passing minutes. Spring rustled at the window. A restless longing was being tapped out by my heart. What did this life have in store? What message might I be missing? Do you hear me? Do you understand what I’m saying?

Insecure, whatcha gonna do?
Feel so small they could step on you
Called you up, answering machine
When the human touch
Is what I need
What I need, what I need, what I need, what I need…
Is you
I need you.

A bottle of urine stood beside the bed (the college guy’s method of avoiding fluorescent hallway walks past midnight.) My backpack slumped on the chair, filled with the books I’d need for the next morning’s classes. Looking back, I’m glad I never realized how alone I was. It would have broken me.

That night, I did not know. Or, rather, it was all I knew, and it was how I survived. Shadows and muffled laughter of passing students floated in from the hallway. I watched the shifting shaft of light beneath the door and bristled at the fading voices. There was no laughter inside my room.

Looked in the mirror, I don’t know who I am anymore
The face is familiar
But the eyes, the eyes give it all away
They’re all out to get you
Once again they’re all out to get you
Here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again, here they come again…

A bit of paranoia creeps into the song. It builds slowly, like an incoming tide, gently but insistently growing louder, and soon, too soon, it is a roar. Static in the head. A feverish state. I kick off the sheets and blankets, as a cold sweat soaks through my t-shirt. On the verge of crying, I wonder why they never loved me. Somehow, I don’t cry. It isn’t sadness that I feel, or even loss. Merely a sense of wonder, at the world, at the human condition, at what it was all supposed to mean. I made a tender reconciliation with the night then.

Insecure whatcha gonna do?
Feel so small they could step on you
Called you up, answering machine
When the human touch
Is what I need
What I need, what I need, what I need, what I need, what I need, what I need, what I need, what I need, what I need…
Is you, is you,  is you, is you, is you, is you, is you…
If you let me breathe…

I call friends and lovers at strange hours. I need to talk, and listen, and hear from people I know. They buffer the fear. I ask them to listen to this song, to the whole album. They promise to try, but I know they don’t. I make mix tapes for them instead, counting on the effort to get them to hear it. They don’t respond or say they like it. I have no way of knowing if they hear it too, if they hear the loneliness.

I have never heard voices in the night. Not in the crazy way that would make it easier to make sense of who I am, the way they want so badly to make sense of me. Instead, I hear James. If they heard it – if they only listened – they would know too.

They’re all out to get you
Once again
To get you
Once again.
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Until…

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“Suppose I happen to know a unique flower, one that exists nowhere in the world except on my planet, one that a little sheep can wipe out in a single bite one morning, just like that, without even realizing what he’s doing – that isn’t important? If someone loves a flower of which just one example exists among all the millions and millions of stars, that’s enough to make him happy when he looks at the stars. He tells himself ‘My flower’s up there somewhere…’ But if the sheep eats the flower, then for him it’s as if, suddenly, all the stars went out. And that isn’t important?” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

If I caught the world in a bottle
And everything was still beneath the moon
Without your love would it shine for me?
If I was smart as Aristotle
And understood the rings around the moon
What would it all matter if you love me?
Here in your arms where the world is impossibly still
With a million dreams to fulfill
And a matter of moments until the dancing ends.

There was a river rushing by, and on the other side of it a city rose in the twilight. On our shore a wedding party assembled, all in happy, colorful costumes, all joy and unabashed love. There would be dancing and embracing and kissing, and the moving silence of a bell that could never be rung. Here a magical horse and accompanying chariot awaited to whisk us away to an evening of enchantment, where beneath a blanket we could hold hands and sigh. There was no way to stop the rush of a river in spring, nor a reason to try.

Here in your arms when everything seems to be clear
Not a solitary thing would I fear
Except when this moment comes near the dancing’s end.
If I caught the world in an hourglass
Saddled up the moon so we could ride
Until the stars grew dim
Until…

She sings songs of love, songs of heartbreak, and songs of longing. She will sing your song, if you ask nicely, if she knows it, and she will smile and nod when it’s over. You will thank her with folded green paper tossed into a glass goblet, with your smile and your hands brought together, and waves of love and appreciation – because that sort of thing matters, that sort of thing gets through. She will sing a song that accompanies you as you cross the river, and return to your world, and then she will sing you to sleep.

One day you’ll meet a stranger
And all the noise is silenced in the room
You’ll feel that you’re close to some mystery.
In the moonlight when everything’s shadows
You’ll feel as if you’ve known her all your life
The world’s oldest lesson in history.

When the song ends, and you’re alone in the quiet, you may find reason and want to cry. It’s all right if you do, though better if there’s someone to hold you. Well, not better, for there’s an unfair stigma attached to solitude, but different. It is possible to dance alone, but it’s so much friendlier with two.

Here in your arms where the world is impossibly still
With a million dreams to fulfill
And a matter of moments until the dancing ends.
Here in your arms when everything seems to be clear
Not a solitary thing do I fear
Except when this moment comes near the dancing’s end

When the dance is done, and the world has stilled, and all seems ready for slumber, you will slip into the sheets of a perfectly-made bed. Maybe someone will tuck you in, whisper sweet nothings, and hold you until the morning. Or maybe you will just dream until…

Oh if I caught the world in an hourglass
Saddled up the moon so we could ride
Until the stars grew dim
Until the time that time stands still
Until…

 

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Turn Me On

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Those who seem to be the most popular are usually the ones who are the most lonely. It’s the reason they’re popular – they’ve made themselves so in an effort to never be alone. I’m too honest to be very popular, and up until now I’ve never been lonely, but I think I may be starting to feel it a bit. The truth is, I’m more often alone these days than with people. Usually by design, but sometimes against my subtle wishes.

Like a flower, waiting to bloom
Like a lightbulb, in a dark room
I’m just sittin’ here waiting for you
To come on home and turn me on

And so I wait. For the feeling to pass, for the loneliness to subside, for what I once knew to return to me – because once upon a time I was all right, and it was okay to be waiting. There wasn’t restlessness, there wasn’t discontent, there was me – alone and waiting.

Like the desert waiting for the rain
Like a school kid waiting for the spring
I’m just sitting here waiting for you
To come on home and turn me on

Sometimes we have to be a home to ourselves. Sometimes we have to stoke our own fire, tend to our own hearth, and be satisfied, happy even, with the wait. Sometimes the wait is all there is.

My poor heart, it’s been so dark
Since you’ve been gone
After all your the one who turns me off
But you’re the only one who can turn me back on

Once in a while, though, maybe once in a lifetime, someone comes along and ends the waiting. And they are home.

My Hi-fi is waiting for a new tune
My glass is waiting for some fresh ice cubes
I’m just sitting here waiting for you
To come on home and turn me on, turn me on
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Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered

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It’s a memory that may not have actually happened. The time of the year is accurate, the weather quite distinct, and the location a very tangible one. The tail end of August, after a rainy day, on the very tip of Cape Cod ~ Provincetown. It was still summer, but barely, and the first hints of fall were seeping into the night. The year was 1995, and Suzie and I made our virgin trip to what might as well have been the edge of the world. Foolishly, we hadn’t thought ahead to make any sort of reservation (things were slightly different back then) so we entered the town after a long drive, exhausted and not in the mood for the lack of vacancy that was going on. Finally, we found a place – well, Suzie did – and I went along, relieved to lie down on a stationary object.

It was on a quiet side street, and after the rain the town had seemingly gone to sleep. The forecast had not been a happy one, but Suzie and I were just glad to be out of upstate New York, and near the water. Overcast and cool, we couldn’t care less. Depositing our suitcases in the room, we rustled up some grub and had a leisurely dinner. That night, Suzie stayed in while I took a short walk along Commercial Street.

A long line of men stood watching me pass by. In a tight black t-shirt and flowing linen pants, I must have looked like a cross between ‘The Birdcage’ and the clearance section of International Male. I was too young and inexperienced to know any better, and I strutted down the street like a bashful peacock, a haughty, arrogant air defying anyone to say hello, a mask of outward confidence barely betraying a bottomless well of insecurity. I pretended so long and so hard that it would eventually come true, but back then it was ordinary make-believe, a case of flimsy affect that I was certain people could see right through. Quickly, I passed the crowd, much quicker than it felt I’m sure, and made my way further into the evening. The air had cooled from the rain, and that glorious fragrance of its aftermath, the scent that always made the rain worth it, was lingering like a few scant straggling blooms of the privet. A few still managed to hang on, perhaps tricked by the upcoming change in season.

I’m wild again, beguiled again, a simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I
Couldn’t sleep, and wouldn’t sleep when love came and told me I shouldn’t sleep
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I…

That much of the memory is clear. Pristinely so. The only haze was that of the actual evening – my head recalls every nuance perfectly – until this moment. On a street off of Commercial – and it may be directly off, or the one just above, running parallel – a quiet portion of Provincetown revealed itself between green hedges and immaculate yet lush landscaping. There stood a guest house, and through its windows a warm amber light glowed. It was painted richly in shades of purple and lavender, with accents of brick red that somehow worked (though I would never combine them in any outfit outside of a circus). Gold was at play too, either in gold leafing or brass handles or some sort of filigree that wound its way into my memory. There was music too, faint at first, but it came to the ear if you stopped pushing gravel around, if you stood still and listened like we never really do. Scratchy at first, like the muffled old spinning of a true record player, it smoothed itself out into a soulful and creamy voice singing of love and sex and loss and relief.

Lost my heart, but what of it?
He is cold, I agree…
He can laugh, but I love it
Although the laugh’s on me.
I’ll sing to him, each spring to him,
And long for the day when I’ll cling to him…

I looked deeper into the house through the windows. A bookcase stood on one side of the room. A chair was placed by a small table. I thought of two old men having tea and coffee together, sharing a moment, sharing a lifetime ~ a lifetime of twists and turns exemplified by the languidly-paced music.

This was, I believe, my first brush with ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.’ I’d just heard it in the film version of ‘Love! Valour! Compassion!’ so looking back it was probably that soundtrack that was playing. Ella Fitzgerald’s version, so dreamily slowed down into a dirge of desire, a meandering tale of the blossom and decay of romance, the tricky, capricious nature of love, and the way most of us would do it all over again no matter what.

He’s a fool and don’t I know it, but a fool can have his charms
I’m in love and don’t I show it like a babe in arms
Love’s the same old sad sensation
Lately I’ve not slept a wink
Since this half-pint imitation put me on the blink

I stood there, alone outside a guest house that wasn’t mine, near rooms that would remain forever closed to me, and looked into the dark sky. I wanted for something I could not put into words, for someone who seemingly did not exist. If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s possible to miss someone you’ve never met, yes, it is. I learned that then, as Ms. Fitzgerald told her wonderful, woeful, wild and winsome tale.

I’ve sinned a lot, I mean a lot
But I’m like sweet seventeen a lot
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I
I’ll sing to him each spring to him
And worship the trousers that cling to him
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I
When he talks he is seeking words to get off his chest
Horizontally-speaking he’s at his very best
Vexed again, perplexed again, thank God I can be oversexed again
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I

Not having ever had your heart broken doesn’t mean you can’t access or know heartbreak – and sometimes loneliness exists even when you’ve never lost someone. I listened to the end of the song and walked back to our room. The next day, before departing, we’d visit the beach. A windy and wild day, it remained slightly overcast. The photos we took show us squinting into the rush of air and sand, hair blowing messily, propped against a travel pillow for whatever buffering effect it might produce. We read a bit there on the beach, listening to seagulls and the occasional snippet of conversation carried by the wind, and then it was time to go.

On our way back from the Cape, we brushed Boston, where these photos were taken. In a few weeks I’d return to Brandeis, but there, in the sudden dark, driving with Suzie, I was in a holding pattern. Waiting. Wondering. Watching for signs. The turn of the song, then, a surprise twist lending whimsy and humor and pathos, and for the next few years I’d find it all, even, and especially, when I didn’t want anymore.

Wise at last, my eyes at last are cutting you down to your size at last
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered no more
Burned a lot, but learned a lot, and now you are broke, so you’ve earned a lot
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered no more

Love, then, was a difficult business. It came in fits and stunts, it arrived unwanted and unheralded, it was there when you least expected it and elusive when sought out. It was a funny thing, made that way out of necessity. We’d all be crying if we couldn’t turn it on its head, but for me at least, it was hard to make a laugh out of such sorrow. Ella knew this, and her voice comforted and soothed. She said it would be all right, it would work out in the end, because sometimes we end up with the wrong people. Sometimes we have to go through the silliness, the sexiness, and the sadness, as she took us through the last lines of the song. Determined to leave it all behind, the words are a final declaration of defiance, and a chance to start it all over again with someone else. Back then, that was hardly an appealing notion. I wanted to fall in love once and for all and have it last forever. That was the romantic in me.

Couldn’t eat, was dyspeptic, life was so hard to bear
Now my heart’s antiseptic since you moved out of  there
Romance finis, your chance, finis, those ants that invaded my pants, finis
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered no more.

And there it ended, not with a bang or a boom but with a simple “no more.”

The song haunted me for years. I wanted it to have a happy ending. I wanted it to work out. I wanted there to be something that matched the longing and yearning and wistfulness of the music. But it wasn’t happening, and eventually, after trying to force a few failed romances to be what they would never be, I understood. If it’s meant to be it will be. If it’s not, it won’t. Once I got that into my head, once it was understood, the world of romance became a much happier one, and I became a lot happier too. It was then that I embraced the song, every twist and turn of it, from the unlikely hope at the start to the freedom of the finish.

 

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Flash Me Anytime

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My teary-eyed love for a flash mob has already been documented here, but here’s a bit of an addendum, spurred by this video of a ‘Lion King’ cast setting the take-off scene in an airplane. Everyone wishes they were on a flight like this, and once again I teared up a bit watching it unfold, as often happens when people spontaneously burst into song.

Most of us, myself included, reach a certain state of complacent ennui as we age, a sort of stagnant and sad plateau of steady-as-she-goes. We succumb to a bit of ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ syndrome. I don’t believe in that. I like ripples and dips and ravines with ravishing drop-offs. So when something like this comes along to beautifully upset the status-quo, even in the hum-drum exercise of a plane take-off, I take notice and smile.

Those moments when we are jolted awake are what inspire me. That’s what a flash mob or unexpected round of singing does. And as touching as it is to see a group of people joining together to make strangers smile, it is the smiles on those who get to witness the event that are just as moving. That is the ultimate human experience for me – strangers making each other smile. I’m not good at that, but my closest friends are. People like Skip and Suzie, who care just as much for their fellow human beings as they do for themselves. There’s a grace and generosity of spirit that they have, and which I most often lack, so from them I try to learn to be better. Watching a moment like this restores a little bit of my faith in humanity. It reminds me that things aren’t as bad as they sometimes seem.

There is more to see than can ever be seen,
More to do than can ever be done…
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