Sometimes a mother has to look out for her daughter. When my sons were little I made sure they listened to the Beatles and the Stones and the Beach Boys, so they’d know where they’d come from, musically speaking. For my daughter’s eighth birthday, however, I bought her three CDs: The Very Best of Dusty Springfield, 12 Greatest Hits of Patsy Cline, and The Best of Janis Joplin. Time for the child to get herself a few role models.
Well, Janis Joplin fell on deaf ears, but my daughter loved, I mean L-O-V-E-D, the other two. Every time we took a car trip together – and we drove a lot together that summer – all I had to ask her was “Patsy or Dusty?” and we’d have the CD player going. Thelma and Louise had nothing on us as we tooled along the interstate, singing at full blast.
I’d always been a Dusty Springfield fan (my British Invasion weakness has been well documented here and elsewhere), but including Patsy was sort of a fluke. I didn’t even know who Patsy Cline was until I saw the movie Sweet Dreams; buying her records after that was kinda like buying a Dalmatian puppy after seeing 101 Dalmatians. But in the long run, it doesn’t matter how you find the music, so long as you love it when you do.
And I will say, in my defense, that Patsy Cline’s songs had entered my consciousness by osmosis long before. There were a bunch of similar great female singers in the early '60s — Teresa Brewer, Brenda Lee, the divine Skeeter Davis (her “End of the World” was one of my favorite tracks even before Herman’s Hermits covered it) – and I knew their songs even if I couldn’t tell you who sang which one. Sitting through Sweet Dreams, I kept saying, to myself, “Wow, she sang that one too?” When you stop to think that Patsy only had six years to make her mark – she put out only three albums before that plane crash took her in 1963 – the quality of the output is incredible.
On those car trips, going deep into those twelve great Patsy tunes was a revelation for me. The confidence of her voice simply astounds me – the way she could fiddle with the beat, top a high note with perfect pitch, zoom in and out on volume (often on a single word), curl her voice around a phrase just so. Phrasing? Patsy had a instinct for phrasing nearly as good as Sinatra’s. Putting a song across? Patsy was a born storyteller – an essential for any country music performer – an actor who knew exactly when to quaver with emotion and when to bite off a lyric spitefully.
We all know the song “Crazy”, of course – funny enough, written by Willie Nelson, his first songwriting hit. Flavored more by jazz and pop than by country (that cocktail lounge piano twiddling around), it was a big crossover number for her in 1961. Willie didn’t write this song for Patsy, but it sure ended up in the right hands: who else could have done that swooping thing on the word “crazy”? And who else would have been smart enough to keep this song so light-hearted? Because if you listen to the lyrics, it’s a martyr’s song – she’s feeling blue, he’s left her for somebody new, she’s wondering what she did to lose him, she’s embarrassed that she ever thought she could keep him. “I’m crazy for trying / And crazy for crying / And I’m crazy for loving you.” A lesser singer would be whining and moaning; Patsy just sounds dazed and bemused, with a little chuckle in her voice. Even she knows he’s not worth it. And yet — she can’t help it. That’s just the way love is.
I dunno why, I find this profound.
This is the same gal who goes out “Walkin’ After Midnight,” obsessively visiting the spots where she used to hang with her ex-boyfriend; who finds it “Strange” that she’s still dreaming of the man who suddenly dumped her for another woman; who’s found a much better new boyfriend and still moons around wondering “Why Can’t He Be You?” Patsy Cline is the high priestess of hard-luck girls wearing their hearts on their sleeves – but her genius is to keep the rhythms perky, her voice light, even flippant (just an occasional note betraying a yodel of anguish). Unlike Skeeter Davis, Patsy doesn’t think the world’s going to end because her feller left her. She’s bruised but brave, and she knows perfectly well that nothing she says will bring that louse back.
Which brings me back to Dusty Springfield. Dusty was a little more my era – I remember “Wishing and Hoping” and “All Cried Out” getting huge radio play; I remember seeing her on TV (Shindig?) with her platinum bouffant and Egyptian mascara. Since Dusty was British, I lumped her in with Petula Clark and Sandie Shaw and Lulu and Marianne Faithful, but if I’d closed my eyes and listened to her blind I would have classed her with Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight instead – Dusty had an R & B voice that those other British girls simply couldn’t touch.
Underneath it all, however, it’s really Dusty and Patsy who are like sisters. I’m not talking sound – though Dusty could veer into country when she needed to (there’s that entire brilliant Dusty in Memphis album, with its hit single “Son of A Preacher Man” flavored liberally with country guitar licks). And sure, they have vocal artistry in common – just listen to the way Dusty plays the languid mood shifts in “The Look of Love” or the dark-voiced warnings of “You Don’t Own Me.” Control, confidence, and possible the richest smoky timbre ever.
But the real core of Dusty’s catalog is love-victim songs like “I Close My Eyes and Count To Ten” – where she’s just grateful that the guy hasn’t left yet! – or the sublimely mopey Bacharach-David number “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself.” Best of all is the please-kick-me-again anthem “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.” On one level, I should be all outraged and feminist about this song, but honestly, it’s got more than a ring of truth to it. Look, we all know men have a hard time saying “I love you.” Dusty’s just reporting, and reporting accurately, from the front lines of the battlefield of love. She calls it like she sees it.
Here’s the scenario: She took a risk and told her man she needed him, and he responded appropriately, saying he’d stay forever. Sure. The next thing she knew, he moved out. Well, Dusty learns from experience – if he’ll just come back, she’ll put no more pressure on him. “You don’t have to say you love me / Just be close at hand / You don’t have to stay forever / I will understand.” And if that’s not enough, she spells it out very very clearly: “Believe me, believe me / I can’t help but love you / But believe me / I’ll never tie you down.” With all the back-up “ahhs”, the string section, the horns, it’s played for grandeur – it’s her big gesture, her playing-for-broke moment. In the hands of a lesser singer, it would just sound needy, but Dusty’s voice is so damn powerful, all you can do is marvel at her strength.
Of course, we don’t believe the guy will ever come back. Dusty knows her case is hopeless even as she pleads it. It’s not really about winning him back at this point. It’s about giving voice to that magnificent passion — and to the passion of every woman who ever got dumped by a guy who didn’t deserve her in the first place.
Yes, Dusty succeeded Patsy as the high priestess of Victims of Love. She was always at her best getting kicked in the teeth. Okay, Dusty ventured a little further into the realm of self-abasement than Patsy ever did, but like Patsy, she never stooped to self-pity. And neither of them ever tried to fob us off with romantic platitudes. Love hurts, and they’re here to tell you about it, that’s all.
Well, so much for giving my daughter good role models. For her next birthday, I’m thinking of laying a little Bonnie Raitt on her. “Love Has No Pride,” “Have a Heart,” “I Can’t Make You Love Me” – whaddya think?