The first boy I ever loved broke my heart. I know, the fact that I'm the kind of girl who would even think about using that cliché in this introduction means he was probably justified in dumping me. And looking back at the skinny, self-obsessed, politically clueless boy who played indie-rock versions of "La Isla Bonita" at the local punk club, I can see now that our breakup was a good thing for me. (Recalling the melodramatic, poetry-writing 16-year-old I was, I think it was a good thing for him, too.) But there is one thing I'll never absolve him of: destroying my favorite song.
I was a high school sophomore, dating one of those senior boys who think they can score chicks by saying things like "Hey, I'm a feminist, too!" (Um, okay, so it worked on me then...and, er, maybe it still does now.) A few months after he moved away from our Portland, Oregon, suburb to enroll in a liberal-arts college that offered classrooms
"I miss you," he said, "but I just think that it might be better if we took some time off and..."
"Wait!" I gasped. I wasn't thinking, I need you now and forever! I was thinking, For the love of God, let there be time for me to turn off the stereo before you break up with me and ruin Elliott Smith for good!
Love songs. They have no sense of timing. And that means you can't choose which ones are yours. Sure, you can sync up that record of Let's Get It On so that it's ready to play when you bring someone home after closing time. But when you're actually having your first "moment" with your significant other, some Sting song could be playing on the radio. And then there's nothing you can do. You're stuck with it.
Luckily, I got a great one: David Grubbs's "Banana Cabbage." First released in 1997 on Grubbs's post-Gastr del Sol solo album, "Banana Cabbage" has no words yet still manages to encompass the entire span of a relationship. Its components are minimal: two sparse pianos, each playing a dissimilar melody, each alternately starting and stopping at a different time from the other. The song, like its title, initially feels tentative, clumsy, nonsensical. But slowly each piano section begins to occasionally (and, it seems, accidentally) sound as if it perfectly complements what the other is playing. "Banana Cabbage" is awkward. Then it's moving. Then it's boring. Then it's holy. And it's only when the song is ending that you realize just how beautiful the whole thing was.
My boyfriend played that song on our first date. I have no idea whether it means the same thing to him as it does to me. But every time I hear it, I'm amazed that something so structurally simple is so damn complex. Which is exactly what surprises me about relationships themselves. (Then again, it's also the same thing that baffles me every time I try to program my answering machine.)
What follows are the amorous songs that have meant the most to local musicians and City Pages critics. I've allowed these witty Casanovas to interpret the term love songs--herein represented by tunes about sex, drugs, and self-manipulation--in any way they want. If that ain't free love, I don't know what is.
City Pages music editor
It ain't easy being a 14-year-old hip-hop putz. A white, brokenhearted b-buffoon in freshman hell, where the closest you'll come to sexual healing is the incidental brush of an upper arm in the cafeteria. And more than likely, even if that happened, you were wearing a heavy flannel shirt à la House of Pain and couldn't feel the soft womanly flesh against yours anyway.
These were my adolescent years--most of my time spent in misery, lamenting the no-play that I was getting. During this time, the Pharcyde's two-song combo of "Passin' Me By" and "Otha Fish" became my musical refuge. Face buried in a tear-soaked Phillies Blunt stocking hat, I played these songs numerous times each day, reassured that I wasn't a lone vulnerable dork with an affinity for phat beats.
These guys wore Adidas running pants, they rapped, they smoked weed, and... they couldn't get any ass either? I was all, "I feel your pain, Tre!" I was like, "Keep your head up, Fatlip--we'll get through this, man!" And persevere we did, didn't we? Why, the Pharcyde continued to release quality music, throughout the...uh... Well, at least I went on to pull lots of honeys in my, uh...oh, ugh...shit.
Where's my (sniffle) stocking hat?
--Andrew Broder, the Fog
Gang of Four, "Damaged Goods"
When the mortal flaw in a dying relationship isn't the sex--when in fact the sex is still amazingly good and is perhaps getting better as a result of the emotions collapsing around it--big trouble surely cometh. (Or big fun, depending on how twisted you like to kink.) Either way, it takes a hefty amount of willpower to let repulsion rule over attraction, prompting the coveted clean break.
And it takes a band like Gang of Four to make this situation feel danceable. In the band's classic "Damaged Goods," we encounter the song's narrator as he prepares to dump his love. "Your kiss so sweet/Your sweat so sour," he agonizes. "Sometimes I'm thinking that I love you/But I know it's only lust." Poor, snotty British guy. "The change will do you good," he sings over and over in a happy, good-riddance sort of way, buoyed by Dave Allen's funk-punk basslines.
Goodbye here is a herky-jerky freedom dance, which is almost as good as sex.
--Christina Schmitt, Minneapolis writer and member of Island of Flesh
Paul Anka, "Put Your Head on My Shoulder"
It was the summer of 1996. It was hot and muggy and late, and we were going to see a movie in her powder-blue Dodge Dart. I think it was a '65, but I could be wrong. One thing's for certain: It was older than either of us. We were listening to the radio with the big knobs. It was an oldies station. "Put Your Head on My Shoulder" was playing--the perfect song for the perfect evening. I can't remember the name of the theater or even what part of town it was in. Sometimes I think I made it up, stately and beautiful, like the theaters seen in the old movies.
We sat toward the front. The movie was of the kung fu variety. Midway through the film, she leaned over and laid her head on my shoulder. I wanted to reach over and hold her hand, but we were following the songs, and they hadn't played the Beatles. I'll never forgive the program director.
--Darren Jackson, Kid Dakota
Harry Dacre, "Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two)"
Riding one bicycle in tandem might be the most sensual thing two people can do without touching, locking eyes, or even speaking. It requires an exchange of one's guidance for the other's trust--we jokingly called the bikes "relationship busters" at the rental shop where I worked. There's a perfect romantic metaphor here: If love is something you do, not something you fall into, then bicycles for two show how much doing can feel like falling--the elation of combined strength giving way to the vertigo of realizing that you can't proceed alone.
Harry Dacre probably had other fears in mind when he wrote "Daisy Bell" in 1892, reportedly inspired by a newspaper account of the time Bobby Walthour eloped on two wheels with his 16-year-old sweetheart, Daisy Blance Bailey. Like "I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls," the song swallowed a century's worth of class anxiety in its lyrics ("It won't be a stylish marriage/I can't afford a carriage"). But the singer cajoles with screwball confidence, offering human horsepower to Daisy's cart and framing this goofy Victorian come-on purely in terms of flattery: "You'll look sweet/Upon the seat." Yeah, I bet she will. There's more sexy, masculine self-deprecation in this invitation than in all the wised-up ballads of the past 11 decades.
--Peter S. Scholtes,City Pages staff writer
Tracy + the Plastics, "City"
On September 12, 2001 I lay in my bed depressed, like many people. Drowning my sorrows was not an option. I snapped off my TV and grabbed the cell-phone box under my bed. The contents included a bottle of Probe and my cherished 2001-model vibrating, high-tech, twisting, penetrating, and clit-tickling Silver Pearl. It's a toy that functions both as my primary source of masturbation and as a musical instrument onstage.
I disrobed, pulled the shades, and plopped Tracy + the Plastics' song "City" in my cheap-ass little boombox, then hit "repeat." Already aroused, I cranked the music and set it right next to my head. My cat Tigger ran to hide. I lubed up, inserted the dildo and let the rhinoceros tease my engorged clit. Half an hour passed as I was swelling and sweating. I pressed the magic button as another little red light on Pearl lit up and the buzzing increased. My heart rate doubled, and when it seemed too much to take, I cranked it up. My back arched. I held back as best I could, contorted like a varsity gymnast, sucking up the pain.
Another hour passed. Sadist. Maso-chist. I rode the power button with my thumb, attempting to relax completely. It was amazingly intense. The lights on Pearl were all lit, Tracy was screaming, I was screaming. My back straining, arching further, my breath escaping in low groans. Amazing wails. It was after three and a half hours there in my bed, making Whittier prettier, that I gave myself my first self-induced female ejaculation. Spraying in full force. Annie Sprinkle, eat your heart out. God bless Chainsaw Records and double-A batteries.
--Lisa Ganser, Punky Bruiser
Smokey Robinson, "You've Really Got a Hold on Me"
I've always found Smokey Robinson's "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" something of a conundrum. I'm convinced the song--recorded in early 1963 by the Miracles and later the same year by the Beatles, who knew an instant standard when they heard one--is the greatest song I've ever heard. Perfectly calibrated lyrics, effortlessly rolling melody, the emotional resonance of being the story of my life, and everyone else's, too.
But I've never heard a recording of it that matched the harmony it makes in my head. The Miracles' arrangement is a little too schmaltzy. It lacks the fire of great early Motown at its cheapest--compare it to "Please Mr. Postman"--and Robinson sounds more wobbly than vulnerable. John Lennon, on the other hand, sings it tough and lean, with guitars to match. But both sound like performances--like the song is something the singers can just walk away from...something that, in the 15 years since I first heard it, I've never been able to do.
--Michaelangelo Matos, New York music writer
Willie Nelson, "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys"
I love a pratfall the way some girls love a flashy car. And I've got a monster-truck crush on Bill Irwin. (You might know him as that clown in the "Don't Worry, Be Happy" video, or as Sesame Street's Mr. Noodle.) His "Clown Bagatelles" are some of the most lovely work I've ever seen. His character Willie does the most graceful wrestling with an old trunk. Look, I know it's the oldest trick in the book. But since when is it a crime to be charmed by an old trick?
I've tried to explain this affinity to friends, but I invariably...er...fall short. So here's one last try. Forget for a moment that Irwin is a clown. Think of him as a cowboy--cowboys are sexy, right?--and then go with me into the lyrics of Willie Nelson's bittersweet and timeless little waltz "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys."
The simple formula of the waltz is recognizable from the first measure. And like physical comedy, it soothes us with the promise that we will be handed no surprises--at least as far as form is concerned. The song's central focus is the line "Sadly in search of/One step in back of/Himself...and his slow-moving dreams." There you have it, folks: the crux of physical comedy. The space in between the clown's hyperaware physical control and his willingness to appear clumsy or oblivious is where the laugh lives. We all understand choosing something beneath our own wisdom or ability and then being surprised when the results are a drag. Our hearts go out to the clown--and boom! Monster-truck crush.
Minneapolis culture writer and ukulele performer
Peter Criss is a genius. In one love ballad he comes up with the ultimate phone excuse for being late again. When he sings, "I can't come home right now...me and the boys are playing and we just can't find the sound," it paints this picture of the absent-minded rock band in their crappy practice space looking behind amps and drums for that "sound" they lost. Is Beth supposed to believe this? She knows that Gene and Paul are responsible enough not to leave their sound just lying around. Did Ace burn it on his last solo? Where is it? Where did it go?
These questions are never answered. Peter just wants Beth to know that he's thinking of her by checking in. Beth is essentially his backup plan for the evening. If they find "it" soon, and that's a big if because there are a lot of places it can hide, he'll head home.
For all this to work for Peter, at some point he would have had to explain that the band is number one and she's number two. Dis. We never know if Peter got away with this one, but I'll bet when Beth went to the shows and Peter came out to the front of the stage with a towel around his neck, she told all her friends that the next song was about her.
It's probably a sign of communication deficit disorder to find romance in a song without words--as much as it's a sign of emotional retardation to look for love amid the cold electronics made by a bunch of icily theoretical Germans. But damned if I can keep my heartstrings from fluttering each and every time I hear Oval's "Mediation," from their early, near-perfect Systemisch. You see, as much as my left brain truly digs the way the interplay of hushed scraps of melody approximates Gilles Deleuze's concept of the rhizomic heterarchy, my right brain's always gonna find within the song's fluttering, clipped choirs and fuzzy frequencies the perfect evocation of love's queasy onset.
Call me moronic, or just non-Teutonic, if you will. But I'll point you toward Harmony Korine's pitch-perfect use of the tune to underscore an unexpected moment of bliss in the otherwise dour Julien Donkey-Boy to prove me right: You can have your meta-music and feel it, too.
--Nick Phillips, New York music writer and musician in Nicedisc
Man sits on beach, deep in thought and staring at sea. Red bandanna tied around head. Jean jacket and dark glasses/cloudy day. Stares off in distance/knowing sad kind of way. Top of album says, "Richard Harris love album." I put needle to vinyl. Lush, symphonic first chords of "MacArthur Park" set in. The lonely man's voice, cat who's been through it all, warbles about a lost love. Yellow cotton dress foaming like wave around her knees/good times spent pressed in love's hot fevered iron like a striped pair of pants. She--gone now/singer is shattered man/ left to put pieces back together. All while knowing inside he'll never be able to replace amazing dream of love/lost.
I stare into album cover, wondering what mystical message/being sent my way. Soon aching voice begins to describe far-off place. The Joint: where dreams of love are shaped like pink castles in sand, rising like fantastic confectionary creations/Willie Wonka proportions--alas--come crumbling to ground at feet.
"MacArthur Park is melting in the dark/All the sweet green icing flowing down/Someone left the cake out in the rain/I don't think that I can take it/'Cause it took so long to bake it/And I'll never have that recipe again/Oh, no!!"
The voice: one man's fight to hold on to sanity/live for another dream. Vows "drink wine when warm"/let "passion flow like rivers through sky." He, sweatily running forward, swimming against life's lonely current/careening toward me through fast rock-orchestral interlude. Man will survive epic ordeal/won't be EASY.
Think of all frilly heart-shaped boxes and bouquets of long-stemmed roses/not received again this year/know that I, too, will make it through/somehow.
--Steph Dickson of New York's Tulip Sweet
Hank Williams, "Settin' the Woods on Fire"
My favorite love song is Hank Williams's "Settin' the Woods on Fire," which went to No. 5 on the country chart about two months before the singer's death on New Year's Day, 1953. It's a song about poor rural people going out and having fun at a honky-tonk on a Saturday night. It's also about postwar optimism and a late-breaking update on the wonders of rural electrification.
But mainly it's awesome because partway through, Hank says, "You'll be Daffy and I'll be Dilly/We'll order up two bowls of chili." First off, who doesn't like a good bowl of chili? Second, what if you were so juiced on love that you decided you had to invent a whole new way to communicate the simplest relationships. We're not Bob and Wanda, we're Daffy and Dilly. It's silly. It's so silly that the simplest assumptions just disappear like a bad week or received history. Which gender is Daffy? What kind of class orientation do we associate with the name Dilly? It's 4,000,000 percent possibility--it's the sweet, joyous side Buddy Holly stole from the existentially wrecked Hank, and the Beatles from Buddy Holly, and the Sixties from the Fifties, and it's what anyone who wants to remake their world ought to steal from the one that's holding them back. It's exactly why we decide to fall in love in the first place, and it's why we get up the morning. Or why we can't.
--Jon Dolan, senior associate editor,Spin
A while back I fell in love so hard, so good, and so bad that my musical tastes were permanently destroyed. I once worshiped Dexter Gordon and Erik Satie--I mean I had good taste, man. And now, nothing flushes my blood with pangs of bliss and regret like "Magic," by Swedish one-hit wonders Pilot, No. 63 on the 1975 Hot 100. "Oh-ho-ho it's magic! Ya know! Never believe it's not so!" "Magic" begins bravely with the chorus, which is also how The Boy operated: He came on bold and pretty, naked and slightly sad, like any great pop hook, and I was singing his song inside a heartbeat.
One night we listened to "Magic" on repeat while putting on makeup together. He wore lipstick; he was my soul mate. Then he was gone. Now I understand about being a one-hit wonder. Pilot are long defunct, but if you cue up "Magic" on the jukebox, they're suddenly the best band in the world, and everyone's singing. For three minutes, forever and ever, Pilot are alive and full of promise. Never believe it's not so.
--Kate Sullivan, L.A. culture writer
John Lennon, "(Just Like) Starting Over"
The most immediate love songs are promises, naive if rarely innocent, of a moment or a night or a life or an eternity. Leave it to rock's most ironic romantic, then, to pledge to revive that naive promise with the wise wink of married maturity. By turns warm and corny, Lennon's last great vocal dips sumptuously into overripe Elvis baritone and teeters up to pining teenboy falsetto, his desire as moony and Juney as his fabricated girl-group accompaniment is clackety and canny. But cocooned in the title's wry parentheses is the catch: Nothing can ever be "just like" anything else.
That doesn't mean we can't make believe, though, and relish the fantasy of love reborn while acknowledging how that abstraction could never encompass, let alone replace, the accumulated experiences of a life shared. Which is just another way of saying that love songs exist to limn a feeling that's "just like" what we imagine we once felt--or that love is a concept by which we measure our joy.
--Keith Harris, Minneapolis music writer
Love. It's a bitch. It's like candy. It ain't fair. It's an ocean of emotion. It's all that's solid melting into air. We've got a million love songs--focus-grouped to sweep you up in two and half minutes and set you down 2000 light years from home.
But what about love albums? They last longer than a tryst, taking you through hell and heaven and back in little 50-minute mini-lives. Like poetry collections of stacked multi-track.
X, Wild Gift, 1981
The greatest album ever about love during recession. John Doe and Exene Cervenka don't just perfect punk as the ultimate rock for messed-up boho, welfare-thrift Catholics, they do it with rats in the stairs and a mugger on every corner. From the confessional to the living-room couch, from the radio that breaks your heart to the bars where "singles rule the world, feeding on flesh," it's a jungle out there, baby, and you're all alone...together.
Al Green, Call Me, 1973
The single greatest marriage of mind, heart, and body that music has ever produced. Mind: The erotic contemplation on this sublime study of Apollonian horniness is so deep, so perfectly understood, it seems to transcend this spoiled world itself--no wonder the best ballad here, "Jesus Is Waiting," is a three-way between Al, the listener, and Christ Chile. The heart: This is mainly a record of need--gentle requests, frantic pleas, covers of Willie Nelson and Hank Williams weepers that feel as if he's singing them at the edge of a cliff. For a soul man who was supposed to be the new Otis, this soft-strong subtlety is shockingly daring. The body: Al Jackson's tricky, supple, passionately restrained 4/4 groove trips up the body each time Green seems surest of his emotions. His may be the greatest performance of any musician on any love record.
Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians, 1978
Since screwing to James Brown is like a challenge to climb Pike's Peak, and since doing it to soul music can seem a cliché, here's the best sex record of all time. Ninety-nine percent of Western music is revoltingly Christian, imposing a narrative that often climaxes in some Ultimate Revelation (death, orgasm, assumption, etc.). Reich, a Jew studying African rhythm, didn't write the only piece that suspends narrative for earthly repetition (see dance music). This moist, modulating 67-minute opus, however, is one of the most sensual, actually timing the pulse of its cello, violin, marimba, xylophone, metallophone, clarinet, and piano to sync up with the breathing of the musicians. It doesn't "go" anywhere, it just builds, flows. And who knows where the time goes? Suddenly the boot-knocker is free to forget time itself and create his/her own mind/body/spatial/temporal biosphere. For 67 minutes, at least.
Joni Mitchell, Blue, 1971
Ya know what? Songs are like tattoos. Thirty-one years later, this is still the freshman guide to romantic maturation. Why do pretentious art-major girls fall for indulgent English-major boys? Why do indulgent English-major boys think they "understand" art-major girls? Why should both parties know better? The answer to all these questions and more lies within.
Frank Sinatra: Greatest Love Songs, 2002
Sort of hard to big up such an awful human being. But if you want to be reminded of the power of pal Frankie to transform the banal or even the grotesque into beauty, just imagine him singing these songs to the creepiest people imaginable: "You had such persistence [John Ashcroft] you wore down my resistance"; "Let's close our eyes [Lynne Cheney] and make our own paradise"; "In other words [Paul O'Neil] I love you!" See, still heart-stopping.
Aretha Franklin, I Have Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, 1967
Along with Blue and Carole King's Tapestry and Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville and Mary J. Blige's The Tour, this is one of the most triumphant expressions of womanist soul power in a man's man's man's man's world. Aretha (Ms. Franklin if you're nasty) busts nuts, heals, wounds, takes out the trash, takes you home, and makes you like it, cause only you can hear her "Soul Serenade"--and that's the most open-hearted love song of all time.
various artists, Bootyz in Motion, 1998
Remember all that shit I said about that Steve Reich record? Forget it. If you can't back that azz up to this set of cheesy please-me Miami bass novelty crunk, you might as well get snipped. Stoopid like Cupid, silly like putty, and retarded as love itself.