Desire and a Word

"YOU WANNA WATCH where the fuck you're goin," he said.

"That's 'You want to watch where the fuck you're going, Sir.'" It was a lieutenant, and he was laughing.

That interchange comes from Dispatches, correspondent Michael Herr's version of the Vietnam War. In a subtle way, it's one of the best books I've read about the intrusion of rock & roll into everyday life (if you can call Vietnam everyday life). And reading that passage with Hendrix on the brain, it hit me: "Wanna" is the most rock & roll word in the world.

"Wanna" is what America is supposed to be: present tense (but lacking pretense), immediate, and vernacular. While it's more urgent than the conditional "would like to," it's perhaps less demanding than the straight and proper "want to" (though it's twice as much fun). "Wanna" trips a minefield of desire, and what is real rock & roll but a chain reaction of pure and noisy longing? I wanna live, love, leave. I wanna understand, hold your hand. Or, underage in '84, I WANNA VOTE!

Of course, there are arguments to be made for "gimme" or "gotta." But consider the way Muddy Waters pulls you right into his arms in his version of Willie Dixon's "I Wanna Get Close To You Baby." Or Bob Dylan's giddy proclamation in "I Wanna Be Your Lover" that "I don't wanna be hers! I wanna be yours!"

Of course it would have to be New Yorkers who negate the word, as Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon does on "Kool Thing," snapping gloriously, "I don't wanna/I don't think so." But I have a soft spot for Jonathan Richman's "Back In Your Life," a declaration of such raw nerdiness, such embarrassing honesty that you want to grab the girl he sings to and beg her to take him back just so you can stop feeling all goopy on his behalf. He loves her so much he wants to hang out with her parents, for pete's sake: "I will wait a long time if that's what it takes/But someday I wanna help your mama when she brings out the pancakes/I wanna be back in your life..." Then he calls out to his baby, drawing out the syllables slightly longer than the beat will hold them: "Babyyyyyy! Babyyyyyy! Babyyyyyy!"

It's an adolescent word, wanna. It's not that I believe popular music is an inherently teenage phenomenon. It's just that teenagers personify grasping and groping. For one thing, they haven't given up. Unlike some of their complacent elders who dispense with asking for more than their fair share, teenagers are greedy, idealistic, miserable, and confused. In other words, they're on their toes. They spend most of the day wishing and daydreaming. They want things to get better, because they can't get much worse. In short, they want.

But the world tends to point you in only two directions--grow up and settle down. Which is another way of demanding that you know your place. In an unpublished essay about Elvis, country music historian Bill Malone wrote about this telling teenage memory: "I will never forget what my father said to me when he left me off at Tyler [Texas] Junior College on the first day of freshman registration in 1952: 'Don't sign up for anything big like lawyer.'" Three years later, Malone went to see his idol, Hank Snow, open for Presley in Austin and was shocked at the way young women--young country women at that--displayed their sexual hankerings (but not for Hank) in public. In her brilliantly saucy book Where The Girls Are, teen Beatlemaniac-turned-grownup academic Susan J. Douglas asserts that "breaching police barricades to try to touch Ringo's hair" made it easier down the road for the same girls to breach police barricades while demanding equal pay and legal access to abortion.

So rock & roll is the pied piper that leadeth into all kinds of righteous temptations. It makes people who hear its deepest messages ask more out of their lives. In the wake of Elvis, young, working class Southerners (and then everyone else) started thinking big (bigger even than lawyer) in a way that the oppressively conservative forces of tradition and old-time religion had never allowed.

Right from the start, the Ramones wrote more wanna songs than anybody. According to Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-A-Rama, the set list for their first live show, at the Performance Studio in New York on March 30, 1974, contains five out of seven songs with "wanna" in the title. Besides "I Don't Like Nobody That Don't Like Me" and "Succubus," they played "I Don't Wanna Go Down in the Basement," "I Don't Wanna Walk Around With You," "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue," "I Don't Wanna Be Learned, I Don't Wanna Be Tamed," and "I Don't Wanna Get Involved With You."

But the way I see it, even though the Ramones talked the wanna talk, they never quite walked the wanna walk. When Joey sang "I Wanna Live," I never quite believed him. As a friend said, "There are many great things about the Ramones. Hunger isn't one of them." Punk was one big stomach growling, an intense craving for something better. But the Ramones' famous "I Wanna Be Sedated" is about the least punk sentiment there is, the ideological equivalent to I'd Rather Be Golfing. Ruling-class housewives wanna be sedated, don't they? The kind of people who wear sweater sets and say "cocktail" instead of "drink"?

If the Ramones equate their wanna with sleepytime drugs, then the pre-punk Stooges de-wannafy sex. In "I Wanna Be Your Dog," Iggy mutters "Now I'm ready to close my eyes/Now I'm ready to close my mind." The Sex Pistols' "I Wanna Be Me" is more like it. While the Ramones gripe "Nothin' to do/ Nowhere to go," Johnny Rotten warns sedate bystanders to wake up and watch out. He might be answering the Stooges and the Ramones when he preaches, "Now is the time to realize/To have real eyes."

If the Ramones' lead singer didn't truly capture the spirit of wanting, at least he's inspired it. The best wanna song of the '90s, "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone," was released this year by bang-up trio Sleater-Kinney. When vocalist Corin Tucker (whose every breath, wail, whiff, and moan might qualify as wanna synonyms, if not whole treatises on desire) informs you that she's the queen of rock & roll, you not only believe her, you throw back your head and applaud the hubris it takes for a female nobody from Olympia, Washington to even make the claim. And I wanna know, what could be more rock & roll than that? Because even though pop tells you that you can't always get what you want, it lets you ask this one great
big wonderful question: What if
you could?

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