Love Stinks

Forget "I Wanna Be Your Lover." This Valentine's Day, Prince just wants to hang with God.
Jeff Katz

My friend Jim says that music is love. I can dig that. Not sure where "We Want Some Pussy" falls within the music-love paradigm, but the basic concept feels right. In this sense, every song is a love song, because every song is a desperate attempt to connect deeply with others. (Even "Nookie.") Ironically, it's an equally desperate grab at total personal and spiritual freedom.

Hanson aside, I would even contend that most songwriting is born of suffering--loneliness, boredom, loss. The attempt to turn that stuff into music may the best recycling program the universe has going. It's certainly an act of heroic hope. And that's love, Jack.

So a song can be a love song even if it has nothing to do with long-distance phone calls, fireplaces, or anyone saving anyone else with their sweet, sweet love. Maybe it's because I'm totally single again this Valentine's Day, but lately I've had a grateful affection for all the non-love love songs. When you're super-not-in-love, or even just super-not-getting-laid, normal love songs can be a drag. It's like watching someone else's slides from their trip to Yucatán. You can certainly see that Yucatán is a lovely and magical place--but it's not your place, and you don't have a ticket.

If you're getting over a corrosively codependent relationship, you don't want to hear some pathetic sucker whining, I can't live if living is without you! You know that shit isn't half as much fun as it sounds. Likewise, you don't need to hear about how fudging happy someone is now that they've found their forever love, and everything's going to be perfect for sure, ooh baby I love your way, every day, 'cause baby I'm-a want you.

The primary hang-up in romantic love, which infects most pop love songs (even the good ones), is the emotional isolation of it--being able to feel love in only one way, for one person. Love is bigger than that. Love is bigger than sex and romance. In short, Love is bigger than love. Single people, monks, and kids (and probably old people) know this better than anyone. You think we don't know passion, longing, and sentimentality, even if they're kind of open-ended and weirdly amorphous at times? You think expansive, soul-thrilling love is only for those who are blissfully hooked up and doing it 24/7? (How many of those people are there, anyway--six, seven?) If you can't grok the heaving pulse of Love in the air all around you, holding the planets in orbit and giving electrons their charge, you're sunk, punk.

That's why non-love love songs are so comforting. Here are just a few of my favorites.

  • Prince and the NPG, "One of Us," Emancipation

    Remember this one? ("What if God was one of us?") Prince turns this Eric Bazilian-penned single into a stripped-down power ballad in the "Purple Rain" tradition--ecstatic and apocalyptic, with chugging power chords and vocals frayed at the ends, desperate to prove to you what a fucking brilliant song this is. I never understood it until this version, one of the last great Prince records. God is not some guy in heaven. God is sitting next to you on the bus. God is lonely. Love God.

  • Prince and the Revolution, "Sometimes It Snows in April," Parade

    It's a rare and beautiful thing when a man sings a ballad to another man, fragile and romantic, deeper than sex. I don't really know who he's singing to (maybe himself) but the emotion is real: grief for a lost time, a lost friend, or a lost way of looking at the world. Every April this song comes to mind, too, a seasonal companion, something to sing while shoveling. It always snows in April.

  • The Kinks, "Waterloo Sunset," Something Else

    One of the sweetest, most abiding loves is the love of the Special Place, the place where you belong, your magnetic home. You don't need any lover, any money, any anything to dig this love. It's in your soul, it's in your story. Nobody wrote about this more romantically than Ray Davies. It doesn't matter if Waterloo Station is crowded and banal. It is home. "Long as I gaze at/Waterloo sunset/I am in Paradise."

  • The Lemonheads, "My Drug Buddy," It's a Shame About Ray

    This could have been any old addiction song, but any old addiction song would not be this tender. "I'm too much with myself/I wanna be someone else," Dando sings--the druggy lament that really speaks for anyone, everyone. You know it's gonna end badly, but there's some beauty in the escape attempt, something to take away. "I love my drug buddy," he says. That's some redemption, anyway.

  • Michael Jackson, "Ben," Ben

    Another love song to a friend, ostensibly a rat, sung with the clarity and perfection of a genius child who understands about melancholy. I guess a ballad to an animal is kind of kinky. But mostly I think about my big brother, Ben. Hey, Ben: You've got a friend in me. Forever.

  • T. Rex, "Cosmic Dancer," Electric Warrior

    Everyone needs a love song to sing alone. "Cosmic Dancer" is a Whitmanesque ode to the Self, with a circular structure and lyrics, like a grownup nursery rhyme. That's good, because it's about childhood and death, and the cycle of it all. "I danced myself right out the womb/Is it strange to dance so soon?" He makes it all seem elegant and unscary; he's his own best friend.

  • The Beatles, "Two of Us," Let It Be

    They say this song was written for Linda, but, to me, this is the love song John and Paul wrote for each other at the end of their time together, when they knew their paths were about to split. Shit, they even share lead vocals. You can feel their love for each other all over this song. Wish they'd let us see a little more of that.

  • Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World," Facing Future

    This Hawaiian balladeer is gone, but every time I hear him play his ukulele and sing this intuitive sister-brother medley, I feel more deeply alive than I thought a grown-up could. Music doesn't get any lovelier than this--and it has nothing to do with traditional romance. These are hymns to life itself, and the longing at the heart of it, the longing to connect. Like "My Drug Buddy," or "Waterloo Sunset," or any of these, this music has a broken heart. All really fine music does. In fact, I don't think the heart really works right until it's been broken at least once. That's when the music starts.

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