I Don’t Have To Say I Love You (But Dusty, I Do!)
I’ve been listening pretty obsessively to the Dusty Springfield station on my Pandora app lately. It plays a lot of Stan Getz, Bobby Darin, and of course, Aretha Franklin, to whom she’s often compared.
I love Aretha. With a voice at once like a piano and a trombone, few performers are as worthy of their icon status. And Aretha tells a marvelous story. I’m with her, standing at the kitchen sink and gazing out the window when she’s looking out onto the morning rain, reflecting on how she used to feel so uninspired. Just as when the chorus swells and she sings about feeling like a natural woman, it makes me want to take my husband in a close embrace, touch my forehead to his, sway to a song only he and I can hear.
There aren’t many singers who can bring you into a story like that. Who can take you on a three minute journey, leaving you wistful, with an emotional hangover worthy of a novel.
Yet time and again I find myself gravitating more towards the Dusty tunes.
Musically, Dusty and Aretha are pretty close cousins – at least when you compare Dusty’s soul period to Aretha’s body of work. And it’s not just because they were from the same era and shared back up singers. There’s a very strong and bluesy, gospel-infused similarity to the way they approach a song. At times, Dusty, can seem like Aretha’s sister from another mister – a fellow outlier with something inside her that can’t be contained. Less a light, than a full-out solar flare.
But what I like most about Dusty Springfield is that she was always changing, evolving, trying on a new costume. She moved from early sixties “Gidget-style” bop, to smarmy-sexy Burt Bacharach tunes, and then, yes, to Aretha-laced soul like “Son of a Preacher Man.” All with equal elan. And with a preternatural Dusty-ness.
Aretha was always Aretha, which is damned amazing. But I struggle to imagine her belting out a Eurythmics song, for instance. And I suspect Dusty could knock that one out of the park. She could do a cool and artsy “Sweet Dreams,” or a mournful, but electrified “Who’s That Girl.” All without losing her essence.
I bet Dusty could put a whole new spin on Madonna.
Hell, she might even pull off a Celine Dion, but without the cringe factor.
Dusty’s “Heart Will Go On” might’ve implied a bit of violence – a drunken night, bitter words, rough sex. Even her most syrupy ballads had an undercurrent of love gone wrong. You could imagine her as the girl who was left crying in the dark, mascara running down her face after her lover left, slamming the door behind him. Or the woman who’d had too much sex with too many men. She wanted to be wanted more than she craved the actual wild thing, but got sucked in again and again. Maybe he would call this time? If not? Pass her a drink.
Her heart would go on.
And Dusty could do a killer Aretha – a feat not many white women, or black women for that matter have been able to accomplish with such casual grace. As a working class British lesbian, she could embody the voice of a black American preacher’s daughter.
I love the versatility, the audacity of Dusty’s easy switch from British to American to pop to soul to disco to 80s British reinvasion. Collaborating with The Pet Shop Boys, then showing up on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack helped her stay relevant in a way few performers were able. The sixties, for most, were such a hard act to follow, but Dusty was on the charts until only a few years before her death from breast cancer in 1999.
She is to me the definition of true, multifaceted talent.
But what do I know? I’m a writer. And I approach music like a writer, which many music lovers might object to. A true aficionado might say Aretha is the superior talent because she can only be Aretha. She is the epitome of style – a very specific style. A woman like Dusty Springfield dabbles too much. Like Eva Cassidy. She’s neither here nor there, but everywhere. She’s an actress more than a singer. And yeah, ok, story’s important in a song, but it’s not everything. There’s some great music out there that makes no sense at all and completely ignores a basic three-act structure, a true tunehead might say. Just look at Ornette Coleman. Thelonious Monk. David Byrne. The B-52s. House music.
All true. I’m not above grooving to a nonsensical song. Or even one that tells a bad story but has a catchy beat. I’ve got Duran Duran and The Best of Disco on my iPod, after all.
But unlike the men Dusty sings about, I love her best of all.