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Thursday, January 10, 2008
CRYING FOR ATTENTION
Another Grey Area
Arista : 1982
Polydor : 1980
[Out Of Print]
LOVE AIN'T NO TOY
The Bitch Is Black
Motown : 1975
[Out Of Print]
WHAT AM I WORTH
King of California
Hightone : 1994
Over the holidays I was watching a show on cable and noticed that a character had the same name as a woman I used to know, and not just the same name but the same exact name: first, middle, last. That got me thinking about the woman, and the talks we used to have, and specifically one of the last talks we had, in which she told me that I didn't pay her enough attention.
That fateful conversation is one of the only things about her that I remember clearly. We were sitting in her apartment, which was just off the campus of the college she attended. Some friends of mine had been in town that night, and we had all gone to dinner. The wine she drank at dinner, and the glass or two she tacked on back at the apartment, had made her expansive, and over the course of the evening she navigated through all the things she liked to discuss: clothes, sex, art, whether all duty was unconditional, Guns 'N' Roses, Aeschylus. She was at once profoundly brainy and prodigiously trivial, and if it wasn't a calculated philosophy, it should have been. I thought we were headed for the bed, but she pulled up short and told me that I had hurt her feelings during dinner. "You ignored me," she said. "I need you to pay attention to me more than you do."
I laughed it off. She was being ridiculous and I said so. I was paying attention to her at dinner and if she couldn't see that, it was her fault. She said it was okay and that she wasn't upset and I, a fool, believed her. A few weeks after that, we weren't dating anymore -- did I mention that we were dating? -- and then a few months after that, we weren't friends anymore.
Her memory, or at least my memory of her, is inseparable from the music I played when I spent time with her. "Crying for Attention" has, like many Graham Parker songs, made itself known by degrees. Back then, it was just another decent track on a solid but unspectacular record--not Squeezing Out Sparks, not even Stick to Me. But every time the knottiness of unrequited love has tightened around me, I have come back to this particular song, and especially to the deceptive calm in the vocals and the midtempo arrangement:
What's the matter?In my situation, it was a woman who wanted my attention, and who was brave enough to tell me so. In Parker's song, it's a man who wants the attention, and not just the sex he's getting (more than a handful). For me, the song turns on one line in particular: "I know my place--I just can't stay there." What's important is that the tendered offer isn't enough. Desire is by definition aspirational. If she had quoted that line to me, it might have done the trick. Instead, she was straightforward, and she suffered for it, and then I suffered.
Well there is no need to flatter
How do I get you to take notice?
Do I have to break and shatter?
When I feel that I am driven
Over the edge where it's all hidden
I hang my head and hit a table or a chair
I know my place--I just can't stay there
I'm not crying for attention baby
I'm not crying for attention baby
I'm not crying for attention
I'm screaming to be heard
Everybody's listening but you
It's your loving example I need to receive
I need more than a handful -- give it to me
Hey sometimes everybody has to be the center of attraction
But I never expect any satisfaction
And I'm not crying I'm not crying I'm not crying
Not crying for attention
What this brief autopsy excludes is an answer to the main question: Did I ignore her? Well, yes, probably. I had just come out of a relationship that meant more to me than she did, though she was more beautiful and more willing than the other woman. I was still a little ashamed that things with the woman I loved more hadn't worked out, and that hampered my ability to really try things with her. Strangely, I remember walking around with her feeling like I was the one being ignored, even though she was reaching for my hand. I felt like she was unable to sense something essential about me. I didn't know "Ignore Me," by the Gas, then, which is a shame, because it has an irresistible chorus that I could have shouted at her when we fought, which was often, as well as a perfectly inverted perspective that makes ignoring seem like an elevated form of paying attention. Instead, I told her the truth, which is that I didn't agree that there was a problem and that if there was I was sorry because I simply didn't think I could do any better.
Nobody likes to hear this. Yvonne Fair was a singer with James Brown who recorded the original version of what would one day be "I Got You (I Feel Good)," and in the seventies became a rising solo artist for a time. Her most important solo recording, "The Bitch Is Black," was a collaboration with Norman Whitfield and, from a distance of three decades, stands as one of the best funk diva albums of the time, far better than similar albums from Claudia Lennear or Marie "Queenie" Lyons. "Love Ain't No Toy" is one of the best of a set of consistently strong songs, and it plays like vintage Betty Davis, as reconceived by a woman who can actually sing:
I don't know what your friends call youThis is a song about cheating, not ignoring. Maybe Yvonne Fair thinks ignoring would have been better. I don't. I have said that the conversation about how I ignored her--the woman I was dating, not Yvonne Fair--was one of the last. That's somewhat misleading. It had happened before that, many times, and it happened even after we broke up: she would call me and say that she was thinking of me but that she couldn't understand exactly what went wrong. Had she been too needy? Had I been conflicted? I couldn't answer, not then. Even after a few years, after a few more tries with a few more women, I had no real idea. Eventually, though, it came to me. The problem wasn't that I was ignoring her. The problem was that I was capable of ignoring her. If she had been the right person -- or even one of the right people -- I would not have and could not have made her feel alienated. I could have made her feel angry or sad or given her a (metaphorical) whack across the face with a (metaphorical) rolled-up newspaper of recrimination. But ignoring someone and making them feel needy in the process -- as if the very attempt to connect is monstrous -- is the one emotional sin that is irreconcilable with love, not even big-L Love, but anything close. The way I feel, looking backwards, is that I may have been a jackass for making her feel needy, and also that I was blameless. There was nothing I could do because I was not correctly positioned.
When you're out in the street
Romeo or Casanova
To me you ain't nothing but a low-down cheat
There was no song that I knew that could explain that to me, not well. Then, years later, I bought Dave Alvin's King of California. Alvin, of course, was the songwriter behind the Blasters, who I never liked quite as much as I thought I should have. When he became a solo artist, his vocals waterlogged him further. But on King of California, which is filled with stripped-down, shuffling versions of old and new songs, he evolved from artlessness to a style that was wise, warm, and colloquial. Best of all, in two cases he set his nearly voice against beautiful female counterpoint. The duet with Syd Straw on George Jones's "What Am I Worth" was, and is, my favorite. Both singers articulate the desire to be valued by the other, with the result being perfect romantic equipoise. But it's not just desire -- it's ontological desperation:
I don't know why you're making me cryThat's how it should be -- how it has to be. Attention is the only currency in active relationships. It should be asked for, even demanded, without a second's uncertainty. If you don't feel good about asking for someone else's attention, then you're not standing in the right stream. People who say that they have lots of space between them must only mean that they have translated hands-on (or eyes-on) attention to a different kind of attendance. If there's no real presence, then there's real absence, which is why this woman and I broke up, and why I don't remember very much about her other than what I have related here, and why there is a greater chance of my seeing the TV show with the woman with the same name than there is of my talking to the real woman with the real name again.
Honey, won't you give me a clue
What am I worth on God's great earth
If I don't mean nothing to you
I might get sent to be president
I'm sure I could do it for you
They would feature my face all over the place
For all the good thing I do
I might get my name in the hall of fame
Or even in the book of Who's Who
But what am I worth on God's great earth
If I don't mean nothin' to you
What am I worth here on earth
Darling, if I can't have you
I just can't find no peace of mind
With anything that I do
Labels: ben, rock, soul
posted by Ben