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25 June 2005

A little dream to build my world upon

Dusty Springfield really should never have happened. A black American Soul, Rhythm & Blues and pop singer should have occupied the huge and explosively talented realm that Dusty Springfield -- a white Londoner born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien -- created and ruled.

I'm awfully glad wonderful things that make no sense whatsoever happen from time to time. English pop has a long and nearly universally consistent legacy of getting American originals wrong; the Brits love American music the way I love chess, sincerely, passionately, but usually pathetically. By law, and as punishment for what they almost always do with and to African-American music, white Brits should be restricted exclusively to listening.

Fortunately Dusty Springfield (she took the stage name in 1960) wasn't having any of my advice. From the far side of an ocean, Peggy Lee (another screwy miracle that in a rational world never should have happened) had done something deep to her. My wife just brought me back a dozen exquisite photographs of the beach shack Marconi built on Cape Cod to send the first radio signals across the Atlantic to England; that's the technology Peggy Lee used to do weird and amazing things to
Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien while she worried and struggled against a Catholic school full of uncomprehending nuns.

A ghastly, interminable, ridiculous, stupid war made Dusty Springfield vanish almost overnight and to the point of certifiably Forgotten. War's brutal violence very rapidly and very violently skews and contaminates music, literature, the visual arts, and suddenly Dusty Springfield's unique kind of music lost its vast audience.

I love so much of the music that displaced her, I have no grudge about history's bad car wreck that killed her career and thrust Jimi Hendrix out of every speaker on the planet. The fact is, Earth needed Jimi Hendrix at that instant more than it needed Dusty Springfield. I like ice cream trucks and I like fire trucks, but sometimes you need a fire truck very badly and in a huge hurry, and you have utterly no use for the ice cream truck -- while the house is burning down, it's jarring even to be asked, "Don't you like ice cream anymore? You used to love the sound of the ice cream truck so much."

If the fire truck gets there soon enough and does its job well enough, maybe much later, the ice cream truck can come back and make people happy again. No guarantees. War leaves a big mess and permanent scars on music. Some ice cream trucks sell marijuana and crack these days; before Vietnam I don't think any ice cream trucks sold marijuana, heroin and crack. The Vietnam War sent a lot of people home with a big demand for heroin and a healthy, lusty love for marijuana.

The intersection of Dusty Springfield and Peggy Lee goes beyond childhood radio magic. The Vietnam War was bigger than Dusty Springfield's enormous popularity; the soulful and harmonious art she'd perfected was simply too fragile to survive the ghastly public horror at years of genocidal B-52 raids over Hanoi and Cambodia.

But Peggy Lee had already sung her way through decades and many changes in public taste; she seems spontaneously to have enjoyed surviving and growing beyond these periodic worlds turned upside-down. Eventually both Dusty Springfield and Peggy Lee found themselves working with and singing the songs of a very young Randy Newman.

The Newman-Lee album isn't one big festival of group hugs and musical success. It radiates with tension, frustration and misunderstanding.

But there are several remarkable songs -- they sound very much like a teenager discovering quite by accident that one of his grandmothers loves to commit middle-of-the-night armed robberies of gas stations and convenience stores just as much as he does, and she's even better at planning the getaways than he is.

There are clearly moments on their collaboration when they must have been gazing at one another in perfect bliss, rapture and astonishment. And then, as thieves will, the thieves fall out, they drift off the narrow but beautiful wavelength.

But you will believe Peggy Lee understands nihilism, exposed-nerve alienation and social disgust quite perfectly, as if they are not new thoughts to her, as if she had only been waiting for just the right nihilistic, socially horrifying songs. The Gershwins and Cole Porter didn't write songs like that. But by waiting patiently, eventually she found herself in a studio with Randy Newman.

She's not just there for the rich, new musicality; you can hear her smiling with great satisfaction to sing Newman's strange, angry, even perverse poems.

Then it was Dusty Springfield's turn, and though both albums are precious, the Dusty Springfield-Randy Newman collaboration was far more successful, the wavelengths were locked tight on almost every track.

I think Newman stretched more and wrote far more with this particular singer in mind; he was determined to weave her a lot of songs that fit her unique musical skill and emotional sensibility. As always, Newman is diving to the bottom of the heart's abyss, but there's no wickedness or nihilism or perversity. No one had sung about loneliness and heartache and lost love so wrenchingly since Billie Holiday's "Good Morning, Heartache."

Just One Smile
by Randy Newman
(from "Dusty in Memphis")

Can't I cry a little bit?
There's nobody to notice it
Can't I cry if I want to? No one cares

Why can't I pretend
That you'll love me again?
All I had has been taken from me
Now I cry tears that never become me

Just one smile
Means forgiving
Just one kiss
The hurt's all gone
Just one smile to make my life worth living
A little dream to build my world upon

How I wish I could say
All the things I want to say
If some way, you could see what's in my heart
Oh, baby

I don't ask for much
A look, a smile, a touch
Try to forget
Lord knows, I'm trying
It's so hard to forget
When your whole world, your whole world is dying

Just one smile
Means forgiving
Just one kiss
The hurt's all gone
Just one smile to make my life worth living
A little dream to build my world upon

Just one smile
Please forgiving
Just one kiss
Hurt's all gone
Just one smile to make my life worth living
A little dream to build my world upon
Just one smile

Dusty Springfield didn't vanish, her audience did. They were, en masse, ashamed to be moved by beautiful love songs during a psychopathic, racist war. Now it was Jimi Hendrix' turn; the audience found him. He was a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division, a volunteer gig that required him to leap out of airplanes four or five times a week. He began playing professionally in a band that played NCO clubs at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

The Army was a unique musical education. In "Machine Gun," his guitar fires off ratatatatat machine gun bursts at the audience, and what is he singing about? The torso of men perforated by machine guns? Or the souls of men perforated by doomed drunken car-accident love? Love in the time of Cholera, love in the time of a stupid, interminable, racist, genocidal war -- and yet we need love even more and even more intensely at such times. People are trying to kill us, we desperately need to make babies.

Machine Gun
Jimi Hendrix (from "Band of Gypsys")

Machine gun
Tearin' my body all apart
Machine gun, yeah
Tearin' my body all apart
Evil man make me kill you
Evil man make you kill me
Evil man make me kill you
Even though we're only famlies apart
Well, I pick up my axe and fight like a farmer
You know what I mean?
Weh, hey, and your bullets keep knockin' me down
Hey, I pick up my axe an' fight like a farmer, now
Yeah, but you still blast me down to the ground
The same way you shoot me baby
You'll be goin' just the same, three times the pain
And with your own self to blame, machine gun!

I ain't afraid of your bullets no more, baby
I ain't afraid no more
After awhile, your, your cheap talk won't even cause me pain
So let your bullets fly like rain
'Cause I know all the time you're wrong, baby
And you'll be goin' just the same
Machine gun, tearin' my family apart
Hey yeah, alright, tearin' my family apart

The War ended. The fire trucks went away and the ice cream trucks -- selling heroin now -- came back. The audience embraced other new things, among them a band young enough to be Dusty Springfield's sons: The Pet Shop Boys. I have little use for them. But as kids, they'd suckled at Dusty Springfield's breast the way she'd suckled at Peggy Lee's.

Forgotten, deserted more than a decade earlier by her audience, silent for years. This never should have happened, either. But the world just isn't rational. And Dusty Springfield was just too explosively talented.

Upon returning to California in 1987, Springfield was contacted to collaborate with techno-pop innovators the Pet Shop Boys on a duet titled "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" The single was a global blockbuster, peaking at number two in both the U.S. and the U.K., and it introduced her to a new generation of listeners; Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe also agreed to produce a handful of tracks for 1990's Reputation, which became Springfield's best-selling new album since her '60s-era peak. The follow-up, 1995's country-influenced A Very Fine Love, was recorded in Nashville; during sessions for the album, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and after months of radiation therapy the illness was believed to be in remission. By the summer of 1996, however, the cancer had returned, and on March 2, 1999, Springfield died at the age of 59; just ten days later, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

~ Jason Ankeny, All Music Guide


Breast Cancer Action Nova Scotia (Canada)

Dusty Springfield --- Vocalist ---- died of breast cancer today
Posted By: Kat
on Wednesday, 3 March 1999, at 12:11 p.m.

Maybe its because I sing for a living or maybe its just because I remember her music and loved it, but this hit me so hard when I heard it on the news.

God I hate this disease and how it hurts so many people.


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