Friday, January 29, 2010

No Matter What: Shirley Bassey: "As Long As He Needs Me"

Even though we are now in the fall of 1960 (Kennedy newly elected; Lady Chatterley's Lover is cleared of obscenity, and in a few weeks Coronation Street is about to begin), in my mind's eye this song is played out on a stage that starts in the Victorian period with Charles Dickens acting out the death of Nancy (for this is her song, from Oliver!) in 1868, an experience he puts so much of himself into that he has to stop doing his readings on doctor's orders. Nancy is of course a sacrificial character, and while I don't know enough about Dickens to know why he would put himself through this time after time, he did, and his early death was perhaps due to these readings (not to mention the general headlong way he went about treating, or mistreating, his body). In the song Nancy's need for Sikes is so great that she cannot contemplate being without him, she is loyal and yet dies because that loyalty is falsely suspected. It is something of a doormat song, but Nancy, after her death, is triumphant - Oliver is safe and Fagin's gang are found out.

Bassey's voice, sounding youngish here, nevertheless are those of a woman who is determined to do the right thing, even if she suffers; a kind of nobility creeps in, the nobility of someone who perhaps has her doubts and might reveal them if you ask her carefully - but will not, as the phrase goes, give face. It is a big voice and needs big sentiments. (The problem with having a big voice like hers is getting those songs, as well as ones that work skilfully against it, as Bassey's latest album shows.) One man who was a figurative Oliver to Bassey's Nancy was just a toddler when this song was a hit; some 25 years later he would work with her in Switzerland (too excited for words and almost shy, not his usual self) on a song of profound and deep emotions - not to mention a cool sensuality. The man was Billy Mackenzie. So "As Long As He Needs Me" leads me directly to Switzerland, a recording studio, an hour of magic and nerves; and I wonder if Nancy isn't half singing to Oliver himself, that Bassey might have some story to tell about Mr. Mackenzie and that glorious day, when his voice blended with hers.

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