Friday, June 24, 2011

Apexes, Real and Imagined: The Crystals: "Then He Kissed Me"

"Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children."

"The Munich Mannequins" Sylvia Plath

"That is the irony of it all - the irony that distinguishes great literature - it is all so ordinary."

Kenneth Rexroth, introduction to More Classics Revisited

The story is simple; the narrative, straightforward. He and she meet; they dance; he kisses her; she lets him know she loves him, after a time, and he says he loves her too; she is accepted by his parents, they get married, he kisses her again. The End.

The song circles around, like the thump-ka-thump of the heart, building in intensity as the courting dance begins; this could be another century, as she looks at him and decides to give him a chance. The sky is dark, the stars are bright, everything is in focus and yet blurry at the same time; there is a ghostly quality about this record which is in part due to an accident in the studio (making it more echo-laden than it was supposed to be)...

...and that odd quality is only really apparent upon re-hearing the song and realizing it's sung from a wife's point of view. This is not a girl group staple, per se; usually the girl is massively crushing on or missing her guy, with the occasional foray into anticipating The Big Day when she and he will be actually married. (And there are of course the many songs wherein she loves him but he doesn't love her but OH she will make him see.) But a song from a wife's point of view - even a newlywed one - is rare. The drama of the song is that he kisses her, but the bravado of it is that she is the first to say "I love you" and just from this one piece of the story we know that they will be happy. La La Brooks sings it as if she has lived it, or perhaps as if she is telling this story to girls as if to say, you see, it can be done. But the production is, as Nik Cohn put it, a "heroic combustion" - "Through multitracking, he (Spector) made his rhythm section sound like armies, turned the beat into a murderous massed cannonade." Why such apocalyptic noise for what is an utterly normal story? Is it just the drama of being a teenager finally reflected in music, the zinging pounding insomniac blood of the courtship itself?

I wish I could say that this song (written by Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich) was art, but it is Art; that is because it isn't just about love, but about death.

Now, I am not saying there is anything deathly in this song; but the main riff is somehow both optimistic and settled, and no amount of production can deter its comfortable if slightly unsettling repetition. No, the death is in the woman's life; for in the girl group world (which is, to say, the real world), once you are married then your life is by definition set; set as in matched, paired, and ultimately fixed. There is no more story, just as there is no more story after any fairy tale's happy details of weddings and contentment. Whether this is exactly positive or not I am not sure, but in 1963 the second wave of feminism was only just beginning, and the debate about just what being a wife means is probably as old as the custom (if I can put it that way) of marriage itself. The plain upshot of all this is that the woman who sings here so happily and fondly has no more to sing, her tale is done, at the end she remembers the kiss as if it was the beginning and the end, as if it was an infinity of kisses (which she hopes will continue; again the explosive production bolsters this hope, as if it would ever dare not to come true).

In all this I have been trying to invoke within me Larkin's Law, the one that says look at the work, not the man. Phil Spector was at the apex, the top, when he produced this, a bigshot at 22 and not at all shy about it; to read about him in Cohn's piece it seems as if he is taking revenge on the world by making the loudest and densest music this side of Wagner, the wall of sound both pleasingly and overwhelmingly there and at other times near-oppressive, as if there is no way you could escape it, even if you tried. I am trying hard to concentrate on that and not the perfectionist personality who would construct it, why he would construct it and for that matter what happened long after the apex; though I shouldn't say 'long after' as Spector fell victim to The Beatles' runaway success as much as anyone (he did end up producing them in the end in such a way that Paul left after hearing his song having had sonic golden-syrup-with-cream topping put on "The Long and Winding Road" and really, who can blame him). Ordinarily I would pity him but I cannot do that; Spector should have lived a very different life in the post-Beatles world, but he too was fixed, set in his ways, too used to bodyguards and guns and life apart from the real, pulsing world where the ordinary was elevated to Art by him and others.

As with all Art there is indeed something almost instantaneous about this song, as if it has always existed and only now is being sung. It spirals up and up like two birds in spring and then simply disappears, the screen going black as the picture fades out...only to, unexpectedly, come back in at the end of this song, as if to say, this may be the end but this is how it began, and who knows, the seeds of rebirth may be sown here too, just as she once could not wait to see him again, to be with him, to hear those bells and be kissed. That she knows that that moment is not the apex, but the beginning of her new life is the true happiness here, and elsewhere.

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