Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Can He Do It?: Gene Pitney: "I'm Gonna Be Strong"

Here is a different type of intensity altogether. In pop there are just a few singers who can start at a certain pitch and then move higher; there are even fewer who can go higher than that, to a place almost no one goes, because it is either physically or emotionally impossible for them to get there. Watching Gene Pitney perform this song is not unlike watching someone perform some great feat, such as crossing the Niagara Falls on a tightrope or climbing a skyscraper bare-handed. Even as you watch him you can't quite believe what you are hearing, even though he is in perfect control the whole time and may well be enjoying himself, just as mastering any art is both a pleasure and a serious matter at the same time.

This puts Pitney in a very special place; he zeroes in on a moment when the decision is made - no matter what happens, I will not show how much I hurt; I just won't - with almost sun's-rays-through-magnifying-glass intensity. His whole concern is in fooling her, but he cannot fool himself, is burning up inside, and she will never know. Unlike Smokey Robinson, he does not cry out for recognition of his disguised hurt; this is almost like backstage pep-talk before the big performance. Are we, the audience, convinced it will happen, that he will be strong enough to part without showing any emotions? Or will he, like Nick Cave*, give in at the last moment? There is no way of knowing, save for the last and most heroic effort in the song, put in by Pitney himself - his leaping "CRY" at the end, going up two ocataves where songwriter Barry Mann just put in a steady high note (Mann didn't believe Pitney could do it, but then he did & that was that). So maybe he does pull it off, but there is no escaping how much torment there is in doing so, the moment she has gone he stands a little stunned perhaps, not bowing or waving, because there is no energy left for even those small gestures. (Such gestures would be inappropriate, anyway.)

Pitney emboldened a whole generation of singers to simply go there - you may suffer in the meantime but there is no choice in the matter - if he can do it, so can you, and the results will be more than worth it. (This is the closest thing to an aria this blog has encountered in some time; I wonder if people threw flowers onstage when he performed.) Marc Almond certainly heard him growing up (he duets with him here), as did, unmistakably, Billy MacKenzie (astonishing all present at the end of this).

Thus '64 draws to a close, proud and exhausted and emotionally drained; but there is one consolation left, and it is not found in isolation.

*Cave is also a big Pitney fan; I can only wonder what he thinks of this, for instance.

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