Through the backyard we’d go walkin’
In my childhood bedroom of suburban Dallas, on my bookshelf next to my Babysitter’s Club novels, I kept a baby blue plastic jukebox that held six pink cassette tapes, which advertised, “the best songs from the ’50s and ’60s.” It was one of the many random gifts, mostly plastic wrapped imports of affection that I would never open, that my father brought home from the weekend flea market, Trader’s Village. But I played those cassette tapes until the magnetic film wore thin. My favorite songs: Otis Redding’s “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa,” Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” and Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.”
My mom enrolled me etiquette classes and had me participating in beauty pageants by age six (it was only slightly like Toddlers and Tiaras). I recited poems at PTA meetings. I danced, I sang, I twirled the baton in our town’s parades. In our backyard I practiced my own routines, alone with my tapes and a boom box like Rudy Huxtable belting “The Nighttime is the Right Time,” with our trampoline as my stage and a cucumber from my mother’s garden as my microphone.
I spent so much time tap dancing in front of crowds that I developed an elaborate internal life, an imaginative and secretive one. My mother tried to raise a good daughter, one both entertaining and polite, and I guess in some ways she was successful, but the unintentional lesson was that I learned how to hide. Maybe this is something all children do, but for me, the contrast between the spotlight and the acts I performed when no one watching spanned a huge distance I learned to travel well.
Being good isn’t always easy, no matter how hard I try
Even at that young age I had this tiny tingling feeling inside my stomach that there were dark rooms you needed a secret word to enter. Soul music was a dark room. I didn’t quite understand the music’s sexuality, but I knew something was there and I knew it wasn’t what my friends or family listened to. Soul music was an unfamiliar place, though I knew all the words. My parents listened to Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, the Judds and George Straight. My friends listened to Debbie Gibson and New Kids on the Block. And because being good and popular was of upmost importance in my culture, I kept this music secret. It’s a bit ridiculous now that I thought no one would hear me blaring the tapes through the walls or over the fence.
I rebelled my way through my indie rock teens and in my 20s, found myself spending a lot of time flipping through records in musty used record stores. I came across Dusty Springfield’s big raccoon eyes and bright strawberry blonde bouffant hair on the cover of Dusty in Memphis. Dressed in an off-white lace blouse, her hands framing her face, and that look. She knew a secret. And because music has that visceral way of seeping into our bones, of transporting us through time and place, I put the record under my arm, excited to go home and listen to “Son of a Preacher Man.” This was about the same time I moved to Michigan for graduate school to study poetry. I’d never spent more than six months away from Texas and was suffering through trying to make a long distance relationship work. When it didn’t, that was the first time I’d really been alone.
Takin’ time to make time
I played the record, mostly side one, dozens of times in my little apartment above a French bakery, this time knowing that my neighbors probably could hear me and hated me for it. On first listen, it’s Dusty’s big breathy voice that gets all the attention. She sways and bends, takes it down low and lets it loose–she shivers and hangs, gets in the throat of it. Her lyrics, so honest and straightforward, often reveal secrets of closed doors. In “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore,” she listens to her neighbors talking about her through the wall. And here, the album takes on new meaning for me.
In “Breakfast in Bed,” her voice quivers shy and erotic “pull your shoes off, lie down and I will lock the door.” Elvis Costello called the album “simply one of the most knowingly adult records ever made.”
I chose a school far from home on purpose, because I wanted to just sit alone in a room and read books. A room of one’s own, as they say, a dark room. And though I got exactly what I wanted, it wasn’t the romantic life of a scholar and poet I’d imagined. The great white north was harsh and I was sad and lonely, so, I listened to a lot of records.
Listening to Dusty in Memphis coincided with coming into my own sexuality, that of not needing another person and learning how to be alone. I’ve dated the son of a mechanic, a psychology professor, an accountant, a gardener and a schoolteacher. But Dusty made loneliness sexy, she made heartbreak sexy, she made longing sexy. There’s a certain power in owning your own misery rather than hiding it in cigarette boxes under the bed or behind locked bathroom doors the way my family did, and that power and honesty is liberating.
A large part of the seduction is the Memphis part of Dusty in Memphis, which included the American Studio House Band, some of Memphis’ best musicians. Gene Chrisman’s drumming, subtle and crisp, complex and deep, is enough to make the whole damn record genius, as far as I’m concerned. The horns on one of my favorite songs, “Don’t Forget about Me,” I like to call Wilson Pickett horns, if you know what I mean. Reggie Young’s guitar on “Son of a Preacher Man” is probably more recognizable than Dusty’s voice.
The only one who could ever reach me
It’s true, there are dozens of soul albums better than Dusty in Memphis, and some might call it pop instead of soul. Stanley Booth, a music journalist who wrote the liner notes for the original release, has described Dusty’s vocals as “pretty good for a white girl.” Maybe that’s what draws me to this record, the openness and honesty. The music doesn’t hide behind her voice and she doesn’t hide behind what was expected of good Irish Catholic girls in the ’60s.
Dusty Springfield never claimed she was a soul singer and she didn’t even try to sing like one, but she was smart enough to recognize where the soul of music was at that time. She went to Memphis as the out-of-place white girl, and used her talent, voice and sensuality to make a record that gets in your bones, one I want to listen to 20 years after I first heard it, and 40 years after its release.