Well I’ve Been Your Fool Before and I Probably Will Again

There are times when I’m walking, or more likely driving, and all of a sudden I have a flash of a lyric enter my head that hasn’t been there in many, many years:

Honey why you always smile
When you see me hurt so bad
Tell me what I did to you babe
That could make you act like that

It hits me hard every time – bam! I’m eighteen again and I’m dying to hear the song, dying to hear the voice, dying to get a glimpse of the singer, with those blue eyes and that blonde hair. To get the full effect of you probably need to hear the voice yourself – sharp, cutting to the bone, tough, and always steady. And it would help to have a picture to go with that voice as well:

Maria McKee. Singer for Lone Justice and in 1985 certainly sexier than Madonna, who was working her own blonde tendrils at the exact same time on “Like a Virgin.” But while Madonna came across as a manufactured pop star, the amalgam of virgin/whore that had a certain sex appeal but that you knew was never actually authentic, Maria McKee always just came across to me as herself: strong-voiced, individualistic, adult – but not corrupted by compromises. To the eighteen-year-old that I was at that time, the opening lines of “Ways to Be Wicked” held the allure of sex, of a broken heart, of a woman who wasn’t afraid of what she might want, even if it might not be the best thing for her.

To hear the voice and to get a fuller glimpse of McKee and why I responded at eighteen to her and especially to the song, I want to show the video for it (I apologize for the lousy quality of it, though the audio is fine. I couldn’t find a better copy, but you do get a sense of the band):

Whether she’s riding her board or strumming her guitar, McKee commands the screen. She’s young, she’s got the varsity letter jacket  with the skirt and black boots, she’s on the mike, she’s the center of the show. It’s not a great video by any stretch of the imagination – hey, the band is playing on the rooftop! – but it’s a great showcase for the band and not a surprise that they highlight McKee in it. She works the camera, staring into middle distance and then directly into the lens, inviting the viewer in, keeping him at bay.

The lyrics are worth checking out, for the slyness of the come-on to the audience and the basic wordplay that McKee is selling:

Honey why you always smile
When you see me hurt so bad?
Tell me what I did to you babe
That could make you act like that?

Well I’ve been your fool before honey
And I probably will again
Cause you ain’t afraid to let me have it
No, you ain’t afraid to stick it in

Well he knows so many ways to be wicked
But he don’t know one little thing about love

I can take a little pain
Yeah I can hold it pretty well
I can watch your little eyes light up
While you’re walkin’ me through hell

Well I’ve been your fool before, honey
Yeah and I probably will again
Cause he ain’t afraid to let me have it
No, he ain’t afraid to stick it in

Yeah he knows so many ways to be wicked
But he don’t know one little thing about love

Yeah those cobra eyes
Lie with a smile
Baby you take pride
In that devil down inside

Well, I can take a little pain
Yeah, I can hold it pretty well
I can watch your little eyes light up
While you’re walkin’ me through hell

Well I’ve been your fool before honey
Yeah and I probably will again
He ain’t afraid to let me have it
No he ain’t afraid to stick it in

Well he knows so many ways to be wicked
But he don’t know one little thing about love

In those opening four lines McKee poses herself as a victim – someone “hurt so bad”  – and we immediately feel for her and wonder who would do this to her. But I love the next four lines and what they do to this opening in how they twist our expectations: she recognizes how she’s been his fool before and that she will be again, because he ain’t afraid to “let her have it,” a great line that leads into the double image of intercourse and masochistic pleasure. We recognize, by the end of the first verse, that the woman singing this song wants a little pain, she wants him to give it to her, to stick it in, but we also realize that while this has obviously to do with sex it also has to do with pain, and not just the physical kind.

She “can take a little pain,” she can “hold it pretty well.” And there’s something in her that enjoys it, that keeps her attached to him.  Part of it is might be what she gets out of it, but another part is the recognition that he is someone who enjoys it, “his eyes light up/while [he’s] walking [her] through hell,” and it’s clear that she doesn’t sing this with regret or fear or anything other than an enjoyment of his sadism. But there’s something in those opening four lines that I want to return to, now that we’ve gone through all of the lyrics.

The song has in it something of a paean to sadomasochism, to her pleasure at receiving pain and his at giving it. Still, when we hear it a second time, and every time after, we hear something slightly slippery in those opening two questions, about why he always smiles when he sees her hurt so badly and what she did to make him do it. She’s asked him to hurt her, and he enjoys it. And yet there’s something else here too. After all, while he knows so many ways to be wicked, to have fun, to have great sex, he doesn’t know one little thing about love. In the end, the song isn’t just one big come-on, there is actually some regret. The regret, though, isn’t about the pain, or the type of sexual relationship that they have.  The regret is that she recognizes that he will not be the one for her in the long run, in the ways of the world outside of this sexual relationship.

What she realizes in those opening four lines, what she’s told us from the very beginning, is that this guy ultimately isn’t the one for her, that he’s not ultimately good for her. It’s what we first think when we hear the opening verse, but it comes back to us in ways we don’t expect. He isn’t good for her, though he is in ways we at first don’t imagine! She may get off on the pain, on all the wicked things they do together, but ultimately she understands the circumscribed way that this sex operates in this relationship, and that life goes on beyond it.

It’s a sophisticated lyrical scheme at play, and the band’s rockabilly/country rock/cowpunk sound complements it well. And although we might expect that McKee had to write the song, considering how well she sells it vocally, in fact it was written by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell (guitarist for the Heartbreakers). McKee, you see, had been dating Benmont Tench, keyboardist for the Heartbreakers, and Petty and Campbell had been sitting in on some of Lone Justice’s live dates around LA in the mid-80s. It turns out that McKee and Lone Justice were quite the hot ticket at that time in LA and that a lot people liked working with them. Campbell and Tench play on the album, along with Steven Van Zandt (you might remember him as Bruce Springsteen’s guitarist in the E street Band!). Jimmy Iovine was the band’s manager and actually produced the album.

There was a lot of juice behind Lone Justice, and I can remember seeing them when U2 toured and how I insisted that we get to the show early enough to see Maria McKee because I dug her so. She was a sexy rocker, good looking with a killer voice that hit you hard, above and below the belt. But the band never did take off. I thought this song was great, and really like “Sweet Sweet Baby” too, but they never had the commercial success one might have predicted from all the talent involved. Somehow they just didn’t click with audiences, who seemed to want the manufactured virgin/whore that Madonna represented rather than the complexity of a woman like Maria McKee.

To me, she was genuinely gold. Loved the voice, loved the look, loved the song. I was eighteen and wanted, as much as anything else, for her to do wicked things with me. I guess that’s pretty much rock and roll.

Time’s Up

It’s April Break for the boys and I dropped them off at science camp the other morning before heading to school. On the ride from the museum to school I turned on the radio and on came “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper.

If you haven’t heard it in a while, take a listen:

The lyrics speak to lovers who can’t quite get in sequence.  They’re out of step – she’s always ahead and he’s always asking her to slow down. This is a love that will not last – she knows that at one point the picture of her will “fade” – but it’s also surprisingly upbeat in that even though they will not stay together she promises that the “darkness will turn to gray” – things will get better for him. And, of course, she articulates and reiterates a solid trust between them: “If you’re lost, you can look/ and you will find me/Time after time./If you fall, I will catch you/I will be waiting/Time after time.”

I don’t know what it says about me, but I’m a sucker for this song and always have been, ever since it came out way back in 1983. “Girl Just Wanna Have Fun” was the first single off of She’s So Unusual, Lauper’s debut album and it was a giant hit, and “Time After Time” was the follow-up single. (To give you a sense of how successful it has been, it’s been covered by over 100 other artists, including Miles Davis and Willie Nelson: thank you Wikipedia!)

Back in 1983, Lauper may have looked like a kook and pushed the wardrobe and the hair as far as she could in terms of achieving a singular style, but one thing no one could ever doubt was her pipes. Man, she could sing.

And this is a beautiful song, meant to show off her voice and nicely written by Lauper and Rob Hyman. Lauper gives a particularly clear and vibrant vocal performance wherein she is both in control of her emotions and surrendering to them through the course of the song. It’s convincing. I also love Hyman’s harmonies. Many of you will recognize his voice – he’s one of the guys from The Hooters, who put out their debut album, Nervous Night, two years after this, in 1985 and became big stars for a while.  You may recall “All You Zombies,” “And We Danced,” and “Where do the Children Go.”  They were so big so quickly that they opened the Philadelphia portion of the Live Aid concert in 1985, the year their album debuted (being from Philly had something to do with this slot, of course).

In fact, “Time After Time” clearly evokes The Hooters’ work – not only through Hyman’s voice but also because Rick Chertoff produced the song and was the lead producer for The Hooters.  The guitar, the drums, the vocal arrangement – all of them have the feel and the sound of The Hooters’ work.  And in this case, I mean that in a good way.

By the way, I purposely didn’t link to Lauper’s video for “Time After Time.” I’d be happy to offer a reading of that video, with its idiosyncratic production values and visual style, but it seemed like a different post…

The semester is starting to rush to its finish, the work of the classes is finishing, the seniors will be graduating. It’s a time of transitions at work.  Endings, beginnings, possibilities. This song captured it for me.