Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene This Is Desire

Paying tribute to soulful singer Dusty Springfield

By Bill Friskics-Warren

MARCH 15, 1999:  Few things are as heady as the first stirrings of desire. Most of us, of course, don't know what's happening at the time. It's only later, when something, maybe a scent or a song, triggers that gnawing again that we recognize these feelings for what they are--innocence in search of experience.

As a fourth-grader growing up in Chicago, all I knew was that I was always on edge around Betty, my best friend's mom. The way she paced around the house in her slip, smoking cigarette after cigarette to put off serving the regulars at the Elk's Club. The pent-up odor of perfume, cigarette smoke, and kitchen grease that poured out of her Rambler when she picked us up from school. The 8-tracks she played in her car--grown-up, hot-and-bothered records by Conway Twitty, Bobbie Gentry, Tammy Wynette, and the Elvis of "Suspicious Minds."

The 8-track that undid me was Dusty in Memphis, an unlikely mix of Southern soul and orchestral pop by Dusty Springfield, a British singer whose name, much as my incipient desire, I wouldn't pinpoint until I was well into the throes of puberty. By then, I'd been hearing the voice of the mascara-plastered blonde with the big beehive for years.

"Wishin' and Hopin'." "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself." "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me." "The Look of Love." Dusty's husky, magnolia-sweet alto dripped with much the same desire on the radio as it did on the song that Betty played over and over in her Rambler. The song that made my mouth dry and my hands clammy. The one about the preacher's son--the only boy, purred Dusty, who could ever please her.

By now, most people know that Springfield, born Mary O'Brien in London 60 years ago this April, died of breast cancer in England last week. Death, however, won't silence her breathy, bruised alto, a voice that will long cast its spell over those who hear it, just as it has inspired the likes of Alex Chilton, Nick Drake, Lucinda Williams, and the Pet Shop Boys. Few singers have sung with as much longing. (Only Billie Holiday leaps to mind.) And fewer still have sung with as much long-suffering devotion as Springfield, even as love often failed her--at least in song.

Anyway, I thought that was the extent of her romantic idealism until I bought my own copy of Dusty in Memphis in 1985 and first heard "Breakfast in Bed." Here, playing the other woman, and seemingly true to self-sacrificing form, she coos, "Breakfast in bed and a kiss or three/You don't have to say you love me." And yet when, in the afterglow of lovemaking, she adds, "What's your hurry, please don't eat and run," the hunger in her voice betrays no hint of suffering at all. Rather, here is Dusty getting some head, feeling like a natural woman, and hoping to go 'round again.

Perhaps the craving in her voice explains why, to an undone pre-adolescent, Springfield's tortured romanticism sounded so good. In a way that I couldn't have imagined in fourth grade, Dusty knew why, after quenching desire's fire, anyone in her right mind would let it rage again, no matter how much she might have to suffer in the meantime.


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