Not too long ago my girlfriend – let’s call her Tristen - and I had, after many moons and much debate, decided to terminate our relationship. I use terminate rather than end because the former seems so much more final. I was en route to the apartment we had shared for more than a year to collect my things, when I became aware of the fact that I was humming a song. It was a tune over two decades old, and I hadn’t heard it in almost as long. Soon I was murmuring a few bars of the chorus, and before long I was belting out entire stanzas. The song was "Surrender to Me," a power ballad by Ann Wilson of the rock group Heart and Robin Zander, the lead singer of Cheap Trick.
A few rather interesting things deserve mentioning here. First is that the song is written by Richard Marx, who penned a series of very sentimental love songs in the late 80’s - "Hold Onto the Nights," "Endless Summer Nights," "Right Here Waiting" – all of which I had enjoyed immensely when they were released during my early teens. Marx had helped to set the tone of sweet, heartfelt romance, which married rather nicely with the work of other artists and with hugely popular movies of the time, including "Dirty Dancing" and "Ghost," and a few years later, "Pretty Woman" (and who doesn't remember its theme song, Roxette's ballad "It Must Have Been Love"?).
Another thing I should mention is that by the time I arrived at her door I had sung "Surrender to Me" in its entirety. Verbatim. After not hearing it in more years than the age I had been when it first hit the airwaves. That's a convoluted way of saying a really long time.
How to explain this? I know that the brain stores memories as bits of information associated with specific neurons or brain cells. But what caused me to recall a song I hadn’t heard since I was a teenager at that particular moment in time?
A third noteworthy tidbit is how fitting the words were for our particular situation. After I left Tristen's place, I sang the song once more, this time paying close attention to what I was actually reciting, and I was dumbfounded at how exactly the lines mirrored our relationship.
Is it that we've been together much too long? Tristen and I had been together for nearly four years (3 ¾ years almost to the day), which was 150 percent longer than my longest previous romantic relationship of 2.5 years. Had she and I been together for too long? Is that why we were fighting so vehemently, especially in that final year before the breakup?
The answer may not be in black and white. This had frequently come up. The issue catalyzing many of our arguments had been whether we’d take it to the next step, “build a life together,” (her words). I was happy as her Part-time Lover, and as I liked to say, she was my Saturday Love (both of which are, incidentally, themselves names of songs). And I wondered why it had to be all (white, all the colors of the spectrum; living together, constant companionship, an attempt at forever, despite that she had already been married, recited vows, and broke them, call me critical but I’m simply naming the truth) or nothing (black, absence of light, of each other, the break-up she threatened would follow should I refuse to get hitched).
We’re always trying to prove who’s right or wrong. Also true. Over the last year, our relationship had been characterized by a strong undercurrent of tension (due in large part to her frustrated desire) and had devolved into bickering and petty fault-finding which drove like pouring rain over our sunny days at the beach, giving me heartburn at our once so romantic dinners, wearing away at the foundation we had erected with all those picnics at the park and walks along the shore, chipping away at the fairy tale romance that began when we met on Valentine’s Day, at a party at my childhood home, where we kissed for the first time and spent many subsequent nights in bed and days by the pool. And the beach, lest we forget!
And now we’re giving up without a fight. Yes we had fights, but after many threats to end it we had a particularly stormy fight over something incidental. We had gotten together to take a bike ride and when I arrived at her apartment ready to go she had just gotten out of bed and was still in her pjs. I was anxious to leave, and resented her for not keeping our exercise date. She never was very punctual, and this had for a long time worn on me. I said so and stormed out dramatically. We talked a few hours later, argued about something I can’t recall, and in the argument a fuse seemed to blow, and we agreed we could no longer go on this way. We decided to schedule a time over the ensuing few days during which I’d pick up my things.
And there I was, singing "Surrender." Isn’t that what I really wanted? For her to just give in and allow me to lead us in the right (read: my) direction? I was eight years older and with age comes wisdom, doesn't it? And yet didn't she want the same thing, for me to surrender to being together full-time and for the long haul?
I had been reading a book by this Hindu sage who says that romantic love can only hope to succeed when the lover surrenders entirely to the beloved, and when you surrender, it succeeds fantastically. Of course in an ideal situation, the beloved does the same, surrendering her particular desires to those of her lover. If both parties don't agree to give in completely it makes for a situation in which at least one member of the pair can get seriously manipulated. But according to Osho, the purpose of romantic love, like that of meditation, is the obliteration of the ego. Romantic love achieves this ego-destruction through total surrender to love, and only if in any disagreement (lovers’ spats, to use Elvis Presley's term) you willingly assume total blame can you hope to destroy the ego and attain self-realization.
And self-realization is, after all, the purpose of life, if you agree with these sages. Was my relationship with Tristen my chance at self-realization through love? Should I surrender totally and agree to move back in with her even though I couldn’t afford it and had found during our brief period of cohabitation that she was impossible for me to live with (she is slovenly by my standards and an incorrigible night owl, while I’m just the opposite)? In short, it was either surrender to her desire or say goodbye. And if you give me an ultimatum between all or nothing I will invariably choose nothing because nothing is something since I'm comfortable alone. And yet, were we abandoning something valuable and which hadn’t been allowed to fully run its course?
I picked up the phone, poised to call her and give in to any and all demands, anything to keep us together and keep alive the hope of self-realization through ego-destruction through love. Because:
I know when you’re gone, I’d wish we held on.
I knew this moment would come, despite how strongly I felt that breaking up was the right thing to do, especially since we had promised to do so amicably and at least try to remain friends. I knew I’d inevitably hit the stage over the ensuing weeks in which I’d long to make it like it was (another song). This is how it has been for me in prior relationships, and if I wanted her back, I’d only be true to form. Despite knowing full well that Tristen and I had come to loggerheads, and that neither her way (living together, assuming her huge student debts as my own, tolerating the clutter, one day having kids despite feeling that she was no more than an overgrown child herself) nor my way (doing our own thing during the week, getting together on weekends for days by the beach and nights in each other’s arms) satisfied us both, despite knowing full well that neither was willing to surrender to the other so the only sane option was to go our separate ways - despite all these incontrovertible facts, all I wanted to do in that moment, humming that song, was forget about the past and who’s to blame.
And this got me thinking, in a what comes first, chicken or egg? sort of way.
Were these conflicting feelings of mine so universal that the songwriter and singers of so many popular ballads of yore (and the millions of fans who enjoyed them) had felt them and felt strongly enough about putting them into words? Were the words themselves so generic that they might apply to any relationship, the way you can wear white with any other color? Or did I feel the way I did about Tristen and the relationship, which was somewhat of a pattern with me – convince a girl she is not the one for me until she gets it and lets me go only to beg her to take me back, as I was on the verge of doing in the very next moment – did I feel as I did because I had heard this song and others like them, by Richard Marx and his ilk, during my impressionable youth? "Surrender to Me" had debuted in December of 1988 and peaked at number 6 on Billboard top 100 in March of 1989. I was 16.
I reflected on my romantic history, considered the serious girlfriends, whom I’d been with every four or eight years like clockwork starting with Christina at the age of thirteen, Neysa at seventeen, Isabella at twenty-one, Shannon at twenty-nine, up to Tristen at thirty-seven. And I began to realize: Most of the break-ups had played out to a song. For instance, Shannon and I broke up to the words of Chicago’s Hard Habit to Break. The song was released in July of ’84 and reached number 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Shannon and I ended our love affair in 2004. In the 20 years that intervened, I had maybe heard Chicago’s hit a handful of times, and not at all for at least a few years prior to the breakup. So why did it come to my mind on those nightly walks by the beach shortly after we ended things, nights I spent casting lovelorn glances at the tumultuous ocean, reminiscing about times gone by? And why did I remember the Chicago song word for word, and why did the words once again fit my situation to a T?
I guess I thought you'd be here forever (I did: two months into our love affair Shannon suggested we get joint bank accounts; she must have really thought me a keeper!)
Another illusion I chose to create (it was, for the obvious fact that we broke up)
You don't know what ya got until it's gone (a cliché, but probably because it’s true!)
And I found out a little too late (indeed)
And here is where it got eerily accurate:
I was acting as if you were lucky to have me
Shannon was my best friend, but I wasn’t attracted to her sexually. They say a guy and a girl can never be just friends, that couples often use friendship as a pretense to get to know one another because either one, or the other, or both, is in love. Well, Shannon was very much into me, and she pursued me openly and persistently. And after we had been bosom buddies without the bosom for about three months, she gave me an ultimatum: Lose me as a friend, or take me as significant other. I gave in, and though I didn’t say it, my actions always let her know that I was:
Doin' you a favor I hardly knew you were there
But then you were gone and it all was wrong (because I was crushed!)
Had no idea how much I cared (I didn’t)
The next verse:
You found someone else you had every reason (After we broke up, Shannon and her high school sweetheart immediately got back together)
You know I can't blame you for runnin' to him (Eventually they’d marry, have three kids, and divorce)
Two people together but living alone (Oddly, we had moved in together 4 months before breaking up, and although we shared a bed, during this time we hardly saw one another, our schedules were so different: I taught English during the day while she went to graduate school, and at night she’d cocktail waitress while I wrote screenplays. But I felt it wasn’t that our schedules didn’t coincide. We were growing apart because:)
I was spreading my love too thin…
The more I thought about my feelings and the way I was expressing them in song, the more I felt the pervasive influence of pop culture. And I wondered about the precise relationship of top 40 hits to romantic hits and misses. Do love songs tell us what to feel, or do they reflect what we’ve been feeling, those universal and timeless vicissitudes of romantic infatuation? Either I have some Rainman quality to pull from the archives of my memory the perfect song to describe precisely what I’m feeling, or hearing Surrender to Me and other power ballads programed me to feel a certain way in the future. A sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. And as a dot at the end of the sentence, the song appeared at the very moment it had proved itself true. Revealing its identity, like the producer emerging at the end of his play to take a bow and receive an applause (or in this case, my tears).
I am not a music buff. I learned and quickly forgot how to play both the guitar and the piano, and I can’t carry a tune to save my life. My own mother has called me tone deaf, and she is otherwise my biggest fan. If you examined my CD collection (which is nonexistent) or my iPod (which I never use) you’d hardly call me a collector or connoisseur. But from early on, starting at the age of eight and continuing through my early 30s, I was very, very much affected by whatever happened to be playing on the radio. In the era before CDs, I’d record tunes and play them over and over and over again. When I liked a song so much it became an obsession, I’d buy the CD just for the song, and listen to it until the CD became inaudible and by then the tune itself had branded itself on my brain.
I once believed that music’s magic ended when the song was over, or when I could get a particular song out of my head. I never had any idea that the pervasive power of music extended deep into the fiber of my being, even going so far as to influence my actions and emotions. Not until I found myself humming a 25-year old love song at just the right moment were my eyes opened to the ballad's true power, and to its impact on the game of love.
It goes without saying that we are profoundly influenced by our environment. In the battle between nature and nurture, genes do have their say, but we don’t come into the world shaking hands and saying God bless you. We learn these things by observing others, and the process of socialization begins from the time of birth - possibly even before we are born, if you believe my mother that I was dancing to the oldies playing on the radio while still in her womb. The question is this: To what degree is the struggling lover influenced by popular music, and if the influence be great, since more relationships than just my own seem to be floundering, how do we get help?
Consider: I decided to move to New York after hearing the lyrics of Baz Luhrman’s “Wear Sunscreen” (Live in New York once but leave before it makes you hard).
With Shannon, I listened to “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads, and seeing my future life flash before my eyes I knew if we stayed together I'd find myself living in suburbia with a picket fence and 2.4 kids and soon find myself screaming with David Byrne, This is not my beautiful wife. This is not my beautiful house. My God, what have I done! So I sold my car and moved abroad.
In fact, a song is what brought Tristen and me together in the first place. Because when I was eight I used to lock myself in the bathroom and sing the words to 50s crooner Frankie Avalon's hit Venus. And because Frankie Avalon wished for a girl with "sunlight in her hair," and eyes like the "brightest stars up in the skies," not to mention all the charms of the love goddess herself, I wished for Venus to make this same dream come true for me as well. And the night Tristen and I met that song came to my mind, and I was sure that she was Venus coming to me in the form of my blonde-haired, blue-eyed, now ex-gal.
Such has been the influence of music in my life, despite my hardly ever paying attention to the lyrics – if I could even understand them, which is getting ever harder as the years progress and instruments overwhelm the artist’s voice. Usually it was the melody that made me so enamored of a tune. But after the Surrender to Me episode I realized that the words, even if they didn't consciously register, were making their impression in my life indelibly felt.
So, which comes first, the song, or the emotion behind it?
Themes such as the battle of the sexes and all’s fair in love and war have been around since time immemorial. Why? Is it because they are true, or because a few isolated experiences infiltrated media and tainted all of romance? Relationships are suffering, marriages are failing, couples are quarreling. Many point to loss of tradition, or to the changing nature of domestic roles, or to the institution of marriage itself, which some call unnatural, man-made, imposed like a prison sentence that only serves to make a couple desperately wish to break free. And they often do. Did my parent’s stormy break-up when I was in my early twenties somehow jade me? But since my emotions so closely mirror the lyrics of pop songs, could it be the hidden and not so hidden messages in music that tell us what to feel, believe, and hows it gonna be (Third Eye Blind)?
Of course, there are many musical genres, each with its characteristic themes. There's the rapper’s self-aggrandizement, the country singer’s jilted lover. Both have their drinking binges. There’s the top 40 stuff, hard metal, techno, and many others. A tune for all tastes. What accounts for one’s musical interests, and does one’s personal preference have any bearing on the type of romantic relationships that ensue? That's me thinking aloud. But until I wrap my head around the nature of lyrical influence, I prefer my tunes be instrument only, thank you very much. So bring on the Mozart. His symphonies are supposed to raise one's IQ. And I'll need the extra smarts to get to the bottom of this connection between pop culture and modern romance. So strong is my desire to do so that it overwhelmed my urge to piece a broken relationship back together. The moment for calling Tristen had passed. So I set down the phone and instead picked up the pen.
*I was born a hopeless romantic. I say hopeless because in today’s world romance seems to have vanished or to exist merely as a mirage, so seeking it is an exercise in futility. The more appropriate term perhaps is hopeful romantic, since I wished so badly to be in love, but that was then. By then I mean from the time I was in nursery school until my parents broke up when I was twenty-four. During this time I wanted more than anything to get married. And by now (I am 43) I could easily have gotten hitched a dozen times. And been just as many times divorced.
For about as long as I can remember, my dream had always been to meet and fall in love with that special someone (pseudonyms are soul mate, twin spirit, love of my life, take your pick). After the appropriate length of courtship, we'd get married, raise a couple kids, and live together happily ever after, or at least for as long as we both shall live, like the song that inspired this feeling in me.
From a very early age, possibly before I even understood the concept of the soul, or considered past lives or special purposes, and certainly before I had seen the movie The Jerk and heard about special purposes, I believed I was put on this earth to find my other half. If we all have a reason for living, mine was to enjoy the boon of physical love. I believed this even before I had had my first erection. Why else become human? I didn't have dreams of being rich or famous (maybe I should have, since the wealthy celebrity has his pick of females). Nor was there anything in particular I was great at to the extent that you could say about me that "he was put on this earth to do (such and such)." But even before I had grown my first chin whisker I had been called handsome, and well-endowed, and a good kisser when the time came for that sort of thing. See, made for love.
I had my first crush in nursery school. Tabitha was a first grader who’d visit my classroom to have lunch with us. I never understood why; it may have been that Tabitha was a daughter of one of the teachers. Often Tabitha and I would share lunch items. This was the thing to do in the days before kindergarten. I’d trade my fruit rolls for her cheese and crackers. And those dry, flimsy crackers tasted so much better knowing they were from her.
In first grade I became obsessed with Barry Manilow’s love song, "Can’t Smile Without You," which begins I can't smile without you, I can't laugh and I can't sing, I'm finding it hard to do anything...
I was six when the song came out. What is its gist? There is but one interpretation. Inherent in the lyrics is the sense of being incomplete, of needing another. The powerlessness you experience when you make your happiness contingent on acceptance by the beloved. A fact you cannot control. Of course all this was lost on the 6-year-old me. Still, in many ways this song set the tone for my romantic future. But how to account for taste? I doubt whether my classmates, on hearing Manilow croon, felt the inexpressible longing that wracked me through and through. When other boys my age were playing with action figures, I was fantasizing about my other half. Call me precocious. And popular music shaped the nature of the relationships that would ensue. Certainly anyone who sings such a heartfelt song knows the true nature of romantic love? Manilow, who over the years has had a string of high-profile affiances with women, recently married a man. Um...
At the time Manilow's song was popular (late 1970's), I didn’t yet have an object for my affections. That wouldn’t come until the third grade. It was then that I fell in love with Jennifer Hall. She was two grades older than I. With blonde hair like straw, pretty blue eyes, a little pot belly and breast buds, as the pediatricians call the developing womanhood, Jennifer always made my heart skip a beat. How to make the connection? I had an idea. I made a list of three boys in our school, myself included, and had a classmate show the list to her with the request that she rank the three of us in order of looks. She ranked me 2nd. The winner was in her same grade. His name was Chris something or other. How could I compete with an older man? I believed I'd love Jennifer Hall always and forever - that is, until she graduated the following year. Alas.
This was around the time I first heard Frankie Avalon’s "Venus." It was released in 1959 and reached Billboard Hot 100’s number 1 position. Clearly before my time (I was born in ’73). But I was raised on K-Earth oldies by my mother who came of age herself in the late 50s and early 60s. So I knew at least a half a dozen Elvis songs by heart before I could even count to 100. But of all the golden oldies, "Venus" was by far my favorite. Venus, if you will, please send a little girl for me to thrill. A girl who wants my kisses and my arms, a girl with all the charms of you...
I’d sing the song in the bathroom and envision a girl just like Jennifer Hall. Not her per se, because she was out of my league and now in junior high also out of my life and I knew I’d never see her again. (Alas.) But someone like her. Someone fair, with eyes like bright stars and sunlight in her hair, and should Venus grant my wish I would promise to love the girl as long as we both shall live. With Tristen, 27 years later, my wish would come true, or so I imagined. Because with these things (love), who really knows anything?
But on the radio stations I liked to listen to when mom was in the other room, Michael Jackson dominated the airwaves, as did Marvin Gaye’s "Sexual Healing," which was released in 1982 and topped the charts for a record ten weeks. I loved that song. The beat alone made me giddy. But I wasn’t sure about the meaning. Was "operating" to be taken literally? Was he inviting his sweetheart into his boudoir so that she could remove his appendix, or by operating did he mean something figurative (having to do with, say her figure). This sexy song, coupled with a few chance encounters with our neighbor's porn collection, launched my sexual awakening before I had even seen 10. Had I been a youth in the 50s or 60s (or even the 70s), when such a song as Marvin's could not have passed the stiff strictures of censorship, I could never have known at such an early age of such a thing as physical love. But the infiltration into popular culture of songs like "Sexual Healing," and around the same time, Olivia Newton-John's "Let's Get Physical," during the early 80s opened the door later that same decade for groups like Digital Underground and Naughty by Nature to talk about sex. Hearing Gaye and Barry White and Prince activated my nether regions, and girls became the object not just of my affection but of my fantasies.
Christina was my first girlfriend. We met on the day I turned 13, in 1986. I had been seeing a girl named Alexis, but Alexis had mysteriously broken up with me the day before, then didn’t come to school on my birthday. I never knew why this was, but it probably had something to do with the fact that her (Alexis') parents forbade her to date, so she was faced with the quandary of getting her secret steady a birthday present and risking being found out by her mother, or not and being jeered by classmates for being so stingy on my day of all days. But this is just my surmise. We never talked about it. It rained on my birthday that year, and all the grades were grouped together in the school building’s main hall, where we waited for our parents to come pick us up. Christina, who was a grade below me, and whom I had never met as she was a midterm transfer student, approached me and we got to talking, I can’t remember about what. But the conversation just flowed in what I now know was my first episode of flirting.
That night her sister Josephina, who was in my grade, called me up and told me her little sis had "fallen in love" with me. The next day Christina presented me with a Valentine’s Day card, which was doubly special, since Alexis had left me empty-handed and alone. It was the sweetest thing, before U2's song by that name. I was smitten. Alexis was forgotten. And two weeks later, when I asked Christina to be mine, we were officially a couple. We promised each other to one day marry, and our parents were gentle enough to humor us, although we could hear the words puppy love whispered behind our backs. But we were convinced we had found forever. And popular music supported our notion. During our year-and-a-half long romance, songs like "The Next Time I Fall in Love," "Secret Lovers," "Friends and Lovers," not to mention various ballads by Whitney Houston - including "The Greatest Love of All," "All At Once," "Saving All My Love For You," and of course "You Give Good Love" - dominated the airwaves, serving as anthems to our amorosity.
Ah, the mid 80s. Such a good time to be in love.
In fact, if you look at the Billboard top singles for the year 1986, love was all around me, and long before the Wet Wet Wet song by that name (1994). That year (1986), six of the top 20 songs have the word love in the title. Seven, if you extend the title of Whitney Houston's smash "How Will I Know" to include the second part of the line, "If He Really Loves Me." And of the 13 that don't feature that famous four-letter word, love, almost all are ballads. "I Miss You" by Klymaxx, as well as songs by Lionel Richie ("Say You, Say Me"), Mr. Mister ("Broken Wings"), Heart ("Never"), and of course, Billy Ocean's "There'll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)" because love songs often do. Really the only top-twenty hit that year not about romantic love was Eddie Murphy's "Party All the Time," and I'm not even sure what that song is about. But my favorite top twenty hit of 1986 was Peter Cetera's "Glory of Love," from the soundtrack to the movie "Karate Kid II." It came out over the summer, and with classes out Christina and I didn't get to see each other nearly as often as we did during the school year. And so with Cetera I imagined that:
I am a man who will fight for your honor
I'll be the hero you're dreaming of
We'll live forever
That we did it all for the glory of love
Contrast 1986 with this past year. In 2015, only one year-end top twenty hit had the word love in its title. Ellie Goulding's "Love Me Like You Do," is from the soundtrack to the blockbuster "Fifty Shades of Grey," an intensely erotic movie about sadomasochism. It makes me feel old when I hear myself cry, "My, how times have changed!" The same year (2015) singer Taylor Swift was reported in Time magazine to say she wants to be seen as a spokesperson for girls, to teach them what to think and how to behave. Her most recent album, 1989, has sold nearly 10 million copies worldwide, so it's safe to say that young girls everywhere are listening. Swift's song "Blank Space" finished the year (2015) at number seven. My favorite stanza goes:
So it's gonna be forever
Or it's gonna go down in flames
You can tell me when it's over
If the high was worth the pain
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They'll tell you I'm insane
'Cause you know I love the players
And you love the game
Our (Christina and my) relationship ended when I graduated. She had one more year of elementary school, while I was off to be a high school frosh. Christina and I never really discussed why we were breaking up. Without the luxury of attending the same school, and too young to drive, we had no reliable way of seeing each other. So I guess distance and circumstance were to blame.
In the years that followed I'd watch as romantic love slowly faded from popular music and gave way to songs about sex. Madonna was largely responsible for this phenomenon, with her string of hits including "Like a Virgin" and "Papa Don't Preach," but also British rockers Samantha Foxx ("Touch Me") and George Michael. Because who can forget his visceral "I Want Your Sex"? And what about "I Touch Myself?" And the Human League's "Don't You Want Me?" (1981) And Animotion's "Obsession" (1984)
All these songs seemed to say in chorus, "Less heart, more crotch."
Later, movies like Don Juan DeMarco (1995) would remind me that we all have a twin spirit; it would reinforce the notion that the purpose of life is for each of us to find his other half and reunite. My favorite line from the movie leaves little doubt. “There are those that do not believe that a single soul born in heaven can split into twin spirits and shoot like falling stars to earth where over oceans and continents their magnetic forces will finally unite them back into one. But, how else to explain love at first sight?” Falling in love is easy, staying in love, not so much. Or so I'd come to learn.
Indeed the notion of soul mates can be found even in the writings of Plato (born 424 BC). In his Dialogues, he writes of three species of humans. One species is male, one is female, and the third is androgynous. And though the androgynes are self-sufficient, the goal of every male and female is to find his or her missing half, and merge (a euphemism for sex, since Plato's time was not as outspoken as ours). I now consider myself more like Plato's androgyne, which is to say I have largely given up the amorous quest. Largely being the operative term. But at the time of my teens and for decades thereafter, I was convinced that life only begins when, as Survivor sings, "The Search Is Over," (1985: #48). And so with popular music as my theme, I continued the search.
After a string of casual flings in which I felt out my romantic potential - the phrase "sowing oats" comes to mind - while feeling up a lot of other things, it was at 17 that I lost my virginity to my first "real" girfriend, Neysa, who on meeting my mother promptly proclaimed that we were going to get married. Neysa was a woman after my very own heart. Alas, the relationship lasted for three weeks, which was too short to have a theme song. But much of my high school romantic life was driven by whatever ballad happened to be topping the charts. With Autumn, who I had dated for three months during my junior year, it was Heart's "All I Want To Do Is Make Love To You." By this time MTV had made the music video a household name, and these brought the lyrics to life, and often in neon. When I saw the video version of Heart's song, which was about a girl who picks up a handsome hitch-hiker and after flirting in the car takes him to a hotel where they make "love like strangers all night long," I imagined Autumn as the driver picking up a young, strapping someone who wasn't me. And my how jealous it made me! I've never quite been able to account for this feeling.
The year 1990 was once again about the ballad and ripe for love. Indeed nearly a quarter of the top 20 songs had love in the title. The same year found me pining away to the hit "Price of Love" by the supergroup Bad English (#68). And to be sure I crooned along with the band Foreigner to their hits "Waiting for a Girl Like You" and "I Wanna Know What Love Is." Love was back in the air and on the air, if only briefly.
In college I "went steady" to borrow the parlance of my parent's time, with a Brazilian girl named Isabella. We were together for a year, and our theme song was "Babe I Love You," by Styx. To characterize our love we choose a song from a bygone era (1979) because many of the popular songs of the 90s just weren't all that romantic. The power ballads by glam metal bands like Warrant and Poison were laughable. They treated love in a silly, sentimental way, which didn't stop girls from listening, and guys too, though we'd never admit it. "Fly To the Angels" is great fun to sing in the car, if you can hit those high notes. But by the middle of the decade even these cheesy ballads were giving way to edgier stuff. Ever since the movie "Colors" came out in 1988 (I was 15, gangsta rap had been becoming more mainstream, and when Isa and I were together, it was hip hop that dominated the airwaves. It can be argued that 1994 (the year we were a pair) was the beginning of the end of the love song. But it wouldn't go without a fight. That year there were four songs with love in the title, and these songs, which included "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," by Elton John, "The Power of Love," by Celine Dion, and Boyz II Men's "I'll Make Love To You," were like wind in our sails, helping us make it through the year. Walt Disney helped too. For who can listen to the theme songs of the studio's animated pictures of that time, I'm referring here to "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast" especially, without crying along with Celine that In a restless world like this is, love is ended before it's begun, and promising that When I fall in love, it will be completely, or I'll never fall in love. When I give my heart, it will be forever, etc.
Like Aladdin, I could show Isabella a whole new world, shining, shimmering, splendid, a new fantastic point of view, with no one to tell us no or where to go or say we're only dreaming. Or at least I could learn her mother tongue (Portuguese) and join her on a trip to visit her native Brazil. But she was jealous, I was “cold,” and at 19 and 21 respectively we both were immature, green, in Motley Crue's words, too young to fall in love. Perhaps. By the year's end she had given me back my engagement ring and moved back home. Leaving me to wonder whether I saw the sign. Fittingly, the song by that name, by the group Ace of Base, was 1994's number 1 hit.
For years after college I played the dating game. That meant a lot of mindless chatter, a lot of meaningless sex, and a lot of fun doing it, and Shannon I’ve already described. But over time, and with romantic setbacks and vicissitudes, I found myself becoming calloused and decidedly unromantic. Better to be staunchly opposed to romance than a hopeless romantic, a term I never did agree with. Hopeless meaning there is no hope you’ll change, or hopeless meaning the desire - viz, to find true love - has no hope of being fulfilled, because true love doesn’t exist? Is marriage the death of romance? What happens to the newness, the freshness, the wonder, doesn’t it all fade into the familiar? Around this time my parents divorced. After 30 years of the good came a lot of ugly, replete with infidelity, dishonesty, name-calling, sordid details from the past, and lots of arguing, which was strange since before the break-up I could never once remember my parents to disagree. Was I living a lie and only now awakening to the horrors of committed life? So for over half a decade I buried myself in schoolwork and sports. I ran marathons and earned a medical degree. My romantic life was nonexistent. "Once Bitten, Twice Shy," I preferred not even to enter the fray. (Great White; 1989; #43).
Then came Tristen. By this time I had left medicine. Gone were the 12-hour work days, and with more time on my hands, I let romance fill my life. We listened to Venus together. And other songs we shared with each other. These included John Legend's "Save Room For My Love" (2006), which I dedicated to her; and Katie Melua's "No Fear of Heights" (2010), Tristen's song to me.
In the wake of the break-up, Surrender to Me gave way to Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You. The first stanza was so fitting. If I should stay, I’ll only be in the way, so I’ll go but I know I’ll be with you every step of the way.
I knew that by staying with her even though it worked for me on a part-time basis I’d be holding her back from achieving the romantic destiny she desired. And the true indicator of love, as I told her, is wanting happiness for another person, even if it’s not with you. This song gave way to one by Anita Baker, which I hoped Tristen was feeling. I hope she, like the singer, was looking back on all those good times we once shared, that she was singing to herself that I must have been blind just to think I'd find someone new, one who loved me better than you.
Cause there's no one in the world to hold me
No one in the world is gonna move me,
No one in the world
Can love me like you do baby
Every time I'm with someone
Loving you yes I want to run
I wanna run back to your arms again
When we broke up Tristen said she was worried that I’d find someone else, but that was the furthest thing from my mind. She wondered, Will he one day have with another girl the life I want to have with him? But staying with someone in order to prevent that person's finding fulfillment in another's arms is poor excuse for love. And I told her so. No wonder that after we broke up I never heard back.
In the wake of the break-up I'll admit I've sometimes wondered whether I'll find someone new with whom to play the game of love. Because as Michelle Branch sang, to Santana's guitar accompaniment ("Game of Love"; peaked at Billboard #5):
It just takes a little bit of this
A little bit of that
It started with a kiss
Now we're up to bat
A little bit of laughs
A little bit of pain
I'm telling you, my babe
It's all in the game of love
The best or at least the most bittersweet part of the game may come when it’s over and it’s time to reflect. Going through the 1000s of emails between Tristen and I was agonizing. But it’s a product of the digital age. Writing is more common, and keeping emails automatic. You may not keep them all if they were tangible pieces of paper, but they’re there, for moments of weakness. Looking at some of those pictures of the two of us, it was like the first time I’d ever seen them. When you’re in a relationship sometimes you’re too busy living it to pay attention to what is going on. And when it’s over you realize what you had, and what you’ve lost. But this is often the period of growth, the necessary reflection. That is why it may not be the best idea to jump in the saddle right after a breakup and forget the ex in the arms of another, common though this is. It’s like eating again before you’ve digested your previous meal. The result can be tummy upset or poor absorption of nutrients. Maybe that's taking the analogy farther than you require, but you can trust the author of a book on nutrition when I tell you to wait!
Our friend Plato spoke of the ladder of love, climbing it in successive relationships until you are left knowing love itself, its pure essence. True love doesn’t require an object, and yet itself is every object. Universal love. Unconditional love. Decidedly unromantic love, I'll admit. But getting there is half the fun, if romance is your thing. In love's ladder, each relationship, if treated with care, can help you to the next stage, the ultimate stage being fulfilling and lasting companionship – provided this is what you want. Remember, Plato spoke about males and females finding their other half, but let’s not forget the androgynes, who are content within themselves, and need no one. So there's a place for those who don't fit in with conventional roles. If this sounds like you, rock on. Just be prepared to be called homosexual now and then.
I began this piece attempting to dissuade myself (and you, kind reader) from marriage. Having loved and lost, I was myself disenchanted. But I now find I’m not unwilling to give the game of love another try. Say yes to life, am I right! And next time perhaps even take the plunge. But I think I’ll do a twist on the familiar theme, perhaps writing my own vows, and not bringing the rigid hand of the law into it. No paper, no marriage certificate, maybe not even rings, since I’m not much of a jewelry wearer. Just a promise, the nature of which is to be determined, since it needs to be agreed upon by both. It need not be to love and to serve until we die. Such a view seems so old fashioned, and those who stay together until their old and gray often do so more for tradition or pressure or the force of habit than from anything deserving the name LOVE. So it seems to me.
I think it’s possible to preserve the spark. I also believe that marriage shouldn’t be too much work. You should choose someone who you have a natural rhythm with. Birds of a feather flock together more than opposites attract. Problems will arise, sure, but being in harmony assures that the solution achieved will be rather quick and painless. Will there be a "Next Time I Fall"? (Peter Cetera with Amy Grant; #28 in 1987). Love after all is like a road that never ends how it leads me back again. The next time I fall, I'll know better what to do, I'm gonna follow through. They just don't make love songs like Cetera's anymore.
Because really, we live in a profoundly unromantic age. If you look at the ones who have the most reason to feel lovey dovey, the younger generation with all those years of kisses and cuddles to look forward to, kids these days are decidedly averse to anything they'd call mushy. I think because technology has dehumanized us. Texting cannot take the place of the face to face, though how it tries! And the current wave of techno pop reflects the plastic, artificial culture that has permeated our love lives. Maybe it's not so sudden. She was blinding me with science long before I went on this rant. Still, we need a tranfusion of heartfelt love songs because in the contemporary world of today our collective blood has "turned to dust and clogged our hearts," to quote our expert, Don Juan. Or if we are like current pop stars, we babble incomprehensibly about merchandise. Like this one from Lorde:
But every song's like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin' in the bathroom.
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin' the hotel room,
We don't care, we're driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody's like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash
We don't care, we aren't caught up in your love affair
If you're not convinced ask the Black Eyed Peas, who in 2009 showed us with their "Boom Boom Pow" that words can easily become meaningless sounds:
Gotta get-get, gotta get-get
Gotta get-get, gotta g-g-g-get-get-get, get-get
boom boom boom, gotta get that
Boom boom boom, gotta get-that
Boom boom boom, gotta get-that
Boom boom boom, gotta get that
Boom boom boom, now
Boom boom boom, now
Boom boom pow
Where did this come from? Thank bands like 2LiveCrew and NWA, who entered the 90s with megahits. If you're 15 and you hear "Me So Horny" and are still a virgin, it's likely that before long you're not. The power ballads of the hair bands along with the glass-shattering notes sung by divas like Mariah, Whitney, Amy Grant, and Celine were able for a time to prevent the relentless onslaught of pop without a soul. In the late 90s boy bands like Backstreet Boys, In Sync, and 98 Degrees emerged to pick up the flack, but the influences of rap combined with the tag-team of Madonna and Prince, who with their hip-thrusting beats influenced boys and girls of all skin tones, were too overwhelming, and the radio waves are currently dominated by their sultry successors. Lady Gaga sang this year's Super Bowl National Anthem (2016), after Katy Perry, another sex pot, who did a fine job I must say. Adele reminds us that we haven't lost that lovin' feeling, as does her brother from another mother, Sam Smith; but even sentimentality-drenched Robin Thick can get nasty with his "Blurred Lines."
It's a fun exercise to examine for each of the years of the last four decades (which is how long I've been on this planet) the top song. What does number one say about the collective consciousness? Were we hugging, f#@%ing, or fighting?
1973: Tony Orlando and Dawn; "Tie A Yellow Ribbon 'Round The Ole Oak Tree"; I really don't know what this song's about
1974: Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were"; she's always romantic
1975: Captain and Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together"; pure romance
1976: Wings; "Silly Love Songs"; another song with love in the title
1977: Rod Stewart "Tonight's The Night (Gonna Be Alright)"; Rod Stewart has some of the most romantic ditties on the planet, just listen to "You're in My Heart."
1978: Andy Gibb; "Shadow Dancing" (Bee Gees dominate top 10)
1979: Knack's "My Sharona" (Donna Summer dominated the top 10)
1980: Blondie's "Call Me"
1981: Kim Carnes; "Bette Davis Eyes" (Pat Benatar enters scene, and the battle of sexes comes to the fore with her "Hit Me With Your Best Shot")
1982: Olivia Newton-John; "Physical"; the name says it all...
1983: Police; "Every Breath You Take" (Michael Jackson made his mark this year with "Thriller"; Lionel Richie also hit the scene, counterbalancing with his soft songs the riskier lyrics of Marvin Gaye and Prince)
1984: Prince; "When Doves Cry"; dripping eroticism
1985: Wham!; "Careless Whisper"; a jilted lover with a broken heart
1986: Dionne and Friends; "That's What Friends Are For"; interestingly, Jermaine Stewart’s "We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off" became 2006’s "We Have to Take Our Clothes Off"
1987: Bangles; "Walk Like an Egyptian"; kind of cooky
1988: George Michael; "Faith"; oozing sensuality
1989: Chicago; "Look Away" (anything by them is heart-wrenching)
1990: Wilson Phillips; "Hold On"; so sweet
1991: Bryan Adams; "Everything I Do I Do It for You"; another hopeless romantic gives me hope
1992: Boyz II Men; "End of the Road:" ("Nuthin’ but a G-thang" was number 2)
1993: Whitney Houston; "I Will Always Love You"; and I, her
1994: Ace of Base; "I Saw the Sign"
and I did too...the end of romance is near...
1995: Coolio’s "Gangsta’s Paradise"
1996: Los Del Rio; "Macarena"
1997: Elton John’s "Candle in the Wind"; put out a second time after Lady Diana's death.
1998: Next; "Too Close" (first line goes "When we’re grinding I get so excited")
1999: Cher; "Believe"; with her, I believe in a life after love
2000: Faith Hill; "Breathe"; love survives the 20th century!
2001: Lifehouse; "Hanging By A Moment"
2002: Nickelback; "How You Remind Me"
2003: 50 Cent; "In da Club"
2004: Usher feat. Lil Jon and Ludacris; "Yeah!"
2005: Mariah Carey; "We Belong Together"; Mariah making her comeback, and with her the ballad
2006: Daniel Powter; "Bad Day"
2007: Beyonce's "Irreplaceable"
We'll stop here, since Beyonce's is the ultimate anti-love song. Gone are the days when Whitney used to sing "I will always love you." God rest her (and her daughter). Now we've entered the age of disposable lovers, fitting for the days of plastic. At one point I had 13 credit cards of my own. (An aside.) If Beyonce is affected by the words she sings it’s not apparent in her love life, for she’s still happily married to Jay-Z. But maybe she keeps him on a tight leash, and boy don't you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable.
As for me and Tristen, our tastes in music differed, and perhaps this contributed to the breakup. She liked hipster funk, I can be sunk in the ballads of the past (as if you couldn't guess). In any event by the end of 2012 she was well on her way to becoming "Somebody That I Used to Know," which happened to be the top song of the year. By 2013 we were over and I was feeling it all was a Cheap Trick, and singing the same.
Maybe it's not so much that music has changed. Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm the one who's grown jaded with age. All I ask is that the life we create in love be better and sweeter than what either of us could manage on our own. If that's too much, then here I go again on my own (Whitesnake, 1987; Billboard year-end #7).
*Everybody wishes to be happy. Never is the human race more united than in this simple truth. Together we stand, open-armed, hands clasped, in praise and in prayer and in search for this simple or not so simple aim. For each and every one of us, the ultimate end of all our endeavors is the same, and it is bliss. Yet how we set about achieving it is where we differ, and markedly. Indeed there are as many methods as there are individuals.
Some seek fame and fortune. These folks believe that once they are rich and famous, happiness will follow. Not necessarily. Elvis Presley, who knew these twin achievements so intimately, sang about "how empty they can be." The King himself called fame and fortune "only passing things."
For Elvis, and for many before and since, love is the real treasure "to hold, so much greater than silver and gold." Elvis sang a lot about love, as did the Beatles. You can tell by the titles of their songs. "All You Need Is Love. And I Love Her. All My Loving. Because I Know You Love Me So. Can't Buy Me Love. Hallelujah, I Love Her So. I'm in Love. It's Only Love. Love Me Do. Love of the Loved. Love You To. PS I Love You. Real Love. She Loves You. So How Come (No One Loves Me). Soldier of Love. Step Inside Love. To Know Her Is to Love Her." And my favorite, the little-known ditty "Words of Love."
Which explains in part the spectacular success of Elvis and the Beatles, because they sang what so many of us feel. Who can't relate to Dean Martin when he crooned, "Everybody loves somebody sometime, and although my dreams were overdue, your love made it all worth waiting for someone like you"? And so we marry, often for love, but not always, and often we break up. Like Elvis, and many others both before and since. And we wonder with the Blackeyed Peas, "Where Is the Love?"
Some authors question the feasibility and finality of true love. For some, these authors say, the romantic quest is merely a "misplaced desire to reunite with God." Although many romantics seek to find their "other half," or "soul mate," love represents a reunion with the Source. It is spiritual, a merging with the One Eternal Absolute. These authors are clearly not the writers of love songs.
And so we have the spiritual aspirants and the religious persons of the world (and perhaps a few frustrated lovers) who turn their attention to divinity, and seek fulfillment, perhaps by means of rituals and creeds, and through the worship of some deity or other. We try to love God, love our neighbor as ourselves, love our enemy, love our better half. Indeed in all its varying manifestations, love would seem to make the world go round.
The Greeks knew this. The race that brought us philosophy and poetry and tragedies (and pederasty) had no less than four words for love. Storge describes the affection shared between parents and children. Next is philia, a dispassionate virtuous love of friends and equals. Then comes eros, the sexual love between two physically intimate persons. In accordance with the Platonic Ideal, a person is said to climb the ladder of erotic love - I mention it again because it merits repeating. Beginning while young by gravitating to beautiful bodies, the lover chooses one person in particular with whom to pair and “generate beautiful speeches.” From intimate contact with your personal favorite stems the realization that the beauty in one person is essentially the same as the beauty in everyone else. That all beings, being divine, share in the "form of the beautiful." Thus, if beauty in its nature is the same, the lover transcends individual love for a love that embraces everyone for the beauty they inherently possess. This is agape, defined as a divine sort of love based on goodwill. Agapic love characterizes the love shared between God and man.
So if love songs help you climb love's ladder and achieve the Platonic ideal, then so much the better. Either way, I'm sure it would make for a catchy ditty. Call it "Stairway to Heaven." I know, it's been done before.
Until then, I'm with Whitney when she sang, And if by chance that special face that you've been dreaming of leads you to a lonely place find your strength in love.
Find the greatest love inside of you.
*The other day I invited Tristen over. Remember her? The one who looked like my first crush, Jennifer Hall, who was a spitting image of the girl Frankie Avalon asked Venus for in his song by that name? Christ, it's been so long! Yes, well, Tristen and I hadn’t seen one another since breaking up and I missed her and thought we might get together for a chat. It wasn’t that I wanted to get back together, per se. I just thought we could go back to being friends, catch up on each other’s life, etc. Because "That's What Friends Are For," right?
Tristen wrote back that she was too busy to get together and to the email attached a song. It is by the group Emancipator and is entitled “When I Go.” Basically it consists of one line repeated over and over. The line is, When I go, I will stay long gone. I mentioned this to Tristen, saying I got it. I understood her feelings. Over meant over at all levels. She replied that she wasn’t aware of the song’s words and that she’d be careful in the future before sending me music, in case I read into it again. Could she really have been so oblivious? Or was this merely another instance of falling prey to music’s subliminal messages? Either way, I myself would never send someone a song unless the lyrics reinforced how I was feeling. I guess it’s just another of the many ways in which Tristen and I are different.
I’m beginning to feel okay about the breakup.