In that flood of ebony hair, there was always that one gardenia. Floating on top of the satiny waves of almost-porn star mane, it spoke to things past, the moment of ripeness and the perfume that intoxicates. It was almost the same way with her music…
Only I was too young to know. I was just marking time on the way to another day at the Laurel School for Girls.
My school was too small for buses. We had school cars. Or rather station wagons, in these frosted off shades of green; the logo in white on the driver’s door. Announcing that we were the girls who went to the school where smart, athletic girls existed beyond the world of normal kids going to regular schools.
They’d pack us in like sardines: upper schoolers who didn’t drive, middle schoolers stuck in between and the “littles,” as underformers were known, who didn’t have a clue, but were so excited to be riding with the big kids.
Some years, I was stuck on “the route.” Some years, my parents got me to school.
Some years, the radio crackled with interesting music, things that just captured my ear and seized my nerve-endings. Some years, it was stuff I didn’t understand. Like “Love To Love You, Baby.” I didn’t understand it… at all.
There I was in a dark green and blue plaid jumper, knee socks, Hanolds white blouse, hyper-listening to… WHAT? What was THAT? Why was she moaning? It sounded like pain. It sounded like slow agony. Worse than a stomach ache. And that broken-voiced confession, all ragged and raw, where she wrung out those attenuated “luhhhved ta luhv yuuuuuu, bayyyyybeeeeee…”
That was love? I didn’t feel like that about Stitches, the Cocker Spaniel.
And still I listened, transfixed, trying to understand, to make sense of this twisted writhing bit of synthetic churning. For surely something was going on. I didn’t quite know who to ask, but I did notice the gap between the tittering amongst themselves upper school girls who knew things, and the obvious discomfort of the middle schooler seated next to “Wolfie,” the hirsute 20-something janitor charged with transporting this carload of all-girl school girls.
The origins of my life with “the big dictionary,” the one on the platform that required me to get on a step stool or small ladder to view it, was always random. An Evel Knievel story in TIME about his Snake River jump and the word “fellatio”… a dinner table discussion about a porno motel a few suburbs over and the word :kinky,” which was unsuitably defined… and now this travesty of AM radio and the word “orgasmic.”
Even after pulling the ladder over and thumbing through the pages, I’m not sure the definition of the adjective or proper noun clarified much. Furrowing my brow, I debated asking the librarian; but looking at Mrs Jennings with her severe pixie haircut and heathered Shetland wool sweater, I decided it was probably a trip to Miss Frost’s office in the making. I resigned myself to living with the unknowable.
Donna Summer would return, of course. Over and over. Always with that beating of wings, locusts rising fleshy beat that made her disco’s most ravishing siren. If I didn’t quite understand the pheromonal throb of “I Feel Love” and “Last Dance,” I got that she was really, really pretty, wore slinky dresses and could flat out sing. Her voice was strong silk, complete desire – for what I didn’t know – and liquid fire.
I hated the music; I loved her.
I also grew up a little bit, felt that knot in my stomach and the way my mouth got dry, but my white cotton panties damp when certain boys would pull me close in the later, humid hours in some all-boys school cafeteria. Barely moving, barely turning, swaying to “Dream On” or “Stairway to Heaven.” It wasn’t a uniform response, but when it hit…
That realization hit about the same time as Bad Girls, the colossus concept record that was four sides (!) and followed the Cinderella notion of Once Upon A Time. It was epic. It was pulsating, but with a force beyond the mirror ball. Yes, it was disco, but it rocked. Rocked hard. The guitars meant business in a way dance records never seemed to – and the synthesizers were eviscerating, blades and shafts of sound that cut right into you.
And… it was about… HOOKERS!
Ladies of the night Street walkers. Squalid objects of paid for pleasure.
I was riveted.
There in Glencoe, Illinois, where Steve Dahl was jihading his “Disco Sucks” nation to steamroll the records at Comiskey Park, I confessed in yet another station wagon how brilliant I thought Bad Girls was. As Summer and a chorus of back-up singer/trollops intoned,“BeepBeep! Honk! Toottoot!,” one of many cousins told me I was stupid; his friend added, “That sucks…”
I assured them they were wrong. I’m not sure what Blair Tinkle does now, but Tripp is a realtor in Naples, Florida. He owns a Golden Retriever, who exudes the same pliant worship Summer did on the Hot Summer Nights album cover.
And I… armed for bear with “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “Dim All The Lights,” “Love Will Always Find You” and the ever-aching “On The Radio” had both the on-ramp to Miami’s gay clubs in the last days before AIDS made its somewhat confusing entrance – and a somewhat fascinating demi-field guide to the sex workers I’d find in the cocktail lounges of old school grand hotels like the Fountainbleu and the Diplomat. Those shabby/grand palaces of much rococo furniture, faux gilded touches and a bottomless supply of random and randy conventioneers wandering the tundra, looking for someone to make the night a little warmer.
The prostitutes were human to me because of Bad Girls. They were a fascinating flock of pros, who knew how to turn a trick, work a hustle and rarely lose their sense of humor doing it. When Summer later – comeback #3, if you kept score – issued the uberEverywoman anthem “She Works Hard for the Money,” I thought of every tired late-20s/30-something in too high heels and a push-up bra wondering if that swollen ankled fez wearer might “need some company?”
Still when the working girls killed time, they made for fascinating conversation. All the stories, faces, places they’d seen. World-weary, wearier than me – and I’d seen plenty. They gave me a pragmaticism that bottomlined life with dignity and temerity, not just a suck the last dollar from the wallet sangfroid.
Even more exciting were the gay discos and night clubs! The Copa, X, warehouses with flashing lights and mirrored walls, everyone fabulously turned out, churning bodies on the dance floor, undulating and shaking and stepping in ways that only made temperatures and heartbeats rise. I knew Donna Summer; I could fake the rest til I figured it out.
So many amazing near faceless artists who no one seemed to know. The System. Jenni Burton. This chicano or black girl named Madonna. Prince. Sylvester, Three Degrees, Candi Staton and the androgynous queen Grace Jones. It was another world.
I was transfixed by the glittering, pulsating (sur)reality. Like Dorothy over the rainbow, or Alice down the rabbit hole, it made no sense and completely enthralled a Midwestern kid who’d grown up in corduroys, a ponytail and buttondown shirts.
Walk into a ladies room and there’s be two full grown men sprawled on the console, talking about mascara and aural/oral pleasure. Step back to confirm the triangle with the legs, walk in to their utter amusement:
“Girl,” they chided/consoled, “you ain’t got nothing that we want.”
If only the same could be said for me. I wanted their glamour, their romping free-spiritedness, even their slightly bitchy panache. They were out and doing as they pleased, finding pleasure where they most wanted it and celebrating with a euphoria that was no doubt fueled by substances I didn’t realize were being passed.
In my quasi-awareness and utter-consumption, I began a double life: writing about country stars for The Miami Herald, crawling the gay clubs for The Weekly News though I was really neither. Showing up at the Hollywood Sportatorium, a horrible sounding building in the middle of nowhere in polka dot stilettos, pedal pushers and a strand of rhinestone dangling from my ears to see progressive hard country star John Anderson confused my father. I knew better than to try to explain; though the drummer seemed to be drawn by the sparkle.
In Donna Summer’s world, everyone belonged. Not quite an island of broken toys, but certainly a place that celebrated who – and what – people actually are. Not just acceptance, but exultance. Let your freak flag fly, let your light shine.
After the serious disco of Casablanca, there was the more meaty time on Mercury, where the music was more muscular, more rock-leaning. Beyond the throttling “Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger),” there was “Protection,” written by Bruce Springsteen – where her voice more than held up to the load. She was a fearless vocalist, columns of notes impaling you as they flew almost assaultively by.
And then came the rockpop of her time on Geffen years and post-battle Polygram clean up, slightly experimental, often pushing the edges of what could get on the radio. Beyond “Works Hard For The Money,” there was the reggae “Unconditional Love,” the classic soul-pop of “There Goes My Baby” and the post-50s synthed up Dion gone dance “The Wanderer,”the noir jazz of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” even the elegant AC of Brenda Russell’s “Dinner with Gershwin.”
She started weaving in some of her strong Christian faith. Things like “I Believe In Jesus” would randomly grace her records. She became more convicted in her interviews, witnessing to her beliefs and even renouncing some of the hedonism she’d been a most glorious soundtrack for.
Donna Summer, the willowy vocal flamethrower discovered in Germany by producer extraordinaire Giorgio Moroder, came to realize how much life was beyond the dance floor, the concert hall, the outdoor amphitheatre. She of the tumbling ebony locks, punctuated with that one perfect gardenia, an homage to Billie Holiday and every bodice-ripping heroine of a certain era, saw that there was something else – and she decided to walk the line between secular and salvation, still finding the sweet spot in a pop song, but tempering with a whole other kind fo soul music.
Chaka Khan might’ve been earthier, Aretha a generation before, but Donna Summer of the Courvoisier tone and pole vaulting range had her finger on the pulse of America. She could dead-eye radio, and she did. Over and over again.
And then she stepped back for a bit. Moved to Nashville with husband guitarist/songwriter Bruce Sudano. Came out when it made sense, sang hard, set the night on fire and returned to her home. She was difficult – if that meant wanting things to be right. She was a Bible-thumper – if that meant sharing her truth.
Still glam, still gorgeous, still fascinating to watch n a crowded restaurant, she was regal. But wuth a kid’s smile and laugh that was equal parts homegirl, righteous sister and world traveler.
Asking around today, nobody in town seemed to know she was sick. She didn’t want to live like she was dying, she wanted to die like she was wildly, vitally alive.
The last time I saw her was just over a year ago. At a funeral for a young man who took a turn too fast, and that was that. So many people turned out, the church overflowed, the downstairs was opened up with a video feed and still people kept tumbling onto the grounds.
Summer knew the family, loved the brio of the patriarch who’d lost his only child and the mama who was every bit of what welcoming should be. After John Prine sang and Keb Mo did, too… after a few of the now gone teenager’s friends read the posts on his Facebook page from people finding out he’d passed on, Donna Summer got up and sang.
She sang with her whole being, her whole heart, her whole soul. It was powerful, almost paralyzing in the force of faith that she brought to this wrotten occasion. Just her voice, and that tiny church 48 miles outside of Nashville. Just the tone alone stunned you to where the song didn’t even matter.
This was a song of faith… faith in the worst possible moments… faith that would bring you through… even if you didn’t understand a single world she sang, you could feel the battering power of what she believed knocking back the pain, the ache, the confusion.
When Donna Summer sang that hymn, that was all there was.
“Love To Love You Baby” was 16 minutes and 51 seconds of utter grown-up glory. When I finally figured it out, I smirked too. Laughed at how innocent I was, and how much I loved what I came to understand was the grounding of that performance. What was murky became glorious; what vexed me made me marvel at how all-out it was.
But in a country church on a sad, sad day, she gave up an even greater glory. Head tilted back, tears in her eyes, she sang for a 17-year old adopted boy, the parents who loved him, the friends who were one with him and everyone who lost a different kind of innocence that day.
Donna Summer was born to sing, to exhort us to deeper place of faith and surrender. In the letting go – of rage or torque, pain or want – we could be born again. We could find that higher meaning, the passionate arrival.
Somewhere in the stars tonight, she’s shining. Looking down on us, gardenia behind her ear, sparkling like she did and singing some sweet song that’ll help us all make sense of another constellation’s worth of grace and music gone.
17 May 2012