Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Celebrating Dusty

Today is the 74th anniversary of the birthday of Dusty Springfield (1939-1999), widely considered one of the greatest female vocalists of the twentieth century.

In celebrating Dusty's life and music on this special day, I share images and videos of Dusty, along with excerpts from two of the most engaging and insightful books about her – Dusty!: Queen of the Postmods by Annie J. Randall, Associate Professor of Musicology at Bucknell University, and Dusty Springfield: In the Middle of Nowhere by teacher, author and psychotherapist Laurence Cole.

My own interest in and admiration for Dusty is well documented here at The Wild Reed, most notably in Soul Deep, one of my very first posts. Other previous posts worth investigating, especially if you're new to Dusty, are Dusty Springfield: Queer Icon and Remembering Dusty, my 2009 tribute to Dusty on the tenth anniversary of her death. And, of course, off-site there's my website dedicated to Dusty, Woman of Repute, the name of which is derived from Dusty's 1990 album Reputation.

As I explain in Soul Deep, Reputation introduced me not only to Dusty's music but also to her life and journey – much of which resonated deeply with me. Indeed, my identification with aspects of Dusty's journey played an important role in my coming out as a gay man. I begin today's celebration of Dusty, therefore, with a video from the time of Reputation. It's a clip of Dusty being interviewed in 1990 by Gloria Hunniford on the British morning chat show Sunday, Sunday. The interview is preceded by a snippet of the music video for "Arrested By You," the third and final single release from Reputation.

The above exchange is one of the many "safe" interviews that, according to author Annie J. Randall, Dusty and the mainstream media engaged in during the singer's late '80s comeback. Following is an excerpt from Randall's 2008 book Dusty!: Queen of the Postmods in which she explores further this idea and its connection to Dusty's 1960s look, and the way that both this look and her music ensured a "spectacular [though commercially problematic] collision of . . . elements at the intersection of gender, race, and sexuality."

By the time Dusty Springfield died [from breast cancer] in 1999, she had already been anointed by the music press and music industry as an icon of the swinging 1960s, if not the fab icon among Britpop solo singers of the era. Rising phoenix-like from the ashes of bygone pop celebrity, Dusty's late 1980s revival seemed to ameliorate the bitterness associated with the public relations debacles that had plagued her for the preceding twenty years. Indeed, her aptly named hit of 1989, "Nothing Has Been Proved," neutralized the singer's unmarketable sexual ambiguities and rebranded her as a commercially viable "survivor": one who had triumphed over press incursions into her personal life regarding "drink, drugs, and lesbian sex" and claimed a place in pop's pantheon of stars.

While the hit-induced lovefest between Dusty and the press ran its course through the 1990s, the only safe interview topics seemed to be Dusty's over-the-top 1960s look – the trademark hairstyles and dark eye makeup – and her often-repeated love of "black music." Rarely treated with depth, these topics were mined instead for jokes and nostalgia – a consequence of the press's usual avoidance of complexity (unless, of course, it involves scandal, in which case no detail is too small to report) and the singer's own apparent decision to stay firmly on neutral ground. Yet, the interviews and newspaper articles of Dusty's final years hint at a much larger and more interesting story than journalistic fixations on hair, makeup, and Motown would suggest. It is a story in which the singer's unique sound and look were key factors in at least three important cultural phenomena of the 1960s: a distinctly camp sensibility in British pop culture; British and European fans' participation in black American music, which had, heretofore, been the near-exclusive preserve of jazz aficionados; and a "mod revolution" among teenagers, especially girls. Indeed, during the years of her greatest celebrity, 1964 to 1969, Dusty's look and sound seemed to embody her fans' experience of profoundly changing gender roles and race relations and to give voice to emerging new perspectives.

. . . Dusty borrowed elements of her look from blond glamour queens of the 1950s and 1960s – Brigitte Bardot, Kim Novak, Monica Vitti, Catherine Deneuve – and pasted them together according to her own taste. The result was unlike that envisioned by record producer Svengalis such as Berry Gordy and Phil Spector, who were largely responsible for the uniform appearance and projection of wholesome femininity of American girl groups; rather, it was a camp version of feminine display that drew attention to its artificiality and communicated with delicious theatricality its own obvious fakeness. Tapping into the emerging camp wellspring of the early 1960s British arts scene and, indeed, helping to create it, Dusty was able to participate in pop music's dance of teenage sexual attraction while at the same time parodying it. Too brazen for some (mothers, for instance, who refused to allow their daughters to leave the house if they did not wash off their Dusty-clone makeup) and intoxicatingly liberating for others (the first wielders of "girl power" according to Lulu), Dusty's outre look seems now, in retrospect, to have been a stroke of genius that served at least two purposes: It satisfied the record company's demand for sex appeal but allowed the singer to express her own ambivalent relationship to such calculated allure. Dusty herself later acknowledged that her look was a form of drag and repeatedly pointed up its extreme contrivance on her public self-referential remarks.

If camp is defined as "the lie that tells the truth," then Dusty's highly artificial look speaks volume about the material, constructed, and highly constricted nature of mid-sixties white, middle-class femininity. . . . There was, clearly, no pretense of authenticity attached to Dusty's look . . . Her real name [Mary O'Brien], along with images and testimonies of her pre-Dusty appearance, had always been a staple of articles and interviews. Yet, musical authenticity was, nevertheless, thought to emit from the elaborately prepared mask in the form of her soul sound. Discourses of authenticity were reserved for Dusty's voice, even though, as was perfectly obvious to her fans across the globe, its characteristic features originated in cultural and historical traditions far removed from her own. While this seemingly glaring contradiction was blithely perceived as but another colorful strand in the fabric of swinging London, it was just one of a veritable postmodern pileup of disjunctures that came together in the figure of Dusty Springfield. Fans took in stride the apparent contradictions between Mary and Dusty, Britpop and U.S. pop, a blond singer with a black sound, colonial privilege and black Americans' commensurate lack of privilege, and after 1970, Dusty's allegedly "bent" sexuality and her songs' straight lyrics.

The spectacular collision of these elements at the intersection of gender, race, nation, and sexuality and its constant presence in Dusty's music makes Springfield one of the most fascinating pop phenomena of her era.

Above: Dusty singing with Martha and the Vandellas on the April 1965 Ready, Steady, Go! Motown special. Dusty not only hosted this British TV special but was instrumental in devising it. (For Martha's recollections of her friend Dusty Springfield, click here.)

In the following excerpt from Dusty!: Queen of the Postmods, author Annie J. Randall explores Dusty's role in the successful introduction of black American music to Britain via The Sounds of Motown television special, and her desire "to be perceived, first, as a promoter, even proselytizer, of soul music, and second, as a contributor to it."

Putting the Motown acts together struck Dusty as precisely the way to market the new sound on British television. They had been toured this way in the United States for years, thus executing Berry Gordy's strategy to present the singers collectively to a race-wary white public (who, he judged correctly, would accept an all-black show more readily than individual black acts integrated with white ones). Some months after Dusty's appearance at the Brooklyn Fox [September 4-13, 1964], the Ready Steady, Go! production team – Elkan Allan, Francis Hitching, and Vicki Wickham – decided to book the entire Motown Revue for their television show – with Dusty as host – when they next came to Britain. Individual Motown singers and groups had already appeared individually on Ready, Steady, Go!Stevie Wonder and The Supremes, for example – but this would be their first appearance together as representatives of the Motown label and the soul sound. It could not escape anyone's notice, especially Dusty's and Vicki's, that such an appearance would convey the impression of a musical movement, exactly representative of the social and political sea change that was well under way in the United States and, of course, in countries like South Africa, where this music's representations could not be clearer.

Indeed, only a few weeks after Brooklyn, Dusty had traveled to South Africa (December 9-18, 1964) and refused complicity in the spectacle of hypocrisy that her performance of black-influenced music for white-only audiences would have been. Her experiences in Brooklyn and South Africa, separated by only a few months and preceded by her new friendships with Martha Reeves and other Motown musicians, may have caused a crisis of conscience. Nina Simone had not yet thrown a drink in Dusty's "honky" face, though this was the kind of reaction she wished to preempt. Even though "all British bands did it," Dusty did not want to be perceived as someone who simply appropriated black music and denied, either directly or indirectly, the originating artists from profiting in Britain and Europe; rather, she wished to be perceived, first, as a promoter, even proselytizer, of soul music, and second, as a contributor to it. Not content to be described as a "good thief," she fulfilled the first with her role in [Ready, Steady, Go!'s] Sounds of Motown (one she maintained throughout her life) and made a bid for the second, with Dusty in Memphis, two and a half years later.

. . . Martha Reeve remembers: When [Dusty] invited us all it helped open not only my career up here, it got The Supremes introduced, it got The Temptations their number one spot for a moment, and the tour went all over the UK after the show. A lot of things were booked after Ready, Steady, Go! was taped."

. . . [During the The Sounds of Motown] Dusty was onstage with her guests as if welcoming friends into her home and introduced each act to the audience less as a compere type of intermediary between audience and performers than as a gleeful party host introducing one set of friends to another. She also performed three times during the course of the show: once by herself ("You Lost the Sweetest Boy"), then with the Vandellas ("Wishin' and Hopin'" and "I Can't Hear You No More"), and last in the show's finale. There she took part in the improvised "Mickey's Monkey" with all of the Motown singers and Earl Van Dyke's instrumentalists assembled onstage in a free-for-all song-and-dance-number reminiscent of a ring show. The camaraderie between Dusty and the Motown groups, especially evident when she was onstage with the Vandellas, underscored the fact that she was introducing not only musicians she revered but also individuals who were her personal friends. Interwoven thus among the acts, Dusty achieved the image she hoped to create – as promoter rather than thief of soul music – and strengthened the perception, in Britain at least, that she could perform soul legitimately and could, indeed, contribute something credible of her own to the new style.

Following is a clip from the February 7, 1970 broadcast of The Andy Williams Show. It features Dusty performing a medley of her songs, accompanied by a troupe of groovy looking (and moving) dancers who wouldn't be out of place in Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar! Enjoy!

Next up is Dusty performing "Knowing When To Leave" and "Up On The Roof" on The Rolf Harris Show, January 2, 1971. I have to say that I find the latter performance to be simply exquisite in its fragility. Indeed, Dusty's performance of "Up On the Roof" brings to mind author Laurence Cole's musings on a number of other Dusty tracks which convey "the sense of a woman on the edge of mental disorder – neither sane nor deranged but somewhere in between." Such tracks include "Soft Core," "In the Winter," "Exclusively for Me," and the haunting "Beautiful Soul," where she could be addressing either a female lover or herself.

Writes Cole in Dusty Springfield: In the Middle of Nowhere:

Those who only know Dusty Springfield via the hits know a truncated version of her 40-year public persona, for she sometimes took herself to dark and dangerous places in her recordings, when she was probably just about holding herself together as a person. . . . [F]ew singers have provided such access to private hurts and vulnerabilities, or sent postcards from so close to the edge of breakdown.

Okay, next is Dusty in one of her last television appearances, sharing her song "Roll Away" on the British morning chat show Pebble Mill. "Roll Away" was released as a single on October 23, 1995 (my 30th birthday!) and is the opening track on what would be Dusty's last album, A Very Fine Love. (For more about this beautiful song, see the previous Wild Reed post Time and the River.)

Every day when I look in the mirror,
I try to see where my soul’s at now.
Happy day, is it further or nearer?
On the way, will I find it somehow?
Yesterday’s gone, love lead me on.
I won’t ask why.

Roll away – it’s only time and the river.
Roll away – to the endless sea.
Roll away – it can all change tomorrow.
This is life in its glory,
And the river runs free.
Oh, roll away. . .

I conclude this special 'celebrating Dusty' post with a second excerpt from Dusty Springfield: In the Middle of Nowhere, one in which author Laurence Cole explores why many gay men and lesbians consider Dusty the "quintessential pop icon."

Commentators have agreed that Dusty's glamour, drama, hurt, survival instinct, bloody-mindedness, anguish and sheer emotionality held up a mirror in which gay men and lesbians could see themselves. The landscape of cracks, potholes and jagged edges she attempted to negotiate reflected the one they inhabited themselves. . . . However, Dusty's appeal for lesbian and gay consumers is broader than this . . . Because of her own sexual ambiguity, she was – is – about the only performer amongst the several women of gay iconic status assumed to have shared her fans' outsider sexuality. Her star atmosphere thus uniquely reflects her followers' feelings of 'not belonging' to the general culture and viewing it from a skewed angle; the knowledge that her lifestyle was neither straightforwardly heterosexual nor family-centered adds a dimension to the attraction missing from other fan-gay icon relationships. Gay-sympathetic songs like "Closet Man," "Beautiful Soul," and "Born This Way," recorded in the Seventies and Eighties at the height of her 'cult' attraction for gay men and lesbians, strengthened the connection. The suggestion . . . that alternative viewpoints and marginalised perspectives could be detected in the voice itself, and contributed to Dusty being heard as not-like-anyone-else, further enhanced her appeal for sexual outlaws and social non-conformists.

Shared, too, and probably because of this complicity, was the mocking sense of playfulness which star and fans adopted towards the idea of gay iconicity, with Dusty becoming one of the first to treat the matter of her iconic status as a bit of a laugh. This 'knowing sense of camp' and 'being in on the joke' . . . further boosted her appeal, and set the trend for subsequent tongue-in-cheek send-ups by Madonna and Kylie Minogue. What gave Dusty Springfield her singularity as a gay icon was this combination of drama-queen wallowing and in-on-the-joke camp parody. No-one else so skillfully and elegantly walked a tightrope between the two modes, or got such mileage from their conceptual possibilities. For Barry Walters, the 'mix of public exuberance and personal anguish' make Dusty Springfield 'the quintessential pop icon' for gay men and lesbians who experience similar vicissitudes of feelings and attitudes in their own lives.

For more of Dusty at The Wild Reed, see:
Soul Deep
Dusty Springfield: Queer Icon
Remembering Dusty
Remembering Dusty – 11 Years On
Remembering Dusty – 14 Years On
Classic Dusty
Classic Dusty II
Classic Dusty III
Classic Dusty IV
Classic Dusty V
Something In Your Eyes
The Other "Born This Way"
Heat Wave
No Stranger Am I
Time and the River
Remembering a Great Soul Singer
A Song and Challenge for 2012
The Sound of Two Decades Colliding
Dusty Springfield: "Wasn't Born to Follow"

Related Off-site Links:
Woman of Repute – My (archived) website dedicated to the life and music of Dusty Springfield.
Let's Talk Dusty
Forever Dusty: "A New Musical About the Legendary Dusty Springfield"
Dusty Springfield Tribute Site
The Definitive Dusty Springfield Collection
Portraying Dusty on Stage and in Film – Annie Randall (Oxford University Press Blog, April 16, 2013).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Michael, thank you for such a lovely tribute to Dusty on her birthday. The videos are wonderful. "Up On the Roof" was exquisite. We've been Dusty fans for about as long as you have, also being in your generation. Her music has gotten us through so much, as it has for you. I will have to read thru your previous Dusty posts. Thank you for keeping up your Dusty website and offering quality commentary on her work. Sending the best from two gals in California!