What would it be like to hear real love in music? What would declare it adequately? Would there be a sound of ecstatic transport–soaring high notes, a fluttering up and down scales, Melisma City? Or would there be a sound of tenacity, of a single note really, really meant?
I lean toward the latter ideal. The great singing of love can’t be packed into just one note, of course, since lover and beloved and and what they are going through all have to be expressed; but it may feature one note that intensely sums everything up. It should be a note of Finality, proclaiming unbreakable partnership, and of Beginning Everything.
For the greatest-loving vocal event, I nominate “my man” in Laura Nyro’s song of extravagant remonstrance, “Tom Cat Goodby” on New York Tendaberry. It’s a long song that catalogs everything wrong with a husband’s behavior: slipping out on Rosie Pearl, betraying the whole family (“What about the children?!”), sliding by on bullshit plans (“You know you’re never gonna be a movie maker/Always be a silly faker”).
It’s also an anthology of entertainments, the music always lifting Rosie’s shrill complaints to beauty. When the note that maxes out her passion comes at the end, our confidence has been won that whatever this song makes us hear, we will really want to hear.
Push has come to shove and Rosie’s planning to kill Tom–so she says. “I quit loving you . . .” If she really quit, wouldn’t she let go? She has not let go. Loving in extremis, there is no way she is not going to claim “my man” to the end. The idea of killing him is just a symbol for the finality of her love.
Going to the country, gonna buy me land
And I’m going to the country to kill my lover man,
Gonna kill my lover, gonna kill my lover,
Gonna kill my lover man . . .
Can I find him
Gonna kill him
My lover man
The singing of these last two lines manages to be both operatic (refined and attention-commanding in special occasion mode) and scrapishly soulful (tearing down decorum, blurring ethnic boundaries). It soars and swoops, but with burning insistence on one musical moment. It’s the total package.
My own gender and sexuality position has something to do with this song hitting me so hard, no doubt, but there’s a lesson about our culture in the asymmetrical opportunity a woman has to sing with ultimate seriousness about “my man.” I don’t think even “Bess, you is my woman now” comes up to this level of seriousness, and I can’t think of a “my girl” that comes anywhere close. Why is this? Is it because we take the female to be the one whose very existence establishes the Home of the love bond and who therefore fights for Home existentially, while the male is the one who might or might not decide to “stay home”?