Sunday, January 20, 2019

"Fast Car"; Slow Build AKA Bummer Of The Summer (Of '88)

It's kind of a bland song until the chorus. "You've got a fast car," yadda yadda yadda, blah blah blah, the same circular acoustic guitar riff over and over, some maracas, some woman who sounds like Odetta, singing about how dreary her life is, whatever. Hell, she sings four verses before she gets to the chorus (clearly ignoring Roxette's motto, "Don't bore us, get to the chorus"). I suppose this is what dramatists call "tension" - tension so thick you could cut it with a chainsaw (surely Tracy Chapman knew her way around power tools?). Suddenly, more than two minutes into the song, she pulls out this glistening diamond:
'Cause I remember when we were driving, driving in your car
The speed so fast I felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arm's real nice wrapped 'round my shoulder and
I had a feeling that I belonged
I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone
Well dip me and fry me. Coupled with the shock of the shifting melody, the chorus feels like a tantalizing taste of a world that the singer can only experience in fleeting, isolated moments. Her voice fills with passion and energy, the drums finally snap out of their slumber - you can keep your ZZ Top, 'cause this is what it really feels like to cruise down a deserted highway at top speed. But alas, the moment passes, the sense of elation dissipates, the reality of her drab and monotonous existence sneaks back in. For one shining second, the narrator almost felt like she could be someone, and then she remembered, " Oh wait, that's right, I'm no one. Oh yeahhhh. Whoops! My bad."

Props to Chapman for leaving the scenario tantalizingly unresolved. She doesn't even bother to suggest that her characters' lives might ultimately improve. They might forever be stuck driving a car with a maximum speed limit of - gasp! - 58 mph. But you know what? Life doesn't resolve.

Appropriately enough, "Fast Car" hit the airwaves toward the tail end of the Summer of '88 - a sign, perhaps, that the harsh winds of autumn were just around the corner. As the single wafted from the radio of my family's not particularly quick motor vehicle, even eight-year-old me noticed that it, as they say, stood out a bit. Did I, sensitive and thoughtful young man that I was, take this opportunity to champion the single's unconventional flavor? On the contrary. I made merciless sport of it. Honestly, all I heard was "You got a fast car." I didn't even pay attention to the rest of the lyrics. Why would she be so worked up about a fast car? The song had such an air of "intensity" and "importance" to it, and yet the whole thing simply revolved around the velocity of her freakin' automobile? Gimme a break! I remember In Living Color did a parody sketch of "Fast Car" called "I Write a Fast Song." At the time, I thought this skit was the most hilarious work of modern comedy I had ever seen. It cut to the essence of what I found so "Mad Lib" about Chapman's folkie verite style. Hey, I was young.

Black-on-black domestic violence: still funny! The thing is, even though I made fun of the song, I also ... liked it. Sort of like how a boy in elementary school might express his attraction to a girl by picking on her.

When I heard "Fast Car" again in the mid-'90s, I realized that it is actually Depressing with a capital D. "We'll move out of the shelter"? Wait, they live in a shelter? Not even the loners and drifters in Bruce Springsteen songs live in shelters. "My old man's got a problem/Yeah, with the bottle, that's the way it is"? But ... but ... according to hair metal songs, I thought there wasn't any problem in the world that a couple of shots of whiskey couldn't fix. "See more of your friends than you do of your kids"? Wait, since when did protagonists in pop songs have kids? You mean sex actually produces kids? George Michael didn't tell me about this.

In a way, "Fast Car" didn't fit in with the Summer of '88 at all; it was more like an early glimpse of the '90s. Somewhere in a dingy coffee shop on the outskirts of town, Melissa Etheridge and the Indigo Girls took notice. I don't know how, but "Fast Car" peaked at #6, and Chapman's accompanying debut album peaked at #1. Yes, an album that featured an opening track called "Talkin' Bout a Revolution" and a third track that featured the following chorus: "Across the lines/Who would dare to go/Under the bridge, over the tracks/That separate whites from blacks?" Millions of PC college kids and lapsed hippie housewives rose up in unison and said, "I will buy this Tracy Chapman album!" And to think, Natalie Merchant thought she had her finger on the middle class liberal zeitgeist.

Seriously though. How great was it that, for a few weeks there, "Fast Car" was jostling around on the radio dial alongside material like "Pour Some Sugar on Me" and "Hold On to the Nights"? Hey, had enough of Tiffany and Debbie Gibson while you're sitting there stuck in traffic on the 405? How about a radical leftist black lesbian to serenade you during your morning commute?

Go ahead, other decades: just try to out-weird the '80s.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

"Circle In The Sand," Round And Round, Never-Ending Belinda Love Is What I've Found

I guess "Trapezoid in the Sand" wouldn't have had the same ring to it. "Rhombus in the Sand"? "Dodecahedron in the Sand"?

If there is one single that epitomizes the "Summer of '88" in my misguidedly nostalgic mind, "Circle in the Sand" might very well be it. Hearing it is like flying through an instantaneous wormhole and finding myself in the passenger seat of my family's Chevy Chevette, twiddling with the radio dial in the Safeway parking lot, waiting to get home so that I could binge-watch DuckTales.

In fact, the very first time I remember ever hearing the name "Belinda Carlisle" was not in association with the Go-Go's, or even in association with "Heaven is a Place on Earth," but as the name the DJ gave as he credited the singer behind this beguiling ballad. As far as I knew, "Circle in the Sand" was the first and only hit Belinda Carlisle had ever had. "Just who was this 'Belinda Carlisle'?," my eight-year-old brain pondered. I imagined a woman who was at least in her thirties, or possibly even her forties. She wasn't ugly, necessarily, but the picture of this "Belinda Carlisle" I created out of the ether did not look nearly as youthful and attractive as the actual Belinda of 1988 looked. Her voice had a bit of "age" in it. The weathered quiver fooled me - fooled me real good.

I swear that, for a couple of weeks there, I heard "Circle in the Sand" every hour on the hour. I didn't even need to look at my watch to know what time it was; I knew an hour had passed when the radio played "Circle in the Sand." It drew a circle in my heart that summer, ranking up there in my affections with "Make Me Lose Control," "Roll With It," and most of the other tunes I've spotlighted in this series. It was a cornerstone of the Summer of '88 (peaking at #7 in the US, #4 in the UK). And then once the summer ended ... I never heard the song on the radio again. Basically ever. I couldn't tell you where it went. The tide must have washed it away. Life moseyed along. Fall turned to Winter, Winter to Spring, I left my childish dreams behind, and one day, became a man.

Later, I heard the name "Belinda Carlisle," possibly in relation to another one of her solo hits, possibly in relation to the Go-Go's, and my immediate thought was, "Oh, hey, that's the singer who did 'Circle in the Sand'! So she did other stuff? Cool." Over time I realized that "Circle in the Sand" was not the song most people immediately associated with this singer. At times I even wondered if I'd dreamed its very existence. But no - "Circle in the Sand" was real.

Fast forward to December 2010. I have just absorbed Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's, have just learned that Belinda Carlisle had once been in the Germs, have just downloaded Her Greatest Hits to get my quick fix of solo Belinda goodness, and am now listening to "Circle in the Sand" for literally the first time in 22 years. I am wondering if it will be nearly as good as my eight-year-old self remembered it being (having recently been unimpressed by revisiting Huey Lewis's "Perfect World" after not having heard that song since 1988).

The first thing that strikes me ... is the speed. I'd remembered the song as having been slower, for some reason. I also didn't remember the rhythm track sounding quite so ... canned. As someone in a YouTube comment once described it, "Cue the 'bossa nova' button on the Casio keyboard." Funny how an instrumental choice that didn't stand out whatsoever in 1988 stood out like a sore thumb in 2010. But then, that oh-so distinctive voice entered the picture: "Sundown, all around/Walking through the summer's end/ Waves crash, baby don't look back/I would walk away again." Yeahhhh. Then Belinda pulled out that "Whoa-oh-oh" bit and I knew: my eight-year-old self had picked a winner all right.

Maybe it was merely the reference to sand, but during that Summer of '88, I lumped this one right into that little cluster (along with "Father Figure," "Sign Your Name," and "Nite and Day") as part of a Top 40 trend that I and only I seemed to have noticed: the "Egyptian Thing." Yes, even Belinda got in on the hieroglyphic action. "Circle in the Sand," in the opinion of my younger self, was Nowel's and Shipley's great contribution to this unofficial mini-genre. Whenever I heard it, I imagined this mystery Queen of the Nile parading around the pyramids in a gold-plated headdress, serenading her Pharaoh sweetheart, who was stranded miles away across Sinai, or something poignant and exotic to that effect. The bridge melody, in particular, coated with Belinda's "Whoa-oh-oh," definitely emits that minor-key, snake charmer vibe.

What I find interesting now about "Circle in the Sand" is that, unlike many Go-Go's songs, which often sound cheerful and perky on the surface but sport anguished, bitter lyrics, "Circle" is ostensibly a "happy" love song but strikes a more dark and despairing musical tone. Here's how the song reads on the cold, clinical page:
Sundown all around
Walking thru the summer's end
Waves crash baby, don't look back
I won't walk away again

Whoa-oh-oh, baby, anywhere you go
We are bound together
I begin, baby, where you end
Some things are forever

Circle in the sand
Round and round
Never ending love is what we've found
And you complete the heart of me
Our love is all we need
Circle in the sand

Cold wind, tide moves in
Shivers in the salty air
Day breaks, my heart aches
I will wait for you right here

Whoa-oh-oh, baby when you look for me
Can you see forever?
I begin baby, where you end
We belong together

Circle in the sand
Round and round
Rising of the moon as the sun goes down
And you complete the heart of me
Our love is all we need

Baby can you hear me?
Can you hear me calling?
"You complete the heart of me," "We are bound together," "I begin where you end," "Some things are forever" - it reads like an affirmation of appreciation and contentment. Belinda's got her Morgan Mason, and they're dancing on the beach with their millions of dollars, and everything's peachy keen. But notice a couple of lyrics that are not so upbeat: "Cold wind"? Why not warm wind? Isn't it summer? "Shivers in the salty air"? Shivers can't be good. Hell, get a windbreaker. "My heart aches"? Why would your heart ache, Belinda? Never-ending love is what you've found, yes? And what's this little section here?: "Baby can you hear me?/Can you hear me calling?" Why can't Morgan hear her? Maybe he's in the yard? Got his headphones on?

The truth is, no matter how hard you try, you can't take the punk out of the yuppie, and even if you shove it way deep down inside, like nuclear waste in a mountainside, it will somehow find nagging little ways to re-emerge. From Lips Unsealed:
On my previous tour I had seen Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach" video and got it in my head that I had to be as thin as her. For this tour, I wanted to be even thinner. The irony was I knew I photographed well no matter what I weighed, and beyond that, in discussions with friends, I always took the position that you didn't need to diet or reshape yourself to look a certain way in order to be beautiful.

I could even hear myself telling girlfriends, "You can diet all you want, but beauty comes from the inside. You have to like yourself before you can ever feel beautiful." But I wasn't listening to my own advice. I had become my mother, a gorgeous woman who had, when I was growing up, always been on a diet even though she didn't need to lose weight. I never understood that until I had done the same thing and later came to realize the diet wasn't at all about weight; it was about feeling inadequate and wanting to be in control.

Once the tour started, I fell into a bad state of mind. Publicly, I told people that either it was impossible to eat healthy on the road or I told them that I was on a health kick and exercising regularly. In reality, I was obsessed with eating and exercising, to the point where I weighed myself ten to fifteen times a day. And my day was ruined if I gained a pound. If I got dressed in the morning and the waistband to my trousers felt a little tight, I got hysterical.

All the self-doubt and insecurity I never dealt with during my so-called recovery bubbled up to the surface, making it so nothing I did made me feel good enough. I should have been ecstatic as "I Get Weak" rocketed up the charts in early 1988 to number two and was then followed into the top 10 by the next single, "Circle in the Sand." My tour sold out, too. However, I wasn't able to celebrate or enjoy the achievements. Instead I stood in front of the mirror when I was on the road or in front of Morgan after I returned home and asked, "Do I look fat? Am I fatter today than yesterday? Okay, forget that. Do I look fatter than I did this morning?"
Jesus. What can you even say to that? (In my personal experience, if a woman ever asks the question, "Do I look fat?," the answer should always be "No.") Personally, Madonna looks like so many things in the "Papa Don't Preach" video, but you know what doesn't pop into my head? How "thin" she looks. But when you're in a certain frame of mind, I guess logic doesn't even play into it.

So in retrospect, one can spot a hint of this buried turmoil in a track like "Circle in the Sand." Belinda's inner torment cuts right through the slick Nowels sleaze in a way that perhaps neither she nor he intended. That voice is such a restless, fiery, raw, jagged, unruly instrument, it can't help but suggest the demons hidden beneath the placid yuppie surface. Examples:
  • 1:14 - "Shivers in the salty air": she really sounds like she's shivering
  • 1:26 - "Whoa-oh-oh baby, when you look for me/Can you see forever"? Belinda lays into the word "can" like she's ready to rip her lover's head off if he dares to tell her that he cannot, in fact, see forever
  • 1:38 - She brings a seriously intense edge to the seemingly banal "We belong together," turning it into something more along the lines of "We belong to-geh-THUUUUUUH!-ahhh-uhhh..." her throat initially shredding itself to pieces in desperation before re-grouping for an exhausted final gasp or two
  • 2:08 -"Baby can you hear MAE-AEE-AEE?" Maybe her lover can't hear Belinda's raunchy howl on that one, but I sure as hell can. It seems to gather supernatural force as it exits her lips, accompanied by lightning bolts and rocket fuel - or perhaps some cheap echo effect applied by Nowels - until it becomes swallowed up by the dark, moonlit clouds hovering above
  • 2:52 - She takes the "forever" in "some things are forever" quite literally, letting her unnerving crackle linger in the air until it becomes practically imperceptible, Belinda perhaps hoping, like Alice in Wonderland, to become smaller and smaller and smaller, until eventually she might just up and disappear, and wouldn't have to worry about dealing with any of her problems anymore
What I'm trying to say ... is that Belinda sounds kind of fucked up. But I like it! It makes for good art, at least. I hear this riveting tension between the smooth, glistening, almost error-free musical backdrop and Belinda's quirky, unpredictable, and very human voice. Perhaps the most acrobatic vocal moment of her entire career occurs at 2:48. Picture Rick Nowels and Belinda in a traveling trapeze act. The carney below initiates a snare drum roll. Rick is up on the 50-foot tower, his arms outstretched. "You can make it Belinda! Just jump!" The net below is a little worse for the wear. Belinda takes a breath. "And I-I begin baby where you end ..." She made it! She hit that note! Rick grabs her by the fingers as she does a back-flip onto the podium. The audience applauds rapturously.

Now that I've become reacquainted with the song, I have to say that the "Casio bossa nova" beat simply slips into the background once the other instrumentation gets going; like a squeaky fan, it's so omnipresent that I gradually just forget about it. I'm too busy being entranced first by the little tease of flamenco guitar at 0:02, and then Thomas Dolby's synth army of darkness that kicks in at 0:07. Suddenly, during the instrumental break, things get very Alice in Wonderland indeed. At 2:25, a giant cloud of mechanized fleas descends upon Belinda, followed by ... backwards guitars? Belinda's gone Revolver! Please don't spoil her day, she's miles away, and after all, she's only ... doing whatever Rick Nowels is telling her to do. He even throws in some seagull sound effects at the denouement to enhance the seaside vibe (at least these seagulls sound less menacing than the ones that threatened Don Henley on "Boys of Summer"), while guitars both acoustic and electric trail off into the horizon. For Adult Contemporary ear candy, "Circle in the Sand" is kind of ... out there.

Which leads me to the video. Perhaps sensing that the Diane Keaton touch wouldn't have quite been "powerful" enough to do the piece justice, Belinda & Co. went in a more ... avant garde direction. Enter British music video director Peter Care, who initially made his name with videos for decidedly un-Yuppie artists such as Cabaret Voltaire, Killing Joke, Depeche Mode, and Public Image Ltd. But everyone needs a paycheck at some point, and by 1986 he began dipping his toes into the mainstream, directing clips for Tina Turner, Simply Red, Robbie Nevil ("C'est la Vie," anyone?), and even Bananarama's "Venus" (so was the flaming volcano his idea?). Eventually he would find a nice balance between film school and MTV in a lasting partnership with R.E.M., directing seven of their videos, most famously the haunting clip for "Man on the Moon." Peter Care is that guy, OK? Big time, creative, visionary music video auteur. Basically, what I'm saying is that Belinda was climbing the music video ladder here. No more "Hey, you're fun to hang out with, wanna direct my video?" Peter Care was one artsy-fartsy motherfucker. And get ready for one artsy-fartsy video.

Because "Circle in the Sand" is The. Most. Hypnotic. Video. Ever.

I could just watch it play in a giant loop until I turned to dust. It creates its own surreal oceanic dreamscape. Imagine Belinda Carlisle spending a summer day on the Beach at the End of the World. This video exists on its own mini-planet, in its own mini-solar system, in its own mini-galaxy.

First of all, thumbs up for the cinematography. I feel like I'm staring at the ocean for the very first time in my life. There's something calming and also unsettling about the very texture of the film itself. I've got to admit it, Care really put his Sheffield School of Art degree to work here. Favorite moments:

  • 0:01 - Opening shot. Two screens are dangling from a clothesline at a beach. There's an image of the beach being "projected" onto each screen. They look similar to the image of the beach that's actually behind them, except ... they're ... different. One screen has an intimidating rock formation on it, and the other screen has Belinda Carlisle sitting in a chair (next to an empty chair) on it. Like, what's happening, man?
  • 0:11 - A shot that's very similar to the opening shot, except, unlike before, both screens are showing an image that is almost exactly the same as the image behind them, but the thing is ... the images are still slightly different. Right? It's a mindfuck.
  • 0:23 - There's a giant movie screen in the middle of the ocean ... with Belinda singing on it. Can you image the wear and tear on that thing? The rust on the metal would be unheard of. 
  • 1:18 - As Belinda sings "Daybreak, baby, my heart aches," the camera zooms out to gradually reveal Belinda standing next to some weather-beaten, half-demolished shack, and she's just ... standing there. She's not even singing along with the audio. It's all ... abstract.
  • 1:26 - As she sings "Whoa-oh-oh baby when you look for me," etc., we are given an extreme close-up of Belinda's face as she dangles from a rope swing, and again ... her mouth isn't even budging. It's like Care is playing with the notion that the performer in a music video is ever genuinely "performing" her vocal in front of the camera, by interspersing shots of Belinda lip-syncing with shots of Belinda simply ... staring. Also, this shot makes me realize just how massive Belinda's cheekbones are.
  • 1:54 - She fondles a rope swing even more sensually than George Michael did in the "Careless Whisper" video. And check out that sunset.
  • 2:40 - Belinda really was the master of rubbing her back against inanimate objects in music videos, as she once again demonstrates here with the aid of a giant board that almost resembles a crucifix. Hey, I'd nail Belinda to a cross, if you know what I mean.
  • 3:20 - I love the way she bobs against the rope swing, closing her eyes, dangling her head, as if all she wants to do in that moment is gently sway to the relaxing rhythm of her own soothing music, stay in her little cuddly fantasy world, and never return to the ugly reality of everyday life. Well I want to stay in the "Circle in the Sand" video with you too, Belinda. I don't want to go back either.
Belinda's tasteful fashion choices do much to give the video its impressively non-1988 feel. Let's call this her "hot English schoolteacher" phase. She looks like she just walked straight off the set of a BBC television adaptation of To The Lighthouse or Lady Chatterley's Lover (another blogger writes that she resembles a Douglas Sirk heroine). Frankly, I think the ocean and Belinda are having a beauty contest - I can't decide which one of these creations, in the supple hands of Peter Care, looks more stunning.

So just where was this "Beach at the End of the World" anyway? Initially I assumed it must have been some remote locale off the coast of Ireland, or Britain, or even Australia (it looks too cold to be Southern California), but according to this clip, Belinda might not have been as far away from me during the Summer of '88 as I might have assumed:

Ha! Half Moon Bay, eh? You're damn right it's cold. Those are certainly some gorgeous beaches, though - when they aren't covered with fog. I wonder which one it was. Martin's Beach? San Gregorio? Pescadero? Pomponio? How did they even find parking?

But don't you see what this means? Belinda, in a way, was with me, near me, beside me, even in those tender days of youth. I could feel her presence on that beach, fondling that rope, rubbing that wood, circling that sand, even if I couldn't have named it. We inhabited that same world, shared the same dream. There on that beach, in the Summer of '88, we danced eternally in the cosmos to a Casio beat and a Thomas Dolby synth line ... and perhaps are dancing there still.