The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, March 03, 2003

The morality of idolatry in pop is that the idol should make it clear that he is vulnerable, that although his fans can never really touch him, the illusion has to be sustained that he can be touched. Above all, he should never be too “masculine,” or if there is maleness, it has to be balanced out by a contrapuntal degree of asexuality, or better still, femininity. To one extreme, then, if we focus on the early ‘70s, we have the spectacle of bricklayers dressing up and singing as high as they possibly could (Slade, Sweet), in the middleground genuine gender studies (Bolan, Bowie, Eno), and at the other, more approachable extreme there are those who admit to uncertainty, who will their fans to bear them away on their love and goodwill, to allow them, perhaps, to become adults – assuming that a future in adulthood still awaits them. Michael Jackson made the transition – or did he? – while Justin Timberlake has been trying to do so for the best part of two years. The Osmonds as a group were unambiguously male, though still yearning for love rather than demanding it as Ruffin’s Temptations would have done; but their biggest commercial focus was on Donny Osmond as a solo artist – on his own, still vaguely asexual, still in his teens, pleading “someone help me! Help me PLEASE!”

Which essentially leaves the case of David Cassidy – “do you think I have a case?” as he asks on the Partridge Family’s breakthrough hit “I Think I Love You.” Few others in pop – Billy Fury? Morrissey? – have based their career so securely on insecurity, so certainly on uncertainty. Cassidy at his career peak was in his early twenties; there was enough about him to suggest that he’d lived a little, but equally enough to suggest that he hadn’t lived enough. The Partridge Family, more or less based on the beyond-cleancut late ‘60s family bubblegum group the Cowsills, were intended to be reassuring in a Republican way – yes we still have long hair and bell-bottoms but we love our God and country and yes we’d be more than pleased to go over to ‘Nam if Uncle Sam wants us – a post-modern “Waltons” whose anchor was Shirley Jones, its umbilical link to the pre-rock entertainment world of MGM musicals; as with the unspoken subtext of Popstars/American Idol, namely wouldn’t it be great if that rock and roll thing had never happened?

Cassidy was Shirley Jones’ real-life stepson, and they were the only cast members to sing on Partridge Family records (other backing singers included Tom Bahler, later to write “She’s Out Of My Life” for Michael Jackson – and one wonders what a 28-year-old Cassidy would have made out of that song). “I Think I Love You” was their first and biggest hit, and though superficially wholesome in its assumed innocence, it’s a strange artefact of a teenybop record, far beyond what the likes of Bobby Sherman were doing at the time. Constructed seemingly from a Klezmer musical template, Cassidy breathlessly recounts how he wakes up from a “good dream,” “screaming out the words I dread.” For the remainder of the song he builds up the courage to tell the Other how he feels, only to recoil at the song’s climax and whimper “do you think you love me?” Producer Wes Farrell was fairly utilitarian (though using the same musicians as Spector) but there are some good devices used in the song, including the meandering harpsichord interlude and Cassidy trying to growl, “I don’t know what I’m up against, I don’t know what it’s all about” as if his voice had just broken. Indeed this song is about the sudden awareness of the existence of feelings like love and attraction – not to mention sex, because they never did, even though it seeps through every pore of the song. It was the Partridge Family’s greatest moment, though they approached its engineered genius twice again, once with “Doesn’t Somebody Want To Be Wanted” which comes on like a whitened Miracles (and Cassidy’s mid-song voiceover about being “lonely”) and emphatically so with the very bizarre “It’s One Of Those Nights (Yes Love)” (also written by the author of “I Think I Love You,“ the mysterious Tony Romeo) which appears to be a song about masturbation; Cassidy, missing what we assume is his former partner in bed at night, starts to think about her and picture her, and then exclaims “Suddenly you’re crashing through my mind like the waves upon the shore” as the strings orgasmically swell up behind him, before post-coitally concluding “Yes love, I’d welcome you back, like I’ve done a thousand times before.” Is this someone he’s actually known and been with, or are these just pictures of Lily? It’s one of the more disturbing of teenybop songs, centred as it is upon obsession rather than love.

But Cassidy is best known, and was best rewarded (at least in Britain, if not in America), as a solo artist. His first solo single, a cover of the Association’s “Cherish” is sung carefully and his voice is now much closely mixed – you can hear him breathing, and there is a new, definitely caressing and indefinitely carnal, aspect to his singing. “Could It Be Forever” was the breakthrough record, both commercially and lyrically – here, for once, Cassidy gets the girl and can’t believe his wonder (hear that purred “But” in the exact centre of the track). He’s still faintly troubled by the possibility that It Won’t Last, but for the first time on record he sounds happy.

Not that it lasts, though, since that would have brought his career to a premature end. Happiness and assertiveness didn’t suit him – witness his attempts to rock out on tracks like “Rock Me Baby” or “Friend And A Lover” which just sound daft (and significantly “Rock Me Baby” did far less well in the charts than his other singles of the period). No, tortured balladry was Cassidy’s forte; witness the promo film for his 1973 chart-topper “Daydreamer” which simply has him wandering doe-eyed through Kew Gardens and through Vaselined camera lens – and also the suggestion of something more unsettling underneath (“David Asks: What Are We Doing To Our World?” “David: Why I’m A Vegetarian” - Fab 208).

Witness also, and especially, his astonishing 1973 single “I Am A Clown” (again written by Tony Romeo – what happened to this man? Who was/is he?). Again, this might come across as a standard lament about fame in the manner of Gene Pitney’s “Backstage,” but in fact it’s something much more ominous. “I am a clown,” breathes Cassidy, as if through clenched teeth, “not funny ho ho, but funny strange…I feel like I belong in a sideshow” – all set against a dreamlike musical landscape which frequently stops to consider its position. At one key point, Cassidy almost weeps, “if you see what’s inside, you might not love me.” I say weep rather than cry because he never raises his voice above a whisper on this song, and yet it’s a pressure cooker of a record, waiting to explode. And later: “Please say you love me…please make me real.” Musically and production-wise it’s worthy of Saint Etienne; flutes and angelic choirs hoisting the singer up to the afterlife. Later still, at the very end, Cassidy adds a chilling coda: “See the funny little clown, see the puppet on a string, wind him up and he will sing, give him candy he will dance…but be certain not to feel if the funny face is real.” One thinks of the slowly declining, decaying Astaire dance routine which Alec Guinness added to the end of Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus. What if the flying trapeze man never comes down? And this was a top three single in 1973, just like “Life On Mars?” – in fact a double A-side with “Some Kind Of A Summer” a warily bucolic recollection of travelling in America (“By the time we reached Denver with our truck-driving friend, we had wheels on fire”) where she and the road are pointedly “flashing” through Cassidy’s mind, in the manner of an acid trip comedown (again I think of Saint Etienne, in particular “Downey Ca.”).

His finest three minutes and seven seconds, however, came with his deserved 1972 number one, a reading of the Young Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure?” Nick Hornby types tend to go for Dusty Springfield’s version, although I find it disappointingly prosaic and lumbered with a bombastic Wally Stott orchestration. It is pertinent that the coda “I’ll be sure with you” is nowhere to be found in Cassidy’s version, which fades frantically in a loop rather than ending. It begins with a proto-Ambient guitar (proto-Bill Frisell) to which a ‘cello and glockenspiel sympathetically respond, after which Cassidy’s never more breathy, if quietly desperate, voice enters: “How can I be sure in a world that’s constantly changing? How can I be sure where I stand with you?” Singing to his audience, or to the world, or to itself? Then the waltz rhythm comes in, and the accordion given centre-stage on other recordings of the song is only used here as an incidental colouration. Cassidy’s despair begins to become apparent - “Whenever I am away from you, I want to DIE!” – and he magnifies the sentiments of “I Think I Love You” to a near-psychotic level (“My alibi is telling people I don’t care for you,” which foreshadows 10cc’s blissful ode to stalking “I’m Not In Love”). He rides the Bacharach-esque melody and rhythm roller coaster (“u-u-upside dow-w-w-n!”) with yet another subtext (“Touch me but don’t take me down”) incorporated. By the time of the final orchestral and choral swell he is virtually screaming his passion (the heartbreaking “I love you, I LOVE YOU, FOREVER!” – a descendant of Barry Ryan’s “Eloise”?) but at the final climactic note, he immediately switches into asexual falsetto. And what is he singing in that final line? Is it “you know where I can be found” or “you know that I can’t be found”? There is no comfortable ending to the song; hear how Cassidy anticipates the change back from major to minor with the final syllable of his last “constantly changing” before he enters the loop of the fadeout, set against distended, almost childlike, backing vocals. The implications of this record go beyond teen-pop; it initiated a template of reluctant existentialism in pop which a decade later would develop into “Ghosts” by Japan (which is “How Can I Be Sure” rewritten from the perspective of experience and hindsight – “once I was so sure,” hear how that other tormented David, Sylvian, snarls the last word of that line). And how right that, a decade after “Ghosts,” both songs – and specifically those two records – should be invoked in the dying moments of that great displaced devotional lullaby, “Aftermath” by Tricky, one of the most shattering and moving records ever to come out of pop. In the end, the thread is strong enough to hold everything together; the records stored in an archive, the childhood possessions of someone who is no longer here, inspire what could still be possessed.

“I have those who belong to me on both sides. It gets to make less difference to me on which side I am.”
(Ivy Compton-Burnett, A Family And A Fortune, Gollancz, 1939)

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