Dusty!: Queen of the Postmods
by Annie J. Randall
Reviewed by David Thomson
The New Republic Online
We do our best to keep up, those of us tottering into the back of The New Republic's book once a fortnight. So I have my work and my life as well as those of my wife and children. I have revenues to raise and taxes to pay. On Super Bowl Sunday, I cared just about enough to watch the game, though I was more certain to watch Chelsea versus Liverpool, live, in the West Coast morning. I hope to read a couple of books a month. I worry, but I like to have time for doing nothing. And most months I hope to have some time -- even if it is drive-time -- when I can listen to Mahler or Schubert, Shostakovich or Charlie Parker. I do my best -- we all do. But it is never enough. So one day recently, hurrying through the living room, I passed a sprawled fourteen-year-old (mine) who had the television tuned to some kaleidoscope of British pop music in the 1960s. And there was this light bulb of a girl, her hair and her dress like upside-down tulip blooms, shaking from side-to side, with her tomboy/black voice clear as a bell, singing "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself."
"Dusty" I said, without stopping. It looked like footage from Ready, Steady, Go!, that weird pop music show on commercial television in Britain in the mid-1960s, introduced by Cathy McGowan, who treated a comma in her script as if it was an orgasm. Suddenly I remembered. And a few hours later there I was in a bookstore, just as distracted, looking for something else, when I saw Dusty again beneath her hive of hair on the cover of this book.
An Oxford University Press book, no less! I opened it up, and this is what I read: "Though much of the book concerns discourses, especially those revolving around Dusty's pastiche and identity disruption, its discussions carry a significant caveat concerning the evacuation of meaning and 'waning of affect' that, according to Fredric Jameson, characterize postmodern cultural products. Audience perceptions of depth and feeling in Dusty's performance call into question Jameson's fleeting 'intensities' while her work's artful surfaces, unhooked from 'natural' moorings, point to new rather than absent content." Really, that is what it said. But "identity disruption" had me hooked. I knew it was my calling, evacuation of meaning or no evacuation of meaning, to get Dusty Springfield into the back of this book.
Here is some of what I learned. The first thing was that any Dusty singles or albums I had ever owned -- I mean vinyl -- were long since gone. So I went to the aircraft hangar called Amoeba Music on Haight Street in San Francisco and asked where I might find her. "Oldies" was the owlish answer, said as if I ought to know better for asking. Oldies! Well, the same store does classical now, and Bach and Haydn have been dead so much longer than Dusty. But "Oldies" was special as a term of abuse: it didn't mean "old" or "classical" even, it meant something we might make fun of. I mention this because Professor Randall's book has a good deal to say about Dusty being "camp," but suddenly I realized that so much in pop is camp after the first time you have heard it. So, as I recall, girls and boys alike would sing-along with Dusty, they would "do" her, in a way that made it clear that even her original performance had been "doing" someone, even if it was only herself. Pop movies have the same steep gradient after debut -- they become commentaries on themselves, more or less comic ones.
So the feeling that was there once, at the beginning, in the very first time, is almost immediately mocked -- and there, I think, you have the beginning of Dusty Springfield's dilemma. She had a notion of being the greatest girl singer there ever was, and of reducing or raising the world to tears. She would be Judy Garland or Shirley Bassey. But she was Dusty Springfield. It was the name for a hero next door in a boy's comic book from the 1930s or earlier. But Dusty was trying to be Judy Garland and look like Kim Novak crossed with Doris Day and Sandra Dee. Talk about identity disruption.
She was born Mary O'Brien in West Hampstead in 1939, and she was raised in Ealing, the child of Irish Catholics. The world that she inhabited was about to explode, and in the great rush of 1963-1964, when Dusty was part of the movement that included the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, she was the girl singer. But this is not to say that Mary O'Brien was liberated. Her upbringing was probably strict and enclosed, and she came of age the wrong side of the sexual revolution, the upheaval in fashion sense, and the large empowerment of young people economically. So Dusty was brave, husky, flirty, a soul singer in her odd way, singing songs of need and desire, but she was also masked. Even at the time her fans used to wonder, "What does Dusty look like?": her battlements of hair, her wrap-around dresses, and her street-cleaning eyelashes actually hid her. It was guessed that she did not have a very good body -- and she dressed as if swaddled. When you see pictures of the teenager from the mid-1950s, that kid is unrecognizable. Dusty had done dress-up in a very big way.
Professor Randall stresses how far Dusty was attracted to black soul singers and the "grainy" voice of their singing. Her friendships and a lot of her work seem to prove this. But this book misses a big beat, I think, in not remarking on the influence of Shirley Bassey, surely one of the most immediate forces behind Dusty. Bassey was black, or half-black: she was the child of a West Indian seaman, and came from Tiger Bay, the rough part of Cardiff. Bassey never hid her body or her lust: her clothes boasted about her body and some of her songs were banned by the BBC for sexual suggestiveness. She was never a rock singer, but neither was Dusty, really, no matter that she seemed to coincide with that wave. Bassey was a big, emotional diva in the school of Garland or Piaf, but her own mistress, too. She sang her heart out. And Dusty -- whatever her sexual confusion -- was the same way at first, struggling against the rigid recipe for girl singers in Britain.
So Mary O'Brien began in groups and with her brother: with Tom Springfield and Tom Feild she was part of The Springfields doing "Island of Dreams" in 1962. They toured America, where Dusty is supposed to have heard and been marked by soul singers. She became a great enthusiast of Motown and its style: girl groups, harmonized background singing, urging and surging the lead singer forward, and the wall of sound. It would be said later, in an age of white studio arrangers and orchestrators, that Dusty did a lot of her own song-styling, and the core influence was the grandiose Phil Spector: songs that seemed to rise up like coiled snakes, with a tentative and plaintive voice that then broke on the listener like a wave. That was the trick to "I Only Want to Be With You," and then, in 1966, "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," her greatest hit -- number one in England, number four in the States.
Those were her glory years, and she worked ferociously. As well as touring America, she hosted and helped to organize a Motown edition of Ready, Steady, Go!. She sounded black and she used people such as Madeline Bell and Martha Reeves as back-up singers. She loved to do that doo-wop stuff herself, and seemed to enjoy the automated movements of the back-up line as much as she teased them. She was a seasoned pro, and sometimes gave the feeling of stress-tested plastic, no matter that she had a penchant for very emotional songs and torrential, breast-beating confessionals -- "Stay Awhile," "Wishin' and Hopin,'" "Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa," "Losing You" and the Jacques Brel song "If You Go Away," where she lingers over the French refrain as if the words were drops of blood seeping from her marble brow.
She improved a good deal as a singer, but she looked the same, and the look began to be a joke played against her. She never showed any talent as an actress (apart from doing pantomime in England), nor was she herself a songwriter. So she covered other people's songs ("The Look of Love," "The Windmills of My Mind"), and she went to America to make the album Dusty in Memphis in 1968, with Jerry Wexler as one of its producers. It included a hit single, "Son of a Preacher Man," but she also earned some criticism for so solemn an attempt to be black and American. Dusty was a very friendly girl, but she may not have appreciated how far black artists often resented white singers who took their songs and a lot of their royalties. Dusty had won praise earlier for refusing to sing for segregated audiences in South Africa, but she may not always have understood how far a similar unfairness was still at work in America.
Moreover, the music changed around 1968 -- the songs became more political, the look grew more natural, and sex and drugs had their day. Dusty Springfield was not really available for any of those clubs or movements, for desire is not the same as sex. She did not know how to look natural, and she preferred to hide behind the wall of unmet neediness and the heaped-up emotionalism of her songs. (Boy singers could say they weren't getting enough "satisfaction," but girls had to be careful -- the pop audience is cultish, conservative, and cruel.) In real life she was or had become a lesbian, but she could find little way to express that in her music that did not risk losing her loyalist audience.
Of course, that happened in the end. By the early 1970s she was selling far less, and she didn't know what to do with herself. Professor Randall says that in the 1970s and 1980s, Dusty's career waned. The singer lived in America much of the time, in openly gay relationships. But she also turned to alcohol and drugs and suffered breakdowns. She "went away": "Where Is a Woman To Go?" was one of her last songs. There was a flurry of revival when the Pet Shop Boys asked her to join them on a wonderful album. There was always talk of comebacks. But the bright, bouncy girl died in 1999, of breast cancer.
This book has several causes to pursue, and takes the field of music studies for its audience. Professor Randall generally keeps clear of the life story, on the way up and the way down. She wants to see Dusty as a "postmod," a gay performer, a camp artist, and a tragedy. Along the way she comes up with a good deal of writing that might have left the real Dusty Springfield bored or bemused. That caution is worth heeding. I doubt that Ms. Springfield was ever looking for such a book, just as I see the far-fetched aspiration in those pages where the author links Dusty's arm movements with those in pictures of Sarah Bernhardt and eighteenth-century actresses. Yes, the motions are the same, but performers have to do something with their arms and their hands. There is evidence enough in the songs, and in those swooping movements where Dusty goes from pure ballad to storming melodrama, that she was a tragic actress -- but maybe also a pretty cheerful person. On the other hand, Dusty! is fascinating, especially when it talks about her fans and the legion of imitators that she has inspired. In truth, she was a pastiche from the beginning: she seemed to be saying, "Imagine me on Ready, Steady, Go! doing it." But a great part of the rock revolution consisted in the empowerment to imitate.
Some girl singers crash -- Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin -- but others go on into old age -- Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Joni Mitchell. It's very likely that they have a tougher time and a more violent crash than boy singers. It is almost certain that they need songwriters and arrangers of a talent to match their own. So, finally, why Dusty Springfield in the back of this book? In Britain, after all, there were a lot of other girl singers who also had a splashy moment: Petula Clark, Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Cilla Black. But there's the rub. Cilla -- "our Cilla," from Liverpool, discovered by Brian Epstein, whom everyone thought "lovely," an entirely unmasked figure -- gave up singing pretty quickly and became a successful and rich television presenter. She is a grandmother now and I hope she is very happy and looks back on her singing days as "fun." There are other British singers, Shirley Bassey and Cleo Laine, who are now Dames of the British Empire, beloved institutions and outstanding singers. Dusty got the OBE just before her death -- perhaps the Queen liked her as much as I do, and heard the desperation, and what now seems like manic-depressive confusion. Perhaps it was Diana who recommended Dusty to Her Nibs. Reading this book, I had a day with Dusty on CD and it all came back. She had such need, but it sounds as if she knew it would never work. I hope the kids will go on listening to her in this brave new world where nothing works.
David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, is a regular contributor to The Guardian, The New York Times, Film Comment, Movieline, The New Republic, and Salon. He lives in San Francisco.