I’ve always loved love songs. They make magic. They affirm belief in fate. They outline a divine plan that guides our love lives, pushing us through the wrong relationships and inexorably toward the arms of “the one.” Love songs accept love at first sight as a fact (I’m not sold on this particular theme). Regardless, they give us hope. That’s what gives them power.
My “love song” story is about the first time I saw a photography student whose name isn’t really Thomas. I was a freshman in college, at a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Everybody was dressed in burlesque getup. I saw Thomas standing alone, leaning against a wall with an unlit cigarette dangling in its holder between his fingers. He wore a strapless dress, pumps, rose-tinted sunglasses and a beret. He’d done his makeup like Liza Minelli. His fashion sense was atrocious but he made a convincing woman, and as he sashayed flawlessly across the room in heels, I briefly thought he was, and thought: welp, I’m in love with a girl now. A few days later I stormed into his dorm room and kissed him. It was the single most thrilling thing I’d ever done.
We stayed up talking all that night, burning gingerbread incense as we lay crammed into his standard-issue dormitory twin bed. The Beatles’ Abbey Road was on his turntable, and he had the kind of player that would flip the record automatically. We were too much in love to break eye contact, let alone get up and change the music, so we listened to Abbey Road on repeat all night. Every time “Something” came around, it felt like the most romantic, magical three and a half minutes I could possibly experience in all my life. I was besotted. Then the sun came up, he announced that he had a girlfriend in New York City and was taking the train to visit her and he would have to go now.
I shuffled across the quad to my dorm building and paused to sob in front of a Beatles poster hanging on the wall. Abbey Road has been ruined!–I thought. I would never again be able to listen to “Something” without thinking of the weird gingerbread incense man who wore a hideous pink sundress and shredded my heart in two weeks flat.
How could my puny little love story possibly manage to completely ruin this beautiful song? Easy–the “magic” of whatever moment I’d experienced was borne of an association between something personal (falling in love) and something that was, to me, timeless (The Beatles). My tiny experience had UNIVERSAL RESONANCE! This is what makes a love song so great. And by the same token, this is what makes a love song so hard to hear when the love is over.
When a song has deep personal associations, sometimes you forget that other people have deep personal associations with it, too. Then, you look it up on Wikipedia and YouTube and find miles-long threads and lists of covers. When Abbey Road came out, “Something” was one of the only tracks on the album that George Harrison had written; most were Lennon/McCartney collabs. “Something” (perhaps the best song on the stunningly good Abbey Road) got attention from other musicians right away. Everybody from Frank Sinatra to Isaac Hayes wanted to record it.
Harrison’s favorite was James Brown’s version. That cover wasn’t entirely faithful- it took out a lot of the song’s sugar, adding instead the drawn out verses and angular blues, plus a new lyric: “Wanna believe, gotta believe in something.” If the need to believe (In love? In the meaning behind love? In the idea that love happens for a reason?) is an implied theme of the Beatles’ original, here that concept was drawn to the forefront and repeated like a mantra, or maybe a prayer. Wanna believe, gotta believe in something in the way she moves.
Life doesn’t stay within neat little story trajectories like songs, and Thomas broke up with the New York City girlfriend and came back to me, after which we stayed together for the next five years. (Lest it seem as if I’m advocating for being The Other Woman in this scenario, I’ll add that when we did break up, it was because he had started sleeping with someone else. Stay away from anyone who leaves somebody else for you.) While we were together, and later, after we split up, of course I heard songs by The Beatles a lot, along with the rest of the world. Eventually, as my life changed, I stopped linking “Something” to Thomas’s gingerbread incense magic night and his New York City girlfriend.
Sometimes I think of him when I hear The Beatles. Sometimes I think of other things, other boyfriends, or I think of record shopping, or mix CDs I’ve made or received, or old friends I don’t see anymore. Sometimes I think of the spring that Barack Obama was inaugurated as President, when I spent a week in San Francisco babysitting my junior-high-school-aged cousin. She thought the bus was lame and refused to take it home, and I desperately wanted her and her friends to think I was cool, so I decided to pick her up in my aunt’s banana-yellow sportscar. I spent all morning getting the hang of the stick shift, driving around and around the block, stalling at every stop sign. My work paid off, to the extent that I made it through the parent pick-up line, which was very stop-and-start-y challenged. On our (uphill) drive home we listened to Revolver and screamed along with “We All Live In The Yellow Submarine” (to match the sportscar) so she wouldn’t see how scared I was we’d catch a red light. We didn’t, not once, not all the way home.
The point here is that even though great love songs can affirm your experience and expand your universe, some of them are just too big to be drowned out by your life. No individual love story can ruin “Something”- not even the biggest love. The song will ripple out beyond your reach and the way you listen to it will grow as you do. Some things are bigger than you and your relationship.The Beatles, for example, are bigger than your relationship. And that is something to believe in.
Love Tracks Series