tremble clef

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Marvin Gaye/Paul Young, "Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home)" (1963/1983)

Dear Abby,

I met this guy about two months ago at a friend's party. He's handsome, funny, and makes a good living as a traveling salesman. We hit it off immediately. After the party he walked me home, and gave me a chaste kiss in front of my door. We've been dating ever since, and things have been going well. However, last night he sat me down and told me that, "as much as he loves me," I should know that he's not the kind of guy who "can be in a relationship." In fact, he confessed that, even though he's 40 years old, he's never been in one!

My first instinct was to call bullshit. But he was crying as he spoke, and seemed genuinely pained. He kept putting the blame on himself: he said that he's a "free spirit," has always been "emotionally damaged," that he would "really love to love me," but can't. I found myself believing him -- somewhat. What do you think? Is he just an asshole? But if what he says is true, where does this leave us?

Ambivalent 'Bout Commitmentphobe

Dear ABC,

My sympathies goes out to you. You've run into That Guy. The man who wants his freedom, who tells you it's not you, it's him. The Logan to your Rory.

But I'm not here to reduce him to a type. I should be more generous. It's entirely possible, as you admit, that he's genuinely "damaged," and would like to change. You don't provide any details about whether he has shown a willingness to. Did he, for instance, explained why he is supposedly damaged? Did he talk about seeking counselling for his emotional handicap?

If he did, and if he acts in ways that suggest that his intent is good, then perhaps the relationship, such as it is, has a fighting chance. Otherwise, I think the question you have to ask yourself is: is he Marvin Gaye, or is he Paul Young?

Let me explain, dear ABC. In 1963 a minor song called "Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home)" appeared on Marvin's first album (it would also resurface as a b-side on one of his singles in 1968). Twenty years later Paul Young covered it, and took it to #1 in the UK. The song is addressed to a woman, to whom Marvin/Paul are giving the kiss-off. "By the look in your eye/I can tell you're gonna cry/Is it over me?" Here's the problem: he's a self-confessed flirt: "I'm the kind of guy/that gives a girl the eye/Everybody knows/I love 'em and I leave 'em/Break their hearts and deceive them/Everywhere I go." It's not her fault; it's his. "If it is save your tears/For I'm not worth it you see." Same song, right? Yes, but two very different takes.

Marvin's original version is jaunty. The tempo is obviously faster, and the whole thing is almost a Motown stomper (listen to those horns). And, in his phrasing, you can hear that Marvin revels in the freedom that he sings about. In a line like, "For I'm the kind of guy who is always on the ro-ro-ad," for example, you can feel his delight about being transient. Each time "road" is sung in a slightly different way, as if Marvin's turning the word over and over on his tongue, relishing its taste. Even his backing vocalists are there in agreement ("that's my home!"); they're not a counter-voice. Marvin's a free spirit, that's how it is, and it's not reason for remorse.

Paul's song is quite a different creature. From the first notes -- mournful, wavering like they're just that bit off-pitch, or as if your record player is still warming up to the right speed -- you can hear it. Paul's voice is typically hoarse, and, indeed, damaged. There're certainly no horns on this. What it does have, by way of instrumentation, is a little riff of tinkering notes -- they follow every "always on the road" in the chorus -- that sound like they might be played on a xylophone or chimes. When the second verse begins, a drum beat comes in, but even that is an echoing one that is somehow empty and hollow.

Because of this build-up, the bridge on Paul's version sounds surprisingly pained, despite a lyric that seems like it might be exasperated: "You keep telling me/You keep telling me/I'm your man/What do I have to do/To make you understand?" When those chimes come back in again, it's remarkable how moving they sound. They sound like an opportunity -- for a different way of life, for love -- fading away before Paul. I have to confess that I have often teared up, listening to this.

Do I believe Paul in a way that I don't with Marvin? Am I saying you should, ABC? Perhaps. But, sadly, with men you never know, do you? Paul's version maybe goes on a minute too long: in that last minute, Paul's ad libs ("I'm not saying I don't love you") might sound a little forced, like he is beginning to protest too much. The chiming riff might even start to sound rehearsed, like a spiel. Just how many times has he said this before, to other girls, in other places? You have to wonder.

Um, so, yeah, good luck. I hope you figure it out.


  • Well, Abby, that was no fucking help AT ALL.

    By Anonymous Ambivalent 'Bout Commitmentphobe, at 4:59 PM  

  • That's because Abby forgot to ask you whether That Guy has recently been raving about _Brokeback Mountain_...

    By Anonymous esque, at 9:08 PM  

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