tremble clef

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

BWO, "Stay With You Again" (2007)

The first time -- and to this day, one of the few times -- I heard about the game "Deprivation" was in 1991, when I read David Leavitt's "A Place I've Never Been." The tale features Celia and Nathan, characters who recur across several of Leavitt's stories: appearing first in "Dedicated" from Family Dancing, then popping up in the title story and "I See London, I See France" of A Place I've Never Been, before returning in Arkansas' "The Wooden Anniversary." (Apparently, a Dutch theater company once produced a play from these narratives.) Nathan, who is clearly a fictionalized version of Leavitt himself, is a gay man, and Celia his best fag hag; they were Will and Grace before Will and Grace.

"A Place I've Never Been" catches the two friends at a pivotal moment when they are beginning to drift apart -- or more precisely, when Celia starts to see that their codependence is not healthy. In the story, they go a party thrown by a college friend, who "invariably suggests [her guests] play Deprivation." "The way you play it is you sit in a big circle, and everyone is given ten pennies...You go around the circle, and each person announces something he or she has never done, or a place they've never been -- 'I've never been to Borneo' is a good example -- and then everyone who has been to Borneo is obliged to throw you a penny. Needless to say, especially in college, the game degenerates rather quickly to matters of sex and drugs."

As the story makes clear, "Deprivation" is not a game you necessarily want to win -- though there are witty ways to do so: one male player hilariously declares that "he's never had a vaginal orgasm," and gets considerable pennies from it. Victory, after all, suggests that you've never done anything, never gone anywhere. You win by being a loser. Furthermore, as we might expect of a story published in the early 90s, the specter of AIDS hangs over its characters, and Leavitt emphasizes how the "experiences" that "Deprivation" allows you to flaunt might also what kills you. Nathan, aware that his ex is HIV-positive, in particular has sunken into a state of self-pitying paranoia: an understandable reaction, though one that hurts Celia and finally allows her to see Nathan for the narcissist he can often be. "Do you realize," he informs Celia pathetically at the story's close, in the aftermath of the game, "I've never been in love? Never once in my life have I actually been in love?" And Celia tells us: "And he looked at me very earnestly, not knowing, not having the slightest idea, that once again he was counting me for nothing." "He looked away from me," she continues, "listening, I suppose, for that wind-chime peal as all the world's pennies flew his way." It's a lovely image, perfectly capturing the moment when Celia bears the brunt of Nathan's tendency to feel so sorry for himself that he reprehensibly discounts the things he has experienced in his life, the places he has been, the friend he has loved. Our romanticized attachment to deprivation blinds us to the ways we have been blessed.

There's a class of songs I think of when I remember "A Place I've Never Been," when I think of "Deprivation"; I have never been able to resist these songs. Their power come from the way their verses announce the things they have done, while their choruses pinpoint what they have not -- or vice-versa -- and it is from this tension that the songs derive their lyrical hook. Several examples spring to mind at the moment. One I've written about before: Charlene's "I've Never Been To Me," although, oddly enough, I did so at excruciating length and yet failed to mention how the song depends, for part of its poignancy, on the way the verses catalogue all the things Charlene has done (been to Georgia, and California), only to wipe them out with its plaintive announcement, in the chorus, of how what matters more is where she has not been (that would be "to me"). Another example is Kylie's "I Believe In You." Here, the trajectory is reversed, as we first get a litany of all the things Kylie does not has faith in: "I don't believe that magic is only in the mind/I don't believe I'd love somebody just to pass the time..." Because of all these negatives, the positive, when it arrives in the chorus, is tremendously moving: "But I, I, I believe in you."

I have no resistance to such songs -- even when they are cheesy, even when they don't strictly fit the pattern. Hence, I find myself stopped in my tracks even by "Stay With You Again," a BWO ballad (cheese: check!) in which the tension is not even spread between verse and chorus. After an opening synth passage that recalls Chic's "I Want Your Love," the song gives us some faintly nonsensical verses ("The night is full of torment and lives are torn to shreds/You want your correspondent with cameras infrared"?). But in its chorus I hear the conflict between having and not-having, between what-I've-done and what-I'd-rather-do, and all defenses fall away. "I have crossed a thousand rivers/I have walked the streets of gold," Martin sings. "I have been through hell and heaven/Where my soul was bought and sold/I have stormed the Himalayas/Blown the horn of Africa." (Even the juvenile sexual joke can't take me out of it.) But, Martin then tells us, none of this is important: "But as long I live, I long to see/I long to be, to stay with you again." Here are the things I've seen, these are the places I've been. What do they matter? There is, in the end, only one place I want to be.

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