Friday, May 18, 2012

Donna Summer: She Said It Really Loud on the Radio

LaDonna Adrian Gaines, 1948 – 2012

Donna Summer was a phenomenon. Everything she did was on a grand scale. When her career broke through it was an explosion that lasted a decade, changing everything in its wake: our ears are still ringing.

When "Love to Love You Baby" hit the airwaves in 1975 I was in high school. The short version was a ubiquitous hit. The abbreviated moans and groans on the radio edit made it a novelty song: just naughty enough to make me slightly uncomfortable on weekend drives with my mom in the suburbs where we were briefly stranded. Minnie Riperton had already introduced the eargasm to the radio the year before with "Lovin' You," which was no doubt catchy but altogether different in scale. This song's slinkily suggestive groove was impossible to resist. But it was late at night as I lay in my bed reading and listening to the radio when I heard the full 16 minute glory of the song. It turned out not to be a few moans and groans but an extended symphonic orgasm, an intense aural documentary of ecstasy and passion. The guitar, the keys, the sweeping strings, the breathy voice, that funky long screw of a groove. I was a virgin but I knew what that song was about. I felt it. To not feel it, to not be swept up by its sensuality, one would have to be dead. It's the kind of song still, today, that makes me want to reach for a cigarette when it ends. And I haven't been a smoker in 25 years.

Two years later I had finished my first year of college and was spending a couple weeks in New York City. It's a longer story I've told parts of elsewhere on this blog, but I ended up late one weekend night down in the Village, the pre-gentrification Village, a block from the darkness under the still-standing elevated West Side Highway and the mysterious darkened ruin of riverside piers. It was Christopher Street Liberation Day 1977, and this incredible song was blaring from a soundtruck near the armory at the end of the street in the midst of a gay street festival. It was a synthesized beat like nothing I could have ever imagined, with dancing electric lines of crackling noise weaving in and out against a relentless pulsing beat. And there was that same breathy voice, singing once again about feeling "love" but clearly meaning raw, fiery sex. "I Feel Love" grabbed me like the superheated thick New York City night air. I wasn't yet out as a gay young man, and wouldn't be for a little while, but this magic moment cemented in my mind everything I imagined about future possibility.

A year or so later I was finally out, and as I gathered gay friends and learned to navigate the subterranean world of that long-ago hidden gay world, Donna Summer's music remained a constant. There were other artists I found more interesting, but none I ever found more compelling. Her sound was huge. I remember discovering her two-LP concept album "Once Upon a Time." Sure I listened to jazz and soul the rest of the time, but this amazing disco symphony was impossible to ignore. I first heard these songs on a dance floor somewhere in Chicago, probably at the Bistro. Lyrical, romantic, with a dramatic, almost operatic sweep: compositions with a pop catchiness but a furious grandiose ambition to seize the listener not in a heady idyll but in an ecstatic fury of dance and motion. As "Rumour Has It" segued into "I Love You" the lights in the disco would shimmer, the rhythms percolating against that insistent base drum and the sweep of the strings; the dance floor would fill with emotion. It was the happy ending of a fairytale come to life. I don't think I have ever listened to "I Love You" without feeling the memory of tears for the lost bliss of those fleeting otherworldly moments. I loved that record.

I also loved the song she recorded for the B-movie "The Deep," about as close as she ever got to doing a James Bond song (which would have been great!). I had that soundtrack with "Down Deep Inside" on otherworldly transparent blue vinyl. Her 15-minute version of Serge Gainsbourg's "Je T'aime" from Thank God It's Friday? To die for. And hearing her duke it out with Barbra Streisand on the 11-minute version of "No More Tears" is priceless.

I'm not sure that I heard Donna Summer's 17-minute cover of Jimmy Webb's lyrically obtuse epic of loss "MacArthur Park" dancing at the Bistro, but I know that it played the night that my friend Joe announced he had scored a few hits of windowpane acid. Let's just say this song is fried into my brain. Who turns a strange and melancholic song about a cake melting in the rain into a 17-minute disco song? I don't know if it was Summer herself or her producers who came up with this audaciously insane bit of genius. It's like an opera's mad song: beginning with a slow piano against stately strings, like something out of a drama queen's handbag, it takes almost two minutes even to understand what's happening. Suddenly Summer gives a theatrical laugh and it's on. That unforgettable horn-laden hook. It's ecstatic nonsense but it works: anyone who heard this song at that time surely knows what I mean. These songs were all huge at the clubs. Everyone jumped up from their banquettes and bar stools and filled the dance floor to catch the wave.

I remember when her triumphant double album "Bad Girls" came out. I remember the shiny shiny gatefold on extra-thick stock. Unlike the anonymous cooing female voices of so many disco acts, here was Donna Summer the star. While she had always flirted with musical styles beyond disco, "Bad Girls" was her successful power-grab for pop fame. Disco, soul, rock, even country. She not not only did it all, she did it all well. She understood in 1979, well ahead of many of us, that the disco genre she had pioneered couldn't sustain her indefinitely. She did amazing things with disco concept albums — there were several — and with giving new disco life to  Barry Manilow songs, but she knew when she needed to reinvent herself.

Well, we all seem to need to do that now and again. I note how Donna Summer was around (again!) a few times at significant moments in my own life. When I moved to New York City there was her ambitious eponymous album produced by Quincy Jones. It wasn't her biggest commercial success but it's a great record.

I remember her 1983 record "She Works Hard for the Money" with some ambivalence. This was a super big pop hit for her, and certainly the songs were grandly envisioned. But I didn't love this new Donna Summer, and her new openly born-again Christian identity was hard to reconcile with the Donna Summer who helped a generation of gay men dance out of their closets on to the streets. I am prepared now to accept that the fading of her reputation among gay men was the product of inaccurate malicious rumor, but there was a moment when we felt a sting of betrayal. I've said it before but the 1980s were a terrible decade.

Her later records were never huge, though the ones I know have a few magic moments. To my great regret I never saw her perform live.

But eventually all was forgiven. She didn't take back what she gave us, even if for a moment there was uncomfortable silence. Donna, we loved you, we really loved you.

Another one gone too damn soon; this part of growing up and older is hard, to see the people who helped shaped us, even from the other side of speakers and wires, drop away. Dim all the lights, sweet darling.... Love it don't come easy. But when you find the perfect love, let it fill you up. 

Thank you Donna. Thanks for being the soundtrack to my growing up.


  1. really nice remembrance. I had to do mine this morning as fast as I could before I just turned maudlin and ended up in a dark place all day. she was certainly the soundtrack to our young years.

  2. Thanks Casey. I've been listening to her songs all night but I think I'm afraid to listen to Last Dance. I note that I left it out of my remembrance.

    I did remember another thing, which is so hard to remember about those times. I'm sure you were like me, speculating back then about who might be gay in a time when few were willing to admit it openly in the world of pop culture. But on her "Live" album...did you own that one? she actually makes an explicit nod to her gay fans in one of the song intros? That was HUGE. Nobody acknowledged us from a fucking record back then.

  3. Lovely, Ish. I got a little weepy thinking of those dancing every night in the bars, my sweet gay boyfriends all long gone now. I miss it. I think the folks who sneer at disco simply weren't there (or maybe they were in the straight bars? :) The energy, excitement, joy ... unforgettable. I am so glad to have experienced it before the plague. And it breaks my heart to think about what came next.

  4. Thanks L. It was something you had to experience. I feel so lucky that I did.

  5. Living through those times is something I will never be able to share with anyone from the current generation. It was pure magic.

  6. A really wonderful remembrance. And like you, I'm deeply grateful to Donna Summer for contributing significantly to the soundtrack of my life.