Sixty-seven years of love lessons
|Robert Christgau||Jan 2|
I was chuffed to learn that 80-year-old country singer Jeannie Seely had come from nowhere to release an album called American Classic because Seely was the first Nashville artist I ever wrote about. It was 1967, my second Esquire column, when I was 25 and knew zip about country music and Seely was 27 and riding her first and greatest hit: “Don’t Touch Me,” a hipper-than-thou pick on the artist gossip network at Max’s Kansas City. The composer was Hank Cochran of “I Fall to Pieces” and “Make the World Go Away” renown, who thought Seely so right for this hot song that he made her his fourth wife in 1969. Sweet, lean, intent, with just a hint of vibrato and zero drawl, Seely implores: “Your hand is like a torch each time you touch me/The look in your eye pulls me apart/Don’t open the door to heaven if I can’t come in/Don’t touch me if you don’t love me sweetheart.” That’s full third of a lyric about an erotic bond, making perfectly clear, almost, that between these two, a mere touch can open the gate to a paradise on the far side of romantic bliss—a lyric where a kiss will soon turn into something more sexual and more serious. “Don’t love me then act as if we’ve never kissed,” Seely insists, which reinforced by the slight quiver in that vibrato establishes that what “love” means in that entreaty is carnal as well as emotional.
Cochran and Seely’s marriage lasted a decade or so, and a few years after they split she wedded a Nashville attorney in a durable union during which she’s rerecorded “Don’t Touch Me” at least twice. But where at 27 her vocal aura was, like the lyric, fresh as opposed to innocent, fresh is beyond her aging timbre on both 2005’s 20 All Time Greatest Hits and now American Classic. That predictable observation has a surprise ending, however, because against all odds Seely sounds decisively cleaner and clearer on the album she released at 80 than the one she released at 65. We’ve heard enough eightysomething albums by now to know that voices don’t work that way. Even singers with the luck, technique, and lifestyle discipline to keep their instruments fit at 65 get creaky if not necessarily decrepit as their late seventies and early eighties encroach—you can hear the saliva deficit building, the telltale croak staking its claim. But where at 65 Seely sounded her age, on the new album she sounds up to 20 years under 65 instead of 15 over. And though reviewers have been too discreet or clueless to point this out, its vocal vitality has to be one reason the word-of-mouth on this album got loud enough to reach me.
Given how cannily Seely varies the maturity of her timbre and affect, that’s not the whole of it, either. Dolly Parton’s 1980 country smash “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You)” sounds quite grown up, as if the old in “old flame” means exactly what it says; the jaunty new Penn Pennington-Mitch Ballard opener “So Far So Good” and a savvy version of Paul McCartney’s “Dance Tonight” are both almost perky in slightly different ways. Taken slow and reflective without a hint of innocence, this “Don't Touch Me” is far more complex and convincing than the rather rote 2005 remake. Instead a song with an uncanny thematic resemblance to “Don’t Touch Me” is the one she takes youngest—as young as she can, say 45 or so. Although there was certainly an almost impudent charm to this choice, that I knew she was in fact 80 only accentuated its peculiarity, because the strange and suspect Sammy Cahn-Gene De Paul standard “Teach Me Tonight” would seem to voice the romantic requirements of someone so much younger than 45 that why bother.
“Teach Me Tonight” began its public life as a late-‘54 smash for the Cuban-American DeCastro Sisters, all of whom were around 30 when their ship came in; although I must have heard it as a 12-year-old radio nut, I recall it not at all. Yet I knew the song well when I encountered it on An American Classic without remembering how, so I checked my iTunes, where I quickly found renditions by iconic songbirds Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington, who won a very posthumous Grammy for it in 1999. I also recalled Phoebe Snow’s belted 1976 version and realized I’d heard the song plenty on underrated 2014 oldies albums by Bette Midler and Aretha Franklin. Perhaps excepting the DeCastro Sisters’, some of these versions are terrific and all are fine with me; De Paul’s melody is so fetching that Errol Garner recorded a typically percussive piano version and the Ray Brown Trio a typically bassy one, and that’s just two of many. Tiny-voiced piano woman Blossom Dearie cut a singularly shrewd take; pre-fame Amy Winehouse applied an impressive array of affectations to a live performance; four-foot-nine belter Brenda Lee cut it at 15 with nary a hint that it was more than a catchy number with vocables attached. But due to how subtly Seely shades her maturity and indeed her age on her new album, her version weirded me out a little.
Most readers probably suspect from the title alone that the song might have generationally complex-to-problematic overtones, and some I’m sure are certain it does. But I doubt many know it by heart, so here are the lyrics. The A part begins: “Did you say I’ve got a lot to learn/Well don’t think I’m trying not to learn/Since this is the perfect spot to learn/Teach me tonight” and continues “Starting with the ABC of it/Right down to the XYZ of it/Help me solve the mystery of it/Teach me tonight.” Then there’s a B part: “The sky’s a blackboard high above you/If a shooting star goes by/I’ll use that star to write I love you/A thousand times across the sky.” Then for a climax, so to speak, it’s back to the creepiest A part: “One thing isn’t very clear my love/Should the teacher stand so near my love/Graduation’s almost here my love/Teach me tonight.” After an instrumental break, most versions including Seely’s return to the B part, just the second half usually, and then repeat the problematic final stanza.
As an unswerving fan of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” I say that post-MeToo “Should the teacher stand so near” feels wrong just as language—we know too well that too many teachers have stood too near to their students, especially female ones. And not having heard “Teach Me Tonight” in years, I found that for Seely to feign not youth but all the youthfulness she could muster at what every listener knows is age 80 accentuated the song’s rhetorical slippage toward a far from trivial danger zone—one we’ve had mapped over and over in the courts and public prints for the past five years or so. It made the whole thing feel more suspect than Seely or Curb Records or you or I would prefer. But it also made the song more suspect than Sammy Cahn probably deserves. Because I cheated a little when I quoted the lyric at the top of this paragraph—cheated by cutting the suspect line off before its last two words, which are “my love.” “My love” isn’t a free pass—many victims of child abuse are groomed to believe they love their abusers. But it suggests a parity between the two actors in this little drama; it implies some measure of shared agency. So while it’s right to observe that Seely’s trick of cutting her vocal age in half had the effect of accentuating suspect tendencies in a strange lyric, that observation is less than absolutely damning in the end.
What’s less salient just because the song’s MeToo dimensions are so out front is another variant of sexism: whether it’s premature Brenda Lee doing her elders’ bidding or sexpot Dinah Washington putting her erotic agenda on display, the song always assumes that the man is the teacher. With almost 50 years of monogamy under my belt, my expertise is limited, but that’s not how it was for me: with a few exceptions I remember fondly, I learned more from the women I bedded than they from me, most importantly that because all bodies and temperaments are different the learning had best be mutual if it’s to go anywhere at all. It’s no surprise that with one exception, an all too calm James Taylor and an Al Jarreau whose innocent act evaporates when his carnal self ignites his award-winning pipes are the only male versions to have made a dent.
The exception, however, is a big one: Frank Sinatra. That’s right—absurdly, Sinatra too has covered “Teach Me Tonight,” with Quincy Jones conducting no less, and initially I was appalled. Frank Sinatra? That hooker-hiring, celebrity-porking, Nancy Reagan-linked dog? The idea was so grotesque it left Seely’s modest miscalculation back at the starting gate. Only as I kept listening I was soon reminded that Sammy Cahn was a Sinatra buddy and one of his favorite lyricists. So it seems that Cahn devised some words to indicate that a world-famous ass man had taken up this song of innocence. “I’ve played love scenes in a flick or two/And I’ve also met a chick or two/But I still can learn a trick or two/Teach me tonight.” Which would be enough to get Frank off the hook, really. But the two buddies go on, providing what amounts to a full alternate version: “I who thought I knew the score of it/Kind of think I should know much more of it/Off the wall, the bed, the floor of it/Hey-y-y teach me tonight.” Then a B part: “The midnight hour comes slowly creeping/When there’s no one there but you/There must be more to life than sleeping/Single in a bed for two.” And finally: “What I need most is post gradu-ate/What I feel’s hard to articulate/If you want me to matriculate/You’d better teach me tonight.” And then, since they’re rolling, uh-oh, a bonus coda: “What d’ya get for lessons?/Teach me come on and teach me/Teach me tonight.”
Really, what are we to conclude? How about ring-a-ding-ding?