Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"I Want You" / Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Elvis Costello

A pretty obvious song title, eh? Aren't approximately eighty percent of all rock songs about this same topic? (The other twenty percent, of course, being the "I Don't Want You" songs.) Still, here are three very different takes on the same idea, and today I played them back to back. Guess who won?

Dylan's "I Want You" is the earliest, from Blonde on Blonde (1966), and compared to the others it's downright chipper. It's a delightful song, but not particularly seductive. The stream-of-consciousness lyrics describe a bewildering cast of characters flitting in and out -- the guilty undertaker, the drunken politician, the dancing child with his Chinese suit -- Dylan could do this kind of talking-blues thing in his sleep by then, and his tone of voice is mischievous. (Between that and the busy harmonica, I really do get the sense that he's "doing Dylan"). But yeah, when he finally gets around to singing about the woman he desires, there is something appealing about his whiny moan, obsessively repeating "I want you / I want you / Honey, I want you / So bad." Well okay, Bob, if it'll shut you up. . . .

Three years later, here comes John Lennon, doing his "I Want You" (or, excuse me, "I Want You (She's So Heavy)") on Abbey Road. I see this as the rival song to Paul McCartney's lust-drenched "Oh! Darling", and despite my known weakness for Paul McCartney, John actually gives Paul a run for his money this time. He has taken the inarticulate desire of Bob's chorus and applied it to a whole song, the lyrics of which are -- and I quote them in their entirety -- "I want you / You know I want you so bad / I want you / You know I want you so bad / It's driving me mad / It's driving me mad / She's so heavy." For seven minutes and forty-seven seconds. But hell, who bothers with lyrics when you're swamped by lust? To call this a "song" is to miss the point; it's all about the sensuous textures of that dense orchestration -- the hypnotic licks and thrusts of George Harrison's guitar line, the relentless pulsebeat of McCartney's bass, and electric organ fills by Billy Preston buzzing at the edges like synapses firing. You surrender to it, get lost in it, unmoored in time, brain and body disconnected -- and then, abruptly, it stops. Just. Like. That. You practically need a cigarette once it's over.

I have read that Elvis Costello had Lennon's song in mind when he wrote "I Want You" for his 1986 album Blood & Chocolate, that he was consciously trying for that same obsessive quality. Of course, being Elvis, he puts lyrics back into the equation -- lots of lyrics. Snarky lyrics. Nasty lyrics. Because it's not just desire, it's unrequited desire, and the folksongy platitudes of the intro degenerate soon into Elvis's hoarse jealous rage against his lover.

It is more than a little sick how much voyeuristic energy he puts into imagining her with another man: "It's the stupid details that my heart is breaking for / It's the way your shoulders shake and what they're shaking for . . . It's the thought of him undressing you, or you undressing. . ." and you can't help but picture these scenes too, peeping through the window right beside him. But as he goes on, repeatedly moaning "I want you," the time scheme gets fuzzy -- it appears he is still sleeping with this bitch, and his lust positively feeds on his jealousy: "I want to know the things you did that we do too . . . I want to hear he pleases you more than I do . . Did you call his name out as he held you down. . . . "

The arrangement is spare, just a discordant guitar, a monotonous shushing drum beat, a softly ominous bassline, and a few haunting organ accents. All you really focus on is Elvis' hollowed-out voice, a miserable and spiteful lament that quivers and rasps with hate and desire and -- well, this goes well beyond seduction in my book. It's absolutely terrifying. And yet . . . all I know is I want Elvis when he sings this. I don't want Bob, I don't want John, I don't even want Paul -- I want Elvis.

So I guess the song works.


Jeff Larche said...

You're dead on. Costello's song is TERRIFYING -- and riveting. Seeing him sing this live, with just his guitar as backup, is a revelation. Although the other two songs you described (what do we call these? Homonyms would describe them if they are words -- we need to invent a word for name-sharing songs!) are wonderful, but the ability of Elvis to sound both tortured and obsessed is eerie and wonderful. Thanks again for reminding me how much good music means to me.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I hear Costello sing this live I am riveted, creeped out and utterly captivated. It's as if he has crawled out of the primordial ocean of conflicted lovers to give us a gift with no exchange slip. I'd keep it anyway. Another great choice, Holly.