Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"Only Love Can Break A Heart" / Gene Pitney
"Only Love Can Break Your Heart" / Neil Young

Listed among all the American musicians who inspired the young Beatles -- Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers -- it always surprises me to hear Gene Pitney's name. Somewhere in the aural slagheap of songs I heard on the family radio before I gained musical consciousness (i.e., before the Beatles' first U.S. tour), I remember those torchy Gene Pitney ballads, but they seemed quintessentially 1950s music to me. I lump all those guys together: Frankie Laine, Roy Orbison, Dion, Ricky Nelson, and all the Bobbies (Vee, Vinton, Darrin, Rydell, etc). That's not to say I don't like them . . . but hey, I like Dean Martin and Vic Damone too. I always thought rock 'n' roll was something different.

On the radio the other day, however, this Gene Pitney song came on, and -- you know what? It is a GREAT song. What makes it great is that flat-out yearning in Pitney's voice, the emotional catch in the throat, all its little wobbles and swoops, the way his vocal cracks on the occasional line. ("You know I'm sorry / I'll prove it / With just one kiss..."). I can see how this intensity inspired the Beatles, not to mention how John Lennon stole that crafty cracking-voice trick.

Of course the arrangement is horribly dated, with its melodramatic string section, echo chamber backup choir, those two interludes of cornball whistling. All this schmaltz for a teenage love song? But teenagers were his core audience, and having a blow-out fight with your girlfriend can be a Huge Event for a teenager -- and Pitney gave it the passion it deserves. Let's also remember that he wasn't speaking for his male listeners so much as casting himself as the sort of tender lover his female fans wanted. I can imagine plenty of tear-stained pillows were clutched to angora-sweatered bosoms while this 45 spun on the turntable.

Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote this tune (those guys pop up EVERYWHERE), which may account for its sophisticated angle. We launch abruptly into the middle of the story -- it starts out "Last night I hurt you / But darling / Remember this" -- and we never actually find out what he did (I have to admit, I'm curious). But that's beside the point, at least from his perspective. Now he's backpedaling like crazy, offering a convoluted argument to win her back: if you're so heartbroken, you must love me a lot -- therefore you must love me enough to take me back. It's flawed logic, but there's a good chance that her hormones are raging so hard, she'll fall for it. Pitney goes at it with full-bore regret, though I suppose in a modern cover the singer could be a sleazeball seducer. "Please let me hold you / And love you / For always, and always" -- that's one horny line, even the way Pitney sings it. He wants back in, and he'll do anything to get there.

Eight years later, Neil Young recorded a winsome acoustic waltz with practically the same title, "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," but it's about as different as a song can be. By 1970 "love" had a new meaning, a post-Summer of Love hippie meaning. In classic wistful folk-rock mode, Neil muses on the value of making honest emotional connections, even if it means risking heartbreak. Addressing the whole world, not just one specific lover, he's armed with just a acoustic guitar and that earnest, slightly strangled vocal, with a few friends harmonizing in the background. No echo chambers. No strings. It's a grander statement about life, but delivered with affecting simplicity.

"But only love can break your heart / Try to be sure right from the start / Yes, only love can break your heart / What if your world should fall apart . . . " The mellow, slightly stoned tempo floats you along, thinking lovely abstract thoughts about how love is all you need. The heartbreak reality gets lost in the shaky shuffle.

I love this Neil Young track -- and yet whenever I read that title, it's Gene Pitney's voice that flashes first into my mind; that's how deeply that Pitney track lies embedded in my subconscious. Lovely abstract thoughts just don't pack the wallop of a real guy and a real girl going through teenage angst. I guess I've sold Gene Pitney short all these years.
Well, for the record, I think she should take him back, no matter what he did. After all, he's really sorry. Just listen to that shiver in his voice...

Give Pitney a listen: or check out Neil:


Anonymous said...

Thanks Holly, for the wonderful musings on Gene Pitney and of course, Neil Young. Pitney has always been my favorite artist and I love to hear others' takes on his performance.

I was one of the teenagers that listened to Gene back then and know exactly what you mean.

Dan Hollyfield

Carol said...

Gene Pitney rocked, that amazing voice, melodramatic stuff. I remember aching to "It Hurts to be in Love" in Junior High (now called middle school, I reckon) after some dopey rejection. It's really not dopey at that age, the hormones are raw and one's cement is wet so impressions stay. My 33 year old son, digs him! Glad he died after a gig, doing what he did best and in his sleep.

Anonymous said...

You're right about Gene Pitney, Holly...and for a while, at least, he competed fairly well with the Liverpoodlian machine of 1964-1965.

The kniffing vocals, the total angst of teenage heartbreak. Yeah, Carol, I love "It Hurts To Be In Love."

"Town Without Pity," and "Last Exit To Brooklyn," not bad, either.