Tuesday, November 13, 2007

“Wedding Bell Blues” / Laura Nyro
“BILL!” the girl singer cries out, extending it for two, then three measures – “I love you so / I always will,” she insists. But . . . but . . . BUT . . .

I knew this song first from the Fifth Dimension’s 1969 cover version, but once I got hold of Laura Nyro’s original (from her 1966 debut album), that was it for me. It helped, of course, that I had a crazy mad crush on a guy named Bill for the second half of high school, a guy who seemed interested but never would commit. When I think of the hours I wasted dreaming about him, with Laura Nyro egging me on . . .

I was 15, just the perfect age to sit hunched on my bedroom floor, teaching myself to blow smoke rings and pondering the romantic mess that my life would be IF I could ever move out of my parents’ house and start living it. Teen angst – we all go through it. And Laura Nyro was an ideal companion, with her smart barbed lyrics, her soulful jazz-tinged art songs, and her fierce piano playing. Sure, “Wedding Bell Blues” is about a girl who’s dying for her boyfriend to propose, which even in 1966 ran against all feminist principles. But the way Nyro handles it makes all the difference

She spins through a litany of romantic clichés -- “the passion eyes of May,” “a choir of carousels” – and declarations familiar from dozens of girl-group songs: “I never scheme or lie Bill, there's been no foolin'”, “I was the one who came runnin' when you were lonely / I haven't lived one day not lovin' you only.” (We even have the traditional back-up girls echoing those rhymes.) These are the articles of faith by which this poor female has lived -- and now this schmuck isn’t living up to his part of the bargain, dammit. “Oh, but am I ever gonna see my wedding day?” she howls, panic-stricken, and the melody howls and droops right along with her.

“I love you so, I always will,” she insists once more in verse three. “And though devotion rules my heart, I take no bows / But Bill you're never gonna take those wedding vows.” The rhythm punches out those words, like a furious girlfriend pounding on her boyfriend’s chest. She knows in her heart that he’s the wrong horse to put her money on – but she’s too hung up to move on. “Oh, come on, Bill,” she moans, urgently. “Oh come on, Bill!”

It’s the old tug-of-war between desire and social convention. Nyro’s heroine feels desire, all right; you can hear it every time she groans Bill’s name, giving it an extra trill of excitement. But she wants to know it’ll last – which in her limited world means marriage. “But kisses and love won't carry me / Till you marry me Bill!” she explodes, the line working its way up the scale and building in volume. “I’ve got the wedding bell blues!”

At fifteen, I didn’t really want to marry anybody – but I did want something to happen in my safe little suburban life. Laura Nyro gave voice to all my inchoate longing, in dozens of songs like “Billy’s Blues”, “And When I Die,” “Time and Love,” “Emmie,” “He’s A Runner” – the list is long. I wore the grooves off those records. Being a teenage girl is never easy, but thanks to Laura Nyro, I made it through -- though come to think of it, I never did perfect the smoke ring.

Wedding Bell Blues sample

PS Bill, if you read this -- call me.

3 comments:

Julie said...

I love this version.

monthlyDV Staff said...

Wasn't Laura Nyro also a teenager when she wrote this song?

Holly A Hughes said...

Yes, I think she was 18 when she recorded it -- I don't know how old she was when she actually wrote it; she'd already been writing songs for years. No doubt that's why it spoke to me so vividly when I was 15!