“Kate,” Part II

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“Kate,” Part II

 I’ve Got You Under My Skin, by Cole Porter, sung by the Four Seasons (1966), encountered 1966

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            [To paraphrase Huckleberry Finn, you don’t know a thing about this story without you have read the previous entry.  Read it first, and then come back.]

Kate did come to my party.  Obviously, my guy friends didn’t get her; they were giving me grief.  They took exception to the girls holding hands with each other while we were all singing to guitars, for instance.  I took exception, too, when it came to Kate, but only because she wasn’t holding hands with me.

            The Power of Positive Thinking

I just thought about Kate all the time – well, all the time that wasn’t devoted to thinking about other girls.  A coed high school, even a small one like the one I attended, is a smorgasbord of sexual and romantic fantasies.  In between pining for Kate, there were some other distractions.[1]  But all this to-do with other girls still left the lioness’ share of my musings for Kate.

And so, as the winter rolled along, I contrived various ways of getting Kate to talk to me.  For one, I signed up (as she had), for the student matinees of a professional theater company resident at the University.  Sitting next to her once a month in the dark!  I would hope that our arms would brush, and frequently I’d sort of convince myself temporarily we were touching when I more or less knew we really weren’t.  And we had some long talks.  Once more, the dynamic of smart kids together made a bond.  Clearly we had been sitting in the dark watching the actors for much the same reasons.

Come February I asked her to the Sophomore Prom.  (Always held in the dead of February, as opposed to the summery feel of the Senior Prom.)  Kate said yes, to my delight.  I gathered that her parents were sick of the guy in the band and very pleased to hear someone else was taking an interest.  That nugget of information should have worried me, but I took it as a good sign.

            Big Date

On the evening of the Prom itself, I was a little ahead of time.  I might have wanted to loiter in the vicinity to contrive a less premature appearance, but Kate’s dog heralded my arrival, and there was Kate at the door, in a turquoise dress, wearing lipstick.  So uncharacteristic, but exciting.  I handed over the requisite white carnations.

I met the parents; Dad, I wrote down in my journal as “a television paterfamilias.”  I believe he had a red cardigan sweater and even a pipe, and seemed to my untutored eye to be radiating calm and maturity.  Mom seemed pleasant, too.  What I wasn’t seeing!  I must have been looking at a household in agony, well down the path to dissolution. Within three years, Dad would be teaching in another state, living with a girlfriend.  You’d think that a child of divorce like me would have picked up on something, but no, not a clue.  And Kate, whatever she might be going through, was giving nothing away.  (Well, she did that fall – but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

I offered to take a cab, but Kate was happy to walk.  Suddenly, we were on the same street as the school – and Ella’s home.  We could hardly not mention Ella.  Kate decried Ella’s choice to live with her half-sister, thought it was very mixed up – why I no longer recall.  What struck me, though, as really mixed up was the brute fact that the path from school to Kate led past Ella.

The dance I treasure in my memory.  Setting: the school library.  The band was, thank heavens, not the same band as had been playing that previous September night.  And shortly we were up and dancing.  Kate’s thick red hair tumbled in front of her face so much, I couldn’t see it clearly.  That just made her prettier to me.  Me ponying and freestyling, Kate doing the jerk.  I’d polished my foxtrot skills for the slow numbers, but Kate only did a two-step.  Not much time for anybody’s style of slow stuff, though, because in came – naturally – Ella and Tim.  Kate dragged me over to talk to them at the refreshment table.  Ella obviously still didn’t want to talk to me, though Tim and I got along fine.  (I later learned that a mutual friend had given Tim a backgrounder on Ella and me, to ease the diplomatic awkwardness.)  They only wanted to dance slow ones – well, join the club.

As it happened, I was friends with the drummer, and told him that in the second set, his band should keep mostly to the slow numbers.  Soon I was thanking goodness for my friends in high places.  When you’re 16 and you dance a number of slow dances with a girl, she does get more comfortable after a while, gets into the little liberties you take.

It is, I believe, a very natural reaction.  Nice boys are – well, were in my era anyhow – taught that girls know what they want, what their limits and desires are, and you can exploit those limits and then you’re done.  In truth, however, I don’t think it is really all that different for girls than it is for us: flirtation lays down a logic all of our bodies have a hard time not following.  And dancing is a license to flirt.  The closer the dancing, the less escapable the logic.

So, no escaping for Kate right then.  My leg was in between hers at times, pressing back that turquoise dress, and my head was resting on the nape of her neck.  (I did have to disengage a couple of times because her hair lacquer stung through my pores, and that lovely red hair would get in my mouth.)  I wasn’t forcing anything; she was as much a part of it as I.  We were both hot and sweaty, and I simply loved it.

After that, we repaired to a place my journal records as the Pizza King, of which I lack all recall.  I see that I had my arm around her waist the whole time, sans objection.  But when we sat down with Cokes, I lacked the words to press my advantage.  I couldn’t say I loved her, couldn’t use endearments, couldn’t ask her to be my girl.  We talked about some pretty racy stuff: topless bathing suits (Rudi Gernreich’s launch of this audacious item having happened little more than a year before).  But I lacked the words, and she the interest.  And so we went home, her arm admittedly around my waist, mine over her shoulders.

And no, no goodnight kiss.  I did get to chat up her parents some more.  Then we were standing at the door, and Kate was holding the cat.  “Say goodnight, Solomon,” she said.  I got to touch Solomon, and Kate’s forearm, by a different and more direct route.

Well, of course I was in a daze, notwithstanding.  My studies took a hit for a while, and as I was very serious about my grades, I eventually had to set diligently about fixing them, un-hitting them, if you will.  Meanwhile, Kate was proactive about seeing me again, inviting me to accompany her to a showing of Olivier’s movie of Othello.

I could tell myself whatever I wanted, for instance that Ella had just been a dress rehearsal, that at last I had arrived where I was heading – but the truth was I wasn’t quite there.  And there was little activity after Othello for a bit.  But I kept my spirits up on the strength of another invitation – this to an April party at Kate’s house. And it was some consolation that my grades had started to recover.

            Party Time

The party itself was the kind of party that artistic intellectual white kids threw in that particular era: music on the hi-fi, arguments about Vietnam, lots of making out, and a lone African American boy, whom we still would have spoken of as a Negro.  (And a little later, with growing self-awareness, would have called him a token Negro.)  I was probably the oldest one there, most of the guests being freshmen.

This was all happening down in Kate’s basement.  As I reached the bottom of the stairs, there stood a short, terribly buxom girl with, as I recall, a black page haircut, wearing white slacks and a green pullover.  I stuck out my hand; she introduced herself as, let us say, Zsuska.  I don’t know where she went to school, but it was neither of the places whose students I knew.

There was a girl there from another high school, tall, made up with a lot of dark eyeshadow, who was the date of the black boy, and she was proposing that we have a seance.  But no one else was interested in that.  Dancing was the big item that evening.

I danced a couple of numbers with a serious-minded girl I’ll call Cilla, had an argument with Cilla about Vietnam (I was still pro, she contra), and then found myself with Zsuska, whose looks did not appeal to me.  Zsuska wanted to dance, however, so we too stood up for a couple of numbers.  I became aware, however, that she seemed to have come with – call him Henry, a diffident young man, and Kate was talking with someone else named Jim.  So I tried to disengage myself.

In hindsight, this was what you call not going with the flow.  Item: Kate was going to spend the entire evening with that other guy, Jim, whatever I said or did.  Item: Henry was and remains to this day gay (regardless of how much vocabulary either of us had for this at the time – in my case very little and in Henry’s case conceivably none either).  Item: Zsuska was not going to let me out of there without me asking her out.  I have a distinct suspicion now that my fate may have been a matter of negotiation between Kate and Zsuska before I even got there.

I wandered around trying to make conversation, and found that this ever-so-slightly-younger generation was much more radical than my ever-so-slightly older one.  Just two years made a difference.  Everyone else thought President Johnson, whom I still idolized, was an evil to be resisted.

So I looked at some records.  Zsuska came over and told me I couldn’t wait around for girls to offer themselves to me, which of course led to my sitting back down with Henry and Zsuska.  Henry seemed oblivious to me, but Zsuska presently said “Henry, don’t you think we should let other people get a chance to dance with us?” – looking straight at me.  Henry had to say yes.

I soon discovered that Zsuska was nothing if not direct.  “I don’t know anything about you,” she told me, though I already knew this wasn’t strictly true, since she’d admitted Kate had told her something about me.  As we slowly danced, I gave her a capsule of my life, and she responded by telling me about her days as a child in other lands.  Then she asked me what I thought of her.  I tried to field this diplomatically, but I said I thought she was rather an aggressive person.  She replied that she had to be, because otherwise nobody asked her to dance, which surprised me.  She claimed no one had asked her out.  I responded with remarks about breaks being bound to come one’s way.  Not surprisingly, she was treating me as the very break I was describing, pressing her bosom hard against my chest.

I said, “Hey you really are being aggressive.”

She pulled back.  “Don’t you want me to?”

“No, I don’t mind at all,” I said, and she happily pressed even harder against me.  You don’t have to ask a 16-year old straight boy if he likes the feel of a girl’s breast against him; all the same I was worried about Henry, and when the lights were turned up to search for another girl’s lost earring, I extricated myself and went back to Cilla.  And yet, and yet I wanted to go back to Zsuska.  Don’t ask me why I was playing Prince Hamlet about all of this.  But Cilla called it a night, to my relief, and I immediately cut in on Henry-the-future-gay and Zsuska.

“How’s it going?” I asked Zsuska.  “Lovely, thanks to you,” she said, and looked into my eyes with a look that even then I called “naked desire” – in quotes.  It was as if she had studied what that was supposed to look like in the mirror, and was trying it on.  I mean, I didn’t mind, but I could not rid myself of the notion that it was a performance.  James Bond might have had that kind of effect on women: in my wildest fantasies, I knew that I surely did not.  My journal does not record what I said in immediate response, but she was telling me around then that I was too old for Kate, and that she (at 16 like me) was too old for Henry, Kate’s classmate.  I did note that when I said something about Henry later, she just “moaned sensually in my ear.”  Out of male trade unionism, though, I did insist that she let Henry cut in at some point, but only for a while.  I cut in myself yet again, and at this point Zsuska was trying to get me to kiss her.

Not there, I told myself, not in front of everyone.  But Kate and fate kept throwing Zsuska and me in each other’s way.  Henry and a boy left together, and it was Zsuska’s mom who gave me a lift home.  Of course there was a date arranged.

            Little Date

I have seldom been so humiliated by myself as that date made me.  We went to the theater to see a war movie, and from the moment I saw Zsuska at the theater, I knew it was all wrong.  She really was not attractive, not to me.  And I had to be polite and flirt, and hold her hand.  And all I wanted to do was get away.  I suppose that by now I was sort of in the position Ella had earlier occupied with me.  I desperately did not want to hurt or humiliate Zsuska, but I also wanted the date to end.  And I recognized that my lack of interest in her was not based on anything profound: I just didn’t care for her looks, especially in daylight.  I must have hurt her; she must have known.

I could be easier on myself, and point to the obviousness of the danger signs when someone comes onto you like that.  But that would be giving my younger self too much credit.  There was only one other thought contributing to my insensitive treatment of Zsuska: she wasn’t Kate.  And that I knew before asking Zsuska out.

            Hallooing To The Reverberate Hills

Kate, I guess, continued to date that other guy, Jim, until the school year ended.  That summer, she was somewhere else.  I knew she was out of town, and yet somehow, I kept finding reasons to visit her home.  Not knocking, not asking if anyone else was there.  Just walking by.

I was a bit like Viola’s notion of herself, were she in love with Olivia:

[I would m]ake me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love,
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills,
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ““Olivia!”” [2]

I wasn’t exactly making cabins at Kate’s gate, and my hallooing was strictly internal.  But the emotion was the same.  And to get to her gate, I usually managed to take the way from the school past Ella’s house down to Kate’s.

Which is not to say that I suddenly stopped looking at others.  I escorted a girl named Jill to the Senior Prom at the end of junior year.  And in a later piece I’ll talk about the girls of Lake Michigan who crossed my path that summer.

I just felt more deeply about her than the others.  But it wasn’t reciprocated, at least not to that point.

            The Perfect Song for the Imperfect Situation

That fall, the fall of 1966, the Four Seasons came out with a song that expressed exactly how I felt, their cover of Cole Porter’s immortal I’ve Got You Under My Skin.

Don’t you know little fool, you never can win
Use your mentality, wake up to reality
But each time I do, just the thought of you
Makes me stop before I begin
‘Cause I’ve got you under my skin.

            Not that I knew anything at that age about the Four Seasons’ version being a cover.  Unbeknownst to me, the song had been recorded hundreds of times, from its premiere in the movie Born To Dance (1936), where it netted a Best Song Academy Award nomination,[3] right up to the 1960s.  Never, so far as I was or am aware, had it been sung or recorded in similar fashion up to that point.

There had previously been two predominant approaches: croony, a la Bing Crosby,[4] and swinging, a la Frank Sinatra.[5]  I would not have been interested in either in those days.  Those approaches each maintained a certain distance from the pain and doubt in the lyric: the croony because crooning is by definition a kind of controlled and hence subversive approach to torchy emotions, and the swinging because the jauntiness in it is not merely subversive: it’s actively antithetical to torchy feelings.  I’m not knocking these approaches, which are perfectly valid – indeed, later in life I came to recognize Sinatra’s recording (arranged by Nelson Riddle) as an exhilarating knockout, a total masterpiece.  But one thing Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons never were was ironic or subversive.  There is a heavy-breathing, laying-it-all-on-the-line quality to this rendition which made it perfect for a likely-to-be-disappointed teenage lover.[6]

And there was something more: the harmonies.  Producer Bob Crewe spotted something in the song that no other version I know of to that date had picked up on: one little musical phrase that he took out of context, changed slightly, and turned into the centerpiece of the production.  This was the phrase sung to the words “go so well,” in the line: “I said to myself this affair never will go so well.”  As written, it’s F, F#, F#. Well, according to my sheet music, actually F#, G, G, since Crewe also moved the song down one key, from Eb to D (one presumes to give Frankie Valli’s falsetto a little more headroom).  Here’s what it looks like in the original (and I apologize for the blurriness):[7]

Crewe took this phrase, and instead of starting with Porter’s sophisticated and bluesy accidental (as the F# pictured above is if you’re in the key of Eb, and the F is if, like Crewe, you’re playing in the key of D), took the launching note for the phrase one half step down, to E, F#, F#.  It sounded squarer, more sincere.  And now Crewe had the essential building block for his recasting of the song.  He paired the revised cadence up with the bells and with the words “never win,” and played it and had the Seasons sing it over and over, at moments of heavy emotion including the false ending, either as E, F#, F#, or, to come close to resolving on the key, D, E, E.  He gets some gorgeous chords that way and manages to make the song less about obsessed hope than obsessed despair.  (“Never win, never win.”)[8]

It might have been better if I’d taken Crewe’s point to heart while I was listening to the song.  But I still thought maybe I had a chance.

[Continued in the next entry.]

[1]   I tried to take some liberties with another freshman, which were, mercifully, lightly rebuffed.  I asked out a future lesbian whose incipient sexual trajectory was quite obvious in retrospect; we were both probably clueless about that at that point, but I certainly never got to take her out.  There was senior too whom I’d taken to the Sophomore Prom the year before.

[2]   Twelfth Night, act 1, sc. 5, l. 268-76.

[3]   The initial singer was Virginia Bruce (1910-1982).  Her version is a straight-up croon.

[4]   I have a 10-inch LP of my mom’s issued in 1950 entitled Bing Crosby Sings Cole Porter with his rendition of the song.  It does not show up on AllMusic or in any of the other online resources.  So I can’t hyperlink to any source for it.  I think it’s fair to call this version a fox-trot, though Porter wrote it as a beguine.

[5]   See it here.  Buy it here.

[6]   If you can recall their hits, think how many of them deal gravely with the divisions (often matters of money or social standing) between lovers: Sherry (1962), Dawn (1964), Big Man in Town (1964), for instance.  I’ve Got You Under My Skin at least doesn’t drag this simplistic kind of explanation into the mix.  Cole Porter understood that love can be stressed or disappointed for all kinds of reasons.

[7]  This will take a moment to download, but is clearer: I’ve Got You Under My Skin Excerpt.

[8]   It’s my hope eventually to write in these pages about a 2009 recasting of the song.  And we’ll pick up on this theme again then.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for commercial images

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