True story: my (future) wife and I and a friend (female) went to see Joan Armatrading in the early 80’s at an outdoor place near Cleveland–I think it was called Blossom. Our friend was in a bad mood (she was often in a bad mood) and took immediate umbrage with the crowd, who, in my friend’s defense, were really annoying: standing up and dancing even during slow songs, shouting “I love you Joan” and “You go girl” at every moment of silence, even deliberate ones in the middle of songs. “Shut up, lesbians!” my friend was muttering to herself (she often muttered to herself), and “Lesbian, sit down, I can’t see!”

Thankfully she was muttering softly enough that no one could hear and be offended, but her words did catch me up short. They made me notice that, hmm, our friend was right, the adulatory crowd here was about 80% women and mostly in pairs. And, hmm, the pronouns in these songs often were ambiguous. Was it common knowledge Joan was gay? It had never even occurred to me!

Because what I sort of liked best about Joan Armatrading was how generous her songs seemed to be to men. Like Joni Mitchell, she frequently mined a thread of reluctant-falling-in-love, but Joan didn’t seem to resent it as much. “I am not in love/But I’m open to persuasion,” this song opens, the kind of line if I heard it from a woman at a party would instantly cause me to step up my game (such as my game was). The song goes on to thank a friend for taking her dancing, while admitting that dancing with a friend will never be the same as dancing with a lover–nor will laughing, nor will talking. I liked Joan for admitting this, even though it might not be cool or healthy: that having a boyfriend made her life richer, more meaningful, the way a new pair of Pro Keds can convince a kid he can jump higher.

 I also liked that the song didn’t let the guy (I assumed it was a guy) off the hook. “Sing me another love song/but this time with a little dedication,” she exhorts toward the end, not settling, pushing her partner to be as all in as she herself wanted to be. She wasn’t exhorting in a resentful or superior way (again, Joni Mitchell). Rather it seemed she truly believed the guy had reserves he wasn’t calling on, and she wanted to help him tap those and become his best self, and then bring that best self to her. Everybody wins!

Musically this song has debts to Van Morrison, especially in his playful moments (yes, he could be playful, listen to the “Tupelo Honey” album), strummed guitars and a saxophone and Joan’s voice weaving in and out of the melody, some lines sung and some delivered as knowing asides. Later she would go for a more straightforward pop sound, and I sort of liked that phase too (“Drop the Pilot”), though I lost touch with her music after 1985 or so. I hear she’s currently giving a series of solo acoustic concerts she’s billing as her “last world tour.” No idea what shape her voice is in these days, nor what her last 30 years of songwriting have yielded, but it might be worth a listen. At the very least, I’d encourage you to spring for a greatest hits album.

joanarmatrading

Advertisements