Lower and Lower
I don't even remember the sisters' names, but every time I hear Jackie Wilson's "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" I'm overcome by a pang of melancholy yearning for them that's as strong as if I was just pining for them yesterday. Funny how some songs don't mean what they're supposed to. Here's one of the most upbeat, literally uplifting of all soul songs, and whenever I hear it I'm a sad and mopey teenager again.
According to the charts, "Higher and Higher" came out in the fall of 1967, so it must be the summer of '68 that I'm remembering it on the jukebox at the swim club. That would make me 16, which seems right.
We spent much of our summers at the swim club. As kids we spent all our time there in the water. As teens we spent all our time there moping and hanging around and posing and smoking cigarettes and playing Hearts and plugging the jukebox in the open-air pavilion up on the hill. I believe they even called it the "teen center." They sold ice cream bars, frozen Milky Ways and sodas there, and on weekends local bands with names like the Camaros would come and play soul and surf songs?60s summer fare like "I Get Around" and "Soul Man" and "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." Every now and again Buddy Dean, Baltimore's local Dick Clark, would broadcast his daily teen dance show live from there. Years later, John Waters based the tv DJ in Hairspray on Buddy Dean.
It was up in the teen center that I spent that entire summer mooning over the two sisters. I had a girlfriend at the time, but it didn't matter. What, you haven't ever been in a relationship and pined for someone else? They were in a much cooler crowd than the one I hung in, but it was a small teen center, and we were all there all summer, so crowds intersected, or at least were in close enough proximity that you could find yourself spending a whole lot of time around people who didn't really know you and wouldn't care about you if they did.
These two girls were so different from each other one of them could have been adopted. I never really knew. One looked like a jailbait Marilyn Monroe: blonde, golden tan, nubile, long legs, edible breasts, even a pouty lower lip. She was the one everybody thought was sexy. She trailed jocks and lifeguards like army ants. She was sexy, in a purely sex-bomb way. She was also dumber than her bikini bottoms. Not someone you'd ever really want to know, but you'd kill to do her.
The other one was dark, skinny, moody, cold, monotone, reserved, kind of a bitch, really. Pretty, but in an ice princess way. The guys who constantly circled her sister paid some attention to her?they had to, she was always there, and you knew that she was the brains of the operation, if only by default?but it wasn't like they wanted her, they just had to be polite to her to get through her to her more overtly sexy sister.
She was the one I really mooned over, the dark one, the ice princess. I thought she was so smart, so cool, such a stuck-up bitch. She ignited an entirely other set of desires than her sister did. Her sister you wanted in a conventional jerking-off-over-a-Penthouse way. In this one you could see the promise of unlocking some mysterious, probably kinky and definitely intense passion, if you could only figure out some way to melt that frosty exterior.
Not that I articulated it this way as I sat there all summer mooning over her. In fact, as often in my life around women I've wanted very badly, around her I was reduced to a state of permanent, insoluble inarticulateness. Mute as a lawn elf. I don't believe I spoke one word directly to her the whole summer. I just stared.
It was pure cowardice and shyness, but it was also realistic. Because really, what would have been the point? There would have been no point whatsoever. I was a shy geek hanging on the periphery of our intersecting crowds. It's entirely possible that she literally didn't know I existed. Even had I gotten up the gumption to make my presence known, I would have gotten nowhere, precisely nowhere, with her. And, remember, I already had a girlfriend.
So, the jukebox. We all fed that jukebox, constantly. I remember it as one of the great jukeboxes of my life. Those years, '67, '68, were peak time for soul singles. Some of the ones I remember being on that jukebox were the Four Tops' "Bernadette" and their cover of "Walk Away Renee," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," Junior Walker's "Shotgun," "It Takes Two" and the Temps' "You're My Everything." Then again, I also remember somebody drove us all crazy one of those summers playing the Supremes' novelty hit "The Happening" over and over and over again, day after day, week after week. It was a song best appreciated in small doses. By July it grated.
The song that, for whatever reason, indelibly imprinted itself on me was the Jackie Wilson song. To this day I cannot hear "Higher and Higher" without being whisked back in time to a damp, sandy booth in that teen center, staring at that dark sister?the way her skinny neck would appear in a flash when she tossed her hair, the rather severe line of her jaw from her ear to her chin, the way one strap of her swimsuit would slide off her bony, freckled shoulder?and feel the most excruciating longing. As the years go by, I suppose, it's metastasized into not just a yearning for that girl, but for all the girls longed for and never kissed, all the summers, the youth, all that. An old, crusty, barnacled nostalgia, I guess it is, and all it takes is that song to bring it back up to my surface.
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