Here’s another chapter from my eventual book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1). An infinite number of rockin’ pop records can be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!
DUSTY SPRINGFIELD: I Only Want To Be With You
Written by Mike Hawker and Ivor Raymonde
Produced by Johnny Franz
Single, Philips Records [U.K.] single, 1963
There is a persistent temptation (and corresponding peril) in attempting to apply contemporary context to past events. It’s revisionist history, a sparkly thing that’s difficult to resist, even as we just chat about the pop songs that enrich our lives. Please forgive me for the premeditated sin I’m about to commit. Because as I look back, I can’t help but wonder what singing a song called “I Only Want To Be With You” may have meant to a closeted bisexual woman named Dusty Springfield.
It’s plausible to counter that she didn’t even think about the connection between the lyrics of her first big hit record and the love she had to hide away. We look back on the ’60s as a time of cultural revolution, an expansion of civil rights, social conscience, a slow dawning of recognition of the disenfranchised at society’s margins. Gay rights weren’t really seen as part of that at the time. Maybe it started to change, incrementally, with the Stonewall riots in 1969, which served as the flashpoint for the gay rights movement as the ’70s beckoned. But in 1963? The closet. The closet was where one stayed if one was gay in ’63.
British singer Dusty Springfield (born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien) was a member of a folk trio called The Springfields. Presaging The Ramones, the members of The Springfields (which included Dusty’s brother Tom) took the group’s name as a surname; combining this with a nickname she’d gained as a soccer-loving tomboy in her youth, Mary O’Brien became Dusty Springfield. Dusty left The Springfields in 1963, and began her solo career with a single: “I Only Want To Be With You.”I don’t know what it is that makes me love you soI only know I never want to let you go’Cause you started somethingCan’t you see?That ever since we met you’ve had a hold on meIt happens to be trueI only want to be with you
A decade later, writer Greg Shaw would note that Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want To Be With You” explodes with as much pure pop noise as any Dave Clark Five record. The horns propel, the strings soar, the girl-group spirit celebrates, the music leans forward the way a rockin’ pop song outta. Miss Dusty Springfield presides over all of it, dancing by herself at the microphone, singing sweetly of her love, her happiness, her contented fulfillment in the arms of her chosen one. Her only wish, only ambition, is to be with the object of her desire. It can–we hope–really be as simple as that.
Falling in love is an experience. In our pop music, we prefer it to be a giddy, blissful experience, free of the heartache and doubt that may often threaten us in our real-world affairs. Pop songs do recognize that love’s path may lead through temptation, betrayal, misery, to tests of faith and failures in spite of good initial intent, a path that might reach redemption or fall prey to the hazards that cause us to crash, broken and beaten, before we get to that magic place we so wanted to claim as home. Pop songs can reflect the complications and compromises we may face day to day, every day.
But both pop music and love itself can offer the promise of something sweeter to believe in. Joni Mitchell described the love’s illusions she recalled as The dizzy dancing way you feel. Neil Diamond (via Micky Dolenz) saw a face that made him a believer. The Temptations had sunshine on a cloudy day, and so many others have used music to express sacred hopes for new love. Wouldn’t it be nice to be together? I’ve just seen a face, I can’t forget the time or place. No matter what you are, I will always be with you. Hey hey, you you, I wanna be your boyfriend.
Nothing has ever embodied that hope and celebration with greater authority than Dusty Springfield and “I Only Want To Be With You.” The song is love, new love, everlasting love. It radiates with the sheer delight of falling in love. Even listening to it again now, you still believe Dusty as she sings about the only thing she really wants.
Some may regard “I Only Want To Be With You” as a relatively minor part of Dusty Springfield’s career. It was her first single and her first hit (# 4 in the UK, # 12 in the States), but “Wishin’ And Hopin'” and “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” were bigger hits in America. “Son Of A Preacher Man” didn’t match the chart performance of any of those, but it’s likely considered the definitive Dusty single, from the definitive Dusty LP Dusty In Memphis. The Bay City Rollers‘ 1976 cover of “I Only Want To Be With You” precisely matched the UK and US chart peaks of Dusty’s original version, and some will speak on behalf of another subsequent cover by The Tourists (with Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, who remained together as Eurythmics). I’m fond of the Rollers and Tourists records, too; however, neither of ’em is The Greatest Record Ever Made.
No. Today that honor belongs to a former tomboy named Mary, who remade herself with glamour and taste into a pop icon called Dusty. We don’t know who, if anyone, she had in mind as she sang “I Only Want To Be With You.” Dusty’s life was not as happy as the infectious exuberance of her song. She did not remain closeted, though she bristled at being labeled gay, claiming that she liked sex with men and women equally. But she drank too much. She suffered from emotional problems. She hurt herself. She was (unofficially) married briefly, to a woman, in a relationship marred by physical conflict and injuries. Cancer took her in 1999, a mere two weeks before she was inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
We honor Dusty Springfield by remembering the wonder of her music: the pain of her heartbreak songs, the soul of her performances, the visceral thrill of her artistry. Most of all, I remember the transcendent joy of “I Only Want To Be With You,” a triumphant dedication of love and devotion to the only one with whom she wished to be. Whomever that happened to be.