Because baby, we’re on the clock

First appeared in The Woolf
Winter 2018
Tales from the Pit no. 9

Rituals: The Goodbye Tour

In the steamy grip of my upholstered seat, the wheeze of the synthesizer takes me over. The feet go first, breaking into a two-step. My fingers start to snap, one line into the verse. On that sweet and futile plea – Love should be everything or (beat) not at all – the shoulders drop and roll. By the chorus, my friend and I are swaying in sync, having waited thirty-six years to mime a song we were once ashamed to like.

We are here to witness Dionne Warwick belting out ‘Heartbreaker’ and other classics from a bygone era, maybe two. There’s a lot to get through, the lady said so herself. More than half a century on stage, and I don’t doubt it. This could be her last-ever global tour, which explains the impulse to scoop up four tickets. And the show sold out, making it easy to find takers for the seats my other friends wouldn’t fill.

Hey, their loss and no regrets. Dionne gets a standing ovation just by walking on stage, and I’m a sucker for a tuxedo-clad five piece.

Right from the start, Dionne invites us to “stroll down memory lane” – a trip usually trickier than it sounds. Factoring in the plush seats and average age in the room, I think she means: enjoy the show, have a ball, shake a limb, clap along, shed a tear and sing, but don’t let go, no, don’t let go. A few tunes in, I figure there’s little risk. Sure, the bassist’s pants jiggle when he bobs his knee. The pianist’s hair moves if he comes down hard on a chord. Once in a while, Dionne even sits on a stool. Down in the audience, I catch a few men in the aisle swinging their wing-tipped feet. A phone screen pops up like a firefly, only to be quashed by an usher with a wagging finger and flashlight. But bar the odd two-step and creaky rise to our feet, we hold it together.

I mean, there just isn’t time to get worked up in a medley. Most of her soft rock, standards and show tunes have been rationed because, baby, we’re on the clock. We skip through history and the flashbacks hit me like rain: the gummy back seat of my mom’s car. The pimply audition, when I had to warble about never falling in love again about a decade too soon. That easy-listening station, with the slogan Make your work day more pleasant – ostensibly by tuning in to instrumental arrangements that managed to strip songs of their music.

That station. All those hours I spent, trying to make sense of the smarmy layering of strings, or the way one hand could saunter in on the piano’s lower register and sneak in a trill like an uninvited wink. Or how a breathy flute and vibraphone – along with some chimes, wood blocks and any of the other percussion instruments last fondled in school – could conspire to take a given tune, smother it with sentiment and wrench it free of soul. My dad once said, “Sometimes, people are afraid of silence.” Apparently, this music had been manufactured to fill it or mock. But I’m not laughing now.

The simulated strings and flute are firing straight from the keyboard. The percussionist can’t stop dazzling with the jangle and tock-tock. Dionne is squeezing in some full-length numbers to keep us in check, but around the Brazilian interlude, something gives. The wing tips pick up speed. A woman down center waves her jacket like she’s flagging down a plane. The ushers dart down the aisles – firefly, flashlight, firefly, flashlight – and I swear, they’re going to call out the dogs.

When the piano trickles in, I know the outcome before I can name the song. Nearly forty years after hearing it, I understand: I can brace myself against the rush of fake strings, but not the flood. I KNOWWW I’ll NEHHHver LOVVVE this way aGAINN… It’s hopeless, I’m a sop. I’m done, it’s a joke. The soaring jump, the aches and pain, the big bang of the key change – I can’t hold on, no, it’s just too much.