Dusted Off

Do not adjust your television set.

The film is black and white, and the quality is a bit grainy. It's instantly clear this is a clip from one of those TV variety shows from another time, the type that sadly declined along with the attention spans of millions who once made them a staple of prime-time viewing. A figure appears in the spotlight, casting a dramatic shadow.

"When I said...I needed you..."

To say she commands the stage is an understatement. The dramatic arm gestures- either reaching forward in desperation, or being defiantly thrown back with each declaration of despair- constantly threaten to upstage the voice, but never do. The song progresses toward a sweeping modulation. She clutches her chest as she pleads once again with her wayward lover, "you don't have to say you love me". And after taking the audience on one of the most harrowing emotional roller-coaster rides pop music has ever produced, she bows graciously. And the moment fades to black...

I have not mentioned the voice. It's unlike any I've heard before. It's a sturdy, reedy-type instrument, remarkably capable of being both heartily robust and tremendously fragile at the same time. Yet what she has revealed in this moment is only a glimpse of what that voice was actually capable of, the intensity of the joy and sorrow it so deftly could convey. This voice would cross genres, generations and musical tastes. It would change with time and tribulation, but it would ultimately never lose the intangible quality that makes it so mesmerizing in this brief, grainy, black and white moment.

Her name is Dusty Springfield.

It was her precise ear, and that unrelenting desire to produce great music that produced some of modern history’s greatest pop symphonies- and in a decade crowded with them. The opening bars of “I Only Want to Be With You”- her first hit and still one of her best loved- heralded not only the arrival of a new era, but of a voice that would storm through radios and across the landscape of the tumultuous 1960’s culture. Her first album, titled simply A Girl Called Dusty, succinctly heralded for audiences the force that had been unleashed. It also subtlety hinted at the complexities that simmered just below the surface. But a force in Pop Music was born, and for the first five years of her solo career, the titles jump out in such quick succession, it’s a mere mortal’s forgivable sin to overlook more than one or two. There were so many classics. Hits on both sides of the pond. And so many hidden treasures.

It’s the most horrible of ironies that during a period of true revelation of her strengths as an artist, her commercial fortunes would decline. Perhaps it was inevitable. The 1970’s were the decade of the singer/songwriter, where puffed-with-pride critics would dismiss the luminous adventures of a vocal interpreter as fluff. Utter nonsense in retrospect. It’s just a shame that critics chose to adjust their posturing decades later, and welcome deserving pieces of art as A Brand New Me and Cameo as the superior slices of mastery that they were. In their time, they were appallingly neglected.

Some may argue that she shortchanged herself as a person, being lost in (as the mesmerizing “Soft Core”, the closing track of White Heat puts it) a maze “of drugs and alibis”. Discussion of her activities and of her sexuality seems to permeate this period. Another injustice. It’s pointless to over-analyze, and simply wrong to judge. Perhaps it’s at this juncture where Mary O’Brien and Dusty Springfield, in the darkest of days, bumped into each other.

Fortunately, Dusty Springfield’s life and career were not to remain tied ominously to tragedy or failure. In the early months of 1988, radios around the world carried that unmistakable voice again. The Pet Shop Boys provided Dusty with what she so deserved, a vehicle to exhibit that voice to its best advantage. That moment remains crystallized in pop history:

“…Since you went away, I’ve been hanging around…I’ve been wondering why, I’m feeling down. You went away, it should make me feel better. But I don’t know…”

Dusty Springfield was back.

I wonder if Dusty was aware that she had been a prophet of the new female vocalist in popular music. That she became a revolutionary figure to so many men and women searching for their own sexual freedom. That the voice- that same sturdy, reedy-like instrument that blazed against some of the most magical music ever created, will continue to be heard, and studied, and appreciated…long after we have all completed our time in this world.

Maybe she would’ve been amused. Perhaps she wouldn’t have noticed.

After all, underneath all the physical detail, the makeup and hair, and behind that unforgettable voice, she was, after all, just a girl…a girl called Dusty…

By Markus C. Medeiros
Photography by Deanna Staffo
Markus has been my friend, colleague and confidant for almost eighteen years, introducing me to genre's of art, music and film I would've otherwise overlooked. Together we co-wrote "Tru Love", a track featured on my demo which gained airplay and spawned the interest of both Jive and Motown Records. I look forward to posting more of his work here soon.

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