Friday, May 17, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Nobody's Girl

I recently admitted to Scott—now that I am clearly well beyond the realm of personal embarrassment and into the “might as well be an open book” phase of my life—that back when we were in high school and Bonnie Tyler’s insidious “Total Eclipse of the Heart” came out, that I had confused Ms. Tyler with Bonnie Raitt.

Yes, really.

And I’d heard (on the local FM radio station in Hartford I spent those years listening to) and read (in favorite magazines of the time like CREEM and Hit Parade) all this stuff about what an awesome guitarist Bonnie Raitt was. And then I hear “Total Eclipse,” and I somehow had myself convinced that this was Bonnie Raitt, and I remember thinking, “I’m just not hearing the awesome guitar.”

Wrong Bonnie, dummy.

Because Bonnie Raitt, high-priestess of the blues and the Madame Curie of the slide guitar? Well, she is no Bonnie Tyler.

Favorite Song Friday – Bonnie Raitt – “Nobody’s Girl”

When Bonnie mounted her big comeback from her high-partying existence with 1989’s sublime, Don Was-produced Nick of Time, her legacy was pretty much already set. She had been a legend for years— “Angel From Montgomery” had pretty much guaranteed all by its jaw-dropping self back in 1974—and if anything it was an album that came out early in the 80s, Green Light (featuring among other things a couple of stellar NRBQ covers, the irresistible “Willya Wontcha” and the mini-hit of “Keep This Heart In Mind”) that showed people Bonnie was also of the 80s (or at least the early 80s). But the truth is by the end of the 1970s Bonnie was better known for being a hard partier who played a mean guitar than a phenomenal blue guitarist who also partied pretty hard. And it was taking its toll on her record sales. Green Light sold…OK, despite how good it was. And the follow up to that, 1986’s Nine Lives, really didn’t do that well and wasn’t particularly memorable.

So what was she coming back from in 1989? Middle-age, somewhat. With Nick of Time, Bonnie really kinda did what Paul Simon did three years earlier with Graceland—showed that the proverbial old dog could indeed blend some new tricks into a great assortment of all the good things she’d been doing for years. So alongside her hard-charging, hell-bent version of John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love,” there was the keyboard-driven subtlety of “Nick of Time.” Alongside the slide-driven cool of “Have a Heart” you had the sheer delicacy of “Cry on My Shoulder.” It all made for Nick of Time easily being one of the best albums she ever made, and one of the best albums ever made by someone a full two decades into her career.

In other words, Bonnie was still of her roots, big-time. But she also was very much in touch with this odd new era in which she was now existing, and she was showing all the whipper-snappers out there just how one cool-ass lady could do it. Hell, even the album cover (see above) showed it—a lovely Bonnie, a touch of grey peaking out of her shock of wild red hair, standing as confidently with her guitar slung over her shoulder as Bruce Springsteen once did as a very young man. It was as bold as that Molly Shannon “I’M 50!” character (even though Bonnie was only 40 at the time), yet instead of being played for laughs, it was stone serious. Bonnie was back. And badass as ever.

“Nobody’s Girl” traipses the tender line between Bonnie’s freewheeling early years and the wise-sage days that began with Nick of Time. It is stark and beautiful, just Bonnie and a pristine, crystalline guitar. She sings in a voice steeped in well-earned wisdom, yet lends some vulnerable lace to her familiar raspy leather. Like most of her songs, she didn’t write “Nobody’s Girl.” But it could easily be seen as her story.

She don't need anybody to tell her she's pretty;
She's heard it every single day of her life.
He's got to wonder what she sees in him
when there's so many others standing in line.
She gives herself to him;
but he's still on the outside.
She's alone in this world.
She's nobody's girl.

She's shows up at his doorstep in the middle of the night.
Then she disappears for weeks at a time.
Just enough to keep him wanting more
But never is he satisfied.
And he's left to pick up the pieces
Wondering what does he do this for.
She's off in her own little world.
She's nobody's girl.

The girl Bonnie sings about is her own version of Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, beholden to no one and the object of desire to so many, yet still infused with that little girl spirit that wants—needs—to sometimes be taken care of. Bonnie understands the story as she tells it, for sure, but she also understands the story of the suitor who longs to be with the song’s main character. She’s played both roles in her life, and here, she gets them both at once. That’s what gives “Nobody’s Girl” is rich, deep soul. Everything it has has been hard-earned.

And it’s never more apparent or profound than at its bridge.

He said, "Before I met her, I didn't love nothin'.
I could take it or leave it - that was okay.
She brings out a want in me
of things I didn't even know that I need."

As she sings, Bonnie accompanies herself with one of the prettiest, most fragile guitar lines of her career, little blue notes shining over her words, tinkling like the charms on a bracelet dangling from the title girl’s wrist. The song is lonely, unique, yet vaguely reassuring. A paean to those things, as she sings, we didn’t even know that we need. Yet we still continue to need them. We always do. Bob Dylan ridiculed such self-contradiction “Just Like a Woman.” Here Bonnie Raitt embraces it, at least for a few moments, however reluctant and doubting that embrace may be.

She does anything she wants any time she wants to
with anyone - you know she wants it all.
Still she gets all upset over the least little thing
Man, you hurt her, it makes you feel so small.
And she's a walking contradiction,
but I ache for her inside.
She's fragile like a string of pearls.
She's nobody's girl
She's fragile like a string of pearls.
She's nobody's girl.

Meet the new Bonnie, same as the old Bonnie. In some ways it’s true. “Nobody’s Girl” is a gorgeous little ballad about such disparate wantings: independence and companionship, self-reliance and vulnerability, wanderlust and cold comfort. And that is exactly what it aims to be. Because in this way it can speak to everybody. Even as it remains beholden to nobody.

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