“She calls me with the music of silver bells
And at night we step into other worlds
Like birds flying through the red and yellow air
So we’re back to love songs, and this time we’re dealing with hits. More than hits, really, “classics.” I don’t like that word much, but there it is. These are famous songs, songs most people know, songs used over and over again to soundtrack movies both great and terrible. They’re songs I’ve heard so many times it’s easy to forget they exist. Or to ignore when they come up in conversation. But they’re also magical. Each of these songs carries a sparkling quality that I cannot fully grasp, and are somehow fully satisfying and endlessly comforting. They capture a feeling of love in an instant. I write a lot about the lyrics here, but that’s because to discuss the music would like ripping the wings off of a butterfly.
More than any other on this list, this song might be the one most dripping with love. There are so many ways our love might drip: the drip of our words as we proclaim devotion, the drip from our spent sex, the drip of tears when someone leaves us. But this song, this is infatuation incarnate. It actually sounds like magic, it is the glory of love pronounced with all of the ignorance and eloquence it deserves. It sounds like someone who’s always been too cool for love opening up unexpectedly. Love floods in and it clouds the lenses. “Maybe millions of people go by,” but the world is shut out in these moments. Even our so-called “better judgments” are left out, all we have is the set of eyes in front of ours, the lips in front of ours, the curve of the waist, the bulge of the hips, the heaving of the breath. Maybe millions of people are going by, maybe there are the most magnificent clouds we’ve ever seen or will ever see, maybe the stars are out in full force and raining their mysterious illumination upon us in the most radiant cascade we’re likely to see in all our very days. But it’s all secondary, it’s all background. I only have eyes for you, and not even the cat clawing at my back, the dust piling up under the table, or the bills piling up in my mailbox can tear me away.
“Can you imagine writing something like that? Do you know the story behind it? So Doc was getting married and now he’s in a wheelchair. He had an illness put on him, so he was on crutches, but he was a guy like this [indicates ‘large’ with hands], he couldn’t really get around and then finally he couldn’t anymore, so he’s in a wheelchair, and he’s up there and everybody’s dancing with the wife to be… with the wife! And there he is. And he takes the invitation and starts writing the lyrics to ‘Save the Last Dance for Me…’ Once you know that you go ‘Oh! Oh my god!'” –Lou Reed
There aren’t many songs that slide down the slippery slope of freedom, devotion, and possession as majestically as this one. There is such a degree of freedom given by the singer of the song, while at the same time he holds so tightly to the notion that the subject of the song belongs to him, owes him, should come home with him. And that’s what’s so interesting, because these feelings of jealously or possessiveness are so very often thought of as somehow lesser than what we should strive for. There’s this ideal where we accept our true love fully, we allow them to be everything they ever wanted and we don’t stand in their way and do so much more than simply hold the door for them, throw our coats over the puddles, or hold them tight at night in their hour of need.
But that’s horseshit! We develop needs as well, we want the same sorts of things for ourselves, but only from that person and only in the ways in which we give. It’s so hard, so impossible, but so true. So when we hear a song like this, when we encounter a burst of alchemy this profound, we realize that these seemingly petty emotions are, in reality, vulnerable admissions of our own frailty, misplaced opportunities for opening ourselves up more directly, signals back to our emotional lives that have somehow become stilted or frozen or petrified in the face of actual lived experience. And if there really is a final dance, a time for us to jitter and spin closer and closer towards the edge of the ends of the earth, if we can meet on the ledge one time before we go over, please oh please honey save that one for me…
“In life as in death, like religion or a decent pizza joint, ‘Sea of Love’ delivers.” – Nick Tosches
He’s right, of course. Except that religion doesn’t do it for me and my favorite pizza places have never delivered. And, just for the record, I’d much rather go to a record store than buy one online. If all methods of delivery were as satisfying and interesting as this song, though, I might have a different opinion.
Phil Phillips was born John Phillip Baptiste, but that doesn’t mean much in terms of discussing this song, other than I think it’s great that he gave himself the same name twice in a row, and then rhymes “love” with “love” in the first two lines.
The song invites the beloved to the sea of love so that the singer can express how he cares. Harkening back to the very first meeting, he claims he knew right away. It hit him like a ton of bricks. The old “love at first sight” game. Hey, it happens. When he says “I knew you were my pet,” I don’t think he’s talking about throwing a leash around someone’s neck, I think he’s talking more about the kind of thing I do when I pick my cat up and he purrs and I kiss him on the top of his head. Not there’s no room for a collars and leashes in love, but there are other songs that talk about that sort of thing.
There is a certain eeriness to the image of a sea of love. I always picture the song at night (how could you not, really?), and of course the sea is very wonderful at night and very romantic. There’s probably moonlight shining if it’s a sea of love. But a sea is also huge and mysterious and terrifying. Explorers and travelers alike have died on the sea. You can drown in a sea. And drowning in a sea of love could be a nice thing, right? For all of the overt romanticism here, there is also an element of danger. To drown in a sea of love, even in the most metaphorical sense, is to give oneself over completely, to lose a part of who one once was. And who’s to say that losing part of oneself is always a bad thing? The bottom line is that it’s risky, and when it sounds as gorgeous as “Sea of Love” does, the appeal and necessity of risk glows as brightly as the reflection of the moon on the water.
The original is credited to Phil Phillips and the Twilights, and it seems as though The Twilights were really Cookie and the Cupcakes, who later, despite what could be inferred from the band’s name, gave a strident, full-bodied reading of the song in their own right. For all the strength in the singer’s voice, there are tiny cracks there that hint at heartache and pain. And this is probably as it should be.
It seems like there are a million versions of this song. Katie Webster did one, and I read somewhere that she played piano on the original. Del Shannon had a hit with it in the early 80s with The Heartbreakers as his band. Iggy Pop’s got one. John Fahey. Cat Power did one that got famous. The Honeydrippers version is but one of the many thousands of reasons Robert Plant should have been muzzled as a small child. There’s even a movie named after this song. I haven’t seen it, but Tom Waits did a version of the song for the soundtrack. There are plenty more, too, but those are the ones I’ve heard. I think I’ll see that movie, too.
Now, the title to this one is a true statement. If you’re really deep in with someone, you’ll probably hurt them. And they’ll hurt you. It’s bound to happen, but if you play your cards right it will bring you closer together. Otherwise you’ll get torn apart. Either way, pain and hurt are part of any relationship, plutonic or otherwise, so bite the bullet, feel the pain, and get used to it.
This song’s brilliance lies in the fact that it exists in that moment where the pain that’s been inflicted is passing slowly into regret, where the affection felt for the one who’s been hurt is starting to overshadow the anger that moved one lover to hurt another. Love and tenderness are slowly rolling back into the situation like a wave on the shore, and the song’s melancholy lies in the uncertainty of whether or not things have been irrevocably damaged. We have the recurring image of the petals getting crushed off the rose, and with that not a lot of cause for optimism.
But there’s sweetness present. I can’t help but hear it and feel sympathy for the one who inflicted the hurt. He comes right out and says that whatever it was, it was said hastily and now he can’t even remember what he said. There is such tenderness in the music that we have no choice but to believe that he loves this person most of all. It happens so often that we can only be truly cruel to the ones we know best. We know how to push their buttons, and in the heat of the moment we just might try. It’s foolish, it’s petulant, but it’s human.
And what we’re left with is the uncertainty of the morning after. The possibility that some stupid phrase, used to hurt in the moment but not really meant, has washed our love away for good. But for now we’re just waiting for the door to open, for the phone to ring, waiting to find out what we’ve done.