What Ray Parker Jr. taught me about dating.
Why do we look to pop singers to tell us how to be boyfriends? I wish I knew, but we do. I still do — even though pop singers are probably the least qualified people on earth when it comes to such matters. Monogamous musicians are like vegan hockey players. But Ray Parker Jr., he was serving up boyfriend lessons on a monthly basis.
“A Woman Needs Love” kept humming out of the speakers at Houghton’s Pond, where my sisters and I went to swim. Since my voice was changing, singing along was a challenge — I would try to pick either my tenor or baritone and try to push it all the way through. My sisters thought it was hilarious, but one of the things I liked about Ray Parker Jr. is he didn’t sound like he was mean enough to make fun of me for not being able to sing like him.
Ray Parker Jr. was cool. He reminded me of Mr. Rourke on Fantasy Island, who was always lecturing Tattoo on what women want and what women need. Every time Tattoo would say, “Boss, she is beautiful,” Mr. Rourke would shake his head and say, “Tattoo, my little friend, how many times must I remind you? All women are beautiful!”
He always sang about women and what they need, and he always seemed to know what he was talking about with hits like “A Woman Needs Love.” He schooled me in my duty to the ladies of the world, because women need love and ask for lots and lots of it and it is in your selfish interest to satisfy their stupid whims and careless demands. If you cannot supply their needs they will find various other men to supply the various needs you are not meeting. I was shocked at Ray’s scenario: “One day you might come home early from work, open up the door and get your feelings hurt.” I had a vague idea of what that might look like, and it wasn’t good.
Ray never stressed, though. He did not sweat the technique. He wasn’t exactly a high-strung diva or even a mega-famous pop star — he was more like what serious Match Game fans call a “fourth seater,” the guy taking up the pivotal chair between Charles Nelson Reilly and Richard Dawson. You don’t want a chatty comedian in that spot (that’s the first seat) or a glamorous sitcom starlet (the sixth seat), just someone exuding a quiet charm and warmth to keep the game moving.
That was RPJ. He ministered to his flock of suburban swimming-pool acolytes who hung on his every word and shuddered at his parables of the Eternal Feminine. He stayed relaxed through it all. He reminded me of my grandfather who’d sit there puffing his pipe while my grandmother ranted and raved. Then she’d ask him, “Are you over it?” and he’d nod. Then they’d go back to normal and he’d do some dishes.
In the news, Jimmy Carter had just gone to Poland and inadvertently caused a crisis because his interpreter bungled his Polish speeches — Jimmy told the bewildered crowds that he “lusted” for their country, and that he had left America “never to return.” It was not a successful diplomatic mission. The Polish Premier Edward Gierek later reportedly said, “I had to grit my teeth from time to time. But one must not be rude to ladies or interpreters.” That seemed like something Ray or Mr. Rourke would say.
We go to pop singers to hear such extravagant bended-knee submisson to the female will — we learn from our advice-mongering studs on the microphone. And we will ourselves into believing they have any idea what they’re talking about. I have read Smokey Robinson’s autobiography, which is admirably frank on his swinging sex life, and I cannot help but think of how much I depended on Smokey Robinson to teach me how to be a boyfriend, a suitor, a husband. Just in the way he sings “ooo” in the chorus of “Ooo Baby Baby,” he taught me tons about how to be erotically bereaved, how to suffer for erotic choices poorly made, mistakes regretted, opportunities unwisely seized, reconnections that aren’t possible. The lyric is just a rough sketch telling you why the “ooo” is in the song, but nobody really needs it — it’s all there in the “ooo.” He taught me to be miserable suffering for a woman, and how to love every minute of it. But even after reading Smokey Robinson’s autobiography, and learning that he spent the “Tracks of My Tears” years getting more ass than a tour-bus driver’s seat, I still take a seminar from him on bending to the will of women every time I hear him whimper “You Really Got a Hold on Me” or moan though “Baby Baby Don’t Cry.”
In his own way, Ray Parker Jr. is one of these musical sages of love. “A Woman Needs Love” was a hit that made me ponder my duties to women. Although I was only a boy, I was getting a sense of the ever-increasing list of services I would be called upon to provide, outside of those contained in various soul songs.
Reaching things in high places
I was about eight when old ladies began coming up to me in the supermarket and telling me to reach things for them. How did they know I would? They just knew.
This has always been a tough one. The desire of women to see men enjoy their food is one I have always found a challenge. My grandmother’s desire to fatten me up makes sense, given that she came from a rural Irish area plagued by famine and influenza, but it went deeper than that. My sisters always found it amusing when she would call and order them to feed me — yet now they have the same obsession with feeding their own sons. We’re not really sure how this happened.
Knowing what slingbacks are
A type of shoe. If you ask if she’s wearing slingbacks, the answer is usually no, but the effort is seldom wasted.
Walking to cars
I was twenty-one the first time. I was walking home from the Grotto in New Haven, where I had just been moshed into a bloody pulp. The girls behind me were yelling, “Hey, green shirt! Walk us to our car!” So I did. They were parked in a bad neighborhood, as were all the neighborhoods in that town. When we got to the car, I wondered for a crazy second whether they were going to offer me a ride, but they weren’t dumb. This same scene played out at about two-thirds of the rock shows I attended in that city.
Saving a seat
I thought this was just my first girlfriend, but it turned out to be every girlfriend. I do not have what you would call a “seat-saving personality,” i.e., I am nowhere near chatty enough to keep having the same two-line conversation with fifty people (“Yes, someone’s sitting here. She’ll be right back.”) in the three or four minutes before the band goes on or the movie starts. This is one of my designated areas for improvement.
Opening things with lids
And then saying, “You loosened it up for me.”
Checking the expiration dates
Salad dressing? Expires after about a week. Never gets thrown away. Every time I’m in my mom’s kitchen I end up raiding the cabinets, searching for canned or bottled goods that have piled up years after they presumably went bad.
Singing Irish songs
Every year on my mom’s birthday, I call her and sing “Bold Thady Quill,” an Irish song we love to share because it’s one that nobody else seems to like. When we sit around the fire singing Irish songs for my mom, my brother-in-law John takes the long sad songs with plots, because he actually has a voice. I just sing the ones about drunken hurlers and wild rovers. Either way, singing for the women in our family is a sacred duty.
Asking if she got a haircut
If someone I knew asked me this question every other week, I would think there was something wrong with their cognitive process. But for some reason, asking this question never seems to come as an annoyance or a surprise. From across the room, you can just mime a pair of scissors and give a thumbs-up.
Beating up mean people
An offer always appreciated, though seldom taken up on, and blatantly insincere coming from me. The only times I have been called upon to actually do this were a pro-choice rally in 1989 where we got attacked by right-to-lifers, and a Sleater-Kinney show in 1996 where I successfully threw out two tough guys and then wouldn’t shut up about it for weeks.
Counting the ply
On a roll of toilet paper, there is fine print at the very bottom of the package, with the suffix “ply.” The prefix is either the numeral 1 or the numeral 2. If you pick 1, you have made a decision you will regret a little or a lot, depending on whoever is back at home waiting for the toilet paper.
Not asking how they met their boyfriends
Most women love to tell this story, and indeed can’t keep still about it. But if you’ve known a couple for forty-five minutes, and the woman still hasn’t brought it up, it means they met at a party when she got drunk and blew him in the bathroom to make her ex-boyfriend mad. She does NOT want to talk about it. (He does, but not around her.) (And her ex is probably talking about it right now, but that’s someone else’s problem.)
Making conversation with their boyfriends
Female friends’ boyfriends are either in bands or they’re not. If her boyfriend is not in a band, it’s easy to talk to him. Just mention two geographical areas, and you will discuss the various ways to get from one to the other. You’re from New Hampshire? Okay, Guadalajara. How do you get there? Do you take the Tappan Zee Bridge? Stay off I-95? I don’t know why, but for males, this seems to top politics or sports or music or any other topic. As long as you stick to “ways to get somewhere from somewhere else,” talking to boyfriends is a snap.
If he’s in a band, it’s a lot harder to be polite. It requires turning up at one of his shows now and then. It requires nodding and saying, “You don’t sound THAT much like Joy Division. More like early Can.” It requires paying for his drinks, and not rolling your eyes when he claims he left his wallet in the guitar case. But it’s important to keep exposure time brief, because after ten minutes it becomes impossible not to laugh out loud when he claims he sounded this way long before anyone heard of Animal Collective. At that point, you’ve done your duty for your friend; she will be grateful you tried.
You can now be as mean to him as you like. He has no idea you’re being mean, because (1) he’s not listening to a word you say, and (2) he has no idea he’s her boyfriend.
The list goes on, gets longer every year. It never ends. It never gets any shorter. There is always more required of you. That’s another thing Ray Parker Jr. was trying to tell me.
Reprinted from Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut by Rob Sheffield by arrangement with Dutton, member of Penguin Group U.S.A. Copyright © 2010 by Rob Sheffield.