Meditations on Not Being the Kind of Woman Behind a Rock’n’Roll Song

Ask me how I am and I will probably tell you I’m fine. Or I’m doing pretty well.

If the skies are raining nuclear pellets and the toilets overflowing and a fever blister the size of a billboard has ballooned on my lower lip, I may answer, “Ask me next week” in a testy kind of voice while I roll my eyes toward the radioactive skies. But I won’t elaborate unless I can make it amusing.

This isn’t because I’m a good person, even though I like to think I am a pretty good person on my better days. It’s because one of my great fears is boring other people and becoming the kind of windbag loser everyone feels sorry for but desperately wants to avoid.

Which is the kind of permanent neurosis you develop if you spent the entire fall of 1968 in Lubbock, Texas (which, if you haven’t visited it, good for you), dancing and/or flailing without rhythm to the song, “Born to be Wild.” You were either wild — which was highly desirable — or you weren’t. Nobody, to my knowledge, ever wrote a rock song called “Born to be Quiet.”

(Parenthetical diversion, probably only of interest to women of a certain age and temperament, but male readers are always welcome, too: Is there anything you want more, when you’re a teenager, than to be the kind of wild thing, the sort of free and irresistible spirit and elusive beauty who inspires rockers to write yearning, aching songs about you? To be, in short, somebody like Pattie Boyd, who flitted from George Harrison to Eric Clapton, and inspired the angst and orgasmic chords of “Layla”? To be Ilsa in “Casablanca,” the kind of woman who will haunt a man’s dreams and hangovers and gin joints forever?

(OK, OK. Young men, I suppose, have their own impossible archetypes. I recently discussed LeBron James with our son, who said James was a dick, but maybe he deserved to be since he was so incredibly gifted as an athlete. Being the mother and voice of reason, I argued. What had LeBron James done, really? Scored a zillion baskets, yawn, big deal, wake me when the season’s over? “Has he saved anybody’s life? Cured cancer?” I persisted. “No? Well, then he shouldn’t be a dick.” Even if LeBron had cured cancer, I was thinking, he still shouldn’t be a dick; but that’s, you know, just me.)

Anyway, the point I am striving to make, even if I do get derailed on endless detours, is that maybe a desire not to be boring or a dick is not a bad aim in life. You won’t win a Nobel or an NBA championship with that kind of low-rent credo and you won’t inspire a rock classic of thwarted love and desire and heartache, but maybe you do okay and do some good in your own understated way.

I persist in believing in karma, even if I don’t believe in God, and I like to think you’re a better, more considerate person if you didn’t get everything you wanted early in life, if you’ve fallen short repeatedly or have nowhere to go but up or sideways. Maybe it’s not a bad thing to worry about boring other people, and maybe even Zelda Fitzgerald got a little boring after a while when all her jumping into the fountain while drunk and clothed failed to amuse as the decades passed.

Maybe so, maybe not. It is fascinating to me, though, how all those youthful visions of what we wanted to be never entirely die. Which is why, I suppose, I might be protesting a little too much and why, when I looked up Pattie Boyd on Wikipedia, I was so amused: Although Boyd claimed George Harrison wrote “Something” because of her, Harrison once said that when he wrote the song, he was really thinking about Ray Charles.

(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about being Lot’s wife


21 comments… add one
  • Have you read Patti Boyd’s autobiography? There might be something in that family’s genes – Donovan wrote “Jennifer Juniper” for her sister.

  • melissa Link

    Just in case the fever blister thing is something real…. After years of searching I found a homeopathic option that really works. Boron makes several sizes of Natrum Muriaticum. First twinge, put 6 or so 30 c pellets under your tongue 3-4 times per day, and especially before bed time…..drys the dastardly blisters right up.

  • Someone once told me that the best answer questions like “How are you?” is … “unbelievable” because it could mean unbelievably bad or unbelievably good.

  • I like that answer, Roxanne. If a medical professional or a close family member asks how I am, I tell the truth. But otherwise, it’s always “fine.” I need to find a better word.

  • Ha-ha. Really enjoy this blog. The song-written-for-someone I loved was Rosanna, written for Rosanna Arquette, who left the songwriter- member- of-Toto, the one who only wanted to “wake up in the morning and see your eyes” and moved on to Peter Gabriel of Genesis, earlier in his career that is. How’s that for rock trivia?

  • Not that Born to Be Wild or Layla qualify, but there are so many awful songs written by men hoping to impress the alluring women they pine after. Conversely I wonder: are there many really awful women who inspired wonderful music? Is that what it takes?

    [Phew. I’d thought, seeing the title, you were going to address one of the newer “real” HouseFraus of NY recently filmed riding around the city with her musician boyfriend (he plays with Aerosmith) while they listened to recordings of him playing songs he wrote for her. Your mention might legitimize further TV slumming with this series, which is not the sort of encouragement I need at the moment.]

  • My dad is friends with the guy who wrote “Barbara Ann” that the Beach Boys did. He wrote it for a stewardess he was dating. The Beach Boys paid him almost nothing for it. I always wonder if the people the song was written about know it.

  • I think of words as gifts to others. But silence can also be a gift. There’s a balance. If we care for our words and use them only at the right times–complaining just enough at only the right, most interesting moments–we spread joy and laughter.

  • Sheryl Link

    When someone asks, “how are you?” I doubt they’re even listening to the answer. So I always say, “fine,” since it doesn’t matter, anyway. Know what I mean?

  • I think Alisa is on to something. I always thought that the pauses in Frank Sinatra’s songs were when he was thinking of me.

  • I always wondered what it would be like to have a famous song written for you, especially for the Donna that Ritchie Valens wrote “Oh, Donna” for, really, on every anniversary of his death, she’s contacted by the media and asks if she still has feelings for him.

  • Cindy A Link

    I think that guy who wrote “Evil Woman” for Electric Light Orchestra was thinking of me. 😀

  • Hesitant to brag, but I’m a muse for several Austin writers and have had several songs written for me. I kind of cheated by giving them the hook line. One was Can You Handle Me? (during my mid-life crisis), another was The Girl With The Purple Tongue (yes, I love the grape) and the sweetest was without prompting called Full of You (yeah, you could say he’s caught my eye). But ladies, that’s the magic of music…it’s meant for all of us, for our many moods and probably prevents us from doing something really stupid. (like the Earl’s in the trunk song). Hey, Willie Nelson made it clear when he wrote, To All The Girl’s I’ve Loved Before. (I hope I didn’t just get on the boring people list.)

  • When people asked my elderly father, “How are you, Mr Wadleigh?” he always replied, energetically, “Much improved, much improved.”
    He taught me early that the most important thing in life was to do good works and be a good person. I never quite lived up to that standard, because I am essentially lazy and self indulgent, but I hope I am improving.

  • Don’t be a bore or a dick. Words to live by. You’re a hoot, Ruth.

  • I’m floating down a river on a blowup swan with my middle age friends, trying not to be boring. Oh and there are scattered thunderstorms. I do think that there should be a song Born to Be Quiet.

  • merr Link

    I’ve heard it said: “When in doubt, don’t.” Which I believe kind of fits in with what you’re saying!

  • Hmmm… I wonder if a lot of those rocker girlfriends who had the songs written about them are still 1) alive and/or 2) sane. It might be better to strive to be “boring and not a dick.”

  • I wonder if the answers we give are different for different people. I know that’s the case for me. The right song depends on the audience 🙂
    Provocative post, as always.
    Best, Irene

  • Ellen Link

    I was warned as soon as I moved here to never say “How are you?” to a Pole….because he or she will tell you.

  • Born to be quiet. Hey there could be worse things than not having a song written about you–you could have inspired such classics as Achy Breaky Heart (no idea if I’ve spelled those right) or the Macarena. This reminds me, I recall something about a guy in England wanting to sue Adele claiming that he was the subject of all her lovelorn songs–Someone like you and such. Can you imagine wanting to identify yourself as that guy? I can see LeBron James doing that…

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