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18 May 2012

In memoriam: My incredible night with Donna Summer

My debt to Donna Summer is huge. The news of her death this week came as a hammer blow. I had no idea she was ill. Now she has gone, the world will never be the same.
     Reading the obituaries, my mind was immediately cast back to that incomparable summer of 1974 in her native New England when on one unforgettable night she and I more or less invented the Euro-disco fusion which became her trademark. The measure of her achievement is that I was not, in the ordinary sense of the word, much of a dancer. But she made me a king for a night, swirling round about me like a dervish at a Sufi wedding.
     We had met quite by accident. I had taken a holiday job as a roadie for a small Chappaquiddick-based band called Martha and the Vineyards, and was sitting one depressing Saturday afternoon in a shabby sandwich bar somewhere in Boston, maltreating a milkshake. She was dancing that night somewhere close by and came in for a break from rehearsals. As she entered the room, I noticed the air start to shimmer and vibrate with the energy of an ethanol cloud which is about to burst into flame spontaneously.
     It did. We did. The world did!
     That night has gone down in legend. Elderly Bostonians still talk about it. But our affair ended as quickly as it began. What makes it so galling to recollect is that it was all my fault. What happened was that Donna invited me to lunch the following day to meet her parents. It being the Sabbath, and because she had told me that (as most of the obituaries have noticed) her father was a Minister on Sundays and a butcher on weekdays, I could not resist making a joke about Abraham, Esau and the Lord’s sheep. I cannot at this distance remember exactly what I said, but it certainly involved raised knives, a readiness to plunge them into members of one’s own family and the Lord’s last-minute command to stick it into a sheep instead.
     Probably it would not have mattered how I had phrased it. For me, the glorious summer of 1974 was at a premature end. I was not even allowed to finish my mutton. Her father was pretty clear about that.
     Donna went on to become one of the greatest stars of the disco firmament, and I went back to college to complete my dreary, half-digested dissertation on the New Ice Age (or Global Warming as it is now called).
     But that four hours of colour, light, movement and the hot breath of high-intensity romance changed my life forever. Spirits moved me and I lived a lifetime in one evening. Even though we were only in a clunky Travolta-style, floor-lit dance-hall in a sweaty suburb of Tea Party City, Donna’s music took me far away, high up on a hillside, high up where the stallion meets the sun. It could have been magic—but it was not. I know; I was there. It was not magic: it was her.
     Donna later recorded a song inspired by that evening. If I have a linguistic point to make this morning, it would be that her ode to our night together illustrates the incredible poetic possibilities of simple English, something a language with a more complicated word-building cannot hope to emulate. Surprisingly, I notice that none of the obituarists have mentioned that song in the catalogues of her greatest hits. Perhaps they are jealous, knowing that they have never had one of those unique, unrepeatable evenings which make the whole of life worth while—and they know that now they never will. Donna has left us.
     Anyone who has access to YouTube can get an idea of what it was like by clicking on this link to the song I am referring to. In the early part you can even see grainy shots of me dancing with Donna on the night in question. I'm all blacked up and in the white evening coat that I used to travel with in those days, hoping for better things. The tune is after Frederick Chopin, and words were written down, presumably in some sort of psychic trance, by Barry Pincus-Manilow, who became a famous songwriter after he dropped the Pincus.
     But that night was nothing to do with him. The poetry, the movement and the magic was pure Donna, who will never be forgotten so long as I live.

1 comment:

  1. "Russia's Auberon Waugh, you are" as Yoda might say. I was prepared to swallow the whole Donna Summer thing, until hitting to Youtube link. Although, looking more carefully.....well, her dancing partner might just be you...hmmmm....