Sophie B. Hawkins: Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover
aving been schooled in single sex education from the ages of 13 through 18 (i.e., puberty), going to university was always going to be a gender-related culture shock. Not from just coming into contact with women per se (I’m from a Catholic family, I’ve got more cousins than Puerto Ricans got cousins). No, my A Yankee In King Arthur’s Court moment came from actually meeting real, genuine lesbians for the first time in my life. I mean… what to say? It’s probably the same thought process that goes through a single woman’s head the first time she calls a plumber out: when your only experience of a subculture is through pornographic movies, you basically have a zero-dimensional view of them, and even then that view is taken from a questionable camera angle. Thankfully, Sophie B Hawkins was on hand as a tour guide. She’d been in reserve for local radio DJs for most of the decade prior, she’d been saved to hard drive the month before, thus, as we sailed into the Ellis Island of contemporary sexuality, for most males, she was our Statue of Liberty.
Simply put, “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” is a song entirely without precedent in popular music. It has very few progeny either. Not simply because it’s a lesbian love story making its way into the charts (although, with taTu and “Me Against The Music” you’re dealing with a Zoo Weekly fantasy of lesbianism, rather than the pinkie-ring reality). It’s not a love song anyway. It’s a lust song, a longing song, a song full of so much desire, it transcends sexuality and sex and makes “I’ll Be Watching You” sound like “Love and Marriage”. A lesbian mourns the fact that the object of her fascination is heterosexual, acknowledges that it’s unlikely she’ll change, and yet clings on to the hope that one day she’ll come to her senses, even though she realises the object of her objectification finds homosexuality wrong. The only record this open, this confused, and this disturbed on a similar topic was White Town’s “Your Woman”, and even then the protagonist is resigned to the fact that you can’t change people. Sophie probably knows this deep down in her heart, but quiet resignation doesn’t make for great music. Standing on the corner, waiting for your love to change, and literally shouting out the word “LOVE” from the depths of her soul, with so much manic energy that you can hear her face tic, does. She’s confused, angry, right, and ultimately helpless, and all this helped her deliver five of the most subversive and breathtaking minutes of 90s AOR imaginable.
Go through the song step by step though, there’s a lot to go through. That beginning. 11 seconds of a train pulling away from a station. It’s a standard enough singer-songwriter conceit. And that’s the thing about the song, you Google it, you’ll bring up infinity plus one message board postings of people trying really hard to categorise it, as if you can’t put all of these facets of homosexuality and insanity and desperation and neuroses across in an AOR track. Yes, it’s a bit Lilith. Yes, it does share some sonic resonance with early 90s dance-pop. But when the endgame comes in, you have to accept that this lives on exactly the same street as Crowded House and Deep Blue Something. What will the neighbours say?
Those opening words. That sharp intake of breath before she starts singing. Have you ever tried to convince someone that you’ve not just been crying? Ever been stranded at a train station, shouting impotently at someone moving away from you at 100 miles an hour. It isn’t pretty. “I had a dream I was your hero…”. And then that chorus. We’re dealing with the era of quiet quiet loud here, where every chorus needed to be shouted. Sophie’s didn’t. She carried on at the same volume, but that intensity dial was pulled over to 11. The lyrics are confused as well, she’s totally asexualised her muse. She doesn’t sing of kissing her, of touching her, but instead of mothering her, of making her warm.
And then there’s the animal imagery. “That old dog has chained you up alright.” “This monkey can’t stand to see you black and blue.” “Give you something sweet each time you come inside my jungle book.” “Getting on my camel and riding uptown.” These are strong words, 18-certificate words of sex and violence, and yet they’re rendered soft and almost cuddly by Hawkins’ nicknamery and euphemisms. It’s like when social workers ask abused children to show where Daddy touched them on a Tigger doll. The woman she sings of is abused, physically and mentally. And yet Hawkins realises that she can’t do anything to help, she’s bound in her own rage.
You begin to think that Hawkins has had this woman over a lot. They ate cookie dough, watched bad movies, drank too much wine. And then Sophie brings up the subject of the boyfriend. And the floodgates open. “You really should leave him Sarah” (I think the girl’s called Sarah). “But what if I do leave him? What then?”. They both cry, they both hug (Sophie’s breath quickening), they promise to keep in touch, and then as soon as she gets back on that train: “Don’t say you’ll stay ‘cuz then you’ll go away, and then that tantric scissor kick that brings in the chorus.
And then there’s the church bells. The irony of tackling gay subject matter with church bells is just too perfect, even more now than it was ten years ago. What are they ringing for? A wedding? A funeral? Sophie’s probably played over both of those scenarios in her skull whilst writing the song, and yet she’s still not sure which one she thinks is going to be the outcome. Or which one she wants.
By this point she’s reduced to pleas—shouting out into the wilderness. “Give me an hour to kiss you”. “Let me in!”. And then the song begins to calm down. A final te deum. Back to the imagery of wildlife: “I lay by the ocean making love to her with vision clear”. A happy ending, or a hallucination. Has Sophie gotten what she wants, or has she just been driven completely insane by her subject matter. Like with most romantic poetry, both readings are acceptable. And then… “I return, as chained and bound to you”. Are we back to chains? Maybe they have gotten together, and the monkey was as bad a partner as the dog. Maybe Sarah deserved it after all. Maybe the monkey wishes she was her lover, rather than what she is: her fuck-toy. Maybe none of this is true. Maybe none of this song actually happened. But I like to think it did. I like to think of this song as the most successful psychiatry session of the nineties.
By: Dom Passantino
Published on: 2005-01-12