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Ask Her About Her Haircut
What Ray Parker Jr. taught me about dating.
BY ROB SHEFFIELD
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.”