People do crazy things when they are in states of want. The wanter who utters - or sings - “I want you, I want you, I want you” is past all hope. He is in the hellish nether regions of lust-gone-wrong and is capable of anything. Without checks or balances on lust, murder and other extremes sometimes find their ways into the picture. This singular kind of want, this obsessive kind, leaves no room for the want of anyone else, it leaves no room for the potentially mutual want of its object of desire. This kind of want is proud, it is churlish, it roars harder, moans louder, digs its nails in deeper than any other want could ever do. This kind of want wants to win.
Saint Marvin Gaye released his “I Want You” – a track penned by Leon Ware and Arthur “T-Boy” Ross - in 1976 on his album of the same name. The album is incredible, but its first track, the title track in completion (there are a few variations on its thematic idea throughout the record), which stands out. Its musical pacing is relentless, moving" at a brisk walk through city streets as the day turns into the night, a night that seemingly never ends. Gaye’s “I Want You” exudes accuracy and erudition. It builds up yet moves along consistently. The emotion pushes itself to the song’s brink - but in a most hopeful way.
Gaye’s vocals are characteristically beautiful, soft and melodic, and they push against the busy soundscape of instrumental backing. The simple lyric line, the methodical and logical “I want you, but I want you to want me too,” is the desirer attempting to articulate the turbulent confusion of his emotions. Gaye’s delivery is natural and earnest, as if clarity of truth has risen from the ashy mess of a relationship; he finally can put it into the simplest of words: I want you, BUT I want you to want me too. This wanter issues forth a conditional, he makes equal demands, for he has figured it out, what many wanters before him have yet to figure out. The secret ingredient to making any sense out of raging lust is to admit that it’s only fifty percent one’s own problem: there is another party involved. Other desirers might repeat the same three words over and over, snowballing the emotion until it’s too big to handle. Gaye’s soundtrack wants him to do this too, but he refuses to let it, reasoning properly with all his might: “I want you, but I want you to want me too, just like I want you.” Anyone who’s ever been on the fuzzy end of an unrequited love affair knows that IT SUCKS. “To share is precious,” Gaye sings, and after all, true love, and true lust (hopefully they meet somewhere), should be about sharing, a partnership, 50/50. He is a realist with a streak of intense hopefulness.
One gets the impression that even though Gaye’s wanter may be heartbroken now, he yields forth an underlying stability and will probably be okay in the end regardless of outcomes. This is the wanter that we want to want us: passionate but still of sound mind. If we were to return to this wanter with our tails between our legs or with our heads held high - realizing that we had made a mistake in our initial decision to depart - he would take us back, probably. His resentment and anger would melt away, eventually. This is not the case with Elvis Costello’s wanter.
One gets the sense that if the object of desire here went back to Costello he would kiss her with his hands wrapped tightly around her throat. That’s scary. Sir Elvis Costello released his self-penned “I Want You” as a single from his Blood and Chocolate album in 1986. A lot has happened to desire in ten years since Marvin Gaye sang of it; desire has turned ugly – and how. The guitar break in the middle of the track sounds like a man falling down a well or a rabbit hole, arms flailing out trying to grab onto something to stop the fall, but eternally unable to. By the end of the monologue, by the end of his many verses, Costello sounds exhausted, barely able to get the last refrain of “I Want You” out; we get the sense that even after the record stops, he’s still repeating it, over and over. He is not saved or redeemed by his song. This is a condemned man and unlike Gaye’s wanter, he is without hope.
Perhaps Costello’s verses in which he questions his desired one are the worst – i.e. "Did you call his name out as he held you down?” Oh no, don’t ask that!! What are you doing, Elvis?! This sort of behavior is intensely self-destructive, almost a “You think you hate me? I’ll show you that I hate me even more.” Costello doesn’t need to know the answers to these questions, because for all intents and purposes, he already knows what they are. “I’m afraid I won’t know where to stop.” He is no longer in control of his desire, and it’s moved past a jubilant need to a murderous obsession. This is no love song. This is a hate song. The escalating interrogation as the lyrics drive forward brings to mind the brilliantly torturous scene between Anna (Julia Roberts) and Larry (Clive Owen) in the film Closer (2004), during which the specifics of Anna’s adulterous sexual exploits with Dan (Jude Law) are explicitly discussed in a kamikaze line of questioning: “Did you do it here? Who was where?” And those are the most PG of the lot. Consider the traditional folk song “James Alley Blues:” “Well, sometimes I think that you're just too sweet to die… and other times I think that you ought to be buried alive.” Classic stuff; most romances spend their lives vacillating between these two emotional points of view. But Costello is beyond vacillation, he can only do one thing: want.
Desire and want – we have to maintain respect and reverence for these lovely things. We have to respect who and what we desire, even when we don’t like what they are, even when they don’t behave as we want them to. This respect is the same kind of respect we have for Nature or God or the larger energied forces at work, forces full of mystery, forces that inspire awe. Forces that are out of our control. We can’t shirk our duties to them, mock them or reason with them through logic. Want is holy, more so than we can understand. Acknowledge want, hold it up to the light and let it bask there, let it be inspired to grow. We cannot pick and choose but we can accept – not in the way that we must accept bad fortune or death or inevitability of any kind - rather in the way that we must accept a task or quest when it is thrust upon us. This acknowledgment of connection to our desires, while still aiming for detachment so that we don’t wind up as murderous as Costello, and while still aiming for a fifty-fifty set-up so that we can do Gaye proud, makes us who we are in the mortal-est of ways and is most important.