Lower and Lower

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

I don’t
even remember the sisters’ names, but every time I hear Jackie Wilson’s
"(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" I’m overcome
by a pang of melancholy yearning for them that’s as strong as if I was
just pining for them yesterday. Funny how some songs don’t mean what they’re
supposed to. Here’s one of the most upbeat, literally uplifting of all
soul songs, and whenever I hear it I’m a sad and mopey teenager again.

According to
the charts, "Higher and Higher" came out in the fall of 1967, so it
must be the summer of ’68 that I’m remembering it on the jukebox at
the swim club. That would make me 16, which seems right.

We spent much
of our summers at the swim club. As kids we spent all our time there in the
water. As teens we spent all our time there moping and hanging around and posing
and smoking cigarettes and playing Hearts and plugging the jukebox in the open-air
pavilion up on the hill. I believe they even called it the "teen center."
They sold ice cream bars, frozen Milky Ways and sodas there, and on weekends
local bands with names like the Camaros would come and play soul and surf songs–60s
summer fare like "I Get Around" and "Soul Man" and "Mercy,
Mercy, Mercy." Every now and again Buddy Dean, Baltimore’s local Dick
Clark, would broadcast his daily teen dance show live from there. Years later,
John Waters based the tv DJ in Hairspray on Buddy Dean.

It was up in
the teen center that I spent that entire summer mooning over the two sisters.
I had a girlfriend at the time, but it didn’t matter. What, you haven’t
ever been in a relationship and pined for someone else? They were in a much
cooler crowd than the one I hung in, but it was a small teen center, and we
were all there all summer, so crowds intersected, or at least were in close
enough proximity that you could find yourself spending a whole lot of time around
people who didn’t really know you and wouldn’t care about you if they

These two girls
were so different from each other one of them could have been adopted. I never
really knew. One looked like a jailbait Marilyn Monroe: blonde, golden tan,
nubile, long legs, edible breasts, even a pouty lower lip. She was the one everybody
thought was sexy. She trailed jocks and lifeguards like army ants. She was
sexy, in a purely sex-bomb way. She was also dumber than her bikini bottoms.
Not someone you’d ever really want to know, but you’d kill to do her.

The other one
was dark, skinny, moody, cold, monotone, reserved, kind of a bitch, really.
Pretty, but in an ice princess way. The guys who constantly circled her sister
paid some attention to her–they had to, she was always there, and you knew
that she was the brains of the operation, if only by default–but it wasn’t
like they wanted her, they just had to be polite to her to get through her to
her more overtly sexy sister.

She was the
one I really mooned over, the dark one, the ice princess. I thought she was
so smart, so cool, such a stuck-up bitch. She ignited an entirely other set
of desires than her sister did. Her sister you wanted in a conventional jerking-off-over-a-Penthouse
way. In this one you could see the promise of unlocking some mysterious, probably
kinky and definitely intense passion, if you could only figure out some way
to melt that frosty exterior.

Not that I
articulated it this way as I sat there all summer mooning over her. In fact,
as often in my life around women I’ve wanted very badly, around her I was
reduced to a state of permanent, insoluble inarticulateness. Mute as a lawn
elf. I don’t believe I spoke one word directly to her the whole summer.
I just stared.

It was pure
cowardice and shyness, but it was also realistic. Because really, what would
have been the point? There would have been no point whatsoever. I was a shy
geek hanging on the periphery of our intersecting crowds. It’s entirely
possible that she literally didn’t know I existed. Even had I gotten up
the gumption to make my presence known, I would have gotten nowhere, precisely
nowhere, with her. And, remember, I already had a girlfriend.

So, the jukebox.
We all fed that jukebox, constantly. I remember it as one of the great jukeboxes
of my life. Those years, ’67, ’68, were peak time for soul singles.
Some of the ones I remember being on that jukebox were the Four Tops’ "Bernadette"
and their cover of "Walk Away Renee," "Ain’t No Mountain
High Enough," Junior Walker’s "Shotgun," "It Takes
Two" and the Temps’ "You’re My Everything." Then again,
I also remember somebody drove us all crazy one of those summers playing the
Supremes’ novelty hit "The Happening" over and over and over
again, day after day, week after week. It was a song best appreciated in small
doses. By July it grated.

The song that,
for whatever reason, indelibly imprinted itself on me was the Jackie Wilson
song. To this day I cannot hear "Higher and Higher" without being
whisked back in time to a damp, sandy booth in that teen center, staring at
that dark sister–the way her skinny neck would appear in a flash when she
tossed her hair, the rather severe line of her jaw from her ear to her chin,
the way one strap of her swimsuit would slide off her bony, freckled shoulder–and
feel the most excruciating longing. As the years go by, I suppose, it’s
metastasized into not just a yearning for that girl, but for all the girls longed
for and never kissed, all the summers, the youth, all that. An old, crusty,
barnacled nostalgia, I guess it is, and all it takes is that song to bring it
back up to my surface.