The playlists of our lives gain their power through association. Happy, sad, poignant or pathetic – the music that we listen to through the motions and melodramas entwines with our memories. Listening can transport us through time.
The Ronettes remind me of being a teenager. Of backcombing beehives and black flicks on my eyes. Of a time before I’d met love. When I wondered what flavour it would be – how it would move, how it would feel, how it would introduce itself when it arrived.
So I listened, at Spector’s school for girls, and dreamt of starry-eyed romance and walking in the rain and glamourous, calamitous heartbreak. I guess you could say Ronnie Spector taught me about love.
Tonight, we’re all here to relive our teenage dreams. Young and old throng under the beams of Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket. And a Glasgow girl (by way of Nigeria) sings us in. Supporting a legend falls between blessing and curse, but Unoma Okudo tackles it gamely. Tight yet loose, her backing band form a fluid safety net for impressive vocal acrobatics. A cover of Frankie Valli and the Four Season’s ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ that out-Lauryn Hills Lauryn Hill sparks a sing-along.
And then, to the strains of Spector’s strings, the Rose of Spanish Harlem appears. Hair teased to the gods, resplendent in purple lame – she’s a girl-group delight with wiggle intact, the doo-wop dream sprung to life. All flicks and high-kicks, she’s cute as pie but canny too.
Whilst the staging veers towards the cruise-ship, the music remains pure poetry. Ably assisted by her Ronettes, all dolled up in 1960s fancy dress, she belts her way though some of pop’s finest symphonies - full-throated, full-throttle.
The rose has aged a little, but the voice is in bloom. Hearing a woman revisit the songs she sang as a girl, enriched by experience, is a beautiful thing. It’s been 55 years since her first visit, bussing with boy-bands like The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Beatles, and the Dave Clarke Five. And so, regal on her stool, she leads us through rock’n’roll story-time.
The best one? Let’s set the scene. Three bee-hived angels waited in line at the Peppermint Lounge, “in yella taffeta-tight dresses, serious Cleopatra make-up and cigarettes, of course”. Mistaken for dancers by the cigar-chomping manager looking for a trio he’d booked who’d failed to show – he points, they walk in, and the story of The Ronettes is born.
Set against archive footage of the young band shaking their things through the clubland of old New York, it’s the stuff that dreams are made of – and worth the entrance fee alone. She’s the coolest woman in town. How many can say that Brian Wilson wrote a song to respond to theirs, as she does, before her performance of ‘Don’t Worry Baby’?
And delivering the Keith Richards-penned ‘I’d Much Rather Be With The Boys’ from a female view is more than one little wiggle she makes towards contemporary moods. “50 years ago, it was all about the boys - now it’s all about our girls. No boys allowed” she announces – a nod to today’s feminist shift thrown into a skit with a flick and a giggle.
Despite all the myths and legends invoked, there’s raw emotion too. A cover of ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?’, offered as tribute for her sister Estelle, is staggeringly sad. ‘Walking In The Rain’ cleanses the stage with a downpour of good old-fashioned melodrama.
And still, those stories keep on rolling. She urges us closer, for another golden anecdote. In 1966, she thought it was the end. By the middle of her twenties, she found herself starting all over again, singing at a small gay club in New York. A man sat alone, crying throughout the set. It was Johnny Thunders, still to find his fate as the patron saint of New York punk.
She tears into a deadly cover of ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory’, originally a collaboration with Joey Ramone, in his honour. “It doesn’t pay to try; all the smart girls know why” hits a raw nerve. The voice, with its bullish strength and Noo Yawk sass, singing those beautiful words of heartbroken truth and inevitability? Exquisite. She hands it to us, brave and brittle. Floors me. Sorry, is your mascara running?
Then it kicks in. The anthem of teenage love, angst and agony, all rolled-up into a perfect three-minute pop package. And as ‘Be My Baby’ soars towards its chorus, a drunken conga-line snakes wonkily round the aisles and a drum-roll plays us out to the end.
But a good showgirl knows not to leave it there. The screen flickers back to life. And there she is, the ghost of Amy Winehouse, talking of her love for The Ronettes. As the bass and drum snap into sequence for ‘Back To Black’, an icon remembers an icon. It is truly stunning, and I will never forget it.
At this point, we’d let her get away with murder if she asked us to. Hell, we even forgive her an out-of-season rendition of ‘Sleigh Ride’, wildly off-kilter in a dry, bleak January. Because this was about more than songs. It was about stories. Her and you and us and we. It was a seasoned pro celebrating the good old days, the songs and the lives that shaped them. Filling the Fruitmarket with her voice and her heart and her hair.
Thank you, Ronnie. For everything.
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Words: Marianne Gallagher
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