Songs Left Out of Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” (2009)

I’ve always been seduced by the title of Nan Goldin’s slide show about her life and that of her friends from the mid-seventies through the mid-eighties, in and around Boston, Berlin, the Lower East Side. “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”—it comes from The Threepenny Opera, but I didn’t know that when I first encountered Goldin’s work: more than seven hundred color photographs, running in sequences, each image present for three or four seconds, replaced seamlessly by another, with songs from opera, Top 40, downtown New Wave dance clubs, and obscure blues records playing alongside, most often in excerpts of a minute or more—pictures, as they move through the 40 minutes or so of the piece, in which the primary image can seem to be that of a single person lying on a bed—or two people on a bed, neither acknowledging the other.

But to me “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” was a pop title. I imagined hearing it announced on the radio as the latest hit, and I was seduced by its unlikeliness. “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” “The Ballad of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.” “The Ballad of Stratigraphic Geology”—I’d listen to anything with a title like that.

Goldin was born in Washington, D.C., in 1953; two central events in her life, as she tells it, took place in 1965, when she was 11. Her eighteen year old sister lay down on the tracks of a commuter train; in Goldin’s words, “In the week of mourning that followed, I was seduced by an older man. During this period of greatest pain and loss, I was simultaneously awakened to intense sexual excitement.” Goldin began taking pictures when she was 18; sold only through a gallery as an art work, in the collection of museums, never available to the public except at film festivals or when a museum chooses to present it, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” is, Goldin says, “the history of a re-created family”—and the mission of her new family was to give itself over to “that part of your brain that is only satisfied by love, heroin, or chocolate”; to embrace what she called “a disbelief in the future”; to pursue an escape from the dependencies of ordinary life—on convenience, stability, and predictability—and to seek instead dependency on each other.

What’s most uncanny—uncanny and sometimes disturbing, displacing, confusing—about Goldin’s pictures, about the whole work, is its intimacy. Not necessarily sexual intimacy, though in all versions of “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” there is repeated nudity and in some there are sequences of sex pictures that are convincing in a way that sex rarely is in photos. What’s uncanny is the way Goldin and the people in her pictures seem to have no borders of privacy, the way their rooms seem to have no walls.

Like anyone in front of a camera, they pose happily for moments of ease or friendship or let’s-remember-this-day, but in moments of sex, misery, estrangement, or despair they don’t seem to be posing at all. There’s no sense of voyeurism. You’re pulled in. Everyone is a witness to everyone else.

The images don’t flash by; they float. And from Charlotte Rae singing the title song to Petula Clark and “Downtown,” from Maria Callas’s “Casta Diva” to the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” from Dionne Warwick and “Don’t Make Me Over” to “You Don’t Own Me,” which in Klaus Nomi’s version sounds just like “Don’t Make Me Over,” in those songs and all or parts of 28 more, the music makes the sequence of photos of people alone, together, having sex, dressing for parties, shooting up, embracing, separating, into a drama that moves from isolation to friendship to romance to a repeated isolation greater than the isolation with which the story began.

The images and the music are often attached to each other with a literalism that in other hands might be killing. As you see women who’ve been beaten up, women with black eyes, bruised breasts, a slashed wrist opened up like a flower—and all this almost at the start, before you’ve seen anyone who might have left most of these marks—that is, men—you hear the Creatures’ “Miss the Girl.” You hear Siouxsie Sioux singing “You didn’t miss the girl, you hit the girl, you hit her with the force of steel.” Then comes Yoko Ono’s “She Hits Back” and pictures of women with guns, a female body builder, all proud, strong, empowered.

The approach is corny in description but not as you watch. The brief time on the screen for each image, long enough for each to register, not long enough for any one image to claim the territory of another, the music slipping from one selection to the other, make it all into a movie. It’s a movie made entirely of stills, but the music creates the illusion of a dramatic inevitability—with every cut, you feel as if you’re part of a 40-minute tracking shot. The literalism of the pairings of songs and images dissolves—because it’s not a matter of the way, in a song, the music allows the words the singer is singing to transcend their banality. Here the images are the music, and the songs are the words.

That’s most true at the very end. You’ve heard Ennio Morricone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and seen a man on a horse, one with a snake, one with a huge blade. You’ve heard James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and seen body builders, boxers, men covered with hair, a guy masturbating in a car who looks as if he has his hands around a knife. You’ve watched women getting dressed up to the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” then seen them alone and half-naked as it fades, as if all tomorrow’s parties have already happened, and life is nothing more than going to the same party over and over and over again—and then, finally, all the pictures yield to death.

You see an older man in a coffin, and a blonde woman, who you’ve come to know from the start, pass in front of it; then you see her in her own coffin. AIDS isn’t depicted, drug overdoses aren’t shown—what’s at stake is a rhythm, the rhythm of connection, isolation, and memory. So Goldin shows a painting on a wall; a heart-shaped frame holding a portrait of a couple; a framed picture of hearts and before it a vase of flowers and a medicine bottle; an empty bed with tangled sheets; a bedroom wall spattered with blood; and then tombstones, a whole forest of mausoleums, then the coffins, and, the very last image, a crude painting on a door of two skeletons fucking standing up.

And all the while, from the first image of this final sequence to the last, you are swept up in lightness, in the syncopation of “Memories Are Made of This,” Dean Martin’s number one hit from 1955. “Sweet, sweet, the memories you gave to me/You can’t beat, the memories you gave to me,” murmurs the chorus. The simplest chord changes on an acoustic guitar, the bass counting off the last notes with a cadence that spells “That’s all she wrote” more clearly than the actual words ever could—there’s room for the listener, for anyone the song might speak for. And it endows everyone you’ve seen with dignity.

The filmmaker Dennis Potter, with his movies of people bursting into miming performances of great pop songs from all across the 20th century—in Pennies from Heaven, The Singing Detective, in Lipstick on Your Collar—caught how this worked in 1975, talking to Michael Sragow, then the film critic for the San Francisco Examiner.

“I think we all have this little theatre on top of our shoulders, where the past and the present and our aspirations and our memories are simply and inexorably mixed. What makes each one of us unique is the potency of the individual mix.

“We can make our lives only when we know what our lives have been. And drama is about how you make the next moment. It’s like when you’re watching a sporting event, like a soccer game here; when it’s going on, you don’t know what’s going to happen. But all the rules are laid down.

“I don’t make the mistake that high culture mongers do of assuming that because people like cheap art, their feelings are cheap, too. When people say, ‘Oh listen, they’re playing our song,’ they don’t mean, ‘Our song, this little cheap tinkling, syncopated piece of rubbish is what we felt when we met.’ What they saying is ‘That song reminds us of the tremendous feeling we had when we met.’ Some of the songs I use are great anyway but the cheaper songs are still in the direct line of descent from David’s Psalms. They’re saying, ‘Listen, the world isn’t quite like this, the world is better than this, there is love in it,’ ‘There’s you and me in it’ or ‘The sun is shining in it.’

“So called dumb people, simple people, uneducated people, have as authentic and profound a depth of feeling as the most educated on earth. And anyone who says different is a fascist.”

That is precisely what “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” says.

I was inspired by Goldin’s soundtrack—I wanted to play her game. So I thought I’d construct my own version, “The songs left out of “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” The Pet Shop Boys’ “Rent,” say. Mott the Hoople “I Wish I Was Your Mother,” which to me caught the will to connect that is Goldin’s true subject more painfully than anything she used herself. The threat in Elvis Costello’s “I Want You,” for the sequence of pictures of men alone, brooding, the posture of each suggesting he’s trying to decide whether or not to kill someone. The Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name of Love,” The Miracles “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage.” Bobby Bland’s “Lead Me On.”But that was from memory. Watching the work again, I realized that of course it is what it is. Coming in fragments that fade almost as soon as they appear, can it really be said that anything was left out, that anything’s missing? It’s an obnoxious conceit. The soundtrack is a collection of Goldin’s friends, just as the photos are. The songs are characters as much as the people we see.

But when I remembered the piece, when I watched it in my head, and then when I watched it again for real—there was still one song that did, for me, cry to be included—or maybe it was that that one song itself cried out to be included, to be given a home in Goldin’s world.

Because there’s a certain hipster cool that “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” never surrenders. Because something is missing—some sense of tragedy, something that no song Goldin choses can account for—and what that is can be found in a single note of Lonnie Mack’s “Why.” That’s the song that got me started thinking about the songs that were left out—as if there were more than one.It’s 1963: Lonnie Mack is 22, he’s pudgy, dorky-looking, really, but he’s had two big instrumental guitar hits, “Memphis” and “Wham!”, so he gets to make an album: The Wham! of that Memphis Man. Tucked inside is—along with Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” and the Five Keys’ “Dream On”—the greatest deep soul record ever made: Mack’s own “Why.”

The song is a staircase. After each verse, where he tells us about the woman who left him, it’s the climb of the chorus to the roof, where the singer throws himself off. It’s the surge of intensity, of terror—the singer terrorizing the listener, but more than that the singer terrorizing himself. It’s almost inhuman, how much pain he’s discovered—and the way he’s discovered that he can make it real, something he can all but hold in his hands.

The first chorus comes. “Why,” he sings. And then he screams the word, and it’s nearly unbearable, how far he goes with the single syllable. As James Agee said of the last shots of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, it’s enough to shrivel the heart. Mack cuts back with the next line, softly: “Why did you leave me this way.” But the echo is there.

The second verse. “Now I’m standing”—and the last word is drawn out, shuddering—“By my window/ I decided”—again drawn out so far—“What I would do”—and you’re sure he’s going to kill himself—“I would never/Tell anybody/How much/ I loved/You.”

And then the second chorus, the spoken “Why,” then again the same word screamed, then the quiet “Why did you leave me this way”—and then something really terrible: the looming possibility that the singer might go all the way. What if he did? Would he still be standing? Would you? There is a guitar solo. It’s magnificent, but it’s a pause, because what you’re really hearing hasn’t happened yet. It’s what you’re wishing for, what you’re afraid of, the final chorus.

Do it! No, don’t! Please, please, do it! No, no, no!

He brings you back into his drama, and you relax. He tells you he’s writing a letter; it’s stained with tears from his eyes. You can almost savor the coming repetition in the next verse: you can experience again something that you have already gotten through, stood up to, not broken under.

And then the levees break.

Again there is the first “Why,” almost crooned. Then the second, exploding as before. Then the next line, and you can feel the ground shaking beneath the singer’s feet, beneath yours. And then, even out of this maelstrom, the shock of a long, wordless scream, a cry of anguish so extreme you have to close your eyes in shame over witnessing it, because this man is now before you, begging you to save him. And then more, farther, deeper, the now long and tangled line “You know you left me—alone and so empty” twisted into a knot that can never be untangled, that is left behind in the wreckage of the singer’s future. And then, finally, it’s over. Or rather the track ends, and The Wham! Of That Memphis Man goes back to another bouncy guitar instrumental.

No, of course it wasn’t left out. It doesn’t belong in “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” But there is a need, an absence—a cover-up that art enacts that only art can expose, a criticism of art that only art can make.

Aperture, Winter 2009 [with playlist] (Note: this was also the subject of GM’s 2009 EMP Pop Conference talk.)

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