You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory


The Review’s Review

Publicity photo of the Ronettes—Nedra Talley, Veronica Bennett (Ronnie Spector) and Estelle Bennett—by James Kriegsmann.

On Wednesday, in the hours after Ronnie Spector’s family announced her passing from cancer at seventy-eight, I played, on loop, her cover of the Johnny Thunders punk anthem “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” Recorded for The Last of the Rock Stars, her 2006 comeback album, the song is also a dirge for Thunders, who died in 1991; he had been one of Ronnie’s crucial supporters in the period after she left her abusive ex-husband, the megalomaniac, murderer, and iconoclastic music producer Phil Spector. On YouTube, you can watch her perform a live version of the song from 2018: after showing footage from an archival interview the Ronettes did with Dick Clark sometime in the sixties, she comes out, to applause, and says, “Sorry, I was backstage crying.” Dabbing her eyes, she mourns the breakup of her iconic girl group, which also featured her older sister, Estelle, and cousin Nedra. “I thought 1966 was the end, no more Ronettes, no more stage, no more singing. I was out here in California and out of show business for seven or eight years. Let me tell you, life was a bitch.” She then describes starting over back in New York City in the ‘70s (she was raised in Spanish Harlem), and meeting Thunders while singing at the legendary gay club and bathhouse Continental Baths, where he cried all through her set. Later, she also met Joey Ramone, who produced an EP of hers and whose contributions to The Last of the Rock Stars include backing vocals on “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.”

On the haunting track, Ronnie’s voice, its teen-dream girlishness scratched with nicotine, bears witness to the time that’s passed. Although The Last of the Rock Stars is more produced than Johnny Cash’s stripped-down American Recordings (1994), the blueprint for such back-to-basics music projects, it served a similar purpose, reintroducing her to the public while reimagining her past. Where Erma Franklin shot a new video for an old song, Joni Mitchell rerecorded earlier hits of hers, and Cash reinterpreted foundational country tunes, Ronnie chose to cover tracks from her own heyday (“Hey Sah-Lo-Ney,” “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine”), putting her cool, inimitable stamp on them.

In her 1990 autobiography Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, Or, My Life as a Fabulous Ronette, Ronnie recalls a bathroom in the famous recording studio Gold Star: “People talk about how great the echo chamber was at Gold Star, but they never heard the sound in that ladies’ room. And, between doing my makeup and teasing my hair, I practically lived in there anyway. So that’s where all the little ‘whoa-ohs’ and ‘oh-oh-oh-ohs’ you hear on my records were born, in the bathroom at Gold Star.” In my late teens, not long after the release of The Last of the Rock Stars, I spent a significant portion of 2007 primping in front of the cloudy mirrors in the girls’ bathroom of my public school, examining my relaxed, chin-length bob—one of the Black American girl’s evergreen coiffures—and combing the curled flip at the end just so. The ladies’ room: where teen girls gather to avoid class, and where iconic vocal stylings are born. I hadn’t yet figured out, then, how much my particular style of performing adolescence owed to Ronnie Spector. But it so happened that Ronnie’s aesthetic was on the rise again. Amy Winehouse had recently released Back to Black (at the time, I was an inveterate Amy-head), borrowing from Ronnie’s musical sensibilities and bringing back the piled-high beehive hairdo, that relic of teenhood the Ronettes had popularized five decades before.

Around the same time, on television, The Sopranos began airing its final episodes, and the beehive showed up there, too, as an important narrative thread in “Soprano Home Movies,” which premiered in April 2007. At a summer cabin in upstate New York, Tony’s sister Janice tells a story she’s heard about their parents: one night in the sixties, while driving home to Jersey from an evening at the Copa in Manhattan, Johnny Boy Soprano grew so enraged at his wife Livia’s complaining that he pulled out a handgun and shot through her beehive. There’s a distressing undercurrent to the anecdote, but Janice and her husband, Bobby, one of Tony’s mob capos, laugh at it, as does Carmela, who asks if anyone could see the gunpowder burns in Livia’s hair; Janice says Livia cut her hair into a bob the next day. Tony, meanwhile, looks very shaken, and soon starts a fight with the other man. On the surface, he’s upset about how dysfunctional the story makes their family look, but you sense that he’s also feeling sympathy for his mother, from whom he seems to have inherited his tendency toward depression.

A consistent theme of The Sopranos was the sense that all the good things in history had already happened and the chance to make a real impact was long past. As Tony put it, “I came in at the end. The best is over.” Winehouse’s vintage looks and music suggested she might have felt the same. But Ronnie, though she barely survived her torture at the hands of Phil Spector and her ensuing alcoholism, lived long enough to start over, making the kind of post-AA albums—Siren (1980), Unfinished Business (1987), and She Talks to Rainbows (1999)—Winehouse never got the chance to record. In her autobiography, Ronnie recalls listening on the other side of the bedroom door as Phil Spector and his songwriting partners sketched out “Be My Baby,” imagining how she’d bring the tune to life. Although she called her voice “the final brick” in Spector’s famed Wall of Sound, in truth, the recordings capture her voice competing with that Wall, scaling its heights. And in real life, barefoot, she escaped the actual walls of his mansion, with their barbed wire and booby traps. “It doesn’t pay to try / All the smart girls know why,” Ronnie sings on “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” but her efforts to rebuild her life belied those lyrics.

It’s true that you can’t put your arms around a memory. But you can reinterpret tone, as Ronnie did with her cover songs, adorning those faded records with the smeared-lipstick kiss of her vibrato. Her signature vocal tic, the “oh-oh-oh-oh,” which is all over The Last of the Rock Stars, gave her mouth the shape of shock, or smoke rings, the after-image of a bullet hole through a beehive. And her sound captures that mingling of anticipation and forewarning, of things recalled in perfect detail and those blurred or corrupted in memory, of pain and wistfulness and long-ago glee. When I listen to Ronnie, I can hear it all. —Niela Orr

I have a bad habit of buying gifts for people and forgetting to send them. Over the holidays, I found myself digging through my pile of books looking for something new to read—or old enough to feel that way—when I came across a small poetry book, A Horse with Holes in It, by Greg Alan Brownderville. As I flipped through the pages in an attempt to place it, I realized it was a thank-you gift I meant to send to a professor some years back. Selfishly, I’m glad this book never made it to the post office.

Most of the poems take place somewhere deep in the Delta, where Brownderville experiments with themes of religion, love, death, and desire. It’s decidedly Southern Gothic, yet the poet manages to be soulful without being overly serious, “they wept, and said some mystery words / like shahn-die, seconding my gibberish with God’s / because they know. They know honest gospel singing when they hear it.” Like the poet, I spent much of my childhood in Arkansas (and in church) and found myself wide-eyed, wincing, and giggling the whole way through. The fifteenth poem, “A Message for the King,” was my favorite of the collection, and ends: “Tell the king / we cheer him, we love him for these nights. / But before you kiss his face and go, / urge him / not to be too proud not to be too proud not to be too proud.” —Lauren Williams

This past week I had one of the most extraordinary TV viewing experiences of my life: my family sat down to watch an Apple TV+ adaptation of my daughter’s favorite graphic memoir, El Deafo, by Cece Bell. El Deafo tells the true story (true except that in the book and show, all the people are humanoid bunnies) of Bell’s grade school years, during which a brain infection causes her to lose most of her hearing. Little Cece is precocious and profoundly alive, and deeply sensitive to others’ perceptions of her newly acquired disability. It’s a story of how to find friendship, of learning whom to trust and how to trust them. What makes the show so extraordinary is that its producers made the decision to design all the sound in the show as Bell would have heard it through her hearing aids. Our ears need to reach for the sound, which is muffled, distant, and well worth pursuing. This is the first instance I can think of—though I’m sure there are others—in which the medium of television has been used to grant access to the charged space of another person’s disability, and in so doing takes us deeper than we could have imagined into Cece’s perspective, to know her, at least a little, as she knows herself. As a bonus, the soundtrack was written and recorded by indie singer/songwriter Waxahatchee. The show affords an unprecedented chance at empathy, making the world simultaneously bigger and much more intimate. —Craig Morgan Teicher