Tuesday, January 31, 2012


In the book In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust, as every poseur knows, writes about a tiny cookie--a madeleine--which has the power to transport him back to his childhood, or, in the other direction, to bring his childhood into the present. One whiff of this little cookie and back he goes (or here it comes), and he can feel his little-boy cheeks squeezed by all manner of aunt.

When I hear the song "Be My Baby" by The Ronettes, I don't think of my childhood--it was recorded 19 years before I was born--but I do experience an immediate association, a kind of Madeline Moment.

I misspell that for a reason. Because "Be My Baby" puts me back with Madeline Adams herself, a young woman I met in my formative years. This Madeline was very beautiful, almost mythically so, and I've never heard the opening four-beat drum-burst of "BMB" without thinking of her smiling and then riding off on a school bus with me, farther and farther into the distance, oh won't you please.

Fine. So Madeline may have been made-up, a character from The Wonder Years on whom Kevin Arnold had a desperate and scandalous crush, but my cause-and-effect memory of her is very real. Be My Baby = Madeline + the creepy-sweet teen lust she seemed to represent.

I'll make you happy, baby. Just wait and see. For every kiss you give me, I'll give you three.

(Quick aside: until this week, I'd never considered that the title The Wonder Years is a double meaning, encapsulating both nostalgia--the noun--and debilitating adolescent doubt--the verb.)

(Quicker aside: "Be My Baby" was written and produced by notable murderer Phil Spector, a fact which only adds to its haunting nature).

You know I will adore you 'til eternity.

I can't dance about architecture or write about music, but I think what's so effective about the song is the mix of a sweet, intimate declaration--"Be My Little Baby"--with the sultry, invasive backup-singer repetition of that declaration. The speaker of the song is the ultimate crush-come-true who, unfortunately, turns out not to be in full possession of her marbles. She has multiple personalities or, at the very least, she's got some home-girl-voyeurs chanting from her closet, and they all really want you to stay over and make mistakes. Both the angel and devil on your broad shoulders are whispering "Be Her Little Baby," and it's too late to run.

And if I had the chance I'd--never let you go.


In the years since I saw that Wonder Years episode--"Heartbreak" it's called--I've played the soundtracked scene back in my brain--my consciousmess, my wit mine, my thoughtjockey, my grey lady, my me blob, my skullbug--an estaimted eleven times. Kevin and Winnie are on a field trip. They've broken up because Winnie saw Kevin standing with Madeline and because Winnie likes another fellow. They board their buses--K & W are now at separate high schools so they've got separate rides--and the buses turn in different directions. Madeline, the symbol of all this teen-anguish, is still on Kevin's bus and she's still totally smoking. But he doesn't care any more: "Be My Baby" plays: I tingle.

It's all very simple. And it's so cemented in my wit mine--I'm sorry, my brain--that I've told Megan about its effect on me whenever we hear The Ronettes. Or any band I mistake for The Ronettes, including: The Marvelletes, the Chirelles, the Shantelles, the Shrangri-la's, and the Velvelettes). I sometimes share this Wonder Years plotline even when I listen to "Please Mr. Postman," which is the virginal twin-sister of "Be My Baby."

At every rate, the scene is a dominant memory.

When I was a sophomore, I constantly shirked my Chemistry homework to watch Wonder Years reruns from 9 to 10, so I probably saw "Heartbreak" half-a-dozen times (poetic clause). Maybe that constant watching set me up to have some strange romantic expectations. Anyway, I'd just started going to a school that had girls, I was a serial idolizer of them, and, reinforcing that unfair perception, I took doses of girl-next-door-schmaltz in the form of The Wonder Years every night. I was hoping that, just as I tried to jump into the screen, my very own Winnie-Madeline would jump off of it and save me with her virtue.

All that is to say that there was no way I wasn't going to check out that episode when it became available to me on Netflix the other day. I shepherded Megan toward the TV, as she shepherds me toward certain episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I asked her to wait 21-minutes for the knee-buckling conclusion.

First she lightly chastised me for still having a TV-crush on Madeline. I proposed to her that this was an instance of Alex-Mackification; that is, TV characters, like Alex Mack, who were older than us when we first watched their shows will always be remembered as grown-ups, so therefore it isn't totally creepy when we're retroactively fond of their formerly contemporary 14-year old faces.

(Totally more than a year older than me).

Megan mostly agreed with the logic--probably because she still has a crush on Rufio from Hook--and then we found out that Julie Condra, who played Madeline, had been 20 when the episode aired. So I was absolved of any suspected fourth-degree-skeeviness.

Meanwhile, in the show, the buses pulled away, here it came, oh since the day I saw you, I have been waiting for you. . .

And then the Beach Boys' song "God Only Knows" started playing. If you should ever leave me, well, life would still go ON believe me. This was totally wrong. How could a memory so specific and, let's be honest, obsessive, turn out to be invaded by Brian Wilson?

I stammered only for a minute, and then refused to give up on my own Mem-o-matic (again, I'm referring to my brain. Please try to keep up). "Be My Baby" must have been featured in another episode. And I did find, after a time, that "Be My Baby" had played during "Ninth Grade Man," a minute of which is included below.

Madeline appears while the song plays, and it's ominous. I was right. But wrong. And I had to wonder at/about my own memory, which had been sharp enough to connect a pop-song from the 60s with a 20-year-old actress in a 20-year old dramedy, and sharp enough to develop an uncanny association. But it was also too dull to actually be accurate.

Here, we see the beginning of the end of Kevin and Winnie and "Be My Baby" plays. In a later episode, Madeline actually figures in the end of their relationship and it's "God Only Knows" that plays. My patternsmith--i.e., brain--must have decided that the songs ought to have been switched, and would have been even more unsettling if they had been.

Or, more likely, the frazzled traffic cop above my neck--i.e., ibid--just threw up its hands at my memory-jam and said, as Ronnie Spector does in "Be My Baby," wait, oh wait, wait a minute.

Wait a minute.


Megan said...

Let's be clear that though it is a wonderful turn of comedy - I never had a crush on Rufio from Hook. His outfit had a midrift baring half-shirt. And though I will always hold a place in my heart for Rufio because he is central to my beloved Hook, my 10-year-old self had a long-lasting crush on Christian Bale (circa Newsies). I love a song and dance man.

Dave said...


I always enjoy your candor about Bale, but, as we've discussed over Lavender tea, he is in a different class than Larisa Oleynik (aka, Alex Mack). As a celebrity, she will always be frozen at 14 (though she's still working, she'll never outdo her previous "Secret World.")

Watching Christian Bale in Newsies, though, one is able to imagine him growing into a strapping, crushable man--the Bale of Batman.

Alex Mack, having drifted out of her brightest spotlight, has never replaced herself with an older image of herself. But that doesn't mean that she doesn't still carry with her the vestiges of young-crushability.

Brad from Hey, Dude is an even starker example of this phenomenon. When I was 9, she was 16 and grownup and beautiful. She faded so completely as an actress that the next time I saw her, I was 27 and she was still 16. It's like she'd shrunk and infantified (to coin a word) because my point-of-view had changed so completely.

Also, it's different for men and women in this regard, I think. Our society doesn't necessarily hold up young men as the model of beauty the way it holds up young women--given. Thus, a youthful Mack has some tangential kinship with the ideal woman--perhaps only a few years away from gracing a Glamour cover (I'm thinking here of the excellent essay "Afternoon of the Sex Children")--while a youthful Fred Savage is still decades away from the cultural male ideal.

This is unfair and uncomfortable, but, I think, true. Lavender tea?