More than one caress

Fake Out

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In my freshman year of high school, Esperanza Spalding beat out Justin Bieber at the Grammys for Best New Artist. “Never Say Never”-era Bieber fans were suffering, and many edited their grief into Spalding’s Wikipedia page in revenge that very night.

As an avid anti-Bieber white boy, this pleased me considerably. That night — as upset fans changed Spalding’s middle name to “Quesadilla” on Wikipedia — I took a listen to the Spalding album that caused the upset.

Five songs into Spalding’s Chamber Music Society, one song, “Wild is the Wind, struck me to my core and still hasn’t left my body to this day.

Spalding sings about love that’s painful and playful, love that’s not to be believed even as it sits quivering in her lap. Sedate, feebly pleading strings and sensuous plucked bass vie for her love’s attention in a moment of metamorphosis for the two alone. “Wild is the Wind” proved to me that love was real, or at least that someone, somewhere had sincerely experienced it at least once.

My early romantic life had always been devoted to unrequited love. I could pine faithfully after one man for years. I did pine faithfully after one man for years. I created a prison for myself out of his image because apparently cell walls and steel bars felt like the most romantic thing I could dedicate myself to.

Spalding told me to be patient. She pierced me straight through my timid little bones. I became wholly infatuated with that moment of earth-shattering revelation Spalding described. I craved that feeling and wanted desperately to reproduce it.

I would learn years later that Spalding’s version was only a cover of the original — a devastating, life-altering cover, but a cover nonetheless.

Written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, “Wild is the Wind” was first recorded by Johnny Mathis for the 1957 film of the same name. A dated, early film score eye-roll, the composition is forgettable, and Mathis’ performance is schmaltzy.

Mathis always sounded like a liar, like he’d never actually felt love. This was the deeply unavailable voice of my unreturned first love. His eyes were guarded when we first met. He had a hobnob charm. I poured so much of my hope into him, but he was probably as dimensionless as Mathis’ voice.

Nine years later, Nina Simone’s iconic, immortalized studio recording bore witness to the emergence of “Wild is the Wind to its inevitable conclusion. She barely raises her voice above a low doleful threshold. From the deep wellspring of her emotion, cresting and falling waves come to a crashing apex over the course of seven minutes.

Here was the darkness I swallowed deep in my room, alone with his phantom eddying around in my head. The idea of his love would throw me deep into my own void. I took his poison — which was really just a capsule from my own stash — willingly, excitedly. Simone would leave me bare as she admitted mutely to me that his love was “spring to me / All things to me.”

This is the recording that David Bowie emulated in his inspired 1976 cover of the song. His is the version most often recalled, the first version yielded by a Google search. Replace the strings with embattled guitar, the bass with his drum kit and Simone’s unguarded femininity with Bowie’s alien masculinity, and one finds a song still largely intact and fiercely honest.

Bowie’s was the armor I wore whenever I saw him — the piercing, cool distance and the disarming satire of my persona. It charmed him sometimes. He laughed at my jokes.

Equally iconic Black jazz singer Shirley Horn had her own take on the piece. Horn’s 1961 recording of “Winddrips with pure sex. Where Simone found eternity, Horn found singularity. Horn’s wind is a tickling breeze, a wisp that lingers. Erratic bongos, gong and upright bass flesh out her sexuality.

The night that he kissed me for the first time, he finally awarded me with this same elusive eroticism. It was my 18th birthday. I was stoned. I figured it was an elaborate joke the whole time until I realized that it wasn’t. His intimacy oozed suddenly forward after a quick thaw, but only after I’d pined silently for two years. I asked him to tell me what he wanted, but his words froze in his mouth. All he could do was get on top of me.

Decades later, Horn recorded the same song with a big band and found herself singing not to a lover but to a memory. In this 1992 version, she lingered on words, savoring meaning. The wind fades her away into nothing, swirling around one crystallized memory of him, a vanished shadow.

He stopped seeing me after that incident. His love wasn’t the wind, as much as I clinged to that cliché. His love was just stale air. He felt stuffy and dusty, and he left my throat dry.

If someone were to ask to name my favorite song of all time, my answer would be “Wild is the Wind.” If someone were to ask me to name the artist, I’d be unable to answer.

Spalding’s is the only cover that ever makes me feel decent about myself. Hers paints the entire picture and does it kindly. Every other version feels like a hi-def camera zoom on some individual ugly piece of the puzzle, a level of detail that just makes me queasy. Those belong to somebody else, to that infuriating boy or to some earlier flowering of me.

The wind doesn’t particularly care how much I agonized. It kept swirling around me while I scratched at it and screamed myself hoarse.

For we’re creatures of the wind, and wild is the wind.

Justin Knight writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on building identity by consuming culture. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @jknightlion.