Sunday, September 20, 2009

Midnight Confessions

Irene wrapped her hands around my waist and pressed my body to her flesh. “You have a girlfriend,” she teased. Across the room, Miss Jennie, looking almost bored, cocked her head and said, “Leave the bwoy alone nuh.” Irene rolled her eyes, blissfully unaware of the drum-drum, beating in my chest. Nearby a transistor radio played. She cupped my tiny face in her hands and pulled me closer. I followed my nose to the space between her breasts. Irene wasn’t the anorexic type; her ‘ladies’ were uncommonly elastic. Her voice was like warm honey. She splashed it Phyllis Dillon style, and intoned:

If you knew how much I love you
How much I need you
You wouldn't stay away

If you knew you were my one desire
You set my soul on fire
You wouldn't stay away

That was the moment I learned to fly. Irene wasn’t my Louis Lane and I wasn’t her superman. I never felt her pleasure. I was 9 years old. Who knew that the sky was going to be cloudy?

In the months that followed, the chattering began. Irene and Jennie were lovers, people said. Those who dared whispered the ‘L’ word. I was too young to know what it meant. But Phyllis Dillon’s voice told me all I needed to know about Midnight Confessions:

Staggering through the daytime
Your image on my mind
Passing so close beside you babe
Sometimes the feelings are so hard to hide

I would see Irene and Jennie most everyday standing in front of their gate on Music Street. Irene was always singing…always Phyllis Dillon. But now she was our Phyllis. The genie was out of the box and no one was going to put her back in. I supposed it all began with a 30-seconds snippet of a song I had overheard one day on the radio. I just had to hear it again. So for the first time, I took my obsession public, and sent a letter to the station. Days later Jeff Barnes, the disc jockey, read my letter on the air. “Lil Zigaboo is having anxiety issues,” he said. “This one is for you…our own Phillis Dillon, “Make Me Yours.” My heart did a flip. How could this be? This wasn’t reggae. It was soul music! I love "Don't Stay Away," but “Make Me Yours” became my favorite Phyllis Dillon song; the first record I ever bought. I listened to it over and over. Phyllis’s voice accompanied me as I made my tentative steps into adolescence from my first kiss to my first love, Dawn. And when my mother made me go and ask her back for the watch I had given her…the same watch she had sent me from foreign, it was Phyllis voice I heard, delicately echoing my emotions:

Win or lose, this is my game to play
Right or wrong, I'll play it my way
And if I make mistakes
It's my own heart that breaks
I've got to find my own way of life, myself alone

I thought of Phyllis Dillon recently. I was deep into my own ‘version to vision” as my friend Terry Wilson of The Midnight Ravers* calls it. I must have played the original Bettye Swann’s version of “Make Me Yours” and Phyllis Dillon’s version back-to-back 20 times. After all these years, I still can’t choose between them. And as I listened, I was sad and elated at the same time. Phyllis Dillon died a broken woman. The official cause of death was listed as the cancer that ravished her body in her final years. But long before her illness, Jamaica, the island that she loved so much, had broken her heart. After years abroad, she had finally resettled in Linstead, her hometown. Only to be preyed upon by charlatans, who demanded money and threatened her with bodily harm if she did not comply. She left Jamaica a bitter woman. It was a cruel fate for a woman whose voice had meant so much to so many. I’m so sorry, I’m sorry. I never got the chance to tell her how much she meant to me. As for Irene, I never did find out about her and Jennie, and I don’t care much. Wherever she is, I hope she found “a love to call her own,” even if it was Miss Jennie. It is what we all deserve.

*The Midnight Ravers show airs every other Friday 12 – 3 AM on WBAI in New York