(11) skee-lo, "i wish"
(3) everything but the girl, "missing"
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchfadness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 10.
kirk wisland on "missing"
Her name was Kinga. She was a Polish immigrant—from Krakow? Warsaw? I don’t remember. It was more than two decades ago. She was leaving Minneapolis, moving to Chicago to marry another Pole. Not exactly an arranged marriage, but a plan she wasn’t thrilled with. A safe choice, solid future prospects. Something real, not ephemeral like desert rain.
Todd Terry’s mix of "Missing" is what I think of as “gentle house”—a simple, elegant bass and drum propulsion, sparse inflection of the original guitar riff, stabs of organ in chorus with a classic disco bass line, a weeping high-register keyboard wash. A perfect blend of sonic elements that come together to create an ethereal, melancholic pulse. But the song is nothing of course without Tracy Thorn’s vocals. Her understated verse, building to The Chorus of Thorns, as she sings over the layers of herself that compose the backing vocals. The song’s strength lies in pure understatement. Thorn’s vocals are a soaring whisper. A lesser artist would have been tempted to go full-on heart-wrenching wail. Pop radio is filled with the detritus of such over-the-top love songs—teenage angst masquerading as meaningful emotion, as if the forcefulness of the voice was the key to romantic intensity.
Tracy Thorn is the voice of the late ‘90s for me—from her vocals on Massive Attack’s Protection, to Missing on perpetual dancefloor repeat, to the Walking Wounded and Temperamental albums in heavy rotation in cars and on home stereos, Thorn’s is the voice that narrates the melancholy of the last half of that decade.
The first time I heard "Missing" was a Wednesday night in September 1995. The scene at First Avenue on a Wednesday night midway through the 90s was a subdued affair—the Wednesday slot in particular had been a longstanding dead zone in the club’s programming, tucked in between Tuesday’s Club 241—always popular with the frugal Midwestern drinkers—and Thursday night’s live-music showcase. By 1995 First Avenue had settled onto a generic Wednesday night house/techno scene, with a moniker I have long since forgotten. My friends and I frequented the club on Wednesday nights because we were bored twenty-three year olds addicted to stalking the dancefloors of Minneapolis, of which there were limited options in that era.
That’s not entirely true. We were bored dancefloor addicts, but we started going to the Wednesday House Night at First Ave because of the low-key vibe. There was a pleasant mellow undercurrent compared to the thick bar and cramped dancefloor one encountered on the weekends. None of the aggro goths or fratboy types you ricocheted off of on the popular nights, no creeping sense of inevitable fisticuffs to dampen the dancefloor euphoria. The Wednesday house scene was for lovers, not fighters. The Wednesday scene was for dancers. There were enough people on the dancefloor to not be self-conscious, but sparse enough to allow for freedom of movement, for flamboyant twirls and neo-romantic vogue stylings. There was room enough to stalk people—in the most genteel way—around the dancefloor.
At first blush, it seems like a throwaway line. Almost cheesy—And I miss you, like the deserts miss the rain. But in the history of musical love metaphors, it is deeper than one might think. Because when you live in the desert—particularly the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona—you know that the coming of the monsoon rains is like the deluge of bridging a long-distance love. Seemingly dead dormant landscapes suddenly burst forth into life again. Cacti bloom, wildflowers sprout from the rocks. Improbable desert amphibians who spend most of their existence buried under the cooling sands emerge to spawn in temporary ponds. There is exuberant, joyous life in those downpours. This desert does miss the rain.
"Missing" was inevitable on those Wednesday nights. Every week, for those two months before she moved to Chicago, we would meet on the dancefloor as soon as we recognized that signature opening guitar riff, the siren song of our doomed affair. We would vamp and twirl and stalk each other to the swirl and bounce of our personal Romeo and Juliet soundtrack. For those five minutes, we were the only people in the world.
I was vaguely aware of Everything But The Girl before "Missing" took over those Wednesday night dance floor scenes. They were one of those semi-folky Adult Contemporary artists, the kind of music you would stumble across occasionally on the car radio after skipping through the alternative station, the college rock station, the Top-40, the metal station, and finally the classic rock station. Having found nothing suitable in these forays, one would then hit that infrequently explored sixth preset button on the early-nineties car stereo, which was set for the Adult Contemporary station (Cities 97 for my Minneapolis peeps), like a musical fire-extinguisher behind glass—hit this preset in case of musical emergency. It was there on that sixth preset that I probably first stumbled across EBTG, although it’s also possible that I heard them as unremarkable background music at some after-bar party or coffee shop morning. But they had never moved me before Missing.
The dancefloor version of "Missing" was a resurrection, the second life of the song as a single. The original album version was released in 1994 and largely ignored. The band then gave the song to Todd Terry who remixed it into the now instantly recognizable international dancefloor hit, which peaked at #2 in the U.S. Hot 100 chart in 1996, during its unprecedented fifty-five week run in the Hot 100 (the first single to ever spend an uninterrupted year on the chart). Sometimes the art knows what it needs, sometimes the vision will not be denied. I imagine the forgotten tape of the original track vibrating on a shelf in the recording studio, knocking a cable to the floor, drawing attention to its unrealized potential, invading and occupying Watt and Thorn’s collective musical brain, whispering obsessions in their lucid dreams. Set me free. Hear me as I am meant to be heard…
I think, although I don’t remember, that the legion of long-term Everything But the Girl fans probably responded with some hostility to this new dancefloor focus. This is always the case when a band makes a bold break from their current path—think Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, the Beatles going psychedelic, or in the first instance of this experience in my lifetime, U2 shedding their cloak of stifling 1980s self-righteousness and going Berliner Discotheque for Achtung Baby. For Everything But the Girl, rather than a one-off stab at club-land relevance, this remix of "Missing" was a true harbinger of their progression. Their follow up album, Walking Wounded, was full-on electronica, including another Todd Terry remix of the single "Wrong," which was so similar in beat and tone to Missing that it might have just been called "M2." But that remix was superfluous because by ‘96 Watt and Thorn had fully mastered the art of the electronica soundscape. By the time their pre-Millennium swan song—the sonically brilliant, tragically commercial flop Temperamental—hit the shelves in 1999, you might have never known them as anything but legends of the low-lit club lounge. I wonder how many of those Cities 97-era Folky-EBTG fans bought Temperamental? How many of those kids that shrieked along with "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" were willing to float downstream with the Beatles through "Tomorrow Never Knows?"
We tried to take the magic of "Missing" out into the real world. There were a couple dinner-dates. There were long chain-smoking talks (we all smoked then) in her car as the date of the move to Chicago lurched into view. There was her ambivalence about that oncoming future. There was my suggestion that she not go. To no avail. Ultimately she looked past our dancefloor chemistry, our "Missing" magic and saw…what? A twenty-three-year-old dancefloor boy with seemingly no aspirations beyond procuring the minimal cash necessary for the next night’s fun. In the illumination of the coming dawn on those nights of eternal talk she saw—rightly so—a man who was still years, maybe decades, from being a solid bet.
Music is the narration of our lives. That cliché might sound quaintly antiquated in the era of visual-overload, of perpetual frontal-cortex stimulation at our fingertips, but I believe it nonetheless. The visual is too specific. I can feel an affinity for a TV show, or character, or film—but that moment is never truly mine. It’s somebody else’s experience, another face, another background. The song is universal. All can inhabit these beats, these vocals, these ethereal keyboard melancholies. Simultaneously they are our experiences—personal, perpetual. We inhabit these sonic scenes with our own cast of characters. A song operates like a portal, a living history, a time-machine accessible with one click of the play button. Twenty-two years later, I don’t remember what Kinga looked like, I don’t remember the tenor of our arguments, or the specific cadence of her accented English during our circular philosophical firing squad. I don’t remember the name of that Wednesday dance scene, and I can’t remember any other specific song that narrated those nights. But every time I hear "Missing" I remember what it was like to be twenty-three, and to dance, and to be in thrall to the myth of the star-crossed lovers, and to believe that Tracy Thorn’s voice soaring above those beats could somehow fight that inevitable future.
Kirk Wisland is a Minneapolis native who lives in Tucson. He is working on a PhD in Creative Writing from Ohio University. He greatly misses Minneapolis in the summertime. Not so much this time of year.
dayvid figler on "i wish"
I am not a big man—my official height is 5’6 ¾”—but I’ve come to terms. There was a time when the prognosis was that I would never top the 5-foot plateau. My pediatrician was a lovely fella (maybe 5’4”) named Dr. Merkin who broke the news to my parents when I was ten.
Apparently, there was a hypothesis of a cartilage disorder. Talk of breaking and resetting my legs and then of human growth hormone treatment. It all seemed radical and hopeless. Luckily my folks waited it out, but it wasn’t a smooth transition: I was already a year ahead in school, so not only was I the smallest kid in my class, I was the smallest kid in the class behind. Suffice, sports. Suffice, girls. Suffice, bullies.
The spurt to steady and current height happened all at once and not until age 15. More of a spurt-ita.
“I wish I was a little bit taller.”
Skee-Lo (20-year old Antoine Roundtree) dropped his personal wish list on radio/video audiences in 1995. Seemingly, no one was content in 1995 and Skee-Lo struck that zeitgeist. Add in the catchy hook, the easy flow, easy repeat rhymes, the Tribe Called Quest-Lite (with an edict from the Fresh Prince) atmospheric background and it’s a hit, blasting at every stoplight from every White Dodge Neon for a good six months.
But, back to the core wishes of that catchy hook:
3. GIRL WHO LOOKED GOOD (CALL HER)
4. RABBIT IN A HAT WITH A BAT
5. 64 IMPALA
In retrospect and as much as they felt good to profess to all of us, are these really the universal wishes? The desires that unite us all? At the very least, are these the wishes that make a great song for the ages? Within the confines of the dope rhymes did the rapper tap the matter of the all-times?
Let’s dig in!
“I wish I was a little bit taller”
Remember the Brady Bunch episode where Bobby (perhaps as proto Skee-Lo) decided to do something about it by hanging from the top bar of the backyard swing set? All the same reasons. Shrimpdom’s universal complaint. But yeah, that was stupid. Think it would only make your arms longer, if even that, Bobby. Waste of time. Wait! Did you just find HGH in Johnny Bravo’s backpack?*
Then again, what’s the end game of height wishery? Will little Bobby Brady ever be happy?
Wish all you want, there is a terminus. A final measure.
I will never be 5’7”.
Bobby will never be taller than Greg.
Skee-Lo will never be Skee-Hi.
Is this wish a folly? And how tall is tall enough? I know plenty of 5’10” guys who want that 6 with every fiber. What is the magic of a little bit?
Maybe that’s it. Just a “little.” The annoyance of falling just short, or the possibilities from having a smidge more. Maybe an unattainable goal, but also a scapegoat for all your shortcomings? The one chance (if a miracle happened) to get modestly more tippy in your toes. Peer over the fence. Better your percentage at the hoop. Give your crush a better line of sight. Remove yourself from the radar of one more bully.
An inch and no longer the keeper of the weather “down there.” No more last (or never picked) for even soccer. Soccer!
From us, wees, to you, already-perfectly-tall-shut-ups, a “little bit” is a solid wish. Dream away the pain.
“I wish I was a baller”
In 1995, Dennis Rodman was as “baller” as it got. Now, Skee-Lo was an LA Kid (the song video takes place on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles—total cred) but there’s not a Lakers jersey in the whole video and he’s seemingly wearing a Chris Webber Michigan jersey with his main basketball rival in the video is sporting a Larry Bird jersey! Seems like the whole Hoop Dream thing here was more wardrobe department decision than street ethic. So… back to Dennis Rodman.
Dennis fits the bill for “baller” in a lot of ways—grew up in an impoverished part of town, worked his way up to being one of the top rebounders in the country and then on to a five NBA championships with two different teams. And he didn’t do it quietly or without flare. Who can forget the ever changing hair styles and hues, the face jewelry, the fur coats, the Carmen Electra?!
Indeed, the metamorphosis of Rodman from basketball “baller” to just straight up, “baller, yo” arguably makes him the progenitor of the free-wheeling, cash-spending, living large for the sake of large-living person.
So here we can split the wish into two paths. To be a big time, basketball baller is likely unattainable. And so we are relegated to the wish, alone, and bide the time wearing jerseys, thinking about basketball, filling out brackets for March Madness (or ridiculous variants thereof), playing the video games. On the other hand, we can all be “ballers” if just for one day. I wish I could save up enough cash and treat all my friends to courtside tickets for the Golden State Warriors—popcorn is on me, Carmen Electra!
“I wish I had a girl who looked good, I would call her”
The first half of the 1990s was all about the pager. There were a lot of songs that referenced pagers. My favorite was A Tribe Called Quest’s “Skypager.” Like seriously good hip-hop (words not used for “I Wish”) and bonus (or wah-wah) it has a Donald Trump reference.
Pagers were cheap, tiny, handy and ubiquitous. Here’s how they worked.
You buy a pager from a strip mall or a kiosk from a guy who did outrageous television commercials. In my town, it was JJ, the King of Beepers. He wore a crown, had an accent of indistinguishable origin and was flanked on either side by audaciously festooned bikini-clad ladies who did NOT have a line of dialogue. The pager had a clip that attached to your pants. The pager would buzz and you’d look down to the display that would have a phone number or a code or a phone number followed by a code. Like 555 1212 911 911—which could translate to either call your mom, you’re really in trouble for not calling earlier, or call your mom because your house is on fire, etc.
And even though pagers were just middlemen for land line calls, people weren’t really into calling each other on the phone in 1995 any more than they are today. People would just hit each other’s pagers if for no reason to let the other know they were thinking about them.
That Skee-Lo is seemingly wishing for a conventionally attractive mate is neither unexpected nor does it in any way elevate the underdog hero of wishery. He bespeaks of “hood rats” as his typical dating fare and it’s a lament. In fact, there’s a whole section of laments: his hatchback, broken 8-track, a spare tire flat, getting picked last at basketball, getting hit with a bottle, rejection by fly girls. And while maybe we all just want him (and us) to wish for a girl who would give love for who you are and not what you wish to be—perhaps we can forgive Skee-Lo and place him in a different 1995 trope. That maybe the girl who looks good (for whatever awkward calling would follow) is one of those hood rats. Maybe she just takes off her glasses or does up her hair and finds the right dress a la Tai Fraser in Clueless (RIP Brittany). Skee-Lo, she was there ALL ALONG!
“I wish I had a rabbit in a hat with a bat”
“The Magic You Will See Tonight Is Performed Without Camera Tricks or Video Effects. You Will See At Home Exactly What You Would See If You Were Here With Our Live Audience.”
Unexplained Forces was magician David Copperfield’s sixteenth and penultimate television special. It aired in 1995. Copperfield (David Seth Kotkin, born in 1956) emerged on the stage in a poofy, white, overly button-clad (but barely-buttoned) shirt, with a black T-shirt underneath and a hairdo equal parts pompadour, mullet, feathered mane and Tribble. Jet black. There were no rabbits, but an exasperatingly long bit involving a chicken that variously appeared and dis. He talked up ladies from the audience and brought one on stage. His assistants were in nighties. He sported hypnotic sideburns. In 1995, David Copperfield was THE face of magic.
Wishing for magic is pretty pedestrian, since, well, you already have wishes. Maybe, all paths lead to the same destination. Mastering magic gives you a permanent wish machine for the (now ridiculously aforementioned) girls! But with magic, you can create the illusion of anything—being good at sports? Being taller? Astounding bullies into distracted submission? And if that doesn’t work on the latter—that’s where the wished-for “bat” comes in? Now whether the bat is for Skee-Lo or for the rabbit to do the dirty work for him is one of those unanswerable questions. Indeed, it’s all quite curious—this peculiarly specific foray.
Then again, the easy answer is Skee-Lo was sitting in his house, watching TV, going down the list, and decided—sure, that one, too! Later, in accord with the instructions he placed his hands on the family Zenith.
“Later You Will Be Asked To Touch Your Television Screen And Take Part In An Illusion With David Copperfield. Follow His Instructions And You’ll Experience The Magic Right in Your Own Home.”
Did he feel it? Did something happen when like a visitor to a prison, he placed his hands on the glass between him and Copperfield?
Dunno, but this one seems off. The path of Copperfield prospectively from 1995 seems a wonky road.
“And a six four Impala”
A fully restored 1964 Chevy Impala is a sweet enough car. And maybe this of all the rest could be the Monkey Paw in the mix. I mean, wish for it and it happens, but your favorite uncle had to die. And then all the repairs, and the lack of safety features. It could get quickly get dark. But granted, a nice vintage ride is a totally legit wish.
Only wonder if he asked for the ‘64 Impala merely because of the rhyme. In that vein, did he have other transportation options? Most certainly, my favorite two of which are:
A 1995 Ford Explorer (far more practical).
A Fishing Trawler (far more unique).
In any event, with a slick ride, a little height (to see over the steering wheel), a pretty girl paging you incessantly on your way to the basketball court to not not get picked. Seems like a solid set of wishes, with or without magic bat-wielding rabbits riding shotgun. Literally, or as a metaphor, the song (generally) holds. From my personal experience, I did and do endorse this song as an anthem of the underdog. Maybe not definitive, but worth consideration.
Wish away with Skee-Lo. Unlike HGH or radical, elective bone-breaking procedures—it seems like it can’t really hurt.
*More likely a Quaalude
Dayvid Figler is a capital defense attorney practicing law in his hometown, Las Vegas, Nevada. He’s a radio commentator, essayist and lead screecher of the seminal (and only) punk-rock polka band, Tippy Elvis. In the 1990s, he was a deejay at the coveted 2AM to 5AM Sunday morning shift on College Radio station, KUNV, where he played far too much Ciccone Youth. His mini-memoir, NO KIDS, NO SCAT, NO PISS—A First Amendment Love Story is available on Kindle for a buck.