I have of late, for no particularly good reason, been listening to a lot of covers (remakes) of Duran Duran’s song “The Chauffeur.” They’re easy to find on YouTube, and when you find one there are links to more.
“The Chauffeur” is the last song on the 1982 LP Rio. Rio was a seminal record of my high school years and is still one of my favourites. The album cover is a classic of early ’80s style. It features a painting of a beautiful vamp by Patrick Nagel, who died two years later at age 38. Rio’s biggest hits were “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Rio,” but the songs that I have been most drawn to have been “Lonely in Your Nightmare,” “Save a Prayer,” and – of course – “The Chauffeur.”
These songs are steamy, yearning, louche. “The Chauffeur” features an inexorable synthesizer riff like beads of sweat slowly rolling down smooth skin. Whose sweat? Yours, when you listen to Simon LeBon’s voice, torrid yet trending towards torpid, dripping down over the synthesizer and bass:
Out on the tar plains, the glides are moving
All looking for a new place to drive
You sit beside me, so newly charming
Sweating dew drops glisten, freshing your side
Yes, they have paid much attention to the sound of the words. Say that last line aloud: “Sweating dew drops glisten, freshing your side.” Not fresh on and not freshening and certainly not refreshing; freshing. Listen to how the vowel peaks roll in the line, /ɛ u ɑ ɪ ɛ ɔ aɪ/ (the reduced ones in second syllables simply drip away). Listen to the sequence of consonants, the weaving of stops and soft fresh hisses, the rhythm that insists and then pulls back for just a moment before pushing and holding. Every sound is in place.
But is that word out of place, freshing? Is that a word you have ever used that way? Does it seem like an unexpected, half-unknown, entirely perfect new companion, so smoothly fitting and yet so strange, like a piece that works as though always made for that spot and yet has come from nowhere? Does it make you nervous, does it seem too right and not familiar enough to be right?
Songwriters are known for making strange bedfellows at times. The sense can be obscure, obnubilated. The lyrics may be hazy and suggestive. What, after all, does the repeated line “Sing blue silver” mean at the end of each refrain in the song? Sometimes words are chosen for form, not sense; sometimes they are like books shelved by colour and shape. The more rigid among us may accuse the writers of being undereducated, semi-literate.
And yet fresh is a word we have had as a verb since the 1300s. It is converted, of course, from the even older adjective, a word that we have gotten from Germanic languages directly and by way of French. Fresh is ‘new’ and also ‘not stale’; freshing is ‘making new’ and ‘making not stale or wilted’. And ‘refreshing’. Why use freshing when we have a word already, refreshing? But before refreshing we had freshing. What was old is camouflaged as new. And you should use the part that fits more smoothly. Sometimes there is more than just the colour and shape. Listen: it is newly charming.
Yes, listen. Listen to Duran Duran’s original. Listen to the last stanza, ending “I’ll only watch you leave me further behind”; listen to the last refrain, ending “Sing me, sing blue silver”; listen then to the long instrumental tail of the song, what is left when the words have been doffed like cool silk, and you will hear, woven underneath, clips of a voice, a crisp accent saying things that may not fit at first but fall into place. “There’s more to this kind of camouflage, more than just colour and shape.” And… what is the next bit? The next bit is a stretch of words that prove that people will hear what they want to hear, even if it makes no sense.
But a sultry song like this is like a hazy, hot afternoon, when nothing is quite real and you piece it together from memory even as it is happening. The dewdrops glisten and fresh. But the dewdrops have come from within: you are refreshed by yourself, by something that has come from within you – and then falls away and evaporates, leaving just a faint trail. Freshing.
The vinyl version of Rio has a very full back side, full to the inner groove. After the dripping words laid over the inexorable refrain, after the almost-impenetrable stolen clips of voice, after the synthesizers and flute grind and swirl to their climax, there is a sound of chains or coins being dropped on the floor – and then, just like that, without even a moment of final hiss, the needle on my record player would pick up and return to inert.