“Call it not love, for Love to heaven is fled,
Since sweating Lust on earth usurp’d his name”
Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis (1593)
I was recently stranded in a public space and accosted by an amplified recording of (Love is Like a) Heat Wave, the 1963 hit that is said to have crystalized the “Motown Sound.” It was the original recording by Martha and the Vandellas, which I certainly recognized, but it mostly served to take me back to the fall of 1975, when I was about to turn eighteen and Linda Ronstadt released her very popular cover of the song. Since I was in those days eager to master the art of triggering “heat waves” in young women, I would turn up the volume and listen closely whenever Ronstadt’s hit erupted from a radio.
“Whenever I’m with him
Something inside starts to burning
And I’m filled with desire.”
I well understood that this “desire” was erotic desire, and that erotic desire was the passion my killjoy elders censured as a carnal lust of the flesh, but this power to kindle burning lust by my mere presence sounded like a power I would like to possess.
If I had been in any doubt about the infamous meaning of that word desire, Heat Wave made its meaning clear in the next two lines.
“Could it be the devil in me
Or is this the way love’s supposed to be?”
This question is obviously rhetorical, since the message of Heat Wave is that burning lust is not “the devil in me,” but is, rather, exactly “the way love’s supposed to be.” Everything else is just sentimental soup and euphemistic gauze.
In other words, Heat Wave takes a view opposite to that we find in Shakespeare’s line from Venus and Adonis. It tells us that chaste Love has usurped the place of sweating Lust, and that it has through long centuries of cruel repression buried sweating Lust in an unquiet grave. But, the song then assures us that the reign of this usurper is coming to a close, and that sweating Lust will be restored to its rightful place of honor.
“Whenever he calls my name
Soft, low, sweet and plain, I feel, yeah yeah
Well I feel that burning flame . . .”
That “burning flame” is sometimes called “tingles,” in reference to a female’s sensation that her vagina is lubricating in anticipation of sexual intercourse. Tumescence is the male equivalent, and according to what we might call the Heat Wave Philosophy, a “heat wave” of tingles and tumescence is exactly “the way love’s supposed to be.” And if young people will only let themselves get het up with these “funny feelings” of tingles and tumescence, all that superstitious twaddle about devils and carnal lust will vanish like ghosts before sunshine.
“Now that funny feeling has me amazed
I don’t know what to do my head’s in a haze.”
The songstress is here telling us that the heat wave of triumphant lust is washing away her reason, her morality, her religion, and even her natural revulsion against sweating and being sweated upon. And once all these things have been washed away, and nothing but sweating Lust remains, she will have found “true romance.”
“Don’t pass up this chance
This time it’s true romance.”
* * * * *
Listening to that old song by Martha and the Vandellas, I was reminded of a line by Howard Odum, the first great sociologist of the American South. Odum was also something of an expert in American folk music, Black and White, and he believed that the lyrics of folk songs repaid close study because they opened a window into the souls of his subjects. Odum’s view of sweating Lust was, however, much closer to Shakespeare than the Heat Wave Philosophy, so he was more than a little shocked by what he saw in the souls of Black folk. Here is the line.
“In these songs the pictures go far beyond the white man’s conception of the real. The prevailing theme of this class of songs is that of sexual relations, and there is no restraint in its expression. In comparison with similar songs of other peoples that have been preserved, those of the Negro stand out in a class of their own.” (Social and Mental Traits of the Negro .)
Odum means that Black love songs were erotic rather than romantic. The difference between the two types of love song comes down to their treatment of the “heat wave” of tingles and tumescence. In an erotic love song, tingles and tumescence are the heart and soul of “true romance,” their presence the proof that any particular romance is “the way love’s supposed to be.”
In a romantic love song, this heat wave of tingles and tumescence is an essential but by no means sufficient element in a collection of sentiments that make for “true romance,” and a romance made of nothing but tingles and tumescence is most certainly not “the way love’s supposed to be.”
(Love is Like a) Heat Wave is obviously an erotic love song, and thus serves as well as any to symbolize the tsunami of erotic love songs that flooded the United States in the 1960s and 70s. Indeed, stranded in that public space and listening to the familiar words, I thought that it serves as well as anything to symbolize the erotomania that revolutionized our culture in those decades. For what is erotomania but the triumph of the Heat Wave Philosophy: of the doctrine that tingles and tumescence are identical to “true romance,” and that sweating Lust is exactly “the way love’s supposed to be.”