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Apr 09

CHARLENE – “I’ve Never Been To Me”

FT + Popular68 comments • 4,751 views

#503, 26th June 1982

One of my favourite old threads on ILX was a compendium of right-wing American cartoons, in which politics I found highly disagreeable were counterbalanced by craft and chutzpah. In fact my reactions were murkier than that – my horror at the opinions was part of the thrill. I certainly wouldn’t have had this reaction to right-wing columnists or talk shows so I assume the medium gave the material a – possibly dangerous – air of safety.

I have a similar reaction to conservative pop, especially country and country-tinged records like “I’ve Never Been To Me”, which Charlene kicks off in a laid-back Carly Simon mode before waxing increasingly rabid over the futility of female independence. The rather feeble self-help title is no preparation for the contents: this is strong meat. “I’ve spent my life exploring the subtle whoring that costs too much to be free” is the kind of lyric I’m surprised to find at #1 unbanned – perhaps DJs were simply too shell-shocked by the bug-eyed spoken word interlude (“THAT’S love! THAT’S truth!”) to notice.

The masterstroke is presenting the whole thing as a Rime of the Ancient Mariner style narrative, sung to an anonymous lady who is quite probably trying hard to extract herself from the conversation. The frame gives a context for Charlene’s rising hysteria – she knows she might be taken as a nutcase but she’s got to get her story over anyhow. So unlike, say, “No Charge”, “Never Been To Me” isn’t ever complacent – there’s something at stake here (even if you don’t agree).

The arrangement is creamy, well-constructed MOR, but beyond the lyric it’s Charlene’s performance that makes “Never Been” so memorable – the way she sounds so ecstatic wallowing in her own disappointment, her dangerously precise cadences, her marvellous 70s breathiness. Yes, in the charts of 1982 this might have seemed like an infuriating anachronism – but I think its unusual blend of schlock and intensity would have stood out in any year.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    Erithian on 17 Apr 2009 #

    Not forgetting that one of the biggest US hits of the previous year was “Bette Davis Eyes”. The same year as “I’m In Love With A German Film Star” and indeed Adam Ant dressing up as Valentino (who was namechecked in “Manic Monday” not long afterwards). There was a lot of it about!

  2. 52
    Mark M on 17 Apr 2009 #

    And indeed, as I don’t think my ears ever picked up, in Bette Davis Eyes her hair is “Harlow gold”. Jean Harlow is one of those movie stars more famous as a notion anyway than an actual screen presence – I was wondering whether I had actually seen her in anything, but she is in The Public Enemy and I’ve seen that. But not any of her star vehicles.

  3. 53
    AndyPandy on 17 Apr 2009 #

    ‘John Wayne is Big Leggy’ also from this year although I suppose even in 1982 he was known by just about everyone so maybe not obscure enough

  4. 54
    punctum on 30 Oct 2009 #

    In the branch of Blockbuster Video at Headington there is, or was at any rate, a section I think unique in branches of Blockbuster (unless any readers know different), specifically devoted to Dysfunctional TV Movies. You may know the type of thing I mean – usually starring Cheryl Ladd and/or Brian Dennehy and/or Frederick Forrest and/or at least one of the cast from the TV sitcom Alice, concerning a battered wife who may also have breast cancer and/or a long-serving employee who has been made redundant from the steelworks after thirty years of service and undergoes a midlife crisis because he “won’t work for no Japanese,” finally ending up rowing a leaky boat in the middle of a lake at midnight. Sometimes child custody is involved; more often than not there are extensive (because inexpensive) scenes in the courtroom (Judd Hirsch! Karl Malden RIP big man! Tyne Daly!) always ending in victory for the victimised hero/heroine, invariably grinning and raising her fist in front of reporters on the courtroom steps; cue freeze-frame, sub-Windham Hill piano muzak and “This film was based on a true story.”

    You will not be surprised to learn that this was a truly guilty pleasure of Laura, my first partner, and myself; frequent were the Tuesday nights at nine o’clock on Channel Four when we were in hysterics of mirth, carefully counting off all the cliches one by one as they appeared – and if any record epitomised “dysfunctional” then surely it was “I’ve Never Been To Me” (that title!) sung by the mysterious (i.e. one lucky shot then back to her local Taco Bell) Charlene (that name!!).

    The record was already three years old when it hit in Britain, and I can’t remember how or why it suddenly became big (though suspect that, yet again, Radio 2 were involved), but it is simultaneously hilarious and ghastly. Over an intro of sub-Windham Hill piano muzak the tremulous Charlene is playing the wise sage warning her subject not to do what she has done. “You’re a discontented mother/And a regimented wife.” Is it any wonder that her “lady” wants shot of it all? But oh no, Charlene is about to warn her of the terrible perils of “freedom.” In the first verse she describes her rootless wanderings around America (“Oh I’ve been to Georgia and California/And anywhere I could run”) and in the second she takes on the world (“Oh I’ve been to Nice/And the Isle of Greece – !!???!! -/While I sipped champagne on a yacht”). Her “weary heart” which has “lived a million lives” then becomes a stuffed shirt: “I’ve. Seen. Some. Things. That. A. Wo. Man. Ain’t. ‘Sposed. Ta. See.” “Hey lady, I’ve been to paradise” (high) “but I’ve never been to me” (low).

    If it sounds as though we’re getting into treacherous “Stand By Your Man” territory here, then you’d be right, for we now get The Climactic Talkover, acted in a suitably teary manner: “Hey! You know what paradise is? It’s a lie. A fantasy we create about people and places as we’d like them to be” (recited as though reading a Martha Stewart recipe off the back of TV Guide). “But you know what truth is?” (perhaps a belated answer to Johnny Cash’s 1972 hit “What Is Truth?” or an attempted refutal of Kantian precepts) “It’s that little baby you’re holding,” she begins to sob, “And it’s that man you fought with this morning! The same man you’re gonna make love with tonight! That’s TRUTH! That’s LOVE!!”

    Give her a cardboard Oscar and have done with it. But has she finished? Sigh…nope: “Sometimes I’ve been to crying for unborn children/That might have made me complete.” Is this a Moral Majority recruitment ad? “I’ve spent my life exploring/The subtle whoring/That costs too much to be free” (thereby becoming one of the very few number ones whose lyric contains the word “subtle” although the song itself is decidedly not). The message? Don’t have fun, don’t go and live your own life, lady; stay at home, get beaten up and fucked, have children, know your fucking place.

    The Taliban would have had no problem with the sentiment of “I’ve Never Been To Me” even if they are anti-music. Did British housewives in 1982 really feel so worthless and feeble that they wept along to Charlene with their sherry and valium just to confirm everything a thousand people had already told them? And, even more baffingly, what the hell was this doing on Motown? Its rise to number one forms the bend in the New Pop river; there would be further “New Pop” number ones, but as far as the first wave was concerned the impetus was lost, the opportunities squandered, the future rejected for 1975 again and again. Now that is a working definition of dysfunction.

    “Isle of Greece”…

  5. 55
    Tommy Mack on 30 Oct 2009 #

    I’d like to think the second Charlene finished her sermon, the ‘discontented mother’ told her to get f cked and stop feeling so bloody sorry for herself.

    Isle of Greece? Isle of grease, perhaps? Like a giant lump of lard sitting in the sea, slowly melting in the sun into the world’s first edible oilslick?

  6. 56
    Tommy Mack on 30 Oct 2009 #

    “she sounds so ecstatic wallowing in her own disappointment” is about right. Kind of reminds me of a friend of mine who always took the opportunity to mope about how he’d slept with so many beautiful women and yet none of them ever turned out to be the one. Which was a pretty flimsy excuse for some ludicrous bragging…

  7. 57
    Brooksie on 21 Feb 2010 #

    @ DanM # 48: “I appreciate keeping the past alive and all, but did Harlow really evoke much to the audience in ’82 (or ’76 for that matter)? I was trying to come up with some alternatives… “like Theda Bara through Montserrat?””

    The funniest thing I have ever read on popular!

    As for the feminist / ant-feminist lyrics of the song; I could give two figs less about it. The opposite of songs like this are all the shitty female vocalists who sing dance songs about their relationships that are ’empowering’ and all sound like 3 minutes of pure slapped-in-your-face misandry. There was a song out not too long ago by a teenage Scandinavian lass who was singing about a friend of hers being beaten up by her boyfriend. It had lyrics like, “When you put your hands on her / you are not a man.” It was a teenage girl singing a self-righteous song written by someone else about what is / isn’t a man via an experience she herself hadn’t been through or seen. I think that was the point where I realised there was something wrong with the world. There’s a culturally accepted ad-hoc victim status and an unjustified false sense of self-righteousness in modern music – usually from female artists – that makes the gender politics of ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’ sound like ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’!

  8. 58
    thefatgit on 22 Feb 2010 #

    “Isle of Greece”

    For a while, I thought this was some sort of C&W crossover hit. That Greece reference almost confirmed to me at the time that it was written (or should I say “scrawled in crayon”) by some ignint redneck, for some Nashville waitress.

    “I’ve been to Paradise (obviuosly nowhere near Greece then) but I’ve never been to me”

    So basically Charlene, you’re telling us that the alternative to settling down to domestic bliss with a loving husband and a couple of kids, is to go on a worldwide shagathon and witness the dark underbelly of life. Finally to sit down and pass on your wisdom to any poor young female who’ll listen.

    “THAT’S TRUTH, THAT’S LOVE!”

    No, Dear. That’s what you’ll settle for after drowning your sorrows in gin, after finding out that your syphillis has reached chancre-sore stage.

    A truly hateful record.

  9. 59
    Chelovek na lune on 8 Sep 2010 #

    I loved it then, I love it still. Especially the version with the voice-over about what’s real, that’s love, etc. (There were definitely two versions available as 7″s in 1982 – the original, 1976 one, which had a burgundy-and-white covered cover with a picture of the chanteuse herself on, and a 1982 release, which, at Woolworths in Dagenham, anyway, went in a generic black sleeve only – or for all I know the sleeve illustrated here, which I’ve never seen before. I made sure to get the 1976 version)

    The B-side “Somewhere In My Life” is cracking, as well.

    On the “working in a sweet-shop in Ilford” thing, I believe it’s true (it was certainly reported in the local papers at the time); although I should emphasize that the shop in question (which was then called Foxes IIRC, and is right next to the railway station) was probably at least as much about selling tobacco and cigars and pipe-smoking accessories, etc, as it was sweeties.

    Anyway, this is proper adult pop music, and I love it. Do I come out a conservative now, or what? At the end of the day it’s a reasonable description of me, in some ways at least….

  10. 60
    paul ramsey on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Listen to Nancy Wilson’s magnificent cover of this record and marvel at the song being sung(and half whispered) in a world weary tone: charlene sings it like a waitress reading a menu whereas nancy gives the song and the lyric a proper meaning; but then soul artists usually pull that off see millie jackson’s cover of summer the first time and johnny bristol’s original version of love me for a reason and while were at it what about the valentine brothers original of moneys too tight to mention.

  11. 61
    Billy on 12 Feb 2012 #

    To answer the first question: “Is Charlene American” The answer is Yes., She came from Bay Ridge Brooklyn in later years but originally from South Park Slope (address ommitted).
    And she originally sang the song for Brooklyn Acadamy of Music off Flatbush Ave in Brooklyn.
    I wish she was still alive for 2 reasons, I Loved her Very Very Much, and because she wanted me to search out what happened to this song, of course while she was alive.
    I found they used it in the begining of Shrek 1.
    I probably would fall apart if I heard the song play with her voice, she had a Soft and Soothing Voice, Flowing Black Hair, and an exotic Attractive face with the Loveliest Dimples anyone has ever seen, her she was irish and Latin and had a Polite Friendly Loving face with a sloping pug nose, brown eyes, and an attractive face that would look latin and indian together.
    She was a Victoria Secret Absolute 10 maybe even 11 above 10.
    And Very Very Kid and Loving!
    I cannot and or will Not divulge her last name for Privacy reasons and for respect to Honour her.
    I will be going to Greenwood Cemetary tommorrow.
    Thank you Very Much for recognizing her song and I am Very Sure she will be honored.
    Any questions my name is Billy and my email is:
    wllboy7@aol.com
    Have a Wonderful weekend.

  12. 62
    Billy on 12 Feb 2012 #

    WHAT THE SONG REALLY MEANS THERE IS A MORAL FROM KNOWING HER
    Hello All,
    1 more thing I must write explaining about Charlene’s song “never been to me” Knowing her personally as to what she explained in short what it meant:
    Yes she was a “Voyager” to Every Extent of the word, she experimented even wwith career moves.
    She spent her life searching, and, although I loved her, she was constantly searching for a mirage, how she percieved a perfect world would look like.
    Prior to me she was a victim of Domestic Violence by someone that would be like a King.
    And then Divorced from the King when I held her in Methodist hospital the Very Last time this would ever happen (details ommitted) I think I ran Every traffic light from Sunset Park to her office on 7th Ave and Garfield to get her to Methodist Hospital.
    I met her and fell in Love with her intervening with that problem, then I vanished out of her life for 5 years because I intervened in another Domestic plight and attended college for 5 years.
    Needless to say she was PISSED but Loved me.
    So even a Good “King” (mirage) like me could’ve been a dissapointment.
    So what she was saying in this song is Look VERY Well at what you want, and look deep into the mirage, because no folks not every picture is capable of telling a story.
    Mostly Look DEEP DEEP Inside yourself 1st!
    Don’t jump at the first picture.
    And yes, all of you would be amazed, Tragically she lived a short life of half a century, But Definetely A Full and Colorful one.
    She was an educated and articulate lady later in life was a Great help in the pscological field.
    Her Moral that she passes on in this song is simply this:
    Getting away from the fancy words in the song:

    Get to know inside your heart who you really are, and what you really do want.
    Don’t make the mistakes she made by looking for that perfect mirage for yourselves, that looks so tempting,
    without stopping at yourself and VISIT yourself first to see if those temptations are what you really want., and could really handle.

    If Charlene was here right now, she would say to me you explained that clear and concise, but Billy, concise won’t make a song.

    I knew her for 20 + years, we were intimate, we were also Very Good Friends, she was Strong, and scarely Fiercely Loyal, Gutsy lady, I wish I could have her here now.

    To correct line, I believe 55 or 56, this was not intended to be just another whiny and complaining song,
    But a Moral lessen and design:
    That’s what the title means:
    “Ive never been to me”
    In other words I chased all these Great Mirages that tempted me, but “I’ve never been to me”.
    May People all over the entire world make this mistake everyday of their livesand realize it when they are 50 60 70 …
    So Please DON’T Criticize her song at all, look deep inside yourself to make the day to day decisions before committing to a mirage, Look Into it.
    ACTUALLY she deserves an award.

    Thank you very much for your time, Iam generally a man with a few words but I am doing this to Honour My Dearly Beloved Friend that I will see again on the other side when I leave this building.

    Any questions feel free to contact me only at my email at this time:
    wllboy7@aol.com

    Have a nice weekend
    Billy

  13. 63
    Mark G on 14 Feb 2012 #

    Just to clarify, the Charlene that recorded and wrote this song is still alive.

  14. 64
    wichita lineman on 5 Mar 2012 #

    This had a wildly different lyric when sung from the male perspective.

    The ‘ancient mariner’ structure makes a lot more sense – it’s about a salty old sea dog on his deathbed, presumably talking to his son. The magnificent Walter Jackson sang it in 1976 and his version’s on Spotify.

    No subtle whoring. And he had kids, but regrets not spending enough time with them.

    This is a much better Walter Jackson song – eerie unsettling strings, heartbreaking vocal. He’s so under-rated:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s238PNjBHMc&feature=related

  15. 65
    swanstep on 6 Mar 2012 #

    It’s about a salty old sea dog on his deathbed, presumably talking to his son.

    I don’t know Jackson’s version of INBTM, but in The Temptations’ instance of the male-perspective version of the song, the ancient mariner-y, salty old dog is definitely out begging in the street and the young guy he addresses is just a passer-by (very AM really).

    The big diff between the male and female perspective versions seems to me to be that Charlene addresses female malcontents (‘Hey lady, you lady cursing at your life you’re a discontented mother and a regimented wife’) and offers her tale of woe as a cautionary tale to them specifically to get over their belly-achin’, whereas The Temps address a guy who’s almost completely uncharacterized (hence the cautionary tale ends up feeling purely speculative/prospective).

    Strange how sailor tales were a bit of a pop default in the ’70s (and never before or after it, right?). Brandy, she’s a fine girl, etc..

  16. 66
    wichita lineman on 6 Mar 2012 #

    Oh yes, I misheard the lyric as “I just want to die” rather than “I just want a dime.”

    Give Walter a listen, it beats the Temps’ version, though I do like their oneupmanship on Walter and Charlene:

    “I’ve been to paradise
    Even been there twice!”

  17. 67
    Chelovek na lune on 4 Jan 2014 #

    Going through this again, just because: YouTube suggests that this song became popular in various parts of East Asia: there is one version, sung in English, by a Taiwanese singer, Tracy Huang, apparently popular with a Singapore audience in which some of the lyrics are toned down: she is caressed, rather than undressed, by kings; while there was no whoring involved – just ‘the inner feeling that costs too much to be free’; then a version by an Korean duo, As One, that keeps the original lyrics…

    and then…this…beautiful, I think, Japanese, interpretation by Jos Garcia (who is Filipina), almost entirely in Japanese (or Tagalog?) until almost the very end….when she switches into well…sort of English, placing the song in possibly a slightly different context: “I want the wedding bell; tonight, everything is you”. It’s rather lovely http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmpOLtryIi4M

    I believe this is what known as a phenomenon.

  18. 68
    Larry on 6 Dec 2014 #

    This song is hilarious, though I didn’t get the joke in 1982.

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