This week’s Free Ride* muses on the wonder of the one hit Thelma Houston brought us when she covered the old Blue Notes classic, Don’t Leave Me This Way. Houston turns 65 today, and has added some acting credits to her disco hit (with roles on such memorable shows as Simon & Simon and Cagney & Lacey). I’ll ‘fess up right here that while I have always had a fashionably elitist loathing of disco, I actually like this song. Thelma Houston starts out with some Donna Summer-like hmms and aahs, backed by the formulaic high-hat driven drums and thumping bass. Then come the equally formulaic lyrics of desire and fire, and the quest for freedom:
It could be that one reason I liked this dance song during my classic rock purist high school years was my association of it with the movie, Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Diane Keaton’s character, untethered from the restrictions of her religious upbringing, is a respectable do-gooder teacher by day and a wild bar-hopper by night. She is on a quest for pure freedom, and searches for it via one-night stands and the drug scene. I haven’t seen the movie since it first came out, but I remember it as a dark and disturbing story, sad and tragic, juxtaposed with the peppy soundtrack of the era’s disco beat. In some ways, as I was going through my teenage rebellion years, this cautionary tale of a movie did more to prevent me from completely going off the deep end than any sermon or youth group lecture could have ever done. It vividly showed the shadow side of a life unleashed, the danger of confusing license with liberty. And it showed that addictions of all sorts were commonplace among people supposedly living the free life.
What Diane Keaton taught me as a 16 year old was that leaving ethical or religious commandments behind doesn’t mean we’re not at someone’s or something’s command. Thelma Houston’s lyrics as much as spelled this lesson out:
The exhilaration of reckless abandon is not the same thing as freedom. It may not be the kind of love disco was describing, but Thelma Houston was right, it is only genuinely good lovin’ that can set us free. Hey.