Kavita Das | Longreads | February 2019 | 27 minutes (6688 words)
New York City, 1980
Mommy and I had a deal. On our twice-a-week, 45-minute drive to speech therapy, I practiced singing South Indian Carnatic songs, the ones she grew up playing on the violin, and on the way back I was allowed to listen to anything I wanted. So, as soon as we hit the road from our house, she prompted me to begin with sa-pa-sa. Sa is the equivalent of do, the starting note in Western classical solfege, and pa the equivalent of sol, the fifth note above do. Singing these fifth intervals helped ground me in my pitch before I began any song.
Once that was done, Mommy picked from songs she had already taught me during previous car trips, or began a new one. She quizzed me on which raga, or key, it was in, and then we sang the scale of that raga together. Unlike Western keys, ragas might have different ascending and descending scales, which struck me as hazardous. Even if I knew my way up the mountain, taking the same path down might send me careening into a ravine of shame. Then, she began tapping out the talam, or the time signature, on the steering wheel of her deep blue Chevy Horizon hatchback, while navigating through traffic, and I followed along, tapping it out on my thigh or on the vinyl seat next to me. I began to sing. When I forgot a lyric or the melody, she piped up and sang alongside me, and then chided, “Start again and this time concentrate, and sing it correctly.”
We went from one song to the next as we made our way from our home in Bayside, Queens to Albert Einstein Medical Center in the Bronx, driving over highways, crossing bridges, stopping at lights, paying tolls. Sometimes we arrived at speech therapy mid-song, and then afterwards, when we got back in the car, instead of switching to my choice, per our deal, Mommy made me finish the song first, which meant I only got to my music when we were halfway home. So, I learned to gauge how close we were to the medical center and speed up my singing so that the end of the Carnatic song coincided with our arrival. This way, the whole car ride back was just for my music.
As soon as we were back in the car, our seat belts fastened, I popped in my favorite tape. It was “The Ultimate Engelbert Humperdinck,” one of the only non-Indian music albums my parents owned, by the first Western musician I was allowed to listen to. I loved everything about him and his music. He spoke to me, an almost-5-year-old who felt she already knew a thing or two about the world — having visited India, Japan, Hawaii, and New Jersey; not to mention endured the pain of multiple surgeries and the monotony of speech therapy for a cleft palate, and the loneliness of being an only child, who was not so much misunderstood as not understood, receiving quizzical looks whenever I spoke. He knew me and cared deeply for me — it was all there in the beautiful lyrics of his songs, and in the way he crooned them just to me. His voice oozed with feeling. It was as smooth and sweet as the caramel squares my grandfather loved so much that he asked me to climb a chair and sneak up to the candy box and fetch him some more.
My absolute favorite song off the tape was Killing Me Softly. Listening to it, I felt as if I was all grown up, sitting in the audience at a small café. I was the person he sang about, who comes undone by the lovelorn songs of a soulful troubadour. I sang out with abandon, the windows down, drowning out city noises. Strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words, killing me softly with his song, killing me softly. My mother continued to drive as I sang my little girl heart out all the way back to Queens.
I had named my dearest possession after him — my nubby pale blue woven blankie, which stayed steadfastly at my side as I played, before I carried it to bed each night, and which in turn carried me to my dreams. And when my 5th birthday rolled around, and preparations were being made for my party, I instructed my mother to invite Engelbert Humperdinck. My mother assured me that an invitation had been sent to him in England, where he lived and where my parents used to live before they migrated to the U.S. I was so excited, I ran around our basement swinging from the foundation poles, which usually served as the villains I lassoed as Wonder Woman. I could barely believe that in just a few days, Engelbert Humperdinck — I always called him by his full name — would be here in our basement. I wondered what to wear. None of my Indian stuff. Perhaps my powder blue shift and jacket, trimmed with white faux fur. It made me look like a lady, just like the long silk gowns my mother had gotten stitched for me in India. My powder blue number was a hit when I wore it in Japan — while we were snapping photos of the sights and surroundings, Japanese young women were asking my parents if they could snap photos of me in the photo-finish outfits Mommy bought, hand-stitched, or had tailored for me.
I decide that when he arrived, I would give him the frosted flowers from atop my Carvel ice cream cake, a token of my selfless love and admiration. I hoped he would sing Close to You — my second most favorite song, with perfect lyrics for celebrating me as the birthday girl. On the day that you were born the angels got together, And decided to create a dream come true, So they sprinkled moondust in your hair of gold and starlight in your eyes of blue. Well, hair of black and eyes of brown, but I still believed he meant me since Engelbert Humperdinck himself was no blonde-haired blue-eyed being.
I had taken out the album liner notes from the plastic cassette case so often to stare at the two jacket photos of him that the case had broken. He had a head of shiny blue-black hair that cascaded in waves over his smiling face, culminating in two sturdy pillars of sideburns. It reminded me of Daddy’s hair. Unlike Daddy, though, he didn’t have a mustache, which meant he wouldn’t scratch me when he kissed me on the cheek. His nose was pointy, but not too pointy, and his honey brown eyes seemed to twinkle at me like stars from the nursery rhymes I’d learned seemingly so long ago. Now that I was a 5-year-old, I had graduated from nursery school to kindergarten, from nursery rhymes to love ballads, and from imaginary play friends to real-life music idols. I imagined us holding hands, going to the park, and, of course, singing duets together. And sheepishly I wondered if maybe, when I grew up, we could get married. When Mommy and Daddy weren’t around, I pressed my lips against his in the jacket photo, the way I had seen grownups do in TV shows. I never saw any of the Indian uncles and aunties do it, but I knew it was something other grownups — white and Black — did when they loved someone. When I closed my eyes to make a wish, I sometimes focused on a Barbie doll, but other times I hoped for the chance to kiss Engelbert Humperdinck for real.
When the day of my party arrived, I was practically levitating, singing his songs as I helped my father put up streamers and blow up balloons. And although I usually fought my mother when she told me to take a bath, I went dutifully and then changed into my party frock. I asked her to style my hair into two ponytails with matching powder blue ribbon — my favorite color.
When my 5th birthday rolled around, and preparations were being made for my party, I instructed my mother to invite Engelbert Humperdinck.
Every time the doorbell rang, I’d yell, “I’ll get it!” When I opened the door, one of my kindergarten friends or family friends exclaimed, “Happy birthday!” and handed me a gift, and although I thanked them and showed them in, I tried to hide my disappointment that he still hadn’t shown up. Once all my friends arrived, I half-heartedly joined them in a game of tag and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey but every time the doorbell rang, I ran back upstairs, ever hopeful.
My parents finally brought out the birthday cake, white with baby blue flowers, but I pleaded with them, “Not yet. We have to wait for Engelbert Humperdinck.”
My mother looked surprised but then her expression grew serious and she said. “Listen, they called and said he’s sorry but he can’t come. He has a concert.”
“So, he’s not coming?” I asked, my mouth quivering, and my eyes beginning to tear up. “How can he have a concert when it’s my birthday? Didn’t you tell him?”
“He made the plans for the concert before he found out it was your birthday,” my mother said. “He couldn’t disappoint hundreds of people. But you’re a big girl, you’re 5 now, and all your friends have come to celebrate your birthday, so you don’t want them to see you cry. Then they’ll feel sad. Let’s sing Happy Birthday and cut the cake — and then you can open all your presents.” It felt like our drives to speech therapy — all about what she wanted. But it was my birthday and I wanted it to be like our drives home, where I got to be with him, our voices joined together. I felt the love he sang about in Killing Me Softly. Now I understood the sting of the other emotion that lurked behind his words: heartache.
New York City & New Jersey 1980-1990
After the crushing no-show at my birthday, things were never quite the same between Engelbert Humperdinck and me. I started to doubt Mommy had invited him at all. Now that I was in kindergarten, I didn’t go to speech therapy anymore, so no more car trips filled with Carnatic music lessons on the way there, and Engelbert Humperdinck sing-along sessions on the way home. Anyway, I was moving on. One of my classmates introduced me to Pat Benatar and we would sing Shadows of the Night on our walk home from school. A few years later, I became a Michael Jackson devotee. Although, Mommy and Daddy didn’t let me buy pop music, a friend made me a cassette copy of Thriller, and with spare change I found lying around the house, I bought a few Michael Jackson pins and stuck them on my Wrangler denim jacket, important social symbols that let my classmates know I was a loyal subject of the King of Pop. Meanwhile, it was becoming as much about the videos as the songs — from Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Cindy Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, to Aha’s Take On Me and Whitney Houston’s How Will I Know.
In junior high school, while flipping through an oldies station on the radio, I was jolted to hear the once familiar strains of Killing Me Softly, but this time from a female voice. I hadn’t thought of Engelbert Humperdinck or this song in years. When it ended, the radio DJ announced that the artist was Roberta Flack. To my teenage ears, attuned to the effervescent sounds of female pop singers like Debbie Gibson and Whitney Houston, her gravelly voice and spare arrangement seemed different from Engelbert Humperdinck’s overwrought rendition, yet still sounded to me like a relic from a distant era.
A few years later, in high school, I stumbled upon shocking information about the object of my infatuation. I was at my orthodontist’s office for a tune-up on my second round of braces — thanks to the fact that my surgically overcorrected cleft palate had left me only able to breathe through my mouth, with a pronounced jaw, and overcrowded teeth. I hated getting braces again just in time for high school, but I looked forward to catching up on all the celebrity gossip by pouring through the vast assortment of People, Us Weekly, Cosmopolitan magazines in the waiting room. My eyes latched onto his name. They widened as I read salacious details about how the aging star, who had given a recent concert in England, was a renowned womanizer, alleged to have fathered kids with multiple women. Suddenly his name — Humper-dinck — took on a new lurid meaning, echoing the pomposity of the villainous Prince of the same name in my favorite book-turned-movie, The Princess Bride. Yet, as the article noted, none of this stopped women from flocking to his concerts, and flinging their panties on stage.
I grew red with shame. My first musical crush, the one whose love songs I knew by heart, the one I invited to my fifth birthday party, might have kids my age he may not even know about running around in the world. Disgusted, I turned the page, resolving to put him out of mind, like all my other childhood embarrassments. I couldn’t even imagine what my high school friends and nemeses would do if they ever found out about my unrequited love affair for a washed up, over-the-top, lounge singer. Humperdinck had turned into a sad stereotype of an aging, womanizing musician. I shoved the magazine to the bottom of the pile. It was difficult enough to navigate the social precariousness of being a brown girl with braces in a white suburban high school. I couldn’t afford to become a punchline.
We were just a few years shy of the new millennium, and everyone was starting to have opinions about what lay on the other side, destruction or salvation. One group was revolutionizing hip hop while bringing it to new audiences, all while telling the stories of Black and brown communities across the country and globe: The Fugees. The band’s mesmerizing lead singer, Lauryn Hill, possessed a voice that, to me, paid tribute to Black soul singers of past decades. She also boasted MC skills that went toe to toe with those of male rappers. Their hit rendition of Killing Me Softly made me fall in love with it all over again, not as a little brown girl holding a candle to a white male musical icon as old as my parents, but as a young brown woman on the cusp of her future, a product of the city, a student of the city, now working for the City of Brotherly Love on issues facing those at risk of homelessness. Someone who saw the city as the place where every problem and solution manifest, where poverty and wealth co-mingle as strange bedfellows, where the most thrilling cultural events and shocking crimes happen blocks away from each other, but most importantly where one was protected from the sameness, whiteness, and silence of the kinds of suburbs I had been confined to for my junior high and high school years.
I was just beginning to come into myself as a woman, and to hear Lauryn Hill, a beautiful Black woman around my age, sing this song from my childhood and bring it back into my life at that moment was meaningful, especially as I was seeking to make meaning out of other parts of my life. There was something sublime about hearing those words again, instead through her gorgeous, textured voice … And there he was this young boy, stranger to my eyes, Strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words, Killing me softly with his song, Telling my whole life with his words. Fellow Fugee, Haitian American rapper Wyclef Jean, punctuated her words with a count. Layered amidst all this, there was even a sample riff of what sounded to me like the reedy, tinny, twang of the sitar. The song spoke to me on so many levels, my past, my present, my love of R&B and hip hop, and my roots in Indian music. I listened to that song, as I headed off in the mornings to my first job, working on housing for individuals and families with special needs, from HIV/AIDS to disabilities to substance abuse and mental health issues. Increasingly, I had the nagging sense that although just a year ago in college I was signing petitions and marching against “The Man,” I was now turning into him. As Welfare Reform hit, signed by Bill Clinton, a Democratic president whose victory we had celebrated with an all-night pancake breakfast in our college dining hall, city housing authorities like mine were scrambling to figure out how to plug the already gaping holes in housing safety nets and resources for the most vulnerable. Just a year out of college, never having had to worry about having a roof over my head or food to eat, I was attending meetings where we sat in judgement over people’s lives, literally choosing who was deserving enough to receive temporary housing, to tide them over the tsunami of misfortune added to their ocean of poverty. Disillusioned, I’d go home and hole myself up in my room in the townhouse I shared with my two med student roommates, seeking solace in Lauryn Hill’s voice, dreaming that the sensitive troubadour she sang about, who revealed the contents of her heart in his songs, would soon come and find me.
When The Fugees dissolved, Lauryn exploded even further onto the scene with her breakthrough solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I was working in my second city government job, now in Jersey, all but convinced I was not cut out to work within a city bureaucracy. This was not how I was meant to make a difference. I was surrounded by people who were at least two or three decades older than me, some of whom had possibly once burned with idealism, but now just nonchalantly clocked in and clocked out. Just as we had run away from whoever was deemed to have the “cooties” in the school yard, I walked briskly past their desks, hoping not to be infected by their dispiriting sense of resignation. As if he sensed my panic, one of my coworkers would say, “Hey, slow down. Where’re you going? We have all day.” This only quickened my pace and made me more determined to figure out a way onto a new path.
I identified with Lauryn Hill’s songs and was inspired by them. They held not the wisdom of elders, but of a fellow young woman of color who, despite numerous obstacles, had leapt and made her dreams come true through immense talent and perseverance. I knew all her lyrics by heart because they seemed to be about me.
“Everything is everything
What is meant to be, will be
After winter, must come spring
Change, it comes eventually
I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth
Who won’t accept deception, instead of what is truth” – Everything is Everything
Just as she had in Killing Me Softly, she masterfully married the sounds from the present and past in her hit That Thing, combining a doo wop beat with lyrics that warned us women of those men who were like wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing. It’s not that I had a tragic love story, or any love story to speak of, beyond a handful of dates, most of them bad. But I watched as my friends struggled through relationships with men who acted like boys, who were frankly not deserving of them.
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I struck up a new friendship, and I was elated yet surprised when it grew into long-distance love, with someone whose mystical name, Om, was being chanted at the beginning and end of the yoga classes that sprouted up at my gym down the street. Lauryn’s cover of another oldie, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You, became a soundtrack to our unfolding love. We held tight to each other on my narrow twin bed in my tiny bedroom in Hoboken perched above a SuperCuts, trying to memorize each other’s bodies. Sometimes I confused the song’s base with Om’s heartbeat, his chest nestled under my ear. As she sang, the song captured the bittersweetness of our love, of feeling so close to someone yet separated by miles, uncertain what the future held for us, or if we even had a future.
Om was caught in a bureaucratic quagmire as he tried to transition from being a foreign student to a member of the U.S. workforce. Although he had found a job, his work visa kept getting delayed, and if it didn’t come through soon, he would have to return to India. Where would that leave us? As much as I loved him, I knew my life was here in the United States. So, with each call we clung to each other’s words and with each few-and-far-between visit, we clung to each other’s bodies, turning our backs on the ticking clock bringing us ever closer to the millennium and the possibility of being separated. You’re just too good to be true, I can’t take my eyes off you, You’d be like heaven to touch, I wanna hold you so much.
Just days after Lauryn Hill won an armload of Grammy awards for her debut solo album, becoming the first woman to win five or more Grammys in a single night and the first hip hop album to win album of the year, I took a college friend who loved her almost as much as I did to see her perform live. I’d stayed on the phone for hours dialing and redialing hoping to score tickets. New Jersey Performing Arts Center was electric as we waited for her to take the stage — we were just miles from where she grew up in South Orange, so there was this buzz of a hometown heroine, a homegirl returned. She didn’t disappoint — she performed with just a small brass band and a few backup singers, infusing her hit songs with a new vitality. All around me were other Black and brown young women, and we sang and rapped along, her words spilling out of our mouths. Rather than swooning at the feet of a male music idol, worshipping Lauryn left us feeling enthralled and empowered, our voices and spirits lifted up. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, my other musical heroine, Whitney Houston came on stage and gave Lauryn a hug. We all let out a collective shriek.
New York City, 2012
On the cusp of the millennium, a little over two years after we first met, Om and I married in his home city of Bangalore, India. Twelve years later, we had been living in New York City for close to a decade and I was now serving as marketing and communications director for a racial justice advocacy organization, a job I found fulfilling because we were pushing forward conversations around racial injustice, key to addressing the massive inequities in our society. Even as our first Black president was sworn in for his second term, which many took as indisputable evidence that our country had turned the corner on race — that we were now finally, post-racial — we were using in-depth research and news stories to highlight how policies were being rewritten to make it difficult for Black and brown voters to vote, how Black men and women were being unduly targeted and killed by police and vigilante citizens, and how we were experiencing record numbers of detentions and deportations of undocumented immigrants. It wasn’t easy to get these stories into the increasingly crowded and noisy news cycle but when we did, it was gratifying. This was the first truly and meaningfully diverse (not just at the bottom) workplace in which I had worked, and it thrummed with the intrepid energy and conviction of researchers, journalists, and activists working symbiotically.
I couldn’t even imagine what my high school friends and nemeses would do if they ever found out about my unrequited love affair for a washed up, over-the-top, lounge singer.
One day, some of us were having a conversation about our earliest musical crushes. And when I reluctantly confessed that mine was Engelbert Humperdinck, I was met with blank stares that said, “Who’s he?” Only when I started to tell my coworkers about my first musical idol did I realize how little I knew of him other than the fact that he was from England. And come to think of it, most of the songs he sang were not his own, but covers. “Engelbert Humperdinck is an amazing name,” one asked. “Is it even real?” Hearing this question made me suddenly aware of how ludicrously ornate and outdated his moniker was. Why had it never occurred to me that Engelbert Humperdinck might be an invented stage name? We laughed at our own silly crushes and each other’s and then returned to our desks where we were once again consumed by the myriad tasks involved in the crucial, boundless fight for racial justice.
The next day, I came in to my office to find a Wikipedia article about Humperdinck taped to my computer monitor. Reading it was like discovering him all anew. First, as suspected by others if not me, Engelbert Humperdinck was not his real name. It was, however, the real name of the 19th century German composer of the opera Hansel and Gretel. In fact, he was born Arnold George Dorsey and his manager — who managed the also creatively renamed Welsh crooner Thomas John Woodward “Tom Jones” — convinced the struggling Dorsey to reinvent himself under the “arresting” name of the late German composer. Within a few years, in 1967, Dorsey now rechristened for the stage as Humperdinck, scored a huge hit with the ballad Release Me, which became a Top Ten hit both in England and in the United States. Over the next few years he went on to have hit ballads including There Goes My Everything, and The Last Waltz. His covers of crooner hits like Quando, Quando, Quando and contemporary songs of the moment like Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You, and Killing Me Softly, were also popular, keeping his music in circulation.
But most startlingly of all, I learned Engelbert Humperdinck and I were actually closer than I ever thought possible. Humperdinck, like my mother, was born in South India. In fact, he was born in Madras and raised there until the age of 11 when his family migrated to England. I visited Madras often, first as a child and later as an adult, since several members of my mother’s family as well as Om’s family still lived there. Fittingly, like Humperdinck, the city had recently undergone a name change, rechristening itself as Chennai.
The Wiki article noted that Humperdinck was “believed to be of Anglo-Indian descent,” which meant he has both British and Indian ancestry in his family. At that moment, I thought back to his wavy jet -black hair and warm brown skin tone, and I was convinced this origin story was true. Not only did this make sense of his past but also, in a way, my own. For so many years I had been ashamed, perplexed, and in denial that Engelbert Humperdinck had been my first musical crush. It seemed so outlandish in every way — a white English man of my parents’ generation who sang music that, even when I was a child, sounded a bit outmoded. Perhaps my childhood intuition allowed me to see past his trumped-up name, garish outfits, and maudlin ballads, to our common core, whether in Indian ancestry or upbringing. I began digging further, and it wasn’t long before I rediscovered articles about his reputation as a ladies’ man and the numerous paternity suits that dogged him. In one article in The Telegraph he confessed, “I’ve had more paternity suits than leisure suits.”
Even if I was thrilled to learn of Engelbert Humperdinck’s rumored Indian background, I found curious his own attitude towards it. He coyly confessed to his womanizing, yet he’s never publicly addressed questions about his ethnicity. Ultimately, whether he sought to pass as white or not, his attitudes, like his music, seemed to belong in the past.
I called Mommy wondering if she had known all along of his connection to India. But she was as surprised as I’d been. When I asked what then had made her buy his tapes and play them for me, she replied matter-of-factly, “When we lived in England, I heard his music and I just thought he had a beautiful voice.” Since nobody I knew outside of my parents spoke of him or his music, Engelbert Humperdinck once again retreated back into the recesses of my memory where the names of my first invisible friends resided, growing harder and harder to recall.
New York City, 2016
Just weeks after the presidential election, Om and I drove out to St. George Theatre on Staten Island to watch Tony Bennett perform as part of his 90th birthday tour. My frequent rummages through used CD and tape shops during college introduced me to the Great American Songbook and its most evocative singers. Even as we descended into the darker, more cacophonous corridors of grunge music, I secretly delighted in the unabashedly playful, romantic spirit of the love songs of that bygone era. My absolute favorite singer was Ella Fitzgerald but I had a soft spot for the tough guy crooners from the New York City area — Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Now that I was over 40, I still loved learning about new artists and new music trends, but I’d much rather catch some of the legends, — Tony Bennett, Stevie Wonder— in concert rather than trying to snag tickets to the hottest band of the moment. My tastes, while still eclectic, now veered towards indie and folk artists like Travis and Brandi Carlisle, and digital global nomads, like Santigold and Amber Mark.
So, in search of not so much a distraction but a retreat from our current moment filled with political angst and ugly rhetoric, Om and I trekked out to Staten Island, and were rewarded by being transported to a bygone era. Like Bennett, the ornate, gilded theater, was both a relic and yet timeless, even if the paint was peeling in places and its murals had faded. As we walked from the parking lot to the theater, we noticed the crowds were on average two to three decades older than us, and overwhelmingly white. I wondered if these couples had danced to his songs at their weddings.
Just as we arrived at the entrance, my eyes locked onto another familiar pair I hadn’t seen in decades. There he was, my original musical flame, Engelbert Humperdinck — older and plumper, but still with that jet black hair, now dramatically accented at the temples with gray, and sultry brown eyes staring back at me from a poster announcing a tour to celebrate his 50th anniversary as a performer. He would be here next spring, in fact on Om’s birthday. I had confessed my “affair” with Humperdinck to Om, who found it endearing, just as he found other awkward episodes from my childhood to be part of what made me who I am. Om had now lived in the U.S. for around 22 years, and we had been together for nearly 20 of those, and he welcomed any information and experience that gave him more insight into his adopted homeland and the person who’d connected him most to it. We had followed each other through our respective educations and careers, moving all around the United States, from North Carolina to Washington, DC, to Chicago, and then to New York City. After a few years in New York, Om declared that for the first time he didn’t feel like he was different, since so many of the city’s residents came from somewhere else. Standing in front of the poster, he exclaimed, “Oh yeah, we have to see him!”
That evening, watching 90-year-old Bennett perform was a delight. Though he couldn’t glide across the stage as he had in yesteryears, he still managed to swing the beat. And even if some notes were now a bit out of his reach, the tenderness of his voice still shone through. At the end of the concert, New York City’s Mayor DeBlasio came out on stage with a six-foot tall, layered birthday cake topped with “90.” Shaking Bennett’s hand, he wished this legendary “son of New York City” a happy birthday. Suddenly, all around us, people who had, just minutes ago, been nodding and singing along to Bennett’s love ballads began to boo. And then they broke into a chant — “Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.” Though those last weeks since the election had been ones of shock and disappointment, living in the East Village, we were largely shielded from hearing any vengeful verbal victory laps by Trump supporters. Here, we grew acutely aware of our brownness, of others’ whiteness, and of the deep gulf between us. This night had seemed like a chance to transcend, at least temporarily, our differences by celebrating beloved music by a beloved musician. Instead, the warm glow I had basked in for these last few hours instantly went cold and dark, and for the first time I didn’t feel at home in my own city.
On our drive back, hoping to recapture the delightful mood from earlier in the evening, I called my mother to let her know about Engelbert Humperdinck’s upcoming tour and tried to convince her to come along for old time’s sake. I pleaded cheekily, “You have to come so we can throw our lacy panties on stage.” To which Mommy quipped, without missing a beat, “You’ll have to buy some first.”
New York City, 2017
On the day of the concert, I am a strange cocktail of emotions, as if I am reuniting all at once with an old childhood friend, a music idol, and an early crush. Om has sweetly offered up his birthday evening for us to venture out to Staten Island again and I realize I can no longer credibly deride him for his love of cheesy 70’s tripe like Boney M and Dr. Hook, despite the mortification of him serenading me with Sexy Eyes at my birthday karaoke celebration, something our friends still tease us about. Sadly, Mommy can’t join us for the concert but I promised to bring her back a full report.
Just as at Tony Bennett’s concert, the crowd is a couple of decades older than us. Women seem to outnumber men. But although the crowd is mostly white, I am happy to see we are part of a healthy sprinkling of Asian Americans, especially Southeast Asians and South Asians. We’re seated in the balcony and in front of us is a group of middle-age couples. The women in the group, who seem especially excited are reminiscing about what a looker Humperdinck used to be and wondering whether he’ll still have his trademark sultry voice and smooth moves, now that he’s 80 years old. The house lights dim and a screen lights up on stage with clips of Humperdinck’s early performances, including one of him hosting the Engelbert Humperdinck Show, his own short-lived TV variety show. In the clip, he’s surrounded by tall, leggy, women, with puzzled expressions, asking “What is an Engelbert Humperdinck?” “What do you use an Engelbert Humperdinck for?” To which he replies with his most come-hither smile. Now, his band begins an instrumental medley of his songs, and Humperdinck saunters onto the stage while everyone cheers. Without missing a beat he joins his backup singers, clad in sparkly red dresses, in a fast rendition of Quando, Quando, Quando.
Even if I was thrilled to learn of Engelbert Humperdinck’s rumored Indian background, I found curious his own attitude towards it. He coyly confessed to his womanizing, yet he’s never publicly addressed questions about his ethnicity.
Humperdinck is outfitted in a black tuxedo collared suit, festooned with a bright red pocket kerchief highlighting his matching burnished, red satin shirt. He sports a bit of a paunch, and he doesn’t move with the ease of youth, but he still seems fairly fit for his age. His famous wavy hair is a bit sparser but still jet-black thanks no doubt to the anti-aging properties conferred by hair dye. Only his temples betray hints of white.
He launches into one of his most beloved hits, Am I That Easy to Forget, his velveteen voice noticeably softer, propped up by his band and backup singers. The crowd begins to sway to the easy listening hit. He eases from one song to the next telling stories with the intimacy and interaction of a yesteryear Vegas lounge act. One of the stories he tells is of how crooner and Rat Packer, Dean Martin, had been his early champion, inviting Humperdinck to do a run at his club on the Strip. Ever the engaging stage performer, he adds dashes of witty and suggestive banter. When he proclaims that this is his 50th anniversary as a performer, the audience erupts in cheers. He replies to these cheers with further proclamations, “I’m going to sing like I’m 50! I’m going to live like I’m 50! I’m going to do everything like I’m 50!” At this, the crowd roars with laughter — thrilled to know that underneath his aged visage and body, he still thrums with his patent sex appeal. He continues oozing sensuality, tossing out suggestive double entendres. But that’s all foreplay. His real seduction begins when he stops the show to perform a mini-burlesque, slowly removing his tuxedo jacket, then proceeding to unbutton his red satin shirt, button by button, down to his navel, revealing a glittering gold necklace and tufts of gray-black chest hair. As he disrobes, his every move is punctuated by his horn and drum section, and he is egged on by our bawdy cheers and whistles.
He sings some of his biggest, most beloved hits, Blue Spanish Eyes, Please Release Me. I wait and wait, hoping to hear my own favorites, his covers of Close to You or Killing Me Softly or My Cherie Amour, so I can be transported back into Mommy’s Chevy horizon and the smell of its vinyl seats. He doesn’t sing them. But he does sing other covers with gusto from, a boisterous rendition of Burt Bacharach’s hit for Dionne Warwick, Say A Little Prayer for You, to a melodramatic version of Simon and Garfunkel’s somber Bridge Over Troubled Waters. It doesn’t matter much to me or other audience members when his voice falters or when he hits stray notes because that isn’t really what this performance is about. It’s about remembering and celebrating who he was — and who we were — when we first fell under the spell of his honeyed voice.
He ends with a new song, I Followed My Heart, a reflective ballad with an uncanny similarity to Sinatra’s My Way. Then he remarks sentimentally about how his life has been “like one long show that has both given me and taken from me so much,” and yet, he confesses, he “wouldn’t want to change a thing.” He bows dramatically, then sweeping his hand across the crowd declares his love for us, “You’re my world!” and walks off stage to our thunderous applause. I jump to my feet clapping, memories flooding back to me of how it felt to be so small my feet didn’t touch the car’s floor but also to have felt so big that my voice drowned out all the clamor of New York City on those song-filled drives with Mommy.
The lights come on and I’m brought back to the present. Om smiles at me. “Wow,” he says. “I know,” I reply, my eyes as wide open as my heart. He helps me on with my coat and I take one last look down at the stage, trying to burn the impression of Humperdinck and this night into my mind alongside my childhood memories. The crowds are already making their way to the doors at the back of the auditorium. I catch sight of a few women on both sides of the aisle, swimming against the currents of the crowd, pushing ever forward towards the stage. High above their heads, they clutch bouquets of red roses and their laciest panties.
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Kavita Das writes about culture, race, feminism, and their intersections and her work is published or forthcoming in Tin House,The Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Washington Post, Kenyon Review, Guernica, and elsewhere. Her first book, Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar, is forthcoming from Harper Collins India and she is also at work on a collection of personal essays.
Editor: Sari Botton