Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why "Be My Baby" is probably my favorite song... and one of the saddest, too

Making up for his sins at home: Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets (1973)

"You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit, and you know it."
- Martin Scorsese, Mean Streets

Martin Scorsese himself speaks those words, from off-screen, at the very beginning of Mean Streets, his grungy, heartfelt drama about small-time gangsters in a deeply Catholic Italian-American milieu. I quoted that speech last week during my stay at the behavioral health center while talking to a female patient (not the aforementioned Helen). She said she didn't feel like she could "fix" her problems from inside the hospital, and I told her about those opening words from the Scorsese film because I felt they were appropriate for the occasion. The entire opening sequence of Mean Streets is remarkable, and I want you to see it. Here, take a look:

"Be My Baby" by the Ronettes
In his book Ebert's Bigger Little Movie Glossary, critic Roger Ebert cites his own so-called "8MM Omen": "Films that start with old home movies are never about happy lives." And true to form, Mean Streets is not a cheerful, upbeat film. There are moments of humor and humanity in it, but in the larger sense, it is a tragedy. And what music does Scorsese use to set the tone for this downbeat film? "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes, a #2 hit from 1963. The song was co-written and produced by Phil Spector, who created the record along with the songwriting team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, while the record's powerful lead vocal is supplied by Ronnie Bennett, who later married and divorced Phil Spector and is more commonly known today as Ronnie Spector. In short, there were a lot of talented people behind this record, but it somehow manages to be even greater than the sum of its parts.

"Be My Baby" is often used in romantic comedies, and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys has called it one of the happiest records ever made, but I feel that there is a crushing sadness at the core of this song. Let's examine the lyrics of the first verse:
The night we met, I knew I needed you so.
And if I had the chance I'd never let you go.
So won't you say you love me? I'll make you so proud of me
We'll make 'em turn their heads every place we go.
You will note immediately that there is no indication that the man Ronnie is addressing even likes her, let alone loves her. She just met him and suddenly decided that she "needed" him. They're clearly not in a relationship. She wants "the chance" to grab onto him and never release him. She hasn't been given that opportunity yet. "So won't you say you love me?" is a particularly needy inquiry, and "I'll make you so proud of me" is like a child promising her parents that she'll be on her best behavior. "We'll make 'em turn their heads every place we go" indicates that the singer cares what other people think of her and may be using this relationship to get attention from passersby.

The oft-repeated chorus is simplicity itself. It's just variations on "be my baby," "be my little baby," and "be my baby now," with a "please" or a "darling" thrown in now and again. This is as emotionally direct as singing or songwriting gets. The woman is asking, in no uncertain terms, for a man to love her. She's not playing coy or hard to get. She's just letting herself be vulnerable and open to rejection.

There really is only one other verse. The rest of the song consists of repetitions of the chorus. But the lyrics of that second verse are worth examining, too:
I'll make you happy, baby. Just wait and see.
For every kiss you give me, I'll give you three.
Oh, since the day I saw you, I have been waiting for you.
You know I will adore you 'til eternity.
The King of Comedy
There is more than a hint of desperation here. The woman is promising the man everything. She is granting him the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. This is the kind of thing you might say to a photograph of someone you love when you're alone in your room, but if you actually spoke these words aloud to that person, he or she might think you were mentally disturbed. I think Ronnie is one step away from kidnapping this guy and chaining him up in her basement. Either that, or she'll buy one of those Japanese body pillows and fashion it into a facsimile of her dream man. It's interesting to note that in another Scorsese film, The King of Comedy, Sandra Bernhard's character does participate in the kidnapping of a talk show host played by Jerry Lewis and uses the opportunity to "seduce" him and serenade him. In all seriousness, "Be My Baby" is a song which hits me hard every time I hear it. I'm hesitant to include the following clip, because I do not want you to think that I in any way endorse the life of a convicted murderer, but you just have to watch this clip of Phil Spector as he dishes about "Be My Baby," his famed Wall of Sound, John Lennon, Martin Scorsese, Brian Wilson, and more.


  1. Song lyrics are always fascinating. I remember doing an exercise in a writing class way back in my college years where we were reading song lyrics and comparing them to poetry. Oddly enough, they don't compare nearly as much as I always thought, in part because lyrics are both freer in terms of content (who really analyzes them?) but also constricted to fitting into the music. As a result, breaking them down like poetry can be truly bizarre. "Be My Baby" is the kind of song that everybody sings along to but never think to consider. I don't think that's a bad thing, because songs aren't meant to be read. But when they are, the results can be interesting...

  2. Yes, the song can be enjoyed either way. I'd heard "Be My Baby" dozens of times, but Mean Streets made me hear it in a whole new way. For the first time, I realized, "Oh my god, the guy in this song may not even like her." But if "Be My Baby" is just a sweet love song for you, that's okay, too.