Songwriter Paul Williams — who is a doll, by the way — once apologized to a roomful of strangers for “having been the troubadour of toxic codependency for a decade.” His titles alone are enough to drive a love addict to suicide (“I Won’t Last a Day without You”) or homicide (“It’s You and Me Against the World.”) But we can’t heap all the blame on dear, sweet Paul. Etta James would rather go blind than see you with another girl. Harry Nilsson can’t live, if living is without you. And Ray Price told us flat out that a man without love is only half of a man, but a woman is nothing at all.
Face it. If you’ve any kind of love addict, your radio is straight up out to kill you. (If you’re a love addict under 30, substitute iPod for radio. If you’re over 70, make it Victrola.) It seems like every songwriter out there is pouring poison in our ears like Hamlet’s funny uncle. Everyone, that is, except the songwriting team of Ashford and Simpson.
Nickolas Ashford died last week at the age of 70, having celebrated 37 years of marriage to his creative partner Valerie Simpson. Their iconic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” may have topped the charts in covers by Marvin Gaye (with Tammi Terrell) and Diana Ross, but it was Ashford and Simpson who gave the song its soul. “Ain’t No Mountain…” represents more than stirring melody, memorable lyrics and killer arrangement. It represents a (gasp) enduring relationship. Not the usual pop music longing for someone else’s girl, or unrequited puppy crush, or tearful pining for a lost love. This was an actual willingness to tough it out and stay together.
For better or for worse, In joy and in sorrow, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health… my God, what a lyrical concept!
The couple’s biggest hit as singers, “Solid,” tells of lovers who “Learned to trust/Not run away… We build it up and build it up and build it up/And now it’s solid/Solid as a rock.” Yet despite being emotionally… well, functional, the single made the Top 20 in the US and the Top 10 in the UK.
Their tunes had titles like “I’ll Be There for You,” “Count Your Blessings” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” They kept it real — really real, not hip-hop real — with rhymes like “I can’t say/That I can satisfy your every need” and “I almost lost the one I love/ Searching ‘round for something new.”
Now, I try not to play pin-the-blame-on-the-donkey when it comes to love addiction. We make our own beds and we lie in them… generally with inappropriate partners. But popular culture hasn’t exactly helped the situation. So I thank Nickolas Ashford for being a counterweight, and I wish him a safe journey to his next destination. I also extend my warm sympathy and deep condolences to Valerie Simpson at this time of immeasurable sorrow.