Last Dance: Donna Summer, 1948-2012

Earlier this year I noted that I was saddened -- but not particularly surprised nor filled with nostalgia -- when news broke that Whitney Houston had died. Today it was different. And somehow it didn't seem right the way I found out, the way we usually learn that someone famous has passed in the 21st Century -- the stunning words slowly crawling across the bottom of my TV set while blather from Joe Biden filled the top 95 percent.

Donna Summer was dead.

Some generations get Elvis, and some (lucky) generations get the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan. My generation, Generation Jones? We got Donna Summer, the Queen of Disco. Believe it or not, her first big 45, the orgasmic (literally) "Love to Love You Baby," was released in the last week of August 1975 -- the exact same week that I got my driver's license. And so she blared every 45 minutes in glorious mono from WABC ("The Most...Music!:) on the AM radio of the family car that I was allowed to drive, a hideous green AMC Gremlin. (Did I mention that this was the '70s?). 

Summer's streak of hits was very nearly over by 1983, when recorded "She Works Hard for the Money." That's what most of my generation was doing then -- graduating college into the howling winds of a recession. The disco era was over. Summer's run at the top of the charts was fleeting. So is youth. It was time to get to work.

Unlike the aforementioned Elvis or the Beatles, the disco queen reigned at the start of the great divide in American top-40. If you were a teenager or in college, you either loved disco or hated it. Or claimed to hate it, anyway, I think there were a lot of guys like me, who would not have been caught dead with one of Summer's trademark double albums sullying our precious collection of Elvis Costello and Talking Heads, but who turned "Hot Stuff" up to 11 when it came on the car radio.

And when the sun went down on a college fraternity dance floor in the late 1970s, no one dared question the Queen's rule. Like a bizarro-world Wilt Chamberlain, at some point I lost count of the girls who rejected me even as "Bad Girls" ironically blasted from the stereo speakers. Such are the odd things that we come to remember fondly.

After the early 1980s, Donna Summer remained an object of fascination and curiosity for my generation. The increasingly rare times she showed up on TV, I usually stopped what I was doing to see what she was up to. I heard that she had embraced Christianity and was embarrassed by the amped up sexually of "Love To Love You Baby." Aren't we all? She was a rarity -- someone who went into the buzzsaw of American pop culture and came out intact. I had not heard that she had cancer, and I'm truly shocked at the news of her death. She was only 63 years old.

Heaven knows, it's not the way it should be.