Oh – once in your life you find someone
Who will turn your world around
Bring you up when you’re feeling down
“Heaven” is a song that’s found success both as a power ballad â€” the original version, released as a single in 1985, was Bryan Adams’s first number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 â€” and as an upbeat dance number â€” DJ Sammy’s cover version reached number one on the U.K. Singles Chart in 2002. But the version I’m most fond of is to be found on Adams’s 1997 Unplugged disc. And there are a couple of reasons for this, one purely musical, and the other purely sentimental.
Musically speaking, I find the Unplugged version to be the most listenable. The 1985 original is great for recreating ’80s prom night, and the dance cover is tolerable if you’re in a club or working out. But the Unplugged version is the one that feels the most authentic to me; it’s the one where the lyrics, maudlin as they are, resonate the most. Perhaps it’s just that I’m a sucker for a good live version of anything, but I think it might have more to do with the fact that Adams is thirty-seven when he’s singing the Unplugged version (his thirty-eighth birthday a month or so away at the time of the recording), and not a twenty-something. I find it hard to imagine that a twenty-four year old could sing the lyric, “Oh, thinking about our younger years,” with any credibility. To my way of thinking, the thirty-seven year old Adams has a much better idea of what that line is about than his younger counterpart ever did.
Certain songs can be transformed by the power of an older, wiser voice. While the Nine Inch Nails version of “Hurt” remains a classic for those of us who grew up with it, the Johnny Cash cover, and its accompanying video, is a true heartbreaker for all people, and for all time. I would argue that Bryan Adams’s Unplugged version of “Heaven” could have had a similar impact, albeit in a far less profound way (it’s a far less profound song, after all), if only it had been promoted as much as the upbeat single from the album (“Back to You”) was. It takes what was a serviceable mid-80s power-ballad and turns into a classic love ballad, sans the power. Sometimes a song just sounds better with a flute than it does with an electric guitar, man. Sometimes a song works better when it’s not trying so hard. And that’s what’s happening with this song, at least for me.
Certain songs can also be transformed by the power of older, wiser ears. I was not yet twenty-one when I danced to this song for the first time. It was the spring of 1998. Stephanie and I had been dating for a month or so, and I was co-DJing an 80s-themed dance at Conover Hall on the Bradford College campus. I’d spent most of the evening to that point behind the turntables, so to speak (we were using CD players, but writing “behind the CD players” just doesn’t sound as cool). Never having been much of a dancer myself, I got my kicks from watching my new girlfriend, one of the better performers in the college dance company, do her thing out on the floor. But when I segued into Bryan Adams, my co-DJ and good friend Nathan came hurrying up to relieve me, encouraging me to get on out there and dance with my girl.
For the straight white man who can’t dance, the ballad is a savior. You put your arms around her waist, she puts her arms around your neck, and you sway from one side to the other. If you’re a little more daring, you move a step or two to either side. But basically, dancing a slow dance is a way of satisfying a woman’s desire to get out there on the dance floor without making a total fool of yourself. And so, that’s what I did. I went out there, let her lead, and had myself a ball.
And when the song was over, it was back to spinning records I went.
Which is, I guess, my way of saying that I didn’t pay much attention to the song that night. I paid enough attention to remember what song it was three years later when it was time to pick a song for the first dance at our wedding, but I don’t think I really listened to it that first time out there on the dance floor. That first time I was more concerned with not stepping on my partner’s feet.
I’m not sure how many couples have a song that they call “our song” anymore â€” it seems to me that there are far fewer out there than I’d imagined, just based on conversations I’ve had while preparing this piece â€” but it seems to me that every romantic relationship I’ve ever had has been defined in my mind by a single song. How that’s happened has differed every time. With the high school girlfriend, it was just what happened to pop up on the mix tape I’d made while we were having our first kiss (“Love Will Keep Us Alive,” by The Eagles). With the college girlfriend it was the number song on Billboard at the time (“One Sweet Day,” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men). And with the Berklee girl who I had a couple of flings with from 1996 through 1997, it turned out to be Tori Amos’s “Hey Jupiter,” just by virtue of the fact that she liked to put on the EP of the same name while we were doing that thing you do when you’re over at a girl’s dorm room and her roommate’s away.
But with Stephanie, things changed a bit. Maybe it’s just because we’ve been together for so long, and collected so many memories to which there is a soundtrack. Or maybe it’s because a really good relationship, with all its ups and downs, is always going to take an album’s worth of songs to define. For Stephanie and I, it’s not just “Heaven.” It’s the Indigo Girls singing “Get Out The Map,” on those long weekend drives up to Maine. It’s Stef spinning around like a madwoman on the top floor of our Cluster House at Bradford while Katrina and the Waves talk about “Walking On Sunshine.” And it’s the two of us singing together in the car whenever the Police come on, or Billy Joel.
But if I have to choose just one song, then I choose “Heaven.” “Heaven” defines our relationship as best as one song can because of the lyrics I’ve quoted above. As corny as it sounds, I really do believe that “once in your life, you find someone.” There may be others who will “turn your world around,” but not always in a good way. And there will certainly be others who will “bring you up when you’re feeling down,” but it takes a special someone to do that in the middle of the night, when you’ve been a complete moron and blown up the computer that the two of you rely on to bring home the bacon.
So, I guess it might be the person, rather than the song, who saved my life. But the song was there. It was playing in the background while she did it, while she continues to do it. And that’s got to count for something.
So, we danced to it at our wedding. The DJ told us ahead of time that he usually cut the first song off before the end, because the bride and groom usually couldn’t hold everyone’s attention for a whole song, or didn’t want to. And so, I wasn’t thinking that the dance would last as long as it did, or that it would even come close to being the most memorable part of the day. But when the dance came, I was inspired.
I was still a straight white guy, with no rhythm to speak of, but it didn’t matter. Something came over me, and I took the lead. There’s a sort of dramatic pause in the song, just before the second chorus (where the whole band finally comes in), and, knowing this, I chose it as my moment to show off. Though I didn’t time it just right â€” I was off by a beat or so, as evidenced by the video someone shot â€” I created this sort of melodramatic separation between the two of us just before the full band came in, either by stepping back or pushing her forward and away from me (I can’t quite get the picture right in my mind, because I don’t have the video in front of me). And whatever it is that I did, it seemed to get everyone’s attention â€” to the point where the DJ never cut us off. It also seemed to blow my bride’s mind.
The smile that she gave me then, as I pulled her back to me, as we continued to dance, and I continued to sing along with the song, is something that I’ll never forget, but that I’ll never be able to describe.
The next verse is about as sentimental and clichÃ©d as they come, but as I sang the words to my wife as a twenty-three year old man, closer now to children and family and adulthood than I was to high school and rebellion and contempt for sentimentality, it occurred to me that sentimentality and clichÃ© are okay sometimes, especially if the sentiment that’s being expressed is true and honest.
I’ve been waiting for so long
For something to arrive
For love to come along
Now our dreams are coming true
Through the good times and the bad
I’ll be standing there by you
The twenty year old me who danced with his girlfriend to this song probably shuddered a bit at the thought of dancing to something so cheezy and over-the-top. He probably wouldn’t have admitted to anyone that “Heaven,” by Bryan Adams, was he and his girlfriend’s “song.” But the twenty-three year old me who danced to this at his wedding, and the twenty-nine year old me who is writing this to you now â€” he isn’t embarrassed. My wife and I have a song we call “ours,” and it’s “Heaven,” by Bryan Adams. And yeah, it saved my life.
Here’s a clip of it, although it’s only a clip and not the whole song (blasted Universal Music Group). It picks up from that dramatic pause I was talking about, and continues on almost until the end.