“He Hit Me And It Felt Like Kiss”
The 1962 Carole King song performed by the Crystals still provokes controversy today.
A long time ago a song was written, performed and quickly pulled after it’s release. It was called He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss. When people talk about Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s enormous and satisfying catalog of songs, this one never comes up. Is it good, is it bad? I’m confused when I hear it sung by the ever-so-gifted Crystals in a totally heart-felt performance. What is going on here? It does not help that it was produced by Phil Spector, hardly a feminist icon, with neo-Wagnerian grandeur that underlies the weird triumph in lead Crystal Barbara Alston’s delivery.
The song, the potential fountain of a thousand arguments, started this way. Goffin and King had a celebrity baby sitter, Little Eva, who had a hit with the The Locomotion, a song they wrote for her. She showed up more than once at their place battered and bruised. When they asked her why her boyfriend was hitting her, she said, “It’s because he loves me.” He had suspected her of cheating and, like many a brute faced with emotions too strong to process slowly, he lashed out. (I never heard if she stayed with him, I hope not.)
This bit of intriguing reverse psychology could not have been handed to a more talented songwriting team. Carole King was a prodigy, writing hits in her teens that resonate musically after all these years. For this song, she came up with a gem. It starts on what the jazzers call a tension chord. Basically, that’s any chord but D Major, the key this song was in, but but our ear hears it, however briefly, as being in the key of G Major. This little harmonic shell game continues through the song and the emotional effect is one long search for home, where release and comfort flow in equal portions.
A lot of people look at the very troubling lyrics and leap to the conclusion that the song is the devil’s own misogyny. I always give the artist the benefit of the doubt. Who on earth would want to write a song glorifying violence against women? Even in those Mad Men times, this was ticking bomb. I much prefer thinking this was an sincere attempt to express the twisted logic that allows abuse to continue and, whether the relationship fails or not, there are worse villains than the two characters portrayed in this song.
Goffin expands on Little Eva’s sentiments without adding anything unnecessary. Looking at this from as pure craft, he is doing his usual, thoroughly professional job:
He hit me and it felt like a kiss
He hit me but it didn’t hurt me
He couldn’t stand to hear me say
That I’d been with someone new
And when I told him I had been untrue
He hit me and it felt like a kiss
He hit me and I knew he loved me
If he didn’t care for me,
I could have never made him mad
But he hit me and I was glad
Yes, he hit me and it felt like a kiss
He hit me and I knew I loved him
And then he took me in his arms
With all the tenderness there is
And when he kissed me he made me his
© Goffin & King Screen Gems-EMI Music, Inc. (BMI)
We attempted this song in The Subcontinentals, my band from a couple years back that featured a very convincing singer, Kelly Gonzalez. She has nice grit in her voice and a smooth, soulful delivery. What could go wrong? We worked out a very nice version, finding our way through a harmonic maze with lots of little twists and turns. No matter what you think of the song, the music is simply haunting. We probably wouldn’t be talking about it if it wasn’t so undeniably beautiful. Then we played it and my wife, Linsey Sieger, heard it. To say we had some discussion about it would be an understatement.
Linsey is a proud feminist and a smart woman. She is not rigidly doctrinaire and totally got that this song was an interesting and troubling piece. She also advised strongly against performing it, a position I came to share, reluctantly. I was so proud of how it sounded and I assumed everyone thought like me and would get the subtleties, withholding judgement. After a couple times, we quietly retired the song. Just too many question marks surrounding it. There are plenty of songs to play and I’m not looking to explain or justify every one I do.
Carole King distanced herself from it, too, calling a mistake. She probably wishes she never wrote it. It makes me think of Jerry Lewis and the Holocaust comedy he is reported to have made that sits in a vault to this day. On the other hand, Phil Spector went on bullying women, holding his wife Ronnie Spector, a virtual prisoner in their mansion and eventually being convicted of murdering the actress Lana Clarkson. I wonder what he thinks of the song?
1962, when this song was released, might as well be 1862 from our vantage point. But I bet somewhere, some confused young woman is living out the words to this song. Some things never change.