Goodbye, Wild Thing

The Troggs, in their prime.

The Troggs, in their prime.

BBC radio woke us at 5:30 a.m. today, and the first thing I heard was that Reg Henry, lead singer of the Troggs, passed away yesterday. He was 71 and had battled lung cancer.

Everybody remembers the Troggs’ oft-played garage anthem, “Wild Thing,” which shot up to number one and still never fails to stir, even 45 years after it first came out. But I thought immediately of their other song, one that captured the angst and longing of my middle school years: “Love is All Around.” The melodic bass of the initial bars, as soft and careful as a tiptoe, imprinted itself on me from the very first time I heard it. The words sum up the uncomplicated adoration of idealized love:

“You know I love you. I always will
My mind’s made up by the way that I feel
There’s no beginning, there’ll be no end
‘Cause on my love you can depend.”

What better words to capture the longing of a middle-school crush? “Love Is All Around” will always remind me of one of mine: Wayne, a handsome, blue-eyed loner who found his way into our tight group of friends in our blue-collar neighborhood. Every pre-teen girl in the neighborhood pined for him, and nobody landed him for years, until he eventually dated my friend Mary Lou in high school. I’d scribble his initials and the words “Love Is All Around” all over the brown paper cover on my science textbook, on the inside flap to hide it from the Catholic school nuns.

My sister Julie, who also secretly loved Wayne, and I would watch him out our back window as he played basketball on a neighbor’s driveway. We’d tune into the old Philadelphia AM radio stations, WFIL and WIBG “Wibbage,” to listen for the Troggs song that had become unsuspecting Wayne’s theme song. We’d be so bummed if we turned on the radio and heard its waning bars and knew we had missed it. This was 40 years before iTunes and we’d spin the radio dial like a roulette wheel, hoping each time we’d hit.

And then it would happen. Those first bass tiptoes would sneak up on us, then we’d hear the twangly lead guitar and Reg Henry’s voice, sounding vaguely southern:

“Ah feel it in my fingers; ah feel it in my toes
Love is all around me, and so the feelin’ grows.”

Eventually somebody in the neighborhood bought the 45 of “Love Is All Around” and we’d listen to it over and over again on a portable record player. Our little group would have “record hops” in a neighbor’s unfinished basement, where we’d fast-dance to Martha and the Vandellas, experiment with kissing and swoon over the Troggs.

Today I learned that Reg Presley retired only last year because of his lung cancer, but that the remaining Troggs members, Chris Britton (guitar), Pete Lucas (bass) and Dave Maggs (drums) planned to keep touring. That’s good. But can the group survive without that signature voice, the one that snarled for his wild thing and balanced coolness and plaintiveness in “Love Is All Around” when he asked his beloved if she loved him back?

“It’s written on the wind. It’s everywhere I go
So if you really love me, c’mon and let it show.”

A few months ago I visited Julie and we were heading out for some shopping, when she smiled and said she had a surprise for me. She pushed the button of her iPod Nano and I heard the first bars of that song we both loved 45 years ago and continue to love still. It brought us back to shared confidences in our twin beds before we dozed off to sleep; to longing glances out our back window at a blue-eyed boy playing basketball; to listening to 45s and dancing in our neighbor’s basement; to the sweetness of that first, unrequited love. Thank you, Reg.