Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #22

Dan Hartman – I Can Dream About You

There are a LOT of jobs in the music business. The glamour spots, of course, involve being a successful solo performer or front person in a band. But every song ever recorded didn’t get that way without the involvement of writers, other musicians and singers, engineers, producers and/or a host of other players who don’t make the liner notes other than as special thank you’s to the artist’s significant other, massage therapist, dealer or life coach. Which means that a lot of people who are famous for a few minutes then seem to disappear are probably still very much involved in making music: they just aren’t famous for it anymore. Which brings us to Dan Hartman.

I have loved “I Can Dream About You” since I first heard it in 1984 in connection with the film “Streets of Fire”. I was not alone: it became a Top 10 hit, and has over 58 million steams – presumably mostly from nostalgic boomers like myself – on Spotify. But there are some odd background notes about this song. For years I thought Hartman was Black, which he absolutely was not. I guess I never saw the video when the song was a hit, so when the movie showed up on television around a year later (shoutout to a young Willem Defoe as the villain, but I don’t remember much else about the film but this song and Diane Lane looking like, well, Diane Lane, and that was enough), what I saw was four Black guys performing it. Even that was a bit of a trick: the actor playing the lead singer was lip syncing to a recording by another guy who was not Dan Hartman. Ah, movie magic.

Despite loving the song, and being a total music trivia nerd, I never looked into Hartman to see what became of him post-fame. This morning, Spotify suggested I listen to The Edgar Winter Group’s 1973 album “They Only Come Out at Night”, which turned out to be a brilliant recommendation. I’m reading about who worked on the album, and there I see Dan Hartman’s name. As it turned out, he had a pretty impressive career as a performer, writer, engineer and producer. He wrote and sang “Free Ride” for the Winter band, and co-wrote (with the awesomely-named Charlie Midnight) James Brown’s “Living in America”. As an artist, he sandwiched the disco hit “Instant Replay” between his rock work with Winter and the synth soul of “I Can Dream About You”. He worked with a ton of notable artists (including Tina Turner, Steve Winwood and Joe Cocker) and died way, way too fucking young from AIDS in 1994.

It sets the beat off the top, with a funk-lite edge and some thumping drums, followed by a sort-of scuzzy synth bass and faux piano, then Hartman starts singing, sounding like he was dropped onto the stage in front of a mic, as surprised as the audience is to see him there, and just decided to go for it. In a flash, we’re into the chorus, with smooth soul backing vocals acting as a layered echo to Hartman’s lead, and then it just sort of repeats the same motifs for the next round, before the tone alters slightly through said backup singers at just under the two-minute mark. Then we’re back to the initial setup, before the obligatory guitar solo as Hartman keeps on dreaming over and over and over until it fades out.

I can’t really rationalize my love for this song. The lyrics are meh, and the music is pretty much unvaried from beginning to end. But something about it picks me up and makes me want to strut. If I could dance, I could totally see myself swirling around a club floor, the star of my own “Saturday Night Fever” knockoff. (Check out the movie for what I see in my head. The outfits are pretty terrific, too.) That’s the ineffable magic of great pop music. It doesn’t comply with a logical analysis – it’s all about how it makes you feel. “I Can Dream About You” makes me happy, and it’s been doing so for 38 years and counting. Nothing else really matters, right?