HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN…VOLUME THREE

“Then Came You”
Recorded: 1974
Writers: Sherman Marshall, Philip Pugh
Artist: Dionne Warwicke and Spinners

OR…

Why punk led me not into temptation even though I was an appropriately angst-ridden child of the seventies: Long Theory

At the recording sessions for “Then Came You,” which took place on March 26, 1974, at the Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, Dionne Warwick voiced her displeasure with the proceedings to producer Thom Bell. Whether her problem was with the song, the manner of recording it or life in general has varied over the years depending on who does the telling. What everyone agrees on is that Bell bet Warwick a dollar that the record would reach number one. Then they each took half of a torn dollar bill and promised whoever lost the bet would mail their half to the other.

Warwick mailed her half of the dollar bill to Thom Bell shortly after October 26, 1974, which was the date “Then Came You” became the first number one pop hit for both her and Spinners.

About midway between those momentous occasions, my family moved from Central Florida to North Florida so that my father–already an ordained minister–could attend a bible college with an eye toward entering the ministry full time.

This turned out to be more than a little like moving from Southern California to Southern Alabama.

Momentous enough for me in other words.

I was a week late for the start of the ninth grade so any chance that my arrival would pass blessedly under the radar was doomed from the start. If you were ever in the ninth grade, you probably know what I mean. If you were ever the new kid in the ninth grade and arrived a week after school started–in the middle of second period–you definitely know what I mean.

It turned out in the long run that I took a liking to this part of the state and have lived here ever since. But during that first week the only thing that connected me to home–or any recognizable reality–was Sunday School.

Oh, I don’t mean my new church’s Sunday School looked or sounded or felt anything like my old church’s Sunday School.

Far from it.

For one thing, that first Sunday, there was no teacher. The regular was out sick that week. There was no replacement. Let’s just say that leaving the high schoolers to fend for themselves was not the way they did things where I came from!

No, the only thing that was really familiar was the girls’ skirts. Five girls, five skirts. Three minis–evidently the rough average for high school girls in Baptist Sunday Schools all over the state in 1974. So there was at least one thing that truly bound us together as a people in those halcyon days just before the latest aftershock of the enduring Fundamentalist-Enlightenment divide–which, along with the various issues troubling the rest of Western Civilization, had been rumbling underneath us for a decade or more–arrived to once more split us apart.

I wasn’t too worried about the history or future of Evangelical Protestantism that day. I was the new kid, a lone thirteen-year-old boy thrown into a teacherless room with five improbably attractive girls who, unlike the several improbably attractive girls who had attended my old church, I had not known my entire life.

Unless you’re a born Romeo–which I was about as far away from being as humanly possible–then the only thing your thirteen-year-old self is really thinking about in a situation like that is how to survive long enough for the golf balls to dissolve in your throat and the squirrels to lay down in your stomach so you can relearn the noble art of breathing.

You don’t care much about storing memories.

You do store them. And maybe–just maybe–a day or a week or thirty years later you’re even glad that you did.

But in the heady brew of the moment you don’t think about such things. So I was rather proud of myself for sufficiently overcoming the shock to my various systems–cultural, societal, hormonal–to glean some intelligence for later recall, and therefore discover I was just cognizant enough to conduct at least a pale imitation of what an actual Romeo would have called research.

So…

Along with the five skirts and three minis, the overall picture shaped up thusly:

A long, folding table, which for most of the next hour-that-seemed-like-ten had one set of forearms and an assortment of open purses and closed bibles on it.

I swear I did not drop anything that forced me to duck under the table. I can’t swear I didn’t think about it, only that I didn’t do it. I did not sink to perversion my first day in the new Sunday School.

I kept those forearms squarely in place.

Above the table then…

A senior, a junior, two sophomores and an eighth-grader.

Three blondes and two brunettes.

Two preacher’s daughters (sisters).

One visitor (guest of the preacher’s older daughter).

Three shag haircuts (one frosted–I tell you friend, it was a Golden Age, the likes of which we will not see again before the Last Days).

And one girl–the frosted-shag sophomore visitor wearing one of the minis–singing the chorus to “Then Came You” under her breath from time to time during the occasional awkward silences that are bound to occur when there’s a new boy and no teacher.

Good reconnaissance that.

Of course, it got me nowhere.

In those days I rarely listened to the radio. I didn’t know who sang “Then Came You”–had no clue it was a collaboration between the era’s greatest record man (producer-arranger Thom Bell), its greatest vocal group and one of the century’s most transcendent popular singers (born Dionne Warrick, by then so long famous as Dionne Warwick–the spelling variation supplied by a printing error on her first hit’s record label in 1962–that even I had heard of her, she added the extra “e” from 1971 to 1975 for reasons known only to her before reverting, for reasons also known only to her, to “Warwick”).

There was a lot more I didn’t know.

No way I knew what Thom Bell evidently knew–that, however she was spelling her name that year, if you wanted to pair a vocal group with Dionne Warwick in full flight, you’d better have at least two genuinely great lead singers on hand and one of them better be as close to a co-equal genius as Philippe Wynne.

I didn’t know that the record the sophomore in the mini-skirt kept singing and humming to herself was a work of genius, the pinnacle of Bell’s signature blend of the rhythmic and the harmonic, the grand statement and the incisive gesture, the conservatory and the street.

I didn’t know there was such a thing as symphonic intimacy, or that it could sometimes be heard on the radio.

I didn’t know “Sigma Sound” was a euphemism for a temple.

I didn’t know that America’s ever-derided “other”–blacks, women, immigrants, hillbillies–were on the verge of snatching back the rock and roll revolution that had been slid out from beneath them a decade earlier by something called the British Invasion. (Or, more properly, by white, suburban America’s specific and desperate embrace of the Beatles–an embrace that basically stretched from the average ten-year-old’s Dansette to the nether regions of academia and said, with one mighty voice, “please, please rescue us from these…other people“–and has distorted the way rock history is written and received ever since. And, no, that doesn’t mean the Beatles and the other great British acts weren’t all that. This stuff is never uncomplicated.) I didn’t know that, this time around–with only, say, Elton John and the Bee Gees to ride to the rescue–white, suburban America would eventually decide to pick up its marbles and go home.

There at the very first moment in the nation’s history when it seemed just barely possible for the foundational demons to be finally laid to rest, I blessedly did not know the lengths to which we-the-people would go to re-divide ourselves–nor did I understand the extent of the means available to the empire’s handlers to help us along the path to perdition because, as a faithful product of the public school system, I did not even suspect the empire’s existence.

Ignorance was bliss.

I didn’t know all those glorious sounds coming out of the radio in the mid-seventies, of which “Then Came You” was an absolute peak, were already driving the two white-boy demographics most likely to treat each other as dog and cat–punks and hard-hats–so crazy that for one dark, fleeting moment they would reach solidarity and agree that, at the very least, disco sucked.

“How did I live without you?” indeed.

I didn’t know that there would be a day when I actually did know such things.

There was a world of things, in other words–besides how to talk to long-legged, shag-haired sophomores in short skirts–that I didn’t know at the end of August in 1974.

But it didn’t surprise me later–when my family’s move to a distant land three hundred physical miles and a psychic galaxy from what I called home led me to seek increasing levels of solace in the bosom of Top 40 radio–to discover that “Then Came You, ” however encountered, was my idea of spiritual music.

This discovery was not exactly uncomplicated.

The next time I saw the long-legged sophomore (did I mention that she, like every other girl in my new Sunday School, was improbably attractive?–that I had moved to the actual south and that the actual south wasn’t lying when it bragged about its women?)–was a couple of days later. She was wearing a peasant blouse and blue jeans by then and she was walking in the middle of a crowd that was headed one direction in my new high school’s hallway while I was in the middle of a crowd that was moving in the other.

Just as she came opposite me, her face lit up and she said “Oh, hey!” to someone. A few crucial seconds later, after she had been swept out the door making a vaguely disgusted noise that I was just socially sophisticated enough to know was the standard civilized response to rudeness, I realized she had been talking to me.

Talk about improbable.

Look, I prefer to think I wasn’t the reason she never came back to Sunday School. I certainly never blamed her for not speaking to me again (not that there were many opportunities).

Tell the truth, I never got to know much about her, then or later.

I do know she stayed friends with the preacher’s older daughter.

I know that much because the preacher’s older daughter moved away about a year and a half later–by which time she was dating my nephew. It was pretty serious–as to both dating and general social linkage between our families. Her stoner brother stayed behind with us when the family moved away (he stayed until it became obvious that staying behind had not been the answer to his problems–I don’t know how it stands these days but, back then, the overlap between preacher’s sons and stoner brothers was substantial). She sent back actual tear-stained letters which I’m pretty sure my nephew was not supposed to be sharing with the likes of me and I know he was not supposed to be sharing with his grandmother.

Eventually…

The letters stopped. The stoner brother moved out. My nephew stopped getting letters–or at least stopped sharing them–and got married to someone else (all this within about a year or so–so I guess really not all that eventually, though time certainly seemed to move slower then).

The long-legged sophomore may or may not have become a junior. I never saw her at school after a certain point. She saw me once at a baseball game. I was fifteen then, the last year I played. I was sitting in the dugout during an exhibition game for a summer league I never actually played in because my family had to go back south for the summer to earn the money to stay in bible school another year. She came over and asked her cousin (who had gone out to meet her behind the dugout–if there was a signal I didn’t see it) who I was.

I heard that much.

I heard him tell her my name.

“Is he any good?” she said.

He assured her I was. (He was batting third, I was hitting cleanup.)

She made a noise that seemed to express both surprise and disappointment. Maybe even a little disbelief.

Then she turned around and left.

Never saw her again.

Never had that chance to explain that I had always assumed was bound to come some day in such a small town.

Where I had come from, I routinely passed people in the hallways at school who I had known my entire life without anybody even thinking about speaking to anybody. There was no rule about it. That’s just the way it was.

With me and with everybody else.

So it might as well have been a rule.

There were might-as-well-have-been-rules in the new place, too, but it took me a long time to get used to them. I’m not even sure I had really fully absorbed them nearly two years later, sitting there in that dugout, feeling like a heel all over again.

Funny the things that you learn from. Little, hidden mistakes mostly.

I think the reason I always regretted the misunderstanding so deeply, though, was rooted in that Sunday morning.

In her choice of music to hum–a choice she had no doubt long forgotten by then.

You see, when the storms came–in the world at large, in my church, in my country, in my own mixed-up head–and some sort of stance had to be taken internally even if I never announced it to the world, I was like everybody else.

Subject to my experiences.

On the surface, I should have been easy pickings for the coming punk bohemian ethos. Brother did I have the deep-seated self-loathing for it.

But I kept noticing that if they really meant what they said, these new messiahs, then they really were rejecting everything. That without that extremism, there was no there there.

And I kept thinking that if rejecting everything included, among many, many other good things, Dionne Warwick and Thom Bell and Spinners and Sigma Sound and girls who said “hey” to people they had only met once, then it wasn’t for me.

Oh, I know none of that was included, officially. Who didn’t think Philly Soul was cool? Who didn’t think Thom Bell was cool (he wasn’t really “disco” after all–just a bridge to it)? For that matter, who didn’t think girls who said “hey” were cool?

Nobody probably.

Problem was–and is–that ducked the issue.

Either Johnny Rotten meant what he said–or he didn’t. Either nothing mattered…or some things did.

And either way, I knew I was rejected too.

Mind you, none of that kept me from having my feet lifted off the ground by the Clash’s first album. I was made wary, not stupid.

It just meant I kept a weather eye, even on them.

Looking back, that was the right approach for me.

Other people had their lives saved by embracing punk and more power to them. I don’t begrudge anybody their taste, let alone their life. I certainly never saw punk as the enemy.

But I stayed alive by keeping it at arm’s length.

“Then Came You” wasn’t the whole reason for the stiff-arm–there were Sunday mornings and watching my parents become missionaries when they were pushing sixty and learning that stoner brothers needed prayer just like everybody else and finding out I really could adapt to small town life and not making the major leagues (or even my high school team) and realizing that the possibilities for a new Great Awakening that had once seemed so imminent had not only died on the vine but been perverted into the bitterest fruit imaginable and smashing rulers to the beat of  “Death or Glory” and four or five thousand other life lessons that I didn’t know were saving me until they did–but it was part of the reason.

And it was probably somewhere very near the core.

Quite possibly even the one irreducible moment that can’t be changed without changing everything else.

Or not.

I lean towards the Enlightenment myself.

Never was much of a strict Calvinist.

But if somebody gave me the chance to do it all over again and said the only thing different would be that the long-legged sophomore in Sunday School would be humming some other tune….I wouldn’t take them up on it.

Thus ends the Long Theory….Short Theory tomorrow!

 

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN…VOLUME TWO

“The Ballad of Curtis Loew”
Writers: Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins
Artist: Lynyrd Skynyrd
Recorded: 1974

When Allen Collins died in 1990, the good folks at Rock and Rap Confidential described this song as one which “accurately condenses the history of rock and roll into four minutes.”

I don’t doubt they were referring to the song’s classic “white boy learning life and the blues from a black man” narrative (never more lovingly or movingly rendered).

But it serves as “the history of rock and roll” in an even deeper and more subtle way. Before rock and roll there was no way to conceive of anyone like Ronnie Van Zant or Allen Collins (or any of the real life figures “Curtis Loew” may have been based on) being allowed to tell their own stories to anyone but each other. That’s why the original of the concept had to be filtered through a white middle-class sensibility like Mark Twain’s–and, even then, take decades of mostly simplistic misinterpretation to be recognized as “art.”

I just re-read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for about the sixth time and great as “the great American novel” is, I think Lynyrd Skynyrd’s version of the tale strikes deeper and truer.

That preference implies choices–the every day grind (“searchin’ for soda bottles”) over the grand escape, the danger and release of the man-made music in southern air suffocated by Jim Crow over the danger and release of nature’s mighty river cutting through the heart of slave country, the preacher failing his common duty over the con men trying to stay one step ahead of the forces his like represent, the woman who repeatedly whips her ten-year old son for consorting with a drunken black man over sweet, forgiving Aunt Polly and long-suffering, ultimately magnanimous Miss Watson. Perhaps most of all a man who is no one’s idea of respectable–black or white–and has nothing whatsoever to recommend him except his dobro-picking over a slave character who is–with far less ready excuse–every bit as romanticized as Uncle Tom.

Granted, by 1974 novelists–even white novelists–had got further down this road than Twain or Mrs. Stowe could have been expected to go (a progression which owed no small part to their efforts, lest we forget).

But not much further.

And in any case, Van Zant and Collins were writing about the pre-civil rights south of their youth–about 1954 more than 1974.

About the world that hadn’t yet undergone the changes of the Civil Rights movement and about the stand you might have been forced to take inside that world–within your own community, even your own family–if the rules you were supposed to live by couldn’t be reconciled with something that struck an impossibly deep chord in what a ten-year-old might just have been beginning to define as his soul (a stand which Huck Finn, incidentally, could only take when he was safe on the river, away from his community–and which, when the community reimposed itself, he slid away from as neatly as a hundred and thirty years of lit-crit has slid away from him).

Ripping something from life–three verses and a chorus say–hardly precludes romantic or even sentimental conclusions. But it does put tighter, narrower boundaries on them. And for a couple of people who are never going to be taught in modern poetry class, Van Zant and Collins did a remarkable job of walking straight up to those boundaries and drawing them so starkly that it was clear from the very beginning not everyone could step across and join them on the far side of the racial briar patch.

That might be why they rarely played this song live to an audience where too many people were bound to yell for “Freebird”–and keep on yelling for it long after the real life Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins had joined Curtis Loew in the grave–just because they thought (however wrongly) that those blistering guitar solos and freedom-of-the-highway lyrics provided easy answers to easy questions.

Nobody could mistake “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” for an easy way out.

“Mama used to whup me, but I’d go see him again,” wasn’t just a perfect evocation of everything that was wrong with the part of the South that Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln and 360,000 Union dead hadn’t been able to change–and Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and the Freedom Riders hadn’t been able to change as much as decency would have hoped. It was also a challenge to everyone who had ever failed to take a stand.

That might at times have included Van Zant and Collins themselves. Despite later protestations that the whole concept of a Confederate flag backdrop for their live shows was entirely the record company’s idea, I’m not convinced the band fought very hard against it in the moment.

Not in the boardroom anyway.

It’s possible they thought they didn’t need to, because the music made its own point.

I can’t say. If African-Americans and others remain suspicious of the original intent, I can’t offer any hard proof to refute the notion (though I will say Lee Ballinger’s excellent oral history of the band convincingly dispels most of the easy accusations). I also can’t say what blame, if any, Van Zant and Collins and the rest of their band should bear for not being able to bring all of their audience into a better place–whether they should have preached what they practiced.

What I can say is nobody who was carrying around even a faint residue of either the racial condescension a fellow southern white man can assure you Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins had been inundated with from birth or any subsequent reactionary tinge of false liberal piety, could ever have conceived or written this song, let alone turned it into a pure blues every bit as haunting and convincing as anything that came from the Mississippi Delta in the thirties. Van Zant’s deceptively round tone–pure one moment, rasping the next–always gave him access to a sly, cutting duality that came through with special resonance on ballads. When he turns in the middle of the last verse to condemn a funeral where “On the day old Curtis died nobody came to pray, old preacher said some words and they chunked him in the clay,” the way he lands on “chunked”–that perfect, damning, bitter word–he could be Cotton Mather’s illegitimate son as easily as Mississippi John Hurt’s.

And when he slides right on past the bitterness into a defiant celebration that shifts the tone back to the elegy that long gone preacher couldn’t bring himself to give, he doubles down on either notion

By the time the song ends, the narrative has gone forward and back–shifted the combination of  tones and tenses–a dozen times in four minutes without drawing undue attention to a single one of those shifts. That’s a level of compression and nuance the very best poets or short story writers could not possibly better and it’s the reason the final verse strikes with the force of a memory that has escaped it’s own damning source–manifesting a desire that Curtis Loew join the boy he taught “to stay in time” in a present they could both feel at home in over sentiment’s usual longing for the present to be repealed.

Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins knew better than to try on the usual. They knew far too much about the past they had lived through to think the worst part of it–the part forever defined by those people who “all were fools”–could be entirely redeemed even by a tribute as warm and concise as this one.

Whether they could foresee the coming collapse of the fragile coalition rock and roll still represented when they recorded this song–of the history they had, as the quote I began this with so aptly states, “accurately condensed into four minutes”–is unanswerable. But I don’t think they would have been too surprised.

“Fools” come in endless varieties after all. And few things are more certain or common than our relentless desire to run back to the tribe.

That’s one element of the collective past even “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” couldn’t quite bury.

 

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN…VOLUME ONE:

“Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)”

Recorded: 1964

Writer: George Morton

Artist: The Shangri-Las

“Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand),” embraces a series of strange contradictions before it even escapes its first line.

There’s a single piano chord repeated three times, crashing ever more ominously with each repetition (rising and falling, fading and returning throughout the rest of the record).

Then a female voice comes in.

The voice sounds at once impossibly young–like she might have just spit out her bubblegum–and ancient–as if she might be carrying the weight of a lost civilization.

She sings a perfectly colloquial, rather countryish line–”Seems like the other day”–over a swelling, “ooh-wah-h-h-h”-ing chorus that could be called ethereal if it weren’t so umbillically engaged with both the singer and the listener she’s already so clearly and–as yet mysteriously–desparate to reach.

After that, the song gets complicated.

Rumors of a never-released seven-minute demo notwithstanding, “Remember” in its present forms (which seem to range from 2:10 to 2:41, with the standard version clocking 2:17) is sufficiently dense and bottomless to suggest any addition would only be subtraction.

Not that I wouldn’t like to hear that seven-minute version, if only because every second of Mary Weiss’ recorded existence is worth chasing. She sang this, her first lead on a record, the way she sang nearly everything in the Shangri-Las’ brief existence–as if she believed it might be her only shot.

And right there you have part of the key–a big part of why the record opens up into so much more than any lyric, however profoundly conceived or executed, can convey.

The one-shot is part of rock and roll–not to mention plain old American–mythology and, like any really useful mythology, it’s got more than a grain of truth in it.

But the one-shot isn’t really supposed to be just one shot. Of course it’s a result in and of itself. But it’s also supposed to lead to something–to be the solid, irrefutable proof that the person in question is worthy of something better than whatever the cosmos had planned for them in the first draft.

What that something is can range around, God knows, but–in the part of the mythology that keeps it fresh and appealing–it’s usually some version of happiness, even if that version is transparently fleeting.

“Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)” doesn’t quite work that way.

It rejects all versions of happiness out of hand.

Which only leads to another set of contradictions. In a way, it’s the ultimate one-shot tease (how are they possibly going to top this–how are they possibly even going to get out of this), and yet it’s also impossible to think this combination of people–singer, group, producer, writer, arranger, label, studio crew–won’t get more chances. It makes perfect sense to think that the young woman singing will be dogged by rumors of early death–even suicide–for decades to come, and equally perfect sense to think that only someone far too tough and sane to succumb to such beautiful loser cliches could pull this off.

The Shangri-Las would become known, with their next release (which was “Leader of the Pack”) as the demi-goddesses of a sub-genre which, for reasons that might be interesting to speculate about at some future date, flourished throughout the early sixties–the “teenage death disc.” In a sense, they’ve been stuck with this false limitation ever since and, great as their own version of an otherwise not-exactly-transcendant phenomenon was, there must have been some part of Mary Weiss that wanted to tell writer/producer George (soon to be “Shadow”) Morton:

“Hey, listen….I don’t really need all this tricked-up melodrama…I mean, I can remake something by Jay and the Americans and freeze every drop of blood in the room.”

Which turned out to be both true and salient.

It just couldn’t entirely overcome the part of Morton that heard that voice and thought:

“This girl needs to be singing about death.”

Before she sang about death, though, (directly present in “Leader of the Pack,” “Give Us Your Blessings,” and “I Can Never Go Home Anymore”–hanging around the margins of at least half a dozen others) she did indeed have to get out of “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand).”

(Please note that even the title was clearly meant to blow minds–what could have provided more reassurance to the unsuspecting in the summer of ’sixty-four than your local dee-jay taking a break from Beatlemania and Satchmo growling “Hello Dolly” to remind you: “Hey kids, up next, it’s a brand new group called the SHANGRI-LAS and they’re gonna’ REMEMBER walkin’ in that sand with YOU!…Don’t turn that dial!”–it’s a testimony to the group’s enduring, revolutionary power that not a single one of the associations that would have been deemed normal prior to August of 1964 for a group of this name singing a song with this title ever made sense again.)

So…

Three crisp verses (I count sixty-three syllables) which convey this much story:

Her boyfriend got drafted (in 1964, “It’s been two years ago/since I saw my baby go” and “he went away ’cross the sea” didn’t mean he was doing grad-work at Cambridge).

She’s been faithful. (Why else would she–or we–care? Besides, even in sixty-four, the Shirelles had already taught us how this went in “Solder Boy.”…”I’ll be true to you-ou-ou-ou.” That’s how it went.)

A letter just came for her.

It’s a Dear John letter in reverse. I’ll-be-true-to-you has been rewarded with “It said that we were through/He’d found somebody new.”

So far, then, it’s only a reversal on convention.

Clever and unusual to be sure, but lifted beyond the reverse-ordinary into cosmic daring only by the singer’s ability to pull us so disturbingly far inside her head while her sisters (and it’s worth noting, because it’s been a point of controversy and is exceeding rare in producer-dominated genres of any period, Weiss’ strong, credible claim in recent years that no one sang on Shangri-Las’ records except Shangri-Las–and to add that this was perhaps because no one else could) are carrying on a now-dipping, now-soaring call and response with that chorded piano.

And then:

“Oh…let me think…let me think…What can I do?”

I first heard this song on an oldies’ 45 playing on a very cheap turntable in 1979 (under circumstances I explained in detail with my initial post). I’ve listened to it many hundreds of times through a variety of formats, settings and equipment upgrades since–including at least a dozen times with this specific post in mind–and that perfect hair-pin turn still makes me look over my shoulder to see if something’s gaining on me.

At the very moment when even a blues singer would either resort to metaphysical mysticism or just start clearing things up–the song begins to dissemble emotionally even as the visual detail becomes sharper and more specific.

It turns out that what the singer “can do” at first is to begin moaning–”Oh no!…Oh no!…Oh no-no-no-no-no!”

Not because it rhymes with anything but itself (it doesn’t). Or because it’s time to play with some melisma (she enunciates with painful clarity–these aren’t sustained wordless notes because every note is a word–and every word counts). Or because of any other reason that would have suited every pop song ever written up to that point.

Some other reason then.

Some new reason.

Maybe just because saying “oh-no-no-no-no-no” is what you do when your mind is about to snap?

Maybe.

Then–either because her sisters (one literal, two spiritual) start prompting her (“Remember…Remember…Remember”) with hand claps and finger-snaps that seem to have suddenly dropped in from some other, cheerier place on the dial only to be instantly claimed by the ominous mood just like the crying-sea-gull-washing-wave sound effects, or because she’s recognized the point where insanity starts and decided to pull back from it and get her act together, she starts….remembering.

Or projecting.

Every once in a while–maybe no more often in a teenaged life than any other, though some have claimed otherwise if only so they could claim music like this only matters to teenagers as a prelude to its not mattering at all (and if you think such claims do no damage you can perhaps ponder your conclusion at the next dinner party Amy Winehouse won’t be giving)–the present becomes so overwhelming that the experiential plane completely disappears and there’s a moment when only the past and the possible futures that the mind is forming in order to receive or repel it, really exist.

The chorus of “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)” takes you there, to that rare, hole-in-the-world moment.

I’m not going to say it was the first or last record to do so. I can think of a tiny handful of others. I might even manage to write about some of them later on.

But unless maybe John Coltrane’s “Alabama” counts–and that’s a decision I’m going to put off to another day–I can’t think of another record that does so by claiming the serenity of a reverie in the midst of so much emotional chaos.

And I have to say that–great as the song is, great as the production is, great as the group’s famously haunting harmonies (worked out in bedrooms where Everly Brothers’ 45s were evidently in endless rotation) are–this is primarily the singer’s triumph.

She “gets out” by diving so deeply into her character’s happy memories–happy memories which have just that instant been turned into smoke and ash–that by the time she’s first singing…

“Then he touched my cheek…with his fingertips,”

…then singing/speaking…

“Softly…Softly…”

…she’s called up a state of physical intimacy that’s so palpable the famous sound effects are no more relevant than a B-movie that’s projecting on the screen in a half-empty theater in a run-down neighborhood when the couple behind you in the next to last row start making out and you realize they’re only doing it here because they don’t have any place else to go and because, well, they can’t not do it.

Then she sings, “We’d meet with our lips,” over crashing chords and you realize it went a long way beyond making out, those things they couldn’t not do there on that beach that is now retrievable–or worth retrieving–only in her mind.

I told you it got complicated.

After that there’s a second set of verses. Shorter, more elliptical, than the first.

She wonders what happened to “the boy that I once knew.”

Then she wonders what’s going to happen to her. To “the life I gave to you…What will I do with it now?”

Then she realizes she’s already answered her own questions–or else decided they don’t have answers.

Not bearable ones anyway.

So it doesn’t matter what has happened. It doesn’t matter what will happen.

She’s back in the present, which is now overwhelmed not so much by the past she was recalling a moment ago or the fact that she’s just been punched in the stomach, but by the very act of recalling. It’s not the memory itself that provides the illusion–or is it only illusion?–of comfort when she plunges back into the chorus. That was only for the first trip in.

Now what matters is the process of remembering.

The process is the new present–the new reality.

And, illusion or no, this is her way out–an illusion (or no) that will keep on overtaking reality until she’s either damaged beyond repair or healed.

Maybe in the thus-far-mythical seven-minute version there’s a definitive answer to that last. (George Morton supposedly thought the lyric up on his way to the studio for the hastily assembled demo-session…or while drinking champagne in the shower…or after having been abducted by aliens and returned to Earth with a life-time supply of Bryl Cream and very delicately altered brain chemistry…or…well, let’s face it, if you came up with this at the precise moment you also stumbled on the only singer in the world who could pull it off–a singer who was all of fifteen years old and hadn’t been the lead on any of her group’s four previously released sides–you probably wouldn’t remember exactly how it happened either.)

In the versions that exist, there’s no final answer. Just a sort of peace. The kind of peace that splits the difference between some well-earned tranquility and the last measure of desolation.

She might walk into the ocean.

She might go back up to the boardwalk and say thanks for listening and get on with her life.

Can’t tell.

Oh you can tell what happened to Mary Weiss. Check the internet.

She, thank God, got all the way out.

But the girl in the song…?

Can’t tell.

On the longest of these versions (released on the 2002 edition of The Myrmidons of Melodrama–their complete Red Bird recordings and, yes, that awful title tells you all you need to know about how painfully and thoroughly the Shangri-Las have been pulverized-into-mythos by even their most ardent admirers–how important it has always been to keep them somehow at arm’s length from any sort of humanizing exegisis–but the set really is otherwise indispensable) there’s an extra thirty seconds where a third chorus is started and then cut off in the middle…with the singer now sunk even further in her own new reality than before.

You can tell that much–because she’s calmer than ever.

More shattered, though?…Or more at peace?

Broken completely…or on the way back?

Sorry.

Can’t tell.