“Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)”
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.)
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.
“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?
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.
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,”
…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.
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…?
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?