Friday, April 7, 2017

Back to the Sixties

This is Tandyn Almer -- musician, composer, lyricist, producer. He was born in Minneapolis in 1942. In the 1960s he moved to California, where he penned a song for the sunshine pop group, The Association, known for soft rock hits like Cherish and Never, My Love.

Along Comes Mary was a departure for the group style-wise, but a great success. This song was one of my favorites during my senior year of high school, and remained so on into adulthood. From the opening bass riff to the final "...punch!" it held a strong attraction for me.

It was cram-packed with intriguing lyrics, and I wanted to learn them so I could sing along, which required that I read them from the back of the album cover. But it was the music -- the melody, harmony, the beat -- that drew me most. There was a haunting quality that underlay the music.

In those days, my friends and I lived in a protected bubble. Raised in church-going families, educated in a Christian school, we lived in the most religious and politically conservative corner of the country.  We knew bad things happened, because we saw reports about them on TV news. But they didn't much happen to us. We also knew there were those of our generation who wallowed in the sex/drugs/rock and roll culture, but no one in my circle wished to join them. That was stuff to stay away from. Rock music that glorified S/D/R&R was to be ignored, or at least neutralized.

One reason I loved Paul Revere and The Raiders was their conspicuously anti-drug song, Kicks. Yes, I loved nearly all their music, and I loved to see Drake and Fang pony during the interludes when they were on after-school TV... But Kicks sealed my respect for them.

My friends and I knew about the rumors that the "Mary" in "Along Comes..." was "Mary Jane" which was code for marijuana. But as I drilled myself memorizing the lyrics, I saw that the message was too bizarre to mean .... anything, to me.

And the music was still great.

At some point in the decades that followed high school, our turntable gave up the ghost, and we got a CD player. Our mountain of vinyl music faded into the background....

And then I got a computer, and I got online, and I found YouTube.

The great thing about YouTube is that often times, you're not only able to hear the old songs ... you can see them performed by the artists that made them popular. You can also find out interesting background that you wouldn't have learned in the 1960s unless you had money to spend on fan magazines. I didn't -- and I wasn't all that interested at the time, anyway. But now, it's fascinating to see Tandyn's song (who I don't remember even hearing of) performed by The Association on the Smothers Brother's Show.

It was also surprising, after seeing it performed quite spectacularly on live TV (but recorded for posterity), to read that Tandyn was plagued with trouble most of his life. He was from a broken home and was the object of a couple of parental kidnappings at a fairly young age. He played classical piano by ear, at age four. He was brilliant, a genius, a member of Mensa but he had mental health issues as an adult (he was bi-polar and had ADHD) that likely stymied his career.

In the mid-1970s, he relocated to McLean,Virginia to work on a production in D.C. that never materialized, and lived there the rest of his life. Per Wikipedia, he died in 2013 at age 70 from a combination of illnesses -- atrial fibrillation, congestive heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He is buried in Minneapolis.

This background on Tandyn was found on various sites, and after reading about him, I was more curious than ever about the bizarre lyrics of Along Comes Mary. I read several fascinating commentaries online -- some people claimed "Mary" was the Virgin Mary (oh, puh-leeze); others said "Mary" wasn't just marijuana, but all the substances of the drug culture in the 1960s (particularly hallucinogens like LSD).

But one comment, from an acquaintance of Tandyn's, made the most sense, and had the ring of truth. She said the lyrics are an observation about the drug culture, the whole scene ... and from that perspective (or from any other, actually) it does not glorify drug use -- far from it. Some commenters said the song is actually anti-drug, whether intentional or not.

Given the intertwining of recreational drugs and the music industry, everyone involved in the industry basically has a front row seat to observe the powerful destructiveness of drugs, and apparently Tandyn was no exception. The wonder is that more lyricists and singers, artists and producers, observing ruined careers, broken families, dead colleagues, friends and loved ones, are not driven to condemn the scourge in their performances.

Take a look at the lyrics to Along Comes Mary for yourself. You tell me whether this is glorification ... or horror...
"Along Comes Mary"
Words and music by Tandyn Almer

Every time I think that I'm the only one who's lonely
Someone calls on me
And every now and then I spend my time in rhyme and verse
And curse those faults in me

And then along comes Mary
And does she want to give me kicks, and be my steady chick
And give me pick of memories
Or maybe rather gather tales of all the fails and tribulations
No one ever sees

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

When vague desire is the fire in the eyes of chicks
Whose sickness is the games they play
And when the masquerade is played and neighbor folks make jokes
As who is most to blame today

And then along comes Mary
And does she want to set them free, and let them see reality
From where she got her name
And will they struggle much when told that such a tender touch as hers
Will make them not the same

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

And when the morning of the warning's passed, the gassed
And flaccid kids are flung across the stars
The psychodramas and the traumas gone
The songs are left unsung and hung upon the scars

And then along comes Mary
And does she want to see the stains, the dead remains of all the pains
She left the night before
Or will their waking eyes reflect the lies, and make them
Realize their urgent cry for sight no more

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch
Featuring vocalist Jim Yester

(Note. In this video, the audio from the TV show has been removed and the soundtrack from the original single dubbed over the video. That accounts for a couple of places where sound and video are slightly out of synch. This video with the original sound from the TV show is also available on YouTube.)

One -- Quick follow up on this post. Reading a little more about Tandyn and The Association, I find out that band member Terry Kirkman (tall, cute guy playing the recorder in the above video, and the writer of "Cherish") has been an addiction counselor to musicians for at least 22 years (until 2012) and may still be doing so. He is 77....

Two -- According to the lyrics, "Mary" (which is not just marijuana, but also a catch-name for all drugs popular in the 1960s, including the hallucinogens like LSD) causes one to focus on one's faults, fails and tribulations... results in gassed and flaccid kids flung across stars (horrifying image), brings on and ends psychodramas and traumas, and unsung songs... and leaves in its aftermath the stains and dead remains of pain ...

Drugs, we've heard, are supposed to be an escape from the down side of life. But here's a lyricist who experienced the drug culture personally saying that it focuses the user's attention on the downside, big time.  Dwelling on one's faults, failures and tribulations sounds like depression, not escape. 

I admit to being clueless about the meaning of "the morning of the warning..." but I want to revisit some other terms.  "...gassed and flaccid kids are flung across the stars..." That's a pretty horrendous vision straight out of a bad acid trip...  "Gassed" is a term for "drunk" on alcohol, but I think it works equally well for "stoned" on weed. And flaccid ... well, that means limp, lethargic, weak, without energy.... Passed out. Unconscious.  So kids are passed out from smoking dope, and the ones on a bad acid trip have been flung, at least in their scrambled minds, into the limitless vacuum of space, which is hostile to life.... By this stage, whatever psychodramas and traumas led up to it are gone now, because the capacity to feel them has been wiped out. Thus, not only is human emotion beyond feeling, but so is physical sensation -- pain itself is dead .... What's left is nothingness....

Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit is another hit of the era, from 1967, that portrays the bizarre and terrifying aspects of hallucinogenic drug use.  There are no doubt others, which leads to the question ... why were so many young people pulled into such a negative, indeed, horrific experience?