And thus ends another year on our trolley ride through the land of Time-Life’s AM Gold series. Just remember to keep your arms and legs inside the car at all times. We’re coming up on one of the many scenic attractions of AM Gold, the Tallahatchie bridge.
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#17: The Cowsills, “The Rain, the Park & Other Things” – #2 U.S.
Brian Boone – Any conversation about that Cowsills song begins and ends with Dumb and Dumber.
Jon Cummings – I’ve managed to get through the past 20 years without ever seeing Dumb and Dumber, so I’ll have to recuse myself from that conversation. Generally speaking, though, I wonder whether radio program directors instructed their DJs to avoid playing this song and “Happy Together” back-to-back, just to tamp down the diabetes risk among listeners. “TRTP&OT” is ridiculously well orchestrated, and the harmonies are brilliant. I’ve never paid much attention to the Cowsills’ other stuff — which is pretty funny, considering that one of the first albums my parents bought for me was a late-period Cowsills album. I remember playing it once and not liking it … but more than that, I remember comparing its cover to the jacket for the Partridge Family’s Up To Date album (which I adored and still do), and thinking, “Why are these people ripping off the Partridge Family?”
Now, do we have to discuss Barry Cowsill’s tragic (and gruesome) drowning death in Hurricane Katrina?
Dw. Dunphy – The butcher, the baker, the mini-skirt maker. Even in my kitchiest moments, I couldn’t get into La Familia Cowsill. I could take the Partridges, I could even selectively take The Osmonds (because, you know, Marie Osmond was, you know…Mormon) but there was very little about the Cowsills that caused me anything but disdain. Even hipster irony could not save them or this song which, my God, I’m not looking for Robert Frost in my lyrics, but really.
In my exhaustive research on The Cowsills (okay, so I checked out Wikipedia and that was it. Sue me.) I found this tidbit: “In the early 1980s, (John Cowsill) was briefly a member of the band Tommy Tutone and his backing vocals and percussion can be heard on their hit “Jenny (867-5309).”
David Lifton – Along with the Jackson 5, the Partridge Family was the first pop music I can remember liking, watching reruns on Saturday mornings in the early ’70s. But I didn’t learn until the late ’80s that they were based on this real-life family band that existed. So I guess the times I heard this song after learning about The Cowsills (most likely only in Dumb & Dumber) I thought it was a Partridge Family song. It’s a perfectly likable piece of pop for kids, which is why I hope to never hear it again in my life.
#18: The Supremes, “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” – #1 U.S., #17 U.K.
Cummings – I’m feeling as lazy as Holland-Dozier-Holland clearly were when they wrote this atrocity, so I’ll just refer you to the short essay that accompanied its placement at #5 on my list of Worst Number One Hits of the ’60s. I’ll just add a couple things: The second line of the second verse goes, “Instead of tenderness I found heartache instead.” That’s just bush-league. And I can’t help but wonder, did they focus-group Diana’s spoken-word interlude from “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and find it so popular that they decided to include THREE of them on this track? It makes me want to hack up a lung, the way Diana does at the end of that first one.
It also makes me want to throw Diana off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
Dunphy – That’s why I think young Michael Jackson’s version is superior (or at least as superior as this song would ever get).
Monologuing was quickly becoming Diana Ross’ go-to song trick and this song was really ill-served by that trend. Miss Diana would go on to languidly “rap” through her cover of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and many, many more. As has already been said, the lyrics are awkward to distraction, but a very young Michael Jackson covered the tune (which I believe was the B-side to “Rockin’ Robin”) and his youthful voice, naivete and lack of speak-sing was definitely the better approach.
And once again, I’ll go out of my way to say this song would not have been done this way if Ms. Ross wasn’t Berry Gordy’s thang around this time.No other artist in the Motown stratosphere would have gotten this much latitude.
Lifton – I’m looking at HDH’s discography on Wikipedia and, apart from a few songs, there’s a sharp decline in quality from what they were cranking out a year or two earlier. Maybe by this point they had realized that Berry was screwing them over and decided not to work as hard. It was a Supremes song, so it was going to be a hit no matter what, so why put a ton of effort into it?
#19: Bee Gees, “Massachusetts” – #11 U.S., #1 U.K., 5 million copies sold.
Cummings – The meaning of “Massachusetts” has always seemed rather amorphous to me. All we know is, our protagonist left a girl behind, and all the lights went out, and now something’s telling him he must go home. What happened to her? Did she get in the tub with a toaster, and blow a circuit? Did she throw something off the Tallahatchie Bridge, plug up a dam and gum up the whole hydroelectric works? Is he an electrician? Anyway, there’s a chart on Wikipedia (I believe this chart was pulled out of somebody’s ass) that lists “Massachusetts” not only as the Bee Gees’ biggest-selling hit worldwide, but as one of the 125 or so top-selling singles of all time. You gotta give it to the Bee Gees — they WERE awfully maudlin in the late ’60s, but some of that sadsack shit was really good. They could even write a song that purportedly tells some chick she’s a “Holiday,” and still make you want to kill yourself for 3 minutes.
Dunphy – We’ve also previously ruminated upon the transformation of the Brothers Grimm, uh er, the Brothers Gibb into Bed Bath & Beyond chest-hair rug merchants from the suicide-survivor support group they once were. This song may not be the most potent example of their morbidity (“I Started A Joke” and “Holiday” dee, deedy-dee dee, still reign champion there) but it remains that the 1970s were very kind to them.
And “Massachusetts,” like those other examples, is very pretty, very easy on the ear, and stands as a testament to the belief that nobody was seriously listening to lyrics in the ’60s, Dylan be damned.
Lifton – I think Barry once said it was intended to cash in on Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco” which had just charted. At the time they had never even been to Massachusetts but they liked the way it sounded in the meter.
#20: Tom Jones, “Green, Green Grass Of Home” – #11 U.S., #1 U.K.
Cummings – I don’t get it. I’ve never gotten it, and still don’t now. What is the appeal of this song as sung by Mr. Throw Your Panties On The Stage While I Woodenly Shake My Bon-Bon? I mean, it’s a great, gigantic bummer of a song, with a fabulous twist toward the maudlin at the end. It was a perfect country hit for Porter Wagoner, with his green Western suits and bolo ties and ridiculous hair. And it was great for Johnny Cash, and Elvis (in his semi-serious mid-’70s country phase), and even Trini Lopez did it creditably. (I want to hear Stig & Bjorn’s pre-ABBA Swedish version.) But it must have been such a non-sequitur to watch Tom strut out in his tux and gigantic bow-tie, snap his fingers through “What’s New Pussycat” or “It’s Not Unusual,” then paste a hang-dog look on his face and sing about a guy who’s on his way to face the fryer. (BTW, to the folks at “AM Gold”: nice programming! The wind-down of this edition is a downer in a decidedly non-1967 way, from Diana Ross’ apparent tuberculosis (cough!) to the Bee Gees’ descent into darkness, then this, and then our next two tracks. It was the Summer of Love, goddammit, and you make it sound like EVERYBODY wanted to jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge.)
Dunphy -Three words: “Free John Coffey!”
Cummings – I’ve never read the book, but man, I love that movie. I still think it got robbed when American Beauty won the Oscar.
David Medsker – If you’ve seen the movie, you’ve read the book.
Lifton – Great song. Solid performance, if a bit overproduced, which was the style at the times. He did a version a while back for NPR with just a guitar that was quite good.
But I’m worried that I think we finally broke Cummings’ gentle spirit.
#21: The Casinos, “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” – #6 U.S., #28 U.K.
Cummings – This is a very nice song that overcomes a rather bland performance — in fact, it’s a bit jarring when the bridge attempts to soar higher than the singer’s voice could actually carry it. It lived on as a beach-music classic for those of us who grew up in the South during the ’70s. However, I heard this song for the first time after Toby Beau’s “My Angel Baby” was a hit in 1978 — and I just now noticed that Toby Beau had a mid-chart semi-hit with “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” in ’79. (BTW, Toby Beau was a band from Texas, not a dude, though the singer took “Toby Beau” as his stage name after the band split.) Anyway, having learned this, inquiring minds now want to know: Did Toby Beau record “TYCTMG” because somebody pointed out, “Hey, did you guys notice that ‘My Angel Baby’ sounds exactly like this other song? If you cover it you’ll probably get another hit, because it’ll sound so familiar!” Or did they record it because John D. Loudermilk, who wrote “TYCTMG,” suggested that if they didn’t want to be sued for plagiarism (or chucked off the Tallahatchie Bridge) they might want to set him up with some nice royalty checks?
Lifton – I’ve got a live version of Rosanne Cash singing this that I found online somewhere. I don’t know when or where it was recorded but it’s gorgeous.
#22: Bobbie Gentry, “Ode To Billie Joe” – #1 U.S., #13 U.K.
Cummings – I’ve always felt Gentry beat the tragedy-and-mundanity trope a bit too far into the ground, but there’s no denying the brutal impact of this song. It’s amazing that the question “What did they throw off that bridge?” remains one of the literary mysteries of the age. This song spooked me when I was a little kid. My parents had moved us from Southern California to rural Tennessee when I was 6, and somehow my hazy memories of that time and place (we only stayed there a couple of years) have gotten all jumbled up with this song, which was one of the first pop hits that made much of an impact on me. Of course, on a broader level, it’s interesting now to hear “Ode To Billie Joe” as a slice-of-life tale of a white family in Civil Rights Era Mississippi — the Mississippi of Freedom Summer, of Medgar Evers and of Emmitt Till, the teenager whose body was deposited in the Tallahatchie River after he was suspected of flirting with a white woman.
All of that seems a long way away from that dinner table, but the family’s own turmoil (and Billie Joe’s status as a misfit suicide) somehow fits the wider narrative of restlessness, danger and menace that we now attach to the deep South of the ’60s. Anyway, between Gentry’s stubborn refusal all these years to divulge the identity of that object tossed into the river — a flower? a ring? an aborted fetus? — and the fact that the record company jettisoned a 7-minute version of the song so it could become a pop hit, the legacy of “Ode To Billie Joe” is cryptic enough as it is. Now, about that movie with Robby Benson…
Dunphy – Holy moley. 1968’s batch of AM Gold better be like a Zoloft binge, because the previous year was a total downer.
That said, “Ode To Billie Joe” was a risky song and important in a lot of ways. I’m glad that it would get the kind of acceptance it had, even though I doubt too many listeners thought too hard about it (for more on that, revisit my comments about “Massachusetts” and how nobody was listening to lyrics in the 1960s).
My main problem with the song is that, from my backward glancing, it gets jumbled in my brain with “Harper Valley P.T.A.” I wind up humming “The Harper Valley P.T.A. jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
Lifton – Growing up I always thought this song was called, “Ode To Billy Joel.”