Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 17
The good ship AM Gold has arrived in 1966, and we’re forced to confront an age-old question — how do you separate art from the artist? Or is it even possible? And does that become even harder when the art in question is so damn good?
OK so those are three questions.
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#1: The Mamas & the Papas, “California Dreamin’” - #4 U.S., #23 U.K.
Jack Feerick - …or, when great music happens to bad people. Very bad people. In fact, I don’t want to think about John Phillips at all; I’m just going to envision Faye Wong in Chungking Express, instead. Ah, Faye.
Chris Holmes - I know only a little about the sordid details surrounding the Mamas & the Papas, but I’m willing to stick my head in the sand when it comes to this track. I’m a sucker for melodic, melancholy pop and this may be the greatest example of that style I’ve ever heard.
Dw. Dunphy - About the only Mamas/Papas song I can bear now is “I Saw Her Again,” and even that was tainted by the revelations from Mackenzie Phillips’ book.
Matt Springer - Let’s talk about the track first–because god, what a track. It’s a great song, to be sure, but what gets me here is the ghostly production; it sounds like the way a sharp breeze in November feels. You can employ harmony backing vocals to any number of emotional ends, and the Mamas & the Papas themselves cycled through a number of them; here they’re a dirge.
As to the rest of it–that’s the age old question, isn’t it–can we separate the art from the artist? When the artist is this repulsive, it’s almost impossible for me to do so. And I’m just talking about the horrors he inflicted on his children; let’s not even start with his co-writing credit on “Kokomo.”
Jon Cummings - Blah, blah, blah, “John Philips was a bad person.” Here we go again. How do you manage to live your day-to-day life when your appreciation for any cultural artifact is predicated on your attitude toward whatever you’ve learned about its creator? Philips could have done even worse things in his life than he did (and I concede that he was a world-class dick), and I would still feel an innate need to revel in the glory of “California Dreamin’.” It’s nearly perfect — in its evocation of our national fetishization of the Golden State, in its use of counterpoint harmonies, in its flute solo (suck it, “Aqualung”!), and (for me) in its balancing of to-the-point and metaphorical representations of East Coast ennui and coming-of-age discontent.
My very favorite thing about the song is the second verse, which is open to interpretation (and mishearing) in a way that few Top 10 hits have ever achieved. Does the end of that second line say “began to pray” (as in, pray for deliverance from a cold winter) or “pretend to pray”? It’s the latter, but you can bet the vast majority of listeners in 1966 (and today, probably) thought it was the former. Either way, it works. Is the protagonist pretending to pray simply because he’s come into the church just to get out of the cold, but feels the preacher’s eyes upon him and feels he must behave appropriately — or is he pretending because he no longer believes in the God who has trapped him in his frigid, gray existence?
Then there’s that preacher in the next line — a line that also is heard several ways, as laid out in this interesting discussion on the Songfacts website. Is it “You know the preacher likes the cold,” or “You know the preacher lights the coals” — or, more menacingly, “You know the preacher locked the doors”? Again, all three hearings work on different levels – either the preacher is unsympathetic to the protagonist’s plight, he’s helping the protagonist get warm, or he’s confining the protagonist to his misery. As for “He knows I’m going to stay” — does that mean stay in the church to warm up, or stay (like the groundhog) for six more weeks of winter? And how does the preacher know this, and why should he care? Personally, as someone who finds the God-is-dead interpretation most interesting, I like to imagine that Philips initially ended that line with “He knows I’m gonna stray,” then changed it to “stay” at the last minute so that the song would get airplay in the South. But, again, either way the preacher’s perhaps-sinister omniscience is kinda creepy.
Medsker – ["Does the end of that second line say 'began to pray' (as in, pray for deliverance from a cold winter) or 'pretend to pray'? It's the latter, but you can bet the vast majority of listeners in 1966 (and today, probably) thought it was the former."]
As did I, until about five minutes ago.
Cummings - It’s an easy mistake — not least because there’s a change in tense from the first half of the line to the second: “Well, I got down on my knees and I pretend to pray.” C’mon, Phillips, get your grammar straight! You went to college! (for awhile…)
Dunphy - In other circumstances, I could probably be more accepting. Hell, I’d accept Mike Love’s terrible behavior against his cousin (and I guess I have for all these years). But call me puritanical — John Phillips screwed his strung-out daughter because she wanted his drugs. Knowing that just drains all the joy out of what was once a very joyful song. Am I overwrought? Maybe, but I’m just reporting how I feel.
Cummings - It’s not my job to defend Phillips … but he has two ex-wives and a daughter (Bijou) who have said publicly they’re pretty sure Mackenzie made that story up. There is no question whatsoever that Phillips was a black hole of horrible family relationships, not to mention needle marks and liver transplants. But heaven knows how many others in every field of artistic endeavor (Picasso, anyone? Polanski?) have behaved just as badly, if not worse? There comes a time, in almost every case, when you have to separate the artist’s sins from the artistic vision – or better yet, reconcile the two (hopefully with only limited assistance from a paycheck memoir like Mackenzie’s appeared to be) – rather than use one to reject the other.
That said, fuck Mike Love. Not because he is an overly litigious, credit-obsessed, right-wing douchebag, but because he’s a talentless hack with bad taste whose voice I generally can’t stand, and who called our next song “avant-garde shit” two decades before writing “Kokomo.” (Yes, Phillips had a hand in “Kokomo” too, but at least – here’s the reconciliation part — he was a raging alcoholic at the time. What’s Mike’s excuse?)
David Lifton - I go back and forth on The Mamas & The Papas. Their best singles, and this is one, are undeniable classics. But they always seem to get more credit than they probably deserve because of their involvement in the Monterey Pop Festival and because their story, which they were never shy about telling, makes for great copy. I guess they helped to some degree make folk-rock, and by extension, the counter-culture, somewhat respectable, but they weren’t particularly innovative and only lasted a few years. What do you all think?
#2: The Beach Boys, “Good Vibrations” - #1 U.S. and U.K.; the group’s third U.S. #1
Feerick - This is practically prog-rock in its compositional and structural complexity, and yet it sounds so effortless, every element perfectly integrated. Only a few years separate this from “Surfer Girl,” which is almost shocking to contemplate. It’s not even so much that Brian’s talents had been so sharpened — the seeds of his greatness were apparent from the start — but that he’d begun to allow himself such ambition.
Springer - Pop music creates for the listener a template of sorts, a relatively common structure by which we are able to understand each new three-minute infusion. Many bands will tinker with that format over the course of their careers.
Starting with this song and continuing throughout his creative life, Brian Wilson crafted songs that forced the listener to meet his own terms, to completely abandon whatever expectations they brought to the experience. There are influences on “Good Vibrations,” but there is no precedent for it. It emerges complete and whole from the imagination of one man and onto record via the vehicle of the Beach Boys and the Wrecking Crew. I think it’s one of the greatest and most important achievements in the history of pop music.
Also, fuck Mike Love.
Cummings - A bazillion critics’ lists placing “Good Vibrations” among the top 10 songs of all time can’t be wrong. (By the way, how the fuck did it appear as low as #44 on our list a few years back, below two other Beach Boys singles?) Anyway, pop-music history long ago settled upon a narrative in which this track sits as a key point in the game of one-upsmanship playing out between Brian Wilson and Lennon/McCartney during 1965-67 — a game that ended with Sgt. Pepper blowing everybody away while Brian lost his marbles trying to finish Smile. It’s a simplistic narrative, of course, but assuming there’s some verity to it, then “Good Vibrations” may be the 3-minute high-water mark of the entire “psychedelic” era. Musically speaking, certainly. I mean, lyrically it’s not deep like “Tomorrow Never Knows” or “Within You Without You,” and it doesn’t play with imagery like “Lucy in the Sky” or “Strawberry Fields Forever” … and I’m not sure Brian got as much bang for the buck out of the $15,000 he paid to put a Theremin here as the Beatles got out of the orchestral climaxes on “A Day in the Life” … but, honestly, is there a single Fabs song from the era that you’d rather hear on the radio than “Good Vibrations”?
Dunphy - Excellent segue.
“Good Vibrations” is pure joy and an awful lot like the euphoria of love itself, if I’m allowed to be nauseatingly flowery about it. When you’re in that state, maybe it’s the seratonin shots that go off in the brain, but it is like going from one high to the next, each a little different than the one before. In some bizarre sense (and highly doubtful it was so calculated), that is what the suite-like nature of “Good Vibrations” is.
Lifton - Bliss.
#3: Bobby Hebb, “Sunny” - #2 U.S., #3 U.S. R&B, #12 U.K.
Feerick - Just a terrible song; the constant, obnoxious key changes are cheesy enough, but the horrible fakey jazziness of the vibes put this right into supper-club territory.
Some serious howlers in the lyric:
My life was torn like wind-blown sand
then a rock was formed when we held hands.
TEACH ME OF THIS HU-MAN EMOTION CALLED… “LOVE.”
And there’s no one to blame but Hebb himself. One some level, he must have thought that “Thank you for the facts from A to Z” was a great line — after all, he wrote it. A marvelous voice — soulful, tough and tender as Otis Redding — but god, such a waste; this is why not every singer should try to write their own material.
Holmes - See, I love this song in spite of its cheesiness (or maybe because of it?). But if Bobby’s original doesn’t do it for you, how about a little Dusty Springfield?
Springer - It’s easy to dismiss the content here, which is awful as Jack said, but it’s hard for me to deny the groove. I wonder who played on this cut; the rhythm section is earning their pay.
Feerick - Oh, sure. There are a couple of nice little arranging touches — check the James Bond lick in the strings at :28 — and the rhythm section is indeed playing their butts off; but I reckon that’s mostly an attempt to relieve their own boredom. “Hey, we’re going to be stuck playing this piece of crap for seven hours straight — let’s try to have some fun with it, at least.”
Dunphy - “Sunny” is what happens when good sales happen with bad high school lyrics. It is effortless and sounds alright, but the lyrics are so trite and bland, you find yourself listening for reasons of not wanting to hear it. It’s like picking the scab you should leave alone.
Cummings - I don’t buy the idea that the lyric is particularly more trite than lots of other pop and R&B songs from this era, but the combination of the simplistic lyric, the repetitive melody, Hebb’s surprisingly soul-free vocal, and the generic arrangement doom it to also-ran status. (Of course, it was a huge hit, so what do I know?) I bet there’s a batch of awesome versions of this song out there, but I haven’t heard them. I’ve heard Marvin Gaye’s, which replicates Hebb’s pace and substitutes a standard-issue Motown arrangement to dull effect. That version Chris offered up from Dusty Springfield is interesting because its sped-up arrangement makes it more Rat-Pack jazzy, but I don’t think she accomplishes much with the song either. Having caught “Ain’t No Sunshine” on the radio this morning, I couldn’t help listening to “Sunny” afterward and thinking, “Where’s Bill Withers when I need him to make a point for me?”
Lifton - Can you think of any other R&B hit from this period where the vocals are so far out in the mix like this? It might have made this a little more exciting.
Holmes - Totally out of the blue I stumbled across a clip of James Brown performing “Sunny” in 1971. For those who might want a little more soul with the song.
#4: The Lovin’ Spoonful, “Daydream” - #2 U.S. and U.K.; the group’s third consecutive Top 10 single
Feerick - Try telling me now these guy weren’t a heroin band.
Springer - I don’t have a lot of rationalization here, but this song annoys the shit out of me. Maybe it’s the forced casualness of the vibe, or the ticky-tack piano and whistling. To me, this sounds less like a drug anthem from the sixties and more like what some straight would write in an attempt to emulate a drug anthem from the sixties. (I realize it’s basically a proven drug anthem from the sixties. LEAVE ME BE.)
Feerick - In a funny way, Matt, I think that the drugs and the nostalgic element — which seem so antithetical on the surface — are part of the same thing. Embedded in the 60s counter-culture you had this weird strain of longing for a mythic past, a craving for simplicity, an escape from modernism and responsibility. You found it expressed in the hippie dream of a return to Eden, in the back-to-the-land organic movement, and in the ukulele vaudeville of Tiny Tim. In that sense, the drugs were just another means to an end.
That being said, this song is smartly-conceived and crisply-realized. I especially dig the little volume swell effect on the second guitar.
Dunphy - I’ve never been a John Sebastian fan. He’s just so…mellow. That’s what makes “Summer In The City” so good. It runs against type. Unfortunately, “Daydream” is right in there with type and it just sours my cheese, man.
Dan Wiencek – At least it inspired “Good Day Sunshine.”
Cummings - This is a “proven drug anthem”? That’s not my impression, though I suppose the imagery seems obvious. (It might have been Dan Quayle or George W. Bush’s “druggie” song, but not anyone whose mind was actually expanded.) I’ve always heard “Daydream” as being of a piece with songs like “Feelin’ Groovy” and “Groovin’” and its near-namesake, “Daydream Believer” — bliss-out songs aimed at the kids for whom “Good Lovin’” or “Last Train to Clarksville” or “Summer in the City” or even “I Am a Rock” rocked just a little too hard.
#5: Bob Lind, “Elusive Butterfly” - #5 U.S. and U.K.; the U.S. single was the B-side of “Cheryl’s Goin’ Home.”
Feerick - My friend Grant — himself a singer-songwriter — knows Bob Lind pretty well. They worked together in the trenches at American Media, publisher of fine supermarket tabloids, in Boca Raton. (American Media, you may remember, was targeted with an anthrax package in the bad old days just after 9/11.) Lind never stopped writing songs, but his career as a pop star always had the feel of a youthful lark, in a long life well-lived and filled with various creative outlets including a bunch of novels and countless articles about UFOs, the Yeti, and dubious Bible prophecies.
I remember reading Richard Goldstein’s take on “Elusive Butterfly” in his study The Poetry of Rock: you could tell it was “real” poetry, he wrote, because you could imagine someone reading it aloud at a high school graduation. True dat.
Holmes - I can just picture Bob singing this track while strumming a guitar and gazing off into the distance. I never thought about the lyrics as an actual stab at poetry, but it makes sense because Lind sure as hell crams a lot of words into a three-minute song.
Springer - Sorta pleasant and harmless until the “heavy breathing” part. Then, WHOA.
Cummings - You can tell it’s “real poetry” because cramming all those adjectives into versus and choruses requires abandoning any hope of a decent melody. I don’t have anything constructive to say about this song. I don’t get its appeal, except perhaps as a Donovan substitute for the simple-minded. “My nets of wonder”? Really?
Dunphy - So, this is about some pervert peeping into chicks’ windows and when they catch on, he bolts into the woods? Mr. Lind, be careful when zipping up the elusive butterfly of love, ’cause if you get your junk caught in it, it’s gonna sting.
Lifton - This sounds like “Gentle On My Mind” crossed with Mr. Van Driessen’s “Lesbian Seagull” from Beavis & Butt-Head Do America.