The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, March 24, 2003

Strange how the marketed images of artists tend to be the polar opposite of their actualities. Consider on one hand the Ronettes, straight out of Hell’s Kitchen but exalted and elevated into princesses by Spector’s Wall; and on the other, consider the Shangri-Las, out of well-to-do Forest Hills but marketed by Shadow Morton and George Goldner as wild girls plucked from the gutter who tell their parents to go screw themselves and race off with a boy – and it’s always a boy, never a man – usually on a motorcycle, usually called Jimmy (Dean, of course – the ideally dead ideal). What’s unambiguous, though, is that their brief (two-year) run of hit singles is perhaps the bleakest sequence of pop singles outside of late-period Joe Meek, or the Specials. Like David Cassidy a decade later, being happy was a disadvantage; tragedy and uncertainty had to play a part in their art.

Returning again to the Ronettes; on “Walkin’ In The Rain,” the singer is alone but looking forward to finding someone who will feel as she does. It’s an optimistic record, and Spector frames the optimism by letting the heavens burst. The epic drums and cloudburst effects combine to form a kind of grandiose rainbow for Ronnie to wander through, eventually to find salvation at the other end. Contrast that with “Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand),” one of the most troubled songs ever to make the top five. Apparently edited down from a seven-minute-long demo, the song starts in standard girl group ballad form – her man went to sea two years ago, and has inevitably found another. Learning this news, lead singer Mary Weiss’ shock is memorably captured in her confused, rapid-fire “let me think, let me think,” trying not to be instantly overwhelmed by grief, before settling back into “What can I do?” Then the sudden awful realisation: “Oh no. Oh no. Oh NO NO NO NO NO.” Then the song suddenly changes gear; into a mid-tempo, finger-snapping, minimalist chant: “Remember!” (“Fever” gone Gregorian) while Weiss whispers and murmurs and mumbles in the foreground, trying to reassemble the now fading memories in her mind: “Softly, softly, we’d meet with our lips” – a hint of the carnal before returning to the verse structure. Now Weiss wails “the life I gave to you – what will I do with it now?” before abruptly returning to the chorus. Her murmurs become progressively less distinct, more disjointed; her memories disassembling themselves. In the end, she, and the song, peter out, like the tide ebbing out to a horizon already lost. The bird sound-effects feel as artificial as those which Bernard Herrmann constructed for Hitchcock. An artificially induced memory. Do you even know who you are? Blank out the pain.

“Leader Of The Pack” remains of course their best-known song; the 15-year-old Billy Joel’s piano chords resounding like a judge’s gavel. Perhaps too well-known to withstand further deconstruction, it nevertheless gives us the template for the Shangri-Las at their best (i.e. at their most defeated) – few other canons within pop put so much emphasis on Larkin’s “they fuck you up, your mum and dad” meme. Parents only ever fuck their kids up on Shangri-Las records; they stand in the way of relationships, always spell death. And so it is here, with the real-life motorbike in the studio, with the sudden switch from Weiss’ mumbled spoken intro to her sudden explosion of “I met him at the candy store!” – and also the liturgical fadeout: “the Leader of the Pack – now he’s gone” while the screeching brakes go into a loop, rather like the Jesus and Mary Chain’s unceasing feedback.

This is not to say that the Shangri-Las were incapable of happiness. On the contrary, when they did express joy and wonder, the elation seemed incautiously elated; the other extreme of manic depression. So it is on “Give Him A Great Big Kiss” wherein Weiss spells out her ideal “boy.” He doesn’t appear to be anyone else’s ideal – “big wavy hair, a little too long,” “dirty fingernails – a boy with pride! “ “He’s always looking like he doesn’t lose.” Best of all is the hilarious talking middle section, where Weiss exclaims, “He’s “good” bad, but he’s not evil” (the others respond, “tell me more, tell me more” in an uncanny prophecy of “Summer Nights” from Grease).

But, needless to say, the ideal can rarely translate into reality. In the mournful “Back On The Streets,” Weiss – whose quavering voice always sounded on the verge of weeping – reflects on the impossibility of turning that ideal into a mirror image of herself, the futility of trying to domesticate him, because doing so surgically removes all the danger and sex which initially attracted her. So she has to “set him free” because it’s the only way he can turn her on – as an unattainable outsider. Even in a song like “The Boy,” Weiss observes that he is “looking old,” and although she sings that she “used to walk the streets at night,” “loneliness is a part of my past – a million tears ago,” she doesn’t exactly sound overwhelmed with joy.

“Give Us Your Blessings” is lyrically a rerun of “Leader Of The Pack,” except here both Mary and “Jimmy” take off on the motorbike, apparently so overcome with misery that their “folks” have failed to sanction their imminent union that they fail to notice “the sign that says DETOUR.” On this song there are no melodramatic sound-effects; simply a matter-of-fact final verse where the parents discover the two corpses and, presumably, grieve. The use of space in the production and the refrain of “run, run, run” manages to foresee both Brian Wilson’s later adventures, and the Velvet Underground.

In contrast, “The Train From Kansas City” considers a different kind of living death. Mary is engaged to be wed but receives a letter from an old flame. She doesn’t do the simple thing and write him back but lets him come (oh yes). She assures her current intended that he needn’t worry – “we will never part,” but she sings it through clearly clenched teeth. The steam whistles through a “Ghost Town.” High Noon (or, strictly speaking, ten past two) arrives like the sword of Damocles. Of course she still wants him, and the subtext is that she will go straight back to him. But will we know? The ending is left as open as that whistle.

“Never Again” is an emotional avalanche of almost Spectorian standards. Betrayed, Weiss screams that this is the end (“you’ve had your last chance”), as the drums and backing vocals are mixed higher and higher with every verse, Hal Blaine’s percussion a metaphorical axe crashing down on the adulterer’s head.

They did try different things. “Right Now And Not Later” is a demand for commitment from the Other set to a brisk and propulsive groove – a Northern Soul floorfiller waiting to be discovered. “I’m Blue” is their exceptionally singular and askew take on R&B; hear Weiss’ stuttering chorus of “gone gone go-go-go-go-gone-gone” and hear especially the bizarre Sun Ra chordal clusters coming from the organ behind her (also note the second verse lyric: “Every night about two, my love for you comes tumbling down,” oh yes). “Sophisticated Boom Boom” is a forlorn attempt at starting a new dance craze, notable chiefly for Weiss’ vocal trumpet imitation in the instrumental break (“that’s not cool!” exclaims another Shangri-La directly afterwards). “Heaven Only Knows” and “What’s A Girl Supposed To Do” are very good, straight Spector homages (though “The Dum Dum Ditty” is “Da Doo Ron Ron” unabashedly mixed with “He’s A Rebel”). “Long Live Our Love” is a rather hamfisted bring-the-boys-back homage to Vietnam (and musically oddly anticipates Olivia Newton-John’s doomed ’74 Eurovision entry “Long Live Love”) – but listen to the anticipatorily mournful paraphrasing of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” which sounds as though Johnny’s funeral has already taken place.

But most remarkable, and most sinister, of all was the string of discs which they recorded which stare death directly in the face. Firstly, “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” one of the most overt studies of Oedipal fixation in pop, a devotional hymn to Mother. It starts briskly with a snarled “I’m gonna go and hide if she don’t leave me alone/I’m gonna run away” before Weiss shuts the uptempo music off with a sudden but soft “don’t.” She then goes on, in a faltering, half-singing voice (and, in contrast to the Ronettes’ assured technical vocal prowess, the Shangri-Las’ vocal incompetence kind of worked in their frail favour) to tell the tale of how she ran off with a boy (who, uniquely in Shangri-Las records, is clearly a McGuffin; by the second verse, she’s “forgot about him right away”) and condemned her mother to loneliness. Hear the stunning moment where she dreams an infant lullaby – which usually, in pop, spells doom; this is the direct ancestor of the murdered mother in the Coup’s “Me And Jesus The Pimp In A ’79 Granada Last Night” – before concluding tearfully that her mother “got so lonely, the angels picked her for a friend.” In other words, she committed suicide. Even in the increasingly nihilistic year of 1966 (“Paint It, Black,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Who Are The Brain Police”) this was strong stuff, and yet still managed #6 in the US charts. She has condemned her own mother, her only true lover, to death, and can consequently never go home anymore. Forget kitsch, forget camp, go straight to Susan Sontag and see the quivering fear within.

“He Cried,” a gender-reversed cover of an old Jay and the Americans hit, repeats the title motif over and over as the ramifications of the break-up make themselves increasingly known musically.

And then there was their final hit – a mere #59 on Billboard, too strong even for 1966 tastes – the extraordinary double-sided “Past, Present And Future” and “Dressed In Black.” Especially the latter. Here the Other walks around morbidly, hardly noticing Weiss’ existence. They’ve been told they can never be, for whatever reason (too old? too young?). He keeps on walking. There’s a moment of doomed defiance as Weiss suddenly raises her voice and shouts, “I don’t care what anyone thinks! This love I have is growing stronger and stronger! (an indirect paraphrasing of Sinatra’s exquisitely resigned closer to In The Wee Small Hours, “This Love Of Mine”)” before realising that in fact he has gone, never to return. The refrain of “so soft, so warm,” initially hopeful, now starts to recede. Thus the scene is set for the bleakest, most desolate end to any pop record. The accompaniment is pared down to castanets, percussion and double bass, quieter and quieter while the never more chilling voice of Mary Weiss recites her own epitaph:

“I climb the stairs. I shut the door. I turn the lock. Alone once more.

And no one can hear me cry.

no one.”

And you know she will never come out of that room again. Not unless carried out in a coffin.

So to “Past, Present And Future,” the Shangri-Las’ own epitaph to themselves and the death of youth, of joy, of life. Over a barely concealed “Moonlight Sonata,” the song is recited, not sung. Look at the past. “Was I ever in love? There were moments when…well, there were moments when.” Consider the present, the squalid options open to her. “Go out with you? Why not? Do I like to dance?” And then, colder and more lethal than an icepick: “Don’t try to touch me. FOR THAT WILL NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN.” Before a brisk “shall we dance?”

The orchestra briefly swells into a mockery of grandeur – compare the orchestra and chorus which swell for a few seconds at a time at strategic points in Herb Alpert’s 1969 reading of Nilsson’s “Without Her,” the real pain I cannot sing – before resigning itself back into stasis.

“At the moment, it doesn’t look good. At the moment, it will never happen again.” And finally, in rhythmic tandem with the piano, straight out of Beckett: “I. Don’t. Think. It. Will. Ever. Happen. Again.”

It’s a song about rape, of course. “At least, it felt like love.” But we need to consider long and hard that “there were moments when.” There were moments when he raped me. And who was the rapist? Is it who you think? Remember how their disgust at their parents has been highlighted throughout their records. Is this another

“Her name was Cheryl…her father came to her at night. She was 12 years old”
(Cat Power, “Names”)

Is that why her folks are so uptight at her seeing, or marrying, or fucking boys? Does this song explain all the others?

It was co-written by Jerry Leiber, and provides a useful bookend to Leiber and Stoller’s art song of three years later, “Is That All There Is,” Peggy Lee’s last big hit. Indeed the progenitor of the latter song could be amusedly ridiculing the adolescent hang-ups of the Shangri-Las oeuvre (“I know what you’re thinking…if that’s the way she feels, why doesn’t she end it all? Oh no, not me…I’m not ready for that final disappointment”), even though it’s a pretence at detached indifference to the bad cards life has dealt her; the Peggy Lee who sings “Is That All There Is” is a grown-up, but no more wise, Mary Weiss; still despairing, really, but continuing to exist by virtue of denying her despair.

“She was in a sort of nervous state when I zid her last; and so thin and hollow-cheeked that ‘a do seem in a decline. Nobody will ever fall in love wi’ er any more,” said Izz absently.
(Hardy, Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, chapter XL: 1891)

“In the fire of his care his love in the high room,
And the child not caring to whom he climbs his prayer
Shall drown in a grief as deep as his true grave,
And mark the dark eyed wave, through the eyes of sleep,
Dragging him up the stairs to one who lies dead.”
(Dylan Thomas, “The Conversation Of Prayer,” March 1945)

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