At the library the other day, I picked up the CD of Billboard Pop Hits 1968 that came in for me. I reserved it to hear Mason Williams’ instrumental “Classical Gas,” which I heard for the first time in ages on a classic-rock stream from AOL Radio. (The last time I heard “Classical Gas” was in the ’70s. It was the background music for ads for Classic Shoe Store in Dunbar, W.Va. on TV.)
I was between disks of Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath when I brought in the Billboard CD. I was enjoying it, and then the third cut on the album came. It was Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey,” a song so sickeningly sweet it’ll send even a non-diabetic into insulin shock. The protagonist is mourning his wife Honey, and the lyrics are beyond maudlin. The way he describes her (“She was always young at heart/Kinda dumb and kinda smart and I loved her so.”) What I never understood is why Honey seemed to cry so much… over a late movie, over wrecking the car, and he even “caught her cryin’ needlessly” when the husband came home. Of course, Honey dies. He talks about not being at home when “the angels came,” which always conjured up images of a band of Hell’s Angels coming in and dragging her away.
Hearing “Honey” reminded me of my pre-adolescence, when there seemed to be a tragedy-related song on the Top 10 almost every week. In fifth grade, while riding the school bus, the driver would often play the radio, and that spring the popular hit was Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun.” (Its original French title was “Le Moribond,” which gives you some idea of what it’s all about.) The song is a dying young man’s farewells to his friends and family, each verse getting more vapid than the one preceding it. I was an adult before I learned the reason why. The English lyrics were written by Rod McKuen, a poet who, I am sorry to admit, shares my birthday.
I could always make an exception for Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods’ “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” because it bore a blatant anti-war message. I used to think it took place during the Vietnam War, but I’ve realized lately it takes place during the Civil War (“The soldier-blues fell in behind”). Billy’s fiancée begs him not to enlist, not to be a hero. He dies in action, and she receives a letter saying he had been a hero, and she should be proud. The last line of the song: “I heard she threw that letter away.”
My dad used to take me for walks along the banks of the Ohio River in Marietta when I was little, along Greene Street, and looming over that body of water was the Williamstown Bridge. I never feared the bridge when we would cross it to get to and from West Virginia, but two things made me tremble at the sight of it.
One was remembering the news about the collapse of the Silver Bridge near Point Pleasant, W.Va. in December 1967. When you’re a child, bridges were secure and would not disappear out from under you, the way the Silver Bridge had, laden with cars and trucks headed to and from work and Christmas shopping. The other disquieting trigger was Bobbie Gentry’s country ballad “Ode to Billie Joe,” where a young woman in the Mississippi Delta is appalled by her family’s blasé reaction to the news that “today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” Often, the Ohio River was the color of coffee or hot chocolate, so I shuddered during the final line, where the heroine of the song describes picking flowers on Choctaw Ridge to “drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
When I was in middle school, I often spent my meager allowance on K-Tel and Ronco compilation albums. This was my introduction to gems like “Run, Joey, Run,” by David Geddes–young man gets his girlfriend in the family way, her dad is after him with a gun, the girlfriend steps in front of him just as Daddy fires, dies in his arms. Geddes had one other popular hit, equally soap-operatic. It was called “The Last Game of the Season (Blind Man in the Bleachers),” and it dealt with a blind man who goes to every football game and listens to the announcer, hoping that his son, who has warmed the bench all season, will get in to play. The last game of the season the blind man isn’t there, the home team is being slaughtered, and at halftime, the blind man’s son hangs up the phone and insists that he has to play in the second half. Thanks to the son, the team shellacs the opposing team. Coach wonders why did the young man play so well? “Well, you knew my dad was blind, tonight he passed away. It’s the first time that my father’s seen me play.”
The deceased-love theme continued (I think I blame it partially on Love Story, where a female protagonist dies of an unspecified progressive disease that involves no wasting, loss of hair, incontinence, blood transfusions, sponge baths, or dementia) with Austin Roberts’ “Rocky.” Young couple fall in love, get married, buy a house, and have a baby daughter. Soon after the daughter turns one, the narrator is happy with his life, “’til the day they told me that she didn’t have long to live.”
There are many more, but I think you get the picture. It was almost a relief when I learned that Sha Na Na member Henry Gross’ scenery-chewing song “Shannon” was about an Irish setter, not a deceased lover. (There is a story–an untrue one–that Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” is about a runaway dog. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend, I suppose, according to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.)
In case you’re wondering, I’ve been alternating between the Alan Parsons Project and the Moody Blues while I’ve been typing this entry. I wrote down several titles when the idea for this entry came to me, but I remember the songs vividly enough I didn’t need to stream them before I started typing.