Sunday, September 13, 2020

What Does It Mean?










A few months back, as I was trying to put together a post about the New York No Wave movement of the late 1970s and early '80s, I happened upon a video clip of a band I'd only vaguely heard of: The Del-Byzanteens. The clip was intriguing enough in itself but the really interesting thing about it was the keyboard player, Jim Jarmusch.

Back in the eighties I was quite the cinephile. I had favorite directors (Hal Hartley, Alex Cox, Ridley Scott... the usual suspects) whose movies I'd go to see as soon as they were released, in much the same way I'd buy the latest albums by bands I liked.

I saw Jim Jarmusch's first five widely-distributed films, Stranger than Paradise, Down By Law, Mystery Train, Night on Earth and Dead Man as they came out. Even so, I'd somehow managed not to notice he'd been in a band and a pretty good one at that.

The No Wave post never really came together. It's a deliberately difficult genre and even the best-known bands didn't offer much purchase for the prospective television booker. Equally, fans didn't come equipped with palm-sized cameras the way they do now so the period isn't rich in ad hoc hand-held footage.

I haven't given up on the idea. A No Wave post is still a more likely prospect than my next project, a post featuring people who started out as musicians but ended up becoming much better known as directors. That's because, other than Jim, I couldn't really find any.

I'm open to suggestions but the criteria has to be that they were active and performing or recording, in bands or solo, before they became well-known in cinema. People who leveraged their fame to indulge their musical fantasies (Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood) definitely don't count.

One of the great things about the worldwide web in general and YouTube in particular is the way random searches turn into serendipitous chains of discovery. The No Wave post sputtered and the musicians-turned-directors never got started but instead I ended up spending an hour or so delving into the early stirrings of gender politics in 1960s girl groups.

The Del-Byzanteens only ever issued one seven-inch single. It came out in 1982 with an original, "Draft Riot", on the A-side and a cover on the reverse. "Draft Riot" is unusually tuneful by No Wave's challenging standards. The chorus is positively catchy. It's the B-side that sounds off-kilter and weird.

Built around an endlessly repeating bass riff, underpinned by Jarmusch's churning organ fills and revelling in cyclical vocals that sound like some kind of meditation, "Sally Go Round the Roses" exudes an atmosphere both psychedelic and unsettling. Reading the comments as it played, I was more than a little surprised to find the original had been a hit for a girl group called the Jaynetts way back in 1963.

The early 1960s has long been a byword for musical mediocrity. The accepted position is that rock and roll fell sick on Elvis's induction into the army in the spring of '58 and didn't recover until the Beatles' first chart success in the fall of '62. Once that recovery began, though, it picked up speed like a train.

1963 and 1964 gleam with strange and unlikely glimmers of the future, from the Monks to the Kingsmen but some of the best material undoubtedly rests in the safe hands of the girl groups. The Shangri-Las, the Ronnettes, the Crystals and all the sparkling, shimmying trios have lasted far, far better than anyone then could have imagined.

I'm very far from being an expert in the era or the genre but I'd reckon to recognize all of the better-known names and many from the minor leagues. I'd also expect the titles of most of the bigger girl-group hits at least to ring a bell. Apparently I don't know as much as I thought, because not only was the Jaynetts a new name to me but I'd never heard of, far less heard this, their signature tune and big hit, which peaked at #2 on the Billboard Top 100.

Fair enough, perhaps, for someone in the U.K. to have missed out on such a milestone. It wasn't a hit over here and anyway I would have been all of five years old. Less forgiveable, surely, for me to have missed covers by Grace Slick and the Great Society and Donna Summer.

Regardless, I was eager to find out more. And what a lot more there turned out to be. Sally Go Round the Roses casts a long, dark shadow. Here's how the extensive Wikipedia entry describes it:

"... unlike other pop songs of the day, with a spooky, even ominous, musical ambiance heightened by the sometimes odd and opaque lyrics, which gave the song a mysterious feeling... "

The original does sound different from the early sixties norm but it's the enigmatic lyrics that have built it a legend. Wikipedia again:

"Sally Go 'Round the Roses" could be interpreted as a conventional song of heartbreak over cheating, or it could be – and has been – seen as alluding to deeper matters, including drug use, illegitimate motherhood, madness, suicide, or, most especially, lesbianism".

That's one heck of a load for a three minute pop song to carry. Here's the lyric in full so you can make up your own mind:

Sally go 'round the roses. (Sally go 'round the roses.)
Sally go 'round the roses. (Sally go 'round the pretty roses.)
The roses, they can't hurt you. (No, the roses, they can't hurt you.)
The roses, they can't hurt you. (No, the roses, they can't hurt you.)

Sally don'tcha go, don'tcha go downtown.
Sally don'tcha go, don'tcha go downtown.
The saddest thing in the whole wide world is
To see your baby with another girl.

Sally go 'round the roses. (Sally go 'round the roses.)
Sally go 'round the roses. (Sally go 'round the pretty roses.)
They won't tell your secrets. (They won't tell your secrets.)
They won't tell your secrets. (No, the roses won't tell your secrets.)

Sally, baby, cry, let your hair hang down.
Sally, baby, cry, let your hair hang down.
Sit and cry where the roses grow, you can sit and cry, not a soul will know.

Now that's a good lyric. You can take it any way you want and it's not going to argue with you but it leads you in a direction it wants you to go. It's really not that difficult to see why it's been adopted as a proto-lesbian cri de coeur although you could probably make a case for any interpretation that involves someone suffering heartache and social isolation.

Interpreting pop songs is a tricky business at the best of times but even more so when the performers, writers and producers are disparate individuals with conflicting motivations and power. In the case of the Jaynetts, the "band" wasn't even a group but several singers pulled out of other combos for the recording session. 

According to Wikipedia, the whole thing was the gestalt creation of more than two dozen people, including twenty or so different vocalists. The person who initiated the whole affair reportedly hated the final result, although veteran songwriters Lieber and Stoller were sufficiently impressed when they heard it to want to buy the rights. It went on to be a top three hit and a formative influence on both the San Francisco and Laurel Canyon sounds, so what did the guy who came up with the idea know?


This all reminds me what a minefield the whole "liking pop songs because of what they mean" can be. I recently dropped Poppy from my YouTube subscriptions because now she's safe and happy, in control and doing what she wants, I find I don't much like her music or her videos any more. 

It's problematic in the extreme. I really liked That Poppy. I was this close to joining her church a couple of years ago. When it was alleged that that version of Poppy was mostly the result of emotional manipulation by her producer, Titanic Sinclair, it became increasingly difficult and eventually impossible to hear, see or enjoy the older work in the same way. 


Except I do still like those tunes and I do find the alien Poppy persona diverting, whereas the metallic tone of the new stuff isn't at all to my taste and I'm unlikely to get much from her make-up tutorials. I'm left feeling very happy for her that she's escaped from an intolerable situation to flourish on her own terms but thinking it's time to wish her well and let her go.

Maybe I'm being hasty in turning away. Poppy, of course, only this year recorded an excellent cover of one of my all-time favorite songs, itself originally made famous by an extremely controversial duo, whose backstory involved no end of machiavellian manipulation by a difficult Svengali figure. 

In the end it turned out t.A.T.u. weren't even "proper" lesbians. That none of it was real, by some measures of reality, does nothing to reduce the power, the drama, the feels of those magnificent performances, those towering, thundering, anthems. For anyone who took heart and felt better about themselves because of them, all was exactly as true as it needed to be. Nothing has changed, or should have.

Pop music is never real. That's why it's always real. The songs, the videos, the performances take on lives outside the lives of their creators. It's always a challenge, integrating the two. Or seperating them. Sometimes it can't be done. Sometimes it's not worth trying. 

It's not where the music comes from that matters, anyway. It's where it takes you.

Just go with it.

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