Monday, October 28, 2013

Get Up and Do the Wobble

Earlier, we discussed "Dancin' Wild," which was about dancing in general, only mentioning the 'Applejack' step in passing. Here, we have Simon trying to come up with a new dance like the Twist, the Mashed Potato, the Pony, and so on. We think.

People haven't stopped trying to create new dance crazes, either. Before the Twist, there were the Foxtrot, the Lindy Hop, and the dance that gave New York the nickname The Big Apple. In pop alone, we've had everything from the Locomotion to the Macarena to the Harlem Shake since the 1950s. Once we can safely generate anti-gravity fields, all bets are off...

So, what is the Wobble, and how is it done? We never find out!

The problem is, the speaker can't find anyone on the dance floor to teach the dance to. He starts earnestly enough, calling: "Hey, get up! Get up and do the Wobble/ Oh, won't you you please/ Do the Wobble with me/ It's so easy to do/ Let me teach it to you."

But then-- no takers! The dance floor is already jammed with other acts performing their dance songs. "Dee Dee Sharp's doing that mashed potato," for one. Her song was called "Mashed Potato Time"; the dancer doing the Mashed Potato puts the ball of his foot down on an imaginary potato and mimes mashing it by twisting his foot. The step is not unlike someone grinding out a cigarette on the pavement with his shoe.

Next, the song refers to the long-running TV show American Bandstand. Hosted (from 1956 to 1989!) by perennial teenager Dick Clark, it featured several bands performing live, in turn, to a roomful of teenage dancers. Tom and Jerry themselves were on this show, performing "Hey Schoolgirl."

"Tune into Bandstand, tell me what you see?/ All the kids are dancing to 'Wha-Watusi'." That song went to #2 and stayed on the charts for three or four months. The Orlons performed it originally, but it was covered by everyone from Chubby Checker and Smokey Robinson to The Isley Brothers and even Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. Its dance was called the Watusi, and it's a poor approximation of a Hawaiian hula dance. (The actual Watusi are now called the Tutsi; they are an African tribe who we can safely assume dances nothing like this.)

Our speaker, meanwhile, remains partner-less: "Everybody's dancing they're as happy as can be/ There's nobody left to do the wobble with me." How sad!

He continues to list who else is doing what step: "Little Eva's is doing that Locomotion." Little Eva was Carole King's babysitter, and of course Carole King was one of the major songwriters of the era, ensconced in the Brill Building circle to which Simon aspired. Never has a babysitter had such great tip as when Eva's boss offered her her own massive hit!

Next is Chubby Checker (whose stage name was coined in homage to Fats Domino!). His dance hit, The Twist, is so popular is doesn't even need to be mentioned in this song. Last is someone named Little Joey, probably meaning Little Joey Farr, a doo-wop singer.

Since the speaker has no one to teach the Wobble to, he ends up simply lamenting his fate and teaching it to no one. Not even the listener! And so The Wobble is the dance craze that no one remembers... because it never even existed.

Turns out, it was only a way to name-check other dances, much like the songs "Land of a Thousand Dances" (the Pony, Boney Maroni, Alligator, Watusi, and Jerk) and "Shake a Tail Feather," (The Twist, Fly, Swim, Bird, Duck, Monkey, Watusi, Mashed Potato, Boogaloo, and Boney Maroni)...

...with a dash of the lonely-boy abandonment we have seen in several other early Simon songs thus far. Everyone else has a dance hit already, so what's the point of his trying for one? Just like the kid in the song with no one to teach the Wobble.

Some credit this song to "Tico," which is odd since Simon wasn't necessarily Tico in Tico and the Triumphs; it does not seem to be Simon on lead vocals, at that. Others credit it to Jerry Landis, and it appears on several Tom & Jerry and Jerry Landis compilations.

Next Song: Cry, Little Boy, Cry


Monday, October 21, 2013

Express Train

And with this number, we come to the end of Simon's brief run with Tico and the Triumphs. For now. If we have learned anything at this point, it is that "new" old material seems to keep being discovered!

T & the Ts seem to like vehicles, and we have already had a song about a "Motorcycle." This time, we get the sound effects of a train gathering speed, accompanied by these young men doing their best train whistle and brake: "Woo woo!" and "Tssh!"

Songs about trains are as old as trains themselves, and it is hard to find a genre, from folk and country to soul and hip-hop, that doesn't refer to them. Simon himself would (much) later have a song called "Train in the Distance"... in which he also sings "woo woo!"

Here, the Triumphs sing "Clickety-clack, clickety-clack/ The train comes on the railroad track," and the listener thinks, "OK, but when does the 'love' part show up?" They do not disappoint; the next line is "I'm on my way and coming back to you."

While many train songs are about a ramblin' man who leaves, this is about one who is coming back: "I'm just a rolling stone/ But I've been missin' your sweet kissin'/ Now I'm coming home."

The expression "A rolling stone gathers no moss" is an old one, and it means that if you want to keep from atrophying, you have to keep moving. However, many in the rock-n-roll world take this to the extreme, understanding that staying put at all results in growing mold instantly. Instead of, say, it having a positive connotation like "settling down" or "putting down roots."

Instead, we have the Muddy Waters song "Rollin' Stone," the megastar band The Rolling Stones, the major rock magazine Rolling Stone, and the Bob Dylan epic track "Like a Rolling Stone."

Back in our song, the speaker expresses his urgency at coming home: "I'm on my way/ Taking the express train," meaning a non-stop trip. It costs more, usually, but he is in a hurry to get back to his love: "I'm gonna meet you at the station/ What a celebration!"

And now, we wait for the other shoe to drop. He's a "rolling stone," after all, and will soon be on his restless way again.

Except, instead, not. "I'm gonna give up all my traveling," he vows. "Didn't like it, anyhow," he admits. He closes with another expression of urgency to arrive home: "No more waiting, hesitating/ Nothing stops me now/ I'm on my way." Well, that's refreshing. A song about a ramblin' man who's done ramblin'!

Simon would later write, in a sense, a longer, deeper version of this song: "Homeward Bound." In that song, the singer (for the speaker is one) at a "railroad station" decries his wearisome traipsing about and longs to be taking the train he is waiting for "homeward" instead of yet another gig where he will "sing his songs again."

So many of Simon's songs, in fact, bemoan his loneliness and road-weariness, including some from the One Trick Pony soundtrack. He doesn't really have a song like "On the Road Again," saying that he likes constant touring. Even in "That's Where I Belong," he speaks of longing to be on a "dirt road"... but with a destination in mind.

And yet... he is constantly touring. Simon is in his 70s, and still out promoting his latest album; he was recently in the farthest points of the Far East and down Down Under way.

There is a PhD thesis waiting to be written about singers who leave home to sing songs about wanting to be home. Maybe in Literature... maybe in Psychology.


Next song: Get Up and Do the Wobble





Monday, October 14, 2013

Wildflower/ Wild Flower(s)

As with "Motorcycle," there is some disagreement among anthologists as to whether the title is one word or two (it is sometimes incorrectly pluralized as well; the "wildflower" in question is an individual woman).

There is also dispute as to whether to credit it to Simon as Jerry Landis (which is accurate) as part of Tom and Jerry (wrong) or Tico and the Triumphs (right). The roughness of the sound and multi-voiced backing harmonies clearly mark it as a Tico track. But, since there are too few Landis-penned Tico songs to make an entire album, these are usually included with other Jerry Landis or Tom & Jerry compilations, adding to the confusion.

The song itself begins with pounding the tom-tom drums and "shave-and-a-haircut" beat of a Bo Diddley song, and then gets even more... exotic, as we shall see.

The lyrics are about another "Runaround Sue" type named Mary Lou, although it doesn't seem that she runs around to other men. Rather, she is simply possessed of a wanderlust, albeit one of addictive proportions. "She was a wanderer through and through... Like the wind she would roll around."

The chorus explains that her "wild" nature, while attractive, is not conducive to a stable relationship: "She wasn't the type to be settlin' down... Wildflower, come back to me!"

Mary Lou was not the type to simply pop over to New York or Las Vegas for a weekend now and then, either. She traveled "far from home... on her wild shores/ far across the sea."

Soon enough, the inevitable happens. Mary Lou leaves on one of her epic jaunts... but with no sign that she expects to return: "One day when I came home/ I looked around and she was gone."

As distraught as the speaker is-- "I cried about her every hour/ How I love my wildflower"-- he cannot have been all that surprised.

What makes this particular song astonishing, however, is that the instrumentation-- the driving percussion, the reedy musical bridge-- and the mentions of distant lands are not the only parts of the song that give it an exotic flair.

It's the middle third of the song, comprised of lyrics in another language. To my ear, they sound Hawaiian. In any case, there seem to be two lines, each repeated multiple times, something like "Man-gu-ne ma-ku-la-ne" and "la-ha-na-gu-na, la-ha-na-gu-ne." But don't take my "words" for it-- find the song on YouTube (incorrectly identified as a Tom and Jerry track) and let me know if you can translate it.

That Simon was including non-English lyrics in a song as early as 1962, I again assert, astonishing. Those who point to "El Condor Pasa" and "Mother and Child Reunion" as precursors to Graceland are off by several years! Further, using foreign words in a folk-music standby, but it would be interesting to see how early this phenomenon took place in a pop or rock music context.

At his age when Simon wrote the song, it seems, the very idea of traipsing about the globe seemed impossible for him to fathom. So isn't it ironic that Simon himself became someone who explored "wild shores" so "far across the sea" as South Africa and Brazil to find the sources of the music of his youth.

Perhaps he did know a "Mary Lou" who, in showing him the excitement of travel, served as a role-model. If so, aren't we glad she did?


Next Song: Express Train








Monday, October 7, 2013

I Don't Believe Them

There is an album called 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong. Ah, but can they all be liars? At what point do you trust what everyone else says, and distrust your own heart?

That question lies at the center of this song. A young man is in love, as in so many other songs: "Yesterday, you swore to me/ You'd be mine eternally." With this phrasing, however, we feel a "but" coming. That was "yesterday." Today..?

Well, "Today, my friends all say it's true/ You're going out with someone new." They "all" say it. How could it not be the case?

Nevertheless, our hero remains unconvinced: "I don't believe them," he asserts repeatedly, adding "No!" seven times.

But the rumor mill grinds on. Next, the "kids in school" say she is not just a two-timer, but a many more timer than that! In fact, that she runs around, like, um, Runaround Sue: "They say that when I turn around/ You head right for the lights of town."

It's not just that they are maligning her, but also him, calling him a "fool" to his face for staying with her.

So he looks at his own history: "I've been hurt so many times/ That I'm afraid to start." Oh, this does not look good. He is liable to chalk this up as yet another failed romance. So much pain, and still so young...

Only, no! He dismisses all of that. Instead, he decides that faith is the way, as the alternative is unthinkable: "If I believed everything they say/ It would break my heart."

While his stalwart trust is admirable, his next piece of reasoning is not: "So I'll go on trusting you/ I've got no choice-- what can I do?" Well, he could ask her, either directly or indirectly, or enlist her help in quelling the rumors.

He's not there yet, though. Where is he? Stuck. "I know that I would die/ If I found out you told a lie," he says. If he asks her and she isn't cheating, she might take offense at being suspected, and dump him. If she is cheating, she would lie about it (as she has been by hiding it all along) and act as if she isn't cheating.... and take offense at being suspected and dump him.

But what if he said, "I hate what they are saying about you. I know you're true to me-- why would they say such things?" Or, "If you wanted to end it, you would. You wouldn't string me along and go behind my back. You're not that kind of girl." Or "The next guy who says something like that, I'm gonna pop him in the face, even if they do kick me out of school." And watch her reaction.

In any case, he sees no way out except to keep saying "I won't believe them, I don't believe them" to them, and to himself. But not to her. You have to wonder why he doesn't find some way to bring it up with the person he wants to be with "eternally."

Maybe he, as Shakespeare had it, protests to much. Maybe seven "Nos" is a few to many. Maybe, on some inner level he doesn't want to examine, he does believe them. A little. Enough for it to bother him a lot.

No, they can't be right. Then he is a fool, and the one he loves is a cheater, and all those jerks are vindicated. That would be truly unthinkable. And so he doesn't allow himself to think it.

Playing devil's advocate, why would they all lie, though? For one thing, why would they bother to spend so much energy breaking up a relationship? Tarnishing her reputation and destroying his faith? Well, anyone who has spent five minutes around adolescents knows the answer. Because they can. For fun.

If they really cared about him, they would take him aside and speak in whispers, not throw it in his face at the cafeteria like so much food-fight meatloaf.

It's very hard to defeat a rumor. Some persist for centuries, despite mountains of evidence. There is so much dishonesty in human relationships that, sadly, we expect it instead of truth.

Next Song: Wild Flowers