So Young (Love Theme from “Zabriskie Point”)

Roy Orbison, MGM K14121, 1970, #122 Pop

Before I came across this Roy Orbison single not long ago, I didn’t even know it existed. It’s called “So Young” and, in parentheses, “Love Theme from ‘Zabriskie Point.’” Really? Michelangelo Antonioni’s psychedelic desert critique of American lifestyles had a “love theme” sung by Roy the Orb? Wacky but true. Roy hadn’t had any hits in a couple of years and may have been up for anything. Antonioni probably hadn’t ever heard of Roy Orbison, but maybe had a staffer who threw the idea out there as a gag, and it stuck. Roy does indeed sing the song over the movie credits (I don’t know how I could have forgotten that—oh, wait, yeah, I saw it in the early ‘70s with my pot-dealer dorm-mate), but it didn’t make it onto the Zabriskie Point soundtrack album, which is mostly made up of the predictable folks: Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones.

…not bad for an obscure non-hit theme from a dated movie that got bad reviews.

Zabriskie Point’s love theme is a nice little song, written by Orbison, along with record exec-turned Republican politician Mike Curb and Brian Wilson’s former car-song collaborator Roger Christian. It follows the same arc as those young-love mini-melodramas from the early ‘60s: a lower-register set of verses that gradually build in intensity and rise in pitch to an operatic big finish. “So Young” is not quite up to the level of Roy’s timeless classics, but it’s not bad for an obscure non-hit theme from a dated movie that got bad reviews.

When I joined Bowley & Wilson as a member of their Blue Bathroom Humor Band, I knew I was getting into something out of my comfort zone. I was an introvert among extreme extroverts, a reader among party animals. But it was an opportunity, the first in a long while, to make a steady income playing music. Of course, it wasn’t like the music I had been playing. I went from pursuing the sensitive singer-songwriter route to playing bass and singing backup on B&W originals like “Let’s Do It Dog Style” and “Oh Shit, Wouldja Look at Them Tits?”

John Bowley and John Wilson, who’d met in the late ‘60s as frat-mates at SMU, developed and honed their shtick over the years to transform from a progressive country duo into a raunchy-rock-‘n’-country stage show with a rabid regular following, many of them the next generation of SMU students. They were loud and nasty, but they thought of their show as a variation on vaudeville, with a magician, instrumentalists to showcase, and lots of bits involving the audience. I was the serious relief.

With the band moniker Creepy Steve, I was the nerd of the group, dressed in a Boy Scout uniform. My predecessor on bass, Champagne Billy King, had been the nastiest, partyin’est band guy of all, and we all knew I could not fill that role. I was instead the misfit, the guy who didn’t quite belong, maybe a little embarrassed to be naughtily singing about tits and ass. During each set, I’d get a feature song, a chance to go from Creepy to The Voice by singing some bravura number. There were several over the years, but the one I got saddled with for long afterward was the Roy Orbison melodramatic mini-opera “Crying.”

The song was a favorite of mine for many years already when, while I was performing with my sixties cover band Circumstance, a regular customer told me he’d bump me some coke if I’d learn it. I did learn it, he rewarded me, and then continued to do so every time I sang it. In 1979, the cocaine was a great incentive. I sang the song a lot. After the coke phase, it was still exhilarating to sing, aided only by Cuervo Gold, Guinness Stout, or even just tap water. When we added it to the Bowley & Wilson show, it worked, night after night. Set in contrast to the dirty songs, it stood out: coeds swooned, frat rats cheered, bikers wept.

I went on to sing it at karaoke bars, in other bands, at parties—so many times that it lost its charm, lost its pathos, lost its power. Somewhere, there’s a videotape of me singing it, as I did every year by popular demand, at a family reunion. Listening to it, I can hear passion and verve, but the video exposes my empty, beerlogged expression. I was just going through the motions.

Bowley & Wilson broke up back in the late eighties, but over the succeeding years were booked for numerous “Final Reunions.” In each one, my showcase was “Crying,” sandwiched between B&W classics like “Baby Shit” and “How Can I Get You Off My Mind If You Won’t Get Off My Face.” It continued to work like a champ, until the first final reunion following my development of bronchiectasis. I was having voice problems and had not yet come to understand what exactly was going on and how to deal with it.

At our rehearsal for the final reunion, I informed Bowley and Wilson that I would not be able to sing “Crying.” “Oh no,” they protested, “you have to sing it!”

I suggested other songs I’d done with them, “Only You,” “Born to Run,” even as I realized it had to be “Crying.” I was getting paid a lot of money for this gig; I needed to fulfill my obligation. I came up with a compromise: moving the song down a step, so that instead of hitting the full-out, ringing high A note at the end of the song, I’d be hitting a not-quite-full-out but still-somewhat-ringing high G. It worked, and the audience members, I’m sure, had no idea I’d wimped out on the key. But I knew, and the band knew. I felt guilty getting paid for singing “Crying” in G.

I finally retired “Crying” a few years ago, after age and my respiratory condition made it too difficult for me to reliably sing it. At the most recent Final Reunion, probably the actual final Final Reunion, I sang “Only You,” and it went over just as well.

It’s a testament to Roy’s ethereal voice and exceptional song-craftsmanship that the shy and homely West Texas boy was the voice of young love in the early sixties. He had a string of six perfect works, recorded in the space of four years, that are among the greatest legacies of pop music.

In addition to “Crying,” here are Roy Orbison’s “Young Love Mini-Melodrama” masterpieces:

  • It’s Over (1964, #9)—my favorite Roy performance
  • In Dreams (1963, #7)—made creepily famous by Dean Stockwell’s pantomime in the David Lynch movie Blue Velvet
  • Running Scared (1961, #1)—“Oh, Pretty Woman” was Roy’s only other #1
  • Falling (1963, #22)—a lesser-known hit fully on a par with the others
  • Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel) (1960, #2)—another well-known oldies-collection staple

There are others that come close to making this list: “Leah” has the trademark upper-register intro statement and stratospheric big finish, but the story is too specific, and doesn’t really fit Roy. One can see him pining over lost loves, mistakenly fleeing from romance, agonizing over bad choices. But it’s just hard to picture him diving for pearls. But I think I can add “So Young”—classic Roy melodrama that remains obscure.

On the Road Again

Canned Heat, Liberty 56038, 1968, #16 Pop

The only two Canned Heat songs I really love are “On the Road Again” and “Going Up the Country.” Since both of these songs are wonderful because of Alan Wilson’s lead vocals (a role usually handled by Bob Hite), I guess I’m an Alan Wilson fan but not a Canned Heat fan.

I have a rule—which I may break someday—that I won’t pay more for one record than I paid for the record player.

I was drawn to the eerie spell of Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” whenever I heard it on the radio as a young lad. The harmonica (also Alan Wilson) and the pulsing bass line set the ominous tone, and the falsetto vocal complemented the instrumentation. It was years later that I got the same eerie feeling, and a sense of déjà vu, hearing Floyd Jones’s 1951 song “Dark Road.” I didn’t immediately associate the two songs, but read later that Wilson drew from “Dark Road” to come up with “On the Road Again.” Jones, who’s credited as a co-writer on the Heat song, had derived his song from “Big Road Blues” by Tommy Johnson, which I only heard (and loved) for the first time 86 years after it was recorded. Tommy also wrote “Canned Heat Blues,” which gave the group its name. The droning music of “On the Road Again,” based around an E chord, features, in every third bar, the E – G – A riff popularized by John Lee Hooker.

The other Canned Heat road-song hit, “Going Up the Country,” was borrowed from an old acoustic blues song. “Bull Doze Blues,” recorded by Henry Thomas in 1928, and had the same guitar rhythm and flute part to back the same melody. The Beale Street Sheiks (Frank Stokes and Dan Sane) had recorded a similar song in 1927, about being “Beale Street Bound.” In one verse, Stokes sings, “I’m goin’, I’m goin’, what you want me to bring you back?” Al Wilson, forty years later, sings, “I’m goin’, I’m goin” where the water tastes like wine.” The blues is a borrowing style, but all pop music borrows to varying degrees from roots predecessors. There’s truly nothing new under the sun—but there continue to be delightful mergings and mutations.

Quite a few of my all-time favorite recordings are country blues songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s, but I’m afraid I’ll never own them in their primary, essential state. I have Bukka White’s “Shake ‘em on Down” on an LP, but the 78 rpm in any playable state would cost me thousands. At least hundreds. It would be the same for any record by Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and any of their peers. These records are unaffordable treasures not only because they are so damn good, but because so few people back in those days thought they were any damn good. Few were pressed, and very few survive. It’s a rarefied group of old white guys who’ve bought these up, and when they die, others who may be interested and have a lot of “walkin’ money” can grab the records they’ve coveted.

Of all the 78s out there, the percentage of valuable ones is minute; the supply of most 78s exceeds the demand. I am fortunate to be broad of musical scope and forgiving of disc condition. (Another reason I wouldn’t pay two grand for a blues rarity is that my player is a $49 portable hooked up to computer speakers. I have a rule—which I may break someday—that I won’t pay more for one record than I paid for the record player.) So I happily buy five-to-twenty-dollar 78s by The Ink Spots, Fats Waller, Johnny Hodges, Bill Monroe, Memphis Minnie and others who were popular enough that quite a few records survive today. And listening to these recordings on 10-inch shellac discs is just glorious—the best of cheap thrills. (But I would pay twenty bucks for someone who owns a clean copy of “Shake ‘em on Down” on 78 to just let me listen to it one time.)

Hot Fun in the Summertime

Sly and the Family Stone, Epic 5-10497, 1969, #2 Pop and #3 R&B

My favorite song of summer and probably my strongest contender for best single of all time is “Hot Fun in the Summertime.” The song does a lot of blending: strings against Larry Graham’s funky bass; lush four-part harmonies against belted-out solos; straight-eights against syncopated rhythms. Not to mention the band’s diversity of personnel: black, white, male, and female. It all manages to work together and make magic happen, like most of the band’s output during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

It did make Dave Marsh’s list of the “1,001 best singles ever made,” in his 1999 book The Heart of Rock and Soul. But it only came in at #314, barely in the top third. Marsh talks about the corny beginning of the record that seems to represent the middle-class, halcyon image of summer in America, which sets you up for the funky trade-offs in the bridge that represent unrest and defiance, kind of “Dancing in the Street” meets “Street Fighting Man” (two other great “summer” songs, by the way). I love both aspects of the song, and prefer not to read any meaning into them. The best summer songs of my era are about memories, and this one brings back a flood of them every time I hear it.
Sly Stone’s 1969 hit grabbed me instantly (along with a lot of other folks—it hit #2 on Billboard) and has never let go. I’ve heard covers of it that were OK, but the song as originally produced by Sly cannot be improved. “Everyday People,” another great example of a perfect record, is further evidence that songwriter/singer/bandleader/ keyboardist Sly was probably most talented as a producer. Covering these songs is like remaking Psycho—why mess with perfection?

Sly and the Family Stone were the ultimate representation of racial unity in pop music. Their lineup was interracial, and songs like “Everyday People” and many others on their albums Stand! and There’s a Riot Goin’ On promote racial harmony or lampoon intolerance.

Duke Ellington was often criticized for not being vocally opposed to segregation and racism back in the day. He would respond that he not only had suffered the indignities of being black in America but had long portrayed black life and culture in his music. Music was his way of supporting black culture and, as one of the most popular artists of his time, exposing white audiences to it. His longer work Black, Brown, and Beige (“a tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America,” as Duke said), and songs like “Harlem Air Shaft,” “Sepia Panorama,” “Creole Love Song,” and many others celebrated black life.

My all-time favorite Ellington recording, out of many contenders, is from his meet-up with John Coltrane. “In a Sentimental Mood” is a beautiful song written by Duke (with a big assist from early band-member Toby Hardwick) in 1935 and recorded many times by his Orchestra and by other artists. But the 1962 recording of the song trumps them all. Duke’s influence (and his compositions) brought out Coltrane’s lyricism and soulfulness on Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. And I think Coltrane made Duke a bit more adventurous than usual.

There’s an interesting tidbit about this song in the fine 2013 Terry Teachout bio Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington. Duke chose “In a Sentimental Mood” when a white friend asked him which of his compositions he felt was “a typical Negro piece.” When the friend said he was surprised by the answer, the composer of “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Creole Love Call,” and Black, Brown, and Beige explained: “Ah, that’s because you don’t know what it’s like to be a Negro.”

“Hot Fun in the Summertime” has always seemed to me to be the most perfect slice-of-black-life song of its time—over all the great contenders from James Brown or Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye, but Duke (and maybe even Sly) would probably say, “You don’t know what it’s like…”

There Is a Mountain

Donovan, Epic 5-10212, 1967, #11 Pop

In high school, I wanted so badly to be a hippie. I was a hopelessly suburban, pimply, awkward kid, but I listened to The Doors and Jefferson Airplane, and every day when I got to school, I combed my hair to make the part on the opposite side so it would look longer. My most promising entrée into hippiedom was my acquaintance with two hippie chicks who were in the high school choir with me. Hippie chicks in choir. Somehow that was possible back then.

It’s the bongos and the flute riffs that make “There Is a Mountain” a great record.

Ellen was gorgeous, with long, strawberry blonde hair parted in the middle. She wore granny dresses and didn’t have a Texas accent. She was like a California girl inexplicably sprouted in Richardson, Texas, defiantly West Coast. Her best friend Pam wasn’t gorgeous, but she was earthy and smart. Both of her parents were doctors-of-something-or-other. She wore leather fringed jackets and short skirts. Ellen and Pam spoke to each other in lingo only they understood, and often burst into laughter together. I so wanted to be in on their jokes that I would try to laugh heartily in just the right places.

At a choir party, I sat between Pam and Ellen on the floor. Most of the kids were doing the standard-fare teasing and giggling, and occasionally someone would loudly sing a Latin phrase from one of the songs we were rehearsing at the time, and other parts would join in. I sensed that Pam and Ellen were restless and looking for an opportunity to duck out. I did not want to be left behind in choral land.

Ellen leaned over to me and asked, “Are you a head?”

Somehow, I understood instantly that this was the crucial question that could determine my worthiness to be a hippie dude alongside the hippie chicks. But I was taken off guard. Was she asking whether I was ahead? Ahead of what? Or was “head” short for something, maybe egghead? “What do you mean?” I replied.

It was the worst possible response. I should’ve just replied “yes,” and seen where that led. Or I could’ve been a little sharper and deduced that “head” was short for pothead, a term I’d read in Rolling Stone and Eye but had never heard an RHS classmate utter.

“Never mind,” Ellen said as she and Pam rose and slipped out a side door. I haplessly added a tenor part as my choirmates sang “Redemptori, Domino, puerulo jacenti in praesepio…”

Of all the Summer of Love hippie musicians, the one I most wanted to emulate was Donovan. After all, we had the same last name, kind of, and I could play all his songs on my acoustic guitar and impersonate him pretty well.

Donovan Leitch’s folkie beginnings, featuring his earnest voice and his plucked acoustic guitar, just didn’t interest me. But when he got hippie-psychedelic on “Sunshine Superman,” I became a Donovan fan. Most of his twee lyrics don’t date well, but the record production made several of them timeless. The organ, vibes, and mellotron rescue “Wear Your Love Like Heaven.” Without the fuzz guitar and tremolo, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is barely a song at all. “Epistle to Dippy” features Donovan’s affected vocal, as he delivers precious off-accent lines like “Looking through crys-tull spec-tickles.” But the record, thanks to its production, overwhelms the dippy vocals with trippy cello. Yes, “trippy cello” is a thing, thanks to this record.

It’s the bongos and the flute riffs that make “There Is a Mountain” a great record. That isn’t to say bongos and flutes could make any song appealing to me—I can instantly think of a dozen that wouldn’t benefit from that addition. (An accordion, on the other hand, could improve any record.) “There Is a Mountain” seems the ideal song to play at a hippie love fest, where attendees often have recorders and bongos anyway, and groovy heads swirl and twirl along to the repetitive rhythms and mumbo-jumbo lyrics about caterpillars and snails.

When I used to hear “There Is a Mountain,” I’d slip into fantasies of frolicking in a sylvan meadow, recorder in hand, with Pam and Ellen, an equally hip friend sitting on a stump playing bongos. We’d be singing along, nearly ecstatic, and then fall to the ground at the end of the song—just as KLIF-AM DJ Jimmy Rabbit would interrupt with a promo and break the spell. I no longer have that fantasy when I spin this record, but I do lapse into a few subdued groovy moves by verse two, and by the third verse I’m almost a hippie wannabe again.