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.

You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover

Bo Diddley, Checker 1019, 1962, #48 Pop and #21 R&B

I remember hearing this overpowering song when it came out in 1962. Even on my parents’ crappy, tinny car radio it blew my little nine-year-old mind. I imagine I’d heard other Bo Diddley hits—“Diddley Daddy,” “Hey Bo Diddley,” “Who Do You Love?”—by that time, but this one hit me so hard it rattled me. All these decades later, when I spin the 45, I still get a little rattled. The guitar rocks, the bass rolls, and those maracas are relentless! “I look like a farmer but–I’m a lover!” You go, Bo.

I came across a copy of the single in the late seventies. My record’s label has a printing error: The title, split into two lines, reads “A Book By The Cover / You Can’t Judge.” Does that flaw make this a sought-after, rare collectible? Not so much. It’s a bit more valuable than the correctly printed version, but my copy’s pretty scratchy anyway. So it’s merely a nice curiosity piece. And it’s a good little time-waster to imagine melodies and rhythms into which the stilted phrase would fit.

It’s a late Diddley hit, one of the few Bo did that he didn’t write. That credit goes to ace blues songwriter Willie Dixon, and this number is all about that bass, which Dixon plays on the song, caroming above and below and around Bo Diddley’s slashing guitar chords, propelling the song to and through the fade. (The record’s producer was Ralph Bass, but he no doubt pronounced his last name to rhyme with ass.)

“You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” doesn’t feature the trademark Bo Diddley beat, but it is unmistakable Bo Diddley, and it sits right up there with his best. He only had one more single, “Ooh Baby,” on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and it just barely slipped in at #88 in 1966. I enjoy a song he issued as a single the following year, “Wrecking My Love Life,” and count its flipside, “Boo-Ga-Loo Before You Go,” among my favorite song titles.

There is a flubbed guitar chord on one of the verses of “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” on a five-chord-to-four-chord move. The sticklers among us may ask, “Why didn’t they do another take?” But the sticklers may find it difficult to tolerate rock and blues and country recordings that tend to allow clinkers, out-of-tune guitar strings, and imprecise vocal lines and lyrics. There certainly is a joy in listening to the take-after-take perfection of a Steely Dan song, or the multi-layered productions of Brian Wilson, but it’s a different listening experience. The flubbed chords and cracking voices are left in some of the great rhythm & blues and country & western recordings because the feel of those moments is so good it may not be capturable again. The imperfections add to the effect, like a Cajun stew, as opposed to a French soufflé. Both tasty, but completely different sensory experiences.

Is That All There Is?

Peggy Lee, Capitol, 1969, #11 Pop and #1 Adult Contemporary

A song I put in the “Inventorying Life from the Perspective of The Golden Years” category (a growing category in my collection, alas) is the rich and strange late-career hit for Miss Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?” This song of disillusionment gave me chills whenever I heard it on the radio in the late ‘60s.

A happily-accidental confluence of disparate characters, topped off by Miss Peggy, led to the strangest hit of 1969.

I was unfamiliar with Peggy Lee, except as the voice of the dog Darling, singing “He’s a Tramp” in Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp. When I saw her on a television variety show, looking so jaded in her platinum-blonde flip-up wig and her blue-tinted glasses as she sang “If that’s all there is, my friend, then let’s keep dancing,” I was mesmerized. I don’t think I ever watched The Lady and the Tramp again.

Back then, I hadn’t parsed the song’s elements; I just responded to its cumulative effect. It was only years later that I discovered and appreciated the creative contributors who’d helped Miss Peggy Lee make such a powerful record. The songwriters were Leiber and Stoller, the class clowns who wrote so many Coasters comedy classics, like “Charlie Brown” and “Poison Ivy.” (On the 45’s label, Leiber’s name is spelled the way I, a German student in high school, always want to spell it—Lieber, but he spelled it with the e-i.) They took quite a diversion from their usual fare for this one. An as-yet-little-known Randy Newman, doing journeyman work for Warner Brothers, crafted the eerie string arrangement, a sound for which he would later be lauded on albums like Sail Away and soundtracks like Ragtime. Randy Newman’s arrangement owes more than a little to Kurt Weill’s German theater period. A happily-accidental confluence of disparate characters, topped off by Miss Peggy, led to the strangest hit of 1969.

The record did lose its charm for me for a few years in the nineties. While processing books and records in the backroom of the Half Price Books main store, employees got to play music on an ancient stereo. A co-worker and I came across a 45 of the song and put it on. We were so captivated by it that we played it again and again, until our fellow employees ganged up on us and banned “Is That All There Is?” from backroom play forever. Now, years later, I can play it in my home whenever I want to, which is about twice a year, on Saturday evenings as the sun goes down.

Gordon Jenkins and Frank Sinatra (and songwriter Ervin Drake) were responsible for a similar fine sixties song about growing old, the unlikely pop hit “It Was a Very Good Year.” It appeared on the September of My Years album. Sinatra was fifty years old at the time. (Fifty is September? I think that’s still July, or maybe even June).

When, as a kid, I heard “It Was a Very Good Year” on the radio, it was haunting. Even though the lyrics are more wistful than melancholy, the Jenkins string arrangement, which got him a Grammy, joined Sinatra’s stark delivery to set a very somber tone. (That tone was pastiched to great effect in the 1971 TV special Diana! by a pre-teen Michael Jackson, who sashayed out, coat slung over his shoulder, fedora at a tilt, and sang, “When I was six years old / It was a very good year.” He also managed to throw in a “ring-a-ding-ding.”)

Michael only made it to fifty. The September of his years. Kurt Weill, who wrote the music for Maxwell Anderson’s “September Song” lyric “But the days grow short, when we reach September,” died at the age of fifty.

Miss Peggy Lee made it to the age of 81 and performed, though in poor health and sometimes confined to a wheelchair, into her seventies. You can find a video clip of her at age 64, being interviewed by Merv Griffin on his show in 1984. She wears all black, including a bolero hat and a veil, and she doesn’t get up from the couch when she performs “Is That All There Is?” The camera pulls back at one point to show her seated alone at the end of the big couch. Merv sits at his desk and leans toward Miss Peggy, chin on knuckles, mesmerized by the performance, truly a rarity on variety/talk show TV.