Tuesday, January 23, 2007

"The Letter" / The Box Tops

When this single came out in late 1967, I'm surprised I paid it any attention. Sgt. Pepper's had been released the preceding summer, changing the pop music landscape forever; besides, I was still at least partly a Tiger Beat-programmed adolescent, who'd evolved (if you can call it that) from the Fab Four on to Herman's Hermits, the Monkees, and Paul Revere and the Raiders.

But I know I was hearing other tracks on the radio, primarily a lot of Motown -- hits like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "I Was Born to Love Her," "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," and "I Second That Emotion." Some part of my brain was wired to love that sweet soul music too. So when this single by a new band called the Box Tops rocketed onto the air waves, how could I not love it?

I didn't know that the lead singer, Alex Chilton, was just a teenager, barely a couple of years older than me. I didn't know the band was from Memphis; I doubt I even knew whether they were white or black. I sure didn't read about them in Tiger Beat. But this was a song you could not deny. I bought the single (which, given my paltry allowance, was a serious vote of faith) and listened to it so often, every beat was branded on my memory. It's one of my candidates for Most Perfect Single Ever.

It's only 2:03 and it doesn't waste a second; the drummer knocks half a dozen brisk strokes on the rim of his set, the guitar nimbly plucks another half-dozen notes, then Chilton's voice rips in urgently, "Give me a ticket for an aeroplane / Ain't got time to take a fast train," the melody jittering back and forth between two notes, words accented off-beat, everything jumpy as hell. He's at the ticket window, hair rumpled, out of breath -- a man on a mission. "Lonely days are gone, I'm a-going home" he proclaims, then his voice drops into an awestruck growl: "My baby just wrote me a letter" -- and his hoarse shiver on the word "letter" seals the deal for me.

That explains why he's hopping from one foot to the other, telling the ticket agent, "I don't care how much money I gotta spend / Got to get back to my baby again." He doesn't even need to tell us what the letter said, though he does in the bridge: "Well, she wrote me a letter, said she couldn't live without me no more / Listen, mister, can't you see I got to get back to my baby once a more" -- pregnant pause here, while the horns swing around, the drummer knocks twice, then Chilton's voice swoons wildly -- "Any way, yeah!" That's pretty much it, except for a long fadeout where the oddly perky electric organ repeats its calliope-like refrain and you hear a jet take off (I've always heard a seagull squawk too, though I could be wrong).

Though this wasn't released in the summer, it still feels like a summer song to me -- I have a distinct memory of standing on the midway at the Indiana State Fair, eating a corn dog, watching the Tilt-A-Whirl, standing transfixed while this song blared over the PA system.

Nobody writes letters anymore, I know -- but I just can't imagine this song being updated to "My baby just sent me a text message." Just like Paul McCartney asking to hold your hand, that letter is code for the whole sexual shebang, and it's Chilton's gritty, earthy voice that puts in all the subtext. He may have just been imitating the Muscle Shoals and Sun Records r&b singers he'd grown up around, but that groan of longing, that husky urgency, means just one thing. I was even younger than Alex Chilton when I first heard this record, but I could feel the heat all right. Whew.


johnnylockheart said...

It is a wonderful song. I discovered The Boxtops through an album of theirs I got from my uncle as a kid (he worked for a book distribution company and occasionally got me some surplus swag).

Most of us don't receive many real letters these days - I think that makes the ones we do receive even more of a treat. E-mail is great, but there's an intimacy about putting pen to paper that can't be duplicated in the electronic world...

IƱaki said...

One of my favourite sixties songs... Who would have told you then that Alex would end loaning a guitar to RDD?

Anonymous said...

I always loved this song (oh what would I give for someone to care about me that much, to pay whatever it cost to rush back to me, after I sent a letter saying I couldn't live without him?)
For what it's worth, I don't find the term "letter" to be dated. I think a letter could include an email or text message. I can't imagine updating the song to be called "The Message"... with the primary line updated to "My baby just sent me a message". But there is something romantic and quaint about snail mail. I LOVE getting snail mail letters. So if my perception is wrong, and a "letter" has to be snail mail, so be it.

Also, when I became a radio DJ in the early 80s, I was surprised to see that this song is barely over 2 minutes long. I always kept it in mind, for those times when I was in a bind at the end of the hour, needing a short song to get me to the top of the hour, when we got a national news feed. I assume that this shortness has helped the song get extra airplay, and that other time-pressed DJs would reach for "The Letter" in a similar situation!


Anonymous said...

A classic. Indeed one of the best pop songs. Ever.

wendy said...

I just saw the news that Alex Chilton died today ... !

Holly A Hughes said...

Oh, man, that's sobering news. He wasn't even that old, was he? Very sad.

wendy said...

Holly, I found this video on youtube of Alex that you will probably enjoy