Everybody "knows" that the Mary in this song refers to marijuana. (Except, of course, people who are convinced it refers to Mary Magdalene or the Virgin Mary.) Granted, the songwriter, Tandyn Almer, never admitted that he tucked in a coded drug message, but the word on the street helped send this debut single by an unknown California band to #7 on the U.S. charts in the summer of 1966.
The thing is, the words were packed in so thick and fast, most folks had no idea what the singer was singing. I owned this 45 and listened to it endlessly, and I still couldn't get them all. Sure, I got the opening -- "Every time I think that I'm the only one who's lonely /Someone calls on me" -- a perfect adolescent sentiment, kicked up with internal rhyme. I've always been a sucker for internal rhyme, and this song has it all over the place (lines like "Or maybe rather gather tales of all the fails and tribulations" or "When vague desire is the fire in the eyes of chicks / Whose sickness is the games they play "). You get the idea that he'd say anything so long as it rhymed, whether it made sense or not. But that vague half-logic made it seem even more like a drug song. Far out, man.
For several patches throughout the song, I had to fake it; I had no idea what they were singing. It wasn't because they were mumbling, either; it was just a barrage of language, the words tripping over each other. I did get the verse ending: " When we met I was sure out to lunch / Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch" -- I love how the harmonies kick in abruptly on the last word "punch." And then there were other fragments that stood out, like "and when the masquerade is played" and "the psychodramas and the traumas."
But I totally missed apocalyptic lines like "And when the morning of the warning's passed, the gassed / And flaccid kids are flung across the stars." (The Mary Magdalene camp believes that The Warning is a specific event, like The Rapture; I guess they've been waiting for it since 1966.) If this was a drug song, it was a paranoid freaked-out drug song, more about the perils of drugs than their virtues. Nevertheless, a generation of druggies enthusiastically adopted this song as their anthem.
The main deal, anyhow, is that soaring chorus: "And then along comes Mary / And does she want to set them free, and let them see reality / From where she got her name." The way those harmonizing vocals climb up that title phrase gets me every time. Whatever the song said, you knew it was dark and portentous, with that minor-key melody, spooky organ, shivering tambourines, and layered triple-echoed harmonies. Hovering at the threshold of psychedelia, it's lush and dark at the same time, and undeniably haunting.
Like their generic corporate-sounding name, the Association never projected much personality -- they were practically anonymous (fairly or not, I always mixed them up with Bread and Chicago). Can you name anybody who was in this band? I can't. Their complex production values, multi-instrumental versatility, and vocal richness counted for nothing compared to the raw honesty and energy of the artists who defined that age, like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. And over the next couple of years, the Association proceeded to blow their coolness quotient with honey-dripping numbers like "Cherish" and "Never My Love." (If only they'd remained a one-hit wonder!) As the rock scene swiftly evolved, any band that had even a whiff of wholesome AM-radio pop about them were shunned by the hippie generation.
Along Comes Mary sample