Friday, September 05, 2008

"Alone Again, Naturally" / Gilbert O'Sullivan

On a long car trip today, I got to listen to my favorite Sirius Disorder radio show, David Johansen's Mansion of Fun. Johansen -- or as he refers to himself on the show, Sri Rama Lama Ding Dong -- plays such an unpredictable mix of music, it really keeps you guessing, and in the middle of all these obscure Latin sambas and scratchy ancient blues recordings and lush Debussy and Ravel compositions, when he threw in this goofy song from 1972, I had to laugh out loud. I'd call it a novelty song, except it was in fact a monster hit, both in the US and the UK. (The rest of his US chart success was a lot spottier.) I hadn't heard it in ages, and listening to it with wonder, I realized that it is -- in its own oddball way -- really a pretty good song. And impossible to stop humming.

The lyrics are one long strung-together sentence, with so many words stuffed into that perky tune that it takes awhile before you realize it's a song about offing yourself. "In a little while from now / If I'm not feeling any less sour," he begins (I love that dumb near-rhyme) and then the sentence winds on and on until he casually mentions that he's going to throw himself off a tower. Why? Because his bride-to-be never showed up to their wedding (he drolly describes it as "left standing in the lurch at a church / Where people were saying, / 'My God, that's tough, she stood him up / No point in us remaining." That bit about the wedding guests is pure comedy, so you can't take that threat too seriously -- but this is a pop song, for crissake, since when were pop songs about suicide? Let alone pop songs this chirpy.

Verse two, he's still railing brightly against fate, extravagantly declaring, "leaving me to doubt /Talk about, God in His mercy / Oh, if he really does exist / Why did he desert me?" Each long verse ends up dolefully describing himself as "Alone again, naturally"; that "naturally," that's the clincher. And it's not just his romantic woes; in verse three, he relates how devastated he was when his father died, and how his griefstricken mother never spoke again, and then she died too . . . leaving him "alone again, naturally."

Who knows what we're supposed to make of this? Is the guy singing it a self-pitying wimp? Or is he expressing some great fatalistic philosophy that allows him to rise above it all? I still can't decide, but that ambiguity is part of what sticks with me about the song.

The rest, of course, is its catchy tune, part music-hall, part Irish folk song, sung in O'Sullivan's engagingly boyish vocal (he always struck me as a cross between Freddie of Freddie and the Dreamers and Herman of Herman's Hermits -- both of which are good things). I know that name had to be made up -- even back in 1972, when I had never heard a Gilbert & Sullivan opera, I could tell that stage name was a kitschy reference -- and when you saw him singing it on TV, he was dressed up in shorts and a little boy's cap, obviously gimmicks.I was embarrassed to admit I liked this song then. Well, I'm not embarrassed to admit I still like it now. Mind you, I still can't take it seriously -- but why should that matter?

Alone Again, Naturally sample


44 said...

It's a Ray Davies song; that's what we recognize in it. Life is hard, despite American media culture's best efforts to deny that fact with perky optimism and endless horizons of brighter days and personal enrichment.

It's being a British record doesn't change that.

PS: What's so gol-durn great about Freddie and Herman? Oh, I forgot; you were eight at the time.

Holly A Hughes said...

Freddie and Herman were underrated geniuses, 44. I thought everyone knew that. ;)

44 said...

No, just you, hollyh. ;)

Natsthename said...

I still have a tape, recorded by sticking a cheap tape recorder mic in front of the radio, of this song, complete with my little brother singing along at the end of the song. (He's 36 now!) I loved this song, and Gilbert O's voice. It had nothing to do with the fact that he was cuter than Cat Stevens. I swear.