Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"This Diamond Ring" / Gary Lewis & the Playboys

Well, I've already come clean with you guys about my Herman's Hermits phase, so I may as well 'fess up to this one too: somewhere in Indiana there's a well-worn Gary Lewis LP somebody bought at a garage sale (along with my original Barbie doll), and everyone once in a while I wish I had it back. Did I know that Gary Lewis was the son of Jerry Lewis, the old Nutty Professor himself? (Surely one the most disturbing films ever, which I first saw at a way too impressionable age.) Yes, I did know that, and even that didn't stop me. Hey, I liked Dino, Desi, and Billy too.

True, I was too naive to fully appreciate that the ONLY reason anybody ever gave Gary Lewis a recording contract was because of who his daddy was. And only a couple days ago did I learn that, thanks to those Hollywood connections, he had Snuff Garrett to produce the thing, Leon Russell to arrange it, had Jim Keltner sitting in on the drums, and was handed a song written by Al Kooper. Talk about pop pedigrees.

Still, when you listen to this song -- and oh, I listened to it A LOT -- it could not have failed to be a hit. In a mere two minutes and eight seconds, it distills heartbreak into a single image of one rejected engagement ring. "Who wants to buy-ee-eye / [dramatic strum] / This diamond ri-ii-ii-ing," Gary wails, in a totally believable adolescent nasal twang. "She took it off her finger now / It doesn't mean a thing." If you've ever studied T.S. Eliot (and I humbly submit that I have), you'll know that the term for this is "objective correlative," the physical thing that represents a whole complex of emotions. And good ol' Al Kooper, that immensely underrated genius, explores absolutely every facet (excuse the pun) of this aptly-chosen image.

"This diamond ring doesn't shine for me anymore," Gary bitterly declares; "And this diamond ring doesn't mean what it did before." He switches into Friend Advice Song mode to add, "So if you've got / Someone whose love / Is true-ooo-ooo-oo / Let it shine for you-ooo-oo-ooo."

Did Al Kooper have a relative in the gem trade? Because that next line is classic: "This stone is genuine / Like love should be-ee-ee-eee." The petulance in Gary's whine is so appropriate, as he adds, "So if your baby's truer than / My baby was to me-eee-ee-eee." (Dig those modulated chords at the end of the verses.)

That's about it, save for one last iteration of the chorus: "This diamond ring can mean something beautiful / And this diamond can be dreams that are coming true" (heh-heh, let's watch Al Kooper run out of inspiration at the close of the song). "And then your heart / Won't have to break / Like mi-ine did / If there's love behind it." And here's Leon Russell, stuffing in the guitar riffs that echo melodic phrases and highlighting dramatic drum fills (Gary was ostensibly a drummer, after all) in the breaks between phrases.

Slick? You betcha. But it was radio-ready, and I ate it up. And I make no apologies, because the rest of that album was damn fine too, if all you're looking for is spot-on mid-century pop music. On song after song -- "Save Your Heart for Me," "Just My Style," "Everybody Loves a Clown," "Count Me In," "Sure Gonna Miss Her" -- Gary Lewis cranked it out in expertly chiseled commercial style.

Believe it or not, I didn't even have a fangirl crush on Gary Lewis. Hey, who could have a crush on Gary Lewis? He looked like the ultimate nebbish. I'm not making a case for him being some overlooked artiste, but I suspect that if he hadn't been suddenly drafted in December 1966, he might have had a chance at developing into a real musician.

But what do I know? I loved the Monkees too. But then, I did have a fangirl crush on Davy Jones...

This Diamond Ring sample


The Modesto Kid said...

I saw Gary Lewis and the Playboys once! Totally coincidentally, I hadn't really listened to their music at all except in the context of Oldies radio; this must have been in 1992 or so, they were playing at a county fair in upstate NY and way, way past their prime.

wwolfe said...

This is such a good example of mid-1960s, white American pop, and, as such, it shows how much enjoyable stuff we heard on the radio every day, without ever consciously thinking, "Wow, we're really in a Golden Age." This was just another catchy song in an andless stream of catchy songs. Forty years later, it's easy to see what a great time it was to be a fan of pop music. (I like this one a lot, and "She's Just My Style" is even groovier.) On the Season Two DVD of "hullabaloo," there's an episode co-hosted by Gary and Jerry Lewis. They actually sing a duet of "Help!," and Jerry sings a really awful ballad called "I'll See Your Light" that never made either the Hot 100 or even Bubbling Under the Charts. During "Help!," Gary has a very clear "I really mean this song title" expression, poor guy.

frankenslade said...

That song always gave me the creeps, but there are many good parts worth stripping and using to construct new songs.