Sunday, August 02, 2009

"Mr. Dyingly Sad" / The Critters

Talk about pure pop gems. When this song came out in the summer of 1966, all I knew was that it had that swoony sound I'd loved in Chad & Jeremy's "Willow Weep For Me." Hey, I was a drippy adolescent girl; this was just the sort of song I wanted to play on long summer nights, mooning over some boy who didn't know I existed.

And then the song disappeared . . . and the band disappeared . . . and the Summer of Love hit and I forgot all about "Mr. Dyingly Sad." (Apparently spelled "Dieingly," or so the internet tells me, though that would be wrong -- if I could only find my old single I'd prove it!) When I heard it again about a year ago, it hit my ears like a whiff of Oh De London! cologne -- by which I mean, the pure distilled essence of the mid-60s. Now I learn what happened: that half of this band -- a bunch of high school friends from New Jersey, several of whom went to Villanova together -- got shipped out to Vietnam before their first album was even released. There's a classic case of bad timing for you.

The song was written by lead singer Don Ciccone (who years later did a tour of duty as bassist with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons -- once a Jersey boy, always a Jersey boy). God, his tenor voice was perfect for this song, mellifluous and earnest and just slightly breathy. It's like one of those Clairol commercials with sunshot women in white dresses running slow-mo through a meadow, their blond tresses bouncing (as opposed to the Tampax ads where they caper in white slacks down a beach). "Just a breeze will muss your hair," he begins adoringly, over a gentle samba beat with a touch of Latin percussion. "But you smile away each little care / And if the rain should make you blue / You say tomorrow is anew." It seems all so perfect. SO WHY IS HE SAD?

Yes, she's the perfect girl, as he describes in affected poetical word order ("Blue be your eyes, blonde your hair"). But underneath this portrait of WASPy perfection, the diminished and seventh chords, the achingly sweet backup harmonies, hint at something fragile and evanescent. Sure, she may be "mystifyingly glad", but there he is, her rhyming opposite: "I'm Mr. Dieingly Sad." And that dichotomy gives this song all the tension it needs, like a grain of sand grinding away inside the oyster shell.

It's the change of seasons, you see -- part of that time-honored pop tradition of the end-of-summer song ("See You In September," Chad & Jeremy's "Summer Song," "A Summer Place," "All Summer Long" by the Beach Boys). He already knows it's coming, and he can't get his mind off it -- because the end of summer inevitably means being separated from her. (That's the beauty of summer romances -- they always end too soon, before life cruds them up.) "And when the leaves begin to fall / Answering old winter's call / I feel my tears, they fall like rain / Weeping forth the sad refrain." Okay, so it's self-consciously poetic -- but that slots right into the adolescent mindset. "Blue, dark, and dim it may seem," he moans, depressive-in-training that he is; "You mark a grin, a moonbeam / Brightens your smile." Forget the stilted grammar; the images are hazy, soft-focus beautiful, underscoring the cruel irony: The happier she gets, the sadder he gets. He just can't stand it that she's not miserable about the impending end of summer. The impending end of their time together.

The bridge slides into even more minor chords, as he mournfully resists her attempts to cheer him up: "You say, 'Take my hand and walk with me / Wake this land and stop the sea / Show me love, unlock / All doors / I'm yours." She's doing everything she can, offering her body to him -- and all he can do is mope. What a sensitive guy!

"Then the tide rolls up to shore," he sets the scene for his final verse; "I whisper low, 'I love you more / More than even you could know'." He's finally ready to take her up on her offer -- solemnly, of course, because he's a nice guy, not some cad who'll take advantage of her. (Thirteen-year-old girls cannot resist this line.) "Adore me, do, so I could show / I'm so mystifyingly glad / Not Mr. Dieingly Sad." Yes! What a neat resolution! It's within her power to transform him! What girl doesn't love that idea?

I know, I know, I can't help making fun of it -- all the pop cliches, falling neatly into line. But you know what? The song still works. For all its lush dopiness, that yearning vocal and those falsetto harmonies weave their end-of-summer spell all over again. Let's suspend our cynical selves for just a minute and admit it: Running along a beach hand-in-hand with someone you love is still a bittersweet thrill. I love a tough-minded relationship analysis as much as the next person, but the soaring melody here, paired with those rueful close-clustered chord changes, works its emotional magic. Don Ciccone may not be a genius, but he struck gold with this little number.

Mr. Dyingly Sad video


Anonymous said...

"You say, 'Take my hand and walk with me / Wake this land and stop the sea / Show me love, unlock / All doors / I'm yours."

And I always thought it was "Odors, I'm yours."
"Don't Let The Rain Fall Down On Me" was a cool tune too.

Anyway, I saw the Critters at Morristown High in 1966...after the show one of the roadies nearly convinced my naive sister to go with him back to their hotel where he was going to make her the next big star. I wouldn't let her the only thing she blew was her big chance at fame and fortune.

Holly A Hughes said...

Has your sister forgiven you yet?

Yeah, the lyrics do get kinda muddy in there -- considering how poetic he's trying to be, you'd think he'd pronounce the words more carefully. There's a whole lot of words in here I never really understood -- that strange syntax doesn't help! "Odors" makes just about as much sense...

Glenn said...

Great blog, Holly. You've got a wonderful writing style and your commentary
and observations are sometimes so spot on with my own that it's a little
scary. Like reading what I would have written, except I didn't. (And except
your prose is way better, too...). Anyway, I've really enjoyed reading it,
and fwiw, it's cheered me up on some sad days. Thanks.

You've captured the essence of MDS beautifully here, couldn't agree more.
This song is the reference example of the half dozen or so tracks
-- heard over my entire lifetime -- that I call "Martian music": Compositions
with a performance and production quality so completely head-and-shoulders
above anything else of its genre that it has to have been the work of aliens.

The UFOlogists have their fuzzy spaceship photos and crash-landing
folklore, but if anyone wants real evidence of alien visitation, just
clamp on a good set of over-the-ear headphones and listen to this song
in depth. It's just plain impossible. And in every dimension:
Harmony, rhythm, chord progression, production quality, vocal accuracy,
phrasing, lyrical expression,... even the title, fer cryin' out loud.
It is not of this planet. I believe that even in 2009 -- much less
mid-1966 -- it is physically impossible for humans to have produced
this sequence of vibrations. And this is coming from a guy who truly
loves C&J, Spoonful, Mamas&Papas, Classics IV,... but this piece is
simply of a different order.

And btw, all this 'net folklore about the group breaking up because
"they went off to Vietnam", or Villanova, or some other "V" place, blah blah...
Don't get caught up in that pap, Holly. It's just disinformationist
bologna. They came here, cut this single, and flew back to Mars.

Holly A Hughes said...

[smacks hand against forehead] AT LAST THE MYSTERY IS SOLVED -- that explains it all!!!

I love your term "Martian music." For the record, what are the other cuts that qualify?

Glenn said...

Well, to be honest, I don't know exactly. My Martian designees have never been committed to paper, they're probably not even consistent over time. And really, now that I think about it, it's not even just "tracks", more like of a mix of certain tracks, certain artists, voices, styles, production values...

The key characteristic of Martian music is that it has to have that "a guy came out of nowhere, hit my car, and vanished" shock quality to it, when you first hear it. Where you freeze in mid-syllable, or mid-whatever you were doing, the planet stops rotating and there is only... that sound! What is this? What... the... hell is this????

Another dead giveaway is that when you listen to it with headphones, you realize that it's flawless in all dimensions: Music, lyrics (if it has), performance, production, emotional power. There are tons of songs that are great in one or two or three dimensions, but very few that really pass the mark across the board. Those are your Martian candidates.

Btw, over-the-ear headphones are important. Martian production quality generally can't be detected without them. This is one technique they use to mask their presence here. (Roy Thinnes taught me this one.)

Anyway, all of the above is entirely irrelevant. You don't need a Peterson's Field Guide to identify Martian music. When you hear it, you just know.

So anyway, in the pop realm, I guess I'd offer that Ennio Morricone and Tom Jobim are/were both definitely Martian. Listen to anything of Jobim's and tell me with a straight face that there's not some kind of intergalactic sparkly dust involved in those chord changes. Uh huh, sure. No possibility whatever the guy was human.

Morricone was better at disguising himself. He cut quite a few non-Martian tracks just to keep his head down, but if you listen to (e.g.) the original score to "tGtBatU", he's clearly Martian. Not the radio edit or the (entirely serviceable and pleasant) Hugo Montenegro cover; only the original: Tom-tom, coyote calls, grunting in tongues (how the hell did he score that?) clarino-trumpet shoot-out... completely insane and obviously extraterrestrial. Possibly the most dramatic 159 seconds of sound ever recorded on the surface of this planet.

Also, Karen Carpenter's voice. I have my doubts as to whether Karen herself was actually an alien being like Jobim and Morricone, but they definitely got hold of her voice somehow and noodled around with it. The first three vocal bars of Superstar cause my limbic system to lock up into some kind of Martio-spasmodic seizure. Very dangerous when driving or cycling.

Anyway, I could ramble on, but having already barfed long and hard on your blog here I'll refrain. But it would be great to hear your take on any of the above,
or even better, your own Martian designees.

Btw, Holly: Were you a summer camp-er? I was guessing from some of your self-quips that maybe you'd developed some of your formative sixties musical whimsy at one of those Adirondack or Berkshires summer camps that were so popular with parents back then. During the summers of '64 - '69 (or so) that's where I was. So while you were honing your drippy teenage girl skills, pining over boys who didn't know you existed, I was working earnestly on my insecure skinny ham radio proto-nerd persona: Scrawny, thick glasses, totally invisible to girls. Yag. I still remember exactly how it felt, their gazes streaming right thru my body like neutrinos. You were non-existent, I was transparent.

Uf. Coming-of-age nostalgia. Ain't what it used to be.

Holly A Hughes said...

This is too funny! I'm going to have to go give this Martian music idea a long consideration. I guess it's like pornography; you know it when you see it.

And BTW I went to summer camp, but nothing so classy as the Berkshires or the 'Dacks. No, I went to a tiny church camp in the depths of southern Indiana -- about a stone's throw from where John Cougar Mellencamp grew up. (We used to sneak away to go suck on chili dogs at the same Tasty-Freeze as in the "Jack and Diane" video.) And there were absolutely no skinny proto-nerd boys at our camp -- or if there were, I couldn't see them. ;)

Please, barf on my blog as often as you feel inspired.

Shabuwa said...

I'm 63 years old now, and like you, this one turned me on my ear. Thanks for posting this. I have the album somewhere, but no record player to play it on. Glad to find it on youtube.

Anonymous said...

OMG, what a wonderful recollection and subsequent comments!
Yes, there was always something mystifyingly strange and wonderful about that song!
I always thought it was "Oh Lois, I'm yours!" - The perfect line to inspire all of us nerdy "Clark Kent would-be Supermen" listeners hearing the tune. (And I also was a ham radio operator at the time!)
And the comments really blew my mind.
I mean, you really need to check out the David Bowie lyrics to "(Is There) Life on Mars" where he sings about the Beatles as "cavemen", or the whole "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" thing. Even "Starman"!
Then when you mentioned Karen Carpenter, I actually got chills,
because she channeled some Christmas encouragement my way after her death. The account is available at "" in the articles section. Click on the bottom where it says "Fate magazine".
"Calling Occupants" indeed!
McCartney's another one: "A good friend of mine studies the stars; Venus and Mars are alright tonight" (wink wink)
Well.. Thank you again for giving that song its due! Your account should be posted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or perhaps the Roswell alien museum! Cheers!

Jephy said...

What a phenomenal review! MDS was the 'quintessential' prom song in the late 60's...go to a
dance...turn down the room on the [slow] dance floor. This 1968 12-year-old was working the concession stand at a 7th grade dance..with lots of
older kids 'showing me the ropes' this song...see above!

Alloy said...

Thanks, Holly, this little gem has never gotten its proper place in the pop spectrum. I have never heard it on any type of oldies station--not even on the 'ten at ten' segment our local station used to do--"ten hits from one great year!"

"Don't let the Rain Fall Down on me," "Have you seen her Face," and "Pretty Ballerina" all seem cut out of this same cloth, to me. Especially "Ballerina"--if I'd have known about headphones in those days I would have probably just disappeared into thin air while listening to that fade-out. Thanks for the good writing!

Eneri Rose said...

IMHO - This is one of the best songs ever written! I can't believe it's not covered all the time.

Anonymous said...

No offense is ever intended but on the Critters Anthology album he said that the secretary who finally got them in to see the producer was honored with her royalty check by naming her in the song. The secretary was called Doris. The following lyric is the correct one.....

Wake this land & stop the sea, show me love, oh Doris I'm your's!

Thanks for letting me post.

Holly A Hughes said...

And the mystery is solved! What a great bit of pop info that is. In fact I love these guys even more for slipping Doris's name in. My grandmother was called Doris and on her behalf, I gratefully thank you for this!

Brandy said...

Good news. Music Choice has added this to its rotation on the "Solid Gold Oldies" station. I've heard it twice in the last two days, and every time I do I get chills. Thank you for so eloquently describing just what makes this song so special.

Yrrette said...

All couched in a hauntingly beautiful melody with soft, harmonic background vocals, mostly minor and 7th chords, with 6th thrown in the Bridge, an air sadness permeates throughout the hazy, late summer images, even though the narrator/singer is with the girl of his dreams...she seems so happy with no intention of leaving, why is he so sad? This is not revealed until the last verse...they have made 'love' on the beach, and now he's happy...which is what he wanted all the along. He's proven his manhood, she's now his, and all's right with the world...ah the stuff they got away with in songs of yesteryear...yet the songs are still beautiful, enjoyable and have transcended Time and Space.

Take Lou Christie's 'LIGHTNING STRIKES',for example: beautiful music, great background vocals, hooky chorus, and what's all this lovely melange add up to? Orgasms! But for me, alas, was a musical one. Great music will do that to you...

Anonymous said...

The author of this song, Don Ciccone, unfortunately just died yesterday.

Holly A Hughes said...

I had not heard that -- thanks for letting me know. I see that after serving in the Air Force in Vietnam, he toured for years with the Four Seasons and then Tommy James & the Shondells. He was only 70. Quite a loss to the music world. Here's a link to the obituary:

chris3c said...

Great blog on this classic song! Well put, thanks!