"Cry Like a Baby" / The Box Tops
I might as well give in to it. The second wave of Alex Chilton nostalgia has hit, and I simply can't get this particular song to stop playing in my head.
Released in 1968, "Cry Like a Baby" only hit #2 on the charts, never quite equaling the chart-topping success of the band's debut single "The Letter" from the previous year. It was written by two stalwarts of the Memphis scene, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham (for all you Lowe-aholics out there, the same guys wrote Nick's "Time I Took A Holiday" -- a lush groove indeed).
It begins urgently, with a drawn-out minor-key discord on the organ, joined by throbbing guitar notes, but when Alex Chilton's voice bursts in it switches to major key, as he declares, "When I think about the good love you gave me / I cry like a baby." That past-tense "gave" tells us that this is a break-up song, but "cry" is still present tense. There's lots of moping, but very little hoping going on here. He's not even pleading with her -- no, it seems that the axe has irrevocably fallen. You have to admire this girl for cutting him off this cleanly.
Given that major key and the energetic rhythm, I never really felt this was a Misery Song -- he's fretting and regretting, but not totally depressed. Still, Alex Chilton's rasp-edged voice adds a rawness and desperation the song really needs. Too late, he realizes his mistakes -- as he says in the bridge, "I know now that you're not a plaything, / Not a toy, or a puppet on a string." He's young, though, still learning about love, and those buoyant guitar licks tell me that he will survive. After all, how old was Alex Chilton when he sang this -- sixteen? Seventeen? Even as he mourns his loss, the music's charging him up for the next love.
Listening to this as a teenager, I remember wanting to dry his tears. What girl doesn't love a guy sensitive enough to cry? Almost as a throwaway, at the end he tosses of "You left the water running now / I cried like a baby." At last it's past-tense "cried" -- he's ready to move on. And all the teenage girls listening fluffed their bangs, adjusted their sweaters, sat up straight, hoping Alex would notice . . .