Wednesday, March 12, 2014


"Along Comes Mary" /
The Association

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.) Even though the songwriter, Tandyn Almer -- later a close friend of Brian Wilson's -- never fessed up to the drug message, 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.

Back then, of course, you couldn't sing openly about drugs, anymore than you could about sex. The whole game was to hide your message inside slang and poetic imagery. Or, if you were the Association, hide it even further by rattling off lyrics 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.

Packed with internal rhymes (I'm a sucker for internal rhymes) and allusive imagery, it's a wild cascade of lyrics. You get the idea that he'd say anything so long as it rhymed, and of course that crazy half-logic signaled the drug message even more. (Go ask Alice.) Meanwhile, the arrangement was dark and portentous, with a minor-key melody, spooky organ, shivering tambourines, tarantula-like bass line, and triple-echoed harmonies. Hovering at the threshold of psychedelia, it's lush and dark and undeniably haunting.

Bent down over the turntable as an innocent adolescent, I could grasp the opening -- "Every time I think that I'm the only one who's lonely /Someone calls on me" -- ah, a telephone song, a tried-and-true pop conceit. But then the roller coaster took off, and soon I was tangled up in inscrutable 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."

By verse three, we seem to be in apocalypse territory: "And when the morning of the warning's passed, the gassed / And flaccid kids are flung across the stars." (You can see how the Mary Magdalene camp seized on that, interpreting The Warning as a version of The Rapture; I guess they've been waiting for it since 1966.)  Whatever that meant, the next words, "the psychodramas and the traumas," seared clearly into my brain -- that phrase has for years popped into my head more often than you'd imagine.

The one thing we all could decipher was the samba-syncopated refrain, sung in lockstep unison: "When we met I was sure out to lunch / Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch" (love how the harmonies kick in on "punch"). Holy Grail imagery aside (yes, there is that camp too), this is where we can imagine a real Mary, changing his clueless life with the experience she offers.

She makes a grand entrance in that soaring chorus: "And then along comes Mary" -- the way those harmonizing vocals climb up that title phrase gets me every time. "And does she want to give me kicks / And be my steady chick / And give me pick of memories . . . " Well, okay, maybe she's his dealer, not his girlfriend, but he's dazzled by her for sure.

The next chorus changes up the lyrics, describing her as an, ahem, purveyor of enlightenment: "And does she want to set them free, and let them see reality / From where she got her name." In the third chorus, she's a pied piper presiding over a morning-after scenario of stains and pains and dead remains -- well, by that time they'd lost me.

But I still loved this song, its dense overlapping textures, its air of mystery. The folky sound of the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'," released only a few months earlier, had evolved already into a West Coast sound utterly unlike my beloved British Invasion. Even though I didn't get the words then -- no lyric sheet for a 45 single -- I sang along all the same, faking the words I couldn't figure out. I imagined Mary in a swirling paisley caftan, barefooted of course, with flowers in her hair -- no more mini-skirt and go-go boots. The times they were a-changing.



Dave said...

Congrats on a great series. No Holly songs?

Holly A Hughes said...

:) Don't you admire my restraint?

wwolfe said...

Setting aside restraint, I'd suggest "Holly Would" by Jackie DeShannon. Not because it makes me think of our blog's host, but because it's an interesting character study by an underrated songwriter and singer.

Oh - congratulations on completing this epic task.