Saturday, June 01, 2019

Drive, She Said

"Undun" / Guess Who

Sometimes, you know, you're just in a car, styling down a highway, long trip, looking for an audio groove that'll match your driving groove. And then this thing dials up and it's such a trifecta of sounds: jazzy, mellow, yet anguished. And you tune in and think -- damn, that's one fine track.

She's Come Undun 

I realize that I have no sense of who Guess Who "is" -- Wikipedia confuses me with all the iterations of this band, with its constantly changing personnel. Some names I recognize -- Randy Bachman, who wrote this song (later to be part of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, not that I know their songs any better), and Burton Cummings, who was Guess Who's front man on this 1969 track. But after them it was a rotating cast that never seemed to add up to much.
And maybe because the talent was always changing, their sound was all over the place, at least from the few singles I knew. "These Eyes" sounds a bit like "Undun," but "American Woman"? "No Sugar Tonight"? Or how about their later semi-hit "Clap for the Wolfman"?

Not sure why this should matter -- shouldn't we admire bands with variety and range? But for this band, it feels as if the center doesn't hold.

Yet on this one track, all the stars must have been aligned. I love the flowing samba line of the verses, then how it pivots into something darker (almost a jazz tango) in the abrupt syncopations of the chorus: "It's too late/ She's gone too far/ She's lost the sun" -- hold it, hold it, that wicked pause . . . . and then, diving back into the verse, "She's come undun." Shout out, by the way, to the percussion, which underscores all this, tripping lightly in the verses, then laying down whiplashes in the chorus. And dig that flute solo in the break -- Cummings, apparently, who knew?

I like, too, how the verses deepen. At first, the girl seems reckless, shooting too high, going off course. But in verse three, we learn it's not her fault: "She wanted truth and all she got was lies." It's quite possible the songwriters just ran out of convenient tropes, but for me, that verse rescues the song. The girl's no longer at fault, the world is.

This song is full of questions, which is one of the things I love about it. Yeah, I know, that could just be sloppy songwriting, but as a listener I'm hooked. Who's singing this song, and what's his relation to the girl? (If he's a boyfriend, he's an ex, I imagine, regretting that he couldn't save her. It's just as likely a brother or a friend.) What is this "sun" she's lost? (Her sanity? Her faith? [Bachman was a Mormon].)

And most important, what does "undun" mean? As a spelling person, for years I was bugged by this song title (HOW HARD WOULD IT HAVE BEEN TO SPELL IT "UNDONE"?!) and I still can't quite buy into the deliberate misspelling. But that obscures the question: Is this about a runaway, a bad acid trip, a nervous breakdown, a suicide? The darkness of the choruses, plus Cummings' heartfelt wail on the last "She's come undun" makes me fear the worst.

I've been listening to this song for (on and off) 50 years and I still haven't solved it. Which is a good thing.

1 comment:

george herman said...

Welcome back! I missed your insights.
Undun is my favorite Guess Who song as well. The Cummings/Bachman era is really the only Guess Who line-up that counts, although they did have two good songs after Bachman left while Cummings was still there ("Hand Me Down World" and "Share the Land").
Cummings still tours, both solo and with a band and is still worth seeing.