Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Frankie Valli and the 3:14 conundrum

I wish I could find a video with a better cover image than the Jersey Boys, a pale imitation of the original who seem nonetheless to be seducing the public all over the place (including in a soon-to-be-released feature film).  But them's the breaks: this is the version with the best sound, and that is what matters.

When I was a kid, the Four Seasons were just sort of "around". They had hit after hit, and I thought they were sort of annoying, this guy singing in a really high voice, but at the same time sort of tough, a greaser. Every time I turned around, there was another one. What bored or annoyed me then impresses the hell out of me now: Big Girls Don't Cry, Walk Like a Man, Rag Doll, Dawn, My Eyes Adored You, Let's Hang On, Ronnie, Sherry (those two being current favorites of mine, as I love it when Valli addresses a wayward or unattainable girl personally), Can't Take my Eyes Off of You, and the irresistible Working my Way Back to You Babe (with a burnin' love inside!). And that is not by any means a comprehensive list.

Today I re-listened to a couple of the "straight" songs Valli recorded (meaning, in normal tenor range rather than falsetto). Blow the dust of the years away, and you've got a great singer with impeccable phrasing, deep understanding of a lyric, and a tremendous knowledge of how to use his voice. These Jersey Boy impersonators are completely incapable of cat-leaping from lyric crooner range straight up into countertenor range without a break.

Yes, I thought Valli was a greaser back then (when I thought about him at all), but today I found a clip of him singing live on TV in 1975 that blew me away. I don't know how old he was then, but he was very good-looking, not tough-looking at all. Almost dreamy.  At one point he does what I call a "BAM" - very few people know how to do it - and makes eye contact with the audience in a way that is so seductive, it takes your breath away. I have no idea if this is true or not, but there's something about Valli's persona that suggests heartbreak, being bashed around, having to keep his fists up. How this can mesh with singing Walk Like a Man in high descant range is anybody's guess.

Anyway, today, mucking around in all this, and listening to the breathtaking arrangement of Under my Skin that blows Sinatra out of the water, I suddenly found myself sobbing. Just breaking into real tears, and I didn't know why. Being ten years old, or whatever I was then, and Caitlin being ten years old now, and all that I have not accomplished and never will, and my ever-expanding hunger for musical treasure that can be found in the strangest places, such as right under my nose - ? Or is it none of this? 

There's something completely outrageous about the setting for this dark jewel. Violins soar to the heavens, chimes ring, and percussion beats almost urgently - there's a lot of drive in this, for a romantic song. And several times, eerily, it comes to a full stop, before Valli's lullabye voice swoops back in to revive it. You don't do that to a song, make it die like that, then bring it back, but somehow it works.

One of the greatest mysteries of this recording is the "3:14" conundrum. In every version I have ever heard, at exactly 3:14, under all the lavish strings and powerful brasses and that incredible tight-crunched choir of male voices, somebody says something. Only a couple of words. Indecipherable, though it could very well be in Valli's voice. It sounds almost like German. Oh, God, I hope it isn't something backwards, though I guess that's a possibility. I suppose someone could have just dropped this in, for in the land of YouTube, anything is possible, no matter how illegal. Or it could be a code, or a message for a specific person. I don't know. The thing is, these songs were recorded for a.m. radio and for the 45 r. p. m. record with the little plastic thing in the centre. You wouldn't even hear nuances like this. I think that's why the best pop songs were those that soared above sound limitations: the artists knew on some level that they had to hit the sweet spot, above distortion and below static. They had to surmount that loose-wires sound, and hit exact frequencies that forced people to pay attention. 

It was said that Phil Spector's infamous Wall of Sound was just a way to make mono recordings sound more like stereo, to densify and fatten them out. Spector was (and is) a crazy sonic science fiction wizard with demonic tendencies, and what he did to sound was almost criminal: it may never recover. People are still trying to figure out what exactly he did, trying in vain to replicate it. Today I listened to some Ronettes and some Chiffons and some Crystals and some Shangri-Las, and some of it was good and some of it was great, but there was also a lot of dreck, stuff so bad I had to click it off. Not many people remember You Can't Take My Boy Friend's Woody by the Powder Puffs, Chicken Chicken Cranny Crow by the Jaynettes, Waddle Waddle by the Bracelets, or Frankie's Out on Parole by the La Dell Sisters (though I was very disappointed not to find that one on YouTube). 

The really wizard stuff sparkled on top of the water, evanescent. And when you re-listen to it now with completely different sensibilities (i. e. as a kid, I had no idea what "under my skin" could possibly mean, completely missing the sexual connotations of it), you still get it, the sparkle. It dazzles your eyes. It's a sort of auditory "BAM". 

But I'd still like to know what he says at 3:14.

(The last gif is a live performance in the most primitive setting, with ONE microphone, a tiny stage, and a camera distance that never varies: it's all in long-shot. And they KILL it. Frankie Valli sings Big Girls Don't Cry (my least favorite back then, or was it Walk Like a Man) in a snarly kick-ass voice that far exceeds the studio version. The poor guys have to stand close as sardines to be heard, however -  I mean, this wasn't 1930, so couldn't they set up more than one mike? But there it is. Too bad there's no sound to this - go look it up yourself.)

The boys in slo-mo, resplendent in after-dinner-mint colors.

"But why should I try to resist, when darling, I know so well. . . "

You can't go home again (and that's called. . . sad)

I'm gonna hide if she don't leave me alone
I'm gonna run away


'Cause you can never go home anymore

Listen, does this sound familiar?
You wake up every morning, go to school every day
Spend your nights on the corner just passing the time away
Your life is so lonely like a child without a toy
Then a miracle-a boy

and that's called "glad"

Now my mom is a good mom and she loves me with all her heart
But she said, I was too young to be in love
And the boy and I would have to part
And no matter how I ranted and raved, I screamed, I pleaded, I cried
She told me it was not really love but only my girlish pride
And that's called "bad"

Never go home anymore

Now if that's happened to you, don't let this
I packed my clothes and left home that night
Though she begged me to stay, I was sure I was right
And you know something funny?
I forgot that boy right away, instead I remember
Being tucked in bed and hearing my mama say

(Hush, little baby, don't you cry
Mama won't go away)

(You can never go home anymore)

I can never go home anymore

Listen, I'm not finished
Do you ever get that feeling and wanna kiss and hug her?
Do it now
Tell her you love her
Don't do to your mom what I did to mine
She grew so lonely in the end
Angels picked her for a friend


And I can never go home anymore

And that's called


Blogger's comments. As is so often the case, this started off as something, then turned into something else. I got listening to pop songs of the early '60s - that awful sobby one about I Wish That We Could Be Married (which was just as bad as I remembered), among others, but then this one came up and hit me right between the eyebrows.

This isn't a song so much as a narration, a soliloquy, and one wonders if it actually stopped any young girls from bolting. It has the power. The Shangri-Las weren't known for their emotional depth, mostly for high hair and go-go boots and gigs on American Bandstand. But then this song came along, and whoever narrates it is compelling.

I thought originally of comparing and contrasting this one with other songs about leaving/running away from home. The only song remotely close to this one in intensity is Tar and Cement, which I've never much cared for. Then there is Del Shannon's Runaway, and Leaving on a Jet Plane, and the Beatles' She's Leaving Home, and blah blah blah.

None of them touch this one.

I guess I must have been about in Grade 9, awkward, baffled at my changing body, fascinated and terrified by boys. Running away was never an option. But I do remember listening to this song a lot (it came on CKLW Radio every 5 minutes, it seemed). Changing out of their godawful gym bloomers, the girls talked about it in hushed tones. "Didja hear that one about. . . " "Yeah. The girl that runs away."

It was a different sort of song, the kind where you stop what you're doing and really listen, because there's a story here, a riveting one. The girl who narrates - and it really is a girl, not a woman - has a slightly nasal Bronx accent that is somehow endearing, in that it makes her more real. It could be anyone, really. It could be us.

I was not a runaway. I survived Kelly green gym bloomers, penny loafers, unrequited crushes, bullying, being heckled at school dances, having a tampon fall out of my purse in front of my friends, being groped by drunken married men at "family parties" that were a million laughs for me, and got the hell away from it all as soon as I could. This was partly on the advice of a psychiatrist, whom I remember now saying, incredibly, "You must get away from your father".

So I didn't bolt, I didn't run away, I walked. With measured pace. But I was eighteen, and I never really did return. A year later, I was married (not pregnant, by the way, in spite of people's snide remarks). I'm still married, to the same person, with no regrets. A miracle? Miracles are acts of God. WE made this happen, with effort and love.

And I never had those feelings about my mother because my mother was like a missing puzzle piece, a non-presence, at least towards me (though my eldest brother was highly favored: she always cooked his favorite dishes when he came home from university).

So you can never go home any more. Especially if you've never really had one.


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Marimba Queens

I don't know how it is that I keep finding this stuff. . . usually late at night. . . when I probably should be asleep. . . I mean, it's been a good day and all, but I'd like to collapse for about 100 years now, and here's this fat guy, I mean this REALLY fat guy from the 1930s playing a xylophone. . .

Like he's the Pavarotti of the xylophone or something, but you ain't seen nothin' till you've seen this. . .

There's this weird chick band of all xylophones, or marimbas I think they're supposed to be, and this guy, I mean! He thrashes on his bass like he's trying to kill it or something!

This isn't family viewing. Too much violence. But I do like that bubbly thing at the end. This is a silent music video, so to get the sounds just pick up a popsicle stick and hit it on something wooden.