David Lazar is a Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction for 2015-16. Books include Who's Afraid of Helen of Troy, After Montaigne, Occasional Desire, The Body of Brooklyn, Truth in Nonfiction, Essaying the Essay, Powder Town, Michael Powell: Interviews, and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher. Six essays have been “Notable Essays of the Year” in Best American Essays. Lazar founded the PhD program in nonfiction at Ohio University and the M.F.A. program in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago, where he is Professor of Creative Writing. He is founding editor of Hotel Amerika, and co-series editor of 21st Century Essays, at OSU Press.
Lollipop Is Mine
I had an epiphany by the Carrier Corporation in Syracuse on a wicked cold day. I realize how inauspicious this sounds, but we take them when we can get them, right? And quite frankly, I’m more apt to trust mud puddle realizations than I am any grand information about the meaning of life that comes to me while gazing out at an Umbrian vista drinking a glass of wine. Don’t get me wrong (or, alternately, get me wrong, which might in itself prove interesting) I’m not advocating dreariness or suggesting that the only way to know life in some authentic way is through . . . well, anything. I think that’s the point. I’m too old for formulae. I’m just saying that disjunction at least has some innate friction in it that can make life interesting.
Anyhow, as I was saying, I was by the Carrier Corporation, and it was cold, as it is apt to be in Syracuse in the winter. I was there as a graduate student, over thirty years ago now, studying creative writing, with wonderful teachers like Ray Carver and Phillip Booth, and my mentor in poetry, Hayden Carruth. I was working on my thesis, a long fractured series of poetic dramatic monologues linked by narrative, based on the life of the folksinger Phil Ochs. I think in some ways I was trying to write out my obsession with Phil Ochs, whose music I had been listening to over and over for years. I suffer from a kind of musical hyperperseveration, and I’m apt to listen to and sing the same songs (not necessarily to the exclusion of others, but with an alarming regularity) repeatedly, for months, or years. And it was the songs’ twining with Phil Ochs life and fate, his life as protest singer and activist, then mournful autobiographical lyricist, then crazy street persona and sad washout, culminating with his suicide at his sister’s house on Long Island, in 1976, at the age of 36, that haunted me, and kept me hooked into the world of his work. I remember where I was when I heard that he had killed himself, in my library carrel at Bennington College, which tells you something. I remember where I was for the deaths of four other people: Adlai Stevenson, Nat King Cole, Fred Astaire and John Lennon. Make of that what you will.
Hayden Carruth, my professor, who was an extraordinary poet and critic of jazz, was curious about the music, so I’d sit in his office, playing him tapes of Ochs singing, his early stuff, “There But For Fortune,” or “Santo Domingo” and his late semi-suicidal songs: “The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns,” or “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed.” Hayden really liked them, as I recall, and he didn’t like much.
I know I started by telling you that I was going to write about an epiphany, and I will. And it actually is about music, but music of a very different kind. But there’s a reason I was listening to it, and that had much to do with Phil Ochs.
I’ve always been pleased that I managed to see Ochs live twice. Once when he organized the Concert for Allende, after Salvador Allende was overthrown, in 1975. This was at the Felt Forum in New York, and Ochs had his famous reunion with Bob Dylan onstage, which was more like the two of them merely being on the same stage. For those of you, I imagine a rather significant portion of my readership, who are not up on the private vendettas of singers from the ‘60s, supposedly Dylan asked Ochs what he thought of a song, and Ochs said he didn’t think much of it, and Dylan threw him out of his limousine, this around 1966. Some people thought Dylan wrote “Positively Fourth Street” about Ochs, but that never made much sense to me.
I also saw Ochs in 1974 when he organized the War is Over concert in Central Park. I remember mostly that Joan Baez and Paul Simon were there, and that there weren’t as many people there as I would have thought. They sang Ochs’ song “The War is Over.” Perhaps it’s hard to get as many people to show up for a celebration of something finally ending, especially when it seemed to end with a whimper.
I have to shift scenes here, to California, in 1978, where I looked like a more angelic Roger Daltrey or less kinky Kinky Friedman and was going to graduate school ,though when I think back on it I marvel that just a couple of years earlier I was sleeping in my basement bedroom in Brooklyn . . . Those are wildly intense years, 15-21, I think, as my song as now in the lower echelons. We go from having our lunches packed for us to . . . well, a whole lot of trouble and bliss.
For some reason, in California, I started listening to Doo-Wop all the time. I started buying Doo-Wop albums, collections on Laurie, but also obscure stuff on Holiday and Crimson and Beltone. I still have these albums. Why did I start listening to Doo-Wop, fifteen years after its prime—and yikes, that doesn’t sound like so much from this distance, when Doo-Wop seems like ancient history, and from the geographical remove of is birthplaces on the east coast? It’s a bit funny now to think that I drove three thousand miles by myself, listening to things like Ralph Vaughn Williams in Kansas at sunset or Joni Mitchell as I was pitching through the Rockies anxious to get myself to my new home and the perception that on a new coast I would find all of these new contours of a new self. I wasn’t entirely wrong.
But to get back to music, I’m not exactly sure what, at that stage of my development, when I was branching out into all kinds of jazz and classical music, led me into an obsession with Doo Wop, unless it was a subconscious association of it with my childhood, and New York. I mean Dion was practically a saint in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, and I have and had dim memories of guys riding around in cars when I was a tyke and throwing bits of the Belmonts and the Four Seasons out the windows on warm summer days and nights: “I should have know it from the very start . . . “ and “I’ll tell the world/Forget about it girl . . . .” Doo Wop was primarily African American and Italian American in practice; maybe, in Northern California, which seemed very white and suburban to me in the late seventies, I was needing a little “neighborhood” playing in the background.
So I started listening to Doo Wop all the time, and I hadn’t really known it, other than the obvious “hits” one would heard in passing from the radio stations, from Oldies shows. And even most of these weren’t songs that registered that deeply on me. Oldies were so old in the seventies. So I started listening to Doo Wop in all its permutations—the early groups like the Penguins, the great Italian American groups like the Belmonts, the Mystics and Randy and the Rainbows. And brilliant black groups like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Coasters and the Platters. Doo Wop generally captured a pretty primal, young experience, lyrically, but then again, I was really young and reasonably primal myself, having found what felt like some kind of loophole to get myself away from the Naked City, and the naked self. I wanted to clothe myself, in California in a cooler, more ironic persona. But that also meant I had developed an absolute need to hear The Marcels sing “Blue Moon,” the Rogers and Hart standard I knew too well, and with Hoagy Carmichael’s “Heart and Soul” one of the templates for the kind of chord progression and standards revisionism that Doo Wop would embody.
One of the crucial elements of many Doo Wop songs (this isn’t the epiphany) is the division of lead between a classic tenor and a falsetto (or a falsetto and a bass), sometimes sung by the same singer, as in the case with Frankie Valli and Dion, or sometimes split between singers as with the Del-Vikings (a group that was integrated—important and unusual for the time, 1955). But I loved this division or split, as though the single voice weren’t quite enough, that the consciousness of the song needed to expand its sense of persona to have a more lyrical voice, or a slightly gritty and lyrical sensibility, representing both sides of what is invariably a lover’s sensibility. But there is a very practical sense that a different mode of articulation needed to be available, a formal shift to emphasize intensification, which was represented by the falsetto. Writers sometimes do this with typography, shifting into italics, breaking prose with verse, etc. . . .
Doo Wop has its sillier side, novelty songs, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens, which is still fun to listen to, or “Oh, My Mother-in-Law” by the Volumes or “Rubber Biscuit” by The Chips. You don’t have to look far, but still Doo Wop’s attempt to sing something in a new way still feels frequently very fresh and charming.
Before I stop my general disquisition on Doo Wop, on this medium length foray into a story of musical epiphany, I must mention “Moulty” by the Barbarians. Frequently included in Doo Wop anthologies, it’s a late addition, and represents some of the qualities of classic Doo Wop, notably a spoken narrative (Doo Wop, and the Girl Groups, which are an extension and development of Doo Wop, really pushed this as a motif, in songs like “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” by the Shangri-Las, “My Boyfriend’s Back” by the Angels, “Leader of the Pack,” also by the Shangri-Las, “Do You Love Me” by the Contours, and “Little Darlin’” by the Diamonds) though it also points to garage music and the creeping British Invasion.
I created a small cult around the song when I was a graduate student at Syracuse, always playing it at parties. The song begins with the nerdy-sounding voice of a man, the voice sounding like Buddy Holly looks, accompanied by a melancholy harmonica, saying
I remember the days when
Things were real bad for me
It was right after my accident
When I lost my hand
There’s a great accident motif in Doo Wop—a classic way for lovers to separate—except in Moulty the speaker has been separated from his hand. It turns out he’s the drummer of the band. The song tells us that he was very depressed as the rest of the band’s refrain keeps kicking in: “Moulty!” (apparently the singer’s name),
Don't turn away (you gotta, baby)
Don't turn away (you gotta keep on trying)
Don't turn away, don't turn away
The high point of the song, the turning point, the verse that makes the one-armed drummer decide to embrace the world and keep on living is as follows:
Now there's just one thing that I need
Not sympathy and I don't want no pity
But a girl, a real girl
One that really loves me
And then I'll be the complete man
How can I tell you how much we loved the lyric, “a real girl . . . And then I’ll be the complete man”? Poor Moulty. How I and we laughed at your expense. We did say silent prayers that you were able to move on to a “real girl,” though we always thought you were a complete man, as much as that is a thing to be desired. Some absurdities can simply never be exhausted. Think of Spike Jones.
I also have to say a word about “I Love You,” by the Volumes, and this, in fact, might serve as a kind of introduction to the epiphany that you may have forgotten that you’re waiting for. I certainly haven’t, though I worry that you’re going to want a really good one, like that high note that Frankie Valli would pull out at the end of a song.
“I Love You” is not a promising title for a song. My reason is, well, it’s the shadow title for every song ever written. The lyrics to the song are beyond disposable. They could have been written in two minutes on a napkin, but they should have stayed there. Yet that’s part of the song’s power, the fact that the lead singer, the tenor, who sounds young and slightly rough around the edges, is trying to articulate his feelings. This is really one of my favorite lead vocals because he actually sounds like everyone’s inner teenager trying to find the words. He really can’t find words that are incredibly new (“My love is so heavenly/My darling can’t you see) which is why he ends up repeating “I love you over and over again, along with “I need you.” But he’s a teenager in love and the strength of his feeling, the yearning he sings with, lets us know that finding language for feeling is just so difficult. But we have the music of his singing and his attempt, which leads to what is, for me, one of the, if not the most ethereally beautiful moments in Doo Woop, and in pop music: after the second verse, the falsetto lead, with Doo Wop reverb and echo sings “doo-doo-doo-doo-do-do, do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do, doo-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh,” which is haunting and ethereal, as though the singer had just entered a magical world, as though the voice had just become suddenly a kind of even mystical joy, followed by his tenor “I Love Yous.” It captures a joyous love rapture better than anything I know. I used it at my wedding. I guess that means I can’t use it again, were I ever. . . That would be crass. Alas.
That really should have been the epiphany shouldn’t it? But I’m going to return to Syracuse, which sounds like Plautus via Rogers and Hart. I was driving by the plant of the Carrier Corporation in 1981, a couple of years after I had left California, left my little golden sojourn with its Doo Wop soundtrack, and here I was back east, in the rust belt, driving by the plant of the largest company in town—I don’t remember why—at the end of the day, with lots of men walking, walking towards their cars, looking tired, but their was a marvelous cold bright sunset coming on, this being middle fall—a kind of orange glow in the sky silhouetting all of these tired men, and I remember—I’m sure you’ve had moments like these—feeling a kind of sympathy for them, though not sentimentally, precisely what Hazlitt called (and claimed to have coined) disinterested, meaning not a lack of interest, but the absence of a personal or autobiographical stake or claim, but certainly not an absence of keen or astute interest in the nature of well-being of these people; just the opposite, I felt an enormous, sharp sympathy, that was merely human.
It was at this moment that the station I had tuned in, an Oldies station started playing the song, “Lollipop” by the Chordettes. “Lollipop” was written by Beverly Ross and Julius Dixon in 1957, auspiciously the year of my birth, though unconnected to it, apparently after Dixon’s daughter had gotten a lollipop stuck in her hair, inspiring Dixon on a consonantal binge as she repeated the word over and over again, and Dixon wrote the melody on the spot. Ross and a neighbor boy recorded a demo of the song as Ronald and Ruby and it charted, though not at the level the white girl group Chordettes would a year later. I actually quite like the early version of the song by Ronald and Ruby. It’s more stripped down, a bit less varnished than the next year’s megahit. It has the slightly raw quality of some of my favorite Doo Wop songs. But they only play The Chordettes’ version on the radio. The Chordettes weren’t properly a Doo Wop group, but the song they produced with “Lollipop,” complete with added on and uncredited bass intoning da-dum-dum-dum, followed by the the popping of a cheek, certainly sounds like Doo Wop by any standards—close echoey harmony, teen love, bass counterpoint to the sopranos, etc . . . Like “I Love You,” the song is mostly in the melody and the singing, since the lyrics, while amusing, aren’t exactly Chekhovian in their complexity:
Sweeter than candy on a stick
Huckleberry, cherry, or lime
If you have a choice he'd be your pick
But Lollipop is mine...
Oh Lolli Lolli Lolli
Oh Lolli Lolli Lolli
Oh Lolli Lolli Lolli
Crazy way he thrills-a me
Tell you why
Just like a lightning from the sky
He loves to kiss me
'Till I can't see straight
GEE, my Lollipop is great!
I call him...
Well, I told you. And I suppose one could go as far as to say that the song is a precursor of “bubblegum” music, that much maligned phenomenon of the mid to late sixties to early seventies that substituted saccharine for sugar in the pop music of the era. Think “Sugar, Sugar,” quite the misnomer, by the Archies. However, “Lollipop,” and just barely mind you, still has the benefit of sounding actually teen aged, the yearning semi-authentic, and the young women’s harmonies blending in and out to create a soundscape that catches you by surprise with its intensity. The track has a heavy rhythm section, bass and drums, which provides a sense of contrast to the chorus-sound of the women. And the women are layered in two tracks on the first refrain, both singing the lyrics and also singing, wordlessly, in harmony, at the same time. The song ends with a cappella singing. So, there’s a lot going on in two minutes in ten seconds, which is one of the things that lovers of pop music always embrace.
So, like I said at the top, I was driving by the Carrier Corporation on this fall afternoon, and “Lollipop” came on the radio, the song introduced casually by claps at the beginning. I turned it up. When the girls hit the refrain, I tell you now, unashamedly, I started weeping I thought it was so ethereal, like I was Rip Van Winkle and had woken up to Clair de Lune—the sound felt new, and the effect was transporting. That’s what mattered most. And the thought that came into my mind was that popular music was sacred music, that “Lollipop” was just “Ave Maria” with a bandwith.
And that thought on that day thrilled me, that a bunch of teenaged girls singing about Lollipop were no different than the Tallis Scholars or the Anonymous 4 or the Collegium Vocale Ghent, with groups of singers releasing Monterverdi’s or Bach’s madrigals or cantatas, their choral texts about God or wounded love, to exquisite depth.
That was my epiphany, that afternoon thirty-five years and several digressions ago. Since then, I’ve never made excuses for anything I loved listening to or watching, as long as it rose to the level of “Lollipop.”