People say that music is meant to capture a moment in time. That a record is just that, the record of an event. I’d have to argue that this works in both directions. I’ve got vivid memories of the first time I heard most of the albums on my Top Ten. Like listening to my beat-up cassette copy of Sly Stone’s masterpiece There’s a Riot Going On on a Walkman while hiding from the math teacher I just couldn’t stomach. Or the noise that the wheels on my skateboard made as they accompanied Joe Strummer yelling “London is burning, and I live by the river!” on the title track of London Calling. The memories of these “first times” are as much a part of the album as the music itself.
One of these Proust-like records is a collection of songs off of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s label, Red Bird. It’s a grab-bag of all of those great girl groups, like the Jelly Beans, or the Dixie Cups, but the best tracks of all were the ones by the Shangri-Las. After listening to Punk and Metal for the majority of my adolescence these heartfelt, painfully innocent songs felt like finding a taste bud I never knew I had.
Most of the songs by the Shangri-Las were closer to jump rope rhymes than conventional pop songs. Four or five girls who were at the tail end of their teens got together in the studio under the supervision of Leiber & Stoller (two of Phil Spector’s disciples) and laid down tunes just like the conversations that they would have with their girlfriends in the halls of their high school.
The lyrics are inarticulate in a way that speaks volumes–as in “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” where Mary Weiss tries to describe her new boyfriend. The rest of the Shangri Las ask how tall he is and she responds: “I gotta look up”. When her friends pry further by asking her to describe the color of his eyes, she says “I dunno he’s always wearing shades.” Anyone who never talked like that in their teens probably didn’t fit in very well at all.
The emotion that these songs capture most vividly is that feeling after the first break-up. In “Past, Present, and Future” Weiss softly whispers about what she’s going through as a grand piano and a string section gush violently. When the drums kick into an urgent waltz she says that she’ll never love again, that she won’t touch a man for the rest of her life. Her squeaky, far-too-worldly voice literally oozes with tragedy.
Most people can’t help but find this over-dramatic. It seems juvenile to spend so much time worrying about a high school sweetheart. Lord knows that everyone has gone through this age in their life and these things that seem so earth-shattering lose some of their importance over the years. Memories that hurt so bad back then don’t seem quite so painful nowadays, but growing up shouldn’t belittle or trivialize those adolescent feelings. Mary Weiss wasn’t emoting for emotion’s sake; she was trying to describe pain, the way it feels for the first time.
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org