There’s nothing mystical about the pleasures of an all-night diner. It’s a haven for the silent camaraderie of insomnia, fried eggs and bad coffee, unchanged since Edward Hopper’s time. If you haven’t staggered into a diner at 4 a.m. robbed of sleep by strange circumstances, have you even lived? Jim Morrison wrote a lot about altered states of consciousness, surreal and dangerous episodes fueled by drugs, and not so much about the mundane stuff of life. But in the diner the strange bleeds over into the mundane, and even the Lizard King has to admire the restorative powers of a cheap breakfast. No matter what misadventures you’ve just had or what journey you’re still in the middle of, going into a diner is like pressing pause. You can step into a greasy bubble where time stands still, twitch-chug five or six cups of burned coffee, maybe eat an or some bacon, and observe the tableau of all the other human strays around you.
In general, I don’t care for an overload of ‘natural’ sound effects. Because it’s corny and not at all natural. This one uses bird calls and a baby’s cry, for that double whammy effect. Honestly, the sound of a baby screeching sets my nerves on edge, so I really it when I have to hear that on record. But you know what, I’ll forgive these kind of production mistakes because it’s Donovan and he gets a pass to be corny with it. It’s a lovely song.
Insofar as someone like Nico could be said to have hits, Chelsea Girl is loaded with them. Classic songs that have outlived whatever small notoriety the singer herself had in life. Nico’s ghostly later work hasn’t had the halflife that Chelsea Girls has. Unlike the material over which she had full creative control, these songs at least take a recognizable form, they can linked – in sound if not at all in spirit – to other 1960’s folk music sung by dewy blondes. Nothing enraged Nico more than being mistaken, because of her looks, for a wistful girl. She despised the production of her first album, with its strings and its romanticism, although it was her biggest success. However, it has become, against the singer’s self-conception, a musical shorthand for quirky romantic disaffection, songs for the dorm room angst of gifted students gacked out on antidepressants. As opposed to what Nico really wanted to convey: the despair of people with needles in their mainline.
Nick Cave and Gene Pitney hardly seem to occupy the same universe, but it appears that they have at least one thing in common: they both have an ear for a grand romantic love song. In Nick Cave’s world, of course, romance isn’t romance without blood, filth and tragedy. When he promises “Scarlet for me and scarlet for you” he’s not talking about a nice corsage. But when he picks an apparently sunshiny love song by a sunshiny pop singer like Gene Pitney, he does it without a trace of irony. You can make fun of Pitney and the edgeless pop music he recorded in the 60’s, when the boundaries between edgy and square were battlefields. A well made love song, when sung from the heart, rings true when a guy with not one hair out of place delivers it, and it rings equally true when delivered by a guy who looks like he crawled out of a dumpster.
I love everything about this. It should have been a single. I can envision an alternate universe in which the Rolling Stones murdered their long-term career with one inexplicably successful vaudeville-inspired novelty hit song. They’re now eking out a living playing cornball versions of other people’s hits in dive bars in the north of England. (Brian Jones went on to become a successful record producer in this scenario. He lives in a castle.) Nobody ever envisioned the Rolling Stones being an oom-pah band, but they’re pretty close to it here, and maybe they would’ve been a good one. Ironically enough, for a song that sounds like something your granddad grew up drinking pints to, it’s about the wild new experience of LSD. Because everyone who took drugs for the first time had to write a song about it. The Stones, of course, had to do it differently. Not for them trying to recapture the cosmic magick of an acid trip with lots of mellotron and a sitar solo. They must’ve found the experience deeply comical and absurd more than grand and cosmic. They’re not wrong. The drug culture that sprang up in the 60’s was very often absurd, and could be seen as comical if people didn’t die so much. Anyway, the Stones were often amused by other people’s delusions of grandeur, and they were most likely having a laugh at the expense of other people’s pretentious LSD songs.
This father-daughter duet was a smash hit and there’s absolutely nothing creepy about it. There’s nothing odd at all about 52-year-old Frank Sinatra singing a tender love song to his 27-year-old daughter Nancy. Never mind that the song was originally written by Carson Parks as a duet with his wife. Never mind that it very much appears to be about the concerns of a staid sugar daddy wondering how to woo a younger woman who gets around a bit. There is nothing in those sentiments that can’t easily be transposed to one of those horrifying father-daughter oath dances where little girls pledge their ‘virtue’ to their daddies. Apparently nobody had a problem with it in 1967, when fresh material from Frank Sinatra was hard to come by and Nancy Sinatra was hot. Anyway, there have been plenty of hit songs about astonishingly disturbing things, and this one is fairly low on the scale. There’s actually something campy and endearing in its weirdness, and it’s almost as if we’re the weird ones for expecting someone like Frank Sinatra to know about normal-person social boundaries.
This should lift your spirits. Donovan hasn’t been on-trend since his heyday, what with gloom and doom being the prevailing mood, but sometimes there’s a need for something cheerful. The optimism and playfulness of 60’s psychedelic folk music hasn’t been recreated. Artists like Donovan, Tyrannosaurus Rex, and early Pink Floyd leaned heavily on folklore, fantasy and children’s literature – things that are just too pure for our cynical world, I guess. It took a truly unique cultural moment to make those things edgy with the in-crowd. No wonder we still gaze back on the 1960’s with awed fascination; every decade since then has just been the same banquet of depravity, sex and anger. Anyway, I hope you’re feeling cheered up.