Jack O’Connell / Resurrectionist Week: O’Connell on “That LOFP Sound”

Continuing with our celebration of Jack O’Connell’s crazed, surreal noir and his latest The Resurrectionist, here’s a post from O’Connell on “That LOFP Sound” – Jeff.

Here in the valley of middle-age, the joys become subtle. But one sweet surprise these last few years has been the discovery that I care not a whit how odd, outré, or embarrassing any interests of mine might appear to others. There’s something delightfully freeing to arrive at the red light, smack between the Harley and the Prius, and to realize that you’re utterly happy to acknowledge that, yes, that’s right, it’s the New Colony Six issuing from my speakers. Have a good day!

Almost exactly a year ago, stunned to find self in the midst of a Jimmy Webb binge, I could not imagine wandering into less likely musical terrain. But here I am, this week, still burned out from the road, unfocused, distracted, empty-headed…and in the middle of a Dusty Springfield binge that shows no sign of concluding any time soon.

As a kid, I knew Dusty mainly from a single top-10 hit of early 1969, “Son of a Preacher Man.” From that one song, I will confess that I always vaguely considered her a country singer. (Looking back, I find this revealing. The tune is clearly an R&B number – it was originally offered to Aretha Franklin, who turned it down. After Springfield scored a hit, Franklin reconsidered and recorded it. Nancy Sinatra also did a cover, as did Bobby Gentry, Janis Joplin and Tanya Tucker. [Though I’ve never heard the Natalie Merchant version, I find the very notion a riot.] I realize now that I thought DS a country singer because the song seemed, to me, to have a country-western or southern setting. And the boy’s name in the narrative [“Billy-Ray”] had a southern ring. Story, then, in this instance, made more of an impression than style.)

I was marginally aware of a couple of other ’50s-esque tunes by Dusty–“I Only Want to be With You,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’” and the Doris Day-ish (I always thought) “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.”

Imagine my shock this week to discover that DS was a bisexual Irish soul singer from Ealing, England.

Blame this, like so many things in my life, on insomnia. You’ve been there, certainly: It’s 3 a.m. and, giving up on any hope of dreaming, you’ve returned to the couch and the tube. You stumble onto Steve McQueen’s face and, of course, put down the remote. Pretty soon, you hear the familiar melody that, in your youth, was emblematic of everything you opposed–the muzakization of all that was genuine and visionary and original: “The Windmills of Your Mind.”

But tonight, for the first time in your life, you’re not hearing “Windmills” as an anthem of easy listening brain rot. You’re not hearing it as prime fodder for a thousand lounge lizard piano men. You’re not even hearing it as a popular Carol Burnett Show punch line.

Your ears don’t lie. You have crossed the Rubicon into fogy-dom. Yes, it’s 3 a.m., but this is no excuse. Admit it: You are digging the song. You are hearing its worth. You are letting it propel you backward into a perspective you didn’t think you could ever possibly possess.

And so, for reasons you don’t fully understand, you start to do some research.

“Windmills” was written by Alan & Marilyn “The Way We Were” Bergman and Michel “The Summer Knows” Legrand. I was surprised to learn that the original version was performed by Noel The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. Harrison. But after purchasing Harrison’s rendition of “Windmills” from iTunes, I realize this wasn’t the version my ear knew so well. A little searching revealed that the cover in my head belonged to Dusty Springfield.

In my initial listens, “Windmills” struck me as an example of a rare, late-’60s genre of pop music–an odd hybrid that I’ll now label Lavishly Orchestrated Fogy Pop. I imagine the hybrid developing during that brief–and, at the time, probably confusing–window that spanned the mid-to-late 1960s.

Here’s my sketchy and ill-informed–perhaps dubious–history of LOFP: We start back in the early 1930s, when white, middle class America discovers and immediately begins to un-subvert jazz by way of the Swing era and its Big Band soundtrack. Which coincides with the rise of radio and spawns a breed of showcase, heartthrob male balladeer known as the crooner. The crooner fronts an ensemble of one-to-two dozen musicians–usually including a horn section–which plays formally arranged compositions.

For two decades or more, the crooner is the pop star in the American musical landscape: Bing Crosby may be the progenitor. Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Vic Damone, Paul Anka, and Jack Jones are the core popularizers. But the epitome of the form is, surely, Sinatra. And his style becomes the definition of the role: the emotive phrasing; the interplay with the audience; the creation of the romantic, slightly brooding persona; and, of course, the tuxedo and smoldering cigarette.

Crooning remains the dominant form of American pop vocal music through the mid-’50s, when–perhaps due to new technologies like TV and cheap portable stereos?–a little diversity begins to seep into the airwaves.

At first, this new form is just a curiosity, I’d guess, an oddity of the “What Will They Think of Next?” variety. By the early ’50s, Cleveland DJ Alan Freed has coined a nicknamed for this raucous mélange of blues, folk, jazz, and gospel: rock and roll. I’m guessing that, at the start, it’s fairly easy for the middle class, middle-aged mainstream to dismiss rock ‘n’ roll as puerile nonsense for teenyboppers, disposable party music for hormonally-insane adolescents. But 10 years after Freed’s coinage, with Elvis fully installed as King of popular music, it may have been more difficult to imagine a quick demise to the genre. By the time the Beatles storm the U.S. shore in early ’64, the reign of the crooner is just about done. And the LOFP window is unlocked.

Let’s say that the window begins to open when the Beatles, in full ascendance, release Rubber Soul (December 1965) and Revolver (August ’66)–two albums that presage much about the revolution that is just beginning to explode in popular music. By late 1966 or so, those with ears honestly open must begin to wonder if some odd and unlikely evolution has begun, in which that throwaway tripe from just a couple of years earlier has begun growing more complex, clever, diverse, and imbued with an intermittent seriousness of purpose and even an occasional concern with the socio-politico-cultural issues of the day.

It’s within that moment that a song like “Windmills” can be born. It’s a beast with the audacity to try and place a kind of early Dylanesque “Tambourine Man” lyric (or, maybe, what Life magazine conveyed to the Bergmans as Dylanesque) in front of a heavily arrange piece of music played by a crooner’s orchestra with strings aplenty.

As always, I seem to be a sucker for the merging of dissimilar forms.

I tend to associate “Windmills” with a handful of other orchestrated pop songs of the late 1960s – most of which served as themes to popular films of the day: “The Look of Love” (theme from Casino Royale, April 1967) by Bacharach & David; “A Time for Us” (theme from Romeo & Juliet, Oct. 1968) by Nino Rota and Larry Kusik & Eddie Snyder; “Where Do I Begin” (theme from Love Story, Dec. 1970) by Francis Lai & Carl Sigman. But only “Windmills” has a certain Aquarian looniness that sets it apart.

And though the song has been covered dozens of times, Dusty, I’ll argue, owns it. There’s a kind of just-pre-breathlessness of voice that seems perfect for the lyrics, which are only barely saved from champagne schmaltz by a cascading weirdness. When Dusty sings

Like a tunnel that you follow
To a tunnel of its own
Down a hollow to a cavern
Where the sun has never shone
Like a door that keeps revolving
In a half forgotten dream
Or the ripples from a pebble
Someone tosses in a stream.

She somehow creates, for me, a little snapshot narrative, of a specific time and place, and starring some tragic ingénue who resembles Dusty herself–a doomed pop starlet caught in a late-night loop of schizoid freefall written by Jackie Susann and Beckett.

Okay, so I’m old and square and perpetually overtired. But if that’s what it took to understand the smoky gravitas of Dusty S, you can bring me my slippers and my blood thinner. And as soon as I’m done screaming those kids off my lawn, I’m going to settle in with a little “Yesterday, When I Was Young.” Jack O’Connell