The title of this series was inspired by none other than impresario Bill Graham, who on the album Cheap Thrills introduced Big Brother and the Holding Company as “Four guys and one great, great broad.”
Readers of The Psychedelic Series know that I do not share that opinion of Janis Joplin, so in defense of the truly great broads of music, I decided to celebrate their contributions with a series. The original series explored the work of sixteen women artists from the United States, the U. K. and France.
The experience of researching the lives of those women led to my decision to abandon the blog for almost a year. Most had experienced domestic violence, sexual assault or some other life trauma. I needed some time to explore my own status as a woman in our modern world, acknowledge the brutality and discrimination many women face, figure out how to cope with it and identify the things I could do to change the situation.
The current version of Great Broads is largely a synthesis of two series I wrote on women in music. Later I added several standalone reviews of great women artists as well as the collections Early Girl 7″ Hits and Sexcapades. Many of the women I wrote about produced remarkable work while overcoming the institutional sexism of the music industry, societal stereotypes regarding the female role and their own personal demons.
Graphic: Young Woman with Lyre, Leopold Schmutzler
After the Psychedelic Series and the Anti-Psychedelic Enema, I was feeling stuck about where to go next so I sought inspiration in my “possibles list” and selected several artists whose work I wanted to explore: Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Françoise Hardy, June Tabor, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Steely Dan, The Distillers, Charles Mingus, Santana, Bob Dylan, The Clash, Ray Charles, Paul Butterfield, Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, The Shirelles, The Replacements and Otis Redding.
A pretty impressive list, but there was no one on that roster of over one hundred artists that I looked forward to as much as The Shangri-Las.
The Shangri-Las are commonly classified as a “Girl Group.” This really pisses off lead singer Mary Weiss: “How do you take an entire sex and dump them into one category? Girl Groups, I mean, please! What if we all had penises?” Mary’s feminism was way ahead of her time, but I would point out that the term “Girl Groups” does accurately reflect the lyrical content of the songs, which supposedly reflected the life experience of teenage girls in the United States. The label also accurately reflects the sexist norms of the early 1960’s. Though the white versions of the sexes were allowed to drink out of the same water fountains and eat in the same restaurants, all the races observed gender separation. Boy babies wore blue, never girlish pink. Boys and girls never participated in P. E. together except when the curriculum included square or social dancing. High school boys took shop, girls took something called “Home Economics,” or “Home Ec.” Men worked, women stayed at home and made dinner and babies. In music, the women who played with the guys on an equal basis were few and far between. Women could be chanteuses but rarely band members and certainly not songwriters; Memphis Minnie, Mary Lou Williams and Peggy Lee were the trailblazers on that front, and very few followed their lead.
So, The Shangri-Las may or may not be a Girl Group, depending on your perspective. The problem I have sticking The Shangri-Las into the Girl Group genre is that they didn’t sound like, perform like or feel like The Chiffons, The Crystals, The Ronettes or The Shirelles. The Shangri-Las were true originals, years ahead of the rest.
The Shangri-Las have also been dismissed as “soap-operatic” and purveyors of teenage melodrama by music critics and historians, even by those who profess to like their music and acknowledge their influence. Since the demographics in the field of music criticism are heavily weighted towards middle-aged men, a group not particularly noted for emotional intelligence or empathy, I view their opinions with great skepticism. Although I’d heard The Shangri-Las before, it was a passing acquaintance, so I started in neutral and I certainly wasn’t going to let the still male-dominated field of music criticism influence me. When I finally got the chance to listen to their music on headphones without distraction, I heard the one quality that I look for more than any other when I consider the value of an artist’s contribution: commitment. These girls took their music seriously and gave it everything they had.
The lyrics may reflect the limited maturity and even more limited world-view of teenagers, but wasn’t capturing the teenage experience the fucking point? Teenagers are oversexed, uncertain and unstable human beings, and The Shangri-Las’ music reflected that über-personality. I don’t hear anyone chewing up the scenery on Shangri-La records; I hear empathy and understanding for the emotions and confusing choices that all teenagers face during those formative years. Critics tend to be adults, and most adults tend dismiss teenagers as unformed, erratic people who have no understanding of the real world. The more respectful view would acknowledge that teenagers are people who are going through a period of heightened sensual and emotional perception at a time when they are attempting to establish identities and differentiate themselves from their parents. My personal view is that teenagers are going through a time when they feel fully alive and are engaged in a struggle with a culture that wants to suck the life out of them and turn them into drones.
Some may argue that The Shangri-Las don’t deserve all that much credit because they didn’t write those lyrics, but hey, guess what? Catherine Deneuve doesn’t write her scripts! Does that minimize her artistic contribution? Of course not. The Shangri-Las were not only outstanding musical actresses, they were teenagers going through the teenage experience in real-time. Mary Weiss commented in an interview I found on YouTube that “I had enough pain in me at the time to pull off anything and get into it and sound believable . . . you can hear it on the performances. It was very easy for me. The recording studio was the place where you could really release what you were feeling without everybody looking at you.”
The Shangri-Las were talented and real. They sang as well or better than any of their contemporaries, their voices blended together beautifully (it helped that they consisted of two pairs of sisters), and when they engage in hanging-out-at-the-candy-store chit-chat, you can hear the gum popping and smell the Aqua Net that keeps the ratted hair in place.
And though there were other groups and artists from the period who integrated dialogue, teenage angst and the death fetish into their music, when listening to the Shangri-Las I detected something different that you don’t hear on “Tell Laura I Love Her” or “Dead Man’s Curve.” I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read the Wikipedia article on the group. There’s a passage where the author relates the story of the successful 1976 re-release of “Leader of the Pack” in the U. K., which led to negotiations about a reunion and a new album. That album was recorded but never released, and the reason it all fell apart cleared the fog from my brain: ” . . . the group toyed with signing with another label but were put off by the insistence of record executives that they be a disco vocal group, the musical trend of the day. Mary said she envisioned the Shangri-Las like punk singer Patti Smith. The Shangri-Las split up.”
While Patti Smith’s poetry is on an entirely different level than what you hear on this record, and Patti would not technically qualify as a punk singer according to the purists, the comment reveals the likely path The Shangri-Las might have taken had they stayed together—something along the lines of performance-oriented punk. It also helps explain the enormous influence The Shangri-Las had on punk and its variations. The fact that they recruited Lenny Kaye, the superb lead guitarist for the Patti Smith Group, for the reincarnated Shangri-Las demonstrates that they saw their music as having more in common with hard rock and punk than soul, pop or the Girl Group sub-genre. These girls were committed to the rebellious, independent spirit that drives great rock ‘n’ roll, and that spirit, more than anything else, influenced budding artists of the early 70’s who rejected the overwrought direction of progressive rock: The Ramones, The New York Dolls, early Blondie, Iggy Pop . . . the list is almost endless. The Shangri-Las carried an attitude that all wannabe punks tried to emulate, consciously or not.
Historically, The Shangri-Las don’t seem to fit the period in which they made their splash. Their first single, “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” came put two months after The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The British Invasion was taking hold and Girl Groups were yesterdays news; only The Chiffons would have a top 10 hit after 1964. But really, The Shangri-Las success during that period fails to make sense only if you lump them together with the Girl Groups. If you consider how their influence eventually extended into punk and metal (two genres unafraid to deal with taboo subjects like death and social exclusion), the more accurate grouping would put them with the bad boys of The British Invasion: The Stones, Them and The Animals. They may not sound like those guitar bands, but they had the attitude—the same attitude that made groups like Question Mark & The Mysterians and The Seeds one or two-hit wonders. Rock may expand its reach into some pretty far-off places, but there’s nothing that satisfies the true rock connoisseur like rough, defiant, up-your-ass attitude.
The Millennium Collection is a superb introduction to the diverse and amazing talents of The Shangri-Las, though I really wish they would have included “The Train from Kansas City” instead of “Long Live Our Love.” For those who want a more complete experience, I recommend the unfortunately-titled Myrmidons of Melodrama. The thirty-two tracks on that collection include radio spots where the girls hawk teenage beauty products from Revlon and give advice on “good taste,” such as it was back in mid-60’s America.
“Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)”: Their second single but their first monster hit was also their first collaboration with George “Shadow” Morton, an artistic marriage made in heaven. While there are competing versions of the story behind Morton’s creation of the song, what was important is that he picked the right girls to record it. Mary Weiss was 15, sister Elizabeth 17 and the twins, Marge and Mary Ann Ganser were 16, all good Catholic girls from Queens, and all at that point in their lives when rejection is both common and intensely painful. “Remember” is actually a snippet from a much longer track (stories vary as to just how long the original really was), but the brief three-note vamp introducing the song and the quick fade serve to intensify the dramatic experience. That experience has to do with a break-up occasioned by the boyfriend entering the armed forces and getting shipped overseas. During this post-war, pre-escalation period in American history, the draft was still in place, primarily as a strategy to scare young men into volunteering for Cold War service. In that sense, “Remember” fits nicely with songs like The Shirelles’ “Soldier Boy” and The Chiffons’ dreadful knock-off “Sailor Boy,” setting up the ultimate test for any teenager, regardless of gender: to try to “stay true” to the missing half when your hormones advise otherwise. In “Remember,” it’s the stay-at-home girl who gets the Dear Jane letter, and Mary Weiss captures the shock and the sense of betrayal so effectively that you’d think that Western Union showed up with a telegram five minutes before the recording, informing her that her soldier boy had run off with Elke Sommer.
Seems like the other day
My baby went away
He went away ‘cross the sea
It’s been two years or so
Since I saw my baby go
And then this letter came for me
It said that we were through
He found somebody new
Oh, let me think, let me think, what can I do?
Oh no, oh no, oh no no no no no
In addition to her exceptionally powerful yet melodious voice, Mary Weiss demonstrates her natural gift for phrasing: her delivery of the spoken lines “Let me think, let me think” are so sincere and well-delivered that it gives you the chills. The alternating ooh-wahs from the other Shangri-Las are remarkably beautiful and sensitive; the harmonies clean and precise. But it’s the stunning cut to snapping fingers, a spare piano, the sounds of seabirds and the hauntingly-whispered refrain that takes this song to another level. Mary’s voice becomes much lighter as she relives the beautiful memory of a romantic night on the shore, remaining gentle and reflective until the agonizing memory of a kiss sears her soul and her emotions take over: “Softly, softly, we’d MEET WITH OUR LIPS.” Her voice now turns into that of the woman scorned, spitting out the words with bitterness and betrayal:
Whatever happened to The boy that I once knew?
The boy who said he’d be true
Oh, what will happen to
The life I gave to you?
What will I do with it now?
Again, Mary’s control of the lyrics is simply amazing; how she punctuates the word “said” to emphasize the solemnity of the vow to be true and the bitter lesson that words are just words; how her voice retreats a bit when she delivers the line “The life I gave to you” as if the true meaning of the complete sacrifice she made for her now-former lover is just beginning to take hold. That meaning is “my life is worthless now, because I made you my life,” and the song will end with her in a state of horrible uncertainty: “What will I do with it now?” The line is a brilliant closer and Mary’s approach to the vocal intensifies the feeling that “the life I gave to you” is now a useless thing that can be discarded like yesterday’s trash. As the song fades with a truncated version of the “Remember” passage, we are left with the deep pain of a young girl who is trying to get her head around what she had imagined to be impossible. Haunting, dramatic, vivid and alive, “Remember” is one of the most memorable songs you will ever hear.
“Leader of the Pack” (Single Version): The recording for the instrumental backing for this song took sixty-three takes, and I’m glad they took the time to get it right: it’s a powerful arrangement punctuated with heavy bass drum, pounding piano chords and touches of guitar that break through the wall of sound to give the song unique textures. I couldn’t find out how many takes it took The Shangri-Las to get it right, but they more than hold their own with perfectly-delivered dialogue and vocals characterized by varying dynamics that make the story come alive. The opening sequence is to die for, with the girls probing Mary in tones of gossip-hungry interest sweetened by those beautiful Queens accents and Mary responding with reluctant vocalizations until she’s had enough:
I met him at the candy store
He turned around and smiled at me
You get the picture?
It’s hard to believe that a girl in her teens could switch so coolly from belting it out to the “hey, piss off” tone of the semi-spoken line, “You get the picture?” but Mary Weiss frigging nailed it. The drama of the opening sequence is fabulously compelling because it sounds so fabulously real. The quality of the interactions between Mary and the other girls dominates the second verse, where the response vocals provide both emotional emphasis (especially the darkness of the “down, down” response) and “how dare they!” empathy as Mary tells them about the unreasonable attitude of the parents:
My folks were always putting him down (down, down)
They said he came from the wrong side of town (Whatcha mean when ya say that he came from the wrong side of town?)
They told me he was bad
But I knew he was sad
That’s why I fell for (the leader of the pack)
One day my dad said, “Find someone new”
I had to tell my Jimmy we’re through (Whatcha mean when ya say that ya better go find somebody new?)
He stood there and asked me why
But all I could do was cry I’m sorry I hurt you (the leader of the pack)
You can draw a straight line from the characterization of the tough guy as a sensitive soul in disguise and capable of real tears to James Dean’s performance in Rebel Without a Cause. Real tough guys are vulnerable; fake tough guys are just macho assholes. Girls! If your man can’t cry, he’s a fucking loser! Moving past that editorial diversion and onto another one, I have to say that it’s unfathomable to me that parents had the authority to break up teenage relationships. What the fuck business is it of theirs, anyway? How am I going to learn if I don’t screw up, get hurt and experiment with different dick sizes (and in my case, tit shapes)? My parents may have been unusual in their belief that I should nearly always experience the consequence of my actions, but I think I’m better off because they held that belief. You may not want to hold up a leather-wearing, crop-wielding, cigarette-smoking pervert as a role model to your children, but I’m also the head of a European operation for a pretty sizable enterprise and I’ll bet you that my apartment is cleaner than yours!
REALLY moving on past these editorial detours, we now come to the dénouement, narrated with pure teenage sincerity by Mary Weiss:
He sort of smiled and kissed me goodbye
The tears were beginning to show
As he drove away on that rainy night I begged him to go slow
But whether he heard, I’ll never know
Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!
The sound effects are marvelous (and no, they didn’t drive a real motorcycle into the studio), but what really gives the crash a moment of thrilling immediacy is Mary’s delivery of “Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!” She sounds like she’s witnessing The Leader’s death right then and there, and she didn’t even have to visit Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio to figure out how to pull it off.
The funereal last verse dispenses with the call-and-response, shifting to almost angelic background vocals without a hint of the spiritual. Mary delivers another killer line in a superb re-enactment of teenage attitudes (“I can’t hide my tears, but I don’t care”) and the song proceeds to the fade after one final set of revs from the motorcycle.
“Leader of the Pack” is one of those songs that everyone wants to emulate, but no one has come close to capturing the sheer excitement of the original. The worst attempt by far came from the French, in a 1965 rendition called “La Chef de la Bande” by a guy with the unlikely stage name of Frank Alamo. Instead of opening with the sounds of girls with New York accents gossiping next to their lockers, we have some terribly-excited-to-be-in-a-real-recording-studio French chickies who work hard to give the world the impression that all French women are airheads. It gets worse: Frank narrates—well, he sings, but he’s not very good at it—the story in the third-person, so you lose all sense of immediacy: any idea that the song is supposed to have an emotional impact is frittered away in what becomes a rather boring recitation of the tale. The worst part is the re-enactment of the crash scene, where instead of hearing the impactful and dramatic repetition of “Look out!” we get “Attención! Arrête! Attención! Attentión!” delivered in a leisurely tempo as if the girl was calling for a waiter, followed by a scream that probably didn’t win that broad too many acting gigs. I hereby issue a sincere apology to the American people on behalf of my should-be-embarrassed fellow citizens.
“Give Him a Great Big Kiss”: While lacking the drama of their first two hits, “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” features one of the great openings of all time: the spoken-with-sass “When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love: L-U-V!” What follows is a bouncy dance number that shows that The Shangri-Las could sing more traditional R&B-influenced pop with the best of them. The boot-stomping effect on the chorus is a hoot, and I love the obvious collective enthusiasm when they give him a great big kiss: “MWAH!” The other day I thanked Beach Day on Twitter for saying nice things about me on Facebook and tweeted them a “big Shangri-Las kiss”: MWAH! I like that! Mary’s lead vocal is outstanding, and her response to the “How does he dance?” question (“Close, real close!”) captures a delicious sense of dangerous naughtiness. Listening to this song, I figured out that the reason Mary Weiss was so good and stayed so good is that The Shangri-Las hit it big so quickly that no one had time to mess with her natural talents and incredible instincts.
“Maybe”: Mary’s big sister had one hell of a voice, too, and Betty (or Liz) gets to show it on “Maybe,” a cover of the exceptionally strong 50’s hit by The Chantels. I read where this was supposed to be a live track, but the hand clapping has the aural quality of canned laughter, so I’m going to call that claim into question. Except for splash harmonies on the “Oh maybe” chorus, this is Betty’s piece, and she makes the case that if The Shangri-Las had embraced the Girl Group genre and had begun recording a few years earlier, they would have been able to go toe-to-toe with The Shirelles.
“Out in the Streets”: Their first single from 1965 only reached #53 on the Billboard, which just fucking blows me away. This number penned by Brill Building denizens Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich is a beauty, the story of a street kid who meets a nice conventional girl who pushes him to clean up his act before she realizes she is destroying his essence in the process. Here the background vocals are the attention-grabber, a series of soft, sweet and haunting lines the girls deliver with choir-girl perfection. Mary’s vocal is more anguished, as it dawns on her too late that her attempt at civilizing her beau has completely emasculated him:
(He don’t, hang around with the gang no more, He don’t do the wild things that he did before)
He used to act bad, used to but he quit it.
It makes me so sad, cause I know that he did it for me, (can’t you see)
I can see (he’s still in the street)
His heart is out in the street.
(He don’t comb his hair like he did before, He don’t wear those dirty old black boots no more)
Well he’s not the same, something in his kissing
That tells me he’s changed, know that something’s missing inside.
Had I been alive back then, I would have advised the girls that the way to tame a male is to let him be exactly who he is and do exactly what he wants but only when you choose to allow it. If he whines about not getting enough, give him a few good whacks in the ass. That will keep his libido on simmer until you find it convenient for him to express it.
“Give Us Your Blessings”: The body count rises to three in this sad tale of another set of bizarre conventions from the era. The basic story is about two kids (heterosexuals, of course) who fall for each other and because they’re so deeply in love they want to get married. I’m assuming the reason that they want to get married is to “do the deed,” as they used to say, because it was a big no-no back then to “do the deed” before marriage. Of course, the norm was literally applied only to the fairer sex, which left women in the impossible position of never getting to shop for partners—and you know how we women love to shop! This meant that a woman went into a marriage completely blind, and if the hubby turned out to be sad in the sack, she was more deeply screwed than she would have been had he managed to give her a good one. Let’s see. My husband is a lousy fuck. My limited education gave me no marketable skills. If I masturbate, I’ll turn blind, so my only choice is to go back to my parents and die an old maid, because nobody’s going to want used merchandise. Oh, okay! Think I’ll whip up his favorite Duncan Hines cake before he comes home after a hard day at work!
The girl’s parents put the kibosh on her request for permission to marry Jimmy, leaving the young couple no choice but to elope. This would mean that the kids must have been legal age, which makes you wonder why they felt they had to bother with the parents in the first place, but this was in the years before the hippies made the refusal to defer to parental authority an act of social revolution. The parents laugh at them and call them “kids,” just like typically smug, repressed adults would. The kids speed away in the car, crying, and their tears prevent them from seeing a detour sign. Oops. Both are killed, and the parents are left to live with their guilt.
All this adds up to what sounds like a pretty silly song, but The Shangri-Las do a superb job of selling it, probably because they were Catholic girls who struggled with the unilateral power the Church bestowed upon their parents to guide them through life. Mary’s narrative is outstanding, and the girls sing wonderfully in both verses and choruses.
“Right Now and Not Later”: The opening of horns and vibraphone scream Supremes and is musically very reminiscent of The Four Tops’ “Can’t Help Myself.” I don’t know why management would have wanted to turn the Shangri-Las into a copy of anyone, but here we find them doing a pretty (for them) conventional soft soul number. The fact that they do it very well speaks to their innate talent and professionalism, but the real tragedy here is that the B-side, “The Train from Kansas City” is one of the five best things they ever did and isn’t included on this compilation. Harrumph! That song has a fabulous story line: a girl now in a committed relationship gets word from her long-forgotten ex that he’s on his way from Kansas City, and the scene we hear played out is the girl telling her new love that the old flame is on his way to claim his rightful property. We can only imagine the anxiety the new guy is feeling as she explains the situation:
But yesterday I got this letter
From a boy I loved
Before I ever knew you
Before I even knew you
And the train from Kansas City
Is coming into town
The train from Kansas City
And nothing I can do
Can make it turn around
The poor bastard must have felt his doom approaching in the form of a train from Kansas City, but the girl stops being so frigging insistent on giving him background and explains that the reason she didn’t send the Dear John letter is because she wanted to tell the unwanted guest right to his face that she was taken and show him the ring on her finger. The guy probably collapses in heap of sweaty relief at that point in time, but we don’t hear the thump of a body because this song rocks harder than anything else The Shangri-Las ever did. Fuck the compilers! Let’s play “The Train from Kansas City.”
“I Can Never Go Home Anymore”: Many teenagers of the era fantasized that all their problems would magically vanish if they ran away from home and away from parents who never listened to them, took them seriously or let them do what they wanted. My readings of the cultural history also indicate that the threat of running away was used often as a lame attempt to gain some kind of power in the situation, but it never worked. Dion’s “Lonely Teenager” finds out that running away turns out to be a major drag, and The Shangri-Las take it a step further by emphasizing the destructive selfishness of the act. The intro features three separate voices echoing the classic threat “I’m gonna hide/If she don’t leave me alone/I’m gonna run away,” a wonderful decision that instantly builds a bridge to the many teenagers who had made those threats before. Mary Weiss cautions “Don’t!” and then relates her story: nice girl meets boy (glad), mom doesn’t approve (bad), so she runs away. As soon as she does, she forgets about the boy and thinks of the tender, loving care her mother provided. The lyrics don’t quite resolve the story; we don’t know if the girl returns home or not, but in any case, the mother fails to survive the experience: “She grew so lonely in the end/The angels picked her for a friend” (sad).
Okay, that is melodramatic and over-the-top. However, the advice that precedes the angels showing up is sound because one aspect of teenage weirdness is rejecting the parents while still wanting and needing their love: “Do you ever get that feeling and wanna kiss and hug her? Do it now—tell her you love her.” What sells this song is that Mary Weiss channeled the experience into her soul, imagined herself in the girl’s place, and felt the enormous sadness of separation. Her voice really cracks and her eyes really fill with tears, and while the lyrical source is definitely sappy, the expressed pain of a child losing a parent is palpable. I have not experienced it and I though I know I will, I hope I never do. That’s why “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” works: Mary Weiss’ ability to immerse herself in a worst-case scenario gives her a perspective that a defiant teenager is unable to grasp—that parents, even bad parents, are important to us all.
“Long Live Our Love”: Oh well, no one’s perfect. This is a patriotic stinker where a girl longs for her soldier boy to return from the jungles of Vietnam. Instead of raising a stink about why he had to go there in the first place, she completely buys into the Johnson Administration propaganda:
But something’s come between us,
And it’s not another girl,
But a lot of people need you,
There is trouble in the world.
Only the Americans believed the Vietnamese needed them, just like they needed the French. The Shangri-Las’ last single was an even more absurd pro-war record called “Take the Time,” which Mary Weiss has virtually disowned while still expressing her support for those in uniform. Thankfully, it’s not on this record.
“He Cried”: Also backed by a strong B-side in “Dressed in Black,” this A-side cover of Jay and the Americans’ “She Cried” stands on its own for Mary Weiss’ exceptionally direct and confident performance that owns up to the pain she has caused by rejecting her guy for another while refusing to feel guilty about it. She’s sad about having to hurt the guy, but the tone is “it is what it is” without a hint of the melodramatic. The arrangement is bit dense, but Mary’s vocal cuts through the muddle with brilliant clarity.
“Past, Present & Future”: At first I really resisted this piece because I got so sick of playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” when I was eleven years old that I swore I would find every Beethoven bust in the world and smash them all to smithereens. Once I let the background fade into background, I heard another exceptional and moving performance from Mary Weiss, completely narrated and without a drop of melody. Each verse represents the three time periods described in the title, each introduced by the girls, also without melody. In the past of “silent joys and broken toys” was a wonderful relationship that ended without explanation, but was so terribly important and meaningful to our narrator that she finds it emotionally difficult to deal with the lingering memories: “There were moments when . . . well, there were moments when.” The emotional scars are recalled in the “present” verse when a young man attempts to open negotiations by suggesting a date, a dance or a walk on the beach. Our narrator agrees to any or all of the above, but draws a very clear line in the sand about just how far she is willing to go:
But don’t try to touch me . . . don’t try to touch me
‘Cos that will never happen again.
Mary’s emphasis on the repetition of “don’t try to touch me” expresses scars that run deep, but in a later interview, Mary denied that the wound suffered in the past resulted from rape as some have suggested. I didn’t get a possible rape connection until I read Mary’s interview; I thought the story was of a girl who found meaning and fulfillment in a previous relationship and the loss of that relationship was absolutely devastating for her. “When somebody breaks your heart, you don’t want anyone near you,” Mary observed, and that is so, so true for teenagers as well as many adults. You want to hide from the world in a deep, dark cave and never come out. The future of our narrator seems bleak from her perspective, and the way Mary delivers the line “I don’t think it will ever happen again” expresses the immeasurable pain, regret and bitterness of a teenager in angst.
“The Sweet Sounds of Summer”: The end of the Shangri-Las’ run was characterized by exceptionally poor song selection and almost zero support from their record company masters. This song has no business in The Shangri-Las’ catalog . . . it is so Fifth Dimension.
Record company politics and years of legal battles robbed us of a more extensive Shangri-Las catalog; I would have loved it if the girls had been able to enter a period where they had more artistic control over their records, because I think they would have surprised a whole lot of people with some amazing and daring music. Even with the limited number of songs that told stories of a very different time, their music still fascinates and influences musicians to this day. In a world where music is over processed, over-programmed and over-marketed, it is nice to know that in a place long ago and far away, four girls from Queens could make the big time with authentic talent and complete commitment.