Monday, March 26, 2007

The Return of Mary Weiss

"Seems like the other day / My baby went away / He went away, 'cross the sea..."

In the early to mid 1960s, there was a group called The Shangri-Las. They took their name from the fabled Tibetan paradise of James Hilton's novel LOST HORIZON, memorably filmed by Frank Capra in 1939. Just as the Shangri-La of that novel was an Edenic realm where people never grew old, the Shangri-Las sang songs preoccupied with and possessed by a never-ending youth. Their music, overseen by the legendary producer George "Shadow" Morton, has been characterized as wall-of-sound melodrama, teen tragedy and pimple pop; some of their classics, like "Leader of the Pack" and "Give Us Your Blessings", certainly qualify for such epithets, but then there are their other principal recordings, like "Out in the Streets", the devastating "I Can Never Go Home Anymore", and especially the haunting "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" that continue to sound almost preternaturally adult and forever emotionally relevant -- despite the fact that they were recorded by three girls in their mid-teens.

"Tell me more / Tell me more..."

Marge and Mary Ann Ganser braided their voices in the background with Betty Weiss, while the solo vocals were taken by Betty's sister Mary. While record company publicity and sheet music typically pictured the group as a foursome, the Shangri-Las frequently performed as a vocal trio; Betty Weiss disappeared for most of 1964 and thereafter swapped places onstage with one of the Ganser twins, darkening her hair to keep the background visually consistent. Mary Weiss was always the focal point of the group, her long blonde hair standing out in stark contrast to the brunette perms of the background singers. Mary's voice was immediately distinctive: when she sang her heart out, she could sound lippy and petulant, but never in such a way that lost the listener's sympathy -- and I don't mean the sympathy we feel for someone who has experienced tragedy, but simpatico, the sympathy we feel for one of our own. Joey Ramone, a Queens native like Mary, had the same thing in his voice.

"Close. Very, very close."

Listening to the Shangri-Las again recently, I was struck by the thought that Mary Weiss may have been the first rock vocalist to break out of the traditional format of a pop record to speak directly and candidly, intimately and sometimes brutally, to the listener. This was not escapist pop but something altogether more confrontational; it was Cuban Missile Crisis era rock with consciousness of life's hard knocks, its unfair breaks, its randomness, the thin veil between life and death. As Shadow Morton has said, when Mary sang these songs, she not only had to be taught how to sing them, but how to act them with a maturity that may have still been beyond her, though Mary herself has countered that she had already known her share of personal pain when she made these recordings. Both perspectives can be true, and I believe them both.

"You can never / Go home / Anymore..."

The Shangri-Las disbanded in 1969, embroiled in the usual problems with management and label that bring musicians grief. In the 1980s, Mary and her fellow Las brought suit against a concert entrepreneur who had found the Shangri-Las' name unprotected by copyright, acquired it, and sent three impersonators in their 20s out on the road to profit from the Weiss and Ganser sisters' legacy. (Googling turns up more than one group of Shangri-Las, suggesting that they failed to win back the right to their name.) The four of them couldn't get far enough away from music after ridiculous tangles like that; the Ganser twins have since passed away, while Mary reportedly married and entered the furniture business. But, as the imitators proved, their original recordings lived on, somehow of their time but nevertheless enduring.

"Everytime I see you / It drives me crazy..."

I'm far from alone in admitting to a longtime crush on Mary Weiss. Some years ago, David Sanjek -- a colleague and acquaintence of mine -- happened to appear as a talking head in a documentary about pop songwriting, which also featured Mary's first public appearance in many years in a similar capacity. I hadn't communicated with David in some time, but his artificial proximity to Mary inspired me to shoot him an e-mail of unembarrassed envy. I once appeared in an episode of A&E's BIOGRAPHY, intercut with interview footage of Diana Rigg, so I'm well aware that interviewees in a documentary don't necessarily interact personally, but I was so pleased to see Mary Weiss again, and looking so well, that I didn't care. In the best Shangri-Las tradition, I didn't care!

"You know, I used to sing..."
These alternately sober and silly ruminations are prologue to the fact that tomorrow will see the release of one of the most unexpected musical surprises of our jaded era: DANGEROUS GAME, the first solo album by Mary Weiss and her first musical venture in close to 40 years. On the basis of the four songs available for listening on Mary's MySpace page, Mary's voice has deepened slightly, but the maturity and mileage it conveys is an edge that pleases; it's also poignant that, just as I could once hear her voice in Joey Ramone's, I can now hear his voice carrying on through hers, along with some grace notes of Patti Smith. But just as importantly, DANGEROUS GAME sounds like it may be a much-needed wake-up call to the craft of pop songwriting. Any one of these four songs could have been a Shangri-Las song, and one of them -- "Stop and Think It Over" -- could easily have been one of their greatest. When Mary bleats out "You'd bett-uh!", I want to put my fist in the air to champion her, which is a shade of enthusiasm I haven't felt for a pop song in dogs' years.

A musical event like the return of Mary Weiss to rock 'n' roll is the keeping of a promise so rare and so precious that it occurs maybe twice in a decent lifetime -- Brian Wilson actually finishing SMILE is another that's happened in mine. I don't know if there's a radio station that plays new music like this, because there isn't much new music like this ("and that's called... sad"), so I urge you to check it out, along with the cool YouTube videos on Mary's site, and give her your blessing!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.