Saturday Singles Nos. 16 & 17

Originally posted June 16, 2007

The choir sings from somewhere beyond, “You are a child of the universe . . .”

And millions of college students went out and bought posters.

There was no way that author Max Ehrmann could have known, as he lived out his life in Indiana and died in 1945. No way that he could have anticipated that the inspirational piece he wrote when he was fifty-five would someday be the basis for a Top 10 hit. No way he could have foreseen that the prose poem he called “Desiderata” – Latin for “Things desired as essential” – would assuage the spirits of those millions of college students and the millions of others who, in 1971, needed a little assurance that things would be okay.

But in fact, “Desiderata,” which Ehrmann wrote around 1927, went to No. 8 in the fall of 1971, recorded as a spoken word single by television talk show host Les Crane. Backed by a soft rock musical track, Crane reads his way through Ehrmann’s comforting words. And the choir, with the swelling music carrying more than a few echoes of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, tells us again and again:

“You are a child of the universe.
“No less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.
“And whether or not it is clear to you,
“No doubt the universe is unfolding the way it should.”

For some odd reason, when I think of the recording – which, like many of my fellow college freshmen, I liked – I picture the basement hallway of Stewart Hall at St. Cloud State and the adjacent entry to the college bookstore. This baffles me. Did I hear the song coming from a radio in one of the nearby offices? Did I see the poster of the poem in the bookstore? Or maybe buy the poster for a girl I knew? Does this mean that my place in the universe is a basement corridor that over the years has been remodeled out of existence? Or perhaps my place in the universe is in a bookstore, which is a happier thought.

I don’t know. I only can say that over the years, whenever I’ve heard the recording or thought of it – and those instances have not been numerous, to be sure – I see that corridor. I guess it’s one of those odd juxtapositions that the mind celebrates without our ever knowing why. But I’m not sure it’s any more odd than a prose poem by an Indiana attorney becoming the basis forty-four years later for a Top 10 hit recorded by a talk show host. (And the record won a Grammy for “Best Spoken Word Recording”!)

There were those who, when “Desiderata” came to public attention in 1971, wanted it to have a more impressive pedigree. Many of the reprintings – posters, plaques or what have you – carried the notation that the piece was found in St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore, Maryland, and was written in 1692, which happens to be the year the church was founded. It’s a nice fable, but “Desiderata” was clearly Ehrmann’s.

And just as there were those who wanted “Desiderata” to have a more historic origin, so, too, were there those who found the whole thing – the poem, the recording, the posters and plaques – to be laughable hogwash. Among those who felt that way were the folks at National Lampoon, home of the humor magazine and related organizations that were themselves a professional offshoot of the famed Harvard Lampoon. In 1972, the magazine released an LP entitled National Lampoon Radio Dinner, and one of the cuts on the album was “Deteriorata,” a spot-on parody of the previous autumn’s hit record. From the introduction to the chorus, the record nails it, although the background music is, to my mind, not quite as spiffy. But the choir still reassures us:

“You are a fluke of the universe,
“You have no right to be here.
“And whether you can hear it or not,
“The universe is laughing behind your back.”

Hearing “Deteriorata” or thinking of it doesn’t have any associations for me, except smiles. No basement corridors with this one. But just as I can never hear “Desiderata” without that strange memory of the basement hallway, neither can I hear either of these two recordings without thinking of the other.
So the other day, when “Deteriorata” popped up on the RealPlayer, I knew that I had to make it and its cousin today’s Saturday Singles.

Les Crane – “Desiderata” [Warner Bros. 7520, 1971]

National Lampoon – “Deteriorata” [Banana 218, 1972]

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One Response to “Saturday Singles Nos. 16 & 17”

  1. porky Says:

    my mother had the printed text of “Desiderata” (“why don’t you come to your senses” is what my mind fills in) decoupaged on a piece of wood, the paper burned around the edges. Short of Jim Bartlett there’s nothing that screams 70’s more than that (tongue is in cheek, jb)

    BTW that lucky Les Crane was once married to Tina Louise.

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