Keeping It A Mystery

Originally posted December 12, 2008

One of the sheer delights of this time of year for me is giving the Texas Gal gifts she truly wants, whether from a brief list, from remembering comments she’s made throughout the year or simply from seeing something somewhere I know she’d like. I much prefer the latter two sources, because then she can truly be surprised.

Sometimes she prods me, asking for hints as to what I’ve found for her. I’m not all that subtle at that; any hints I give will either be too easy to figure out or too opaque to be helpful, so in order to maintain the surprise, I go with opaque:

“Is it bigger than a breadbox?”

“That depends on how large a loaf you have.”

Or, “What color is it?”

“Light brown, green and red, partly.”

All of which is true, and all of which leaves the Texas Gal less than enlightened about what she’ll find in her packages, which is my goal. You see, to me, the surprise is the one of the main pleasures of gift-giving, for both the giver and the recipient. That’s a lesson I learned through accidental experience.

It was December of 1971, and Christmas was not far off. I’d done my shopping for my family, for Rick and for a gal from school I’d been dating. The evening in question, in fact, might have been the evening when Jeannie and I exchanged gifts, just before she headed home to a small town south of St. Cloud for a couple of weeks. I remember that I’d gone outside to go somewhere, and then turned around and went back into the house to get something I’d forgotten.

And I walked past a doorway and saw my parents busily wrapping Christmas presents in the room. I tried not to look, but the item in Mom’s hands was unmistakable: It was the size of an LP, and it was dull orange. I knew immediately what it was: The Concert for Bangla Desh, the box set of George Harrison’s epic concert of the previous August, released only a week or so earlier. And I think my parents knew that I knew.

And as pleased as I was to receive the box set a couple weeks later on Christmas Eve, I think that my knowing what was in the package somehow diminished the joy of the gift for me and – more importantly – for my parents. The surprise heightens the joy in both directions, I learned that year.

So I think I’ll stick with opaque hints and keep a little mystery in the season.

A Six-Pack from the Billboard Hot 100, December 11, 1971
“Can I Get A Witness” by Lee Michaels (A&M 1303, No. 43)

“White Lies, Blue Eyes” by Bullet (Big Tree 123, No. 49)

“George Jackson” by Bob Dylan (Columbia 45516, No. 56)

“Witch Queen of New Orleans” by Redbone (Epic 10746, No. 60)

“Get Down” by Curtis Mayfield (Curtom 1966, No. 74)

“Take It Slow (Out In The Country)” by Lighthouse (Evolution 1052, No. 89)

A few notes:

Regarding Lee Michaels, I can’t really say it any better than does All Music Guide:

“One of the most interesting second-division California psychedelic musicians, keyboardist Lee Michaels was one of the most soulful white vocalists of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Between 1968 and 1972, he released half a dozen accomplished albums on A&M that encompassed Baroque psychedelic pop and gritty white, sometimes gospel-ish R&B with equal facility. A capable songwriter, Michaels was blessed with an astonishing upper range, occasionally letting loose some thrilling funky wails. In 1971, he landed a surprise Top Ten single with ‘Do You Know What I Mean,’ one of the best and funkiest AM hits of the early ’70s.”

As much as I liked “Do You Know What I Mean,” I always thought it was a little bit clunky, which was one of its charms. “Can I Get A Witness,” which hit the Top 40 for one week, reaching No. 39, falls for me into the same clunk-funk genre.

Bullet was a duo from England: John Cann handled the vocals and Paul Hammond played the drums. “White Lies, Blue Eyes,” which went as high as No. 28, was their only hit. The record has a pretty cool sound during the verses, but the lightness of the choruses for most of the record seems to me to presage the sound of groups like Pablo Cruise and the Little River Band a few years down the pike. I mean, that’s okay, but it’s not what it could have been; the later choruses, with some pretty good guitar and drum fills, sound a lot better to my ears.

George Jackson, the subject of the Dylan single, was an inmate in a California state prison who became a self-educated leader and political figure during his incarceration. He wound up dead in prison during the summer of 1971 in what some called an assassination, while others seemed to think that his death was simply the unsurprising end of a life of violence and crime. Folk hero or thug? I don’t know, and the page on Jackson at Wikipedia doesn’t really resolve anything. I recall the first time I heard the record: I was sitting at a picnic table somewhere with Rick and a radio one day, and we listened intently, as we did in those days to anything Dylan did. I don’t know if the deejay was asleep at the switch or making a statement, but the radio station didn’t bleep the line, “He wouldn’t take shit from no one,” and Rick and I looked at each other, startled. “Bob Dylan lays it on the line,” said Rick, laughing. In any case, the record – which never made it to an LP back then and, as far as I know, has since been included only on three relatively obscure Dylan CD anthologies – is an audio artifact of the tail end of the odd and bitter time we now call the Sixties. I sometimes wonder if Dylan ever regrets recording and releasing the song, but I figure not: I don’t think – at least as far as his music goes – Dylan has much time for regrets. The version here is called the “Big Band” version; the flipside of the single, which peaked at No. 33 – has a shorter, acoustic version.

Redbone, as I wrote here at least once before, was formed and led by Native American brothers Pat and Lolly Vegas, who, before they formed the group, were the writers of the song “Nicky Hoeky.” With its swampy feel, “The Witch Queen of New Orleans” reached No. 21 in early 1972. A couple of years later, Redbone’s brilliant “Come And Get Your Love” went to No. 5, and, as far as oldies radio is concerned, that’s the only Redbone single that seems to matter. It would be a kick to hear “Witch Queen” coming out of the radio speaker some day, but I suppose someone might complain about evil influences.

Curtis Mayfield’s “Get Down” has to be one of the great lost singles. The marketplace has its oddities, I know, but it baffles me how a single could be this good and not reach the Top Ten, much less the Top 40. “Get Down” peaked at No. 69 on the December 18 chart and then fell out of the Hot 100 before 1972 rolled around.

While not nearly as good as the Mayfield single, Lighthouse’s “Take It Slow (Out In The Country)” is a pretty good listen, too. The follow-up to Lighthouse’s “One Fine Morning,” which reached No. 24 earlier in the autumn of 1971, “Take It Slow (Out In The Country)” got as high as No. 64 in January of 1972 and was certainly better than a lot of singles that had more success. I know, I know: It’s the marketplace, but sometimes the listener is wrong.

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