Brilliant Songs #30: Tandyn Almer & The Association’s “Along Comes Mary”

It was always the “psychodramas and the traumas” that caught my ear. I must have heard The Association’s “Along Comes Mary” a thousand times in the months after its March, 1966 debut, drawn by its almost hypnotic drive, melodic refrain and multi-syllabic wordplay.

But the words tumbled forth with such breathlessness and clung together so tightly that I never saw fit to peel them apart to ponder and appreciate not only their meaning, but also the verbal dexterity they required of the singer.

Proof positive of the latter would be to stick the lyrics in front of yourself after you’ve finished here and just try to sing along as I did recently with: “And every now and then I spend/My time at rhyme and verse and curse those faults in me.” Or: “And when the masquerade is played and neighbor folks/Make jokes as who is most to blame today.” Good luck!

But over the years, it was always the “psychodramas and the traumas” that stayed in my memory amidst the verbal torrent.

Each word rapid but succinct, nifty little rhyme, and the slight intrigue they suggested about complicated relationships in the young adult world. (I was an unwordly adolescent at the time, my psychodramas limited mostly to the basketball court.)

And then you read it again and you think: ‘Oh, it’s about marijuana, all right.’

In any case, I found myself singing little swatches of the song the past few weeks, not sure why, but since only swatches such as the title line, the final line (“sweet as the punch”) and “psychodramas and the traumas” ever truly registered, I thought I should at long last take a closer look.

Oh, I’d long ago heard that the “Mary” who came along for the singer was code for the marijuana that every zeitgeist-toking rocker was indulging in back then. But many commentators have left that as an open question, since the song also played perfectly well as an ode to a mythical Mary who would perhaps save the male singer’s soul from all the confusion and hypocrisy of the world. (Jung’s female anima principle as salvation!)

And an even deeper myth has been cited in the far reaches of the Internet, with parallels in the song apparently running true to a 13th century epic German poem entitled  “Parzival,” concerning the search for the Holy Grail. After downloading the poem to explore that possibility, I discovered it is 700 pages long, which helped influence my opting to focus instead on the song’s many other dazzling attributes.

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By my lights, Along Comes Mary” is most notable as a feast of words one rarely hears in pop music, which has always been more inclined toward  lyrical expositions of “Ooh, Baby Baby” and the like.

And for that, we must give thanks to songwriter Tandyn Almer (such a name!), who wrote “Along Comes Mary” as a freelance project when he was 23 years old in 1965 and assembled some musicians to do a demo tape in Los Angeles. One of those was guitarist Jules Alexander of The Association, which had enjoyed at best tepid success working the L.A. club scene until Alexander talked Almer into letting his group record the song.

“Along Comes Mary” soon vaulted to No. 7 on the famed “Billboard” charts, leading to the group’s first album deal. The record’s B side led off with“Cherish,” a devotional slow dance classic written by band member Terry Kirkman that nabbed the No. 1 slot on “Billboard” late in 1966. Those two songs cemented  the group’s role in the annals of pop music and guaranteed royalty checks flowing to band members forevermore.

But would the album and “Cherish” ever have happened were it not for Almer and the mysterious Mary? Doubtful, but that is the pinball game of life as we know it, doors opening and closing unexpectedly, sometimes deservingly, sometimes not.

As was the case with Almer himself, who was something of a poetic and musical vagabond, dropping out of high school in his native Minnesota, moving to Chicago to play jazz, then wading deep into the ’60s music scene in Los Angeles, where he befriended Brian Wilson, wrote a few songs for the Beach Boys and others, was interviewed by Leonard Bernstein for a television special on the “rock revolution,” did too many drugs, got too little sleep, and lapsed periodically into the bi-polar disease that would last till his death in 2013 at age 70.

All the while, he had worked on a largely unknown body of work, only part of which was unearthed and produced as an album in 2014, entitled, fittingly and commercially enough, “Along Comes Tandyn.”

But nearly a half century before that, there was his Mary. Let’s give it a listen now, followed by the lyrics that will be helpful in tracking just what Almer is doing here—with a beautiful assist from lead singer Jim Yester and his fellow band members who met and raised Almer’s demanding harmonies to immediately notable and forever memorable levels.

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                               ALONG COMES MARY

Every time I think that I’m
The only one who’s lonely someone calls on me
And every now and then I spend
My time at rhyme and verse and curse those faults in me
And then along comes Mary
And does she wanna give me kicks
And be my steady chick and give me pick of memories?
Or maybe rather gather tales from all the
Fails and tribulations no one ever sees?
When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup is as sweet as the punch

Bop doo aah

When vague desire is the fire in the eyes of chicks
Whose sickness is the games they play
And when the masquerade is played and neighbor folks
Make jokes as who is most to blame today
And then along comes Mary
And does she wanna set them free
And let them see reality from where she got her name?
And will they struggle much when told that such
A tender touch of hers will make them not the same?
When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

Bop doo aah

And when the morning of the warning’s passed
The gassed and flaccid kids are flung across the stars
The psychodramas and the traumas gone
The songs are left unsung and hung upon the scars
And then along comes Mary
And does she wanna see the stains the dead remains
Of all the pains she left the night before?
Or will their wakin’ eyes reflect the lies
And make them realize their urgent cry for sight no more?
When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch
Sweet as the punch

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And then you read it again and you think: “Oh, it’s about marijuana, all right.”

“…let them see reality from where she got her name.” ??

gassed and flaccid kids are flung across the stars. ??

I was that flaccid kid once upon a time or two, and I have been flung across those stars. Unlike Almer, though, I would never have thought to employ that word (“of part of the body…soft and hanging loosely or limply”), to describe my state of being, uncannily accurate as it feels now.

Mary as the then evil weed is at once liberator and fraud through these lyrics, it seems to me.

Sure, she wants to give the plaintiff in this case his kicks and be his steady chick, but toward what end—to “gather tales from all the/Fails and tribulations no one ever sees?”

Both, it would seem. She comes along to alter consciousness, to be done with the “sickness” and the “games” that humans play, bestowing upon her devotees a “tender touch” that will “make them not the same,” and praise be for that.

But with the “psychodramas and the traumas gone,” our Mary leaves us with…what? Does she even “wanna see the stains the dead remains/Of all the pains she left the night before?”

Naw—she’s just moved on into another joint or bong, leaving the seeker-singer in the concluding lines with an“empty cup…sweet as the punch.”

A sugar high, devoid of nutrients that would help grow him to his full power, in true wisdom.

The bigger answer—to life and its enigmas in the pursuit of identity and understanding and lo, eternity—remains elusive, perhaps awaiting just one more song that will set things right at last.

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Not many musicians dared approach the vocal challenges posed by “Mary,” the few covers dominated by instrumentals (Hugh Masekela, Baja Marimba Band), or forgettable imitations (Manhattan Transfer). So leave it to a punk group to take it in a completely different, irreverent direction, with a bonus clever nod to film director Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.” 

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And one last random-amazing factoid: The Association’s single, “Never My Love,” from their 1967 album, “Insight Out,” was certified the second-most-frequently-played song on radio and television in America during the 20th century. So you ask: What was No. 1? The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” See the Top 100 here to impress your friends at your next dinner party!

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
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Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Cup by Glen Van Etten, Albuquerque, New Mexico  https://www.flickr.com/photos/tejedoro_de_luz/with/3153942637/

12 comments to Brilliant Songs #30: Tandyn Almer & The Association’s “Along Comes Mary”

  • Mary  says:

    As a American teenager during the reign of this song, it was my absolute passion at that time to learn and commit to memory lyrics to the popular songs that I loved. I retain to this day the ability to sing entire stanzas of many now obscure songs, a skill that is equally lauded and deplored by my family and friends

    Being named Mary, this song was certainly a very likely candidate to be included in my Musical Hall of Fame, but it was not to be. In those pre-internet years there were of course no resources to call forth lyrics unless they were printed on the album cover itself. These were not, and they proved IMPENETRABLE!!! I tried off and on for years and resigned myself to simply enjoying the song. There are worse fates.

    Thank you for including them here and solving the decades long mystery….and the discussion of the song itself. Wonderful.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I’m certain yours was a widely shared experience, Mary. I’ve always loved the song but felt more than a little bit ridiculous singing it recently to myself and having to resort to nonsense lyrics to keep going past the refrain and the “psychodramas and the traumas,” with an occasional “bop-doo-aah” tossed in for good measure. Still not sure I’ll be able to get anywhere near memorizing and executing it, but hell, no one will know besides myself, since I wouldn’t dare attempt singing it within a thousand feet of any other human being, now or ever…

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    The lyrics to “The Association” songs never registered with me for some reason. They’re much better than I remember. Maybe I was just too hooked on Dylan-like lyrics to give them much attention. I was also too innocent to make the connection between Mary and marijuana. It escaped me entirely. I figured Mary was just a girlfriend like Stephen Stills’ song “Suite: Judy (Collins) Blue Eyes”. However, I did see them perform at UCLA once, probably cost me about $15, which at the time seemed over-priced. Funny, I recall them being regulars at the Ice House in Pasadena and Glendale, both a stone’s throw from Eagle Rock, but never gave a thought to going there. My wallet was pretty damn thin though. I feel your angst about singing. If I did a sing along in the car, it would have been with the windows rolled up and a good set of earplugs. Finally, I wish I had Mary’s talent for memorizing lyrics. I do one of three things. First, I hesitate a bit, a syllable or two, before I open mouth. I need a cue. Second, I just start going through a rolladex of rhymes. “All along the watchtower, I picked a bunch of flowers.” Third, as a last resort, I would scat. If it worked for Ella or Satch, then why not me? Love your brilliant song blogs!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Interesting you should mention Dylan, Robert, because more than anything else it was his music that turned Almer from jazz to pop-rock music. But Dylan’s words more often than not were enunciated much slower than “Along Comes Mary,” though I should say this, too: Almer originally composed the song to be sung at a slower pace, but the Association’s producer at the time prevailed upon them to speed things up to the degree that you and pretty much everyone else just couldn’t follow along to any semblance of understanding without the benefit of a lyric sheet. Tough on listeners who love (understanding) lyrics, but I think the right move creatively, the proof being in the pudding…

      Also, you’re right about them playing regularly at the Ice Houses before they made it big, but I was too young to go. Did see them later, though, at I think the Hollywood Bowl—and a finely honed act they were. And thanks for the laugh about resorting to scat singing: the last refuge of the uncomprehending or merely forgetful!

  • Susan  says:

    Gee, what’s the problem? I can sing those lyrics in my sleep (kidding). I can barely sing them with the lines printed in front of me. One of the truly all time great songs and favorite of mine from our formative years. Weren’t the psychodramas and the traumas what characterized our adolescence? Sure seemed like it to me!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Gosh, Susan, I think if we practiced tirelessly for a year or two we could maybe duet the song in some karaoke joint, whaddaya think? (Maybe in a bowling alley’s Tuesday night “mixer?”)

      I suppose you’re right about the psychodramas and the traumas characterizing our formative years, but that’s exactly what psychodramas and traumas are most noted for—engendering massive denial! (At least among the males of our species…)

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Too much fun my boy! I never gave 2 shits for the Association, thought of it as AM radio drivel until today! Still not the kind of music that moves me. Beatles, Stones, Doors, Eddy Cochran, Buddy Holly, The Who, Wilson Pickett, etc dominated my listening then, and the rockin’ Seattle bands like the Sonics, Wailers, Jimmy Hanna & the Dynamics (Seattle hippie FM, where they played the whole album no ads was my go-to radio). I had no idea the lyrics were so interesting, now if I’d heard the punk version 1st I’d have been OK!

    “The gassed and flaccid kids are flung across the stars
    The psychodramas and the traumas gone
    The songs are left unsung and hung upon the scars”

    I wonder if Jim Morrison was a fan… I could see him singing these lyrics.
    I really appreciate your musical archeology Andrew, plus the 2 most played songs of the 20th century bolsters my disdain for mainstream radio!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      This made me laugh in a few different places, Kevin, always a bonus addition to the pleasures of going behind the curtain on these songs. Your “AM radio drivel” reference put me in mind of discovering Dr. Demento on an FM station whose call letters I have now forgotten, but it was quite the wakeup as a teenager to go from “Cherish” and “Never My Love” to “Baby Let Me Bang Your Box.” I didn’t know the word “transgressive” at the time, but I would’ve used it if I had! Mostly, I tried hard to understand how it could be that one section of the radio dial was strictly controlled and carried stiff penalties for flouting its standards, but then one just turned the dial a tad, same radio, same wide-eyed, open-eared teenager, and all bets were off, standards reduced to rubble. Is that maybe why the world is as screwed up as it is??

  • dkahern1958  says:

    In echo of many of the comments, I certainly remember the song but if you asked me to sing along……..”blah da do dah do dah blah da da da, AND ALONG COMES MARY,” would be my response. I don’t think anything else ever registered. With it’s syncopated beat and catchy flourishes over a fairly straightforward 3 cord progression it was an early high-functioning-psychedelic-pop era song. The lyrics were a revelation. I doubt 1 in a 1000 listeners ever gave it a second thought. The next rabbit hole I went down was the cover you linked. Bloodhound Gang? Never heard of ‘em. But their cover has…….25 MILLION VIEWS!? Which leaves me feeling a little pop culturally illiterate. Though the video and cover are pretty pedestrian frat boy fodder, the video does cleverly nod to the MARY-wana theme of the original by slotting in scenes from the movie Half Baked, with cameos from host of chronics like Snoop Dogg, Tommy Chong, and Willie Nelson. It’s been a super fun waste of a morning. Thanks.

    Dr. Demento…..wasn’t it KROQ?

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Good thing you checked in here, DK, cuz your “”blah da do dah do dah blah…” take on the lyrics was indeed quite a ways off from the actual lyrics! So I’m glad this worked for you on that score but was dismayed you considered it a waste of a morning (though your “super-fun” lead-in helped soften the blow, I must admit…).

      But I ask you: How else might you have spent the morning—reading the latest on Elise Stefanik, Steve Bannon & the roads & rail tracks melting all over London, perhaps? I rest my case!

      Last point: I grew up in LA, so I googled “1960s FM radio station Los Angeles Dr. Demento” and up it came: KPFK.

  • harry  says:

    I’ve still got that on vinyl. But the song I latched onto was “Requiem for the Masses”.

    “Black and white were the figures that recorded him
    Black and white was the newsprint he was mentioned in
    Black and white was the question that so bothered him
    He never asked, he was taught not to ask
    But was on his lips as they buried him”

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Hey Harry, someone actually brought that very song to my attention on my personal Facebook page where I blurbed the blog post. Turned out I had completely forgotten about the song until she put it in front of me, and I have to agree it was pretty bold, rather dylanesque, especially for guys associated more with love songs (“Cherish,” “Never My Love”) than anti-war anthems. Thanks for mentioning it here—it deserves the recognition. For others reading, here’s the link to a fine rendering they did on the Smothers Brothers show in 1967: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gy9FtCnAF78

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