Yesterday we pondered the genius of John Donne. Today we honor another British genius, John Lennon. Fifty years ago this week “I Feel Fine” was the number one song in the US. Seems like only yesterday.
Donne was a great poet, but it clearly never occurred to him to add guitar feedback to a rock-and-roll song. It fell to Lennon to come up with this idea three centuries later.
Writing a great pop song seems to me to be the epitome of pure genius. You don’t need to develop any skills; you don’t even have to know how to read or play music. You just somehow pluck a melody and a riff out of the aether, add some lyrics that (often) anyone could write, and you’re done — you’ve added a little bit of something to your generation’s collective memory. Typically the genius sputters out by the time you’re thirty; often it flares only once, and then you’re done. But the world is a better place for the three minutes you’ve given it.
Which brings me to Tandyn Almer, the guy who wrote “Along Comes Mary” in 1966 when he was 23 years old, and then pretty much disappeared for the final 47 years of his life. The Washington Post ran a wonderful obituary for him a few days ago.
For the past few years, Mr. Almer had occupied an unkempt basement apartment in McLean, where he died Jan. 8. He had a combination of atrial fibrillation, congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to his sister-in-law, Randi Minetor.
He was 70. Several acquaintances were surprised that he had lived that long.
“Along Come Mary” isn’t exactly an example of “pure” genius in my sense–the lyrics are way too inventive. And Almer wasn’t a musical naif–he attended a conservatory for a while. But clearly he was never able to recapture what he had in the mid-60s, when his song hit number 7 on the charts and he was interviewed by Leonard Bernstein. Here is the song performed by The Association on The Smothers Brothers show:
It’s nice when these stories have a second act. My brother’s buddy Chip Taylor had at least a couple moments of pure genius in the 60s–he wrote “Wild Thing” (also from 1966 — was this the high point of Western civilization?) and “Angel of the Morning” (1967). If you don’t know those songs, go listen to them right now, and you will never get them out of your head. Eventually he left the musical scene, but he returned a few years ago, and he’s really good:
On a side note, he is Jon Voight’s brother and (therefore) Angelina Jolie’s uncle. Interesting family.