This bus is awful cold,
We’ve gone so many miles…
“That’s Where I Went Wrong” by The Poppy Family was already a throw-back when it hit the charts in 1969. A cute girl– you can tell by her voice that she’s cute– is riding on a cold bus to some unknown place, boring a stranger with the details of how her boyfriend cheated on her. She says
I know it’s not his fault
I’ve known it all along
I was the one who trusted him
That’s where I went wrong.
That’s where she went wrong!
Someone — probably her husband (at the time), Terry Jacks– had the horrible idea of adding some kind of weird percussive slapping noises to the song, that I don’t remember noticing in the era in which we heard all songs on car radios.
I’m kidding about the “cute girl” comment, though one can safely assume that any woman in the business of performing pop songs is photogenic, at least. But the voice is compelling. It has this clear, crystalline sheen to it– it sounds young and innocent, and insistent. Madonna used to have a bit of this quality to her voice, in “La Isle Bonita”, for example. So did Jackie Ralph of “The Bells”. Stevie Nicks had it.
But the coolest of the cool was Jennifer Warnes – her voice on “First We Take Manhattan”– I don’t have a name for that quality.
“Stay Awhile” by Jackie Ralph with “The Bells” was quite possibly the hottest song on AM radio in its day. Yes, because the romantic couple in the song actually, delicately, go to bed together. We were all shocked and titillated. Some radio stations, so we heard, banned the song. Did they really? That’s really bizarre, when you think about it.
It’s hard to describe that voice. I’ve always liked it, though I also always found the Poppy Family’s music to be a bit cheesy, calculated, and coy. Often, Susan’s voice is doubled for effect with a pleasing result
You are my whole day
My heart and my soul babe..
and sounds like she means it.
The Poppy Family featured a drummer called Satwan Singh– I’ll bet there’s an interesting story behind that. He played the tabla initially, but there’s a full drum set on most later Poppy Family recordings.
Terry Jacks did not like touring or performing live, and that’s why he became a producer. Apparently, he even worked with the Beach Boys. He became aware of a song called “Seasons in the Sun” which the Beach Boys heard but decided to pass on. Jacks recorded it himself and it became one of the biggest hits of the decade and makes my list of the worst 10 singles of all time.
Goodbye Michelle, it’s hard to die
When all the birds are singing in the sky.
Yes, Terry– it’s easier to die when all the birds are singing on the ground. Or maybe singing on the hills that were just “seasons out of time”, whatever the hell that means.
I’m adding to this. I just reread some old newsgroup posts and there is some acquaintances on the Leonard Cohen newsgroup insisting that “Seasons in the Sun” is a deep song.
Goodbye Michelle, my little one,
You gave me love and helped me find the sun.
Okay. “Find the sun” isn’t the most shockingly original metaphor I’ve heard– not great, but not too bad yet. Well, yes it is. But wait for it:
And every time that I was down
You would always come around
And get my feet back on the ground
Now, is that or is that not the lamest description of friendship you’ve ever heard? And don’t forget:
but the stars that we could reach
were just starfish on the beach
So the starfish join the birds, imaginatively located right where Dr. Seuss said you would find them.
“Which Way you Going Billy” has a few strange twists in it. Billy’s leaving and she wants to go with him, but Billy doesn’t want to tell her which way he’s going. She could get lost and would have to get onto a bus and become the character in “That’s Where I Went Wrong”. She admits that now he’s “free” at last, though you would think she’d prefer to convince him he could be just as free if he stayed with her. No, she admits it: she’s a ball and chain.
It’s only in the third verse that we find out
I won’t forget you, Billy
For all my life
I’ll always love you, Billy,
I’ll stay your wife.
Until then, I had thought they were simply going together. Didn’t know they were actually man and wife. The song is deeper for it. Thank god Rod McKuen didn’t write this lyric, or she would stay “your wife in your house”, in the “dark, where the sun it never shines”.
“Where Evil Grows” is easily the best song the Poppy Family released. Like some of their earlier efforts, it’s not quite a textbook pop song. Pop songs don’t call people “evil” (except if it’s about a woman and she’s a vamp). “Evil grows in the dark/where the sun it, never shines” is redundant, but passable. And it would be interesting to hear what evil things, exactly, this evil person has done, but you know we won’t.
It’s a distinctive, appealing harmony, a decent hook, and an unusual lyric. It was a hit in 1972.
The Poppy Family broke up in 1973. Terry Jacks went on to record the worst single of all time (Seasons in the Sun).
Susan Jacks plunged into obscurity. Where is she now? I have no idea, and neither does Google.
Added Nov 2007:
Thank God for Youtube.
Listen to this: how can you not fall in love with that voice!
In her day, Linda Ronstadt was the much bigger star. Why? Was she a better singer? Prettier? Or better promoted? Compare Susan Jack’s version of “Different Drum” to Ronstadt’s. It’s the difference between singing and wailing.
I just listened to the two right after each other. I frankly had never realized what a lame singer Ronstadt was at this stage of her career– all elbows and eyelashes and emoting. Susan Jacks is about as I remember her– a superb singer who never really got the opportunity to reach her potential, and one of the two or three really, really magical female voices I have ever heard. (The other: Jennifer Warnes).
Listen to her take on “Different Drum”– it’s exquisite, tasteful, beautiful. There is more heartbreak — and nuance– Susan Jacks singing one word — “goodbye” — than in the entire performance by Ronstadt.
Ronstadt shouts and wails; Jacks sings and evokes that sense of disillusionment central to the lyric.
Please, oh please don’t steal from the Music Industry: Read This.
Update August 2006: Guess who finally has a website? There is a posting from Susan dated in 2003, four album covers, and that’s about it. [Sorry: the website is gone.]
You won’t find very much about Susan Jacks, or Jackie Ralph, (or Four Jacks and Jill, or the Buoys, etc.) on the internet. In the future, no one will be able to hide, but for bands that were famous in the 1960’s or 70’s, it is still possible to fade into a small measure of obscurity. Do a search on any current pop star and look for images and find thousands of them. Do a search for images of Susan Jacks and you’ll be lucky to see five or six.
I saw a movie recently in which a woman who had not seen a former lover in ten years, spies him in the grocery store, before he sees her. Her first thought is that she doesn’t want to talk to him– because she’s not dressed very well, and doesn’t have her make-up on just right, and she’s very pregnant. She makes a gesture of fixing her hair and face, and looks hopeless for a moment.
It felt authentic to me. I’m sure some of these pop stars from the 60’s and 70’s might have the same feeling about people who go searching for them over the internet, perhaps still nursing an enduring fantasy about them– do you want these “fans” to see what you look like now? Maybe not.
And I know I don’t really want to hear Susan Jacks perform the same song now. It wouldn’t make sense. A 50-year-old woman is not going to go, “I know it’s not his fault, I’ve known it all along, I was the one who trusted him…”
If you have ever read about Frances Farmer, it’s hard not to be moved by the fact that after years of scandal and conflict and sojourns in mental hospitals and so on, Frances Farmer disappeared completely. She ended up working, for several years, in a photo shop somewhere.
And incidentally– she did not have a frontal lobotomy. The movie “Frances” was playing fast and loose with the facts. If you check around and go with the most trustworthy sources, it seems quite unlikely.