“Along Comes Mary” – Unraveled

An Exercise in Pop-Literary Criticism

A few years ago I became intrigued by the California pop-rock group, The Association, largely on the basis of the song “Along Comes Mary.” In order to appreciate The Association you probably have to banish the cloyingly pretty “Cherish” from your mind. (As a side note, though overplayed, “Windy” holds up as a delightfully breezy ray of pop sunshine, particularly when you learn that the author, Ruthann Friedman, was writing about her dog.)

At the time of Mary, 1966, there was a theory going around that the song referred to marijuana (“Maryjane”). There are competing theories that the song refers to the Apocalypse (“And when the morning of The Warning’s passed”) or to the Virgin Mary…or perhaps a combination of the two.

Still, a third theory is that it’s just psychedelic-era mumbo jumbo.

The writer, Tandyn Almer, seems to be steeped in some mysterious oblivion, but there are several clues we can use from a few published sources, that will, I believe, lead us to a conclusion.

Of course this approach flies in the face of straight textual criticism, which calls for a work be considered solely on the presented text and not on any biographical or auxilliary sources. Be that as it may, this essay takes whatever sources we can muster.

First off: the words, which one appreciative blogger has called “that dump-truck-full of lyrics that are warbled out in a for-the-most-part unintelligible stream.”

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 in rhyme and verse
And curse those faults in me

And then along comes Mary
And does she want to give me kicks and be my steady chick
And give me pick of memories
Or maybe rather gather tales of all the fails and tribulations
No one ever sees

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

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 want to 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 as 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

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 want to see the stains, the dead remains of all the pains
She left the night before
Or will their waking 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

Clearly, this is a crafted bit of verse, and while one may consider that there’s some psychedelic mumbo jumbo, I think we have to at least give Almer credit for having some literary chops, compared to, say, A Horse With No Name. (“Where there ain’t no one for to give me no pain.”)

Phrases and references that lead to an apocalyptic reading include “tales of…tribulations,” “blame,” “set them free” and most notably “morning of the Warning” (where use of capitalization would make quite a difference but are not indicated on the album lyrics).

Although the Apocalypse of John the Divine doesn’t use these terms…

the gassed and flaccid kids are flung across the stars
The psychodramas and the traumas gone

…they certainly seem in the character of that vision.

(Side note: Association vocalist Jim Yester mispronounces ‘flaccid’, possibly going by sight rather than familiarity with the word, which is properly pronounced ‘FLAK-cid’ (some modern online dictionaries notwithstanding). One can only assume that no one bothered to check it out before recording and the scansion is the same either way, although ‘FLASS-id’ does have a better internal rhyme with ‘gassed.’ Kudos to the otherwise excellent singer for simply managing to get all the words in. We understand he’s still on tour with the group.)

What about the Virgin Mary theory?

There’s a certain logic to phrases like “set them free” and the tender touch that “makes them not the same.” However, there’s very little else that supports a mother-of-Jesus interpretation and the whole tenor of the song generally works against it.

The main argument against this interpretation though is simply:

And does she want to set them free, and let them see reality
From where she got her name

Although the origin of ‘Mary,’ ‘Maria’ and ‘Miriam’ is in some dispute by scholars, a typical sense is “rebellion” and there is no etymology leading to a meaning of “reality.” We know that Almer is familiar with classic literature (see below), but there’s no reason to believe he’s a Hebrew scholar.

Now, about Almer himself, from a Wikipedia entry:

A fascinating and enigmatic footnote to the West Coast pop scene of the late 1960s, pianist, composer and producer Tandyn Almer is best known for writing the Association’s classic “Along Comes Mary.” Virtually nothing is known of Almer’s origins and upbringing. In 1965, Jules Alexander was hired by producer Curt Boettcher to play on a demo of “Along Comes Mary,” and was so impressed by the song he asked if his group could record it officially. Released in 1966, the single emerged as a blockbuster, defining The Association’s pioneering harmony pop sound — it should have made Almer one of the hottest songwriters in Los Angeles, but he never again scored a major hit.

That doesn’t mean he was missing in action, however — any number of obscure psych-pop singles bear Almer’s writing and production credit, among them the Paper Fortress’ “Sleepy Hollow People,” the Garden Club’s “Little Girl Lost and Found,” Pleasure’s “Poor Old Organ Grinder” and Dennis Olivieri’s full-length “Come to the Party.” He and Boettcher also teamed to write another Association song, “Message of Our Love,” as well as Sagittarius’ “Musty Dusty.” In 1969, Almer recorded his lone solo single, “Degeneration Gap,” for Warner Bros.; he also recorded an LP of demos for Almo/Irving Publishing and even compiled a songbook, Along Comes Tandyn, including new and possibly never-recorded material including “I Get High,” “Sunset Strip Soliloquy” and “Alice Designs.”

Almer was later credited alongside Brian Wilson as a co-writer on a handful of Beach Boys efforts, including “Sail On, Sailor.”

Almer’s activities and whereabouts since the early 1970s remain a mystery.

~ Jason Ankeny, All Music Guide

http://www.artistdirect.com/nad/music/artist/bio/0,,518824,00.html

The picture is emerging somewhat clearly now when we take the internal clues from the lyrics, the tenor of the times — it was the 60s after all — and what might be considered two significant telltales:

1. A never-recorded tune called “I Get High”
2. The fact that Almer is credited with the Tandyn Slave-Master, a waterpipe that was described in the headshop classic, A Child’s Garden of Grass, as “the perfect bong.”

A bit of external evidence comes from a blog commenter who described how she rented a room from him one year:

“Tandyn was my friend, the song is not so much about the drug as about life in a drug culture that he observed first hand” (Victoria, Tacoma, WA)

Remember that according to Ankeny’s Wikipedia bio, Tandyn Almer also wrote another song called “Little Girl Lost and Found” which was released in 1967 on A&M Records by The Garden Club. Lead singer of “The Garden Club” was Ruthann Friedman, who, as noted above, wrote the Association’s huge 1967 hit, “Windy.”

The title is undoubtedly from the William Blake poems “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found” from the 1789-era Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Blake, of course, was known as a mystic, visionary and unconventional personality and, as an exponent of sexual and imaginative freedom in his day, was a highly influential figure in the hippie era of the 1960s.

One verse from the Almer song is particularly interesting:

Little girl lost and found
walking the streets in her tattered gown
everyone passes the blame around
for little girl lost and found.

The “blame” concept bears a remarkable affinity to the Mary verse

And when the masquerade is played and neighbor folks make jokes
As who is most to blame today

Conclusions:
I believe we can conclude that, yes, the song uses “mary” as a trope for “marijuana” — in terms of the comforts (or purported comforts), the sense of seeing reality or an altered reality and the darker psychodrama elements. The purpose here, however, is not to draw out the parallels in detail or to try to reckon what point Almer might have been making…only to assert that the evidence clearly points to this kind of interpretation.

However, it’s not simply a paean to pot. As the Almer friend advises, the song is more about the dissipated drug culture — and possibly the music industry culture — of the times. The drug culture, we see, has a two-sided nature. On the one hand, we have the vague desire of chicks “whose sickness is the games they play.” On the other hand, “my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch.”

The duality is captured concisely in the second verse, immediately following the writer’s self-introduction:

And then along comes Mary
And does she want to give me kicks and be my steady chick
And give me pick of memories
Or maybe rather gather tales of all the fails and tribulations
No one ever sees

As another Mary commenter has said: “No one is quite certain of what songwriter Tandyn Almer had in mind, and one wonders how seriously any of this was taken at the time, in view of the fact that the song became an unofficial sports anthem for numerous Catholic schools named St. Mary’s.”

Additional sources:

http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=1877

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tandyn_Almer

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Along_Comes_Mary

Published in: on October 24, 2008 at 8:53 am  Comments (14)  
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