“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

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

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:

20 comments on ““Along Comes Mary” – Unraveled

  1. Jerry says:

    Excellent study of Tandyn’s song. I heard it played on an oldies station and curiously found my way to your blog. I believe you hit the nail on the head, “the song is more about the dissipated drug culture — and possibly the music industry culture — of the times.” I was introduced to Tandyn, in the late 60s, at his house in the Hollywood Hills by a teeny-bopper who knew him. I don’t recall if we shared a joint or if he was a connection. He may have even been anti-drug. I just don’t recall. One thing I do recall though was that he was one of the writers and that [he said] it was written by “Tandyn and Gabriel.” For some reason this factoid did stick [in my mind] but I have been able to find nothing to support it.

    • jveeds says:

      Thanks for the personal reminiscence Jerry. [Note: Jerry followed up with a personal e-mail clarifying his remarks. I have taken the liberty of correcting a typo and inserted a few words to make the comment more clear, as noted by brackets]

      What do you remember about Tandyn himself?

      • ruth kahn says:

        I stumbled onto your blog during a search for lyrics to “Along Comes Mary” which I wanted to use as a meme for a project involving multiple language translations like the game “telephone” where you whisper a phrase from person to person and it mutates into something wildly different. I vaguely remembered how loopy the words were and I also had a brief connection w/Almer in the late 60’s. My boyfriend was crashing at his house for the summer. I remember going there in the summer of ’67, it was known to me and others as “the Flower House” and was to my recollection perched on the edge of a hillside and buried in vegetation. Seemed filled with interesting hippie types, guitar jams, getting high- for a 16 year old on her 1st. trip to California it made a big impression.

      • jveeds says:

        Great comment Ruth. In the course of my research on the lyrics I had heard something from another woman who seems to reinforce your thoughts about a house in California that hippies sort of rotated through–as things happened back in the day, I’m told. I’m still intrigued by Almer and have no idea what he’s up to or if he’s even alive.

        In the meantime, your project sounds fascinating. Of course a lot of people talk about “misunderstood lyrics” but I don’t think that’s quite what you’re doing. One thing I find interesting is how people learning a language use bizarre mnemonics to remember key phrases, such as “mafia moosekiller,” which I used to remember the common Arabic phrase “mahfee mooshkela” (“No problem!”)

  2. Randi says:

    I am related to Tandyn. He is alive, although not well at present. Please contact me if you would like more info.

    • jveeds says:

      Hi Randi,
      I’d love to hear about Tandyn’s situation. I’ve sent you an e-mail from my office system. Please let me know if you don’t get that message.

      • tournant says:

        I just found out he’s the eccentric roommate of an old friend’s dad living in McLean, Va.

  3. Randi says:

    I wanted to let you know that Tandyn passed away on January 8, 2013, from a number of cardiac issues. He was 70. There is a small service for him on Sunday, January 13, in Falls Church, VA, and there is discussion of a larger and more fitting memorial service at a later date (not yet specified).

  4. jveeds says:

    Thanks for the update Randi. I believe you were related to him in some way so my condolences. I don’t know if you were close but it’s sad to hear.

    • Randi says:

      Yes, I’m Tandyn’s sister-in-law, married to his brother (who is not a musician). We are hoping to bring some of his more recent music to public consciousness in the future, with the help of his many, many friends in the industry. Stay tuned. Thank you for your good wishes.

  5. Christine says:

    The art of songwriting and, for some, poetry of the 60s/70s had enough personal nuance to tilt any sort of balance—like a “dwooong” in the middle of a melodic chain of “ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dongs”–in the pop/counterculture world, anyway. So if words made sense most of the time, there were abstract detours that added a bit of genius to the work in the eyes of colleagues and mystery to the ears of the beholders. Nice critique of Almer’s song however esoteric (some of) the words may be.

    • jveeds says:

      Thanks for the note Christine. I love that thought about “abstract detours that add a bit of genius.” I’m not a fan of completely abstruse show-offy lyric-writing, but if a songwriter — such as Donavan in “Sunny Goodge Street” or Tandyn Almer in “Mary” — shows us that he is still in control and knows what he’s doing, I’m all for letting the mystery resound.

  6. jveeds says:

    I’ve taken the liberty of passing this blog entry along to my subsciber list with the note that the comments are a fascinating contribution to the Tandyn lore. It would be interesting to see a biography of him.

  7. Stacie Shayne Pyle says:

    Please if anyone knew Tandyn, get in touch with me

  8. And I thought it was just a song. How shallow! I mean, I always thought the The Association looked like a bunch of choirboys, so I can’t imagine them reading deep meaning into the song. I really enjoyed this article.

    • veeds says:

      Thanks for the follow up note, Susan. I “unraveled” Mary almost 12 years ago so it’s nice to see someone recognizing this group that, for better or worse, had a sort of California Soft Pop reputation. However, they also did some groundbreaking work, including the incredibly, almost heartbreaking soulful tribute to lost love in Dubuque (Dubuque Blues):

      There is a highway in and back
      Plus an active railroad track
      And the west side of the city sells no liquor
      And I can’t recall the instances that keep it in my thoughts
      City parks and night time girls, and ancient limestone rocks
      Writing songs of rights and wrongs and buying penny loafer shoes

      She was 13 and I was 10, as the gentle Southern wind
      Would make the moonlight shatter through the maples
      And I can recall the summers that we spent among the trees
      When there were no Monday bummers to blow my life of ease…

      And then there’s “Requiem for the Masses” — possibly the only pop song with a majestic Latin refrain (and effectively snuffed by the Nixon White House:

      Rex tremendae majestatis
      Requiem aeternam, Requiem aeternam

  9. veeds says:

    Thanks, it was fun for me to go back and re-read the original blog. And it’s especially nice to think that my humble posts are still being read now and then.

  10. I’m in the middle of Bang your Head, story of the heavy metal bands. It’s fun to read about all the craziniess these guys did! Wowzer.

    • veeds says:

      Have you seen the 2018 documentary “Echo in the Canyon”? Hosted by Jakob Dylan, it explores the mid-1960s Laurel Canyon scene

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