Along comes Gary?
Unless you're a diehard fan, working with a former rock star isn't all that memorable an experience. Most likely your co-worker resembles one of the great unwashed instead of a big-time idol. And depending on the hourly wage he's pulling down, our rocker's probably a bitter and sullen old fellow you practically have to beat the American Bandstand anecdotes out of.
You would have thought that by the sheer force his moniker, my good friend "Power Pop" Pat would've committed to memory his momentary encounter with '60s pop royalty and volunteered the information in a prompt fashion. But given the vagaries of his particular story, it's understandable that he didn't. After hearing "Along Comes Mary" for the millionth time on KOOL-FM, the oldies station in Phoenix, Pat remembered that some guy at his work named Gary once claimed, rather matter-of-factly, that he used to be in the Association. Pressed further, Pat remembered hearing Gary mumble something like, "Yeah, I wrote 'Cherish,' but those fuckers cheated me out of credit, and I quit."
Now, no one in his right mind could be expected to know any of the Association members' names. After all, Terry, Gary, Ted, Brian, Russell, and Jim don't exactly roll off the tongue the way John, Paul, George, and Ringo do. But a furious glance at a dog-eared copy of And Then...Along Comes the Association confirmed there really was a guy in the Association named Gary who quit after the first two albums. Attired in drab gray three-piece, Gary Alexander looks as nondescript as the other five suits, something like a cross between the Doors' Robby Krieger and the Stooges' Larry Fine. Pat squinted hard at the photo and said that the Gary he met looked even older.
Thanks to the typically verbose 1966 liner notes on the Association's first album, we gleaned even more about the elusive Gary Alexander: "[Gary] doesn't smoke, drink, or eat meat and he would like to travel to India 'to study the religious life there.'" According to The Billboard Book of Number Ones, Alexander did indeed quit the group to study Eastern philosophy. But not before dropping a bomb.
In late 1966, the Association followed up their first No. 1 hit "Cherish" with the unexpected psychedelia of "Pandora's Golden Heebie Jeebies," which only got as far as a disappointing No. 33 before making like a dead yogi. Nobody tried to cheat Alexander out of his sole writing credit for that bit of mystical mumbo jumbo, sung in a voice that sounds like an enlightened version of Kermit the Frog. Oddly enough, The Association's Greatest Hits has been the only album of the group's to remain in print up to the present day. And while it's teeming with non-charting singles and boring album filler like "Requiem for the Masses" and "Six Man Band," "Pandora's Golden Heebie Jeebies" has been conveniently forgotten. Just like Gary Alexander.
Pestering Pat to get me an audience with this mystical magus, I was chagrined to learn that this slippery Gary had a different last name and had stopped working with Pat about eight months ago. Was he one of those crackpots who claims to be a member of the DeFranco Family just to get a free hot meal out of good, kind, star-struck folk, or was he the real thing? A guy who played guitar in a chart-topping band, found that lacking, went to Bangalore and found the secret of life, found that lacking, and was last seen working as a rural security guard making sure that nobody tries to steal 10 dollars' worth of power wire or that some little critter doesn't get zapped accidentally.
The lure of the Association would seem quite resistible at first glance. After all, even in their prime these guys looked more like attorneys than revolutionaries, and their hits sounded like something your dentist might listen to on his day off to remind himself of work. But you'd be wrong. Glancing at the hyperactive sleeve notes of And Then...Along Comes the Association again, I learned that "The Association can outblues the Stones, outrock the Raiders, and outfolk the Kingston Trio."
Even with statements like that, one ought not underestimate the Association, who were the true bad boys of rock and roll, at least according to our Gary -- the security guard and purported onetime member of the band. We gathered together some of his former co-workers, and they recounted whatever infrequent wild tales of the Association they could recall him muttering between mouthfuls of ham-and-cheese lunches. If I were Mick and Keith, I'd watch my ass in the future too.
1) The Association begin their reign of outrage in mid-1966 with their first single for Valiant Records, "Along Comes Mary." It's riding high on the charts, and no wonder -- everyone thinks they are singing about marijuana! Scheduled to perform the song on The Ed Sullivan Show, they are meekly asked by network censors if they wouldn't mind playing "Along Came Jones" instead.
Hah! Do you think the Association wussed out like the Stones would a year later when Mick sang "Let's Spend Some Time Together" to appease a buncha squeamish censors? Do you think they would bastardize Tandyn Almer's original lyrics and maybe sing "Along Comes Murray?" Not the Association. Those hooligans sang "Mary," goddammit, and sang it often, citing Johnny Mathis' groundbreaking 1963 appearance on Sullivan, when he was allowed to croon the offending word seven times during his carefree rendition of "What Would My Mary Say." Not wishing to incite any reverse-discrimination lawsuits, the Sullivan people backed down, but made sure there would be no hot snacks and moist towelettes waiting for the Association backstage.
2) The controversy rages on at a 1966 Disneyland appearance, where the band is warned by law enforcement officials that the show will be stopped should they play "Mary." Badasses to the bone, but unwilling to cheat paying fans out of a show, the Association played the far more subversive call to arms, "Enter the Young." This was to be their follow-up to "Mary," but again they ran into trouble with the censors, who thought its title would be "an invitation for pedophiles everywhere."
It's no accident that the Sex Pistols would eventually wind up on the same record label as the Association. If you were to strip "Anarchy in the UK" of all its snarling vocals, aggressive guitars, pummeling drums, and anti-Christ sentiments, it would be virtually indistinguishable from "Enter the Young."
3) Worried that the three-minute-and-57-second length of their next single "Cherish" might discourage DJs from playing it, they purposely list the incorrect running time of three minutes and 49 seconds on the label. Quel rebeloso!
4) In 1967, Warner Bros. buys out Valiant Records so that it can secure the recording rights to the Association and Lothar and the Hand People, who are about to sign with Valiant until Lothar decides that "the vibes just aren't conducive, man."
At this juncture, Gary is still wielding considerable power in the Association. The first order of business after signing with Warner Bros. is to re-release "Pandora's Golden Heebie Jeebies." When it fares even worse the second go-around, Gary recalls, rocks are thrown through the windows of his home with Mandalay travel brochures tied to them. Henceforth the group vows to record only songs they are not embarrassed to say the titles of, like "We Love Us," "Toymaker," and "Rose Petals, Incense and a Kitten."
5) Given their sketchy luck with censors so far, it's amazing that they manage to sneak the line "Who's bending down to give me a rainbow" past those pesky AM watchdogs to score a second No. 1 with "Windy." In 1999, Mariah Carey will bend down to show us her rainbow on the cover of her new album. But by then, it's just a new ass dressing up the same old hat.
Once again putting the emphasis on ass, the Association pose while dropping trou on the back cover of their 1967 album Insight Out. Warner Bros. quickly substitutes the cheeky rear photo with a seemingly innocuous picture of the sensational sextet standing in a field of daisies. If you look closely, you'll see that they all have their flies open in protest.
6) It is here where the Association's greatest contribution to rock is realized. They refuse to record composer Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park," claiming that "any two guys in the group can write a better song than that." Crestfallen, Webb takes the song to overimbibing actor Richard Harris, who scores a massive worldwide hit with it. Now it is impossible to see the proverbial cake out in the rain without recalling the sick devotion Harris revealed for that long-lost recipe. Arguably rock and roll's greatest moment. And the band did come up with even better songs -- witness "Rose Petals, Incense and a Kitten."
7) By 1970, the group's days of outrage and topping the charts are just a distant memory. Willing to try anything, they even let a totally blissed-out Gary, now calling himself "Jules" Alexander, rejoin. But rather than represent a return to their halcyon hooligan days, the eponymous album they release finds the Association pissing off what few fans remained with songs like the frightening "Broccoli": "I really dig it steamed, just plain with cheese and cream / I like to eat with my mouth, tastes so good, I like to eat with my mouth, it's my favorite food."
Not even a 1972 effort called Waterbeds in Trinidad can stop the S.S. Association from sinking into oblivion. Still, their influence cannot be ignored. Though never acknowledged by anyone at the time, the theme to TV's long-running game show To Tell the Truth was largely a hash of the Association sound. Even Madonna called attention to the group's impact by quoting lines from "Cherish" into her own composition of the same name. But she didn't give them any royalties. And, as Gary Alexander learned so painfully many years ago, there's a big difference between reverence and revenue.
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