Tuesday, December 12, 2006



Before you listen to Past, Present and Future by the Shangri-Las, please take a moment to prepare yourself. This song has been described as "absolutely frightening"; "shattering, beautiful and dreadful"; "one of the strangest songs ever." But these are all things that have been written by people who love the song. I can tell you that the most common reaction to this song is laughter. From mild chuckles to uncontrolled hysterics. What explains the range of reactions? Listen to the song and see what you think.

Giggling during Past, Present and Future is perfectly understandable, even (or especially) to devoted fans of the song. The narrator's delivery is so committed, so deadpan, that it's easy to assume that she is playing for laughs. Listen again. It's a 2 minute 42 second dare to live with it. A writer describes what's going on:

But Past, Present and Future was almost a self-parody. All the familiar elements came back dressed as gimmicks: dolorous narration, a waltz-time interlude, the solipsistic romance of doom. It was only the singing of Mary Weiss that kept kitsch from taking over. Her voice was cracked at the edges, and her hopelessness sounded too thick and unglamorous to register as a pop diva's fatuous showboating. In an act of some bravery, Weiss took an embarrassing lyric, stood dead-center of a musical setting that begged for parody, and made the whole thing mean something -- by, I imagine, never once assuming that either she or her audience was superior to the emotions the record sought to exploit.
Read the whole article. It captures so well the fine line that the Shangri-Las walk in this song, and how hard it is and would be to replicate it.

One lyric in particular has gained Past, Present and Future a reputation for horrific understatement:
"Don't try to touch me / Don't try to touch me / Cos that will never. happen. again"
Over the years, it's become conventional to think that the narrator is a rape victim. For what it's worth, Mary Weiss, the singer, disagrees.
I always thought Past, Present And Future was a unique sounding record. And everybody that's written about it said it was about rape. That was news to me! At the time, you need to remember, people are forgetting about the teenage angst. When somebody breaks your heart, you don't want anyone near you. ... When you're a kid, who hasn't felt like that? When somebody blows you off or hurts you, it's very traumatic.
Weiss's interview is also worth reading in full. After the Shangri-Las broke up (helped along by the complete failure of Past, Present and Future as a single), Weiss and the other women in the band more or less completely retired from music. But just last year Weiss signed a deal with Norton Records to record an album with The Reigning Sound, and this promotional interview is by far the most comprehensive we have of her career in the Shangri-Las. It's fascinating. She should have a single out soon and an album out next year.

And finally, a couple years ago (iTunes tells me it was September 18, 2004), I was in a record store looking for a Professor Longhair album, and Amy came up, handed me a CD, and asked if I would buy it for her. I shrugged yes, and it's now one of my--our--favorite albums in the whole world. And a couple months ago, I played Amy what I had thought was the final version of the holiday CD, and her first reaction was: "Where's the Shangri-Las?" So here they are.


Photo: Waltham, 1974.


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