Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Hooking Up the Freight Trains

Meg and I have these friends in Santa Barbara who are like Russian nesting dolls: you keep opening them up and finding more surprises inside. Melodie is a successful mystery writer, but in another life she was a dazzling actress. She even starred with my hero (as a cowboy, not a politico) Clint Eastwood. He was a little stiff, she said (no doubt struck speechless by her beauty); she told her husband, Bones, she didn’t think Clint would make it as an actor.

Bones is a drummer for occasional gigs in Santa Barbara, but in those days he was a renowned music producer. At their house his gold records are hung inconspicuously in a hallway, but his Grammy for producing the Fifth Dimension’s “Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” is in the living room. He said it isn’t the original Grammy; that one was made of pot metal that fell apart, so they replaced it for him. It’s not that big, about the size of a water pitcher, but it is stunning. I asked him to tell me the story of how the song was made.
He was working with the Fifth Dimension at the time, and they told him they wanted to record “The Age of Aquarius,” from the rock opera “Hair.” He went to see the show, but when he heard “Aquarius” his reaction was that it was only half a song. He didn’t see how it could work. The play went on, and after a while a guy swings out over the audience on a rope (probably naked, like most of the cast was), singing the opening of “Failures of the Flesh,” which ended with the repeating chorus of “Let the Sunshine In.”
That chorus stuck with him, and after the show he got the idea to make it the missing second half of “Aquarius.” How can you fade them together? someone asked. “I’m not going to do that,” he said. “I’m going to hook them up like freight trains.”
They recorded in several cities, including Las Vegas, where the Fifth Dimension was opening for Frank Sinatra. The studio was near the train tracks, and their session was interrupted by an actual freight train. While they waited for it to pass, singer Billy Davis Jr. started riffing over “Let The Sunshine In.” “Save that,” Bones told him. “We’ll add it in later.” And he did.
The record company, when they heard the song, said, “This is going to be number one.” Bones told them he’d been around long enough to not make that kind of prediction. He said he just did his best on each song and whatever happened happened.
The song was Billboard’s number one for six weeks, won a Grammy for Song of the year and is, by Billboard’s reckoning, the 57th greatest song of all time.
I love this story because of its glimpse into the craft, creativity and serendipity behind artistic success. “Hair” was a transformative musical. The Fifth Dimension was a wonderful group. Bones married them for the ages. “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” defines the era of my wannabe-but-too-conventional-to-take-a-chance bohemian youth.
We had dinner with Melodie and Bones that night. Melodie had offered beef stew or coq au vin. We said the chicken sounded great, but that we’re a tad allergic to tomatoes. The dish was delicious, but Melodie teased us all night about how lame it was without tomatoes. When I wrote her afterwards to thank her for a lovely evening, and to ask if Bones would mind if I posted the photo I had taken of his Grammy, she said he would consent “only if you put a tomato in the horn.”

And so I did. Who am I to argue with creative genius? As much as his talent, I admire Bones’s advice for making art: Do your best every time and whatever happens happens.


  1. >And so I did.

    Actually, I did! ;-)

  2. A great story! I love that song so much, and now I want to listen to it again, with this new knowledge.

  3. From Melodie (whose comment didn't register here for some reason):

    "Bones and I loved the blog. You did him up proud. I think we have coined a new phrase. Instead of put a cork in it, it is now put a tomato in it."

    I'm going with "put a tomato in it." :)