To be attached to someone and yet not be able to be with them is a difficult state; even while you know you will be together again, the time seems endless and empty and yes, slightly depressing. All you do is think of the Other, and if you are so moved, you can write for the Other and console yourself by recording the time in your own way. (My husband did just that and the result is, if I may say so, this very fine book.)
The Mamas & The Papas were a folk group who had aspirations to doing more than hanging out in Greenwich Village; they wanted in on pop, and brought to it a multi-voiced armoury that stood for (in retrospect) nothing less than the collective joys and sorrows of everyone who listened. Even in their happiest songs there is lurking sorrow, and vice versa; and so this song was utterly perfect for them, being one of alternating hope and sorrow, sunlight and darkness. By the time it was a hit, the band were having problems of the sort that foreshadowed those of Fleetwood Mac a decade later - an affair was found out, emotions were tangled up, the affair ended and unease and (on Denny Doherty's side, heavy drinking) began to take a toll on the group. As you might expect, a band so dependent on literal harmonizing must have harmony outside the studio as well, and at this time this was pretty much impossible; for one thing, John Phillips and the band's producer Lou Adler were helping to put together the Monterey International Pop Festival, along with a few others (including Paul McCartney).
So there is weight here, with Michelle Phillips singing lead, she who had been unfaithful and for a while was thrown out of the group; Monterey may have heralded the Summer of Love, but love is, alas, more than just a good good feeling that you can share with flowers and peace signs. Love is what kept most people going in the 60s (as ever) and love for many then as now meant waiting. Not just waiting to be with the Other, but waiting for a time when being with the Other would not cause so much waiting to begin with*. The Shirelles did their version in '61, but the song was written in the early 50s by Lowman Pauling (guitarist) and Ralph Bass (producer) of the still-underrated The "5" Royales. In them you can hear the longing and frustration even clearer, as the 60s (so to speak) hadn't happened yet, and the longing is for something even bigger and more important, in a way, than being with the Other. It is the darkest hour, the worst time; the stars are the only light visible...and no one is having an easy time of it. The singer might not reach the Other soon, Love might not be perfect but there is the promise, based on hope, that things will change. When? Who knows.
With The Mamas & The Papas version, it is a more straight-forward expression of lovesickness, hopes and fears balanced (the trickiest part being the bear-trap line "Love can never be exactly like we want it to be" which is sung as if tiptoeing past one, as if this is a fact, sure, but one that is going to be avoided, for now). The harmonies are strong and vibrant as ever, but as the song ends and the voices separate, there is a feeling that something indeterminate has once again ended, or perhaps been set free. Maybe this is the end of all that waiting; the end of all that dreadful insomnia and emptiness. Maybe now something is going to happen. This group were the collective voice of that longing, and began to unravel along with the decade; this song is their last big statement on how difficult love can be, how beautiful and sad at the same time.
That we had this on our wedding cd was an acknowledgement that we had been apart for too long, and an unwitting premonition that we would be apart once more for a lot longer. It was a terrible and stressful time, our time apart, but at least we could communicate with each other; this song rests on prayer alone, and is a prayer itself.
Next up: a song about looking down at a city instead of looking up to the stars.
*Lest we forget, many are separated by war at this point, and have been for years...