Sunshine soul of the 5th Dimension sends me Up! Up! And Away!
With coronavirus numbers off the charts in the U.S., causing massive panic here and abroad, I must rely on my own fertile imagination and wander the landscapes in my head. With the highest number of cases and a per capita death that is among the highest of any nation in the world, the U.S. traveler is truly someone to be feared. Because of that, we are banned entry to many countries, or required to quarantine ourselves for 14 days once we reach our foreign destination.
I have no idea when I will be able to travel to Europe again, or anywhere else for that matter outside the US. Don’t even know if I would risk it if I could. My short weekend excursions to the mountains of Georgia and North Carolina seemed risky enough, but now that the coronavirus pandemic is out of control here, I don’t think I will be doing much more traveling in the U.S., either.
So listening to music is my passport from the home-bound, quarantined world that physically confines me, and sets me loose into the vast expanse of my mind. Instrumental music, classical, jazz and electronic, is great for triggering my own worlds and stories, but also conceptual albums can guide me on the narrative laid out by both the lyrics and the music.
Tommy by the Who. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by the Beatles. Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. Globe of Frogs by Robyn Hitchcock. Tumbleweed Connection by Elton John. All great conceptual albums that tell a story, describe an idea and take us on a guided tour of the musician’s psyche.
I recently rediscovered one such album I’d overlooked for decades – a classic album of psychedelic soul and sunshine pop by the 5th Dimension, Up! Up! And Away! . As a kid, I loved their versions of Laura Nyro songs like “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Stone-Soul Picnic”, the theme from Aquarius, Jimmy Webb covers. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know anything about the songwriting industry centered around the Brill Building in New York or the contemporary sounds emerging out of Southern California at the time. But listening again, now, as an adult, I realized that this is more than good-time sunshine music. Listening closely recently, I picked up a through line, a thread from song to song linking them to one another, tracing a journey both geographical and creating an emotional arc.
The album opens with the upbeat, euphoric “Up! Up and Away!” written by master songwriter Jimmy Webb. It perfectly captures the transcendent feeling of falling in love. Life wears a happier face in my beautiful balloon, suspended in twilight, searching clouds for a star to guide two lovers with the moon as their companion.
Love is waiting there in my beautiful balloon
Way up in the air in my beautiful balloon
If you’ll hold my hand we’ll chase your dream across the sky
For we can fly we can fly up, up and away.
The very next song, penned by Steve Barri and P.F. Sloan, brings us crashing down to earth immediately with “Another Day, Another Heartache” a bouncy but bitter reminder in five-party harmony that love is fleeting. It’s bracketed with an intro and outro by a sitar-sounding guitar.
The female lead singer plaintively cries,
Since you left me by myself
I spend my lonely nights
Wondering why (why)
Why you’ve gone.
That leaves the nameless male lead singer in the third song asking “Which way to nowhere?” another song by Webb. Now that he’s left his cheating lover he’s lost and without direction. With simple elegance, the lyrics capture the mental spinning wheels brought on by indecision and a broken heart:
There’s the highway
Got a brand new car
And plenty of gas to burn
Guess I’m ready
Got my map on my lap
But I don’t know where to turn
Next up, the woman takes the lead again to sing “California My Way” by Motown star Willie Hutch. Bags packed, she’s ready to start a new life in warm, sunny California, the promised land. Side one closes out with “Misty Roses”, a jazzed-up version of a song written by folk singer Tim Hardin. Time passes, the singer sees a woman who is “too soft to touch, too lovely to leave alone.” He meditates on his own ambivalence in pursuing her, the fleeting nature of love too good to last, and the realization that beauty fades along with peace of mind.
Resigned and world weary, the lover in the next song sings “Go where you want to go” with their blessings. A song written by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, it describes a woman whose lover is going off 3,000 miles away knowing he is going to see other women. She cries that he doesn’t understand “That a girl like me can love just one man.” Even after a week, she’s trying hard not to be the crying kind, not to be the girl he left behind. Of course, things are “Never Gonna Be the Same” after such a betrayal of trust in this Jimmy Webb number. Damage is done. And yet after all the pain he caused, the female lead singer said she’d take him back in a minute if he’d let her. “Told myself the day you left it’s just a matter of time till I regain my peace of mind… but every day my peace of mind seems farther away… amazed at how much things have changed… I can’t find a new beginning…”
“Pattern People,” also by Jimmy Webb, follows this lament with a reflection about the predictable nature of people who fall in and out of love, and keep repeating the same cycle of breaking up and getting back together using the same trite words, same practiced looks, listening to the same old songs. “Rosecrans Blvd.” by Webb is a nostalgic look back by the male narrator as he re-examines a past affair with a flight attendant he admits he used over and over to get over his broken heart. He describes it as a detour, an exit off the highway on his way to San Diego.
“But there were a time when she laugh and I think I loved her One night on Manhattan Beach I said things that moved too fast to suit her Then I held her close and dried her tears.”
Of course it didn’t last, he broke her heart and every time he drives past Rosecrans Boulevard, he wonders why he did it.
The next song, “Learn How to Fly,” by Willie Hutch, is a piece of inspirational advice to pull oneself out of the doldrums of a broken heart, picking up the theme of the album’s opener. “Ever since you’ve been gone, I’ve been down on the ground.”
Our musical journey through love’s littered landscape closes with “Poor Side of Town,” a dark song about reconciliation after getting dumped by Johnny Rivers and Lou Adler. After his lover has been rejected by her rich lover, he welcomes her back to the poor side of town, even though the last time she saw him, she wouldn’t even kiss him.
“To him you were nothin’ but a little plaything
Not much more than an overnight fling
To me you were the greatest thing this boy had ever found
And girl it’s hard to find nice things
On the poor side of town.”
The song ends on a hopeful note that together by each other’s side, “this world can’t keep us down.” A hopeful note for these weary times, and a reminder that there’s no place like home, be it ever so humble.