Friday, August 6, 2021

Twelve Thirty (AM10)

The Mamas and the Papas' "Twelve-Thirty" has been resonating in my mind, endlessly cycling in my head. It helps that I'm a sucker for impeccable lyrics, delicious harmonies, and twisting melodies. It may be John Phillips' greatest contribution, particularly the irony implicit in the light arrangement and misleading melancholic poetry. 

The song opens on a delectably baroque minor chord (love that), which will eventually become the relative minor of the main key. The quiet stasis of the melodic line, which resolves entirely on either guarded majors or deceptive minors, accents the melancholy of the lyrics (I didn't decipher that music theory on my own; the description comes from a musician and critic far more perceptive than I):


I used to live in New York City
Everything there was dark and dirty
Outside my window was a steeple
With a clock that always said 12:30


This is a realistic NYC (not the idealized one from a Woody Allen film), exemplifying the wasteland that characterized the Village in the 1960s. Even the church, for John Phillips the last outpost of solace and safety (recall "California Dreaming"), is stuck in time , indicative of greener pastures, i.e. Los Angeles. There was a saying growing up in L.A. in the 60s that the earth was tilted southwest, and everything loose fell to California; everyone was from somewhere else. (Ironically there's a quote from the Paul Mazursky film, Blume in Love, from a girl at a party: "L.A. is the center of the universe, but you can't breathe the air." Still they came:

Young girls are coming to the Canyon
And in the morning I can see them walking
I can no longer keep my blinds drawn
And I can't keep myself from talking

The melody is instantly memorable and celebratory. The voices and instrumentation open up as well, reflecting the narrator's personality. The mood shifts from delicate Baroque stylings to mid-60s pop that unabashedly uses that poppiest of rhymes: walkin' and talkin'. Most importantly, though, is the change in tense between verse and chorus. The melancholy verse is the past, the music sounds like a black and white photograph. The celebratory chorus, though, is the here and now, and the ensemble sings with color and vibrancy and optimism.




Or so it seems. The second verse describes the bewilderment of being friendly and cheery, the "Have a nice day" L.A. ideology. "At first so strange to feel so friendly/To say 'Good morning' and really mean it," sings the narrator. It's a dig about New York rudeness, its posture of importance and business that views simple pleasantries as naive idiocies. Like a child discovering social mores through her parents, the narrator must re-rediscover how to act, Cali style. The buoyancy of the chorus is subdued by the narrator's self-consciousness. The chorus comes in to signal his attempt to overcome himself and celebrate the beautiful canyon full of approachable beautiful women.

Cloudy waters cast no reflection
Images of beauty lie there stagnant
Vibrations bounce in no direction
But lie there shattered into fragments

Through its almost labored abstraction, in this perceptive final verse the narrator realizes that the beauty and "vibe" of Southern California are equally as fragmented as dark and dirty New York City. Bizarrely, this lyric is set to music that extraordinarily recalls the chorus. A listener can completely miss these lines if she doesn't pay careful attention. lost amidst the joy.

"Twelve Thirty" is a deceptively simple single and in it we find a highly underrated John Phillips, not just as songwriter, but as a voice to put into place the reality of the times, separating it from the ideal or the hypothetical, reflecting rather than proselytizing.  Unlike the article in the previous post, Phillips makes no moral judgment, merely, in a purely journalistic style, he creates a pastiche of the times.