Friday, June 26, 2009

In Praise of One-Hit Wonders

"I've done a little research on that song. Did you know the man who wrote and performed it has disappeared from the face of the Earth? Nobody knows where he is. And it turns out that very little was known about him before this . . . one-hit-wonder . . . and then he just faded away. I know! I know! I've done the research!"
If you'll forgive the blatant self-promotion, the excerpt above is from my short story titled "Ohrwurm" (found in the Malpractice anthology, available from a fine retailer over on the right!)

But there's a reason I selected that to kick things off. It turns out, aside from fictional pursuits, I've been thinking a lot about one-hit wonders lately. In fact, I've always done a lot of thinking about one-hit wonders. Have for most of my life. I suppose it's that very obsession that inspired the above-mentioned story in the first place.

I'm not sure where the fascination came from. Perhaps it's the bevy of them that seemed to come and go week after week during my misspent youth. I remember Dancing in the Moonlight left me feeling warm and bright. And Brandy was indeed a fine girl. What a good wife she would be! She's gonna love me in my Chevy Van and that's alright with me.

(And if you knew without looking that those songs were by King Harvest, Looking Glass, and Sammy Johns then . . . welcome to my blog. I suspect we have a lot in common.)

I don't know when the term "one-hit wonder" became a pejorative. I do recall that sometime in the last few years, VH1 did what seemed like a nineteen part series on them, with William Shatner hosting and providing the snark. Course, you can't really blame him. Unlike his pointy-eared co-star, he did successfully avoid being typecast as Kirk and becoming a one-hit wonder himself.

(Only as I type this do I recall his wonderful performances in early Twilight Zone episodes that stand alone and by themselves. But that does not fit with my thesis. I shall disregard them.)

Whoda thunk that years later, with a bad piece and a paunch, he'd become an action hero in the cartoonish T. J. Hooker? But his co-star in that one did not fare so well. Adrian Zmed. Now THERE'S a one-hit wonder.

So anyway, if it's not obvious already, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for one-hit wonders. And as I grow older, more particularly since I've begun exploring creative endeavors of my own, I've come to understand just how short a window we all have to create our own lone hit, let alone have a string of them.

Which brings us back to writing.

Literature too has its share of one-hit wonders. Think of some of the marvelous authors who wrote a single book and then packed it in: Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, J.D. Salinger, John Kennedy Toole.

Course in Mitchell and Toole's case, it can be excused. Mitchell was killed in a car accident and Toole was killed by the publishing industry and his own demons. But Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger just stopped, and both of them -- strangely enough -- became recluses.

(I recall some years ago reading a comment on a message board from someone who believed that when Harper Lee passes on, they'll find a treasure trove of unpublished fiction somewhere in her attic. I'll take that bet.)

And that leads me -- wanderingly and via a serpentine route, I know -- to my point. It's hard to have a single hit, let alone a string of them. Have you had yours yet? Me neither. So how about a little more respect for those folks who have?

Now, I don't know what happened to the aforementioned Looking Glass and King Harvest (and I'm not gonna look it up. There are some things in life you want and perhaps need to remain a mystery.) Maybe the bands broke up in vitriol and stolen girlfriends. Perhaps there was a tragic death of a key member, or they became victims of the drug culture of the early seventies.

Or maybe . . . just maybe . . . some one-hit wonders are still out there making music.

A few years ago, I saw a small ad in a local paper for a folk artist who was making an upcoming appearance in a nearby coffee house. It was a small joint I'd been to a dozen times that featured live music every now and then.

But the name in the ad rang a bell, and upon closer reading my suspicions were confirmed. It was indeed the same Jonathan Edwards of Sunshine fame. You know the one I'm talking about.

Sunshine go away today
I don't feel much like dancing . . .

And here he was, coming to the podunk town next door, to sing and perform. I didn't go to the show, but I suspect he performed a lot of songs he's written since nineteen-seventy-one and Sunshine. I'd even wager some were as good as, or even better than Sunshine. But I know one thing for sure: That's not what the crowd came to hear.

And maybe that's part of the problem. I had long thought that maybe when you have a megahit like the ones I've cited, or write a book as important or popular or culture-altering as The Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird, why bother trying to top it? You'll never do better than that. So why even try?

I can answer that. In fact, from the moment I saw that small ad in the local newspaper, I knew the answer to that question:

Because Jonathan Edwards, that's why.

So the next time Precious and Few comes on the radio, or you see Ignatius J. Reilly's cartoon visage staring at you from a paperback copy of A Confederacy of Dunces at your local bookstore, take a moment to think about how hard it is to have a single hit, let alone a string of them, and praise the glory that is the one-hit wonder.

(And if you knew without checking that Precious and Few was by Climax . . . welcome.)


Aaron Polson said...

You know...I'll take one hit (ala Mockingbird or Catcher). Heck, I'll even take "Come on Eileen" at this rate.

Brendan P. Myers said...

You and me both, brother.

Not ashamed to confess I saw "Dexy's Midnight Runners" live at the Paradise in Boston circa 1981 or so. The album that spawned "Eileen" was truly brilliant but overshadowed by the single's success.

Then -- of course -- came the drugs, and "Dexy's" was history.

Cate Gardner said...

Ah! One hit sounds wonderful right about now, of course, I'm sure greed will take over and we'll all want a second hit.

Brendan P. Myers said...

We are indeed powerless against human nature, Catherine!

Unknown said...

i've actually never read catcher in the rye. i got it out of the library just a month or so ago, and sort of looked at it.

the 80's was full of wonderful one hits. and i totally saw that shatner show. tainted love was number one i believe, making it the best one hit wonder of all time.

(why yes. the girl watches VH1 shows instead of the reading of lit classics)

Brendan P. Myers said...

Tainted Love was a great tune! And yeah, I think you're right about it being number one.

Think I may blog about my own experience with "The Catcher in the Rye" next week. Sounds not too dissimilar from yours.