The Grim Reaper always does a lot of his reaping over the Christmas/Hogmanay period, when this department is distracted by seasonal songs and so forth. And so we invariably spend the early weeks of the New Year doffing our hats to those who left us during the holidays. Among them this festive season was a man who died on December 17th, one day before his ninetieth birthday - Galt MacDermot.
If the name doesn't ring a bell, well, it's half-a-century since Mr MacDermot's spectacular burst of glory. The Moon was in the Seventh House, Jupiter aligned with Mars, and a middle-aged Canadian came up with one of those songs that isn't just a hit but distills an entire cultural moment:
This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius
Age of Aquarius
It dated pretty quickly, but it dawns anew every few years. The 40-Year Old Virgin used the Fifth Dimension's terrific hit record for their wacky hippie Bollywood finale: Steve Carell's eponymous character is no longer quite as eponymous as he was at the start of the movie, and his accomplishment is marked by al fresco psychedelic grooving. Oddly enough, President Ahmadinejad seems to have had the same idea a few years later when he held a press conference in Teheran to announce that Iran's nuclear program had advanced to the next stage. Behind him, doves fluttered around a giant atom accompanied by dancers in orange decontamination suits doing choreographed uranium-brandishing. Although he was dressed like Steve Carell's 40-year-old virgin, the Iranian president was, in fact, a 40-year-old nuclear virgin, and he was holding his press conference to announce he was ready to blow. "Iran," he said, "has joined the group of countries which have nuclear technology". All it needed was a dozen psychedelic ayatollahs behind him singing, "This is the dawning of the age of a scary us." Instead, the orange-catsuited dancers pranced around Ahmadinejad appreciatively: from the Fifth Dimension to the Twelfth Imam.
The hit single still sounds great, opening with cosmic orchestral noodling and then the rhythm starts up underneath, and in come the girls:
It was the last Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper to come from a Broadway score. The previous Number One had been Louis Armstrong's version of the title song from Hello, Dolly! five years earlier, and the nearest to repeat the trick since has been "One Night In Bangkok" from Chess, by Tim Rice and Benny and Björn, the Abba boys, which got to Number Two. But in between Satch and Murray Head, Hair gave the Hot 100 a bunch of Top Ten hits: the title song (the Cowsills), "Good Morning Starshine" (Oliver), "Easy To Be Hard" (Three Dog Night) and the Fifth Dimension's medley of "Aquarius" and "Let The Sunshine In".
Hair had been running at the Biltmore Theatre for a year by the time the Fifth Dimension got a Number One record out of it in 1969. It was the first "American Tribal Love-Rock Musical", and as far as its detractors were concerned one was more than enough. According to Stephen Sondheim, "Pop music is swell for rock concerts. Whether they are rock concerts called Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar or rock concerts called rock concerts doesn't matter. When it comes to telling a story through character, then I think it's useless. Since so much of pop music depends on electronic amplification, the minute the people start to speak, after they have just screamed at you through a microphone, you're going to have an anti-climax. That's why, when they try to make rock versions of stories like Georgy Girl, it can't work out."
"It's the same percussive beat," Sondheim's composer on Gypsy, Jule Styne, said to me, "whether the girl and the feller are going out, getting drunk and having a good time, or whether she's leaving him and ruining his life. Happiness or sadness, it's all the same. That's not dramatic. I like rock because of its freshness – like when the Charleston came along. But it doesn't belong in the theatre."
I remember how much I loved that line when Styne said it: He likes rock because it's as fresh as the Charleston? There's a man with a sense of proportion. On the other hand, Paul Simon once told me he disliked Hair because it was fake rock - Broadway rock. But, at the time, that was more than rocky enough. At the premiere in 1968, faced with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Richard Rodgers opted for an early night: he walked out after Act One, which ended (for reasons as unclear as the lighting) with the entire cast in the nude. "Every play that opened in the next six months had to have an obligatory nude scene, no matter what," recalled Hair's director Tom O'Horgan late in life, and with much satisfaction.
While broadly sympathetic to the dramatic judgments of Sondheim, Styne and Rodgers and to the musical critique of Paul Simon, I have a soft spot for various strands of Hair's score. If you look at the original cast album, there's a picture on the back showing the creative team: the usual unkempt hippie deadbeats, but in their midst a clean-cut short-haired fellow in a nice white shirt and (gulp) even a necktie. He looks like he should be in one of those buttondown vocal groups - the Four Lads, the Four Freshmen, the Four Squares. The tie guy is Galt MacDermot, Canada's gift to the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. MacDermot was born in Montreal, and educated at Upper Canada College, where his dad, T W L MacDermot, was headmaster. He later studied organ and composition at the University of Cape Town, while pop was Canadian High Commissioner to South Africa. While in Cape Town, he wrote an opera based on Joyce Carey's Mister Johnson, which gave him a modest hit in Britain, "African Waltz", recorded by John Dankworth. So he was no hippie. By the time he wrote Hair, he was pushing forty with a wife and two kids. "My hair never got very long," he liked to say.
It was the music publisher Nat Shapiro who made Mister Squaresville synonymous with hippie coiffure. It happened like this. Back in 1964, two young actors called James Rado and Gerome Ragni had wound up in an off-Broadway play about capital punishment, Hang Down Your Head And Die. It hung and died quicker than expected, closing on its opening night. But the the pair of underemployed thesps stayed fast friends over the next couple of years and, during a fallow patch while Rado was resting after The Lion In Winter and Ragni was about to begin rehearsals for a protest piece called Viet Rock, they started writing a musical. Rado had written a lyric called "Where Do I Go?" and Ragni produced a poem called "Ain't Got No", and they put 'em together and connected them up with a triangular plot about a draft-dodger, a pothead and a hippie chick. Shapiro liked the book and lyrics but asked them where the music was.
"We'll make it up during rehearsals," the guys assured him.
"No, you won't," said Shapiro. He knew a fellow who lived on Staten Island and played piano in some of the local bars: Galt MacDermot. So he gave Rado and Ragni's anti-Vietnam free-love script to a middle-aged cocktail pianist from Staten Island and told him to write some tunes for it. "I don't take part in the creative process," MacDermot told an interviewer forty years ago. "I prefer it that way. They hand me the material. I set it to music." That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but in fact it worked out rather well, and probably better than if Hair had been cooked up by a rock songwriting team writing conventional rock songs together. Much of what became the score was intended merely to be declaimed as poetry, but, because of both a lack of communication and an intuitive sense by MacDermot that you can sing things you can't plausibly say, many of the poems wound up getting turned into full-blown numbers. For an example of how MacDermot worked, consider the song called "Sodomy", in which one of the characters, Woof, lists various sexual acts to which he's partial. MacDermot had been the organist and choirmaster at Westmount Baptist Church in Montreal for a few years, and, reading the text of "Sodomy", he thought sex to Woof sounded like "kind of a religious experience". So he wrote it as a hymn. For Rado and Ragni, Hair was their life. For MacDermot, it was an assignment. But precisely because he approached it as such he brought an entirely different perspective to the piece.
As you'll have gathered from "Sodomy", song titles weren't Rado and Ragni's forte. But that said, and as Alan Jay Lerner, author of My Fair Lady, enthusiastically pointed out to me, the guys had a knack for really fresh song ideas. It's difficult to conceive of an opening number that sets up the show as perfectly as this:
When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars...
Time has rendered it self-parodic, but in 1967 it took a kind of genius to sum up a whole sensibility quite that deftly - and, actually, "love will steer the stars" is a rather nice image. But it wouldn't matter a whit if it weren't set so expertly by MacDermot. The lyric is pseudo-mystical hippie incantation but over a mellow cocktail-piano groove that seems to be pushing against it: that's what gives it that whole astral floating vibe, as if the vocal isn't really aware of what the band is doing, and they only come together at the end of the verse. You can never really work out the Kentucky Fried Chicken formula of hit songs, but it's sometimes fun to try, and with "Aquarius" I think it's something to do with the way the harmony shifts down a tone on the title phrase from "dawning" in C to "Aquarius" in B flat. I don't think any rock'n'roll guy would have written it like that, but then I'm not sure a Westmount church organist or a South African opera composer or a Staten Island lounge pianist would, either. Whatever the reason, Galt MacDermot did, and it made for one of those thrilling opening numbers a show can coast on the goodwill of for the next forty minutes.
Hair was produced by Joe Papp at the Public Theatre, and moved to the Cheetah, a vast catacomb of a discotheque in which the show all but vanished. It would have died there had not a wealthy Chicago leftist, Michael Butler, decided to move it to the Biltmore and entrust it to the director Tom O'Horgan. On the way uptown, Rado and Ragni's book - a more or less conventional play-style plot - was tossed out altogether. As Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times, "Now the authors of the dowdy book have done a very brave thing. They have in effect done away with it altogether." Well, that's one solution to book trouble, the abiding problem of musicals. What was left was not narrative or action or characters, but attitudes. Hailing it as "the musical that spells Goodbye, Dolly!", The Globe & Mail's drama critic, Herbert Whittaker, enthused in the pages of The Canadian Composer:
The stage is fashionably bleak, bare, undecorated. In the corner, the orchestra is seated on an old truck. The tattered actors creep on-stage as if taking a trip underwater. But soon they start swinging, writhing, bouncing, mocking, carrying placards about.
'Hell no, we won't go,' 'Consult your local freak.' Forbidden words are pronounced to show they are meaningless. A song strings initials together: LBJ-IRT-USA-LSD-FBI-CIA. Cards are burned. A draft officer sits in judgment: 'I'll tell him I'm a faggot and I'll go to Toronto,' says one kid...
A grey-haired visitor arrives on stage to sympathize with them. The boy's fashions are explained in anthropological terms. 'Thank you, Margaret Mead,' they chant to this bit of condescension... The U.S. flag is folded with a reverence that is patently satirical... For a finale of the first act, they stand up nude in the dim light. But this well publicized scene is also a take-off on all the people who would be shocked if you just took off your clothes and stood there. These kids do it. So what? Who's shocked by that old bit..?
White girls sing of the charm of black boys, and black girls of white. A young man delivers an ecstatic paean of Mick Jagger. There's a beautiful, slow pot-smoking session that leads into the central figure hallucinating about war. At the end George Washington is shown and in uniform. The cast walks away from him, leaving him prone on a black cloth. Has he just cut the hippie scene or is he dead?
Heavy. And yet the songs weren't, not when it mattered. A few months after the opening at the Biltmore, the Fifth Dimension came to town to play at the Americana. Do you know the group? I love 'em. In the old days, when medium-sized towns still had record stores, I liked to stop in, browse the generally understocked aisles, and, if nothing appealed, I'd just buy The Best Of The Fifth Dimension or The Fifth Dimension's Greatest Hits or some other 5D compilation and listen happily all the way home: "Up, Up And Away", "Stoned Soul Picnic", "One Less Bell To Answer", "(Last Night) I Didn't Get To Sleep At All"... Doesn't matter which compilation: they're all the same songs in a different order. But there's no group quite like them, an odd mix of pop and soul and a terrific choice of material, great numbers in great arrangements with great vocals - I especially love Marilyn McCoo's voice on Laura Nyro's "Wedding Bell Blues", and am rarely more content than when I'm on the Interstate on cruise control bellowing "I wanna marry you, Bi-ill!"
Anyway, during their New York engagement in 1968, Billy Davis Jr (the "Bill" Miss McCoo, his then fiancée, is singing to in "Wedding Bell Blues") went shopping one afternoon, climbed into a cab, and left his wallet. The next passenger, an honest man, found it, and called the singer. A grateful Billy Davis invited the gentleman and his wife to come to the Americana to see the Fifth Dimension. The wallet-retriever turned out to be Michael Butler, the producer of Hair, and he in turn invited the five Dimensions to come and see his show. It was a hot ticket, and so the group weren't sitting together. But they were all individually so taken by the opening number that, when they met up at intermission, they all agreed that "Aquarius" was a song they had to record.
Back in California, their producer Bones Howe heard Ronnie Dyson's performance on the cast album and couldn't see the point. "It's half a song," he told them. Which is kinda true. It has that moody intro:
When the moon is in the Seventh House...
And then it has a hook:
This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius
The Age of Aquarius
And then it has a psychedelic patter section, melodically descending, deeper and deeper, into the windmills of your mind:
Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living, dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind's true liberation
And then it hits rock bottom and comes swooping up on "Aquarius!" to that high G. Lovely stuff. But Bones Howe insisted there wasn't enough of it: there had to be something more. "It needs something on the back end," he told the group. So the next time he was in New York he went to see Hair, and was struck by a number called "The Flesh Failures" - or, more exactly, the last three bars of "The Flesh Failures", which the audience sang along with over and over and over:
Let the sun shine
Let The Sunshine in
The sunshine in
Let the sun shine
Let The Sunshine in
The sunshine in...
Repeat ad infinitum. Bones told their arranger Bob Alcivar to stick the two pieces together. The group weren't too sure, and nor was Alcivar, and in the end it's not so much a medley as two separate numbers with the drummer Hal Blaine providing a bit of perfunctory connective tom-tom-ing. But, when the instrumental tracks had been laid down, Bones Howe took them to Vegas, where the Fifth Dimension were appearing with Frank Sinatra at Caesars Palace, and recorded the vocals. (By the way, Frank loved the Fifth Dimension: one of his sartorially goofiest TV moments was on the special Francis Albert Sinatra Does His Thing, where he climbed into the old beads and Nehru jacket to do a couple of numbers with them.)
The finished single was almost five minutes - very long for those days. And, Bones Howe notwithstanding, it's the front end I love. Whenever it comes on the radio, I crank it up and it only occurs to me four minutes in, "Oh, no, they're not coming back to 'Aquarius'." Why not? It's supposed to be a medley, isn't it? Why not one last mystic crystal revelation of the mind's true liberation just before the end?
But what do I know? It made Number One in April 1969, stayed there six weeks, and still holds up today. Which is more than can be said for the show.
The "age" in New Age is supposedly that of Aquarius, but hey, let's not hold that against a fine pop record. What is the Age of Aquarius? Well, it takes 25,868 years for the Earth to pass through all 12 zodiacal influences. And according to some astrologers the dawning of the Aquarian age in the late 20th century would bring to an end the Piuscean era of war and famine and usher in a world of peace and love, with harmony and understanding and sympathy and trust abounding. If it doesn't exactly seem like that, it may be because this astrology biz is a bit imprecise: Other astrologers say the Age of Aquarius actually started in 1447. Another group posits that it won't show up until 3621. There seem to be a lot of takers for the 24th century. But hang on: Doesn't the song itself spell out the necessary planetary conjunctions. Ah, yes. But Jupiter aligns with Mars every few months - and the Moon is in the Seventh House for a couple of hours every day. When I was a kid, I misheard the second line as "Jupiter collides with Mars", which may be what it takes.
In 1967, Edith Oliver wrote in The New Yorker:
Hair simply could not have existed ten years ago, and it is conceivable that it could mystify audiences ten years from now.
In fact, the late Seventies stage revival and movie were not so much mystifying as museum pieces, and not even labored Vietnam/Iraq parallels could resuscitate the show in recent stagings. Back in the days of the spirit of '68, in an episode of the British sitcom "Please, Sir!", Joan Sanderson's steely spinster schoolmarm tried to get with it by singing a song from Hair. She mangled the lyric and, as it turned out, came up with an accurate prophesy: "This is the aging of the dawn of Aquarius..." As a cynical old warmonger, I doubt "peace" will ever guide the planets - or, at any rate, this one - but, even so, the son of the Canadian High Commissioner to South Africa distilled the ethos as few others have done:
This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius
The Age of Aquarius
Galt MacDermot, born in Montreal December 18th 1928. Rest in peace. The aging of the dawn of Aquarius indeed.
~Will Mark and Dennis Miller recreate the Hair nude scene at the end of Act One of their first ever tour together? We're not promising anything, but, if things get sluggish and "Good Morning, Starshine" bombs, you never know. Miller and Steyn will be starting their tour on February 22nd in Reading, Pennsylvania (where tickets are disappearing fast), followed by Syracuse, New York (where they're not disappearing quite so fast), Rochester and Wilkes-Barre. And remember that with VIP tickets you not only enjoy the best seats but you also get to meet Dennis and Mark after the show.
Tomorrow morning, Monday, both Miller and Steyn will be starting the week with Dave Allen on 570 WSYR live across Syracuse at 8am Eastern. We hope you'll tune in!