“A Convertible And A Headband”
The new documentary Off the Charts has rediscovered a trove of faux-songs like this, churned out by Hollywood hacks. It’s hilarious stuff.
Cabin fever seems to be getting to me. No magic light, little pill or pep talk seems to give me perspective on a day when the thermometer says -3º F or the snow is piled in dirty drifts.
There is music, though. It’s the one thing that puts a floor under my moods and allows me to “hang in there,” like all the cats on the internet advise. Gospel music has proven again it works like a charm and at the recent, second annual Jubilee At The Pabst, hearing all the groups singing “Oh Happy Day” together at the end of the show made the trials of winter seem slight.
Another, quite different branch on music’s infinite tree combats the winter blues by making me laugh. I’m talking about a strange sub-genre called “Song Poems.” Long ago, in a more gullible age, this was a way for amateur lyricists to hear their creations brought clumsily to life. Responding to ads in the back of magazines, people would send in their poems to have them set to music and sung by slick Hollywood professionals. The results achieved could be bizarre.
There was a whole system in place designed to make it seem like these budding poets were indeed in the music business. The records were pressed and featured a number of “artists.” Really it was the same crew reshuffled and different singers using different fake names. For instance, the so-called Music Magicians, who we are featuring today, probably never played a gig — they might not have even known what they’re “band” would be called. Anyway, the records were sent back to the customers on a few singles or collected on an LP. The best part is the invented charts the companies created showing how your song was doing. How they avoided investigation is a mystery, but I think many of their victims were thrilled with the results.
For the full story, I highly recommend the documentary, Off The Charts. It will also entertain you while making you question everything you thought you knew. It should have won an Oscar!
As with the Langley School Project, it was a thrift shop find that led to the rediscovery of these often-hilarious “song poems.” Tom Ardolino, the antic drummer and muse of NRBQ found a collection of the music and was attracted to its generic artwork on the front and total lack of anything on the back. It featured unfathomable titles like Jimmy Carter Says Yes and Big Wood And Brush. He brought it home, fell madly in love and was soon hunting for more of the same. A couple compilations appeared soon after, starting with The Beat Of The Traps. That one featured an early illustration by comic artist Daniel Clowes, the creator of Ghost World. These records and discs are suddenly enjoying something of a rediscovery; it seems the marketplace might be allergic to the shockingly low levels of talent and effort. For me they’re good medicine. Especially effective in the treatment of winter blues is the inscrutable faux-hippy anthem, A Convertible And A Headband.
The lyrics are nowhere to be found on the internet, so I will transcribe as many as I can handle:
I’m driving down the road feelin’ fine
Just feelin’ fine
I looked at my watch and it read
Just half past nine (Note: Is this the all-time lazy rhyme winner?)
If the weather holds
And the tires don’t blow
And the carburetor…? (Sorry, can’t understand the rest of this immortal line)
Gonna make into Frisco on time
A convertible and a headband makes the scene
A convertible and a headband is all I need
No need to worry
No need to fret
What more do you need?
You lucky cat
You have you own convertible and a headband
I saw these two cats (long pause)
Trying to hitch a ride…
© Anonymous Poet and Rod Keith (Note: This is just a guess, there’s not a lot of information available)
There’s more to the song, but I had to quit trying to transcribe, the headache was intensifying. The song does raise one question: If the singer doesn’t need anything but the headband and the ragtop, did he bother to wear any clothes?
This song suggests a screenplay to me. In this B-movie that no one will ever make, a “narc” goes undercover with a hippy band in the late 1960s. His initiation involves dropping acid and, when that experience turns him into an Aquarian swinger, he transforms into a low-budget version of late ‘60s Sammy Davis Jr., the by-then bell-bottomed lounge lizard desperately chasing the youth market. Nothing gave a Vegas crooner instant cred like a headband, so naturally, our newly minted hipster gets invited to all the best psychedelic orgies. Later his band travels to Woodstock in his convertible, where he comes to his senses and busts the whole crowd.
On this song, you can picture a roomful of bored musicians, and it’s very hard to tell who’s ego is more out of control. I’d call it a three-way tie between the guitarist, who has just discovered the joy of wah-wah, the drummer, who surely looks like Animal in that ultra groovy Muppet band, Electric Mayhem, and the electric pianist, who seems to sense the end of an era coming and is shoehorning all his favorite licks into this song so they will be all worn out enough to use when disco arrives. (Nor is the bass player a fountain of reserve — he’s obviously under the impression everyone is being paid by the note.)
The great big cherry on this spectacular sundae, though, is the singer. Rodney Keith Eskelin. He was the mastermind of this borderline scam. His background was in classical music, but his presence here tells us that never really panned out. He relished the role of taskmaster in the studio a little too much, and some of the scenes in the documentary resemble a twisted version of The Beatles worst hissy fits in Let It Be. Rod, using a couple of aliases, inserted his smooth baritone into a bunch of songs he must have secretly hated. His sad tale finishes with a flourish — he ended his life by jumping off a bridge onto the Hollywood Freeway.
Had all this happened in the current climate, Esekelin might have had his own reality show and become a celebrity. That would probably have made these songs less fascinating in the other-worldly way they are — they are much richer when contemplated in their time. Try to picture the past as an archipelago. As we sail away from these islands, each with its own music and culture, they become more unreachable every day. And that strangest of all of them, Song Poem Island, is almost certainly sinking beneath the waves.