The second of three posts taking Bergen White’s 1970 soft pop album For Women Only track-by-track. Tracks 5-9 include two of the album’s finest, ‘Lisa Was’ and ‘Second Lover’s Song’.
5. Lisa Was (Barry Mann, 3.13) *****
It’s always a lovely surprise when an inconspicuously placed album track jumps out at you for its sheer brilliance. Track 5, Lisa Was, does this and is (narrowly) the best track on For Women Only. Lisa Was will haunt you without ever seeming to try too hard. But looking behind the scenes you can see just how much careful craft went into the making of this three minute thirteen second masterpiece.
The rising/falling arc of the melody is well done and Bergen’s arrangement is one of his best – melodic bass, xylophone or marimba and piano opening giving way to passionate strings and blasts of brass which work surprisingly well in so gentle a song. But it’s the lyrics which really take Lisa Was to another level, from its stunning exposition ‘Lisa was a morning, She was all her heart could hope for…’ to the crucial Lisa ‘was a moment’ and ’…such a long, long time’ juxtapositions.
The lyrics, along with the melody, were written by Barry Mann but bare all the hallmarks of his songwriting partner, Cynthia Weil, in their vivid evocativeness and imaginative use of broader contexts to conjure a virtual mythology out of the purely personal.
The imagery remains consistently strong and original throughout ‘(Lisa saw the colours underneath the city river, She wept for the gypsies who were put on trial’), so that when we reach the far more conventional lines ‘Lisa how I miss you, God much I miss you’ we believe in them because of the colour and originality of what has gone before. So many love songs (modern ones especially) forget the colour and demand that we feel on the basis of emoting alone – feel my pain!
How would you describe a doomed love affair in just a line? Bergen sings ‘Lisa, it’s just so useless, there are just too many armies.’ It’s such a great line, instantly evoking love’s fragility in a harsh world though it might also be interpreted as the male protagonist receiving his draft papers to fight in Vietnam. Whatever the specifics, we don’t have to hear the complications of the relationship or what happened – this one line says it all perfectly.
Then we have the elegiac ‘And the wise man on the mountain speaks a nursery rhyme’ – the moment has passed never to be repeated and the time has come for the lovers to part. Yet his love for Lisa remains, transformed from a moment into ‘such a long, long time’. The vocal hovering over the floating suspensions of ‘she stayed for just a while’ as the key moves up a notch is a wonderful touch.
I can discover nothing about the history of this song. Did Barry Mann donate it to Bergen? Wherever it comes from, this is great songwriting and Bergen more than does it justice.
From this great height, we move to tracks 6-8, the weakest part of the album but still eminently listenable.
6. Hurt So Bad (Teddy Randazzo, Bobby Weinstein & Bobby Harshman, 2.50) ***
The most conventional track so far with its ‘sad/bad’ lyrics, this soul-pop offering is given a perky arrangement with violins EQ’d perilously high. Bergen says he aped Little Anthony’s version but to my ears Bergen’s is closer to the subsequent cover by The Lettermen in terms of its instrumental lushness. Little Anthony’s version is the most passionate, The Lettermen’s the most sumptuous.
Although a come down after the gorgeous Lisa Was, Hurt so Bad and the following track On and On provide necessary contrast from the overall melancholy mood of tracks 2-5.
7. On and On (Bergen White, 2.33) ***
A fully uptempo number (the first since track one) this is a driven piece with a lively, classically influenced, contrapuntal guitar breakdown.
8. Gone Again (David Gates, 3.00) ***
Not one of David Gate’s finest. Gone Again is the album’s least essential track, probably dating from Gates’s days as a staff writer though it does serve to lighten the mood a little before the intensity of tracks 9 and 10.
The chorus uses recognised chord progressions which were also to feature prominently (and more successfully) in If, Diary and Aubrey in the early 70s.
Any one of the bonus tracks 13-16 would have made a stronger substitute for Gone Again. What Would You Do in My Place would do very nicely.
It’s good to know that Bergen appreciates the under-appreciated Gates though.
9. Second Lover’s Song (Townes Van Zandt, 2.12) *****
Townes Van Zandt
The album is firmly back on course again from this point, with two of its strongest cards yet to be played.
Second Lover’s Song is definitely one of them, an exquisite unfolding of an intimate moment explored with both tenderness and precision. The overall honesty and kindness of the song – and so short a song – is astounding. Bergen’s vocals shine here ‘Oh honey, can’t you see, I love not jealously, For all you are to me, And all you’ll be tomorrow’.
I love the quiet flurry of strings at the end, somehow reassuring us that all is well.
My final post on For Women Only is in two weeks’ time.
For Women Only: tracks 1-4
For Women Only: tracks 10-18
For Women Only: album overview