Bergen White: For Women Only – tracks 10-18

The third of three posts on Bergen White’s 1970 soft pop album For Women Only.


10. The Bird Song (Bergen White, 2.28) *****

One of the album’s most essential tracks, Bergen’s finest composition comes with a minor key baroque treatment in which to tell its quietly desolate tale.

Bergen doubted that the story would be immediately clear to the listener but a short experiment with a record company executive proved this not to be the case.  From his cell window, a prisoner sees a bird and envies its freedom.  In his mind, the prisoner changes places with the bird in a futile attempt to undo time and save the girlfriend he murdered.

The Bird Song is carried by harpsichord, bass and a small string section.  Bergen’s vocal inventiveness gives us a passage of sobbing vocal, a deathly whisper on ‘her lips so cold’ and the sobering voice of conscience ‘You can’t go back to her, What’s done is done’.Bergen White 10-18 right 1

A superb song and the epitome of baroque pop elegance.

11. Now (Bergen White, 2.38) ****

I think Bergen wanted to be Scott Walker at this point.  Now would not sound at all amiss on Til’ the Band Comes In or perhaps Scott 4.  He almost gets there but despite its fullness of sound, this song feels slightly underwritten and leaves you wanting something more.

Bergen mentions that he was influenced by The Beatles’ orchestral ‘Long and Winding Road’ though ‘Now’ employs a smaller section for its imploring passion: ‘So come home…’

There is an interesting electronic keyboard sound to the fore at the song’s close.

12. It’s Over Now (Bergen White, 3.01) ****

Bergen says hearing this song now annoys him but I like its whip-cracking sense of urgency, organ and fuzz guitar adding to the sense of a fairground ride gone askew.  We are treated to a lovely Beach Boys-like harmony breakdown (’how beautiful the world would be with you’) before the dramatic momentum builds again.

Bergen maintains It’s Over Now ‘started sounding like a Sandy Posey record’ and indeed the song’s roots feel as if they are in the earlier part of the decade (the album was recorded in 1969, but released in 1970).

The CD then adds four tracks recorded in 1967 which fit in extremely well with the feel of For Women Only.  

13. If It’s Not Asking Too Much (Bergen White, 3.03) ****

Like It’s Over Now, the melody of If It’s Not Asking Too Much works through a ‘chart’ of chord progressions which isn’t as contrived as that maybe sounds.  There is a great lead-off.

This is the only track not arranged by Bergen – musician and collaborator Charlie McCoy takes over the reins.

14. Don’t Keep Me Waiting (Bergen White, 3.08) ****

This boasts a great bombastic 60s introduction with piano, timpani, woodblock and some fetching backing vocals.  That strange yet oddly fitting bendy-bass moment takes us into a powerful lead-off.  Bergen’s voice is as good in the lower registers as it is in the high.

15. What Would You Do In My Place (Bergen White, 2.41) *****

Bergen quietly asks for advice or perhaps it’s just a plea for understanding.   This song has a wonderful production, a certain resonance – particularly around the vocals – which gives it an appropriately enclosed feel.

I tend to link this to The Bird Song, perhaps because of the guitar-harpsichord combination or its air of extreme reflection.  Whilst lacking ‘The Bird Song’s narrative, I find something completely involving about this track.  It’s as if we are not just privy to the singer’s inner musings but are actually allowed into the depths of his mind.Bergen White 10-18 right 2

With its arpeggiated guitar and harpsichord splashes, What Would You Do in My Place has an air of understated elegance.  Simpler verses are contrasted with a clambering bridge.

Although different production wise, it’s a shame ‘What Would You Do… ‘ couldn’t find inclusion on the album proper, perhaps replacing its weakest track, Gone Again.

16. House on Bonnie Brae (Denis Linde, 2.00) ***

The mood here is subtly different from the overall feel of For Women Only, being more overtly sentimental, Bergen’s slightly faltering bit-lip vocal set to a lolloping rhythm.  There’s another one of those pleasing counterpoint breakdowns.

17. The Bird Song (Bergen White, mono 2.26) ***** 
18. It’s Over Now (Bergen White, mono 3.03 ) ****

We conclude with tracks 17 and 18 – mono versions of The Bird Song (from 1967) and It’s Over Now from 1970.  The Bird Song in mono benefits from a more prominent vocal.

It’s Over Now

A 1970 gospel-style single Spread the Word sounds nothing like ‘For Women Only’ though a lone 1975 single does; Have You Taken a Good Look Lately by David Gates is pleasant but with perhaps a less ambitious arrangement and a more overtly soft-rock feel at a time when that genre was coalescing around the conventions which made it so derided.

There followed a 1976 Duke of Earl single on Private Stock which I haven’t heard.

Other than that, Bergen White returned to largely conducting and arranging for others, never seeing himself as a singer-performer first and foremost.   Perhaps the most prestigious of his many successes was as arranger for Elvis’s Moody Blue.

Meanwhile, for lovers of baroque pop of a melancholy disposition, For Women Only remains an indispensable crystallisation of a unique vision in sound.
 


For Women Only: tracks 1-4
For Women Only: tracks 5-9
For Women Only: album overview

 

Bergen White: For Women Only – tracks 5-9

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.

Barry Mann

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 IfDiary 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 

 

Bergen White: For Women Only – tracks 1-4

The first of three posts looking at Bergen White’s  1970 soft pop album For Women Only track-by-track.


1. She Is Today, (Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, 2.34)  *****

An uncharacteristically uptempo track, She Is Today opens For Women Only with light strings and Bergen White’s attractive feathery vocal.

‘She Is Today’ combines drama with a sense of joyful liberation.  The track is pure late 60s and you might say it is the most dated on the album inasmuch as it describes the up-to-the-minute young woman of the times – ‘she is flipped and tripped out but she still cares…. she is today.’  At this point I almost expect a voiceover to enter over the top of the track – ‘Today!  The new perfume for today’s woman…’ – and I don’t mean that to belittle this lovely song in any way.

Busy strings, xylophone, bubbling bass, timpani and brass move things along at a fair old pace whilst Cynthia Weil’s characteristically imaginative lyrics describe the woman by portraying the times she embodies.

The song itself dates from several years earlier.  Barry Mann released it as the B-side to his April 1967 single Where Do I Go From Here showing, before the dawn of the Summer of Love, just how in touch with the zeitgeist were Mann and Weil.  Barry Mann’s version uses a significantly different arrangement which is every bit as adventurous as Bergen’s if not more so.  I admire the way he brings out the tenderness of the title lyric.  Bergen’s cover is altogether smoother in style and his vocals more suited to the gentleness of the song.  Each version has brief instrumental melodic motifs which don’t feature in the other.

‘She Is Today’ strikes me as different from all the other uptempo tracks on For Women Only which tend to borrow from country or country-pop conventions for their appeal.  ‘She is Today’ is pure melodic pop.  It’s interesting to speculate how Nashville’s Area Code 615 musicians, accustomed to working on country material, responded to working on ‘She is Today’.

2. It’s Your Time (Bergen White, 2.10) ***

After the open track’s free-wheeling vitality, this comes as a slight disappointment which led me to think For Women Only isn’t going to be quite as great as I at first thought.

It’s Your Time has (to my ears) an over-loud four-string tenor guitar opening which then audibly reduces in volume as the vocal comes in, one of the album’s very few less than stellar arrangement/production moments.  I find the melody slightly repetitive though this does help drive home the final verse’s emphatic ‘When you said your love was dead…’ lyrics.  The arrangement throughout is comparatively underplayed.

It’s Your Time succeeds in establishing the predominantly melancholic feel of For Women Only but is overshadowed by tracks yet to come.

3. Let Me Stay Awhile (Mickey Newbury, 3.21) *****

This opens to a great introduction featuring marked stereo separation and a heavily treated vocal repeated at the lead-off.   This backgrounded vocal somehow adds to the heavily reflective mood of the song, as if it’s a refrain happening inside the singer’s head.

Let Me Stay Awhile is an emotionally raw, melancholic piece typical of Mickey Newbury in the way it exposes the singer’s vulnerability and fatalism.  The melody line curves Bergen White 1-4 byline2away in different directions rather than following a straightforward repeat; as well as showing a craftsman’s attention to detail, touches like this heighten the song’s emotional tenor.

Mickey Newbury’s original features along with other rarities and unreleased material on Disc 4 of 2011’s American Trilogy box-set.  Bergen’s version downplays the song’s country origins in favour of a smoother, more baroque treatment which works beautifully.

4. Look at Me (David Gates, 2.38) ****

Bergen says he isn’t happy with hearing this now, even going so far as to say he would have omitted Look at Me and the album’s other David Gates song, Gone Again and indeed I don’t think Bergen’s magic quite works on either song in the way that it emphatically does on Let Me Stay Awhile, Lisa Was and Second Lover’s Song.

Look at Me is one of my favourite David Gates songs.  It’s also one of his most uncharacteristic as it is steeped in existential bleakness.  A lonely individual longs to be seen and to be known but realises that the possibility eludes him: ‘Look at me, I’m blending into the wall and I wonder if I’m really here at all’.

In David Gate’s hands Look at Me expresses a gracefulness (in both vocals and guitar) which I feel Bergen’s slightly lacks even although he maintains elements of the original such as the short-lived but rather lovely clarinet solo and the stark vocal harmonies of ‘On the edge, I feel like I’m going to fall…’  He adds rather regimental, arpeggiated acoustic guitar in unison with another instrument, keyboard, I think.  Occasional isolated drum pattern and castanet rattle are well placed.

Overall Bergen’s version is really fine but can’t quite match the subtlety of the Gates original.  If you’re coming to this song for the first time, I would say go to the Bread version first.  It’s on their underrated self-titled first album.

We’ll take up For Women Only again with Track 5, Lisa Was and continue through to Track 9, Second Lover’s Songin two weeks’ time.
 


For Women Only: tracks 5-9
For Women Only: tracks 10-18
For Women Only: album overview

 

Bergen White: For Women Only

Bergen White Bergen White’s For Women Only [original LP SSS International 1970/CD-re-issue Rev-Ola 2004] is the kind of discovery I always hope to make but secretly fear isn’t actually out there.  It was one of several CDs I bought on an off-chance about ten years ago.  I am so glad I did as this one I fell for almost the moment I pressed play.

For Women Only is a baroque/soft masterpiece if ever there was one. It beguiled me from the start and haunts me still. Several songs are so lovely that I was pretty much knocked off my perch.  When you find yourself exclaiming out loud “This is fantastic!” you know you have stumbled across a rare find indeed.

Sheer elegance

The words elegant, eloquent and poetic come to mind when listening to ‘For Women Only’.  So do majestic and sublime.  All are apt but don’t really give a flavour of the music which is a blend of 60s pop and country with echoes of soul, surf, vocal harmony, rock’n’roll and US beat, all given a consummate chamber/baroque treatment and refracted through a soft-focus lens.  Add psychedelic trimmings here and there and that maybe gives some idea.

What stands out most clearly is the quality of the songs.  Bergen made the selections from top drawer songwriters such as Mann and Weil, Mickey Newbury and Townes Van Zandt and added a half dozen or so of his own compositions.  All are strong melodically and are treated to sympathetic arrangements crafted by Mr White himself and played by the renowned Nashville Area Code 615 session team.

That cover couple 

Reviewers tend to give the album cover a lot of attention, criticising it for being at odds with what is contained within (though I sense the cover has its own kitsch following too).  I don’t know whether Bergen had a hand in selecting the cover imageBergen White overview byline or indeed the album’s title.  The mature, canoodling diners might lead you to expect a kind of easy listening fest and, knowing nothing about Bergen White at this point, I was prepared for a deluge of syrupy strings, just in case.  But insofar as the songs are of a romantic leaning and from a mature perspective, I don’t think the cover, although far from ideal, is so misleading or surprising from a 1970 marketing point of view.  This exceptionally well-crafted music wasn’t aimed squarely at the Woodstock generation (Bergen was 30 at the time and already a music business veteran) even although its own gentle tuned-in, turned-on vibe was undoubtedly influenced by it.  This is perhaps more apparent listening today than it was back in 1970.

The image of Bergen on the CD case interior (and I assume on the reverse of the original album sleeve) is equally relevant but tends to get mentioned rather less.   Here he stands as a psychedelic figure semi-silhouetted in some unknown landscape, recalling, perhaps, Lee Hazlewood’s space cowboy.  The image is apt as the album combines traditional maleness (Don’t Keep Me Waiting) with much sensitivity and reflectiveness thus making Bergen a true hero of the new age.

Accomplished arranger

Bergen White cut his teeth as a member of Ronny and The Daytonas and went on to hone his skills as producer, conductor and arranger at Nashville.  This album was conceived as an outlet for his expertise as an arranger but Bergen also shows himself to be an accomplished composer and singer with his understated tenor vocals always in tune with the demands of the song rather than trying to impose his personality.  The arrangements themselves are wonderful, adding colour and interest, enhancing but never overwhelming the songs.  The attention played to careful placing of contrasting instrumental combinations and Bergen’s Brian Wilson sensibility when it comes to percussion is particularly notable.

The record didn’t perform commercially for any number of reasons.  Bergen wasn’t a well known name outside of the industry and possibly the album was never heard sufficiently by its target audience.  Come 1970, the future lay more in acoustic, stripped-down styles of confessional songwriting so the comparative lushness of For Women Only probably meant it sounded a little square on that score.  But what a gem for us to discover and enjoy almost a half century later.

The CD reissue features rare photographs, extensive liner notes by Steve Stanley and plenty of comment from Bergen White himself.  As well as the complete For Women Only album, there are six very worthy bonus tracks, two of which are mono versions of album tracks and five are from 1967 and sit alongside the album with ease.

If you like melodic, well-crafted songs in a baroque-pop vein delivered by a master craftsman of the genre, then this is the album for you – love or hate the cover.

I’ll talk about For Women Only track-by-gorgeous track over three posts coming soon.
 

1. She Is Today – (Mann-Weil) *****
2. It’s Your Time – (White) ***
3. Let Me Stay Awhile – (Newbury) *****
4. Look at Me – (Gates) ****
5. Lisa Was – (Mann) *****
6. Hurt So Bad – (Randazzo) ***
7. On and On – (White) ***
8. Gone Again – (Gates) ***
9. Second Lover’s Song – (Van Zandt) *****
10. The Bird Song – (White) *****
11. Now – (White) ****
12. It’s Over Now – (White) ****

Bonus Tracks

13. If It’s Not Asking Too Much – (White, 1967) ****
14. Don’t Keep Me Waiting – (White, 1967) ****
15. What Would You Do In My Place – (White, 1967) *****
16. House on Bonnie Brae – (Linde, 1967) ***
17. The Bird Song – (White, 1967 mono] *****
18. It’s Over Now – (White, 1970 mono) ****

 


For Women Only: tracks 1-4
For Women Only: tracks 5-9
For Women Only: tracks 10-18