Sunday, June 7, 2020

Ironies in Pleasant Valley

Listening to music can nearly always become an ironic experience. Context is everything: one song's uplifting lyrics might bedevil a listener's down or anxious mood; another tune's downbeat words push stubbornly against the listener's elation, creating in that moment a kind of perpetual motion machine of intention and effect. This can happen on the dance floor, when a song's ugly words rise to your consciousness only when you're at the bar, thirsty, after having danced your ass off to it; this can happen when a mix tape suddenly sings very different songs after a breakup, or a joyful reconciliation; this happens when a song that mattered to you when you were a carefree fifteen-year old matters a whole lot less when you're an encumbered adult; or it may mean more.

This morning I was outside watering the front and side gardens. We've planted loads of ajuga groundcover in the front, and some coneflowers, and a hummingbird vine, etc., and all need careful tending in their early days. So, out this morning with a cup of coffee and the hose, I watered. As often occurs when I'm out in the yard on a pleasant Sunday, the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday" starts playing somewhere in my head. Soon I'm singing along. Recorded in Hollywood by the Monkees and studio musicians across two sessions in June of 1967, the song was issued a month later, and went to number three on the Top 100. Gerry Goffin and Carole King's song was inspired by Pleasant Valley Way, a street in West Orange, New Jersey, where they lived. I love the tune, have always dug the earnest "local rock group down the street" gamely serenading the "weekend squire" out cutting his grass, Mrs. Gray's roses, Mr. Green's multiple television sets, mothers complaining, their kids a generation gap away, and growing. But I usually find myself singing along to the song dryly, not without some qualms, having found myself, in a long journey, on a street in a Status Symbol Land of sorts, enjoying the garden and yard yet also fighting my native resistance to "creature comfort goals" that "numb my soul," even as I grimly acknowledge my civic duty to maintain appearances.

Anyway, with bemused half-grins on our faces, Goffin, King, Micky Dolenz, and I sneer as we go. I usually bring the song inside with me when I'm done, offer a few sardonic bars to Amy, who gets it but is then annoyed with me for planting the day-long earworm in her head. Today, that level of irony, and my grinning enjoyment of it, feels absurdly inconsequential. Against the backdrop of nationwide protests of police brutality, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resulting physical and economic suffering, ugly, ugly politics and the spread of fascist ideologies and brutal enactments, enjoying, however acerbically, a sunshine AM radio hit from the Summer of Love that unthreateningly satirizes suburbia feels the very definition of privilege. There are millions in the world who'd gladly take a cup of Pleasantness right now. Yet the song plays unbidden in my head, pop music's pleasures pushing against bitter truths, larger savagery, and generations' worth of injustice. A queasy incongruity that's impossible to ignore.

"I hate to pop your balloon about 'Pleasant Valley Sunday'," Michael Nesmith said to a reporter a decade after the song was released. "That song was actually written about a mental institution." I don't know whether or not Nesmith was joking.

Gerry Goffin and Carole King

Photo of Goffin and King via Los Angeles Times; 45 picture sleeve via Discogs

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Up until a few months ago, in this song I've heard almost since its inception, I thought they sang "The local rock group down the street is trying hard to learn THIS song" instead of "their" song. In my mis-heard version it's a little conceited of the Monkees but probably also true!