Fifty years ago, a schmaltzy song by an Irish balladeer topped the pop charts for six weeks. Gilbert O’Sullivan’s surprise hit, “Alone Again, Naturally” ranked number two on Billboard for the year 1972. Because it doesn’t fit into the classic rock genre, the tune soon faded in popularity and is generally unknown to anyone born after 1980.
On a Saturday night in late October 2015, my Enumclaw high school buddies and I gathered to play poker as we’ve done since our junior high days. We join together several times each year and call our outings Pokerques, with a barbequed meal part of the bargain.
That particular night apropos of nothing, Lester told the story behind the song, “Alone Again, Naturally” which centers on the singer’s plan to commit suicide over a wedding that never happened. Lester assured us this factoid came courtesy of Wikipedia, so we knew it must be true.
At that night’s gathering , I laughed entirely too loud as old friends told stories and we all recounted misspent adventures of youthful revelry. Having stayed out a little too late, I slept in on Sunday morning. After breakfast, Jennifer drove our youngest son Henry to his noon soccer game so I found myself alone and naturally opened the iPad.
I checked out Lester’s story. Clicking on the first Google listing, I cued a YouTube performance with an amazing 27 million views! The video featured O’Sullivan on piano before a large orchestra complete with a dozen strings, piano, organ, drums, and the distinctive guitar solo which nicely cements the melody.
Sure enough, the first stanza of this mega-hit relates the tale of a jilted lover imagining a trip from an empty alter to tower top where he throws himself down, all to the amazement of congregants who concluded there’s no reason for them to wait any longer so they might as well go home – as did the prospective groom, who lived to write this melancholy song.
The second stanza adds to the sorrow of the first and subsequent verses examine a contemplative soul, never wishing to hide the tears, relating – first the death of his father and then his broken-hearted mother – all remembered . . . alone again, naturally.
Isn’t it funny how a sentimental song from the summer of your 19th year calls forth buried memories, none specific but together conjuring a formative feeling? I probably heard that ballad a hundred times back when Top 40 radio dominated my listening habits, all while driving around in the 1966 Renault that served my transportation needs. But, I’d never fixated on O’Sullivan’s introductory lyrics, only the concluding verse describing the passing of his father and mother.
O’Sullivan is an Irish singer-songwriter who changed his first name to Gilbert as a play on the names of musical composers, Gilbert & Sullivan the craftsmen behind so many crowd-pleasing operettas from the late 1800s*. Released in June 1972, the song’s popularity stretched from late summer to early fall, proceeded at number one song by Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” and succeeded by Three Dog Night’s “Black and White” – recounted herein to set the mood and temper of that summer.
O’Sullivan’s follow-up single, “Claire” reached number two on the U.S. charts a few months later. His disc sales exceeded ten million in 1972 and made him the top start of the year. By 1974, O’Sullivan was practically forgotten in America though he continued to enjoy popularity in Great Britain.
From a trip Jenn and I had recently taken to Ireland, I remembered what two Irish musicians who led our Dublin pub crawl told us: Irish songs reflect the nation’s history – they’re either bawdy drinking ditties or sad songs of loss and love.
Having spent the preceding evening playing poker with nine life-long friends; eating, drinking, and laughing so hard my face hurt, I was reminded that we’re all then well into our sixties. One of our buddies was lost to cancer and another to booze, but the rest have aged gracefully and we treasure time spent together. We now resemble our dads and how much longer will it be till we look like our grandfathers?
All of our fathers are gone, and everyone’s mother save one, has also passed away. One was recently robbed of his daughter, a parent’s worst nightmare. With each fresh loss, we find ourselves looking to our children and families for solace and meaning. And, often we look to each other for comfort. We do so in full recognition that our present health and lives and families cannot be taken for granted.
Yet we still laugh and reminisce and natter and make plans, always looking forward to our next reunion. And come away thankful for the multiplicity of friendships that have stood so many tests of time with rarely a pool cue drawn in anger.
So in hopeful jest, I offer this toast to my friends who’ve been by my side for sixty-plus years: May we all live another three decades; and may I be there to cheer your good fortune when each of us celebrates the centennial of his life.
* If you want to see a spirited and historical account of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s music-making genius, watch the superb 1999 movie, “Topsy-Turvy.”
Link to the “Alone Again, Naturally” video referenced above: https://youtu.be/D_P-v1BVQn8