The Partridge Family + The Manson Family = The Poppy Family
by Kim Cooper
(from Scram #3, reprinted in Having a Rave Up with Scram Magazine, a special best-of issue)
[Disclaimer: Several years after the events described in this article, Terry Jacks recorded "Seasons in the Sun" and blew his credibility for life. But this really has nothing to do with the Poppy Family. Really.]
The sixties ended with bloodbaths at Cielo Drive and Altamont, and as 1970 slouched into view there was no reason to think that the giddy bubblegum genre had one last great wad in its maw. But up in the wilds of Vancouver, B.C., a young married couple was forging a new style of bubblepop, suffused with a blast of stale dark air that was utterly redolent of the times.
From our present vantage it seems obvious that all that folk-rock-protest crap was just an entertaining shuck, and the only songwriters who were really tapped into the esprit des temps were Boyce and Hart, Bo Gentry, Kasenatz and Katz, Neil Diamond and the like. Bubblegum hid its insight into politics and human behavior in a midst of infantile fancy, but in the end it's songs like The Archies' "Hot Dog" and "Love Beads and Meditation" by The Lemon Pipers (that's the one that goes "the tangled mass of membranes that used to be me/ is a memory") that continue to speak to the youth of today, while few still breathe who can tell Zager from Evans. It's no accident that this music was only appreciated by eight year olds when it came out, because little kids had tons more on the ball than their boo-huffin' older siblings, not to mention the critics, who were too busy praising Dylan's new direction(s) to notice all the great music on Saturday morning TV. But I digress.
Terry and Susan Jacks recorded two albums for London Records as the Poppy Family before Terry's lumberjack obsessions made Susan decide to hit to road running while she still had her health and looks. And despite her indisputable talent (imagine a Karen Carpenter who really meant it), it must have
been her looks that got Mrs. Jacks noticed, especially when contrasted with the weirdos in her band. Terry resembled a misguided genetic experiment fusing a komodo dragon with one of the Campbell's Soup kids, and had been a walking bad hair day for years. The session hacks who masqueraded as band members looked stranger still. Satwant Singh could have been the model for Apu, the QuikE-Mart manager on "The Simpsons," right up to the turban that added six inches to his height. And Norman MacPherson (one of the great rock and roll names!) seems to have been a stoned lumberjack like Terry, although his coke-bottle glasses and white boy 'fro gave him the look of a White Panther sympathizer. Against this nebbishy cross-section, Susan stood out like a goddess. She had a compact, curvy figure that she liked to drape in skintight red jumpsuits, nicely offsetting the bubble of platinum hair that grazed her shoulders. With her sexy smile and feline eyes, she was your basic Vegas-style knockout. She must have caused quite a stir up their in the woods, and it was only a matter of time before she caught the attention of lecherous label execs throughout the lower 48.
The debut album, Which Way You Goin', Billy?, is a haunting brace of menacing melodies, featuring eleven atmospheric classics and one hilariously misguided dog. From the opening number, the broken-hearted bus-ride opus "That's Where I Went Wrong," there's a dizzying air of mystery and hopelessness, with Terry's impressive studio work adding to the general sense of doom. Terry's songs have a knack for never resolving the troubled situations they describe, trailing off into washes of eerie noise instead. Despite the brilliance and difficulty of the album, the title song (a pathetic tale of abandoned womanhood) was a big hit -- #2 in the United States; #1 in Canada and the best selling single ever -- and "That's Where I Went Wrong" sold a million units as the follow up single. One song that was not a hit, although in a just world it would have been, is "There's No Blood in Bone," which begins with a terrifying spoken section where the pitch of Susan's voice careens widely as she intones "Marie now walks--her life is sleep--she never looks above her feet--she never smiles nor--does--she--speak." The song lives up to this demented introduction, and surpasses it, as Susan sings "When Joey died Marie went mad" over a kinetic backing track featuring a fuzz guitar roar every bit as startling as the proto-metal solo in the Carpenters' "Goodbye to Love." It's a good thing they picked this song to close the first side, because after hearing it any listener would be drenched in sweat and in serious need of a drink. In this chemically benumbed state, we're ready to continue.
Terry runs aground on side two when he briefly forgets that he's not Phil Ochs, and attempts to write a strict racio-political polemic: "What Can the Matter Be?" Over a tinkling music box backing, Susan sings an odious p.c. lyric about a black child kept from opportunity by the color of his skin. The whole number stinks of the Free to Be You and Me ethos, and is only redeemed by the amusing couplet, "Though his mind is his own it seems all that he's got/ Is six months in jail for just smoking pot." Uh, yeah, whatever you say, Terry. This is, however, just a momentary misstep on an otherwise groovy album.
One lyrical theme that recurs with monomaniacal frequency is a retreat from the moral and physical decay of the city, with a suggestion that the only way out is through a descent into drugs or psychosis. The epic (3:52) final track, "Of Cities and Escapes" is sung by Terry in the persona of a manic-depressive who lives in a cell-like apartment overlooking a hellish modern city. He's too edgy to answer the phone or read a newspaper, so instead he goes on the nod: "High in my mind/ Out of the reach of time/ I'm moving far beyond the city and its paranoid storm." But at the end the poor slob has to come down, and nothing has changed. It's an unspeakably miserable way to end a nearly perfect record.
Perfection could have been attained easily enough, had London put the b-side of "Which Way You Goin', Billy?" somewhere on the album. That was a mind-blowing cover of Jody Reynolds' teen-death classic "Endless Sleep" that's up there with the best stuff on the LP. But at this point I guess Terry felt that he could afford to leave great songs on the backs of his singles. He was riding high, writing fast and exquisitely. This creative spree, sadly, was soon to end.
While the follow-up, the cutely-named Poppy Seeds (1971) has a few remarkable tracks, the paucity of original songs bespeaks a serious sophomore slump. As Terry explained in interviews around the time of "Seasons in the Sun," the break-up of the Poppy Family was largely due to the conflict between Susan's love of touring and his need to be home to write. Terry also 'fessed up after "Seasons" that the Poppy Family had never really been a band, but anyone who saw the cover of Poppy Seeds could have told you that. The sleeve photos were of just Terry and Susan, both sporting looser, more countrified appearances. They're actually frolicking with barnyard animals on the back cover, Terry grinning like a loon by a calf's rear end, and Susan has wisely exchanged her showgirl duds for a crocheted earth mother outfit. Of particular interest on Poppy Seeds are the rocking "Someone Must Have Jumped," which ends with a wild guitar solo that gives way to a honking wah-wah Beefheart screech, and "Where Evil Grows," the first single. "Evil" is simply the greatest dark bubblegum song ever written, and one of the Jacks' rare duets. Over a sinuous nursery rhyme melody, Terry and Susan inform us that "Evil grows in the dark where the sun it never shines/ Evil grows in cracks and holes and lives in peoples' minds/ Evil grew, it's part of you, and now it seems to be/ Every time I look at you, evil grows in me." And how!
And yet Poppy Seeds is very nearly a citified c&w album, with half of the twelve songs written by guys like Merle Haggard. Not that there's anything wrong with Merle Haggard, but his song is so normal that it's a letdown after the strange glories of the first album. No non-LP b-sides this time. The band split up soon after, with Terry retiring to Vancouver to establish Goldfish Records and produce Susan's subsequent solo albums. He lost his already small interest in rock stardom, realizing that his true desire was to do a great deal of fishing and hunting, and to get in the occasional round of golf. Any difficulty he might have had in financing this lifestyle were solved once he released that insufferable Brel-McKuen song, which ironically he'd been trying to convince such artists as the Beach Boys and Edward Bear to record for years. No one was as enthusiastic as Terry was about the song, so he finally recorded it himself and hit the worldwide Top 40 jackpot. Maudlin, lyrically confused, terribly French, the song must be respected if only because it gave Terry Jacks some of the recognition and success he'd earned during the life span of the Poppy Family. Of course that doesn't mean you ought to Listen to the damn thing!
Terry's still up in Vancouver, apparently living an outdoor life which now incorporates a boat called, yup, Seasons in the Sun. Scram tried to talk with him for this article, but when he insisted that we fly him to San Francisco for the interview we had to decline. Had he not been such a cheapskate this would probably be a very different story (journalists with an obligation to kiss their subject's tucchus don't generally compare them to komodo dragons), but the final thought would be the same. If you see the first Poppy Family album for sale, BUY IT! It offers such a lovely mixture of depression and elation that you'll probably end up with altered brain chemistry and maybe even nightmares. And if that doesn't sound good to you, then I can't imagine what would.