Back in 1966, a folk-rock group called The Association had a huge hit with a song called “Along Comes Mary,” which provoked a lot of knowing snickers among adolescents who assumed it was a thinly coded reference to, well, smoking weed.
And that may well have been true. But in truth, probably nobody – not even the members of the band – knew exactly what these lyrics were really about:
And when the morning of the warning’s passed, the gassed
And flaccid kids are flung across the stars
The psychodramas and the traumas gone
The songs are left unsung and hung upon the scars
Nobody, that is, except perhaps for Tandyn Almer, the mysterious then-23-year-old songwriter who concocted a fever-dream enigma worthy of a 19th-century symbolist poet, hidden inside a Billboard Hot 100 hit. Almer, a native of Minneapolis, was a child piano prodigy who quit high school, initially to become a jazz musician. Instead, he drifted to Los Angeles in the early 1960s and became part of the folk-rock scene at the Troubadour, the famed West Hollywood nightclub that became a launching pad for superstars ranging from the Byrds to the Eagles.
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There were people who thought Almer might become as big as those acts, or perhaps even bigger. But instead, Almer – who reportedly was plagued by bipolar disorder – retreated back east, into obscurity. He drove a taxicab and working in an electronics factory while he continued to compose songs for his own enjoyment. Nevertheless, when he died on Jan. 8 at age 70 in McLean, Va., he left behind a remarkable legacy: a song that continues to intrigue listeners nearly a half-century after it was written.
Here are some facts about “Along Comes Mary” and its composer:
- According to rock historian Dominic Priore, “Along Comes Mary” originally appeared on a album of demo songs by Almer, one of two such collections he had recorded for the Davon Music publishing company. On one of the records, some of Almer’s compositions were sung by a teenage unknown named Linda Ronstadt. Priore writes that although most of Almer’s other songs on the compilations were also pretty good, most weren’t picked up by other performers. One exception: Mr. Lucky and the Gamblers’ version of Almer’s “Alice Designs.” Blogger Jim Veeds notes that another song, “Little Girl Lost and Found,” was recorded by the Garden Club – whose lead singer, Ruthann Friedman, later herself wrote The Association’s 1967 hit “Windy.”
- “Along Comes Mary” and its seeming drug reference were so controversial that some radio stations were reluctant to play the Association’s single, according to rock historian Fred Bronson. During an appearance at Disneyland, the sheriff’s department in then super-conservative Orange County, Calif., actually ordered the group not to perform the tune.
- The Association recorded “Along Comes Mary” for an obscure label called Valiant Records. After it became a hit, Warner Bros. actually bought the label in March 1967 for more than $1 million – at the time, a fabulous sum – mostly to acquire The Association’s contract.
- One of Almer’s biggest fans was composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. During one of the latter’s famed Young People’s Concerts, he illustrated a musical concept called the Dorian mode by performing a sample of “Along Comes Mary” on the piano.
- Almer only recorded one solo single, 1969′s “Degeneration Gap,” which is difficult to describe. You’ll have to listen to it yourself.
- Almer was a friend of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and helped him out on a 1969 project in which he rewrote some of the band’s songs and recorded new versions of them with Almer performing background vocals, according to Wilson biographer Peter Ames Carlin. A&M Records rejected the recording, in part because of the connection to Almer, a former staff songwriter for the label who, according to Carlin, was fired for creating a disturbance in the company parking lot. But the two musicians continued hanging out together and, in 1971, Almer helped Wilson again, contributing some lyrics to the Beach Boys’ song “Sail On Sailor,” which eventually appeared on the band’s 1973 LP Holland.