Sunday, December 21, 2014

One song at a time: '26 Miles (Santa Catalina)'

A vintage postcard for California's "island of romance."

I'm bad at winter. I'll admit it.

Today is the winter solstice, and that fact depresses the ever-loving hell out of me. I've lived in the Midwest all my life: the first two-thirds in Michigan, the last third here in Illinois. The total time I've spent outside the Midwest adds up to maybe a month, a month and a half at the most.

And yet I've never gotten used to the climate here. I feel like the misfit polar bear in that joke Reese Witherspoon told on Saturday Night Live once. Winter and I are simply incompatible.

Driving in snow and/or ice is highly stressful for me. I swear, each car trip in such weather takes a year off my life. As a pedestrian, I've slipped and fallen -- badly -- at least once each winter for as far back as I can remember.

My body absolutely turns traitor during the cold weather months. I get windburned so easily, and my body is always covered with various painful rashes and blisters during the winter, oftentimes in embarrassing and hard-to-reach areas. Before I even leave home in the morning, I have to slather sticky, oily Vaseline on my legs and torso. Yuck. Sinuses? Forget about it. You've heard of Can't Stop the Music? Well, this is Can't Stop the Mucous.

Furthermore, that old reliable seasonal affective disorder kicks in hard sometime during January, and I spend several consecutive months cooped up indoors, gorging on snack food and getting next to zero exercise. No doubt about it, winter takes a serious toll on your humble blogger. Each year, I fantasize about living somewhere more habitable, but I cannot imagine the circumstances under which that might happen.

The Four Preps in their element.
As you might expect, I take refuge from winter in fantasy. Music helps me do that sometimes. I'm always a sucker for songs about warm-sounding, far-away places.

One of my favorite examples of such a song is the delightful but somewhat forgotten 1957 smash, "26 Miles (Santa Catalina)" by the Four Preps. I found this song in a really roundabout way. Albert Brooks briefly parodied "26 Miles" as part of his "Rewriting the National Anthem" bit from the 1970s. That routine is included on Albert's 1973 LP, Comedy Minus One, and I found the title of the original song credited in the liner notes.

The Four Preps were one of those well-scrubbed pop vocal groups that flourished in the mid-to-late 1950s, alongside the Ames Brothers, the Lettermen, the Four Aces, the Four Freshmen, the Four Lads, and the Crew Cuts. Acts like these were a gentler, more polite alternative to the raucous rock, R&B, and doo wop sounds of the era. The British Invasion finally made these non-rock acts obsolete in the 1960s, and now it's a chapter of music history we mostly try to pretend never happened.

I actually like this stuff, even though it's possibly the squarest, corniest, whitest, and least cool music to hit the charts in the last sixty years. (The Crew Cuts in particular were infamous for taking R&B songs originally by black artists and doing sanitized white cover versions.) Perhaps the definitive spoof of this type of music was found on SCTV with its 5 Neat Guys commercials, which showed a quintet of sad, middle-aged men squeezing into their old sweaters from the 1950s and crooning about egg salad sandwiches and other hopelessly Caucasian topics.

The Four Preps were one of the more innovative of these groups, and "26 Miles (Santa Catalina)" is actually a little gem of a pop tune whose influence on Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys is immediately apparent at first listen. The Los Angeles Times not long ago ran a great, informative article about how the song came to be. Among other tidbits, you'll learn that one of the Four Preps was TV producer Glen A. Larson (of Battlestar Galactica and Knight Rider fame), who just passed away in November 2014.

What's key about the song is that it was written by someone who had never actually been to Santa Catalina Island off the coast of California. The song, then, is the guy's dream of what the island must be like. He imagines it as a lush tropical paradise just crawling with beautiful, available women.

And he never actually gets to the island during the song either. It's so close -- just twenty-six miles away -- and yet he can't get there. "So near, yet far," as the lyrics go. That's exactly how I feel during the winter sometimes. I think "26 Miles" will be in heavy rotation for me until next May or so.