I HATE TWITTER and I love Twitter. I hate it when I get sucked into its infinite news scroll of LOLs, meanness, opprobrium and ire and I love it when someone alerts me to a book, film or piece of music I’ve never previously heard of. Or, as happened yesterday, blindsides me with a YouTube clip that BLAM!s straight to the heart of everything. One of the accounts I follow belongs to Gary Warren, a former child star and an old music head. Gary had been up early, posting tracks by The Penguins, The Moonglows, The Orioles, and The Five Satins, the four doo-wop groups name-checked in Paul Simon’s 1983 album track, Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War.
It’s a sweet, sad and beautiful song, softly surreal in its strange waltzing images of the Belgian artist and his wife dancing naked in a New York hotel room.
Brilliantly, Simon soundtracks the couple’s time in America with exactly the same music that romanced Simon in his teens, blurring historical fact and personal memory, and infusing the Magrittes’ post-war narrative with the lonesome romance of ’50s doo-wop.
There is no other music like ’50s doo-wop. It’s a teenage music where kids sound like ghosts. Voices are high and keening, miked from a distance with chamber reverb, while the songs inhabit an ethereal landscape of dreams and twilight, where all titles are imaginary, all kingdoms built on air, and everyone is broken-hearted and, finally, alone. This spectral, otherworldly quality is best appreciated alone, and late at night, broadcast on the AM frequency to the small speaker on an old car radio.
So maybe it was that, or the doo-wop or the sadness but the next clip Gary Warren posted was this perfect moment from George Lucas’ only directorial masterpiece, 1973’s American Graffiti.
All the lonesome twilight sadness of doo-wop is there. It’s 4.50am. The kid, Curt, (played by a 25 year-old Richard Dreyfuss) is desperate to get a message to an out-of-reach girl he saw once in a white Ford Thunderbird. The Heartbeats’ 1957 single, A Thousand Miles Away plays in the background and the nightshift jockey has just told him that his DJ hero, Wolfman Jack, is only a disembodied voice (“the man is on tape”). Heartbreak and ghosts. But there are other phantoms here.
The character of the DJ, revealed at the end of the scene to actually be Wolfman Jack, is played by Robert Weston Smith, aka, the real real Wolfman Jack, legendary mid-’60s “border blaster” rock’n’roll DJ. Once you know that (as would most young US cinema goers in 1973) the scene takes on a whole other layer of melancholy.
“The places he talks about, that he’s been, the things he’s seen,” says Smith of his alter ego, “and here I sit, sucking popsicles. Why don’t I leave? I’m not a young man anymore.” Wolfman Jack, like the dreams and the romances of those doo-wop songs, is, in the end, just a fantasy, a spirit of the airwaves, conjured up by someone who never left the DJ booth. When American Graffiti was released, in 1973, rock’n’roll must have also seemed a thousand miles away, and Wolfman Jack an ancient relic of a distant past, just like those spooky old records. A quick check of Wikipedia reveals that when Robert Weston Smith appeared as Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti he was just 34 years old.