The Letter - the Boxtops
Chris and I then took the long train hack from Inarzo to Milan to Marseilles via Lyon (see last post). The idea was to stay with my French girlfriend Sophie, who I had met the previous summer while on a family holiday in La Manga in Spain. She had written that she would be on holiday in Paris, giving the date of her return, but our premature departure from Inarzo meant that we arrived in Marseilles three days early. For these we spent our time drinking coffee and snacks in cafes, and sleeping and generally "hanging out" on the beaches to the south of the main port. In no time we felt that we were "old hands" in the cosmopolitan community of beachbums. The beach fraternity comprised mainly Americans, Brits, Germans and French. As midnight approached, the French, like fairytale princesses, would melt away into the dark, presumably to their nearby homes, while the rest of us would continue singing, smoking dope and drinking cheap beer into the small hours. One night, a couple of clean-cut young Americans held sway over a large fire, both playing guitars, and and we all sang along. The songs I remember in particular were the Guess Who's "American Woman" and the Box Tops' "The Letter", both of which they played over and over, presumably because they were the songs that suited their respective voices. The girls adored them, and Chris and I hung around trying to chat with them, but when the guys stopped playing they cleared off sharpish. Chris and I wound up talking to an older American, with a luxurious Longfellow-style white beard who turned out to be the singing duo's father. Maybe it was the drugs, but he seemed to speak in musical patterns, and began by extoling the virtues of love and inner peace, but soon got on to Jesus Christ, all the while sifting the sand through his fingers as he spoke. At one point he found a ten franc coin in his hand, put it in his pocket with the words "the good Lord provides" and carried on with his mesmeric sermon. He quoted extensively from St Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians, seeming to know chapter after chapter by heart:
"....and I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.....and my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power...." and so on.
By the time the dawn approached, he had convinced us to join his family touring around Europe, preaching the gospel and leaving behind our worldly goods.
The next morning, waking up hungover on the beach, we looked at each other and couldn't believe what we had promised. It's interesting that we both felt obliged to find their campsite and search them out, to say sorry but we wouldn't be joining them after all. We could have just cleared off. The preacher graciously set us free from our promise, making no effort at all to change our minds, and sent us on our way with a hearty "God go with you, boys."
Later we realised that the thing that had most impressed us was his chance unearthing of the coin from the sand, as though it was some minor miracle.
"The Letter" is one of those perfect singles from the 1960's, a prime example of a "blue-eyed soul" vocal by the terrific sixteen year old Alex Chilton on his first ever recording. The whole record is in itself a bit of a miracle, in that it was producer Dann Penn's first time in charge of a recording session, the band's first recording session also and the string and horns arranger was just the studio's resident bass player who happened to be there, had never written an arrangement before and got the job because he was the only one in the room who wrote music.
The result is wonderful, from the funky bass in the intro, the gruff vocal with the regular emphasis on key syllables and words: AEROplane... FAST train....how much money I GOTta spend....etc that give the vocal its urgency, the light but anxious strings and ominous horns, to the aeroplane noises and surreal creak (is it a cat mewing or a door swinging?) of the final fade.