The Infinite Jukebox: The Shangri-Las’ ‘Past, Present and Future’

In the beginning there was ‘Leader of the Pack’ and in the end there was ‘Leader of the Pack’. The Shangri-Las had also had a UK Top Twenty hit with ‘Remember (Walking in the Sand)’ in the Sixties, but as far as Radio 1 was concerned, it might never have existed when it came to playing Golden Oldies.
And that was before ‘Leader of the Pack’ was re-released to go top 10 again, not just in 1972 but again in 1975.
So hearing other songs by The Shangri-Las was a long way far from easy, and discovering if they had anything more to them than that one damned melodramatic street opera of a death disc pretty hopeless unless you were willing to take a flier on an actual album, and I don’t remember seeing any Shangri-Las’ albums until CDs had been invented.
Which makes ‘Past, Present and Future’ even more than the curiosity that it is.
The song isn’t even a song, in the sense that there is no singing, that all the lyrics are spoken, in a hushed, subdued, almost trance-like state by Mary Weiss, with the twins, Margie and Mary Ann Ganser doing no more than speak, in ‘chorus’, the words of the title as they break the song into three parts.
The first time I heard ‘Past, Present and Future’, I was struck by how strange it was, how cold and austere. Part of this was that the music is simply a playing of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a piano melody of calmness and composure that I may or may not have heard by then but which registered instantly as a thing apart from pop music. The rest of it was the speaking voice, and more than that the words that Shadow Morton came up with.
There’s a distance that’s all but a gulf between Mary Weiss and those who listen in on what are almost thoughts, spontaneously recalled.
First, there’s the Past, a Past that we understand is gone, as if it had been a million years ago. The distance between Mary as she reminisces in the most minimal detail – silent joys, broken toys, laughing girls, teasing boys – is something on the edge of memory for her. Was she in love, she asks herself, and qualifies her answer to herself by saying she called it love, she thought it was love, but she can only drift away from the specific. There were moments when… but that memory is something she cannot go to now, and all she can do is to repeat herself, well, there were moments when. She will never speak of it in more detail.
Present, the Gansers announce. Mary has a boy asking her out on a date, repeating his questions with her answers. Go out with you? Why not. Do I like to dance? Of course. Take a walk along the beach tonight? I’d love to. But there is a warning for this hopeful suitor that makes the song change in an instant, that drags him and us and her into the Twilight Zone, leaving us wondering just what we are dealing with.
Don’t try to touch me, Mary Weiss says, and in her voice we can hear the sheets of glass between her and this boy. Don’t try to touch me. Because that will never happen again, and by the end of that sentence each word is being spoken separately. And to complete this strange transition, she then speaks, in an ordinary voice, as if what she has said was said by someone other than her, shall we dance? and for ten seconds an orchestra sweeps and flourishes into a waltz that is beyond any expectation.
Whatever has happened, we are not in any kind of world we recognise now. But there is still the future to come. Tomorrow? That’s a long way off. Maybe someday she’ll have somebody’s hand, maybe someone, and the additional word somewhere is our indication that to her this is an impossibility. For a moment, she goes back into the past, into childhood, nursery rhymes when everything was safe. A tisket, a tasket, a green and yellow basket. Packed up and on her way and gonna fall in love.
But that was then and it’s not then any more. At the moment, it doesn’t look good. At the moment, it will never happen again. And then, in the softest but most icily chilling voice ever to be heard on a single, Mary Weiss says, simply, I don’t think it will ever happen again, the last words of that sentence spoken separately.
‘Past, Present and Future’ is a frightening song. It’s about death, but whereas ‘Leader of the Pack’ was about the death of the body, ‘Past, Present and Future’ is about the death of the soul, and about being alive afterwards to cease to feel it.
It’s been suggested that the song is about the aftermath of a rape, though Mary Weiss denied it, fervently, saying only that it’s about teenage intensity. I see no reason to challenge her statement, but the song fits that other interpretation as closely as a spandex leotard, and whether Mary Weiss’s distance is due to an assault as fatal to her as actual death or else a dispirited reaction to a failed relationship is immaterial. ‘Past, Present and Future’ is one of the coldest things I have ever heard, the coldest and most hopeless. When she says it will never happen again, there is nothing in Mary Weiss’ voice to leave you with the illusion that love will ever again come into her life.
Everything is over before it has begun.
And that’s sad.

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