Originally posted July 08, 2009:
A few years ago, I was reading a novel – not a very good one, but the book came recommended by a friend and I persevered – about five or so young women and their lives in the 1970s and beyond. The group of women had a secret, and it had to do with something that took place the night of their graduation from high school in the spring of 1970.
And in one of the early scenes in that book, on that graduation night, two or more of the women heard the sounds of a song from a nearby radio. They heard Janis Joplin singing “Me and Bobby McGee.”
I damn near threw the book across the room. Instead, I just shook my head and read on.
Why was I annoyed? Because “Me and Bobby McGee” – along with the rest of Pearl, the album from which it came – wasn’t recorded until the summer and autumn of 1970. I knew that at the time, but this morning, just to make sure, I went to All-Music Guide. The album, says AMG, was recorded between July and October of 1970 and was released in February of 1971. There’s no date for the single at AMG. Another source, a book called The Great Rock Discography, has both the album and the single being released in January 1971. I’m not sure whether January or February is correct, but either way, it’s 1971, not 1970.
Now, I make mistakes, some of them doozies. (As will be clear later in this post.) But I try my best to nail down historical details when I write, here and elsewhere. And I think any writer dealing at all with historical material – whether it’s five hundred years ago or five years ago – owes it to his or her readers to get it as accurate as possible. I grant you, it’s easier these days to verify when an album was recorded and released than it used to be; a few clicks of the mouse to AMG (which does have some errors but is generally reliable), and there you go. Those types of tools weren't available when the book in question was written, which I would guess was in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
But even if the author of the book in question were writing twenty years ago, in 1989, all he or she – I long ago forgot the author’s name and even the title of the book – would have to do is jot down a note: “Bobby McGee release date?” and head down to the local library to find a copy of the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. My first copy, which was published in 1987, was the third edition. And there we’d learn that “Me and Bobby McGee” first reached the Top 40 on February 20, 1971. And that should be enough to tell a writer that hearing “Me and Bobby McGee” coming from a radio in the spring of 1970 would be extremely unlikely. And that, I would think, would be enough for the writer to choose another song.
My point is: Even twenty years ago, it would only have taken a little bit of effort to make that small detail correct, to find a song that would have been likely to be heard on the radio on a graduation night in the spring of 1970. The fact that the writer (and the editors who worked on the book, too; they should not be excused, either!) did not take that effort to check on an easily verifiable historical fact always makes me wonder what other corners the writer cut.
(That’s a far more grievous error to make in non-fiction, of course, and I have seen a few books over the years that have erred in writing about things I know about, generally records, movies and sports events. I usually just grunt in annoyance and read on, wondering what other facts are wrong.)
The long-ago book that misplaced Janis Joplin’s great single came to mind last evening because of a similar error I found, this time by an author who is generally pretty good at such stuff: I was reading the first novella in Dean Koontz’ collection Strange Highways, in which a man gets a second chance at a crucial night in his youth, somehow shifting from 1995 to 1975. As he marvels that Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run is new that year, he also notes that Jim Croce is still alive. Oops. Croce died in the autumn of 1973. Again, I shook my head and moved on, disappointed that a simple detail evidently wasn’t checked.
Maybe I seem old, out-of-date, out of style and crotchety. But details matter. Accuracy matters. So, for that matter, does spelling. And so does grammar. I may someday come back to those latter two things as a topic for a post, but for now, the lecture is over.
In an attempt to connect to the music I’ve selected for today, however, I’m going to touch on one grammatical error that’s horribly common and that makes my ears hurt as much as does the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard (a reference that likely dates me, too). I mentioned it the other day in connection with the Doors’ song “Touch Me.” In that song’s chorus, Jim Morrison sings, in part, “I’m gonna love you till the stars fall from the sky for you and I.” That should be “you and me.” How do we know that? Well, pull out the words “you and” and then see what kind of sentence you have: “I’m gonna love you till the stars fall from the sky for I.” Oops again.
The BoDeans’ songwriters, Sam Llanas and Kurt Neumann, do the same thing in another song I like, “Good Things,” when they wrote “good things for you and I.”
I know that in both of those cases, using “me” would have messed up the rhyme. Too bad, but both choruses needed more work. I also know that there are times when I screw up grammatically. (I still wonder about a sentence the other day when I couldn’t decide whether to use past tense or the subjunctive. [And I can see eyes rolling all over blogword.]) I think I generally do pretty well, though, and I also think that I almost always get “you and me” correct, as do these six songs. (Well, not all of those songs do. I was in a hurry and I screwed up. Oops, indeed.)
A Six-Pack of You and Me
“You and Me (Babe)” by Ringo Starr from Ringo 
“You and Me” by Neil Young from Harvest Moon 
“You and Me” by the Moody Blues from Seventh Sojourn 
“You and Me” by Lighthouse from Thoughts of Movin’ On 
“You and Me” by Aretha Franklin from Spirit In The Dark 
“You and Me Of The 10,000 Wars” by the Indigo Girls from Nomads, Indians, Saints 
I don’t have a lot to say about any of these. The Ringo Starr track was the last track on Ringo and caps off that very good album pretty well. The Moody Blues’ track is pretty strong musically and has one of the better lines from all the Moodies’ songs of cosmic consciousness: “All we are trying to say is we are all we’ve got.” Neil Young’s “You and Me” is a sweet song that comes from his revisitation of the style and themes of 1972’s Harvest.
The Indigo Girls’ track is, as might be expected, a literate exploration of a relationship’s struggles. Aretha Franklin’s “You and Me” was actually billed as by “Aretha Franklin With The Dixie Flyers.” (Listen for the swooping French horns at the 2:30 mark.) And the Lighthouse selection was on a pretty good record that was a few albums removed from One Fine Morning, which sparked the great single of the same title.