During my scuffling days in the late 1990s, I twice went without a car for fairly lengthy stretches of time. It wasn’t as bad as it might sound; living in south Minneapolis, I could take the bus downtown to work; I could ride my bicycle to the grocery store on weekends unless the weather was truly raw; and one of the other members of Jake’s band came through Minneapolis on his way to practice, so I generally was able to get to Jake’s each week.
There were, however, some things that were a little tougher to accomplish.
One spring Saturday afternoon, I sat down in my easy chair with a sandwich and leaned over to turn on the television, probably to watch a baseball game. The television, which I’d bought used a couple of years earlier, made a popping noise. I got up to look at the back of the set: I could see little sparks dancing inside, and smoke was starting to seep out. I pulled the plug from the wall, and in a brief time, the sparks quit dancing and the smoke dissipated. There’d be no fire in the apartment today. But I knew I wasn’t going to be watching the game, at least not on that set. I finished my sandwich, hauled the dead TV outside to the dumpster and assessed my options.
I could afford another TV, as life was pretty good at the time: I was working at a job that paid fairly well, considering my basic needs (thirty bucks a week at Cheapo’s, as long-time readers might expect, was a basic need along with groceries, cat food, toothpaste and the like). I’d have to buy the TV on a credit card, but I could pay the monthly bill that resulted. And there was a major discount retail store about eight blocks away that would certainly have at least one television I would find both suitable and affordable. The only problem was transport. I was going to get a car fairly soon, buying the older of my dad’s two vehicles for a far-more-than-reasonable price. That was a couple of weeks away, though, and I wanted a television sooner than that. But how would I get it home from the store?
And I thought of the guys down the hall. We weren’t close friends, but I would run into the two college guys several times a week in the hallways. They’d been in my apartment for beverages once – my record collection fascinated them – and I in theirs a couple of times. They knew I didn’t have a vehicle, and they’d told me that anytime I needed a ride somewhere, just knock on their door. And I looked at my empty TV stand and decided it was time to do just that.
Forty minutes later, the three of us were hauling a boxed television up to my third-floor apartment. We got it in without either of the two cats heading out the door, and we sat for a few moments sipping cold drinks, catching our breaths. Then one of the two guys waved at my record collection and said to the other, “He’d probably know what that song was.” The other fellow nodded, and they told me that the previous evening, listening to a radio station they’d come on by accident, they’d heard a strange but very absorbing song. “It sounded a little like a country song, but it wasn’t a country station,” one of the guys said. “It was like a classic rock station.”
“And the chorus was about two hangmen,” said the other guy. “It was kind of creepy.”
I held up a hand and went to the shelves, and in moments I’d pulled out the album Wanted! Mason Proffitt. I cued up the first track on side two, and the sound of two guitars picking through an introduction came out of the speakers. They listened, and then the narrator began the story:
As I rode into Tombstone on my horse – his name was Mack –
I saw what I’ll relate to you going on behind my back.
It seems the folks were up in arms; a man now had to die
For believin’ things that didn’t fit the laws they’d set aside.
“That’s it,” said one of the guys as I handed him the album jacket. They pored over the notes inside for a few moments as the song continued, and a few minutes later, when group founders John and Terry Talbot and the rest of Mason Proffit got to the chorus, the two college guys raised their heads and stared at the stereo:
And now we’re two hangmen hangin’ from a tree.
That don’t bother me . . .
The chorus went on and on, over and over, above a busy and increasingly loud and dissonant background of voices singing and talking, with some strings sneaking in during the final minute to sweeten the deal. When the song was over, the two guys finished their drinks, one saying to the other, “Man, we have to see if we can find that on CD.” I thanked them again for their help and they headed down the hall toward their apartment.
I let the record play on as I got busy unpacking the new television. And as I did, I thought about “Two Hangmen,” which is undoubtedly the centerpiece of that first album by Mason Proffit. It seemed like anytime anyone heard it for the first time – and I’d included it several times in mixtapes for younger friends who had no memory of 1969 – the song stunned them. I’d heard friends in radio say that anytime they aired the song, the phone lines went crazy with listeners calling in to find out what the hell that song was.
Beyond being a great record, “Two Hangmen” – released as a single on the small Happy Tiger label to no chart success at all, as far as I can find – and the rest of that debut album seemingly served as an announcement by the Talbot brothers et al. that their band was ready to go. With a combination of rock and country that made the band, according to All-Music Guide, “among the first to combine the energy and instrumentation of rock with the subject matter and twang of country,” Mason Proffit released Wanted! Mason Proffitt in 1969. Musically and lyrically, it was a polished and compelling effort. But the album went nowhere, not even reaching the lower portions of the Billboard 200.
Its follow-up, Movin’ Toward Happiness, did get to No. 177 in 1971, and a third album, Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream, went to No. 186 in 1972. While neither of those two records had anything quite as arresting as “Two Hangmen,” they were good records as well. The problem for Mason Proffit, it seemed, was their labels: The first two records were released on the small Happy Tiger label, which was in existence from 1969 to 1971 with what seems an odd roster of talent, according to Wikipedia: Mason Proffit; the group Them; country guitarist Red Rhodes; Priscilla Paris (one-third of the Paris Sisters, who went to No. 5 in 1961 with “I Love How You Love Me”); singer-songwriter Paul Kelly; the Anita Kerr Singers; and an aging Count Basie. After two albums on Happy Tiger, Mason Proffit’s third album came out on another small label, Ampex, which was in existence from 1970 to about 1973.
The band’s chance to move up came in 1972 when Warner Bros. signed the band and released the group’s fourth album, Rockfish Crossing. But the record failed to make the charts, and despite the band’s touring with the Grateful Dead, the group’s fifth album, Bareback Rider, only got to No. 198 on the Billboard 200. That’s when Mason Proffit called it a day.
The Talbot brothers moved toward Christian pop and released the countryish album The Talbot Brothers in 1974; in years to come, John Michael Talbot became one of the best-selling artists in the Contemporary Christian genre, leaving country rock behind him and leaving for the fans of obscure artists one great song:
Mason Proffit – “Two Hangmen” from Wanted! Mason Proffit 
A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 29
“Two Hangmen” by Mason Proffit from Wanted! 
“Overture from ‘Tommy’” by the Assembled Multitude, Atlantic 2737 
“Summer Breeze” by Seals & Crofts, Warner Bros. 7606 
“Can’t You See” by the Marshall Tucker Band from Marshall Tucker Band 
“Upper Mississippi Shakedown” by the Lamont Cranston Band from Shakedown 
“Closing Time” by Leonard Cohen from The Future 
The Assembled Multitude was a collection of studio musicians assembled in Philadelphia by producer Tom Sellers. The group recorded an album of mostly covers – “Ohio,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “MacArthur Park” and “Woodstock” among them – and was likely surprised to find itself with a hit. The group’s cover of the overture to Tommy, the rock opera by the Who, went to No. 16 in the late summer of 1970. I love the French horns.
I’m not sure exactly when Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” was actually released, but it seems that in most markets – according to the Airheads Radio Survey Archive – it got its airplay in the autumn of 1972. (A survey from KLZ-FM in Denver – evidently an album-rock station more than anything—lists the song as a “Featured” record in the third week of July; I don’t know if the jocks there were playing the single or the album track, but I’m inclined to guess the latter.) The point of that is that because of the lyric, I tend to think of “Summer Breeze” as a record from the summer of 1972, not the autumn. (I doubt that I’m alone in that seasonal displacement.) But autumn it was, with the record reaching the Billboard Top 40 on October 21 and peaking at No. 6 for two weeks in late November and early December. Still, the record’s sound – melody, lyrics and that brilliant instrumental hook that frames the verses – was a perfect summation of how good domestic life could be in a summer with the right person.
Even though it’s often lumped in with the southern rock bands of the early 1970s, the Marshall Tucker Band wasn’t quite, to my ears, southern rock. I always thought the band had more country leanings than anything else, and the occasional imaginative instrumentation – like the flute that opens “Can’t You See” – set the band apart from its brethren at Capricorn Records. And that makes “Can’t You See” a great country song, albeit one done by a group that could rock out when the material required it. The version I’m linking to here is the album track from the group’s self-titled 1973 debut; the edit released as a single by Capricorn went to No. 75 in the early autumn of 1977.
The bluesy rock of the Lamont Cranston Band has delighted music fans in the Upper Midwest – and perhaps elsewhere; I’m not sure – since the mid-1970s. And the band continues on: This weekend finds the Lamont Cranston Band with three gigs in Duluth, Minnesota, working the Bayfront Blues Festival on Friday afternoon and closing Grandma’s Sports Garden both Friday and Saturday night. Down here in St. Cloud, the boogie of the “Upper Mississippi Shakedown” continues to be the anthem of the St. Cloud River Bats of the Northwoods League (a league for college players). And there was no way I could leave it out of the Ultimate Jukebox.
With the gently swinging, string-sawing melody and arrangement of “Closing Time,” Leonard Cohen found a perfect musical setting for the acerbic cynicism of his lyrics: The song reads like a surreal tale from a tavern we hope we never find because there would be nothing but disbelief and disappointment for us throughout the evening. And if we truly belong in Cohen’s universe – for this tune and, I tend to think, for many of his others, as well – we’d all be disappointed if we weren’t disappointed by the end of the evening. Still, “Closing Time” is an infectious piece of music and lyrics that grabs hold with a quick touch on the drums and that first sweep of the bow across the strings.
(Attribution added since post was first published.)