Posts Tagged ‘Shirelles’

Veterans Day & ‘Soldier Boy’

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

It’s Veterans Day here in the United States, a day we remember all of those who’ve served in the uniforms of our armed forces. And I’m doing something I’ve thought about for three years.

Here’s Dave Marsh’s comment on “Soldier Boy.”  In 1989, in The Heart of Rock & Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, he ranked the song No. 149:

Down at the bus stop, you’d see them every morning, books clutched to their car coats, high-rise bouffants frosted in the early chill, wearing too much makeup and already, at fifteen or sixteen, a few too many pounds. I did not know their names and you can be certain they didn’t know mine. These weren’t girls who paid attention to guys their own age; they’d have given up on scoring with the jocks or any of the inside crowd and the rest of us were, well, not worth so much as a glance. Not because they were snobs; because they feared the names that “smart kids” would call them, which began and ended in the catchall designation, “slut.”

So I’ll never know for certain if the scraps of conversation you’d pick up from sitting near them told the whole story, or whether it’s really fair to fill in many details. But if you watched and listened, you heard stories that implied an experience no guy of my acquaintance could have boasted, a matter-of-fact knowingness about sex and men and the world at large that the college-bound among us didn’t suspect. These girls might as well already have been women, because their lives were already laid out for them around a narrow set of alternatives: hasty postgraduation marriage and too many pregnancies too soon or else a job at Kroger’s or wherever else they needed a check-out clerk, some job you might be able to get without even a diploma. Or getting knocked up and having the guy ditch her. Or getting knocked up and deciding to have a still-illegal abortion with the risk of being ruined or killed.

Living in those mid-America tank towns back then, you knew all sorts of stories like those, just like you know the stories of their boyfriends, including the one summed up in that line that goes zipping by in “Born in the U.S.A.”: “Got in a little hometown jam, so they put a rifle in my hand.” Off they went, and after a while, you began to notice that not all of them came back. But mostly they did, and while it would be obscene to argue that that was worse, it would be unfair to exaggerate how much.

By the time they were juniors, maybe a little earlier, a lot of those bouffant girls at the bus stop would have boyfriends serving somewhere overseas, most likely in Germany or a quiescent Korea, where bullets did not fly but nights were long and temptations many. Because the barriers between us were huge, I’m guessing again, but maybe they were just devoted pen pals, not doing so well in the high school scene and so transferring their need to be needed to more distant objects. A lot of these same girls were the first to catch on to the Beatles, and the first to go really mad for one or another of the guys, the ultimate sexual unobtainables. Some of them had already figured that game out before the British Invasion, and they were the most loyal fans of local rock groups, often better ones than the style-setters at school listened to.

But sometimes, I suspect, those girls had real relationships with guys “in the service,” not just paper ones, and their lonely nights must have been especially bereft because it was hard enough to land a guy, let alone worry about his existence a continent and an ocean away. Reputations are easy to come by and hard to get rid of, especially in your own mind. And so (I’m guessing again) they fretted.

I mention all this because everything I’ve read about “Soldier Boy” treats its enormous popularity as a mystery. Written on the spot in the studio and recorded in the final few minutes of a session, it strikes other critics and historians as perfunctory and tossed off, its unison harmonies and the unison instrumental break shared by organ and guitar insufficiently elaborated.

But whenever I’ve heard “Soldier Boy,” it’s made me think of those girls and their boyfriends, each of them lost and confused in a world that they not only didn’t understand very well but which manifestly did not like them. And so they found each other, and so they were dragged apart, and so they wondered and pledged and pleaded: “In this whole world, you can love but one girl / Let me be that one girl / For I’ll be true to you.”

Somehow, in a barracks or a bedroom, those sweetly voiced lines must have helped a few million heads lay more comfortably upon their pillows. And so there’s no mystery at all, really, except how so many people can stand right before our eyes and not be seen. Or heard.

“Soldier Boy” spent thirteen weeks in the Top 40 in the spring of 1962 and was No. 1 for three weeks. It was the seventh of the Shirelles’ twelve Top 40 hits.

My thanks to those who’ve served.

(Excerpt from The Heart of Rock & Soul, ©Dave Marsh, 1989)