The Saddest Song in All The World
I've published a new personal essay over on Medium. As that site limits how many stories you can access before hitting a paywall, I'm reprinting it below as well.
Anyone who shares my deep connection with music understands the emotional grip certain songs can have over us. Maybe it’s the song we first heard in college that always transports us back to our freshman dorm room, on the cusp of adulthood, reliving that emerging sense of escape and independence; or the song our friend cranked up at that party back in high school, the one that always reminds us of our first big crush, the one that got away.
It could be one of those go-to tracks we blast in the car whenever we need a pick-me-up, the giddy rave-up that makes us inexplicably, deliriously happy, no matter how many times we’ve spun it.
And then there are the sad songs.
We’ve all got those darker records we reach for when we’re in a funk and just want to ride it out, minor chords and moody aesthetics, your Leonard Cohens and Joy Divisions. Or that emotionally devastating lyric that always makes us tear up — I hear the Mountain Goats lament an abusive childhood with the proclamation, “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me,” and I’m a quivering mess.
Sometimes, though, the sadness brought on by a particular piece of music has nothing to with a foreboding musical aesthetic or sorrowful lyrics. Indeed, there are instances where a perfectly benign song, pleasant even, nonetheless triggers an uncontrollable rush of melancholy. Something about the song, through the memories and associations it conjures, totally shatters me, even decades after I first heard it.
I’m talking, of course, about the closing theme of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Roll The Credits
The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a hugely successful, critically-acclaimed sit-com that ran from 1970 to 1977, a central cog in CBS’s now-legendary Saturday night line-up. Moore played Mary Richards, a single, professional woman at a time when most women on tv were, first and foremost, wives and mothers. Even if you’re too young to remember the series, you may be familiar with its theme song. “Love Is All Around” is one of the most indelibly infectious tunes in all of television (right up there with the theme from Cheers). The first line alone — “Who can turn the world on with her smile?” — is one of the all-time great opening salvos.
Here, let’s check it out:
As is the case with many television shows, the ending credits rolled over an instrumental, easy-listening version of the opening theme. It changed a little from season to season (bold and brassy early on, more smoke-filled piano bar later on), but here’s what it sounded like during the show’s third (1972–73) season:
And as a child, Saturdays were magical.
Having a break from school obviously played a big part in making Saturdays special. Even on Sundays, I had religious school in the morning. But Saturday was a blank slate. It’s not that I didn’t like school — that would come later, in those angst-ridden, adolescent middle-school years — but, as a somewhat shy, introverted child without many close friends, I didn’t have any great love for it, either.
More than just a respite from school, Saturdays meant long hours splayed out by the television. Though my parents weren’t unusually strict about screen time — I could usually squeeze in some Batman and Monkees reruns after school, and catch the Six Million Dollar Man on Sunday nights — they tried to keep it to a minimum on weeknights. But they loosened up on Saturdays.
As my parents slept in, my little brother and I would wake up early, grab a quick Pop Tart, and camp out by the family room television. We had our pick of cartoons, Scooby-Doo and Super Friends and animated versions of shows like Star Trek and the Brady Bunch. We’d do the math along with the recently-launched Multiplication Rock educational shorts (later Schoolhouse Rock as they expanded into grammar and American history). And we’d be weirded out by the strangely inventive live-action shows from the Sid & Marty Krofft studio, like H.R. Pufnstuf and Lidsville (and, later, Land of the Lost), whose psychedelic milieu, populated by creepy humanoid puppets and anthropomorphic talking hats and magical flutes, would take on a whole new dimension when revisited during herbally-enhanced late-night viewing sessions in college.
Eventually our parents would come downstairs, and my mother would make us chocolate-chip pancakes, or maybe my father would break out the waffle iron, always a nice change from the hastily-wolfed-down bowl of cereal on a school day. Or we’d go meet our grandparents for brunch, getting one of the notorious caramelized apple pancakes at Walker Brothers down the road in Evanston. (Look, we were Jewish, a large part of our lives revolved around meals.)
In the afternoons, I’d hang out with my friend Jeff, who lived across the street, traipsing around the neighborhood on endlessly elongated summer days or skating on the frozen creek behind his house in the dead of winter. Or, in the warmer months, I’d head up north with my dad to the lakes near the Illinois-Wisconsin border, tooling around on our ski boat, grabbing a pizza and a Fanta at one of the dive bars dotting the shoreline. (Soda being something else, like television, doled out sparingly on weekdays but indulged on the weekend.)
Other times I’d disappear for hours, traversing the suburban wasteland on my emerald green Schwinn Stingray with the banana seat. (I loved that bike, which I picked up for five bucks from the wild kid down the block, the one who took up smoking before he was even a teenager; only later did I discover it was stolen.) This was, of course, back in an era when parents had no qualms about kids going off the grid all afternoon (as long as we were back for dinner), a far cry from the active helicoptering that seemed the norm when my wife and I were raising our own children.
In the evening, though, it was time for round two in front of the television, absorbing that renowned CBS Saturday night line-up. While it fluctuated over the course of the decade, the 1972–1973 season was particularly epic. It would kick off with All in the Family, reliably funny even if its progressive politics, filtered through the ironic bigotry of Archie Bunker, were largely lost on me at the time; this was followed by M*A*S*H, and then, at 8:00, Mary Tyler Moore. Like All in the Family, MTM wove some unusually contemporary themes into its traditional sit-com tropes, and while I may not have grasped their significance at the time, the show’s feminist mindset undoubtedly shaped my thinking.
Sometimes my mother would watch with me, providing the cues for when I should and shouldn’t be laughing, while my father would putter around in the basement with his model trains. More often, my parents would hire one of the teenage girls in the neighborhood to babysit me and my brother while they went out for dinner and a movie. That was even better, as most of the babysitters could be cajoled into letting me stay up a little later. Maybe I’d squeeze in the Bob Newhart Show, though its humor could be a little dry for me. As I got older, I’d sometimes get to stay up for the Carol Burnett Show; the gags were a little creaky even then, but Tim Conway invariably cracked me up.
Still, in the earlier years, it was the Mary Tyler Moore Show that typically wrapped up my day. As the credits rolled, that closing theme music signaled another Saturday night reaching its end. And that feeling of closure, of finality, has remained entangled with those musical strains ever since, that sense of resignation that can still overtake me when those distinctive piano notes ring out. The music meant Sunday was almost here, and Sunday, the dwindling edge of the weekend, always felt like a futile effort to stave off another deluge of weekdays, an early precursor to the creeping pre-work-week malaise that would become far more acute in adulthood.
Later that decade, my teen years almost palpable on the horizon, something else became enmeshed in that piece of music.
Saturday Night Live debuted in 1975. Still only nine years old, I couldn’t watch it right away; my sway with the babysitters only went so far. But by the second or third season, once Bill Murray had replaced Chevy Chase and joined John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, and the rest of the cast, I could negotiate my way to at least a partial viewing, with the promise that I’d run upstairs as soon as we heard my parents’ car pull into the garage.
And Saturday Night Live was nothing like the CBS evening line-up. Once you’d seen a gibberish-spouting John Belushi pull out a Samurai sword as a deli implement, or Dan Ackroyd-as-Julia-Child cut his finger and spray quarts of blood into the air, or Bill Murray sing a lounge-lizard take on the Star Wars theme… well, those earlier shows started to feel rather quaint and unsatisfying. The predictable sit-com one-liners, the broad silliness of the Carol Burnett skits, felt hollow and passé next to the transgressive, tightrope-walking humor of SNL, funny for reasons that couldn’t be explained (and which, re-watching today, can feel pretty cringe-worthy stripped of their mid-70s novelty).
Still, the foibles of Mary Richards and her colleagues remained part of my weekend television regimen; but that closing music came to mean something different. Already deeply associated with Saturday evenings, those piano notes now marked a delineation of sorts, a breaking point between the early evening’s sense of innocence and the subversive danger of SNL’s late-night revolution. That music started to feel swaddled not just in Saturday’s waning moments, but in the fading of childhood itself.
Waking Up Feeling Old
In the spring of 1977, shortly before I finished elementary school and headed off to junior high, Moore decided to call it a day and walk away from the show.
Once off the air, there was no reason for me to encounter that closing theme again. Sure, I’ve occasionally given in to nostalgia and checked out a rerun, the rolling of the outro music still bringing on that enduring feeling of relentless sadness. Yet the occasions for such viewings are few and far-between; however forward-looking it may have been for its time, the show doesn’t really translate to a modern age, groundbreaking comedies like Seinfeld and the Office and, especially, Arrested Development, souring me on the tired plot set-ups and simple jokes and cloying laugh tracks of traditional sit-coms.
The opening theme has enjoyed an extended after-life, with post-punk trio Hüsker Dü (whose hometown of Minneapolis served as the show’s backdrop) and Joan Jett (whose significance as a feminist icon rivals Moore’s) recording amped-up punk-pop cover versions; but that instrumental reprise isn’t the sort of thing that pops up on shuffle play. So, really, that should have been that.
Or so I’d thought.
Have you ever heard a song for the first time and been overwhelmed with a sense of déjà vu, an unshakeable conviction that there is something hauntingly familiar about it?
Wilco’s Summerteeth album arrived in 1999. It was the one that won me over to the band, as frontman Jeff Tweedy moved beyond the Americana and classic rock roots of his prior work into complex, Paul McCartney-esque pop and mature, heartrending balladry. And while the album is littered with amazing songs from start to finish, there was one track that spooked me.
“When You Wake Up Feeling Old” is a gentle, mid-tempo tune, with a wistful melody and lyrics portentous with longing and a hint of nostalgia. Yet what surprised me was this sense of odd familiarity, something I couldn’t quite place, until at some point it dawned on me — sometime between the first spin and the hundredth — that what I was hearing was a subtle nod to that Mary Tyler Moore Show closing music.
I’ve tried to isolate a few seconds from each piece of music. Maybe I’m imagining something; maybe not. Try it for yourself.
Unlike the closing music to a long-gone television show, this particular song, a stand-out on one of my all-time favorite albums, isn’t something I can, or would want to, avoid hearing.
So I’m stuck with it. And no matter when or where, I play that Wilco song and I feel like that kid watching another Saturday night slipping away, an indefinable but certain conviction that a part of me is disappearing, forever.
Like so many things, the pandemic has changed the way I interact with music. Unable to travel, trapped within a constrained perimeter from home — the occasional errand, a walk with friends, that Mediterranean take-out place — we have to create our own internal journeys just to stay sane.
Music has always provided me with escape, and the most personal music has been that which can transport me: to another place, another time; often another life. I can momentarily disappear from my year-long lock-down and see the world through the inner lives of myriad characters real and imagined.
But music also transports me to other times in my own life. I can crank up a New Order song and slip into that carefree pre-party bliss of my college years; or ease into a recording of a Grateful Dead concert and feel myself kicking back on the lawn of the outdoor arena as the sun disappeared out of view.
Given the hardships of the past year, I’d rather be visiting these happier times and places; the last thing I need is to be transported into these more melancholy moments, to wallow in bittersweet nostalgia tinged with a sense of loss. But sometimes, the music’s going to take me there as well, and I have no choice but to come along for the ride.