The first time I heard this song I was a kid in the mid-1960s, I’m not sure what year, maybe 1967 or so, which would have made me six or seven years old. It’s one of those snippets of memory that jumps out of the general haze; you can’t remember what year it was, how old you were, or much of anything else that might have happened that whole year, but this one moment is frozen with complete clarity in your mind’s eye.
It was a dark winter evening, and I was sitting next to my Mom in the front seat of the car, waiting for a grocery store employee to load our purchases into the trunk. That was the norm back then, the cashier handed you a numbered chit, and you drove around to collect the brown paper bags, which came out of the store in plastic crates on a roller system. Why do it yourself, when the kid can do it? The bins were made of red plastic. I had to push myself up in the seat to see them out the side window. My main perspective from my low perch on the big bench seat in the car was almost straight up through the windshield, looking at some fluorescent lights, and I’m pretty sure we were at one of the IGA chain of stores, because I remember my favourite part of going with Mom to get groceries was getting the little stamps that IGA handed you with each purchase, about the same size as postage stamps, which you licked and stuck into a booklet in a sort of Stone Age version of collecting Air Miles. They called them “Gold Bond Stamps”. It would have been a Thursday – Thursday was grocery day. I even remember the car, or think I do, a dark green Ford Custom, (maybe Custom 500?), which was a classic mid-60s sedan, and might have been one from the 1967 model year. In the dash, glowing a sort of yellow-orange, was one of those AM radios that had the big analog silver buttons under the dial, which you pushed in with a “clunk” to arrive at one of the four or five available pre-set channels. As you pushed one of them in, the one last selected would pop back out. I liked that feature especially. The radio itself sounded awful, I now know, but it was just fine back then. I can still hear the chirpy musical station identifier: “92 C-J-C-H!”
Billy J Kramer’s lovely version of Bacharach’s Trains and Boats and Planes, attached above, was playing on the radio. That’s why I remember the whole tableaux. It was one of the first times I found myself fully enthralled with a melody, which was one of Bacharach’s finest, and the idea of trains, boats, and planes appealed to my young mind – I thought it was a sort of ode to transportation, not a pining love song. Little boys think a lot about machines, especially the bigger ones that move. The song is unconventional for its era, in that it has a bridge, but no chorus, just verses. I think. The farther I go with this Songs of the Day series, the more it seems to me that it’d be better if I knew even the first thing about music theory.
Hal David’s lyrics are typically crisp and emotive:
We were so in love
and high above
we had a star to wish upon
wish, and dreams come true
but not for me
the trains and the boats and planes
took you away, away from me
It’s as if the deflated, lovesick narrator ascribes the motive to the vehicles, not the girl who left him, and thinks maybe some day they’ll decide to bring her back, if only his prayer can cross the sea for them to hear.
In the popular consciousness, Bacharach is not usually put in the pantheon with Lennon, McCartney, and Dylan, but I doubt that professional musicians and songwriters rate him as any less accomplished. His melodies are too sharp, the chords and time signatures too clever and unconventional, for him to be anything but one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th Century. He wasn’t topical, and sure wasn’t about to write Blowin’ in the Wind, or A Day in the Life, but sometimes you aren’t really up for contemplating modern alienation and media-saturated apathy, or railing against the depredations of The Man. Sometimes you just need to hear a sad, beautiful love song.