Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Gene Pitney, “Mecca

I host a world music show, “Interzone Radio,” every Tuesday night from 6-8 PM, on the local student radio station, KXUA 88.3 FM. (You can listen online at kxua.com.) One of the songs I played tonight was Gene Pitney’s “Mecca,” which reached #12 in the US rock/pop charts in mid-April 1963. I played it because it’s an early example of rock ‘n’ roll “exotica,” and just really weird. It opens with a vaguely Eastern sounding oboe, playing a riff that sounds like what passed for snake charmer music in all the cartoons I saw growing up in the ‘50s. But it’s the lyrics that are the most remarkable:

I live on the West side, she lives on the East side of the street
And though they say that East is East and West is West
And never the twain shall meet
Each morning I face her window and pray that our love can be
'cause that brownstone house where my baby lives
Is Mecca, Mecca to me

Oh she's my dream goddess and her ruby lips are so diviine
And though her folks say we're too young to know of love
I worship at her shrine
Each morning I face her window and pray that our love can be
'cause that brownstone house where my baby lives
Is Mecca, Mecca to me

According to wikipedia, some consider Pitney’s “Mecca” to be a precursor to the explosion of Eastern-tinged rock psychedelia, said to have been inaugurated by the Beatles with their 1965 album Rubber Soul. I think it’s a mistake to see the incorporation of “Eastern” music into US popular culture as a kind of revolution launched by drug-taking, free-thinking hippies. Contrary to the arguments in Edward Said’s book Orientalism, US pop culture has been much more open and sympathetic to Middle Eastern influences than is often imagined. Belly dance music from the Middle East, for instance, was quite hip in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. (Some documentation of this is given in Incredibly Strange Music Vols. I & II [from RE/Search].) Check out radiobastet.net to see the risqué covers of belly dance albums that were popular during this period, and for downloads. In the late 50s and early 60s, it was quite the thing for urban and suburban Americans to visit bellydance clubs in the city, particularly in New York. (And note that this was decidedly a middle class activity, not that of a youth subculture.)

So I would argue that Pitney’s Top Forty hit about a man in love who prays in the direction of Mecca does not prefigure sixties Eastern psychedelia but in fact fits with cultual sensibilites at the time. Note finally that the song was co-authored by Neval Nader (with John Gluck Jr). I’ve been unable to find out anything about Nader, except that he and Gluck penned hits for other singers like The Romantics and Bobby Vee during this period. Nader is an Arab name, most likely Lebanese, and Christian.

(Thanks to Bob Vitalis for turning me on to this song.)


Lyn said...

Excellent post, especially about the song's wider context. I found it while writing my own post on Mecca, and ended up referring to yours and linking to it.


pclifto said...

I love this song. So evocative and brilliantly handled by Pitney.

Just a thought - would this song be seen as somewhat politically incorrect in 2008?