Blinking Out An SOS

Eleven days have passed since Daryl “The Captain” Dragon’s death, and in that time I’ve written three drafts of a Captain & Tennille story. Each was a conventional Why It Matters story, a music memoir piece that articulated my memories stirred by the soft rock duo’s music.

If any of the three drafts had been successful I suppose I would have numbered it 6A and slotted it right after this one, because while I’m not a Captain & Tennille fan there’s no denying their presence in my life’s soundtrack. I spanned ages eight through ten while the duo was at the height of their popularity–a Song of the Year Grammy, a hit variety show on ABC, power rotation on AM radio–and it was also during this period that my family fell apart for a little while. The gist of all three drafts was that this period of my childhood started with “Love Will Keep Us Together” and ended with “Shop Around,” as if the Captain and Tennille’s singles were tarot cards divining the state of my parents’ relationship during the mid-’70s.

Each draft included a little something that was okay even if the overall story failed. Some of these include:

  • The early ’70s resurgence of former teen stars Neil Sedaka, who wrote “Love Will Keep Us Together,” and Paul Anka, who didn’t, can probably be explained by my generation’s parents reaching middle age around that time. I didn’t know many (okay, any) kids who were spinning “(You’re) Having My Baby.” The teen couples who danced to “Calendar Girl” were now thirty-somethings separating to “Bad Blood.”
  • Some nice details about the Chicago suburbs circa 1975: station wagons and bicycles; dads hurdling bags of garbage during their morning jogs and moms drinking breakfast Cokes beneath cheap copies of Eric Enstrom’s “Grace,” the once ubiquitous image of an old man praying over his daily bread that hung in every family’s kitchen or breakfast nook; John “Records” Landecker at WLS, the DJ that every kid in Chicago followed as if he were the Pied Piper.
  • A couple of decent school bus scenes, one in which the girls on the bus sang “Shop Around” the morning after the Captain and Tennille performed it on their variety show, and another where pretty much everybody on the bus sang the Spinners’ “Rubberband Man” after the duo performed it on their show.
  • My boyhood crush on Toni Tennille. I watched quite a few YouTube clips while writing those three drafts, including the aforementioned “Rubberband Man” performance, and I still think she was hot.
  • My childhood conviction that the Captain was a nice, quiet, and shy man who would make a really good dad–a position that happened to be open in my family at the time.

Inevitably, each draft failed because they were built upon the faulty premise that the Captain and Tennille were a happy couple who performed happy love songs. While it’s true that “Love Will Keep Us Together” was a huge hit at a time when as far as I knew my parents needed nothing but love to cement their bond, it’s not the love song that its bouncy melody and Tennille’s perky delivery suggests. Rather, the song’s lyrics portray a jealous, insecure speaker. In the first verse “some sweet talking girl comes along,” leading the speaker to beg her partner, “Don’t mess around, you’ve just got to be strong.” Later she reminds him that he “belongs to me now / Ain’t gonna set you free now.” That’s borderline “it puts the lotion in the basket” territory, but it’s not even the worst of it. The song’s most corrosive verse goes straight for the jugular:

Young and beautiful
But someday your looks will be gone
When the others turn you off
Who’ll be turning you on?

The answer, of course, is “I will.” Only I could possibly love you when you’re old and ugly! Why look anywhere else?! “Love Will Keep Us Together” might be second only to the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” as the most misunderstood “love song” of all time.

Neil Sedaka wrote “Love Will Keep Us Together,” but Toni Tennille may as well have. While the Captain and Tennille were marketed as some sort of perfect couple, a kind of cuddly Sonny and Cher, perhaps, this was the first of many songs that the duo recorded that gave voice to the couple’s dysfunctional relationship. Many of those songs were written by Tennille, who revealed recently that they were musical pleas to her emotionally absent husband. Watch footage of the couple on stage and you’ll see Tennille punctuate particularly significant lyrics with a glance at Dragon (go to the 55 second mark of the clip below, for an example). You don’t need to infer trouble from stage cues, though: From her descriptions of their 39 year marriage, a picture emerges of Daryl Dragon as a man battling significant mental health issues and Tennille as the long suffering spouse who can’t get let go of her conviction that she can fix what’s broken inside of him.

Viewed through that lens, the Captain and Tennille’s entire catalog of sugary pop hits, with exception maybe to “Muskrat Love,” takes on a tragic poignancy: “Lonely night, I cry myself to sleep / Tell me, what am I gonna do”; “Used to call me angel face / You used to help me through the night”; “Before you take a man and say I do / Make sure he’s in love with you.” Perhaps the most heartbreaking song choice wasn’t penned by Tennille, Sedaka, or Smokey Robinson, but rather Melissa Manchester. “Come In From the Rain” served as the title track to the duo’s third album. Read the lyrics from the perspective of a spouse trying desperately to connect with her distant partner and the emotional weight is nearly unbearable:

It’s a long road
When you’re all alone
And someone like you
Will always take the long way home
There’s no right or wrong
I’m not here to blame
I just want to be the one
Who keeps you from the rain.

A neighbor lady gave my sisters and me a copy of Come In From the Rain for Christmas in 1977, a gift that was confusing for a couple of reasons: How do you split an album three ways, and why did that nice lady think I would want 1/3 of an old people record? But I liked the album cover’s depiction of a perfect family–the contented bulldogs, the roaring fire, the tea and cookies.  Tennille looks so happy there on the floor, hugging the Captain’s knee.

But look again. The Captain’s expression lingers somewhere between anguish and that of a prisoner of war blinking out an SOS. Tennille’s posture mirrors that of the bulldog on our left. The dogs are welcome on the furniture but the wife isn’t. Like a seemingly sunny Captain and Tennille song, the album cover carries a bleak, stormy subtext that their fans overlooked. All they wanted to see was a happy couple singing simple love songs.

Maybe there’s some lesson here in the nature of reality and perception. Maybe a song is a love song if that’s what we decide it is, regardless of its lyrical content. Maybe the complexities of a marital crisis can’t be articulated as an arc starting with “Love Will Keep Us Together” and ending with “Shop Around.” Maybe happiness isn’t an emotion but rather a perception, or love sometimes is possessiveness masquerading as love.

The Captain and Tennille divorced after 39 years of marriage that were, for at least one spouse, emotionally unfulfilling but creatively satisfying. But even divorce wasn’t the end of their relationship: Tennille was at Dragon’s side when he passed away.

Stories are tidy but life is messy, and that’s probably why my three drafts of a Captain & Tennille musical memoir just didn’t work. Things aren’t always what they appear to be, not even in the bright, smiling universes of childhood memories and love songs.


6 replies »

  1. Been there, experienced that. For seven and a half years I was Lee’s emotional crutch and crisis fireman. Yes there we had some great times and deep passion, but there was always the ticking emotional time bomb waiting to randomly explode. I was arrogant enough to believe I could save him, but ultimately realized I lacked the magical curative powers he needed. I finally came to understand that I only had the power to save myself from emotional ruin and so I let go. Making that decision led to the best years of my life. Now when I see someone in a similar relationship I am equally sure of why he should leave and not surprised he stays.

    Liked by 2 people

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