While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Infitity Hours From Tulsa

While I was walking to the post office today I found myself humming 'Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa'.

It's probably not cool to know the words to this song (and even less cool to harbour desires of one day getting the chance to show off my Gene Pitney impersonation), but I find myself strangely compelled by it.

History: The song was written by Burt Bacharach (music) and Hal David (lyrics), and while many have covered it since (perhaps most famously: Dusty Springfield) Gene Pitney's version was the first to be released in 1963.

The sound of the song is not too far from Jimmy Webb's compositions from later in the sixties (see: Glen Campbell's 'Wichita Lineman': a thing of beauty; Richard Harris' 'MacArthur Park': too zany not to love). It's the rich, layered ornamentation, I think. Those almost-Mexican horns (Tulsa is only 725 miles from Mexico).

But the lyrics are a long drive from the figurative melt of ‘MacArthur Park’ (or even ‘Up, Up and Away’). Hal David's lyrics read so flat on the page, it's almost childish:

Dearest darlin' I had to write to say that I won't be home anymore
'cause something happened to me while I was drivin' home
And I'm not the same anymore

That’s not rhyming. That’s just saying the same words (home, anymore) twice. The fact is Bacharach’s melody, the instrumentation and Gene Pitney’s voice push the song through till the chorus hits:

Oh, I was only twenty four hours from Tulsa
Ah, only one day away from your arms

That’s the hook that got me humming today on Leith Walk.

For a long time, all I really retained from this song was there was this guy, 24 hours from his girlfriend in Tulsa. Perhaps the ordinariness of the verses explains how the fact he hooked up with a waitress and was no longer returning to Tulsa slipped under the radar for so long.

But the story is redeeming feature of Hal David’s lyrics. This isn’t another sappy separated-love song… it’s actually the cruellest break up song in the history of popular music. Those first three lines I quoted above say he won’t be coming home, but don’t say why. He could be detained with work or had a terrible road accident… It’s not until the waitress appears at the end of the second verse that his hitherto girlfriend (the “you” of the song) realises the obstacle is romantic. *knife-in-heart moment*

And he doesn’t just say, “I found someone else,” - - she gets a blow by blow of the hook up:

as we were dancin'
Closely, all of a sudden I lost control as I held her charms
And I caressed her, kissed her, told her I'd die
Before I would let her out of my arms

*twisting-knife-in-heart moment*

Reading over these lyrics again today, I noticed the similarities between the Bacharach/David song and Jimmy Webb’s ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ (1967). Like ‘Wichita Lineman’, Glen Campbell made the song famous, but you should click here to listen to Jimmy Webb sing it himself (YouTube won’t allow me to embed this particular video).

In Jimmy Webb’s South Western U.S. town-quoting, break-up song, the distance between dumper and dumpee is increasing:

By the time I get to Phoenix she'll be rising…
By the time I make Albuquerque she'll be working…
By the time I make Oklahoma she'll be sleepin'…

Apart from the improbable speeds required to make the journey fit the story, the physical distance increasing makes sense in a break up song, physical distance standing in for emotional distance yadda yadda yadda. But ‘Twenty Four Hours…’ goes the other way. Gene Pitney (et. al.) has driven for at least a full day (the trouble starts when he needs to stop to rest for the night) and is only one sleep away from returning. It still sounds like he loves the “you” he address, calling her darlin’, imagining being in her arms. But no, he’s not the same anymore.


It’s as if everything about the song is engineered to generate maximum pain for the girl he’s breaking up with.

Does this make it a genius song, or just a troubling one?

I’ll stick with my first adjective: compelling.


In searching for YouTube links for the songs mentioned above, I found Karl Pilkington’s explanation of this song, which says similar things. I’m not sure thinking like Karl Pilkington is a good thing -- though he is a published author!

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