Poor Jenny

It is an immutable rule of pop music that if you have a smash hit, you try to find something similar to catch the wave. So, when the Everly Brothers hit with “Wake Up, Little Susie,” it was inevitable that Felice and Boudleaux Bryant would try to write a follow-up. The fiEverly brothersrst hit was about a boy and girl falling asleep at the movies and waking up to the realization that no one would believe them and their reputations were shot. So, where to go with that?

Their answer was a monument to adolescent male self-absorption and fecklessness, which reached the top forty in 1959 but had nothing like the success of its predecessor or its flip side, “Take a Message to Mary.” In a way, it’s a mirror-image of that song, which has a man singing to his lady love from a jail cell, where he is imprisoned for a stagecoach robbery and murder, except…

In this one it’s the girl who’s in jail, and the circumstances are a lot less romantic. Basically, the boy took her out on a date, it went very wrong, she has been abused and vilified, and he is worried that she may be upset with him and he may get in trouble.

I found this on an Everly Brothers double-LP retrospective in the Cambridge Public Library, and just like the Bryants and Everlys I picked it as a follow-up to “Wake Up, Little Susie,” but it never worked. Part of the reason may be that I got the chords completely wrong, flattening out one of the Bryants’ most interesting compositions, but honestly I think their fancy harmonies just added to the basic problem — which is that the song is supposed to be goofy and funny, but the story is nasty and upsetting, and told with enough specificity that it’s hard to overlook the nastiness.

I still like it, but it’s dark comedy: the story is just this side of date rape — hell, we don’t even know what happened after the boy left — but our narrator has that incredible teenage male ability to see nothing but his own needs and worries. Despite his constant efforts to seem sympathetic — that concern for “poor Jenny” — it’s all about him, and what may happen to him, and whether she’ll forgive him.

To me, that’s one of the fascinating things about the pop music of the late 1950s and early 1960s — after the teen market was discovered, and before the Beatles and the apotheosis of Motown. Producers who had grown up in a different world didn’t understand the teen market but desperately wanted to cash in, so they set hundreds of young songwriters and singers loose to experiment, and although most of the results were less than stellar, the naked attempt to express teen attitudes and feelings succeeded to a degree that is kind of amazing, though by no means always pretty.

And, on another level, there is a degree of innocence that makes me nostalgic, because I was a teenage boy when I learned this and pretty feckless myself, and it never occurred to me back then that anything genuinely dreadful might have happened to the girl — just like, when I sang “Wake Up, Little Susie,” it never occurred to me that they might not really have fallen asleep.