Monday, August 28, 2006

Top 300 Favorite Songs of All Time I: Love Potion #9
Love and Loss at 34th and Vine
One of my Top 300 Favorite Songs of All Time is Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Love Potion #9, recorded by The Clovers in 1959 (recorded on June 8, it was released in July on United Artists) and a bigger hit for The Searchers in 1965. The laidback-but-totally-in-control singing and instrumental backing epitomizes ’50s cool and Jerry Leiber’s lyrics never fail to knock me out. Take the first verse:
I took my troubles down to Madame Ruth
You know, the gypsy with the gold-capped tooth
She’s got a pad on 34th and Vine
Selling little bottles of Love Potion #9
The first great thing is that Leiber starts in the middle of the story. The singer doesn’t say what his troubles are, exactly, though we can guess they’re love-related from the name of the song. But there’s no lead in, no enumeration of what he’s been going through. It’s as if we were passing him on the street as he’s talking to one of his friends. A more linear writer might have started with a sad story of love troubles that led to the gypsy’s storefront but it would have been a less interesting song.
I told her that I was a flop with chicks,
I’ve been this way since 1956.
She looked at my palm and she made a magic sign,
She said “What you need is Love Potion #9.”
Another great thing is the concrete images. The narrator has been a flop with chicks not for years but since 1956; Madame Ruth doesn’t work downtown, she has a pad at 34th and Vine (an intersection that doesn’t exist, at least not in Los Angeles); and she has not just one but a line of love potions, the most powerful of which is Love Potion #9.

Could Love Potion #9 be a sly reference to Chanel No 5, the famous perfume known by a number rather than a name? Chanel mentions on its Web site that the perfume’s packaging was added to the Museum of Modern Art’s design collection in 1959. It’s possible that the publicity around the addition gave Leiber and Stoller the germ of the idea for Love Potion #9.

After Madame Ruth diagnoses the singer’s love trouble she’s ready to supply him with the cure. And she is one funky gypsy. No FDA-inspected laboratory for her, she just takes all the ingredients and goes to work in the kitchen sink.
She bent down and turned around, and gave me a wink.
She said, “I’m going to mix it up right here in the sink.”
It smelled like turpentine and looked like India Ink.
I held my nose, I closed my eyes—I took a drink!
In contrast to Chanel No 5, which the fashion house tells us “launches with bewitching notes of Ylang-Ylang and Neroli, then unfolds with Grasse Jasmine and May Rose,” while “sandalwood and Vanilla round out the fabled composition with unforgettable woody notes,” Love Potion #9 smells like turpentine and looks like India Ink. This is clearly a desperate man.

The potion goes right to work. The next verse follows right after the bridge (the instrumental break comes after this verse) so we don’t lose any time in learning what happened after the fateful drink.
I didn’t know [if] it was-a day or night,
I started kissing everything in sight.
But when I kissed the cop at 34th and Vine
He broke my little bottle of Love Potion #9.
(On the album, the last two lines are “I had so much fun that I'm going back again, I wonder what happens with Love Potion #10.”)

It’s a wonderful image, the poor guy kissing everything in sight (not a cow, though, as some misheard), but isn’t a love potion supposed to make someone fall in love with you? I thought the deal was that you slip to it some young lovely and then stand back, like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Tristan und Isolde. Either Madame Ruth got some of the ingredients mixed up or the singer drank the potion he was supposed to give to the object of his desire. So if he was a flop with chicks before, he was damn sure going to be the same flop after he swigged down his bottle.

Love Potion #9 is poignant little story set to music. In close to 150 words and less than two minutes we move from passion to pain, hope to defeat. No one is changed, but maybe that’s the lesson: You won’t find love by drinking a gypsy’s cockamamie concoction.


Shawn's said...

We had the Cornell Gunter Coasters at our performing arts center last night in Blackfoot Idaho. They offered up thier "new" CD with a lot of classics on it. One new addition is Love Potion #10. I bought it for my mom and had it signed. I have not heard the song yet and came across your site while looking for it. Can't wait to hear about that next bottle of love potion! I'll try to find your blog again after I get the lyrics!

Joshua said...

There's no 34th and Vine in Philadelphia, either. 34th Street runs N-S west of the Schuylkill River, while Vine Street run E-W only east of the river.

Tom said...

According to Google Maps, there is a 34th and Vine in Coos Bay, OR.

John Cowan said...

Joshua: That's because Vine St. is now the Expressway. Note the reference to "turpentine": as my dad (1904-1993) taught me:

Chestnut, Walnut, Spruce, and Pine,
Market, Arch, Race, and Vine,
Tar and Wood and Turpentine.

Wood St. survives, but isn't full length: Tar and Turpentine are gone. I think that they were the honky-tonk district, so building the Expressway was a kind of slum clearance.