Sometimes, rarely, you hear a song on the radio that rakes up your soul. I remember feeling that way the first time I heard "Vincent" by Don McLean, and "Sam Stone" by John Prine ("There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes . . . ") and "Midnight Train to Georgia," with Gladys cackling out that final surrender. These songs can muss you up a little. Shake your complacency. It's the power and the magic of music.
Another one of those songs is on the radio these days. It's got the magic:
Dry Clean DEE-po', a dollar seventy-five
Dry Clean DEE-po', in by nine, out by five
Ninety-nine cents for laundered shirts
Try Dry Clean DEE-po'
And you'll believe toooo.
That's it. Twelve-point-five seconds, start to finish. It's sung in roiling, growling gospel-blues by a woman who dudn't take no crap from no man. (I am guessing here.) She's big, in more ways than one. (Still guessing.) She smokes, in more ways than one. She's been around the block, twice. If she dudn't like you she does that thing with her eyes when she looks you down and up and goes pfft, and you have to slink away and die. (Still guessing, but reasonably sure.)
I'm not a professional music critic, but I can state with authority that "ninety-nine cents for laundered shirts" is a world-class lyric when snarled in a bourbon-sexy voice over a wailing R&B band and doo-wop backup. But the main reason I love this song, the real reason it touches me, is simply that it's out there, on the radio.
It's a jingle. When's the last time you heard an original really good jingle?
Jingles died out 10 years ago, for the most part, when big companies began to realize that it costs a lot less to pay licensing fees for an old song than pay someone to come up with a brand-new one. This has led to famously dreadful misappropriations, such as James Brown's "I Feel Good" as the coda for Senokot, a stool softener. (Brown apparently needed the money.) The most tragic victim of this crime was Steve Goodman, the great folk singer who penned "The City of New Orleans," the buttkickingest railroad song ever written, and then died of leukemia at the age of 36. Not to worry. Steve lives. His opening lyric to that song, "Good mor-nin', America, how are ya?" now echoes forevermore, like a lonely freight train disappearin' into America's past, enshrined as the jingle for Ex Lax.
This is why I've been bitter, okay?
And then along came Dry Clean Depot. Fixed me right up.
I think of jingles as real art, because, like all real art, they traffic in honesty. They are what they are, naked in their commercialism, completely without pretense. Yet they strive not only for beauty, but also immortality. They aim to auger their way into your brain, and stay there forever.
That's where the greatest jingle of all time, the Firestone jingle, resides. It first rumbled into my head in 1966, like a six-ton semi. It's still there:
Wherever wheels are ROLL-in'
No matter what the LOAD
The name that's known
Where the rubber meets the road.
Jingles are a vestige of the era in which businesses were an extension of individual creativity rather than just a product of market research. Jingles happily marry song and commerce, signifying that there is artistry to the exchange of goods and services. (Their replacement, the pasteurized pop rip-offs, signifies the opposite, the corruption of art for commerce--a victory for cynicism, opening a yawning gap between consumer and merchant.)
As with some art, it is helpful in understanding a jingle not merely to see the final product but to envision the act of creation; you can't really appreciate a Jackson Pollock without recapitulating, in your mind, the kinetic fury behind that mad, meticulous splattering and dripping.
So, too, must you imagine the creation of a great jingle. A great jingle is catchy, well orchestrated, performed with animal enthusiasm, and yet the message is splendidly pedestrian. Imagine the recording session: The singer, the arranger, the sax player, the keyboard man, the sound technician, the backups, all masters of their craft, some who have known fame, or danced on the edge of fame, some yet to taste it, all veterans of half-empty saloons with half-drunk yahoos demanding "Louie, Louie," all of them sweet musicians with semisweet lives, all harboring milk chocolate dreams, getting paid good money by some geek in a suit to produce:
Hour Eyes--Doc-tors of op-TOM-etry.
It must be a hoot! You think these guys don't savor the irony?
To research this point, I called Randy Lievan, the president of Dry Clean Depot, at his home in San Diego. He was delighted to hear from The Washington Post and opined that the true tragedy in America today is that some other dry cleaning establishments charge more for ladies' garments than for men's on the specious theory that women's clothes are harder to launder because they have darts.
"It's a big lie!" he said.
Lievan also very much regrets that health laws prohibit dry cleaners from accepting clothes soiled with something dreadfully bad, if you catch his drift. "It's sad because that's when people really need to have it cleaned."
Lievan says the Dry Clean Depot jingle was produced in 1997 and he figured it would last a short time, but he still gets seven or eight e-mails a day from people all over the country saying they cannot get it out of their heads. They're not complaining, he emphasizes.
He wouldn't tell me what the jingle cost him, but said it was plenty, because a real pro produced it. Gary Withem is a high school music teacher, but he wasn't always a high school music teacher.
"He was the keyboard man for Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. You're talking about a man who toured with the Beatles!"
Withem also wrote
Dixie Cups are sensible--they're only nineteen cents-ible, too!
This all fit nicely with my theme about how jingles are produced--tasting fame and dreaming dreams and semisweet chocolate and everything. I told Lievan how good I was at scoping out this sort of thing. I asked him to tell me all about the big, bad, chain-smokin', man-eatin' gospel babe who sings the Dry Clean Depot jingle.
"She was a tiny little thing."
Her name is Jennifer Arana. She was 18 years old when it was recorded.
"Sweet kid. A high school classmate of my son."