Perfect Records: Everything That Touches You

Considering two of their hits rank among the most-played radio songs of all time, and being the quintessential “sunshine pop” band – that gauzy form of slightly psych-damaged harmony that rose in the wake of the Beach Boys’ post-Pet Sounds commercial decline – it’s surprising that the Association are not better remembered in the admittedly crowded pantheon of ’60s pop music.

It’s likely that the band fell victim to the same brand of hipster bias that the Monkees or the late period Beach Boys experienced, probably compounded by the band’s uneasiness with their own image. Debuting in 1966 as the last of the prep-rock bands, replete with relatively short hair and matching sport suits, by 1969 they had become so self-consciously hippified as to be virtually unrecognizable in a haze of facial hair, caftains and paisley. The Association did open the Monterey Pop Festival, but their unfortunate decision to open with their too-cute novelty tune “The Machine” apparently got them cut from the resulting film. It may have all come across as trying just a little too hard to fit in at the time.

They were quietly revolutionary in other ways, however. Though I was in diapers then, on viewing the band on youtube an early child memory came back to me of seeing Larry Ramos, the first Asian in a major rock band, tell a joke based on his ethnicity on an Association TV performance that I demanded my dad explain to me when he laughed at it. Our TV being black and white, and our small town being only the latter, it was my first exposure to racial consciousness.

The Association, like many of their contemporaries, allowed studio musicians to record many of their tracks. What is surprising about this is that unlike, say, the Beach Boys (who actually did play on most of their records, contrary to popular belief) and the Monkees, who were high-functioning garage bands at heart, the Association was actually a tight, professional group more than equal to the task of reproducing their baroque, complex hits onstage. Indeed, it seems that at times they were simply too busy playing live to be in the studio cutting the tracks, rather than that they weren’t capable of doing it themselves – though the drop in commercial fortunes that seemed to occur when they recorded as a band in studio likely also played a role.

Similarly, while the band benefited from outside songwriting on hits such as “Never My Love,” “Windy” and “Time For Livin'”, roughly half the band’s recorded output was self-penned, with all of the key members coming up with good-to-great material. None more so than woodwind/utility player Terry Kirkman, who not only wrote the band’s grimly compelling anti-war anthem “Requiem for the Masses” but supplied two of the band’s four biggest hits: “Cherish” and “Everything That Touches You,” their final top 10 entry, and the band’s crowning achievement.

The Association debuted “Everything That Touches You” on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on Jan. 5, 1968. It was the dawning of a new year, the turning of the page after the Summer Of Love and Sgt. Pepper. The Smothers Brothers’ footage, available on youtube (see below) gives us a slow reveal of the band in mid-transmogrificaton, hitting the sweet spot between the band’s inherent college dorkiness and overcompensating flower power chic that seemed to elude them thereafter. Lead vocalists Jim Yester and Kirkman are in front; the former looking like a Dating Show refugee replete with soft porn ‘stache, the latter an earnestly gangly, gap-toothed presence; with his mutton chops and long thin coat, the most 1830 a pop star ever looked. Behind them are arrayed Larry Ramos, Russ Giguere, Jerry Cole and Ted Bluechel, in various permutations of dorky-cool.

The video, and the moment in time it captures, are perfectly at one with what “Everything That Touches You” offers – a vision of a giddy instant when everything is possible, you’ve glimpsed the promise of something deeper and vaster than anything you’ve ever experienced before, and you’re leaning into the future with heart-pounding expectation.

The sublime intro to the song sets this stage – an open panorama of spread-out, lush chords on multi-layered keyboards underpinned by a fiendishly difficult bass and acoustic guitar figure (the former played by the recently deceased Joe Osborn). A subdued snare roll calls us to attention out of our reverie, and then the unison vocals of Kirkman and Yester take center stage.

In my most secure moments I still can’t believe
I’m spending those moments with you
And the ground that I’m walking, the air that I breathe
Are shared at those moments with you.

With admirable economy, Kirkman’s lyrics paint a young man in the heady rush of new love, but with an undercurrent of knowing self-awareness in those uneasy opening words about (in)secure moments. His other hit composition “Cherish” had a similar sense of thoughtful earnestness, of knowing the danger of vulnerably putting your heart on your sleeve, but going ahead and doing it anyway.

The band’s trademark block harmonies arrive on the chorus, which pulls us in by getting quieter. Furthering the mood of supressed excitement, the bass tick-tocks intensely while the harmonies, deliberately voiced lower than the verse melody, wash over us and a falsetto counterpoint (mimed on the clip by Larry Ramos) calls us from a distant mountain. It all gathers into one spine-tingling but restrained ball of sound as the title completes the chorus, the word “touches” dangling forever as the various members of the band coalesce to the block harmony from their disparate melodic perches. At this point the video pans to author Kirkman, sporting a wide, spontaneous grin of appreciation as his bandmates bring home the hook.

The second verse is even more remarkable for how much it says with so little:
In the songs I’ve been singing quite often a phrase
Comes close to the feeling of you
But I never suspected that one of those days
The wish of the song would come true.

How meta is that? The fearless self-aware honesty introduced in the first verse gets taken up several notches as the singer tells us he’s not just a character in a song. He IS the singer, and all those love songs he sang before? He was just faking it, buddy! Wishful thinking for mass consumption. And guess what? The reality is this women’s so cool that those idealized love songs didn’t quite capture her. They only “came close.”

Seriously, bravo. “Everything That Touch You” is so wide-eyed and dreamy, so in awe of the possibilities of new love, that it would be easy to dismiss as pure treacle. But with this verse Kirkman tells us that he’s hip. He was a guy selling you love songs about women that he supposed didn’t really exist, but then things got real. He knows how corny this sounds, but this feels great, and he’s going there anyway, and if you’re not down with it, you can laugh on your own time. And with four lines, the author disarms any cynicism and plunges forward to an even greater commitment to this idea with the majestic bridge section.

After a second chorus, the block harmonies mixed so that the tonal center of gravity has shifted subtly higher, we get a short breakdown and an inconguous (because there ain’t no blues in this song anywhere) dominant 7th flourish on the piano (though I don’t know, I’d place money that it is Don Randi weighing in), then the bridge enters with the band singing with increasing emphasis, Kirkman’s words gushing with ever more poetic erudition: You are of gracefulness/ You are of happiness/ You are what I would guess to be most like…

The “most like” breaks rhythm so that the band and singers have a space to gather around a straight eighth note pulse, as they elongate every note, like an arrow being pulled further and further back…what I’ve been sing….ing….

When the final of the arrow flies, to where? As befits a song conjuring Cupid, to a six-part, lushly reverbed repetition of the word “love”, repeating, with subtly shifting harmonies, three times.

And then we’re on the third verse. Having laid out the song’s concerns and dispensed with all objections, time for a full-throttle celebration. It’s a simple restatement of the first verse, with a jubilant shift into the upper register for “to the feeling,” Yester’s and Kirkman’s combined vocal reach giving it double power. Behind them, the band is in an orgasm of counterpoint vocalizing, while the backing track has abandoned restraint in favor of fanfaring trumpets. Producer Bones Howe deserves a shout out here for the production and ethereal arrangement touches such as the mysterious flute that beckons in the background of the first verse. Then we’re on to the fullest chorus yet…another breakdown…and then…

Oh my God, that fade out. The intro bass figure re-establishes itself, and then the group embarks on a dazzling counterpoint round of various “loves” darting throughout the audio spectrum, coalescing to the unified, forceful statement of “EVERYTHING IS” before scattering again like butterflies, as a palace guard of trumpeteers marches off into the distance. Repeat, fade. WOW.

As it happens, I was first introduced to this song by then BAM and now Rolling Stone writer Dan Epstein in a mix tape that circulated around 1996. In his notes for the song he very simply wrote “because it’s all about love, motherfuckers!” Though Kirkman’s sentiments are much more courtly than that, this pretty much nails the message. “Everything That Touches You” is at once a statement of, and a defense of, the wide-eyed innocence and hope that the euphoria of love brings. The song builds and builds again, its single-minded focus on conjuring wonder and joy bringing us, like a wave crashing to the shore, to the inevitable conclusion: All else is a distraction. Everything is love.

As powerful as that is, what makes “Everything That Touches You” even more transcendent is that it is a snapshot of a moment that must always remain a moment. The first rush of a new relationship is ripe with possibility – but it will inevitably change into something else. Everything about the track – lyrics, performance, production – somehow bottles up and solidifies something that’s fundamentally ephemeral. The singer makes us aware that he knows there’s a bigger picture, but he’s plunging forward into the unknown anyway, without reservation, because nothing else matters. It’s an unabashed and unafraid love song, but there’s nothing silly about it. It’s a freeze frame in time, and a rocket ship into the unknown.

The Smothers Brothers clip acts as a perfect companion video to the song. Everything is of its time…the first days of 1968, with the change in cultural consciousness bringing all matter of exciting possibilities, particularly to its youth. As I said earlier, “Everything That Touches You” is completely at one with this idea.

Who could know then what a monumental bummer of collapsed promise 1968 would turn out to be, with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. just a few months away, and an escalation in Vietnam beginning to tear the country asunder, ushering in one of the most tumultuous periods in American history.

The Association’s own career, too, would soon falter – the cheery, mind-bogglingly complex follow-up single “Time For Livin'” would fail in the wake of the changing of the national mood, and they would never touch the top 40 again, though the band persevered with several fine records before splintering after the tragic death of bassist Brian Cole in 1972.

That video clip of “Everything That Touches You” gathers added poignance because, like the song itself, it’s a snapshot of a moment where anything and everything seemed possible, and of the joyous excitement of being alive and at one with such a moment. The hazy, stately ambience of the song and video put us there, lets us feel it, lets us visualize what could be and what might have been, and leaves us with an extra patina of sweet sadness for what was lost when reality turned out differently.

But the moment is always there to be revisited, any time you like. Just spin “Everything That Touches You.”

Ladies and gentlemen, a perfect record.

The Association, with former founding members of the band in attendance, will perform and be honored by the Rock Justice Awards at a Career Celebration Concert at Village Studios on Saturday, January 19, 2019. Tickets are available here.

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