Nathan Jolly

200 Sad Songs: #162 The Zombies – A rose for Emily (1968)

 There are many odes to dead women, but The Zombies’ effort grows like decay. Consider it Rigor mortis of the heart. 

 

So few people cared about the release of the 1968 Zombies record ‘Odessey and Oracle’ that it was allowed to go to retail with a spelling mistake in the album title, and not even a groovy, on purpose mistake, either. While these days revisionist theory and good PR would have seen an origin tale spun for the “alternative” and definitely deliberate misspelling, in 1968 the Zombies simply shrugged it off as an “oh well, the artist screwed up”, split up the band shortly afterwards, and kept on keeping on.

The album sold around 800 copies upon initial release. It came and it went, the group died and nobody noticed. If that was how the story ended, it would have been befitting of an album which houses ‘A Rose For Emily’, a similarly poignant story. As it happened, ‘Time Of The Season’ scored surprise radio play in America almost a year later, sold a million copies, and saw the now-defunct British band in such high demand that several fake versions of the group toured the U.S., with fans none the wiser.

Over the years, ‘Odessey and Oracle’ has picked up fans steadily, who – perhaps initially drawn to the tripped-out artwork – soon quietly discover one of the most rewarding and richest records released during that creative apex of ’66-’68. It’s a hard record to keep quiet about though, gaining fans through word-of-mouth over the years; the very best way to gain fans.

The album opens with the relentlessly sunny female prison jam ‘Care Of Cell 44’ (one of the best pure pop songs from the era, and still criminally unknown to most) but unless you catch the verse one reveal in that song, you could easily harmonise your way past any of the darkness there. Not so with the following track. A dainty, chipped-China cup of a tune, ‘A Rose For Emily’ was loosely based on the Faulkner short story of the same name, but despite both centering on the lonely life and death of a spinster named Emily, the two tales share little else: the rose in Faulkner’s title was allegorical, The Zombies’ was literal; their Emily passes without notice while Faulkner’s Emily had a huge public funeral.

The song works as a companion piece of sorts to The Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’ with both being late-60s odes to the elderly, forgotten members of society who slip through the cracks – unobserved and uncared for. Sadly, this is still happening; despite most of us not being able to move without our coordinates being beamed from our pockets into space and back again, people can still live and die without being noticed. In 2011, Natalie Jean Wood’s decomposed body was discovered in the front room of her townhouse in a built-up area in central Sydney. She had been dead for eight years. Her personal items were the inconsequential accoutrements one might expect to be dumped on any dresser: make-up, a watch, scissors, two rings, a bracelet, dentures and – as if torn from a poorly-scripted procedural – a 2003 diary.

The coroner’s report pulled no punches, stating grimly, “That the death of a life long resident of a high-density housing area should remain undiscovered until after all the flesh had rotted from her frail bones caused public disquiet.” And it did. Shortly after her body was found, bunches of flowers begun stacking up on her front stoop (unlike Emily) while journalists scrambled to put her lonely life together, dubbing her “the woman Sydney forgot” or “Sydney’s forgotten woman”. All reports of her used a pretty photo taken on her 21st birthday in 1946, as if to compound the tragedy, while countless locals shuddered at the thought that they had passed that house numerous times, unaware of the grisly contents. Most distressing though, was the thought – inside everyone’s head no matter how vehemently they refuse to explore it – that Natalie Jean Wood’s fate could one day be their own. The fear of dying alone and unaccounted for runs deep – and we really don’t like being reminded that it’s a possibility.

Nathan Jolly

Nathan is a Sydney-based journalist who has written for numerous publications over the years, including Junkee, This Recording, New York Post, The BRAG, SBS, Triple J Mag, Channel [V], and news.com.au. He used to be pretty good at hitting three-pointers, and can still cartwheel, although he never learnt to swim, drive, or manage money.

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