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By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio (Originally posted 1.23.17)
A wave of sadness passed through my soul as the news emerged Saturday of the passing of Maggie Roche, the sweet songbird from deepest New Jersey whose singular voice intertwined for decades with her sisters Terre and Suzzy as the Roches. Her beautiful songs, imbued with her loving spirit, will live on.
Marrying lyrical poetry and heaven-sent melodies, Maggie wrote about the human condition, about life’s long and winding road and the twists and turns one takes along the way. From “Hammond Song” and “Quitting Time,” both from the Roches’ 1979 self-titled debut, to the playful “My Winter Coat,” from the sisters’ 1995 album, Can We Go Home Now, her magical perspective and way with words always shone brightly.
So did her sense of humor, through which she communicated all manner of emotion. For proof, look no further than the testament to love that is “My Winter Coat.” Sure, it is ostensibly about a coat whose “fit is generous and loose,” a garment with which to keep warm that is “made of a material that will not rust.”
This is a song about love, of course, sewn up in a garment that makes you feel like you’re “walkin’ around in your bed all day.” There couldn’t possibly be anything better to wrap around you, a point that is communicated in verse after verse punctuated by magical rhymes. “I hope you don’t think I’m merely trying to be clever,” the Roches sing to sew up the story. “I wish this coat would last forever.”
In our lives, we gravitate toward artists who can expand the world to allow us to see more clearly the parts of it that we may not fully understand or appreciate. Artists encourage us to be adventurers, to learn more about ourselves, to step out of our comfort zones and in the process find out more about what makes us who we are.
This is a forever journey that we find ourselves traveling. Through her songs, Maggie Roche was a spirited companion and guide. Safe travels, sweet songbird.
It seemed to fall from out of the sky, so different was it from everything else, its descent to earth slow and determined and harmony bound, as if protected by angels who knew that it was a gift from heaven. So it was, and on into the marketplace it went.
The Roches, Maggie, Terre and Suzzy, clearly a collective gift so pure and honest and true, recorded their first album as a trio with Robert Fripp, who produced the self-titled collection at New York’s Hit Factory in “audio verité,” with engineer Ed Sprigg at the controls. Instrumentation was spare throughout, with only acoustic guitars, synthesizer, bass, triangle, and shaker supporting the sisters’ lovely lead and harmony close-miked vocals, positioned up front where they clearly belonged. These are intimate performances, beautifully realized.
Released in 1979 on Warner Brothers, The Roches was like nothing that had come before in the rock era. It wasn’t rock and it wasn’t roll; it wasn’t folk or strictly pop but, rather, a meeting of the genre minds with glorious harmony singing and lovely melodies. The 10 songs were pretty and clever and, really, pretty clever. Written by the three sisters both separately and as a trio, they were, and continue to be, powerful specimens.
Maggie and Terre had come into view earlier in the seventies; they sang backup on Paul Simon’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon in 1973, on a wistful song called “Was a Sunny Day,” a lazy kind of summer, slice of life character number. Two years later, the duo released an album called Seductive Reasoning, a collection of astounding songs mostly written by Maggie and with the cleverly-titled “If You Empty Out Your Pockets You Could Not Make the Change,” which was produced by Simon.
And then 1979 beckoned, and The Roches was released. Maggie’s “The Married Men,” a song about women hanging on to the words of cads who promised their secret crushes everything and, in the end, delivered nothing everlasting, was one of the highlights of the album; the song was recorded by Phoebe Snow on her Against the Grain album a year earlier.
But there were other astounding songs on offer. Certainly the opener, “We,” a wry musical introduction to the sisters, was a blast of a melodic calling card, a two-and-a-half minute how-they-got-here song that spelled it all out, including admissions that the Roches didn’t give out their phone numbers, and lived in New York City by way of “deepest New Jersey” (“We better get [outta] there/Before the shit hits the fan”).
Maggie’s glorious “Hammond Song” and “Quitting Time” were highlights, too; the former about keeping from going down the wrong path, and the latter about living the life that makes you happy (“You can go south in winter/Be what you are a goose/Honk all the moon out the ocean/Your clothes can fit you loose”). Clever wordplay was clearly in evidence.
Terre’s “Mr. Sellack” tells the story of a person who pleads with the owner of a restaurant to give her her job back, even though he might not remember her (“O Mr. Sellack/I didn’t think I’d be back/I worked here last year/Remember?”). Melodically strong and full of rich vocal harmony, the lyrical wordplay is clever: “Waiting tables ain’t that bad/Since I’ve seen you last/I’ve waited for some things that you would not believe/To come true.”
Suzzy’s atmospheric, practically Hitchcockian “The Train” charts the travels of a narrator who is trying to make it through, but has to endure obstacles (“I spy on the big guy/Sitting next to me/He’s drinking two beers/And reading the New York Post/Trying not to get in my way/Everybody knows the kind of day that is”).
The Roches was followed by the otherworldly Nurds in 1980, a different kind of album stacked full of classic songs such as Terre’s examination of the inner psyche, “My Sick Mind,” and Suzzy and Terre’s hysterical, tongue-planted-so-firmly-in-cheek-it-hurts “The Death of Suzzy Roche” (in which the battle for top dog in the laundromat is settled with comically violent results). A sterling, a cappella rendition of Cole Porter’s “It’s Bad for Me” provided, perhaps, some much-needed balance.
The Roches’ rich, natural vocal blend is a collective thing of beauty, just as it was on the sisters’ debut album, which sounds as fresh today as it did 37 years ago. The Roches continue to sound pure and honest and true.