In 1999, New Pornographers drummer Kurt Dahle sent an email to the Juno committee threatening to kill himself if the Poppy Family wasn’t inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. “I never got a reply,” he tells the Straight, chuckling with what sounds like a combination of pride and embarrassment. “I guess they didn’t care if I killed myself. But that’s how big a fan I am.”
The Poppies are still waiting to receive the honour some 15 years later. (For a little perspective: Triumph was inducted in 2008.) It also hardly matters. You can be absolutely sure that “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” is being played on the radio somewhere in the world right now, as it has been, relentlessly, since first hitting the airwaves in 1969. With those three minutes of heart-piercingly lush melancholy, in which vocalist Susan Jacks pledges undying love to her departing soulmate, the Poppy Family produced one of the greatest singles of the era and secured a much higher order of immortality.
Even more significant is the legacy the Vancouver-based pop group left in the wake of its brief but beautiful time together, thanks in particular to a debut album, also called Which Way You Goin’ Billy?, that’s become an object of devotion in the intervening 45 years to crate-diggers, music nerds, and other discerning pop cultists.
When Susan Jacks reunites with guitarist Craig McCaw and percussionist Satwant Singh at this year’s Khatsahlano festival, they’ll be backed on-stage by no fewer than two New Pornographers (Dahle plus bassist John Collins), a couple of refugees from Black Mountain (drummer Josh Wells and vocalist Amber Webber, who also perform as Lightning Dust), and one Destroyer (keyboardist Ted Bois)—all of them religious fans of an act perceived by many as a lightweight two-or-three-hit-wonder with a knack for cute melodies and a pretty voice up front. But for Dahle, this gig, dubbed the Poppy Family Experience, means even more than backing up the Kinks’ Ray Davies for a one-song performance at South by Southwest in 2001.
“I love the Kinks, don’t get me wrong, but this is big,” he says, adding that the Poppy Family—a radio staple when he was growing up—is “woven into the very fabric of my taste as a musician”.
Dahle’s bandmate Collins elaborates on the strange pull of that first album, which only looks, from its kitschy cover shot of the band, like something a few notches softer than the Fifth Dimension. “It became one of my favourite records to try and impress people with,” he recalls. “I bought it thinking, ‘Sixties camp, this’ll be fun, maybe I’ll be able to listen to it once or twice.’ But every song on that first record, you listen to it and you go, ‘My God, this is really heavy-duty stuff.’ They weren’t pulling any punches on any level.”
Wells is blunter still about the LP’s peculiar appeal. “Those songs really stood out from everything else on the oldies stations because,” he says, pausing for a laugh, “they’re super creepy. Basically, there’s an underlying tone of mental illness to them. There’s just no other way to describe it other than they kinda gave me the heebie-jeebies. Whatever perspective they were writing from was just always something different and something a bit sick.”
Seventeen-year-old Susan Pesklevits was already an established singer in Vancouver when she met her future husband and bandmate Terry Jacks in 1966. They began working together shortly after, gradually adding another stalwart local player, McCaw, in ’67. McCaw introduced the pair to Singh, and the classic Poppy Family lineup—complete with McCaw’s sitar and Singh’s tablas—was born. Singh’s involvement might have been a little incongruous—“I wasn’t into western music that much, so I had no feeling one way or the other until we got into it for a few months and it started to feel all right,” he says, with a smile—but there was nothing very obviously sick about it until Terry started bringing in his own songs and the others got their hands on them.
“Do you remember recording ‘There’s No Blood in Bone’?” asks Susan Jacks, sitting with McCaw and Singh in McCaw’s gorgeous Southlands garden. Inside, the living room is littered with cables, mikes, guitars, and a conspicuous array of Indian instruments. “That was one of my favourite songs on the album, always was. And it was so weird. People think I only sang stuff that was very soft, and then we’d come out and do ‘There’s No Blood in Bone’, right? Or ‘Evil Overshadows Joe’. But because they weren’t released as singles, most people know us by a certain kind of thing.”
“There’s No Blood in Bone” is the bummer trip that closes Side 1 of Which Way You Goin’ Billy?, a miniature psychedelic epic about madness and death built on flanged vocals, syncopated organ, and shock-treatment guitar. Terry had attempted an earlier solo version but it was the Poppy Family that took an undistinguished garage rocker and turned it into a schizophrenic nightmare, with Susan literally manipulating the tape reel by hand as she recorded its freaky spoken-word intro. Even in this, the album’s darkest moment, the Poppies somehow manage to create something pleasing and buoyant, like Burt Bacharach turning up at Bedlam with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
It isn’t all psychosis. Side 1 also boasts the Family’s first single, a bittersweet wedge of chamber pop called “Beyond the Clouds” that contains probably the most Vancouver-oriented sentiment ever captured on record with its refrain: “The sun shines for those who look beyond the clouds.” In another eventual single, “That’s Where I Went Wrong”, Terry’s Nashville inclinations undergo mutation by horns and Singh’s ever-unusual percussion choices, with Susan floating above everything like a disembodied voice-of-Goddess. By all accounts the Poppy Family had found the chemistry with each other that any musician dreams of.
“Those early days,” says McCaw, “coming up with the songs together, coming up with parts and arrangements, trying this, trying that, they were really fun. Really creative.” With a dark laugh, he adds: “In the early days.”
“You Took My Moonlight Away” perhaps best expresses the uninhibited creative ferment that all three Poppies remember with such fond excitement. A winding lullaby that relocates Françoise Hardy to Kits Beach, “You Took My Moonlight Away” was drummed up in Terry’s mom’s basement with Susan vamping lyrics over a song they decided to listen to backwards. “That’s why the song starts out, ‘Yoooooou took my moonlight away…’ ” Susan begins, with a note-perfect rendition of the intro. “That’s the melody that came out and almost the words. I can’t remember what the song is. I’ve tried for years to remember, but it was a backwards tape we were listening to. Of course we were stoned, so maybe that’s why.”
Stoned or not, all three remember taking those same experimental inclinations with them when the bulk of Which Way You Goin’ Billy? was recorded in London, England, in a studio just off Marble Arch that eventually became Nova Sound. (The band also recorded in various studios around Vancouver with engineer Robin Spurgeon and session drumming legends Kat Hendrikse and Duris Maxwell.)
“I think the biggest myth was that the Poppy Family was Terry Jacks,” says Susan, who otherwise calls “a lot of bullshit” on some of the stories about the band that have taken root on the Internet in the last few years. “The Poppy Family was all of us, period. And we were all an equal part of it creatively, we all put our heart into it, and that,” she adds, bringing her finger down on a copy of the album sitting on the table between us, “exists here.”
“ ‘Family’ means more than one person, doesn’t it?” adds Singh, rather niftily.
All three agree that once Billy was done, it became a question of “Which way you goin’ Terry?” McCaw says he was “all Poppied out” once their de facto leader decided to turn the Family into a studio band with McCaw and Singh as paid sidemen—a decision that Susan wasn’t involved in, and that she still finds inexplicable despite having been married to Jacks at the time.
“At that point it was just a job to me, and I started to lose interest,” McCaw continues, adding that both he and Singh planned on ditching the crumbling Family for India after a tour of Japan. “I don’t think anybody knows this little side of the story,” he says.
A final album, Poppy Seeds, yielded one more stone classic in the shape of “Where Evil Grows”, but it was an otherwise patchwork affair featuring Terry and Susan with various session players. Terry would go on to unleash “Seasons in the Sun” on a world that soon forgot his involvement in one of the most unusual bands ever to scale the Billboard charts. Susan, McCaw, and Singh all have the same line on their old partner. “He’s just a different kind of dude,” says Susan with a shrug.
“You gotta give Jacks credit,” adds McCaw. “Nobody made it out of Canada. They all went down to the States, you know? So he had a lot of pressure on him in that way, and trying to hold it together, and the stress of it all, and it just became not so much fun. And we were all kids. That was the deal, too.”
Terry is, of course, absent from the reunion, but there’s a pleasing shape to the form that the extended Poppy Family has taken for this particular Experience, not to mention a clearly historic weight to the array of personalities on-stage. Booking the show for Khatsahlano was a stroke of genius. As John Collins puts it, Which Way You Goin’ Billy? is a record that “couldn’t be from anywhere else in the world”.
“It’s so Vancouver. It’s the peak of the ’60s, West Coast, Wrecking Crew kind of sound,” he says. “As a producer I can vouch that I have zero idea how they did all that stuff. It’s like old magic to me.”
Dahle, meanwhile, has a more visceral appreciation of matters. Fresh from practice when the Straight reaches him, he gushes about singing backups with a voice he’s venerated for his entire life. “I phoned my brother and I went, ‘I just sang with Susan Jacks,’” he says, breathlessly. “That blew me away for a second, which is hard to do in my old age.”
Thank God he didn’t off himself back in ’99.
The Poppy Family Experience plays the West 4th Avenue Khatsahlano Street Party’s Burrard Stage at 8 p.m. on Saturday (July 12).