I am not one of those people who’s bothered by the days growing short in the fall. Many of the memories I carry of particular times and places involve the angle of the light, and so many of my memories of autumn involve twilight or darkness, crowding around. Neither am I bothered by the colder weather. Wearing a sweater around the house or a jacket outside, or awakening in the middle of the night to pull the blanket up, provides a feeling of security that’s welcome after a long summer without it.
Another source of security is the familiar songs that sound like autumn to me. I’ve written about several of them here over the years. Some provided the soundtrack for a particular autumn. Others just sound like they belong. The list is always growing, because every now and then, I’ll discover—or remember—another one that fits.
Susan Pesklevits and Terry Jacks met in British Columbia, Canada, in 1966, and got married in 1967. He was a guitarist and she was a singer. They formed a group in 1968; at first they called it Powerline and later Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nob. Finally they settled on the Poppy Family after selecting the word “poppy” at random from the dictionary. (So it’s not a drug reference, as you might reasonably expect.) They scored a couple of minor hits in Canada before the shiveringly gorgeous “Which Way You Goin’ Billy” broke through in the States, hitting Number Two in the summer of 1970. Their second single was “That’s Where I Went Wrong.” It was no “Billy,” reaching Number 29 in Billboard, but it got a ton of airplay in September and October of 1970—there are 112 listings for it at ARSA, where it was a Top-10 hit in Detroit, Saginaw, Buffalo, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Norfolk, Birmingham, Tampa, and a few other places. In Chicago, it was a Top-10 hit on both WCFL and WLS.
It would be a year before the Poppy Family scored another significant hit. “Where Evil Grows” missed the stateside Top 40 in the early fall of 1971 despite going Top 10 in Canada-adjacent markets like Detroit and Buffalo, and some far removed from the Great White North, like Wichita and Modesto. (That was the year Terry Jacks declined an invitation for the group to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show—Susan told a journalist in 2006, “I’m still trying to figure that one out.”) With that, the Poppy Family’s run was about over. Susan and Terry divorced in 1973 and released solo albums; his was called Seasons in the Sun and produced that gazillion-selling 70s icon. Susan stayed in the entertainment business, released a single called “All the Tea in China” that I can remember playing on the radio in 1980, married a Canadian football player, and became a contract songwriter in Nashville. She’s still around today. Terry is too, but he’s more reclusive.
Despite its deceptive up tempo, there’s a definite autumnal vibe to “That’s Where I Went Wrong.” Maybe it’s that ghostly backing vocal, or the image of the brokenhearted girl on a bus, showing her ring to a stranger and telling her sad story. You can almost see her there, small in the seat, buttoned up in a big old army-surplus coat, carrying everything she owns in a cheap little suitcase, headed for nowhere in particular. The scene couldn’t possibly take place on a sunny afternoon in the middle of summer. It could only happen in the encroaching dark of an autumn night.