The Delicate Beauty of Bonnie & Wendy Flower

One of the first posts on this blog was a list of lesser known albums. In that early series, I talked about classifying old music into different categories of rarity and also separated my findings by personal preference. What I didn’t do, because of the sheer volume of entries, was provide a detailed review of some of my favorite selections. Admittedly there’s other blogs where one can read about this stuff–probably in greater detail–and I’m not musically trained so there’s only so much insight I can offer. Nevertheless, discussing my feelings on the music I appreciate is something I would like to start doing more of going forward. (Believe it or not, I have other idols in this medium besides Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson!)

Of all the discoveries from my search into the unknown of 60s-70s LPs, in many ways my favorite is Genesis by Wendy and Bonnie Flower. Even though I consider the United States of America and Just a Poke to be better albums, I think Genesis falling through the cracks, never to spawn a career for its progenitors, represents a bigger loss to the musical world. Plus, those two albums are at least decently well known by collectors where Genesis is still comparatively obscure by my estimation. It’s just two young women who had insane talent but got screwed over by the record company going under. Among other things, they were all set to go on TV and demo their songs but the deal fell through when the record company went bankrupt. The album was completely unknown until the 2000s when it was rediscovered, and since then Wendy has performed it onstage and released new music. Bonnie has sadly passed away. 

Something about that robbed potential of promising young talent, as well as Bonnie and producer Gary McFarland missing out on the vindication just adds to the tragic mystique of the record. (The producer was killed in a bar while in the process of planning a follow up with the sisters, which begs the question “what if?”) The sisters sang and played all the songs and they were still in their teens. (Quite literally Flower Children, if you will.) If they had hit it big, as they deserved to, they could have been the next Wilson brothers perhaps. However, with the way things turned out, we’ll never know. 

Wendy Flower

On its own aesthetic merits, Genesis is a gem. It’s got a blend of folk rock and sunshine pop, and the sparse overdubs makes it sound like something your own sisters could play in the family room with no corrupting studio/corporate interference. That warm “home grown” atmosphere is key to the record’s charm. Especially when you hear some of the demos left off the final cut (including a version of “Eleanor Rigby”) these songs have the same appeal as Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes” for me. (That embedded track, “Cover Our Child” in particular reveals an emotional depth uncommon for women so young: they’re literally singing about an abusive relationship and its effects on the couple’s child.)

Most of the songs which made the original cut also focus exclusively on pain as a result of love lost, rather than the ecstasy of love found. I found it unusual for women so young to have experienced heartbreak so viscerally for it to inspire the material on their lone album. Even the tracks which do not specifically reference unrequited or faded affection (“It’s What’s Really Happening” and “Five O’Clock in the Morning”) deal with themes of escaping one’s troubles and isolation, respectively. The lone upbeat track is the opener, “Let Yourself Go Another Time,” which calls society to the higher promise of Free Love/Aquarian idealism. This is also the sole track to make use of relatively extensive overdubs, and I’ve seen other reviewers go so far to call it “a false start” to the LP. If any song had McFarland or someone else at the label taking a heavier hand, this is it. Assuming the sisters were not unduly influenced, however, it’s a unique insight into how these new age values permeated the youth outside of San Francisco and rockstars in their late twenties.

When I first heard Genesis, I was alone in my college apartment late at night, near a window looking out over the cityscape. It made me feel as though I’d dug through someone’s closet and found something personal they never expected anyone else to see. It’s like the music was a shared bond between just me and the singers because so few had ever heard it. Yet at the same time, I felt a twinge of guilt as though I were reading a young girl’s diary when she’s no longer there to guard it. I started to think about how, in every window in every building across the horizon, there could be hundreds of people going through their lives who’ve made something artistic like this, and no one would ever know. That feeling of forgotten beauty was endemic to the recordings even before I knew their backstory. They spoke to how lonely I felt in those days because I wasn’t dating anyone at the time, and since I graduated late, almost all my college friends had moved away long before. I was often up late at night due to bad insomnia, with nothing to do, so I’d go out at ~3 AM for coffee and snacks at the local 24/7 convenience store and roam the abandoned sidewalks. In that headspace, I could relate to this music which had been ignored in its own time. Overall it was a very disarming experience which no other album has managed to evoke in me before or since.

Anyway, my favorite tracks are “Let Yourself Go Another Time,” “The Paisley Window Pane” and of course “By the Sea.” I also feel as though “Cover Our Child,” unfinished demo or not, is one of the single most haunting songs I’ve ever encountered. Pay close attention to the lyrics when you hear that one in particular.

There’s some cool blog articles about it, HERE and HERE.

2 Comments

  1. What a sad tale, and what a sad time for you (a time thankfully past). I can understand the closeness you felt to Wendy and Bonnie and the comfort you drew from their album. And now others can enjoy this timeless music, not least thanks to you.

    Cassandra, it would be wonderful if you were to follow up this highly personal review by doing the same for other selections from your list, whenever the occasion presents itself. Your essays on music have always been a joy to read. And the insight you have to offer bears no relation to musical training! As you yourself say, it’s all about feelings.

    Please continue with your proposed venture. I for one would certainly appreciate it. 🙂

  2. Thanks for introducing me to another group from the days of my youth, that I either forgot about or never knew existed. As usual a well written review. Your personal experience with this makes it all the more meaningful. Glad the music helped you get through a sad time.

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