Washington, DC songwriter Benjy Ferree treads dangerous, and potentially ruinous territory on his second album, Come Back To The Five And Dime, Bobby Dee Bobby Dee.� This one’s a concept album, juxtaposing the Hollywood fantasy of eternal youth against the grim reality of tragic and untimely death, particularly as they pertain to child star Bobby Driscoll. As a concept album, …Bobby Dee sort of misses the mark; as a rock ‘n’ roll album, it succeeds marvellously.
A bit of back-story on the album’s subject may be required here. Bobby Driscoll, as a child, starred in a number of Disney films in the 1950s, and played the voice of Peter Pan in the 1953 animated film. But, when puberty hit and Driscoll developed a crippling case of acne, Disney let him go, and he spent the rest of his life trying to work his way back into the Hollywood elite, developing a nasty drug habit, and eventually dying broke and homeless in a New York tenement at the age of 31.
Ferree’s approach to Driscoll’s life can be daunting, and his references often come across as a bit heavy-handed. On the Hollywood trouncing tune, Big Business, he sings, “Bring out the pixie dust!” and on the blues rave-up Blown Out (Gold Dubloons And Pcs Of 8), he laments, “But I was blown out at a ripe old age when I turned seventeen.” In making an attempt to occupy Driscoll’s headspace, Ferree almost loses us, but for the most part, his “I” and “you” are easily applicable to any listener. On the album opener, Tired Of Being Good, Ferree croons “Brother Dee” laments about cutting one’s marionette strings, attempting later to ascribe them to would-be “Lost Boys everywhere” – mixed Disney metaphors notwithstanding.
Driscoll’s story is certainly a looming presence – and it’s apparent enough that Ferree obsesses over his subject, using Driscoll’s tragedy as a framework – but to listen to the album purely as a tale of Hollywood gone wrong would be unfair. It’s true that in his narrow-scoped subject matter, Ferree may have limited the album’s appeal, but in his approach, in his music, Ferree has succeeded on many levels in re-channeling familiar themes from the American songbook to create an album that comes across as inventive, fresh, and somehow timeless.
The music here genuinely digs deep into the rock ‘n’ roll bag of tricks, ranging from street-corner doo-wop (Fear) to gritty 50s rhythm ‘n’ blues (Big Business), all the way to bombastic and glam-handed Freddy Mercury swagger (What Would Pecos Do?). And that’s just the first half; Iris Flowers, a bizarre and unexplained sidewalk poetry reading by a young girl divides the album, sirens warbling in the background. On the second half, Ferree explores the American west, ranging from saloon brawlers (I Get No Love and Come To Me, Coming To Me) to shuffling two-steps (Whirlpool Of Love). And, almost to a song, it all works.
The standout track here is the fantastic single Fear. Opening with genuine doo-wop harmonies – think Brian Wilson meets The Penguins – and transforming into a swaggering, piano-heavy slow-motion strut during which Ferree’s tenor croon cuts through with startling clarity. When Ferree concludes the first verse with a troubled, but ecstatic, falsetto “And that’s the gospel truth,” you can’t help but smilingly believe him.
In the end, the Bobby Driscoll aspect of the album feels a bit contrived, the outpouring of an obsessive lyricist coming to grips with an indecipherable dichotomy – eternal youth versus eternal death. But flawed as it may be, Come Back To The Five And Dime, Bobby Dee Bobby Dee stands as a loving and fantastic testament to the sprawling, meandering richness of the American rock ‘n’ roll tradition. And despite its gloomy subject matter, it’s really quite a fun listen.