Gene Pitney’s 1963 recording of 24 Hours From Tulsa, one of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s inspired compositions, is up there with the best of them when it comes to sheer drama over substance.
The song is actually a letter written to the singer’s wife (we presume – it seems to fit most easily) telling her that he was on his way back home, expecting to be with her, back in her arms, in twenty-four hours. He just needed to grab some shut-eye and something to eat, and he’d be on the road again.
Then comes the fatal moment. As he drives up to the small hotel, there’s a girl standing outside. He asks her where there’s a café and she takes him there.
She stays. Someone puts a record on the jukebox, and they dance. Slow dance. That’s all it takes. He falls in love, can never let her go. ‘I hate to do this to you,’ he writes home, ‘but I love somebody new,’ and what’s more, he can never, never, never go home again.
Well, I guess it happens. But there are some tantalising questions, about all three protagonists in this gothic mini-drama. Take the girl. I imagine she’s young. What happens when she announces this development in her life?
‘Hey mama, I met this really cute guy last night, and guess what, he’s fallen in love with me and he’s leaving his wife so we can be together forever!’
Stunned pause. ‘What, are you CRAZY?’
Dear dearest darling…
And the wife, the ‘dearest darling’ of the opening line. What does she think as she reads the letter?
Perhaps this is not the first time, and she knows that before long he’ll be knocking at the door again. Or perhaps it’s the last straw and she’s pleased to get rid of him. Or she is devastated.
The uncertainties are part of the song’s power. From the opening chords, when we hear the high-pitched intensity of Gene’s compelling tenor voice, we are plunged into a world of random events, and reminded of the fragility of existence. In a moment, everything can change.
It encapsulates all the hair’s-breadth moments which haunt us — if I’d been a minute later/earlier; if I hadn’t gone to that party; if I’d taken the other road; if I hadn’t stopped at that particular hotel. It taps into our dread of change and our hankering for change, our desire to stay and our dreams of leaving.
Time for T
But 24 Hours From Tulsa isn’t about a place at all. Tulsa itself just gets a namecheck. The name fits the rhythm and there’s a nice bit of alliteration when you hear the t’s. Burt and Hal sure knew what they were doing.
But Tulsa it is. That’s where she is, in the Middle of America, waiting for him to come home, not knowing that the letter the mailman drops in her box will change her life forever. One thing we may be sure of, that next time round she’ll choose someone whose job doesn’t involve driving away from home.