The name Terry Jacks has become synonymous with one of the biggest songs ever to come out of Canada, his 1974 soft-rock smash “Seasons in the Sun.” But the Vancouver singer-songwriter’s history on the charts began in the 1960s, first as a member of garage group The Chessmen and then with The Poppy Family, a group fronted by Jacks and singer Susan Pesklevits (his former wife). Their debut album featured “Which Way You Goin’ Billy,” a mournful track inspired by the American women left behind during the Vietnam war, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, hit No. 1 in Canada, and earned Jacks a JUNO Award for Best Producer. His most recent release is Starfish on a Beach, a double-CD anthology of his four decades in music. He spoke to SOCAN from his home by the coast in British Columbia.
“I had to work line after line, phrase after phrase.” – Terry Jacks
Take me back to 1969 when this song was written. Where were you at in your career?
Well, I had quit university – my family wanted me to be an architect. I was writing some music, and had some hits in Vancouver with The Chessmen. Buddy Holly was my idol, and I wanted to do the kind of thing he did. To make little pictures, little emotional portraits in songs. I was more interested in writing than in singing.
This song was written specifically from the point of view of a woman. How difficult was that?
It was very difficult. When I wrote songs for Susan, the inspiration came from me, then I had to change it into the way a female would think. I had to work line after line, phrase after phrase. That song was originally called “Which Way You Goin’ Buddy?” with a guy singing. I had the melody, and was going to write it about my idol. But I then I read an article about all the young American men leaving for Vietnam, and the women left behind, so I sort of changed the whole thing around, to write it for her.
I have to ask you about Susan’s recent public comments. She is claiming the song was not written about Vietnam and was actually named after her brother.
Absolutely ridiculous! I got the name Billy from one my favourite Canadian groups, The Beau Marks. I was looking for a name, something very common, then on my jukebox I saw their song “Billy Billy Went A-Walking.” And I remember laughing, “Which way you going Billy? Well, he went a-walking!” I wrote the song, I know what it’s about. I know how I named it. I don’t understand what she’s trying to do.
There were very few Canadian groups on the Billboard Top 10 in the 1960s. Why do you think with this song The Poppy Family managed to break through?
Well it started in Canada. It went to the top, with no CanCon either, because that didn’t exist yet. Right in the middle of the British invasion. It was such a left-field song, but I think it started in all the secondary markets, the little towns, and then the big markets started to look at it.
I’ve read that you turned down an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show with this song. True?
Here’s the reason I didn’t want to do Ed Sullivan: I was offered to represent Canada [at Expo ‘70] in Osaka, Japan. I thought that would open up international markets, much more than doing a TV show. We were big in the states already, and I wanted to go to Asia. That was an easy decision.
You were self-managed at the time, right? You produced the record and you were handling all the band’s bookings?
Correct. I also handled the publishing. That was very important, I learned that right away. That if you have control over things that’s the only way. Nobody tells you what you can and can’t do. But it all starts with control of your music, writing what you want to write, straight from your heart.
After all these years, what have you learned is the secret to your songwriting?
Simplicity. It’s the hardest thing to do, in writing, arranging, producing. But to have breathing room in the songs, that’s of essence. It’s like old rock ‘n’ roll was very simple, they portrayed one feeling or emotion. Not like today’s music, which is so scientific and technical and crowded. To me it’s very simple: you have something you want to get across in words and melody. I never wanted to be rich or famous, I just wanted to make little stories, little song pictures, that would do to others what Buddy Holly did to me. I never tried to get complicated. I never tried to be above the people.