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Sesame Street Forever

Like David Crosby before him, Cookie Monster has gone into rehab. The Children’s Television Workshop decided to tame the blue beast before he inspires a new generation of toddlers to eat extra Oreos: In the new season of Sesame Street, the cantor who once belted out “C Is for Cookie” has adopted a healthier diet and a new anthem, “A Cookie Is a Sometimes Food.” Don’t be surprised next year if Oscar the Grouch starts taking Prozac. To be fair, Sesame Street has always had a streak of social engineering to it, so it’s a little late to complain that it’s gone PC. I have come here today to praise Sesame Street, not bury it. If you want to defend (or atone for) the music you loved at 16, an entire career exists for you: You can become a rock critic, and spend your life swimming in free CDs. Sadly, there is no school of criticism for those of us whose development was arrested a little earlier — say, at age 3. “C Is for Cookie” was my first favorite song, and for my infant self, the monsters’ chorus at the end was every bit as sublime and important as “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was for some future rock writers. Sesame Street’s discography is filled with pop craftsmanship and other virtues long unrecognized by critics due to the fact that its audience isn’t old enough to care about drugs and sex. There’s a box set, 2003’s Songs From the Street, for those of you who just want the hits and the big-name guest stars like Stevie Wonder and Johnny Cash. But the best way to hear this music is on old LPs. Here are seven, selected for review because they’re the ones I happen to own. Rubber Duckie and Other Songs From Sesame Street (1970): Disney released this one when the program was less than a year old. Apparently they wanted to use their own talent rather than the show’s: “Rubber Duckie” is sung by someone named Jeromy, “Bein’ Green” is attributed to a fellow named Thurl, and “I’ve Got Two” — the song built around the immortal couplet “I’ve got two eyes/and they’re both the same size” — is attributed to “Katie, Jeromy, Thurl and Robie.” Who are these people? Actually, I recognize one voice: It’s the late Thurl Ravenscroft, a staple of children’s entertainment, whose other credits include “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and the Snoopy, Come Home showstopper “No Dogs Allowed.” His bass vocals give “Green” a different flavor than the more famous performances by Kermit the Frog and Ray Charles. Sing the Hit Songs of Sesame Street (1974): The title isn’t hyperbole: This album has two honest-to-God hits on it. Ernie’s “Rubber Duckie” went to No. 16 on the Billboard pop chart in 1970, and “Sing” was a No. 3 smash for the Carpenters in 1973. In case you ever wondered who performed “Sing” first — the Carpenters or the Sesame Street folks — it was the latter: The song was composed by Joe Raposo, the show’s original musical director, who produced this album; his other songwriting credits on the record include “Bein’ Green,” “Has Anybody Seen My Dog?,” and, of course, “C Is for Cookie,” complete with the koan-like observation that “the moon sometimes looks like a C, but you can’t eat that.” Kids will accept melodies casually stolen from nursery songs, as Barney the purple dinosaur’s dull repertoire proves. But Raposo was determined to surpass that: The chord changes in, say, “Somebody Come and Play” go well beyond the obvious, and “Has Anybody Seen My Dog?” is one of the most infectious grooves of the ’70s. The other major creative force here is Jeffrey Moss, composer of “I Love Trash,” “Rubber Duckie” and “Someday, Little Children,” a catchy but peculiar utopian anthem. “Someday, little childrenthe human character Susan sings, “someday soon/There’s gonna be a lotta people, yeah/And they’ll be living on the moon.” What’s more, “People won’t get sick no more, be always healthy, always strong,” and all those healthy men and women will be “Living in peace and love someday/To last a hundred lifetimes through./You know who’s gonna make it happen?/Well, it might be you.” Looks like my generation fell down on that assignment. Sorry, Susan. Bert & Ernie Sing-Along (1975): Bert wants to bathe in peace, but Ernie keeps inviting more and more people into the bathroom to sing with him. Insert obligatory homoerotic joke here. Sesame Street Fever (1978): I’ll start with the cover, because it’s the best album cover ever. It looks just like the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, except that isn’t John Travolta disco-dancing in a white leisure suit — it’s Grover. And those aren’t the Bee Gees posed behind him — they’re Ernie, Bert and Cookie Monster. The album includes one actual Bee Gee as well, Robin Gibb, who sings a disco version of “I Love Trash.” The record, produced by the versatile Mr. Raposo, is filled with disco covers of Sesame Street standards, among them “Doin’ the Pigeon,” “Rubber Duckie” and “C Is for Cookie.” When appropriate, the words are changed as well: In the original “Has Anybody Seen My Dog?,” Grover is happy simply to mistake a duck for a dog, but in this one he points out that the creature is “getting funky with Cookie Monster!” Sesame Street Disco (1979): More of the same, though this time there’s some original numbers too, notably “Me Lost Me Cookie at the Disco.” Born To Add (1983): The second-best album cover ever: a Born To Run parody, with an earringed Bert as Bruce and Cookie Monster as Clarence Clemons. The title track is a knowing satire not just of “Born To Run” but of Springsteen’s entire oeuvre: It’s about a bunch of kids roaming the Jersey shore and . . . adding things. “One and two and three police persons spring out of the shadows/Down the corner comes one more/And we scream into that city night:/Three plus one makes four!” The album, produced and mostly written by Christopher Cerf, parodies everyone from the Beatles to Barry White. The band plays tight, straightforward approximations of the appropriate genres, while the lyrics roam farther, alternately instructing the children and winking at the parents. Since I began by bemoaning the corruption of Cookie Monster, I should confess that he makes it through “Hey Food” (a track mysteriously missing from the CD reissue) without invoking a single sweet: “Hey food, me in the mood/for fish, meat or cheese called cheddar/Me eat them all before me am done/’cause not know which one/that me like better.” Sounds surprisingly healthy. Bert and Ernie’s Greatest Hits (1996): Despite the release date, the songs here were all composed from 1970 to 1983, clearly the show’s golden era. The best of the bunch is Moss’ haunting “I Don’t Want To Live on the Moon,” a rebuke of sorts to “Someday, Little Children.” It’s a quiet ballad, with Ernie telling us that, “Though I’d like to look down on the Earth from above/I would miss all the places and people I love/So although I might like it for one afternoon/I don’t want to live on the moon.” I could imagine Ray Davies singing that song — except maybe the line about meeting a dinosaur. That part’s all Ernie.


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