“Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks sold over 14 million copies worldwide. It went to the #1 spot on the charts in Canada, as well as the U.S. Terry Jacks won two Juno Awards because of “Seasons in the Sun”. It remains one of the songs that most people associate with being a “Canadian” song. And yet, it was a song that was never intended to be recorded by Jacks. In fact, his take on “Seasons in the Sun” was actually the fourth version that made it to the airwaves. Finally, despite its overwhelming sales success, “Seasons in the Sun” is a polarizing song that has regularly been voted as being one of the most overwrought, maudlin songs in the entire history of modern rock. What is it exactly about this song that so many people love and so many others find repugnant? Let’s find out. Here is the story of a song that is woven into the musical tapestry of a country called Canada. Here is “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks.
Terry Jacks was born in Winnipeg in 1944 but moved to Vancouver in his early teen years. Jacks always had an affinity for music. While in high school, he formed a band with some friends that was called The Chessmen. This band proved to be popular with the teen crowd on the west coast. They managed to have a few of their songs appear on local station CFUN in the mid 1960s. They even managed to have some of their music make it into CFUN’s Top 40 chart. This entire experience convinced a young Terry Jacks that the potential existed for a career in music. As the 1960s came to an end, Jacks met a young woman named Susan Pesklevits. They eventually married. Along with a few other friends, Terry and Susan formed a band known as The Poppy Family. They had a number of minor hits and one major one with a song called “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?”, which hit #1 in Canada and Top Ten in the U.S. This song was written and produced by Terry Jacks and helped him win his first Juno as a record producer. The success of “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” was important for more than monetary reasons for Jacks. It was a song that introduced him to the west coast music scene in North America as a producer, as much as it did as a songwriter. Because the song was so well received in the U.S., it came to the attention of a man named Al Jardine. Jardine, as you may know, was a member of a little band known as The Beach Boys.
The Beach Boys asked Terry Jacks to help produce their latest album at the time called Surf’s Up. It was during this time that Jacks came to be working on a song of his own called “Seasons in the Sun”. This was not his own song. Instead, it was a reworking of a song by French singer Jacques Brel called “Le Moribond” or “The Dying Man”. In Brel’s original version of the song, the story involved a dying man who was coming to terms with the unfaithfulness of his wife and best friend. It was a song about accepting the hand that life has dealt the man, as well as being about forgiveness and personal peace. “Le Moribond” was translated into English by American singer and poet Rod McKuen. In America, the first time “Seasons in the Sun” achieved chart success was when The Kingston Trio cracked the Top 40 in the mid-1960s. But the song was never a huge hit for that group, nor did the song make that great an impression on audiences in general. The song would have faded into obscurity if not for the fact that Terry Jacks decided to play with the lyrics a bit to see if he could tell a story that may have been slightly more palatable to audiences in North America. So Jacks changed the plot line of the song’s story away from infidelity. In his version of the song, there still is a man who is dying, but instead of confronting those who have done him wrong, the dying man revisits those who have made a difference in his life…his father, his wife, his friends…and thanks them. Terry Jacks felt that his version of the lyrics made the song more uplifting and positive. He felt it was the perfect vehicle for the band he was working with at the time, The Beach Boys, and offered the song to them through Al Jardine. In a bit of foreshadowing of the song’s eventual legacy, the members of The Beach Boys had mixed reactions to “Seasons in the Sun”. Some, like Jardine, thought that the song had potential as a Beach Boys tune. But other members, such as Mike Love, dismissed the song as depressing drivel that didn’t mesh with The Beach Boys’ cool California sound. In the end, The Beach Boys passed on “Seasons in the Sun”. Terry Jacks still had a soft spot for the song so he produced it himself. The rest, as they say, is music history.
Terry Jacks released “Seasons in the Sun” on his own record label as a solo artist. As we have seen with many others, whenever a solo artist has a huge hit right out of the gate, it either helps set the stage for future success as a musical superstar or else it crushes them under the weight of those same future expectations. In the case of Terry Jacks, he never again came close to achieving the same level of chart success as he did with “Seasons in the Sun”. This did not mean that he became a failure or anything like that. Instead, the experience of having a monster hit sent him spiraling sideways, in new creative and personal directions. One of the first consequences for Jacks was that his singing career came to a close. It wasn’t easy to sing a song about death, day in and day out. The strain took a toll on his marriage (which ended in divorce in the mid-1970s), and it caused Jacks to decide that singing in the spotlight wasn’t where he found the most satisfaction from music. So, Jacks stepped away from performing. He focussed solely on being a record producer. As the 1970s progressed, Jacks produced hit songs for a wide variety of performers, such as Country star George Jones (“White Lightnin’”), Valdy (“Rock n’ Roll Song”) as well as Nana Mouskouri (“Loving Arms”).
However, in the 1980s, Terry Jacks stepped away from music altogether. He was drawn to environmental issues and began creating documentary films. He has received several awards for his contributions to the national conversation regarding Climate Change and other pressing environmental issues which, according to Jacks, were the real pressing issues of our times. While Terry Jacks is regarded by some as a one-hit wonder, it is obvious to see that he enjoyed many successes prior to the release of “Seasons in the Sun” and that he was a respected producer and film documentarian in the years that followed the chart-topping breakthrough of the song most closely associated with his name.
However, the song,“Seasons in the Sun”, has a much more complicated legacy than the man who had a hit with it. There are those who view “Seasons in the Sun” as being an embarrassment because of how over the top it is with sadness and sentimentality. To those people, having the song play such a prominent role in the formative years of the industry speaks to how barren the musical landscape was in Canada back then. To many others, “Seasons in the Sun” was a very important song in terms of helping to create the vibrant Canadian music scene that we enjoy today. Having such a huge homegrown hit song that did well south of the border (which was always important to Canadians), did much to help establish the music industry in Canada. Along with other homegrown musical acts from the 1960s and 70s such as Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Wilf Carter, Hank Snow, Tommy Hunter, Anne Murray, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, Joni MItchell, April Wine, Trooper, The Stampeders and many others, Terry Jacks became one of the homegrown Canadian musical acts who delivered increasingly distinctive Canadian sounding songs which, in turn, helped blaze a trail for the likes of Bryan Adams and Celine Dion to follow. If you are interested in learning more about how people like Terry Jacks helped us, as a nation, develop a healthy, respected music industry in Canada, I can recommend a great book by my friend, Ian Jack (no relation to Terry Jacks), along with his colleagues Michael Barclay and Jason Schneider called Have Not Been the Same. This book is a thoroughly-researched, expertly told story of how the Canadian music industry grew to thrive in the mid-1980s and how it has managed to adapt to new innovations in the world of technology to continue to achieve success going forward. As much as “Seasons in the Sun” grates on the nerves of many, it was beloved by many others, too. Songs such as this one helped lay the foundation of what has become the great Canadian musical canon. For that, Terry Jacks and “Seasons in the Sun” are deserving of all the respect we can muster. Thanks, Terry.
The link for the official website for Terry Jacks can be found here.
The link to purchase the book Have Not Been the Same by Ian Jack, Michael Barclay and Jason Schneider can be found here.
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