It’s funny how an old song can transport you back through decades as effectively as any Time Machine. Yesterday I was cruising down the highway when Mellow Yellow by Donovan Leitch came on blasting through my car radio. Suddenly I was back at King School in Stamford Connecticut in Mr. Jackson Yang‘s Algebra class.
Mr. Jackson Yang was a teacher we all thought was hilarious. He had moved from Taiwan to the U.S. and still had a very thick Chinese accent. He told us he had served in the United States Army which was something none of us believed for a second. For one thing, he was only about 5 feet tall. He was also thin as a rail. The boys would laugh openly when Mr. Yang told us of his “adventures” in Army life.
Looking back on it, I realize that Mr. Yang was actually a great teacher. He made the dreaded Algebra class fun. He didn’t care what was making the kids laugh. What he liked was that they were associating coming to math class with having fun. You see, once he had gotten the kid’s attention with stories and jokes he started teaching them Algebra.
Mr. Yang loved his new country of America. He desperately wanted to be a “cool guy” so he listened to all the same radio stations as the kids did and tired to learn all the songs and their meanings. Having a mathematical mind, he just naturally assumed that each song must have a meaning.
Unfortunately the songwriter that Mr. Yang liked the most was Donovan Leitch. Now Donovan’s songs are great and are wonderful to listen to, but do the words really make any sense? All I know is that Mellow Yellow came out in 1966, and I still have no idea what it’s about.
One day Mr. Yang came to class very excited. He had heard Mellow Yellow for the first time on his way into school and it drove him crazy that he could not understand its meaning.
“What does Electrical Banana mean boys? What’s it mean?” Mr. Yang kept asking us.
Of course we had no idea either, except that as kids we were sure that the phrase “Electrical Banana” must have some sort of sexual connotation. We all thought it was hilarious that the naive Mr. Yang was too innocent to get the sexual reference.
Mr. Yang next tried to decipher Season of the Witch with no more success than he had with Mellow Yellow. Finally he moved on to trying to figure out the calculation of the correct Star Dates in Star Trek. Somehow, while all this was going on, all us kids learned Algebra without actually realizing we were doing so.
There are several Epilogue notes to the story, which happened long after I graduated from King. The first is that Mr. Yang went back to school himself and earned a PhD in mathematics. The second is that when I got older I looked up some records, and found out that Mr. Yang actually was in the United States Army. Apparently the Army wants small guys with great technical and math skills just as much as it wants big strong guys.
Finally, decades later, Jeff Donaugh, one of the guys from our class actually ended up meeting Donovan Leitch in a coffee house in London. He found Donovan very approachable and finally Jeff had the nerve to ask him what Mellow Yellow was about.
Donovan looked him directly in the eye and said, “It’s all there in the song man. All you have to do is listen.”
I just know that somewhere in America Doctor Yang is still trying to figure it out.