Like most folks, I like music. I don’t like ALL music, but I like a lot of it. If an auto-tuner is involved, I don’t care much for it. Otherwise, I’m pretty open-minded.
I’m not a deep person, and my shallowness extends to my musical taste. I once read that Angus Young of AC/DC described his song writing as “getting from one rhyme to the another.” AC/DC is one of my favorite bands. Their songs rhyme (mostly), and they flat ROCK! Good stuff.
Occasionally, though, a song fascinates me not so much by the music, but by the lyrics–the story of the song. Here are five that fascinate and confound me:
COWARD OF THE COUNTY by Roger Bowling and Billy Ed Wheeler
You know this one, made famous by Kenny Rogers. It tells the tale of Tommy, a cowardly nebbish who has been cautioned by his late father to disavow all violence (Promise me son not to do the things I done….). Tommy’s father it seems died in prison while serving time for unspecified acts of violence. The song’s narrator–brother of the incarcerated father–tells the tale of Tommy’s life of non-violence and the hideous consequences of it.
Tommy’s Dad impressed upon him that walking away from violence was the true measure of a man. Weakness, he urged, was not found in turning the other cheek. How wrong he was!
Because of Tommy’s Ghandi-like vows, his true love, Becky, was subjected to a brutal gang-rape by the Gatlin Boys, a group of ruffians who were sure that Tommy would do nothing to stop the attack. Well, they were right about that; however, Tommy then went on the vengeance trail and beat the Hell out of all three Gatlin Boys. The song leaves it to the listener to determine the outcome, but I believe that he beat them all to death–at least I’d like to think so.
The lesson of the song? Non-violence will get you picked on and called names (Coward of the County?) and get your girl friend raped. Violence, on the other hand, solves everything.
This story was so compelling that someone made a movie about it starring, of course, Kenny Rogers, as a preacher (!). So, there’s that.
LOSING MY RELIGION by REM
This classic of Alt-Rock was written by members of REM. I’ve listened to it about a thousand times and have no idea what it’s about . It starts out like listening to someone recite their Facebook post (That’s me in the corner. That’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion….) and then drifts into a stalker’s rant (Trying to keep an eye on you like a lost, hurt and blinded fool).
Ultimately, it sounds like Michael Stipe is talking to his therapist: Consider this: The slip that brought me to my knees failed. What if all these fantasies come flailing around? The song concludes by speculating that all of this may well be a dream. Okay.
MACARTHUR PARK by Jimmy Webb
Jimmy Webb is a great songwriter. He wrote Wichita Lineman and a bunch of other good songs. No list of odd songs is complete, though, without his classic, MacArthur Park. I know MacArthur Park is in Los Angeles. Otherwise, I’m completely lost.
It’s the story of love gone bad told through the allegory of a cake sitting in the rain until the icing runs all over. ” Someone left the cake out in the rain… I don’t think that I can take it ’cause it took so long to bake and I’ll never have that recipe again…” The singer’s love–like that cake–took so long to develop that there is no way it can happen again… or something like that.
Beyond the bizarre mescaline-induced lyrics is the fact that Richard Harris made the song famous. Richard Harris was a great actor and a shitty singer. No range. Off-key. He sounds drunk. He also says “MacArthur‘s Park” throughout the song. THAT’S NOT THE NAME OF THE SONG! Then there’s the part in the middle that sounds like it came from a completely different song. It’s all just plain weird.
I couldn’t find a link to live performance by Richard Harris, but here is a link to Dave Thomas of SCTV as Richard Harris singing MacArthur Park. It’s pretty close to the real thing. By the way, Donna Summer covered it a few years after Sir Richard. She sang it much better, but that didn’t reduce the weirdness of it any.
As an aside, I once had a secretary who had a photo of her and Richard Harris on her desk. He looked drunk in that photo.
STUCK INSIDE OF MOBILE WITH THE MEMPHIS BLUES AGAIN by Bob Dylan
Ah, the rag man draws circles up and down the block
I’d ask him what the matter was
But I know that he don’t talk
And the ladies treat me kindly
And furnish me with tape
But deep inside my heart, I know I can’t escape
Thus begins this Dylan classic which clocks in at over seven minutes. It’s hard to say what Bob was shooting for here, but it’s a catchy mess of a song. The imagery contains Grandpa shooting up a fire, Shakespeare wearing pointed shoes, someone punching a cigarette and smoking eyelids and other disconnected thoughts. The Grateful Dead used to cover this in concert. I guess it makes more sense if you’re wasted.
This song has to be about something. All Bob’s songs are about something, aren’t they? What is railroad gin? Texas medicine? How do you steal a post office? Why did the Senator hand out free tickets to his son’s wedding? Why did the preacher have 20 pounds of headlines stapled to his chest? Who are the neon mad men? What price DO you pay for going through all these things twice? Did all this strange shit happen in Mobile?
If I had to guess, I’d say Bob was tired of everyone saying that all his songs had deep meaning, so he just wrote a long song full of disconnected lyrics. It’s pretty good, though.
MONGOLOID by Gerald Casale
Those of us of a certain age remember the New Wave band, Devo. They were not particularly talented, but they were odd which was all that was required for air play in the early 1980’s. They wore rubber/vinyl suits and pots on their heads. They didn’t so much sing as sort of chant. It wasn’t singing, and it wasn’t rap. It was Devo.
Devo had a number of fairly popular songs: We Are Devo, Whip It and a bizarre cover of Satisfaction. Their strangest song is a vile number called Mongoloid written by Devo bassist Jerry Casale. Now, the title alone tells you this will be different. By the 1980’s, “Mongoloid” had drifted from the medical to the pejorative, much like “idiot” and “moron” of an early generation or “retarded” today.
The song tells the story of man suffering from a chromosomal disorder who manages to live a normal life. As the singer tells it:
And he wore a hat
And he had a job
And he brought home the bacon
So that nobody knew
That he was a Mongoloid, Mongoloid
His friends were unaware
Mongoloid, he was a Mongoloid
Nobody even cared
On some level, I suppose this is inspiring. This man overcame his disability to have a job and be a productive member of society. Apparently, all that was required was the donning of a hat. While one might question whether this is a realistic portrayal of intellectual disability, it’s hard to criticize the sentiment, despite the politically incorrect title of the song.
It’s not the title or even the substance of the song that get me. It’s the fact that it’s pretty catchy. I won’t link to it here, because I don’t want to hear it. Why not? Because it gets stuck in my head. You can search for it and listen if you want, but be forewarned: It will burrow into your brain. Don’t blame me if you find yourself involuntarily singing: He was a Mongoloid, a Mongoloid…. If people hear you singing that, you’ll lose friends, as well you should.
Oh, despite Devo’s weirdness, the members aren’t British. They’re from Ohio. Buckeyes. Go figure.
AQUALUNG by Ian and Jennie Anderson
This is a classic song by Jethro Tull. Jethro Tull is not a person. It’s a band fronted by Rock’s greatest flautist, Ian Anderson. Ian and his wife, Jennie, wrote Aqualung. I was quite the Jethro Tull fan and quite the Aqualung fan. My enjoyment of the song is not diminished in the slightest by the fact that I have no idea what it’s about. It starts like this:
Sitting on the park bench —
eyeing little girls with bad intent.
Snot is running down his nose —
greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes.
Aqualung is a man, maybe. Possibly a pedophile, too, since he watches the “pretty panties run.” His beard freezes (probably from the snot), he picks a dog-end (whatever the Hell that is), warms his feet at the bog and eventually it sounds like he dies. What the…..?!?!?!
It’s a long song, too. Like MacArthur Park it breaks into a part that sounds like it came from another song. It’s all redeemed by Anderson’s great voice and peerless flute-playing. Okay, it’s still weird, but I like it.
So, those are five songs that make me think or at least confuse me. I could come up many more–any song by Nick Cave, for instance (“Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles while writing Das Kapital.”). Bob Dylan has many others, too (Quinn the Eskimo, Subterranean Homesick Blues). I’m sure you have your own. Think about them. It’s fun, and you just might learn something.