Five Songs That Make Me Go “Hmmm…”

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.

I haven't seen this, but I'm sure it was heinous.

I haven’t seen this, but I’m sure it was heinous.


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.


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.


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.

The boys from Devo sounded just liked they looked.

The boys from Devo sounded just liked they looked–like a bunch of corn-fed Buckeyes.

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.

Ian Anderson's flute can fix any song.

Ian Anderson’s flute can fix any song.

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.

© 2013

My Life as a Hippie

This title, of course, is deceiving. I’ve never been a hippie. I was born in 1962, far too late in the century to have become a hippie. I was, however, fascinated by hippies. They seemed cool. They seemed–appropriately enough–hip.

Growing up in Harlan County, Kentucky, there were no hippies or at least there was no real hippie movement. Oh, there were some hippies over in Letcher County–they founded Appalshop. In fact, they’re still there. There was a time when a “busload” of hippies was rumored to be coming to Harlan County to check out our horrible living conditions. Turns out that they were just run of the mill Communists, not really hippies at all.

My older brother knew a guy who was going to become a hippie. Charles was his name. Charles had been in and out of “Reform School,” that shadowy institution that none of us really knew much about it. Charles, however, had actually been there. Charles was quite fond of my brother for some reason. You must understand that my brother was a straight A student and all round good kid. Never got in trouble. For some reason, though, he occasionally attracted “friends” who were sketchy to say the least. Charles would occasionally follow my brother home from school. He’d hang out at the house for a while until my mother fed him. Sometimes, she would even give him a couple of dollars.

Charles once followed us home from school on a rare day when my brother had a bad day at school. He had a dust-up with a teacher over some silly infraction. When we got home, my brother laid out the story to Mom. Mom had no tolerance for injustice doled out to her children and made it clear that she would deal with the situation. Charles sat at our kitchen table and took it all in. When Mom was done, he said: “Don’t you worry, Mrs. Williams. I know a feller in reform school who’s gonna kill that teacher soon as he gets out.” That’s the kind of guy Charles was. Mom just said: “Thank you, Charles.” Secretly, I hoped that guy would get out soon.

One day in the summer, I was walking home from Russell’s Grocery, when–much to my surprise–Charles stepped out from behind a tree. He was probably 15 at the time. His hair was shaved down to a close crew cut. He wore mirror sunglasses, a buck skin vest (no shirt) and love beads. “Do you know me?” “Yes, Charles, I know you.” He explained that he had been released from Reform School. Of course, he followed me home.

Mom talked to Charles about his adventures in Reform School, and he announced that he was going to move to “The City” and become a hippie. I noted that his hair was far too short, but he explained that the Draconian rules of Reform School required that look. I think that’s the last time he was at our house. I don’t think he ever became a hippie, but his ambition gave me a new-found respect for him.

Back to the real hippies. During the Summer, we would sometimes travel to Utah to visit my grandparents or to Colorado Springs to visit the Air Force Academy for whom my Dad was a recruiter. On those trips, I saw the real hippies. I saw one in a Stuckey’s somewhere in the West once. I just stared at him. I saw one get arrested on the street in Salt Lake City, too. Very cool.

Once, when we were in Salt Lake, President Nixon came to speak at Temple Square. My Papaw was a security guard at Temple Square and stood on the stage with Nixon. This was probably 1969. The hippies were out in force. War protesters carrying signs–the whole nine yards. My Dad put me on his shoulders so I could see Papaw, but really I was checking out the hippies.

Somewhere in this sea of humanity are my Papaw and Richard Nixon…and a bunch of hippies.

The only person I ever saw in Harlan County that I thought was a hippie was the son-in-law of the people who lived across the street from us. He had long hair and a beard and wore hippie clothes. My little brother and I would peek out the front window of the house just to get a look at him. I knew he was a hippie, because my Dad said so.

At this point, I should confess that I didn’t really want to be a hippie. First, hippies were draft-dodgers and war protesters, which was really frowned upon in our home. Second, let’s face facts here–hippies were dirty, and I’ve never enjoyed being dirty. Third, they were dope fiends, and I was never into the drug scene. Nevertheless, they fascinated me.

I did have some love beads. My Mom bought them from some Indian kids when we drove through an Arizona reservation one time. I wore them proudly, although I’m sure they clashed with my otherwise cherubic appearance.

I wouldn’t have been a good hippie. Oh, sure, I would have loved the lack of responsibility and free love aspect. I hated school with a passion, so “dropping out” would have been right in my wheel house. Communal living, on the other hand, has never been my “bag”–as a hippie might say. I don’t like sharing my sleeping quarters with family, much less strangers. The being filthy would have been a drag (another hippie word!). Plus, I’m a bit of a germaphobe, and most hippies looked slap eat up with germs.

Typical hippie filthiness. There’s not enough hand sanitizer on Earth to get me in the middle of all that.

Hippies were also liberals. I’m talking real liberals, not the kind people talk about today. For example, a hippie wouldn’t take a political donation from a corporation. Of course, this assumes that a hippie would run for office which he or she certainly would not. They believed in real collective living–everyone living together and lying around in a big pile. I guess the word “Communism” comes from “commune,” and hippies loved communes. Like true Socialists, hippies would have seized the means of production if working weren’t so antithetical to the hippie credo. Now, I never was all that liberal and certainly didn’t live in a liberal culture. As I’ve noted, free love would have been cool or even groovy, but eventually the hippies and I would have clashed over something like the capital gains tax.

When they drove, hippies drove vans. I don’t even like mini-vans. Regular vans are certainly out of the question. Nowadays, full size vans are the typical mode of conveyance of serial killers. I prefer BMWs–definitely not a hippie ride.

Typical hippie van. I prefer my metallic gray BMW 328. I won’t even put a bumper sticker on my car.

I would have been good at sounding like a hippie. I’ve had an annoying habit of using the word “man” most of my life, as in “What’s up, man?” “Man” was very much a hippie word. So was “dude,” although it’s made quite the comeback in recent years. I always wanted to use the word “groovy,” too. Maybe I could bill myself as “The Groovy Lawyer.” “Cool,” of course, was a staple of the hippie lexicon, borrowed from the Beatniks. I still use “cool” in everyday conversation.

I also liked hippie music. The Beatles were liked by hippies, and I like the Beatles. Same goes for Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Led Zeppelin and countless others. Hell, I heard a recording of Charles Manson singing once, and he wasn’t half bad for a psychotic, murdering hippie. Say what you will about hippies, they dug some cool music.

So, I didn’t become a hippie, and I really had no chance to do so. That’s probably good, because you eventually become an old hippie. Worse, you become a former hippie and end up kowtowing to The Man like the rest of us, unless you become The Man.

Example of the tragic outcome of the old hippie. Nothing groovy about this.

In Maui a few years ago, I met a guy who said he moved there in 1969 to live in a commune. He never left. He didn’t look much like a hippie. So, I asked him what he did now, forty years later. He said he worked in construction, but added: “I’ll always be a hippie, man.” What could I say? “That’s cool, man.” It was a groovy exchange.

Still yet, I have admiration for the hippies. I know many folks–now conservative pillars of society–who proudly declare that they are former hippies. I also know people who still claim to be hippies, although that’s doubtful. Being a hippie now is like claiming to be an anarchist. Maybe you are, but the glory days passed long ago.

So, if you’re an old hippie, I salute you. Now, get a haircut and take a bath.

© 2012