Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Answer Song

An “answer song” is a recording made in response (“answer”) to a previously released recording. In literary theory, the answer song would be considered an example of intertextuality, a term used to describe the way any particular text depends upon prior texts for its meaning. Hence a parodic imitation of an earlier song may also be considered a form of answer song—for instance, John Zacherle’s “I’m the Ghoul From Wolverton Mountain” as a parody of Jo Ann Campbell’s “(I’m the Girl On) Wolverton Mountain,” which in turn was an answer song to Claude King’s “Wolverton Mountain,” or “Weird Al” Yankovic’s many parodies, such as “Eat It,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s Beat It.” The answer song is usually an attempt to exploit the popularity of an earlier song for economic motives, although the answer song can be motivated out of other reasons as well—to argue a different philosophical or ideological position, for instance. By way of analogy, think of the way the Darwin fish depended upon an individual’s knowledge of the Christian fish sign, but thoroughly subverted its meaning. A good example of this latter relationship is Kitty Wells’ indignant answer song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life.” Usually the answer song is made by a different artist than recorded the original, but there are interesting exceptions to this rule, such as Sly Stone’s “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa” which is a response to his own earlier song, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” In the late 1950s and 60s many answer songs were often cast as female responses to a (hit) song by a male artist—Jody Miller’s “Queen of the House” was a female (domestic) response to Roger Miller’s carefree song of the road, “King of the Road,” for instance. And sometimes, the answer song can actually be used as a form of rhetorical response in a feud between antagonistic artists, such as the famous one between Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

Some Examples Of Answer Songs:

Shake, Rattle and Roll (Bill Haley & His Comets) – Bark, Battle, And Brawl (The Platters)
The Wild Side of Life (Hank Thompson) – It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels (Kitty Wells)
King of the Road (Roger Miller) – Queen of the House (Jody Miller)
It’s My Party (Lesley Gore) – Judy’s Turn to Cry (Leslie Gore)
Blue Navy (Diane Renay) – Kiss Me, Sailor (Diane Renay)
My Guy (Mary Wells) – My Girl (The Temptations)
Eve of Destruction (Barry McGuire) – Dawn of Correction (The Spokesmen)
Universal Soldier (Donovan) – The Universal Coward (Jan & Dean)
Southern Man (Neil Young) – Sweet Home Alabama (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
White Christmas (Bing Crosby) – Blue Christmas (Elvis Presley)
Stand By Your Man (Tammy Wynette) – (I’m A) Stand By My Woman Man (Ronnie Milsap)
Norwegian Wood (The Beatles) – Fourth Time Around (Bob Dylan)
Street Fighting Man (The Rolling Stones) – Revolution (The Beatles)
Too Many People (Paul McCartney) – How Do You Sleep? (John Lennon)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Today's The Day

I apologize for not being the most diligent blogger of late, but I’ve been extremely busy working on my book proposal for consideration in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of books on significant rock albums of the past forty years. Note that I avoided using the term “classic,” using “significant” instead, although many of the albums written about so far in the series I would consider classic rock albums. Many of the albums that have been the basis of books in the series, while not necessarily considered “classic” by the rock establishment, have shown a continuous market value and a stubbornly persistent public presence, and albums that have shown such resilience have been favored by the series editors as well.

I am happy to announce that I’m now finished with the proposal—three weeks later than I’d intended, however—and that it has now been officially submitted to the editors. I happen to consider the album I chose to write a proposal for a classic—Neil Young’s TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT (1975). I noticed that neither Neil Young nor TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT was listed among the artists in the first hundred proposals received by series editor David Barker, although that isn’t the reason I chose to write a proposal on it; indeed, I’d already decided to write on the album some time ago, even before the latest call for proposals was announced in early November. Of course, just because Neil Young wasn’t among the musicians listed in the first hundred proposals doesn’t mean one hasn’t since been received on Young, nor does it mean in the weeks since the posting of that list that the editor hasn’t received a proposal (or two) on TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT (A proposal for a book on the album was not submitted during the last call for proposals since the editors were then enforcing the one artist/one album rule.) In fact, I would be surprised if he hasn’t.

Why did I choose to write on TONIGHTS THE NIGHT? Not for the obvious reason that the album is acknowledged as a classic, but rather out of a desire to interrogate the very idea of what we mean by “classic” in the first place. While endorsed by the critical establishment—it is listed as #331 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, just above The Beatles’ HELP!—its total sales (this again according to Rolling Stone) are fewer than 500,000 in contrast to HARVEST’s 4.3 million copies sold. But the fact is, TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT speaks to me in a way that HARVEST does not, and as a sage old writer once remarked, you should write about what you know, so I chose to write about TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT.

What are my expectations? Hopeful . . . but realistic. As I mentioned in my earlier blog, odds for acceptance are about 1 in 25—not very good. But of course I assume I stand a chance or I wouldn’t have taken the time to submit a proposal. Please wish me luck! And if you’re that individual who submitted a book proposal on TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT and it is accepted rather than mine, then I can honestly say that I look forward to reading your book, because I'm very convinced the album merits such a focused discussion.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Orpheus And The Boys of Summer

Yesterday afternoon while running errands I happened to hear on the car radio Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer,” a very compelling tune that I hadn’t heard in quite some time. Inevitably I began to think about its meaning. While the lyrics invite us to unpack the meaning of its repeated figure, “the boys of summer,” I’m convinced its underlying meaning resides (consciously or unconsciously, it makes no difference) in its invoking of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. First of all, here are the lyrics:

Nobody on the road, nobody on the beach
I feel it in the air, the summer’s out of reach
Empty lake, empty streets, the sun goes down alone
I’m drivin’ by your house though I know you’re not home

But I can see you, your brown skin shining in the sun
You got your hair combed back and your sunglasses on, baby
And I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer have gone

I never will forget those nights
I wonder if it was a dream
Remember how you made me crazy?
Remember how I made you scream
Now I don’t understand what happened to our love
But babe, I’m gonna get you back
I’m gonna show you what I’m made of

I can see you, your brown skin shining in the sun
I see you walkin’ real slow and you’re smilin’ at everyone
I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer have gone

Out on the road today I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac
A little voice inside my head said, “Don't look back. You can never look back”
I thought I knew what love was, what did I know
Those days are gone forever, I should just let them go

But I can see you, your brown skin shining in the sun
You got that top pulled down and radio on, baby
And I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer have gone

I can see you, your brown skin shining in the sun
You got that hair slicked back and those Wayfarers on, baby
I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer have gone

And here’s a version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. For convenience I’ve taken the version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth from the Encyclopedia of Greek Mythology (the full version can be found here):

Orpheus fell in love with a nymph named Eurydice and blissful was their life together until one day she was pursued by a son of Apollo, the minor deity Aristaeus. In her headlong eagerness to escape, she stepped on a poisonous snake, was bitten and died. Disconsolate, Orpheus found a cave which lead to Hades and followed Eurydice to the Underworld. Here his musical charms were so persuasive that the King of the Dead permitted the minstrel to take his sweetheart Home with him—on one condition.

This condition was so simple that it takes some explaining to account for Orpheus’s failure to heed it. Perhaps he could not bear to keep his eyes off their beloved object for a moment longer…. In any case, he did the one thing he had been forbidden. He turned around and looked at Eurydice, and she was lost to him forever.

The meaning of “The Boys of Summer” hinges, like the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, on seeing. “I can see you” is repeated five times; “I saw” is used once. And while the “I” insists on his vision (and vision incites his desire—his “love” for the object of desire), the “I”/eye fails both to control and grasp his desire—as in the Orpheus myth. He seeks it, possesses it, but ultimately loses it. Orpheus-like, the “I” vows “I’m gonna get you back,” but like Orpheus comes to the realization that he cannot “look back. You can never look back….Those days are gone forever,” a realization this is reiterated wherever he turns his gaze, for instance, “I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.” Interpreted psychoanalytically, Jacques Lacan would say that the song enacts a “world of the Other” in which the subject (the “I”) has no place. The “I” is continually cast out from the very world constructed by his desire—the underlying meaning of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth:

Nobody on the road, nobody on the beach
I feel it in the air, the summer’s out of reach
Empty lake, empty streets, the sun goes down alone
I’m drivin’ by your house though I know you’re not home

A once vital and vibrant world is “empty,” drained of meaning. Interestingly, the “I” consistently remarks on the desired’s sunglasses (later referred to as “Wayfarers,” a brand of sunglasses). An inevitable association, it seems to me, is John Fred & His Playboy Band’s “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)”—see my interpretation of the song here. In the context of “The Boys of Summer,” the meaning resides in the fact that he can’t see her eyes, only the (sun)glasses which cover them. He remembers her recurrent “look,” but not her actual reality.

And “the boys of summer”? His own lost youth, a figure for loss that becomes sentimentalized. Again, the “I” is alienated from his own desire: most certainly memories, strong memories, are constructed out of desire.

The award-winning video to the song can be found here and is worth watching.

Friday, December 19, 2008

When The Whip Comes Down

While watching Jailhouse Rock last night I realized I’d forgotten about the scene in which Elvis is flogged by order of the prison warden as a consequence of striking a guard following a food riot in the prison commissary. Presumably a conventional feature of prison dramas—in which such brutality is often inflicted upon the prisoners—so far as I know the scene in Jailhouse Rock has received scant critical commentary. The purpose of the scene is ambiguous. Why does the warden order a whipping as punishment rather than, say, solitary confinement? One might argue that the scene is “required,” as it were, because of the Hollywood production code: violent criminal behavior must be dealt with swiftly and without impunity. Impulsive, unable to control his inner rage, Elvis punches the prison guard (i.e., the Authority Figure), and so must be disciplined through violence himself. But of course the flogging isn’t merely or only disciplinary: he’s severely lacerated by the whip, as the facial reaction of his cellmate, Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy), implies when he raises Elvis’s shirt in order to examine his back.

I was too young to see Jailhouse Rock in the movie theater when it was released in the fall of 1957. I do, however, vividly recall the first enactment of sadism I ever saw in the movie theater: the moment early on in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), when Lee Marvin (Liberty Valance, an outlaw) sadistically—like a man possessed—beats James Stewart (Ransom Stoddard, a lawyer) with his silver-handled whip. The crucial difference, of course, is that Liberty Valance is a sadistic villain, not a (presumably) benign prison warden as in Jailhouse Rock (the distinction being the legitimate vs. illegitimate uses of violence). Interestingly, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was released almost precisely a year to the day after Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks (1961), which also featured a scene with a flogging, a scene in which Brando is lashed to a hitching post and viciously whipped by his old friend Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), who is now a Sheriff, that is, an official Authority Figure. Although One-Eyed Jacks was based on a novel by Charles Neider, its screenplay was co-written by Guy Trosper—who also wrote Jailhouse Rock.

In his definitive book on the subject, Acting in the Cinema (1988), James Naremore convincingly argues that it was Marlon Brando who brought to the cinema “a frighteningly eroticized quality to violence” (for example, in A Streetcar Named Desire), and it was Brando who in several films—On the Waterfront, One-Eyed Jacks, and The Chase—was “shown being horribly maimed or beaten by people who take pleasure in giving out punishment” (p. 230). Indeed, in both On the Waterfront and The Chase, Brando suffers especially vicious and prolonged beatings. But only in One-Eyed Jacks is he whipped, although the whip (the lash) figures prominently in the Brando film Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), in which it becomes a symbol of tyrannical authority. On the Waterfront, of course, precedes Jailhouse Rock, but in retrospect the importance of the scene in which Elvis is flogged while in the slammer cannot be underestimated: the presence of Elvis lends the whipping scene in Jailhouse Rock a degree of eroticized violence.

“Taste the whip” is a partial lyric in the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs,” a demo for which (according to the box set Peel Slowly and See, a compilation of Lou Reed-era VU material) dates from July 1965—that is, after all of the aforementioned films save The Chase (filmed in 1965, but released in 1966). “Venus In Furs” later appeared on the first VU album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, released in March 1967, over a year before filming began on Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s Performance (filmed the late summer of 1968), which featured the brutal whipping of James Fox—a scene that was, incidentally, inspired by the scene of Dad Longworth’s whipping of Brando in One-Eyed Jacks.

I fully realize the obvious cinematic sources of inspiration (as opposed to the putative source, the more “respectable”—as in sophisticated—literary source, Sacher-Masoch’s nineteenth-century short novel Venus In Furs) for the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs” likely were the silent 8mm and 16mm “stag” films models such as Bettie Page made in New York for exploitation filmmaker Irving Klaw in the 1950s rather than Brando movies, but the point cannot be overlooked. Klaw’s films, like the VU song, contain highly fetishized imagery of women clad in lingerie and stiletto heels enacting scenes of bondage, spanking, whipping, and domination—which is to say, the dark underbelly of modern urban life. But in terms of lyrical content, “Venus In Furs” is simply an aberrant reading of a pop song such as “Blue Velvet,” that is, a rock song with “adult” as opposed to “adolescent” content (R as opposed to G).

There are very few rock songs featuring the whip even though the whip has been associated with rock music since Jailhouse Rock in 1957. Most have followed the Velvet Underground’s lead—the whip as fetish object—as opposed to using the whip as a symbol of brutal authority (as in Neil Young’s “Southern Man”). Only those from the American South, such as The Allman Brothers Band (and Elvis), seem to understand that the whip cannot be extricated from the institution of slavery. And, of course, those from the so-called “Third World,” such as The Ethiopians.

10 Tracks Guaranteed To Whip It Up:

“Venus In Furs” – The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
“Whipping Post” – The Allman Brothers Band, The Allman Brothers Band (1969)
“Southern Man” – Neil Young, After the Gold Rush (1970)
“When the Whip Comes Down” – The Rolling Stones, Some Girls (1978)
“Whip In My Valise” – Adam and the Ants, Dirk Wears White Sox (1979; 2004)
“Whip It” – Devo, Freedom of Choice (1980)
“Let It Whip” – Dazz Band, Keep It Live (1982)
“Love Whip” – The Reverend Horton Heat, Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em (1991)
“The Whip” – The Ethiopians, Train to Skaville: Anthology 1966-1975 (2002)
“Wrong Side of the Whip” – Substitutes, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable (2005)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Nutted By Reality

In Act III, Scene iv (lines 178-79) of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the play’s eponymous hero, Hamlet, turns to his mother and says: “I must be cruel only to be kind./This bad begins and worse remains behind.” The fact that the line, “cruel to be kind” (which expresses an ancient idea, incidentally), occurs in the midst of a scene in which Hamlet is berating his mother for betraying the memory of her dead husband—Hamlet believes she is an adulterer and is guilty of incest as well—is significant. In the vernacular, “cruel to be kind” typically means that one must inflict pain on another for his or her own good—that is, the harsher the medicine, the better to effect the cure. “Cruel to be kind” is a standard sort of psychological strategy used by parents on children, which is what makes Shakespeare’s use of it all the more audacious, as in this case it is a child (son) speaking to a parent (mother). What’s more, it’s a child speaking to a parent about her sexual behavior.

The euphemistic version of “cruel to be kind” is most often expressed in the form, “this is going to hurt me a lot worse than it hurts you,” which reveals the masochism underlying the expression. And masochism, as Gilles Deleuze has pointed out (in Masochism: An Interpretation of Coldness and Cruelty, English translation 1971), operates by explicit or implicit contract, that is, the role for each participant is determined beforehand, prior to the enactment of dominance and debasement.

As might be expected, popular music has explored this psychology with great acuity. And according to Peter Lehman, there was no popular musician better at expressing masochistic desire than Roy Orbison. Discussing the hysteria implicit in Orbison’s “Running Scared,” Peter Lehman writes:

At the end of “Running Scared,” Orbison’s voice thrills at the unbearable suspense of wondering whether his girlfriend will chose [sic] him or his phallic rival: “Then all at once he was standing there/So sure of himself, his head in the air/My heart was breaking, which one would it be?/You turned around and walked away with me.” I will return later to the importance of the Orbison person’s passivity and paralysis, but notice here the suddenness with which the rival appears (“all at once”) and the drawn-out moment during which the outcome is unknown (“my heart was breaking, which one would it be?”). Only the last word of the song relieves the suspense. The song’s happy ending is almost irrelevant given the virtual panic that pervades the song: “Every relationship I’d ever been in, the girl already had one going when we first met. Even as far back as kindergarten” (Kent 1994, 291). Although Orbison seems unaware of it, such a pattern itself bespeaks masochistic desire, since being attracted to a woman who already has a boyfriend raises not only the risk of failure but also, in the event of success, the specter of the rival’s return. (Roy Orbison: The Invention of An Alternative Rock Masculinity, 93)

One might well include in the list below many songs by Roy Orbison, but I’ve tried to give a sense of the way masochistic desire has been explored in popular music.

The Top Ten Acid-Laced Sugar Cubes All About Being Cruel To Be Kind:

“Cecilia” – Simon and Garfunkel
“Cold, Cold Heart” – Hank Williams
“Cruel to Be Kind” – Nick Lowe
“Girl” – The Beatles
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” – Marvin Gaye
“Lyin’ Eyes” – The Eagles
“Maggie May” – Rod Stewart
“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” – Kenny Rogers and The First Edition
“Running Scared” – Roy Orbison
“These Boots Are Made For Walkin'” – Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood

Incidentally, the title of this blog is taken from a song by Nick Lowe (on Jesus of Cool, 1978) because I thought the phrase sufficiently captured the peculiar psychological torment of masochistic desire.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Although the holiday season obviously is a popular time for the Christmas carol, the word carol did not always refer to a type of song, but a type of dance—a popular dance in the Middle Ages, in fact. The word carol comes from the French word carole, a word derived from the Latin chorus, probably derived from the Greek word choreia, meaning dance. So how did carole, a word that means dance, become the carol, as in “Christmas carol”? An explanation is provided by this article, “Secular Music in 15th-Century England”:

The word carol . . . [meaning dance-song] . . . is used in this meaning up until the 15th century, when its function begins to change. It becomes more and more a purely vocal piece, but still maintaining the traditional form of a four-line verse followed by a two-line burden. According to R. L. Greene, carol is “a song on any subject, composed of uniform stanzas and provided with a burden. The burden makes and marks the carol. It is not a refrain (which might appear at the end of each stanza) but a self-contained formal and metrical unit.” It is simple, direct and unpretentious in style, mainly cheerful, using stock phrases and traditional imagery. Its basic form is related to other continental popular forms of the time like the French ballade, the Italian ballata or the Spanish villancico. However, all these were monophonic, whereas the English introduced a unique feature: the polyphonic carols, which first appeared around 1400. . . . According to John Stevens, “the popular carol, rough and direct, combines a warmth of human feeling with a matter-of-factness and a sense of wonder. The clerical carol, complex and often ornate, dwells with dramatic intensity on the physical and spiritual anguish of the Passion. The one didactic but gay; the other solemnly devotional.”

The distinction John Stevens makes between popular carols and clerical carols is still with us today: popular carols would include “Frosty the Snowman,” “Winter Wonderland,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” while clerical carols would include, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” and that old workhorse, “Silent Night.”

But for rock ‘n’ rollers, the classic carol, of course, has to be Chuck Berry’s “Carol,” later covered, famously, by the Rolling Stones. In Chuck Berry’s “Carol,” the earlier meaning of carol, as dance, or dance-song, is restored: “Oh Carol, don’t let him steal your heart away/I'm gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day.”

I wish everybody happy Caroling--of the Chuck Berry sort, that is--this holiday season!