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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Stuck Between Stations/The Hold Steady - Part II

In our previous post we examined the reference to Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road in The Hold Steady song Stuck Between Stations, found on their 2006 album Boys and Girls in America.  But there's another literary reference in the song that focuses on Minneapolis poet John Berryman.

Berryman's 1964 volume 77 Dream Songs won the Pulitzer Prize (it was later combined with a second collection, His Toy, His Story, His Rest and published in one volume called The Dream Songs).  His later works were less well received, however, and he suffered from depression and alcoholism. (He was drunk and exhausted, but he was critically acclaimed and respected, according to the lyrics.)  In 1972, he committed suicide by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.  The song alludes to this event:

The devil and John Berryman
Took a walk together
They ended up on Washington
Talking to the river...

And a few lines later:

That was the night that we thought John Berryman could fly.
But he didn't
So he died.

Berryman's own father, a banker, had killed himself when the poet was twelve years old.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Stuck Between Stations/The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady's 2006 album Boys and Girls in America takes its name from the opening lyrics of a song on the record called Stuck Between Stations:

There are nights when I think Sal Paradise was right
Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together

The lyrics, in turn, allude to an incident in Jack Kerouac's classic 1957 novel On the Road.  Following an unsatisfying sexual encounter with a waitress, the book's narrator, Sal Paradise (a thinly fictionalized version of Kerouac himself), muses:

Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk.  Not courting talk--real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment precious.

The line Boys and girls in America is also repeated on another track from the album, First Night.

["Stuck Between Stations" features a second literary reference, unrelated to On the Road, which we'll cover in our next post.]

On the Road (Kindle Edition)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Furry Old Lobster/Jonathan Coulton

Hard to believe that Labor Day Weekend is upon us already.  There's still time for one last summertime fling--how about getting your friends together tonight and going out for some furry lobster?

If only you could.  In his 2005 book The Areas of My Expertise, "Daily Show" contributor John Hodgman explains why the once plentiful furry lobster is off the menu--permanently.  Hodgman provides "A Brief Time Line of the Lobster in America," which reveals that the original "lobster" was a furry creature remarkably similar to an otter. What we call lobsters are actually European lobsters, introduced to New York City in 1890 in a misguided experiment that goes horribly wrong. The city is soon overrun with the creatures, and none other than Theodore Roosevelt is brought in as police commissioner with a mandate to rid New York of the nasty crustaceans. "Discovering that the lobster cannot easily be killed except by boiling," Hodgman writes, "Roosevelt instead diverts the creatures to Maine via a secret canal." In the decades that follow, Maine becomes the battleground on which the Old Lobster and the New Lobster vie for supremacy. Finally, in 1980, the last Old Lobster perishes in the kitchen of a Furry Old Lobster restaurant. "It's a sad story, true," Hodgman acknowledges, "but no sadder than much of history."

Singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton, a frequent collaborator of Hodgman's, set the tragic tale of the Old Lobster to music in Furry Old Lobster, found on his 2006 CD Thing a Week One.

Sing hey hidey ho, where'd the old lobster go?
And his body so furry and brown?
Sing ho hidey hey, have they all gone away?
For we haven't seen many around

It's a sad and wistful sea chanty, or chantey, or possibly even shanty--our dictionary wasn't terribly clear on the subject.  The point is, if you do go out for seafood this weekend and Furry Lobster is on the specials board, you're being had.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Broadcast/Paul McCartney and Wings

In The Words and Music of Paul McCartney: The Solo Years, Vincent Benitez writes:  "The Broadcast is the most experimental track in Wings' entire output."  David Bowie was reportedly so impressed by the track, which appears on the 1979 album Back to the Egg, that he thought it should be released as the first single.  Technically, the track isn't a song at all, but a spoken word piece heard over a fragment of melody--and the words aren't spoken by Paul McCartney or anybody else in the band.

The track was recorded at Lympne Castle in Kent, England, which dates from the 12th century.  The castle was owned by a gentleman named Harold Margary and his wife Deirdre.  Benitez quotes Wings guitarist Laurence Juber:

It's a bit hazy but the guy that owns the castle where we were recording, both he and his wife had these very plummy kind of voices
. . . . I think it was like, "Oh, wouldn't it be fun to have them read some classic English literature material and use the orchestral background to be just this kind of weird interlude."  And they were game for it.

McCartney selected books at random from the castle library and recorded the Margarys reading selections.  Harold Margary read from The Sport of Kings by Ian Hay and The Little Man by John Galsworthy, which is what you hear on the final track.  Deirdre Margary read lyrics from a song called "The Poodle and the Pug," from a 1946 light opera called Big Ben.  "Her reading didn't make the final version," reports Ian Peel in The Unknown Paul McCartney, "but a few lines ('...with tufts of hair stuck here and there which one would like to tug...') were spliced into Reception," another track on the album.

The Words and Music of Paul McCartney: The Solo Years (Kindle Edition)

The Little Man (Kindle Edition)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bukowski/Modest Mouse

Prolific poet, novelist and short story writer Charles Bukowski would have turned 90 on Monday (August 16th).  Bukowski, who died in 1994, lived a hard life of drinking, gambling, dead end jobs, and rocky relationships with women.  A strong autobiographical thread runs through his writing, which is peopled with losers, lowlifes, and hustlers.  Much of Bukowski's work is set in the seamy underside of Los Angeles, his home town.

An alcoholic, Bukowski had a difficult personality--his behavior could be disruptive, boorish, and combative at his public readings and other social events.  The song Bukowski by Modest Mouse, from their 2004 album Good News for People Who Love Bad News, picks up on this trait.  The song can hardly be considered a tribute with lyrics such as these:

Woke this morning and it seemed to me
That every night turns out to be
A little bit more like Bukowski
And yeah, I know he's a pretty good read
But God, who'd want to be
God, who'd want to be such an asshole?

In his 2006 book Modest Mouse: A Pretty Good Read (yes, the title is taken from the lyrics of "Bukowski"), Alan Goldsher offers these thoughts on Modest Mouse lyricist Isaac Brock's attitude toward the late author:

Considering Isaac's love of both imbibing and literature, it was only a matter of time before he acknowledged eternally drunken poet/novelist Charles Bukowski in song.  But Brock's attitude toward drinking and drugging was slowly changing, so it would stand to reason that he might also take a different view of Bukowski.  While Brock sings about Bukowski being "a pretty good read," he was less than impressed with the author's worldview.  "He glamorized alchoholism and misogyny," Isaac says.  "I've seen friends get impressed by him and he seemed to impress himself by being a pain in the ass.  I just don't like alcoholism being put in a way that makes my friends wanna be alcoholics."  When Brock repeats the lyric "God, who'd wanna be such an asshole," you wonder if he's talking about Charles or himself.

Another musical reference to Bukowski can be found in U2's song Dirty Day, from their 1993 album Zooropa.  The song, which depicts a difficult encounter between an estranged father and son, is dedicated to Bukowski.  The phrase "these days, days, days run away like horses over the hill," repeated by Bono over the song's fadeout, alludes to Bukowski's 1969 poetry collection The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills.  Bukowski died a few months after the album was released.

Singer-songwriter Tom Russell's 2005 album Hotwalker: Charles Bukowski & A Ballad for Gone was inspired by his exchange of letters with Bukowski.  The album features original songs, narration, and actual recordings of Bukowski and his contemporaries (including Jack Kerouac and Lenny Bruce).  Russell has also collected his correspondence with Bukowski into a limited edition book called Tough Company, published in 2008.

Finally, the Boo Radleys state the obvious in their song Charles Bukowski Is Dead, from their 1995 album Wake Up!, released almost exactly one year after Bukowski died.

The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills (Kindle Edition)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Driving the Last Spike/Genesis

When composing a song, Phil Collins usually doesn't start with a particular theme in mind--he just lets the ideas and words flow freely as he's working out the melody.  "If you go right back to Face Value, I never sat down and wrote anything for that record," Collins says in the band's 2007 book Genesis: Chapter and Verse. "In The Air Tonight was totally improvised.  I sang what came out of my head and wrote it down afterwards.  And because it worked for that first record, that's what I've always done.  When I'm singing along the phrases come out."

For Driving The Last Spike, from the 1991 Genesis album We Can't Dance, Collins went the extra step of doing some research.  The song takes an epic look at the dangers and hardships that went into the construction of the British railway system during the 19th century, told from the point of view of a workman who took part in that process.  "To write 'Driving the Last Spike,' I ended up getting hold of a book about the navvies," Collins said.  ["Navvy" is a British term for an unskilled manual laborer, particularly someone who builds roads, canals, and railroads.]  He elaborated in an interview with Music Express Magazine [via genesis-path.net]:

The song's working title was "Irish," and that came from me making up words and phrases as I listened to the music...There's an Irish-sounding bit in the arrangement, so I thought about labourers and the working class.  And then as I browsed through a book called The Railway Navvies, I formulated this idea about the Irish workers who helped build the British railway system at the turn of the century.  I mean, when you're on a train and you're looking out of the window, you don't think about being 150 feet up in the air on a viaduct between two hills and how the track actually got there!

"I don't know why but I just thought there was a story to be told there," Collins says of the song in Genesis: Chapter and Verse.  "And that was one of only a few story lyrics I ever wrote."