Archive for the 'Robby's Page' Category

Cheap Sunglasses: ZZ Top and the Price of Fame

Previously posted on, now with political addendum at the end.

The concept of the price of fame is usually applied in the sense of the personal cost to the famous, from the relatively mild annoyance of not being able to go out without being recognized, to the deep existential crises and insanity of megastars like Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson. You could certainly argue that Kurt and Michael would have been crazy anyway, but clearly becoming famous was not healthy for either of them.

But there is another cost of fame that is a little harder to pin down, because it’s the cost that is charged to a band’s account of cool points when the band gets too famous. In some contexts, this cool-points account might be called “indie cred” or “punk cred” or (more generally) “authenticity.” I’m sure there are specific equivalents for jazz and metal and klezmer and so on, but it all comes down to the same thing.

If you are an indie kid or a hipster of any stripe, or have spent any time around hipsters, you have experienced or observed the phenomenon of the band that gets too famous for its original fans to tolerate, as if the band’s quality is dependent upon its obscurity. Of course that’s objectively ridiculous, but music fandom is no science, and people naturally enjoy music for more than its purely musical qualities. So it’s understandable why a fan might grow bitter at the object of his (gendered pronoun intentional—it’s usually guys who do this) affection’s success. Now he has to share with a bunch of bandwagoneers who weren’t there during the lean times and who can’t possibly understand what made this band really great. That’s a bit of a caricature, of course. Sometimes when a band gets famous the quality of the music really does decline, sometimes via intentional changes (the “sell-out”), sometimes because the band has started to run out of ideas, and sometimes because the band has plenty of new ideas but they aren’t very good.

With that groundwork laid, I want to posit a kind of weird argument: that ZZ Top is an underrated band today. Yes, that band that is enshrined in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, the one that played to packed stadiums and sold multi-platinum heaps of records. That band that played a Super Bowl halftime show with James Brown. I realize that the concepts of “underrated” and “overrated” are thrown around a lot, usually meaning “this band is way too good to be so obscure” or “this band isn’t good enough to be this popular.” That’s not really what I’m interested in. Instead, I’d like to talk about ZZ Top’s critical reputation and its lack of currency or buzz among contemporary hipsters, and to argue that ZZ Top is (critically) underrated precisely because of their MTV-era success.


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Pressing the Flesh

Robby and I got back to our roots a few weeks ago, garage band roots that is. We went to see the Fleshtones. Robby shared his thoughts over at Last Fm. I figure they belong here as well. First, my verdict. Maybe the most fun band ever live. Yeah, click the links, go listen to the music.


Since forming thirty-plus years ago at the dawn of the punk era in New York, The Fleshtones are not only still together, but they still bring the Super Rock party to whatever bar they play in. It’s the same classic lineup they’ve always had, except for their “new” bass player Kenny (who has only been with the band since 1992).

Last night at the Spanish Moon, an embarrassingly small crowd of about 40 (which coincidentally seems to have been the median age of the audience as well–I saw lots of old friends from my Here Comes a Regular years) showed up for the masters of garage rock; many bands that count on lots of audience interaction might have felt deflated by the sparse crowd and come out flat. Not The Fleshtones. They don’t depend on a crowd to show up stoked, they instead always create the audience they want, enticing people to the front of the stage, frequently foraying out onto the floor of the club, constantly dancing, playing the whole time. It’s infectious. I don’t like to dance much, but The ‘Shtones have a way of loosening the locks on my joints.

To describe the specifics of their stage show (jumping up on the bar, the semi-choreographed stage moves, guitarist Keith Streng’s high kicks) makes it all seem cheesy and cliched to someone who hasn’t seen them live. Believe me, I’ve seen bands that do all that exact stuff, and they come off cheesy and cliched, like they’re aping the rock star moves they’ve seen. (For example, The Cynics. Nice records, but posers live.)

It’s hard to say exactly how The Fleshtones pull it off, except to conjecture that it’s because they’re not ACTING. They are rock stars in every way that matters, and professional entertainers to the core. It’s not so much that they do things differently from other down-and-dirty bar bands, they do everything that’s already been done better. The only other band of this genre that I’ve ever seen put on a show in their league was The Lyres.

The music, in itself, is competent guitar-and-farfisa garage rock, not significantly different from hundreds of other bands of this type. Listen to their records, yes; but they’re really all about the live show, the bright kinetic energy of which is all the more amazing considering they’re really kind of old. I mean, I first saw The Fleshtones in Baltimore about 1990; they had already been together about a decade and a half at that point. That show was 18 years ago, which is the same amount of time that passed from The Beatles‘ first singles until John Lennon’s shooting. And here we have the ‘Shtones, still bringing it to the stage with the same energy and enthusiasm they had back when I was a kid.

When they last played Baton Rouge, it was 1983. Singer Peter Zaremba promised to be back in another 25 years. “Tell your children,” he urged us. “Tell your children about The Fleshtones.” I would add to that, if you have children, don’t let them see The Fleshtones before you do: trust me, you’ll be embarrassed. And younger folks, don’t skip seeing them because you think they’re old. You’re right; they’re old. But you are guaranteed to have a good time at a Fleshtones show. You’ll leave sweaty, and tired, and grinning.

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Lance and the R.E.M. Tickets

Love letter, 1982-1985.

In between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, a section of I-10 stretches out as a low, dead straight bridge across 25 miles of swamp. This is the story of how I came to be hauling ass across that long, low bridge at 120 mph (still and forever the fastest I have ever driven any car) on my way to an R.E.M. show in a baby blue Ford LTD festooned with vestigial cop antennae.

I had bought the Ford for $300. Its name was Lyman T. Droogworth, and it was a heavy, creaking metaphor for an MC5 song. It had begun life as an unmarked cop car, primarily used to catch speeders on the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge, and when I bought it, all the electronic cop radio guts had been taken out, but the state didn’t bother to remove the antennae. That meant that cops thought that I was also a cop, and that I could pretty much go as fast as I wanted to. This irony was not lost on me. Lyman did not go in reverse, and it took a long time and a half gallon of gas to get up to top speed, but once it got there, it was one terrifying hunk of Detroit steel. The terrifying part was especially pertinent for the people inside the car.

One of my passengers that night was Lance, who has been my best friend since high school. Lance is the kind of generous person who used to supply beer for all his roommates and assorted hangers-on simply because he had a very little bit of money and the rest of us didn’t. At one point he decided it would be cheaper just to buy kegs rather than keep running to the store for cases. He was incorrect in that assumption, since we just drank more beer during the time of the keg experiment, but what a grand experiment it was. Hats off to Lance.

Lance also performed the priceless service of introducing R.E.M.’s music to me. He had seen a show they performed at our local dive, The Bayou, when we were seniors in high school, and told me he thought they were pretty good. I had heard “Radio Free Europe,” and thought it was a good song, but I wasn’t motivated to check out the rest of their work. Lance wasn’t a huge fan either, but he continued to bring up the little band from Athens from time to time over the next couple of years. By that time we were attending college at Loyola University in New Orleans, and when R.E.M.’s Reckoning tour took them to Tulane’s McAlister Auditorium (walking distance from our dorm), it sounded like a good time to go check them out live.


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Walking Spanish

To love a song, it’s not important that you understand the words. And I say that as a onetime lyricist and singer. As one of my guitarists often reminded me, “the words don’t matter.” Well, yeah they do, but not as much as lyricists like to think. For example, I enjoy Elvis Costello’s lyrics tremendously, but I don’t always know what he’s singing about. It’s enough for me that EC’s words are interesting in and of themselves, given how great the musical elements of the songs are.
On the other hand, understanding the meaning of the words can enhance my appreciation of a song. Case in point is Tom Waits’s “Walking Spanish,” which for the last 20 years I have completely misapprehended. Until recently, I carried around the idea that “walking spanish” was just a kind of funny way of walking, like John Leguizamo doing a pimp roll or something. I know that is a ridiculous thing to think, but I have a lot of odd notions that are probably wrong, and I’m comfortable with that.

Anyway, I recently discovered that “walking Spanish” means, literally, being forcibly carried from a place by one’s collar and belt, with one’s tiptoes scrabbling at the floor, so that the Spanish walker is being forced to go somewhere he doesn’t want to go. The expression derives from being made to walk the plank on a pirate ship, but a more modern example might be being thrown out of a bar.

“Huh!” said I upon being given this information. Maybe Tom Waits isn’t just growling about a funny way of walking in that song. So I went back to the lyrics, and whaddaya know, “Walking Spanish” is a song about death.

The first three verses tell the story (in an elliptical, Tom Waitsish way) of Mason, a man who “got himself a homemade special”(a gun) and committed a crime. He thinks “his glass is full of sand,” but he’s got less time than he thinks, as he is arrested and sent to death row. The song offers the possibility of spiritual and material comfort (respectively a picture of Jesus, or “a spoon to dig a hole” to escape through), but neither can change Mason’s ultimate destination.

Jesus appears again in the last verse, as one who “wanted just a little more time” when he was walking Spanish down the hall. In Christian theology, Jesus stands in for all of us, taking on the sins of the world, etc., and so the song expands from the story of a single death row inmate to everyone’s story: we’re all walking Spanish from our very first staggering baby steps, and no matter how full of sand our glass seems, it is sand, and it is an hourglass, and it does that hourglass thing where the sand runs out. Damn gravity.

But Waits is neither weepy nor solipsistic about that grim conclusion. The loose, relaxed blues riff that anchors the song suggests a wry acceptance of facts, and one death or many deaths doesn’t change the equally pertinent fact that “tomorrow morning there’ll be laundry.” That is, there’s always work to do, so quit your bitching, death-boy.

Discussion: what other songs might be good for a “Death Mix”? I mean songs (like “Walking Spanish”) that are at least a bit subtle, that don’t hit you over the head with their deathily deathish deathiness (e.g. The Doors or Cannibal Corpse). A couple that spring to mind would be “Glowworm” by The Apples in Stereo or by Neutral Milk Hotel.

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Logic Problems at Salon

The subtext of this Salon piece? People in Louisiana sure are stupid. Because everything that went wrong after Katrina was Bush’s fault, and yet the state is growing more staunchly Republican.

I’m going to just leave the “it’s all Bush’s fault” meme alone, except to express astonishment that anyone could make such an argument or have it taken seriously. Whatever your opinion of George W. Bush, Louisiana politicians have been out-incompetenting and out-corrupting the rest of the nation for 200 years. Also, they are incompetent and corrupt in a variety of amusing and colorful ways, which is the only reason we are able to tolerate them. Suffice to say that there is plenty of blame to go around, and I am uninterested in rehashing that discussion, mostly because I am lazy and don’t feel like tracking down a bunch of links. (Have at each other on the comments if you want to.)

The really interesting part of Schaller’s article is this section, in which he examines the impact of race on party identification and electoral success:

Louisiana is, at last, about to look a lot more like its Deep South neighbors politically. There has been something of an inverse relationship in recent presidential elections between the share of black voters and Republican performance. That is, the blacker the state, the bigger the Republican margins. Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are all states with black populations close to or above a third, the highest percentage in the nation — and not a Democratic senator, governor or, since 1992, Democratic electoral vote among them.

Along with Florida, Louisiana had been different, a state where multiracial coalitions propelled Clinton, Landrieu and Blanco to victories. In Louisiana, a black population of 32.5 percent made victory for Democrats possible. The post-Katrina question is whether the black population will remain large enough for Democrats to continue building such coalitions, especially if there is a backlash among white voters in the noncoastal portions of the state toward Blanco, controversial New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and state Democrats in general. Recent polls, however, are not promising, and they also show how resolutely racial party identification has become in the Deep South. The blacker the state, the more Republican the whites are.

Let me see if I can follow this logic. First he says, southern states with large black populations are more reliably Republican. In his words, “the blacker the state, the more Republican the whites are.” In the same paragraph, he says Louisiana’s pre-Katrina demographics (a higher percentage of blacks) ”made victory for Democrats possible.” And now that there are fewer black people in the state (because of post-Katrina migration), Louisiana is getting more Republican…because there are fewer black people! Wait a second…shouldn’t we be getting less Republican in that case? It must be because Louisiana used to be different (how? why? I don’t know!) but now we are the same–a “new Mississippi.” Ouch! Low blow.

I guess what they say about Louisiana schools is true, because I’m too dumb to figure that out.

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Listening Notes: A Project for Punkologists

I am loving my new discovery Jason Forrest (his myspace and his main site here[some pages NSFW]). Well, I didn’t really discover him. I mean, other people were already there, and since I do not have a technological advantage over them (quite the opposite, probably), colonization is out of the question. (more…)

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How to Piss Off a Hippie

People who love music sometimes identify a little too closely with the musicians/songs they love, to the point that any criticism of those musicians/songs becomes, in the music lover’s mind, a personal attack. That’s true even if the music lover himself had absolutely nothing to do with the creation of the music, which is usually the case.

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Great Lyrics Series: Sunday Morning Coming Down-Updated with audio and Video

(Lance’s listening notes: I just spent the evening with my wife and a friend at a little bar, in a very little town, Fordoche Louisiana, called the Red Monkey. I loaded up the Juke box with what interested me (no The Jam, Clash or Pixies) which ended up being The Band, Van Morrison, Creedence and Janis Joplin, plus Johnny Cash. Since I have reprised a couple of posts, I thought it would be a good time to bring you once again Robby’s excellent discussion of Sunday Morning Coming Down. Listen at the bottom.)


One of the most durable traditions in American popular music is the drinking song. Our national anthem’s melody and structure is based on “To Anacreon in Heaven,” an 18th-century drinking song, a fact that tells me 18th-century drinkers were far more ambitious than we are today, the melody being much more challenging to sing than “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” I guess that’s why we sing the anthem at the beginning of sporting events, anyway: by the 7th inning stretch, everybody would sound like Harry Caray. (more…)

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Listening Notes: Comfortably Numb

Note: Google, and thus YouTube, is down. So the video is unavailable at the moment. Please check back later. The entire online world seems to be suffering from rolling outages right now. I don’t know why.


I love good covers; always have. There’s something about hearing a familiar song in a new context that can make me appreciate both original and cover all the more, if the artists remaking the original put something new into their interpretation. On the other hand, there’s nothing more boring to me than a band trying their best to make their version of a song sound exactly like the original. I want to say, “I already know what they sound like-what do you sound like?”

The best covers are those that completely re-imagine the original; canonical examples in that category would include Jimi Hendrix’s and Devo’s The Scissor Sisters’ “Comfortably Numb,” which transforms Pink Floyd’s bloated classic into a spangly glitter disco romp, is another in that group. Even if the genre is not your cup of tea, you’ve got to admit that recording a disco cover of Pink Floyd–as a serious enterprise, not just a goof–is creatively daring.


Or at least I’ve always thought the Sisters’ take on the song was serious, in the sense that it is composed of all glam surface and icy detachment, which fits the alienated and solipsistic theme of the lyrics far better than Floyd’s grandiose symphonic original, which is the size of an ocean liner and about as maneuverable. But reading Tricia Romano’s Village Voice article characterizing the song as a “flamboyant punchline” makes me wonder if I’m the only one who takes it seriously. To me, the escapism of the package resonates with the content of the song. Doesn’t that make it more than just a goof? Or am I being unnecessarily pedantic?

Lance: I think they meant it as both. In fact it is a bigger goof that it is serious. It transforms and mocks the original at the same time. I think the disco aspect is not only a great counter to Pink Floyd’s take, it also is appropriate for the Scissor Sisters to bring the sound of gay club music to the subject. Maybe I am making too much of that, and someone more intimately involved in the gay club music scene than I have been might disagree, but for a gay man or woman alienation might be attached much more fully to the disco and dance music than to someone like Roger Waters. Is there an element of camp? Sure, but camp is also a serious part of much of gay life, both as defense and as affirmation, as setting one apart and declaring solidarity.

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Listening Notes: Golden Years

How deeply, unfathomably weird the 70s were. Roughly contemporaneously at mid-decade, top 40 radio hitspace included , , , . I’m not even mentioning ; if you’re looking for the mainstream, these songs were it.

Station to Station Placed in the context of all the other eccentric fare of the era, it’s no wonder that David Bowie’s “Golden Years” didn’t seem that strange at the time, but in retrospect, it was just as odd a hit as any of its popular contemporaries. Structurally daring (or perhaps rickety), “Golden Years” features Bowie’s baritone and falsetto calling and responding as they melt into each other, complemented by Bowie’s own ghostly chorused backup vocals, a proto-rap dropped into the middle, and an incongruous whistled section near the end of the song, as if Andy Griffith had suddenly stopped by. It’s all held together by an utterly infectious funky scratch guitar riff that keeps the song from wandering off in five different directions at once. The funny thing is, it works so seamlessly as a danceable blue-eyed soul track that I doubt casual listeners think of it as weird at all, which is magic, or a masterpiece of tricky pop craftsmanship, or both.

David Bowie “Golden Years”

The source of the song’s emotional resonance is the tension between the seeming indestructibility of youth and its inevitable ruin. To the youthful singer, time is elastic and virtually meaningless, so he can promise to “stay with you baby, for a thousand years.” But he has to work at convincing himself, insisting, “I believe a lot / I believe all the waaaayyy.” The more knowing or perhaps cynical backup vocals, commenting on the proceedings chorus-like, sing “run for the shadows,” an apt metaphor for the lead’s willful ignorance.

According to one source, Bowie wrote “Golden Years” for Elvis Presley. The very idea of fat Elvis singing “Golden Years” is delightful; it could have been brilliant or it could have been Shatneresque, but sadly we will never know. If Elvis’s version does not already exist in some alternate universe, we will be forced to invent one just to find a home for it.


I’ve been thinking recently about why Bowie seems to be fading in terms of a general recognition of his significance. I think part of the reason that is happening is that the influence he has had is unappreciated. By that I mean, he was always appreciated by the “alternative” set if you will, but alternative music has changed. Thanks Nirvana. Throw in, that when we listen to “Classic Rock” these days he doesn’t seem to fit the genre as it is presently appreciated. He is a bit too offbeat for most adult contemporary listeners. He is still played, but nowhere near what his one time sales or critical acclaim might suggest. Out of sight, out of mind. He bent not only gender roles, but genre roles as well.

He still has a lot of fans, but he seems to be off the radio, and therefore is part of Chris Anderson’s “long tail” to an extent that other more visible artists of the past, though no more successful or critically acclaimed (or less so) at the time, don’t seem to be.

Obviously that is as much fashion (which Bowie above most artists should appreciate) as anything else, and I mean literally (clothes, etc.) Glam and other aspects of the seventies that he mined are seen as shallow and inauthentic, though that is ironic given his artistic stance vis-a-vis the fashions of the seventies. He dove into them, reveled in them, but also subverted them and made them anything but shallow tools in his hands.


Your discussion of fashion makes me wonder if Bowie is not an unacknowledged precursor to Madonna–and I say that with no disparagement intended to either party. His involvement with disco certainly cost him authenticity points with traditional rocker types, but you would think it would have added to his cachet for present-day club kids and hipsters. I don’t know, maybe it has. My stable of club kid acquaintances is at an all-time low these days.

I would also (morbidly) add that Bowie might have sustained his popularity at a higher level if he had died in some dramatic way at some point in the 80s. Enclose the enigmatic artist in a tragic narrative arc, with the anniversary Rolling Stone cover and all that.

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Listening Notes: Walk on Gilded Splinters

Dr. John’s “Walk on Gilded Splinters” has been covered by a slew of artists from Humble Pie to Paul Weller, but the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s version is the spiciest. The tight horn arrangement, underpinned by a rumbling tuba, is as dense and visceral as a thrash metal chord progression, and John Bell’s growling vocal is charged with voodoo charisma. While Dr. John’s original recording is creepy and menacing, foreshadowing trouble on the way, the Dirty Dozen’s take is the soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic Mardi Gras, where trouble has already moved in and changed the rules. They’re both great, so please, blues/roots purists, don’t shoot me if I prefer the cover.

Dirty Dozen Brass Band

Dr. John


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Listening Notes: Black Foliage

Black Foliage, by Olivia Tremor Control, is Sergeant Pepper’s as a cheap but astonishingly well-crafted home recording, proving the concept that such multilayered sonic frippery can be accomplished by virtually anyone now that recording equipment and professional editing software are so inexpensive. As ever, not just anyone can write such great songs (”California Demise Pt. 3,” “I Have Been Floated”), and most who can do that are unable or unwilling to marry their sugary pop melodies to such a variety of psychedelic sounds. Despite Black Foliage’s grand ambition, it is refreshingly unpretentious in comparison to most psychedelic/experimental rock; instead of “man, that’s heavy,” it’s “wow, that’s shiny.”

I have been floated

California Demise Pt. 3

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Music Blogging- Listening Notes

When I first started this little project, before I even knew Omar, Michael and Keith as anything but annoying commenters at QandO (okay, that is a cheap shot at my co-bloggers, but I have it on good authority that I am one of the most annoying commenters at QandO, so I consider them in good company) I had originally planned to cover music a whole lot more than I have. So starting today that is going to change.

Why? Well, while wandering around at Inactvist reading the always worth reading D.A. Ridgely I came across his discussion of Time Magazines All-TIME 100 Albums. Reading the list I was mostly bored. Don’t get me wrong: a great deal of it is truly great music, though it has the feel of being put together by committee and little strikes me as surprising. The fact is sometimes I want to be surprised, even on something that by its very nature requires a bit of consensus. (more…)

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Songs and Celebrities

When I decided to start writing about rock lyrics, I promised myself I wasn’t going to talk about the Beatles or Bob Dylan, because forests have already been harvested to provide the paper for musings on their lyrics, and I don’t really have anything further to add. At least not without breaking out some Marxist/feminist/Lacanian theory, and nobody wants that. (”Everybody run! I’ve got a Derrida and I’m not afraid to use it.”) But I’m going to break my rule, just a little, because a Beatles lyric that is both petite and grand (and that likes to think it’s full of great wisdom and import, and maybe it is after all) provides a nice jumping-off point for some sort-of related topics.

The lyric, “And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make” is from “The End,” which fittingly completes the Beatles’ final album Abbey Road. If you imagine the entirety of The Beatles’ work as one great piece of art, a giant gift to the world, then “The End” is a big red bow on that present. As endings to works of high modernist pop go, it hardly rises to the level of a Gatsby-esque “boats against the current” finale, and perhaps bears a whiff of Hallmark sentimentality, but as a simple evocation of a moral truth, it works.

Whether or not that claim is actually true seems less important than actually wanting it to be true, which has the happy real-world effect of making its truth-value more real. If everybody lives as if McCartney’s claim is true, then it is. (Game theorists, chime in with “prisoner’s dilemma” commentary now.) And maybe it is anyway; after all, we are talking about love here, not power. The Beatles were on this case early in their career, observing that money can’t buy it (love, that is; apparently money can buy other things, which must be why they were not reluctant to accumulate it). In any case, I find it amusing that decades passed before someone asked Sir Paul if the lyric from “The End” was true, and even more amusing that the questioner was Chris Farley, in his clumsiest and most innocent persona. (more…)

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The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul

Theology and moral codes tell us to be good, in conflict with our natural desires and appetites, which tell us the opposite: be bad! Take what you want! Look out for #1! Socializing ourselves to develop a sense of empathy–that is, an emotionally-based understanding for how our actions affect others–is crucial for the development of ethical frameworks, the rule of law, and free societies. However, there are two sides to moral injunctions, the social and the personal. For example, when we teach the Golden Rule (”Do unto others…”), a version of which is found in virtually all religions, the focus is usually on the social, playing on the empathetic feeling and the impact of one’s actions on another. The personal, self-centered side of morality is often ignored.

Empathy requires an imaginative leap: How would I feel if someone did that to me? But since we are naturally wired to be selfish, it is a shorter leap to imagine: How would I feel if I did that? Of course, those feelings are inextricable from empathy, a quality that (thankfully) all but sociopaths have to some degree, but I don’t mean the feelings of being sorry because of the pain I cause somebody else, I mean the effects on myself of what I do, without taking into account how others feel.

Nor am I talking about a cycle of violence, in which my actions invite retaliation from others I have harmed. In fact, I am not talking about violence at all, although certainly it could be argued (as Steven Spielberg recently has) that violence psychologically harms its perpetrators. Instead, I mean basic selfishness and its spiritual costs, which is the topic of XTC’s magnificent song, “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul.”

Set against a John Barry-esque background suggested by producer Todd Rundgren, “The Man Who Sailed” would be a perfect title song for a James Bond film in which Bond gets honest with himself and finds that, despite all his babes and cool toys, his spiritual life is barren and sad. Such is the predicament of the Sailor, who sets out on life’s voyage “with ego as his drunken captain” and greed as a mutineer who has “trapped all reason in the hold.” The self, driven by greed, has “no compass, guide, or chart” to guard against carnal temptations represented by “sirens that sing.”

The implied injunction against carnality should by no means be read as some kind of fundamentalist or Puritan tenet. Because songwriter Andy Partridge is probably an atheist, as witnessed by the more famous (and also great) song from the same album, there is no evidence to suggest that these orienting tools necessarily represent a religious moral framework. However, what’s important is not whether the framework is religious or secular, but that such a framework accounts for the self as part of a community rather than just a unitary, “ugly and cold” consumer of experiences. Considering Partridge’s rejection of an explicitly religious morality in “Dear God,” it is ironic that the fourth verse of “The Man Who Sailed” hints at predestination:


    The man who walked across his heart
    Was doomed to journey from the start
    Of every love affair he’d broken
    All the lies he’d ever spoken tattooed on his arm.
    In short, living a selfish, ego-driven life is a doom in and of itself. Behavior creates consequence, cause leads to effect, and the neat resolution of the song’s final line (”He found the treasure he’d been seeking”) reinforces the idea that we get what we deserve. It is tempting to view “The Man Who Sailed” as a thematic expansion and illustration of The Beatles’ dictum, “And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make.” So, yes, Chris Farley: it’s true.
    Implicit in “The Man Who Sailed’s” crisp depiction of a rudderless and lonely soul is the Big Question, “What is a life for?” As the song suggests, the hedonistic life is easy, but its reward is nothing but a “bag to keep life’s souvenirs in.” It’s a terrific and terrifying line, suggesting cheap plastic novelties, T-shirts with place names, and other items we buy to prove to ourselves that we have been there. And so a shallow life, led like a permanent vacation, yields similar gaudy, momentarily diverting, but ultimately disappointing returns. Partridge does not describe what his vision of a good life would be, thereby happily avoiding any hint of preachy-preach talking to kissy-kiss. As admirable as the sentiments may be, there are no “c’mon, people now, everybody get together, we are the world” mealy-mouthed and easily mocked platitudes. But he really doesn’t need to explain; in this negative, we can see all the outlines of the things that aren’t there.

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    Let’s Not Talk About Bombs: X’s Marriage Songs

    (Second installment in the Great Lyrics Series)

    I agree with Paul McCartney. There is nothing wrong with a silly love song, a perfectly useful thing to have around. A love song amplifies the feeling when you are in love and sweetly intensifies the ache when you aren’t and want to be. That can be true no matter whether the song is actually good (”I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “The Way You Look Tonight“) or syrupy dreck (”Endless Love,” ““). Of course, those are subjective opinions and your mileage may differ. However, in a functional sense outside of any aesthetic judgements, a love song can be considered successful by how well it arouses those kinds of feelings.

    Most love songs, good and bad, share two things in common: a lack of specificity, and a focus on only the positive side. Again I will echo Sir Paul: there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, given the function the silly love song is designed and expected to perform. The benefit of bland universality is that listeners can more easily mentally and emotionally inscribe their own specific details and personalize the song. But bland lyrics are also boring to consider. They are heartfelt perhaps, and (at best) very good at conveying strong emotions, but the words rarely rise above the level of the slogan. At worst, bland love songs are too slick and too manipulative, and the cheap cliches produce (in some listeners) the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of being swept up in the strong emotions of “true love,” we are annoyed or even revulsed by the trite manipulation. (more…)

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