|Drawing by Emily Gibson|
Of course, there are also numerous, rich stories in song. So, what better theme than to get ultra-meta?
I focused on certain genres or types of storytelling in music to help guide the selection process. Some of the traditions I focused on are quite old; murder ballads, for example, can be traced back several centuries. Admittedly, the sets gravitated toward male POV storytelling and were overwhelmingly dark and serious (murder, abuse, morality tales). I tried to lighten the mood with humor (Shel Silverstein, Loudon Wainwright III) and more recent, pop forms of storytelling (gender confusion).
There was a lot we didn't get to, so maybe this theme will be revisited?
5 30-sec & 5 2-min
I wanted to jump right into compelling stories to make clear the theme, but my strongest set -- a series of versions of the murder ballad "Stagger Lee" -- seemed too grim and serious. So, I went with what I thought would be a more digestible set: maudlin teen angst pop from the '60s--specifically Teen Death or "Splatter Platters" that deal with a teen couple and a tragic death. Car/bike accident-related deaths were quite popular, especially around the time of James Dean's death. Thankfully for Julie Brown's 1987 satire to add some meta-ness.
Mark Dinning's "Teen Angel"
Jan & Dean's "Dead Man's Curve"
The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack"
Julie Brown's "Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun"
Parenthood frequently comes up in each of the sub-genres. "Cat's in the Cradle" is like a morality tale. "Me and Jesus..." is like a murder ballad. And "Boy Named Sue" is just plain fun. We only had time for the latter two:
Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue"
Songwriter Shel Silverstein joins Johnny Cash on Cash's short-lived variety show.
The Coup's "Me & Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night"
Insanity also comes up frequently. Admittedly, there aren't too many strong narratives in these picks, but there is a strong sense of place or visuals in each of these songs.
Lambert, Hendricks & Ross' "Twisted"
Willie Dixon & Koko Taylor's "Insane Asylum"
Porter Wagoner's "Rubber Room"
Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized"
Geto Boys' "Mind's Playing Tricks on Me"
Henry Jacobs' "There Are Drums In My Typewriter"
5 30-sec & 5 2-min
What's the flip to teen angst? Teen lust and the joys of being young. "Chesterfield King," in spite of its muddy vocals, captures the spirit of this idea. Sarah and I were talking about "Harper Valley PTA" during the break, so that was dedicated to her (and her mom!). The Annie song always reminds me of the excitement of a party. And Craig Finn from the Hold Steady always does a bang-up job writing about being young, high and out of control.
Jawbreaker's "Chesterfield King" (fast fwd to 3:24, but the whole clip is cool)
Most of the live versions on YT are pretty LQ, but here's one audio-only vid from CBGB's that's helpful for deciphering the lyrics.
Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley PTA"
The Hold Steady's "Chillout Tent"
Drive-by Truckers join the Hold Steady for this live version.
Let's lighten the mood:
Loudon Wainwright's "Man Who Couldn't Cry"
Not to make this into the Johnny Cash hour, but the Man in Black also does a great cover.
Shel Silverstein's "Dirty Ol' Me"
The Lou Reed and the Raincoats' Kinks cover should make the theme of this section apparent. The Led Zep and Pink Floyd joints have better stories behind the songs than having clear stories in each song. The former involves bassist John Paul Jones getting high with a trannie in a hotel room, falling asleep, then waking up to find the hotel room on fire because one of them dropped their joint. The latter is about a guy that used to steal women's undergarments from laundry lines. And thank Suzi Q for her To Wong Foo tribute.
Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side"
Pink Floyd's "Arnold Layne"
Led Zeppelin's "Royal Orleans"
Suzi Quatro's "Glycerine Queen"
The Raincoats' "Lola"
The last set finally went to the traditional murder ballad form. Funny because I started with these, but ended up using very few of them. The main song at the center of this cycle is "Cocaine Blues," aka "Bad Lee Brown" aka "Little Sadie." The variations between the Guthrie, Dylan and Cash versions are slight: Jericho become Juarez, and there is alternating emphasis on drug use. By the time the song is in Richards' hands, brown is undoubtedly all white. Dillinger takes this to another level by behaving like a coke-headed menace. And Brooklyn disco band Escort's recent upgrade of the song ties together all these loose ends.
Woody Guthrie's "Bad Lee Brown"
Johnny Cash's "Cocaine Blues"
Bob Dylan's "Little Sadie"
Keith Richards' "Cocaine Blues"
Dillinger's "Cocaine In My Brain
Escort's "Cocaine Blues"
Sasha Frere-Jones' New Yorker piece on retro music inspired some chatter, particularly on WNYC and Thirteen. The latter is actually a good starting point for this entire segment.