Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hungry Like the Wolf

The big problem with Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs is that most of the songs he discusses aren't that bad at all, which is in part because of the little problem, which is an overconcentration on lyrics at the expense of singing, composing, playing and everything else that goes into making a record. (This is a frequent problem for big-time critics as well; witness the reviews of most of Lou Reed's solo records.) So anything with sappy or tortured lyrics gets dinged, like the O'Kaysions' marvelous "Girl Watcher," which gets singled out for the lines "Hello there female/My, my, but you do look swell." Calling a woman "female" isn't exactly Cole Porter-level lyric-writing, but geez, the rest of the song has a real breezy charm to it, and it doesn't deserve to be dismissed because of one word.

Similarly, Dave Barry's readers seem to be, oddly enough, humorless, so anything that is off-kilter or bizarre is immediately dismissed. He smacks down Dan Baird's "I Love You Period," which isn't a great song, but still, "I love you period/Do you love me question mark" is clever, or at least original. It's not as good as the Magnetic Fields line "So you say you quote love unquote me," but what the heck.

So Barry's readers end up naming "MacArthur Park" as the worst song of all time, because it's over the top and histrionic, when indeed being over the top and histrionic is part of what makes it so much fun. It's also gorgeously composed, which as I say is part of the problem. I don't think the readers of this book would single out a song like Phil Collins' "You'll Be in My Heart" because its lyrics, although humdrum and stale, are unembarrassing - except that it doesn't so much have a melody as a series of notes wandering up and down the treble clef in random fashion. Compared to a song like "MacArthur Park," whose music has been carefully and brilliantly constructed, "You'll Be in My Heart" is a piece of crapola.

Anyway, the saving grace of this book was that it reintroduced me to a song called "Timothy" recorded by a Pennsylvania band called the Buoys in 1970. It's the story of three men trapped for a week after a mine collapses; when they're finally rescued, there are only two of them left, and the narrator notes, "My stomach was full as it could be/And they never got around to finding Timothy." Of course, Barry's readers are repulsed by this, but it's supposed to be repulsive!

In fact, on its own terms, "Timothy" is pretty awesome. For one thing, the tune - again, ignored by Barry's readers - is sprightly and engaging, kind of halfway between "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" and Neil Diamond's "Desiree." The song was written, alarmingly enough, by Rupert Holmes of pina colada fame, and he freely admits he wrote it so that it would get banned, thus generating tons of publicity, and also inspiring Madonna's entire career.

"I thought, Cannibalism during a mining disaster, that'll get banned," Holmes told "It's not like I'm really telling people to go out and eat someone, this is just this dark, horrible thing that happened in this story. So I write this lyric: 'Timothy, Timothy, where on Earth did you go?' It's about three boys who are trapped in a mine with water but no food for maybe a week. When they're pulled free, they don't remember what happened, but they know they're not hungry. One of them is missing, and that's Timothy.

"They played the song originally because it had a nice rhythm, kind of like a Creedence Clearwater Revival feel. It was catchy enough, but then they'd hear what the song was about and say 'We can't be playing this, it's about cannibalism!' and they'd pull the song off the air. The kids would call in and say 'Why'd you pull the song off the air,' and they'd say, 'Because it's disgusting, you shouldn't be listening to stuff like that.' Well, all you have to do is tell a teenage kid that he shouldn't be listening to something because it's disgusting and vile and loathsome, and he'll demand it."

"Timothy" eventually reached Number 17 on the Billboard charts in the spring of 1971. Think about it: This nondescript band from Wilkes-Barre recorded a song about cannibalism, and made a hit song out of it. That is a greater accomplishment than I am ever likely to achieve. Who could hate that?

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