Take Two: “Ode to Billie Joe”

Standard

I first posted about this song way back in 2013 (click here for that post).  And while what I wrote nearly five years ago still holds true, there’s more.  There’s always more with “Ode to Billie Joe.”

For example: the body of Emmett Till was found in the Tallahatchie river in Mississippi in 1955.  Till was the fourteen-year-old black child murdered by white men because he essentially sassed a white woman.  (I just finished reading the terrific but horribly depressing The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson.  Be forwarned: It is a beautifully written and researched book, but you will want to scream at how little things have changed.)  Now I haven’t been able to find any direct connection between the composition and the murder, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Emmett Till was one of the ghosts haunting Gentry’s song.

There are a lot of ghosts in “Ode to Billie Joe.”

There are so many ghosts in this song, it’s impossible to name them all.  The myth of Southern gentility and propriety.  The way the people we are closest to are sometimes the ones that know the least about us.  The willful lack of empathy for anyone considered “other.”  Sex, race, class.  And, most obviously, the ghost of Billie Joe McAllister.

When the movie based on the song was made in the mid-70s, the answer to the question of why Billy Joe jumped was that he’d had a (possibly coerced) homosexual encounter with his older boss.  (Note that the spelling is different.  Apparently the character’s name was always supposed to be spelled that way, but there were a lot of mistakes made when the single and album were rushed into production in 1967; see Tara Murtha’s excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series Ode to Billie Joe for more information.)  Gay sex was still taboo back then, and during the 50s when the movie is set, so of course he’d want to commit suicide.  If the movie were made today using the same plot device, hopefully Billy Joe would embrace his queerness and move to San Francisco instead.

I don’t really think the movie provided the correct answer.  As Gentry herself has stated in the past, the motives behind Billie Joe’s suicide (or just precisely what the hell he and the protagonist of the song were throwing off the Tallahatchie bridge) aren’t really the point of the song.  The point is that this huge thing happens, has a huge effect on one of the people sitting around that kitchen table, and no one notices.  They treat the death of a human being they all knew and presumably liked (some of them more than others, granted) as if it’s no more important than the 40 acres left to plow or a preacher coming round to court the girl singing the song.  The question we should ask is why is everyone so unconcerned?  Why are these people so disconnected from a tragedy like this?  What the fuck is going on here?

The sad truth is there isn’t any answer to any of the real questions the song is asking.  Just like we will never know what was thrown off the bridge or why a young man threw himself off it shortly after, we will never know why “Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge” is met with no more emotion than “Looks like it might rain today.”

There’s another element to the song that makes it interesting, and that’s the singer/songwriter herself: Bobbie Gentry.  While “Ode to Billie Joe” is Gentry’s biggest hit, she had a lengthy and successful career including a series of hit shows on the Las Vegas strip.  And Gentry is still alive, somewhere in her 70s now.  But she hasn’t made a public appearance or spoken to the media since 1983.  She just dropped out of sight.  Close friends and even some members of her family have completely lost touch with her.  Wikipedia states that as of 2016 she lives near the Tallahatchie river, but of course she isn’t confirming anything.    In a weird way, she has disappeared as effectively as whatever was thrown into that infernal river.  She has become another one of the ghosts haunting her song.

“Burn That Bridge”

Standard

I discovered this song/video a couple weeks ago.  I know there are a number of young Country music artists who are more inclusive of LGBTQ people and issues, but this is the first time I’ve heard a performer talk about their music being explicitly about a same-sex couple.  (Here’s a link to the interview with Billboard.)  It reminds me just how important representation in media and popular culture really is.  If you never see people who look/feel/think/behave like you in the culture you consume, the subliminal message is that you are both inferior and invisible.  If you do see people who look/feel/think/behave like you, then you have role models and the subliminal message is that you are both seen and worthy of being seen.  That you are normal and not some kind of a freak.  I’m sure “Burn That Bridge” is going to matter in that way for some young gay dude in the middle of cowboy country who thinks he’s the only guy who ever felt this way.  Representation matters.

But issues of representation aside, here’s what I really like about Donovan Woods’ song and video: 1) It’s a pretty damn good song–nice emotion, good slow build; 2) Those young men are fantastic dancers.  Yeah, representation in media and popular culture matters, but it helps if that representation is attached to culture that refuses to stereotype the people it portrays and is quality entertainment.  This one scores on all counts.

“Oops!. . . I Did It Again”

Standard

Some weeks ago, I went and saw Richard Thompson at my local indie record store, Fingerprints, and the highlight of the all-too-brief show was his cover of this Britney Spears hit.

Thompson originally recorded this song for his 1000 Years of Popular Music, where he examined a bunch of songs that were the tops of the pops in their day.  Thompson proves that his talent is wide-ranging and prodigious by making what is an atrocity Britney Spears’ hands (or at least in the hands of her production team at the time) a truly entertaining tune.

Have I mentioned that I really dig Richard Thompson?  I might be just a wee bit biased.

But actually, he does demonstrate that this overproduced, pretentious piece of fluff is actually a fairly well-written and structurally sound pop tune.  The sight of cute little Brit in her red catsuit is there to distract us from the fact that her vocals are autotuned to the point of nonexistence and the music seems to be all played by computer.  The fact that there seems to be almost zero human input into the making of this song is disturbing, but we shouldn’t blame the song itself.  To be fair, it’s not a great pop song; it’s average at best.  But to see what appears to be a perfectly serviceable if rather sexist song turned into what amounts to a pre-programmed tune on an 80s-era Casio keyboard is kind of sad.  (It is a pretty sexist song: She basically admits that she’s nothing but a nasty whore, and he really should’ve known better.)

This kind of pop music continues to be produced with ever-greater frequency.  Solution?  Just send everything to Richard Thompson to cover.  He’ll reveal at least the competence of the songs, if not their true greatness.

Dolores O’Riordan and the Shadow of Death

Standard

I need to start this with the statement that I do not believe anyone younger than I am should be dead.  I do not say this to deny the reality that every single day, a multitude of people who have spent less time on this planet than I have–many of them considerably less–die.  Dolores O’Riordan, lead singer of the Cranberries, was just 46 when she left this plane on January 15th; I’ll be 49 this coming Saturday.  My belief that people younger than me should not be dead is rooted not only in my own fears about mortality, but also my general belief in fairness.  And it is simply not fair that people die young.

Once again, my desire for fairness is not rooted in some sort of denial about the reality of the world.  There is no philosophy or religion that guarantees fairness in the universe;  if there were, I would’ve signed up for it by now.  But the arbitrariness of it all makes me feel, well, kind of helpless.  Sure, O’Riordan had some health challenges in the last few years, but she was doing okay at the moment and her death was a shock.  It must always be a shock to find a seemingly vital and happy person dead on the floor of their hotel bathroom.  Add to this the news that Tom Petty’s death was due to an accidental Fentanyl overdose and a young person’s death in the family of someone I know.  (My mom has Fentanyl patches for pain relief; obviously I’ll be monitoring her use of them very carefully from now on.)  It’s just kind of disheartening.

Which makes the Cranberries’ “Zombie” the perfect song for this mini-memorial.  It’s a great tune, but it also expresses the shadows that violence and anger and death cast over everyone in their orbits.  It’s about The Troubles in Ireland, about the way politics and religion can be twisted into oppression, about the way we all turn anger into prejudice and prejudice into violence.  It’s about how those with power use that power against everyone without it, everyone who is different in some way that they don’t like.  In terms of the current presidential administration, it’s a nice little reminder.  In terms of a history lesson, it’s a little vague but can be used as a starting off point.  In terms of music and mood, it is a black hole.  It sucks all the light and the hope out of the room.  It is not a denial of reality but an acceptance of it.  Sometimes, you just have to sit with the grief and anger, let it flow over you and simply feel it.

Then you get up and get on with life.  No, it is not fair and people will always leave this plane too soon.  But flowers will still bloom and there will still be joy.  You just learn to carry them with you.

Pat DiNizio

Standard

No one should be allowed to die this time of year.  It’s just too sad.  Of course, lots of people do die during the holiday season.  Joe Cocker did.  John Lennon was robbed of his life in December.  My grandmother passed early in December some 20-odd years ago, and it will still go down as the most somber Christmas ever, even more so than last year’s muted celebration after Mom’s cancer diagnosis (but she’s doing okay right now).  And let’s not forget all those people who’ve lost everything they had in the SoCal fires this month, with at least one death being directly related to the blazes.  But I really hate just adding to the list of sadness this time of year.  I want people to celebrate and be happy.  To find joy in everything.

So my heart goes out to the friends and family of Smithereens lead singer Pat DiNizio, who passed yesterday at just 62.  It’s gonna be a difficult holiday for them (whatever holiday they celebrate. . . I make no presumptions).  I hope they can still take joy in knowing that he made a lot of people very happy with his special brand of Rock & Roll.

I like the Smithereens.  They were one of the band’s I discovered watching MTV.  Or maybe listening to the radio.  It’s been long enough that I’m not sure either way.  But either way, they were good.  Solid.  I’m not a big enough fan to need more than their greatest hits, but those songs make me pretty darn happy whenever I hear them.  “Behind the Wall of Sleep” has long been my favorite of theirs, an ode to a beautiful bass-playing girl.  The sound is chunky and fuzzy and utterly irresistable.  As a teenager, this kind of music was all I needed to brighten my mood.  Still is.  Thanks, Pat.

David Cassidy

Standard

I really don’t have a lot to say about David Cassidy, except that he made a lot of people really happy.  That seems like a pretty awesome thing to leave behind in this world.

This clip, however, reinforces some rather nasty sexist notions.  So ignore the scene in front of the song and just enjoy the bubblegum goodness.

Malcolm Young

Standard

You always saw Angus.  With his schoolboy uniform and flashy solos, it was kind of impossible to miss him.  Or you saw the singer–first Bon, then Brian–all raspy voices, tight jeans, and leering smiles.  It didn’t matter which one it was; they were eerily interchangeable.  If you were a certain type of fan, you’d watch the drummer at the back.  But you almost never saw Malcolm on stage.  He was always there, usually just to the singer’s left, bobbing away to the beat and strumming his guitar.  Your attention would always be on the flashy exterior, never really realizing that the heart of AC/DC was pounding away unnoticed.

Malcolm Young might not have been responsible for the image AC/DC projected to its fans, but he was largely responsible for their sound.  He co-wrote most of the songs you sing along with as they blare from your radio.  When it was announced in 2014 that he was permanently retiring from the band because of dementia, family and fans knew it was just a matter of time.  That time came a couple days ago when Malcolm left this plane at just 64.  He left behind some truly kick ass music.  It won’t change the fact that he was too young to go, but at least it gives everyone something to hold on to.

“We Built This City”

Standard

I was channel flipping the other day, and stopped for a moment to indulge both my love of music videos and love of really bad music.  The 80s were a great time for both.

This song really doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, which is sort of its appeal.  I think.  It is catchy.  I’m also pretty sure Grace Slick was probably high on something at the time.  It seems to want to be a protest against the ever-increasing corporatization of rock music, but comes out as incomprehensible pop glop. There’s a very tiny trace of the rebellion that once made the band that Slick sang for one of the symbols of rebellion and counterculturalism in the 60s.

Of course by the time “We Built This City” was released in 1985 that band had long since mutated into pop glop and had virtually disappeared.  The Jefferson Airplane was one of the leading bands of psychedelic rock–the aforementioned symbol of rebellion and counterculturalism.  They were also one of the few commercially successful psychedelic bands, so I guess pop glop was always in their veins.  In the 70s, they made their first major transition into the Jefferson Starship and became even more poppy and gloppy.  Marty Balin and Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen escaped, but Grace Slick and Mickey Thomas (Balin’s replacement on vocals) hung around. “Jefferson” was dropped, and the band just became Starship in the 1980s.  And the rest is pop glop history.

Really, most of Starship’s output is gloriously awful.  (Have you ever heard the song they did for the 80s “classic” Mannequin?  Well, you’re in for a pop treat that so sugary and gloppy, it might as well be the filling inside a pecan pie.  Not even the utterly adorable Andrew McCarthy at the height of his adorableness could save that movie.)  None of their music has aged especially well.  Which is too bad, I guess.  It really is quite catchy.

Fats Domino

Standard

Antoine “Fats” Domino has left this world at the age of 89.  We were lucky we had him so long.  We almost lost him in New Orleans in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but he survived and kept making music.  We got twelve more years of that wonderful voice and unbelievable smile.  (I need to add him to that mental list I have of musicians who love their work so much they can’t contain themselves.)  Domino was always smiling at the piano, and even when he wasn’t, you could still see the echo of that smile in his eyes.  He was irrepressible.

Domino was also one of the original architects of Rock & Roll.  Without his trademark piano style, drawn from the jazz and blues that filled the air in his native New Orleans, the music I and so many others love so much would not have sounded the same.  The old guard is dwindling now–just a few of the originals are still out there.  But the music is still as vital and alive as it was decades ago.

If you’ve got some time to kill and want to be truly entertained, watch the episode of American Masters devoted to Domino.  You will not be sorry to have spent an hour in the presence of this lovely, talented human.

 

“The Best of Everything”

Standard

I had to take a couple of days off before I could write this one.  It’s just a little too hard emotionally.  I mean, the song is a killer.  A guy reflects on a long-lost love and hopes her life is good and happy.  And while it’s a tad overproduced, the sadness of the lyrics and the melancholy with which Tom delivers them just makes my heart ache.

Of course, this song is a little bit of a double whammy for me.  The overproduction on “The Best of Everything” comes courtesy of Robbie Robertson.  During the lengthy recording of Southern Accents (they had to leave the studio for roughly a year after Tom broke his hand and basically had to relearn playing guitar; many songs from the original sessions ended up being scrapped or totally revamped), Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers were at the studio the same time as Robertson.  Tom asked him to produce one of the songs, which became the basic track for “The Best of Everything.”  Robertson took it away for post-production overdubs, and was very secretive about precisely what he was doing to the song.  Tom would regularly ask him how it was going, and Robbie would  tell him everything was fine and that it would be done soon.  When the track was finally finished, there was a beautiful horn section and a backing vocal from Richard Manuel.  (BTW, if you don’t know who Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel are 1) Google them, and 2) go away; I don’t think we can be friends anymore.)  That backing vocal ended up being one of the last things Richard Manuel ever recorded before his suicide in 1986.

So it’s safe to say I get a little weepy over this song on good days.

Last Monday, October 2nd, was not a good day.  Tom was gone.  Yes, his physical body was still lingering in this plane, but his energy, his spirit, had already moved on.  I could feel that little bit of emptiness left behind in the Universe.  And I sat on my couch with my iPod on.  As I scrolled and saw this title, I hesitated before I hit play.  I knew it would shatter the last pieces of my heart that were still being held together with spit and baling wire.  I knew it would physically hurt to listen to that song.  But I had to, because this was my good-bye to that voice.

Tom Petty gave me, all of us, so much joy, and there really is no way to adequately thank him for it.  Funny how he wrote the only thank you I could think to give over thirty years ago.

“So listen honey, wherever you are tonight, I wish you the best of everything in the world.  And honey, I hope you found whatever you were looking for.”