Friday, October 5, 2012

It's a Tragedy

So much bad music. So little time to mock it.

OK. As always I overstate. There is so, so much good music out there, in so many shapes and sizes and colors and forms.

But let’s face it—there’s some pretty bad dreck out there too. After all, John Mayer and ABBA are still working.

Again with the trashing of those two? Don’t you have better things to complain about, Dan?

Sure do. Because the type of song I am thinking about today was a particularly noxious genre, one that mercifully largely died out before either of us were born, yet still bubbles to the surface every once in awhile. Or at least did. Fortunately, with one remarkable exception (that to come later) the genre largely ceased to exist by the mid-70s.

I am talking about what was known as “The Tragedy Song.” Not songs about tragedies, mind you. Because there are too many wonderful tunes that deal with death and tragedy to really list here. But the list would certainly include “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “For a Dancer” and “Wreck on the Highway” and even “Ziggy Stardust,” songs that all deal with tragic events and examine them through a lens of anger, regret, fear and the rest of the honest emotional spectrum. Many other examples of really good, really sad songs abound.

That’s not what this is about.

The “tragedy song” was a fad at the turn of the 50s into the 60s, and involved a perfect little story of a perfect little couple so totally and hopeless in love with each other. Only then, one of them dies. End of story.

Only it’s so not. Because here’s the thing—in every one of these songs, and mercifully there weren’t that many of them, but just enough to make it a legit fad—the way in which the person dies is so mindbendingly horrific and irredeemably stupid that the listener really can’t help but laugh at the idiocy. And what’s more, the songs are cloaked in layers and layers of maudlin sap and whiny pap. We’re kinda glad the person is dead because it means the song will soon be done, and we wouldn’t mind the narrator joining the dead love.

My dad was in college during this era and he has confirmed that, yes, these songs were huge and, yes, these songs were ridiculous. He even has a very funny story of a piano player in his fraternity house who turned one of these songs into a rollicking barroom singalong, which always got the room howling. Good!

Case in point is the Mt. Rushmore of musical tragiporn, “Teen Angel” by Mark Dinning in 1959. The couple is soooo very in love and soooo happy. Until one night when their car stalls on some railroad tracks, and a train is bearing down on them. They get out safely, only the girl goes running back and promptly gets crushed to death by the train barreling down the tracks. And why did she do something so stupid?

It really is kinda hard to believe.

What was it you were looking for?
That took your life that night?
They said they found my high school ring
Clutched in your fingers tight.

She ran back to get his high school ring. Which apparently meant so much to here she wasn’t even wearing it at the time!

Somewhere Charles Darwin heard this song—although only if he’s unfortunately in hell, which I doubt—and smiled, nodding. Survival of the fittest is working like a charm.

The song went to Number 1.

Then there was Ray Peterson’s “Tell Laura I Love Her” a year later, which went Top 10, although not to the very top, mercifully. Once again the couple is deeply in love, happy and smiley and ready to live forever. Only Tommy, the hero (for lack of a much, much better term), can’t afford to buy her an expensive wedding ring ($1,000!).

So he does what any sensible young man would do. Finds a cheaper ring? No. Gets a job to pay for it? No. Takes out a loan? Buys it on layaway?  Borrows from his parents??? No, no and NO, Mitt!!!

No, he does what any sensible young man would do. He enters an auto race to win the $1,000 first prize. You really had to ask?

What happens? C’mon, you know what happens!

No one knows what happened that day
How his car overturned in flames
But as they pulled his body from the twisted wreck
In his dying breath they could hear him say
“Tell Laura I love her…”

Also? Tell her Tommy was an idiot and she’s probably way, way better off.

There's plenty more, unfortunately.

In “The Last Kiss” (covered stridently decades later by Pearl Jam) awful driving is again the cause, this time the girl dies because her lover somehow couldn’t see a stalled car in the road up ahead. More bad driving takes the guy in “The Leader of the Pack,” which actually is quite musically enjoyable in the hands of the Shangri La’s, if you overlook the general overwrought silliness of the lyrics.

In Pat Boone’s hideous “Moody River” he arrives for a date to find out that his girl has inexplicably killed herself. Although she was dating Pat Boone so, well, I repeat myself. And in “Patches,” a girl named Patches kills herself and leaves her lover so very sad that Patches is dead. And gives no real reason. Although it possibly had something to do with her parents naming her “Patches.”

Again, it’s not that these are sad songs. Tons of amazing sad songs have been written over the years, ones that stay with us forever. It’s that these are melodramatic little soap operas, designed to lose us in the all-encompassing crippling gloom and not just tug at our heartstrings but to freaking tear the suckers out of our chest. They come with all the subtlety of a Yanni keyboard solo, and they are obnoxious in their efforts.

Fortunately, the trend began to die out by the mid-60s; maybe because the Kennedy assassinations and Vietnam War gave us real things to worry about. Or more likely just because the trend had run its course, just like disco did in the late 70s and glam metal would in the late 80s. (Both of which are preferable musical genres, BTW—yes, even glam metal).

But every once in a while the tragedy song would rear its ugly head again. Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” in 1968 may very seriously be the Worst. Song. Ever. So misogynistic and manipulative and craven in literally every little awful corner of it. “Seasons in the Sun” in the early 70s is so whiny and intentional it leaves us openly rooting for the guy to die by the end of the song. And “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” well, it's to anti-war songs what Karl Rove is to hip hop.

But, and here comes the big twist I have so clearly telegraphed, there is one song—released in 1992—that returns all of the conventions and pitfalls that once shaped the classic “tragedy song” motif. And actually works well.

Richard Thompson delivers beautifully with “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” because the song is what all those other songs are not—unsentimental, unflinching and unapologetic. James the Bad Guy knows he’s a bad guy and doesn’t care, much like the narrator of Eddie Cochrane’s legendary “Summertime Blues” (in my estimation the first true punk rock song) knows he’s a lazy little bastard but still doesn’t care.

What’s more, James’ love—the lovely Red Molly—knows he’s a bad boy and doesn’t try to change him. She accepts him and his fate, come what may. Plus she gets a really cool bike out of it, something that the corpse girl in “Teen Angel” was never able to promise her fella!

And then of course there is that mesmerizing acoustic guitar work that Richard tears through, so intricate and precise. It’s as good as an acoustic guitar can sound; so much harder than most ballads, yet still soft enough to create a lovely and singable tune.

So thank you, Mr. Thompson, for bringing a forgettable motif back for one final go-round, only finally doing it right.  No sap, no pap, no tears and very, very little human idiocy. Plenty of bad behavior, sure, but at least it’s acknowledged.

Let’s just hope Red Molly wasn’t killed by a runaway train on her way home. Or died in a hastily arranged motocross race.

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