Saturday, October 19, 2013

Part Man, Part Monkey

DT and I wrote a series of posts for the great One Week // One Band. They're all archived over there, along with an incredible number of other fantastic pieces. Here's the one I wrote about "Part Man, Part Monkey."


Rock, country, folk, jazz(ish), pop, blues, rockabilly, metal, torch, surf, frat, prog, R&B, punk, soul—by the late 80s, there were few genres Bruce Springsteen hadn't at least given a try. One exception: reggae. Until "Part Man, Part Monkey."

The song made its debut the first night of his Tunnel of Love Express tour, and remained part of the set through to the tour's bitter end. Its topic—love or, at least, lust—fit the tour's general "love" theme better than some of the more well-known songs and was a highlight each night. Among other things, although moody and atmospheric, it fit the band musically much better than many of the quieter, more intimate Tunnel of Love songs, which—although brilliant songs off an absolute masterpiece of an album—never quite made the transition to the stage effectively. Not so "Part Man, Part Monkey," despite what would have seemed an awfully foreign music milieu. Clarence Clemons' sax, in particular, worked especially well, something that could not uniformly be said by that part in Springsteen's musical development.

The first verse lays out the scenario, and it's a funny look at a bit of American history every American (hopefully) knows:
They prosecuted some poor sucker in these United States
For teaching that man descended from the apes
They coulda settled that case without a fuss or fight
If they'd seen me chasin' you, sugar, through the jungle last night
They'da called in that jury and a one two three said
Part man, part monkey, definitely
Okay. So far, lyrically, this is a fairly standard humorous Springsteen song. (Which is to say great—in fact, I think it's one of his very funniest ever.) But the second verse takes a surprising turn:
Well the church bell rings from the corner steeple
Man in a monkey suit swears he'll do no evil
Offers his lover's prayer but his soul lies
Dark and driftin' and unsatisfied
Well hey bartender, tell me whaddaya see
Part man, part monkey, looks like to me
So while the final couplet there fits in with the first verse (as well as having a nice nod back to "Louie Louie"), the first four lines become suddenly serious. They still address sexual desire, but instead of a witty history lesson, they suddenly bring contemporary politics and religion into the mix. And instead of Springsteen's Catholicism popping up as it so often does, it's taking aim right at evangelical Christianists, and it's not complimentary.

The bridge goes even darker, but now it shifts its focus to the singer himself:
Well the night is dark, the moon is full
The flowers of romance exert their pull
We talk awhile, my fingers slip
I'm hard and crackling like a whip
And just like that, humor's nothing but a distant memory. Springsteen's singing here of lust more directly and intensely here than he ever has before. "Blinded by the Light" had all the scattershot focus of a horny puppy, while "Fire"—which seems a tad, well, rapey when viewed with 21st century eyes—kept its humor (albeit frustrated humor) from beginning to end. (Switching genders by having it sung by The Pointer Sisters also helped make it less disturbing.) "I'm on Fire" seemed like a sensual ballad verging on torch the first few dozen times you heard it, until you realized this guy wasn't just turned on, he was nearly out of his mind with desire, and the correct answer should have been "hell, yeah, my daddy's home. And he's holding a loaded shotgun."

But here the singer isn't just aroused, he's making his move. Do his fingers really slip? Or do they "slip"? And how's this little oh-my-goodness-would-you-look-at-that-how'd-that-happen? received by the object of attention? Is she a willing participant in this game? Here's hoping, because the singer sounds like he's not to be easily deterred.

The final verse ties it all together:
Well did God make man in a breath of holy fire
Or did he crawl on up out of the muck and mire
Well the man on the street believes what the bible tells him so
Well you can ask me, mister, because I know
Tell them soul-suckin' preachers to come on down and see
Part man, part monkey, baby that's me
Here we've got religion and sex all bound together in one sweaty, confusing, tangled ball of yarn. Springsteen had never approached either subject this way before, and never has since, practically entering into Prince territory—only with anger, rather than ecstasy. Prince sang of sex and God tied together some sort of glorious virtuous circle. The singer of "Part Man, Part Monkey" finds sex base and dirty...and he likes it.

Musically, too, it's far from Springsteen's usual fare. Obviously, most of that's due to its reggae beat. And while Max Weinberg and Garry Tallent are never going to be confused with Sly and Robbie, they acquit themselves surprisingly well. Max's playing—especially his initial entrance—back in 1988 was odd and effective, and Garry's bass line is unusually busy for him. Clarence's sax is interwoven throughout the song's fabric in a way that it had almost never been since the Born to Run album. "Part Man, Part Monkey" is also in a minor key, another relative rarity for Springsteen. What's more, it's a blues, one of the very few Springsteen's ever written. And, live, it ended with Patti Scialfa singing a bit of Mickey & Sylvia's 1956 hit, "Love Is Strange." It certainly is.

Springsteen later recorded a studio version of the song for Human Touch, the recording turning up as the b-side to "57 Channels (and Nothin' On)." (Tangent: I can't believe he released "57 Channels" as a single. I love the song, and think his performance of it on SNL is still one of his best TV performances ever, but it should have been a b-side itself—and a great, great b-side it would have been.)

The recording is a wonder, crystal clear, and with the anger turned up even higher. Whereas Springsteen would occasionally burst into laughter when singing the song on stage back in 1988, here there's no trace of comedy. Superstar guest drummer Omar Hakim's snare cracks like, well, a whip, and David Sancious returns to add some magnificent keyboards. Springsteen himself plays the bass, and as is his custom when he plays the bass himself, the lines are busier than Garry's, and mixed more prominently. Clarence's sax is nowhere in sight, replaced by what may be Springsteen's first slide guitar on record.

And that's another unusual feature of this unusual recording: Springsteen's guitar is uncharacteristic in several ways. His guitar tone is much cleaner than usual; for a guy so closely associated with Telecasters, it's ironic that his tone is generally much muddier than the famously twangy Tele sound. Springsteen also plays more bends on this recording than he usually plays in any given song, and far few triplets (a live Springsteen guitar solo hallmark). And the solo itself is one of his most aggressive, something of a cross between "Adam Raised a Cain" and "Cover Me."

And above it all is the kind of forceful vocal performance expected of Springsteen (although largely missing on the Human Touch LP), but with that certain extra edge brought on by the confrontational, accusatory lyrics. The anger is undercut, or leavened, slightly by what I think is the first appearance of what has become a common feature of Springsteen since in the past few decades, his countryish yelp—an interesting juxtaposition against the blues with reggae beat of the instrumental backing.

The Human Touch album is widely considered Springsteen's worst ever, and with good reason. Among many other problems, it seemed rather by the numbers, and surprisingly soulless—especially surprising and disappointing given how many songs were literally soul songs. "Part Man, Part Monkey" wouldn't have fit on the album very well, but perhaps if a few of the songs on there had shown the kind of emotion this recording did, the album would have been considerably improved.

In the end, "Part Man, Part Monkey" is not only one of Springsteen's funniest songs, it's also one of his angriest songs ever. And given that it's something of an attack on radical Christianists, it could have been his most controversial song ever (or at least until "American Skin (41 Shots)"). Perhaps it's a good thing he buried it on a b-side. But then again, in 1990, the song seemed something of a parody, a laugh at how absurdly backwards people were in the dark ages of the early 20th century, as well as a poke at the then-recent spate of televangelists who'd been caught in scandals, often literally with their pants down. That was then. By the early days of the anti-science 21st century America, unfortunately, "Part Man, Part Monkey" now seems horrifying prescient.


The original post can be found here, along with the other amazing posts that week. And while you're there, check out their other weeks, featuring so many great pieces on so many great artists.

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