This is a post about non-redemption songs. About songs that don’t seek salvation and don’t even want your buy-in for justification. This is about the brave writers who know how to flirt with a bit of evil; paint some character-sketches where the bad guy wins: gets the girl and the car, takes the money, maybe steals the lot – and (of course) drives away laughing.
Bob Marley gave us too many redemption songs. I can handle a few – now and then – but for them to mean anything I want to hear the mean stuff as well.
When Cody ChesnuTT sings Everybody’s Brother it’s a good tune. And it’s got this great opening line, “I used to smoke crack back in the day”. And that leads to a (nearly nasty and certainly) woeful tale of gambling rent money and other no-nos. But there’s redemption. The chorus announces he’s teaching Sunday School – it reminded me of Darcy Clay’s great Jesus I Was Evil (the kind of redemption song I much prefer to all this phoned-in “I’ve learned that love will rule” type of deal). Remember that Darcy Clay’s song has a guy who was evil but now he “helps old ladies across the street”. And so Everybody’s Brother walks that dance rather well; it’s the closest ChesnuTT has come to hinting back at his earliest material.
Jesus I Was Evil has that line about how the song’s protagonist “used to crash parties/And Maseratis” before ending the list of evil things to celebrate the redemption with a list of positive new moves. That line, the mention of that particular car brand links the song, for me anyway, to Joe Walsh’s wonderful stoner/slacker anthem, Life’s Been Good.
Life’s Been Good isn’t anything like the evil that Randy Newman’s My Life Is Good purports (you can’t really challenge a song that has a line like “And this one guy’s wife is/Is such a pretty little brown thing/That I’m liable to give her a poker or two”); instead it’s a satirical dig at rock-star shenanigans and excess – written and played out on the stage by someone who could well have claimed to have ticked off the list.
Human beings are capable of being more than just soul-searching do-gooders. So I get a bit sick of hearing about that particular variety in songs; all tinsel streamers and fairy-dust. Tell us about the ugly-glasses and bad-jersey types who maybe fluke their way out of murder convictions….far more interesting I reckon…
Steely Dan’s Kid Charlemagne – hard to pick a favourite song by the Dan but this has to be close. That sardonic wit, often served with almost a twinkle, other times so po-faced as to seem like a withering stare. Here with Kid Charlemagne they praise the purity of a particular acid manufacturer’s crop, how he was the real deal, selling good quality illegal drugs, not the laced-up hackery and chicanery some of the others were offering.
There’s no Sunday School ending in this tale, just “Clean this mess up else we’ll all end in jail/Those test tubes and scale/Just get them all out of here/Is there gas in the car/Yes, there’s gas in the car/I think the people down the hall/know who you are…”
There are surely as many great Steely Dan songs that feature despicable (or at the least questionable) characters as there are Randy Newman or Warren Zevon songs…
I thought we could talk about your favourite non-redemption songs; your favourite songs that somehow tell a rather sinister story. And in their slice-of-life way there’s no great payoff, no turn-around in the tale (because maybe there’s one in a musical sense; almost certainly if it’s a Steely Dan song).
So think of your favourite songs where the protagonist boasts of bad deeds and doesn’t run back in the chorus to confess to being a sinner and tidying up his or her thoughts and actions, cleaning it all up with soul’s great yard-broom of salvation, for example. Like Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy. What a great (evil) ending. No redemption there: “After ten long years they let him out of the home/Excitable boy, they all said/And he dug up her grave and built a cage with her bones/Excitable boy, they all said/Well, he’s just an excitable boy”.
What’s your favourite song where the crack-smoker keeps the pipe lit, where the Sunday School finds someone else to teach it, where the Maseratis and parties keep getting crashed and trashed and yet – somehow – life, in the song’s storyteller’s eyes is still good to them? So very good to them. And good for them. (So far).