The Great American Songbook: A Poem in Four Essays
Many of you may have heard the story about the origin of Phil Collins’s song “In the Air Tonight,” popularized by the hit television program "Miami Vice." Legend has it that a young Collins witnessed the drowning of a close friend. Details vary, but Collins is often portrayed as being too far away to help; for instance, in one version he is on a cliff looking down on the incident. However, another man – almost always thought to be a stranger, although he is occasionally portrayed as an acquaintance – is close enough to offer help but does not, most likely out of fear for his own safety. This incident traumatized the young Collins and led him to eventually write the song in question.
Years later, Collins launched a successful solo career after his stint in the early and ultimately more critically acclaimed (but less financially successful) incarnation of the band Genesis; his career would eventually spawn hits such as “Against All Odds,” “Take Me Home,” and “Sussudio.” In the midst of a successful tour, Collins somehow tracked down the stranger who had witnessed the drowning and anonymously sent prime concert tickets to the man; the man, not realizing that Collins had witnessed his act of cowardice years earlier, snapped up the concert tickets without a second thought. As Collins premiered “In the Air Tonight” midway through the set, a spotlight was shown directly on the stranger, and Collins sang while staring into his eyes, thereby using the songs embittered lyrics to publicly indict the man’s youthful act of cowardice. In some versions of the tale, the man has a heart attack and dies as Collins looks on impassively. In others, he rises, pale and shaken, to exit, with the spotlight trailing him and his wife, who is reported to leave him shortly thereafter. In my favorite version, though, the crowd rises, at the bidding of Collins, and flays the man alive.
Mojo Nixon is perhaps best known for his mention in “Punk Rock Girl,” a tongue-in-cheek anthem of disaffected youth performed by The Dead Milkmen. However, Nixon has had a 20-year career as a cult musician that peaked sometime in the 80s, when he penned notorious pop culture parodies such as “Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant with My Two-Headed Love Child” and “Stuffin’ Martha’s Muffin,” an off-color ode to then-MTV VJ Martha Quinn. His most scathing track is surely “Don Henley Must Die,” which finds fault with the Eagles singer and part-time environmentalist for infractions ranging from angst-laden lyrics to an ill-advised ponytail hairstyle.
One evening, Nixon was performing that very song in an Austin, Texas nightclub when Henley himself strode on to the tiny stage, grabbed a spare microphone, and belted out the tune alongside a flabbergasted Nixon. From that day forth, a chastened Nixon swore he would change the lyrics of the song to “Rick Astley Must Die.” Who Astley is (or was) is not the issue; it is simply worth noting that the ease with which Nixon chose to change the lyrics indicates that the sentiment could not have possibly been sincere in the first place. That said, recalling this incident years after the fact, I feel warmly toward both Henley and Nixon for reasons that are somewhat unclear to me, especially since I am not particularly interested in the music of either man.
For many of his fans and even his more casual listeners, the fact that Rod Stewart has been romantically linked to a series of progressively younger women, including his current fiancé, model Penny Lancaster, who is more than 25 years his junior, clearly invalidates the sordid tales of homosexual tomfoolery that dogged Stewart earlier in his career. Any memories of rumors involving trips to the hospital for emergency stomach pumping after a supposed same-sex romp, for instance, are likely invalidated by his wooing and impregnating of supermodel Rachel Hunter in the early 1990s.
The issue of Stewart’s sexual orientation is not of interest to me per se. However, it is worth pondering how the same man who gave us such hormonal classics as “Hot Legs” and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” is currently offering up banal versions of selections from the Great American Songbook. Granted, these men share the same name, the same raspy, whiskey-soaked voice, and even the same carefully disheveled locks, but little else seems to connect the two entities. The best explanation I can offer is that, as part of the human body’s constant process of regeneration, our cells are, in essence, completely replaced every seven years. Therefore, the man butchering “Time After Time” on Oprah Winfrey’s couch and the man who once boozed and whored alongside soon-to-be Rolling Stone Ron Wood are, quite literally, not the same person at all.
I remember once hearing a radio DJ complain that Bryan Adams could not have been old enough to be in a band in 1969, despite claims to the contrary in his first-person narrative “Summer of ’69,” as if a fictional tale could not possibly contain true emotion or sincerity. The fact that we have such high expectations of the popular music we consume reminds me, somehow, of a moment in U2’s self-indulgent documentary Rattle And Hum. As the band launches into a credible if unremarkable version of “Helter Skelter,” Bono announces to the audience, “Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles, and we’re stealing it back!” “Helter Skelter” has long been a live staple of a wide range of bands, ranging from Mötley Crüe to Siouxsie & the Banshees, so it is curious that Bono — or anyone else, for that matter — could “steal” the song in the first place.
While we may never truly “own” another person’s song or even completely understand its complexities, it doesn’t stop us from trying. Indeed, Canadian songstress Alanis Morrissete still refuses to reveal the identity of the older lover who inspired her vitriolic, decade-old anthem “You Oughta Know,” but at a recent charity event Carly Simon actually auctioned off the name of the man who was the subject of her 1972 hit “You’re So Vain,” a fact that Simon has always guarded in a coy fashion not unlike Morrissete’s current stance. The auction’s winner was provided with the name in question on the condition that he, the high bidder, never tell another living soul what he had learned. Imagine, for a moment, the intoxication of having such wealth that you can essentially bribe the writer to take you into her confidence and whisper her secrets in your ear, naïvely trusting that what she’s telling you is, in the end, something that approximates the truth.
Chris McCreary is the author of two books of poems, Dismembers and The Effacements. Current work can be found online at e.ratio and Tool. He co-edits ixnay press with Jenn McCreary.