The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
The history of pop music is strewn with the dead flowers of broken romances, because that is what makes songwriters want to share their feelings with us.
But there is a subgenre that takes us further down the road of unhappiness into the land of abuse, illness and death. Some artistes thrive on this, and country music is particularly full of it, so where better to begin than with Kenny Rogers?
The wider world’s first experience of this master of the unpleasant was Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town, written in the late 1960s by another country singer, Mel Tillis. Rogers’ version has a deceptively cheery, chugalong rhythm and quite a warm atmosphere as long as you don’t listen too closely to the lyrics, which deal with a paralysed Vietnam veteran watching his wife get ready to go out and, he is convinced, get from some able-bodied man the sort of sexual seeing-to that he is now unable to give her.
It’s a story that has probably been played out for real countless times, but Rogers revels in it, putting a deep, fake rasp in his voice to underline the man’s pain, and it was just the first of a string of hits in which he told us stories of things we would perhaps rather not think about. Rape, for instance.
Coward of the County brings us the tale of redemption of a ‘cowardly’ man, who is in fact only acting on the dying wishes of his father, who urged him to “walk away from trouble if you can”. Everyone thinks he is “yeller” except the narrator, who knows the truth.
Old Yeller’s chance to set the record straight comes at the expense of his wife, who is sexually assaulted by the three Gatlin boys, local no-goods. When our hero finds out, he goes to the saloon, where the Gatlins are drinking, and shoots them all.
And so his life changes, but you can’t help thinking he might have preferred to still have his old problem rather than the horrible new situation.
Rogers didn’t write that one, either, but he picked it and sang it and made it his own.
He did the same with Lucille, a relatively cheerful number in that nobody dies or gets violated. It’s just that a man’s wife walks out and leaves him “with four hungry children and a crop in the fields”. Mercifully, the writers left it at that rather than giving the man herpes and cancer, but maybe they had trouble fitting those in.
The late 60s was the heyday (or perhaps the nadir) of the tearjerker, with Bobby Goldsboro talking about his Honey, who seems to be crying every time he comes home. But maybe she knows something, because she dies in the end, and the singer assures her “I’m being good”. Was he asking for it? Had he been bad? We will never know.
Then there was Terry Jacks with Seasons in the Sun, which is not a country song at all. It portrays a man dying and bidding farewell to his friends and family in a mawkish, sickly way, although the original lyrics, by the respected Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel, was much more subtle and laced with sarcasm and backhanded compliments.
In 1974 we endured Billy Don’t Be A Hero, a song about a man going to fight in the American Civil War, although it was written by the successful if never-serious British team of Mitch Murray and Peter Callender. Here, the girlfriend of the titular Billy urges him “keep your pretty head low”, but of course he doesn’t – he volunteers for a dangerous assignment and gets his pretty head blown off.
The catalyst for all this melodrama was probably Leader of the Pack, the Shangri-Las’ 1964 smash about a young man who dies in a motorcycle crash, which was sadly quite common in those pre-compulsory helmet days. The song was written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (Da Doo Ron Ron, Then He Kissed Me, Be My Baby) and Shadow Morton, who apparently just couldn’t help themselves.
Hmm, there’s a lot of this stuff. So that’s all for now. More next week.