The Most Sociopathic Song of the ’70s?

Well, it’s me again, since Pete, the co-blogger with whom I ordinarily alternate, has apparently been eaten by wolves. So I thought I’d write about this little story song from 1972. People were suckers for story songs about then, and when Vicki Lawrence — at the time a member of the cast of the insanely popular Carol Burnett Show — for some reason decided to take a shot at pop stardom, she released this:

The lights go out link for the e-mail people.

And it was quite a hit, heard just everywhere for months on end, and Vicki performed it with her clipped little voice on all the variety and daytime shows there were. And there was debate, lots and lots of debate, on the exact details of the plot. Many people said it didn’t make sense, and indeed, superficially it doesn’t. But once you realize that one of the characters is the perhaps the most openly sociopathic figure in any song of the ’70s, it all comes together.

“The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” is about a sordid little incident in a small Southern town. A nameless young man has come home after a two-week trip, and stops at a local bar to have a drink. There he meets a friend, Andy Wolo, who gives him the bad news that his wife isn’t home and has, in fact, been “seein’ that Amos boy, Seth.” The young man “got mad, and he saw red,” but Andy advises him to calm down, and then reassures him that his young wife gets around a bit anyway and this is nothing new: “To tell you the truth, I been with her myself.”

Andy soon gets scared and decides to walk home, while Nameless, now designated “Brother,” also goes home, thinking his wife must have skipped town with Seth, and grabs “the only thing Daddy had left him, and that was a gun.” Then he heads off to Andy’s house, for reasons that are not given, but there doesn’t seem any really not-sinister reason for him to bring a gun on this particular errand. In any event, while on the way, he sees footprints too small to be Andy’s. “Aha!” we, and presumably Brother, think, though the lyrics don’t spell this out: “The wife!”

But when Bro reaches Andy’s house, somebody has already shot and killed him. And then, winding up a brief but consequential string of bad decisions, Brother sees the “Georgia Patrol,” which is to say state troopers, driving by and “fires a shot just to flag them down.” He is successful, alas, and a sheriff — what the sheriff is doing driving around with state troopers is not clear, but apparently the songwriter just couldn’t resist the “big-bellied sheriff” cliche, even at the expense of technical accuracy — takes the gun away and jumps to the conclusion that Brother is Andy’s killer. With very little further ado, Bro is convicted and executed. The narrator is outraged (though Vicki only sounds mildly irritated).

That’s the night the lights went out in Georgia
That’s the night that they hung an innocent man
Don’t trust your soul to no backwoods Southern lawyer
Cause the judge in the town’s got bloodstains on his hands

And then, at last, the key to all is revealed.

They hung my brother before I could say
The tracks he saw while on his way
To Andy’s house and back that night were mine
(That’s a continuity error; Brother never started back from Andy’s house.)
And his cheatin’ wife never left town
And that’s one body that’ll never be found
You see, little sister don’t miss when she aims her gun

See, Little Sister was the narrator all along. She was evidently somewhere in the bar, listening in on Brother’s conversation with Andy, and she ran ahead to do away with the poor dope. And sometime during Bro’s trip out of town, she killed his wife and hid the body. (No word on Seth from the first verse, but his prospects aren’t looking too bright.) She was apparently present at her brother’s arrest as well. And yet she was helpless to stop his quick trial and execution, poor girl. Such a dreadful miscarriage of justice. It all happened so fast. Those terrible, backward Southerners.

By way of explaining how things happened so quickly, some have suggested the song is about a lynching, but that doesn’t hold up. Though Brother is said to have been hanged, the image of the lights going out or dimming is associated with state-ordered executions, and the song’s theme is clearly judicial murder, not mob violence. And in any case, rural Georgia in the 1970s is an extremely unlikely setting for the lynching of a man accused of killing his adulterous wife’s boyfriend, particularly given that the song specifies that Andy was not a well-liked man. Assuming everyone involved is white — and all indications, including a trial, no matter how perfunctory, suggest this is the case — this is no lynching.

Indeed, despite her protest that Brother was hanged before she could say she was the killer, Sister appears to have had several opportunities to speak up — including, of course, at the arrest. Even if she wasn’t present, she certainly heard about it from her brother afterward, which would have been another chance to tell the truth. The specifics she gives in her account of the arrest, including dialogue, admit no other possibilities.

And didn’t Sister tell us that her brother had a lawyer at his trial? So he did last however long it took to obtain counsel, albeit (seemingly) incompetent counsel. And Sister specifically quotes the heartless judge at the trial, in an aside to the sheriff, as he justifies his quick decision with “Supper’s waiting at home, and I’ve gotta get to it.” That is hardly the sort of thing that makes it into the official record, so Sister must have attended the trial as well. And still, she didn’t speak up.

Sister’s entire narrative is a condemnation of a terrible, corrupt justice system. But what did they actually do that was so wrong? They arrested a man who was literally holding a smoking gun, standing next to the newly killed corpse of one of his wife’s boyfriends. (I think we have to assume that the boyfriend angle was mentioned during the trial, either as motive or as mitigating circumstance, no matter how incapable the counsel.) And pretty much everything in Brother’s behavior before the crime seems to indicate his guilt. There’s his enraged response to Andy, his going home specifically to retrieve a gun, his heading off to seek out Andy at his house — it all looks exactly like planned, premeditated murder.

Sure, the authorities were mistaken, but it seems like a more than reasonable error, given that Little Sister, the only person who knew what really happened, declined to turn herself in and clear her brother despite the fact that she clearly had multiple opportunities to do so. Instead, she is outraged that the authorities did not conduct the complete investigation that would have resulted in justice, which is to say her own arrest and possible execution for two murders.

Instead, she allows her blunder in killing Andy while her brother was on his way to the house, and his ill-advised decision to fire that shot, to determine the fate of her hapless sibling. That is an interesting notion of family loyalty: to kill two people out of outrage on her brother’s behalf, then let him take the fall for one of the killings.

So Little Sister here is persuaded of the rightness of her own actions, dramatically vilifies the police, lawyer, and judge for not acting on information they did not have and that only she could have provided, and takes not the slightest responsibility for a disaster for which she is virtually 100 percent culpable. And even if we take her word for it that somehow the trial and execution were conducted so quickly that she had absolutely no chance to speak up earlier, she has not only failed to clear her brother’s name in death, she hasn’t turned herself in for the murder of the wife, and in fact seems pretty proud of how cleverly she pulled that off.

As I said above: sociopath.

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Such Sweet Blindness

And, just for the heck of it, here’s an engaging song from the 5th Dimension, who were generally pretty engaging, and somewhat more adventurous than they probably got credit for in their ’60s heyday. They were never rock stars, they were considered a grown-up, R&B-flavored pop act. But their teaming with eccentric singer-songwriter Laura Nyro was as successful as more talked-about and less unexpected pairings, like Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb.

Nyro had a knack for writing songs that were irresistible to performers but very hard to actually, you know, perform. Poke around YouTube for various versions of “Stoney End.” It’s a deeply unhappy song, but with an irresistible chorus that seems to make women long to sing it, and then find it’s very much more difficult to get around than it seemed. It’s rangy, but a lot of singers could deal with that. It’s that the lyrics — intentionally — don’t quite fit neatly into the melody, so both diction and phrasing require great care if it’s going to make any sense, musically or emotionally. And if a singer doesn’t make the dynamic shifts and just belts the whole thing, it mutates into a hunk of shouty ’70s gospel pop. Yet “Stoney End” has been recorded again and again, defeating nearly all who attempt it, up to and including Barbra Streisand, whose brassy, inexpressive take on it is probably the best known version. (But this young woman does rather a fine job of it.)

But that’s not the song I’m talking about. “Stoney End,” with its intimations of self-destruction, was much too dark for 5th D, even as they were recording Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” and others. Including this:

Good lookin’ link for the e-mail people. Join them!

The video’s a little goofy, but it kind of suits the song. “Sweet Blindness” is typically all-over-the-place, but the 5th Dimension had a very effective approach to this tough tune: They, and producer Bones Howe, just ganged up on it. Marilyn McCoo and lead singer Florence LaRue cheerfully ham it up together on “Let’s go down by the grapevine/Drink my daddy’s wiiine/Get happy,” and when they’re not singing unison, they’re trading solo lines in a dual attack. They bounce through a heavily reverbed chorus sort of section (I guess it’s the chorus, but this is decidedly not a conventionally built song), backed up by the men singing baritone and a bounding, joyous bass, and this is what they’re so happy about:

Oh, sweet blindness
A little magic,
A little kindness
Oh, sweet blindness
All over me

Then they trade lines:
Florence: Four leafs on a clover
I’m just a bit of a shade hung over

Marilyn: Come on, baby, do a slow float
You’re a good-looking’ riverboat

Everyone: Ain’t that sweet-eyed blindness good to me?

Later, in the “wine of wonder” and “gin mill spirit” sections, starting about 2:30 on the clip, the men begin trading phrases in a complex break for an effect that is something like a gospel choir, except not (my musical vocabulary is impressive, I know). The song has a fine energy throughout, speeding up and slowing drunkenly down, with that R&B bass dancing by itself over big band horns and a barroom piano and high hat.

“Sweet Blindness” throws a lot out there, and Howe and the singers throw it all back and more, making a satisfying record, though too long and perhaps too odd to be a very big hit (it reached No. 13 in 1968). The only thing to which I take exception is the deliberately cheesy piano tinking at the very end, followed by an entirely superfluous blast of Ricky Ricardo-esque horns. I can see how, having gotten so far in, it might have been a struggle to find a way out, but still, that is so very literal-minded and jokey that I think it steps on the mood.

So I guess this is about happy drunkenness (or other chemical enhancement) and youthful rebellion and youthful love (there is very likely also a religious subtext, which I am ignoring because I like this song so much), but it’s a willful blindness, and there’s a little “protest too much” vibe going on here, just maybe. But isn’t it fun while it lasts?

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Heard but never seen

After a flirtation with ’60s oldies for a few weeks, I’m spending time with a stream that plays a lot of ’70s singer-songwriter stuff, along with milder songs from the usual classic rock suspects. They play a lot of Harry Chapin, and I’m finding that some of his songs are really growing on me. Though Chapin himself died in a car accident — perhaps precipitated by a heart attack — when he was only 38, he had an empathy for frustrated middle age that drives some of best songs, like “Taxi” or of course “Cat’s in the Cradle,” or this one:

W*O*L*D link for the e-mail people.

“W*O*L*D” was a modest hit, but the reason it got any traction at all was also the best possible testimonial for it: DJs loved it, and they played it to please themselves. (They could do that then. Today, except in very rare cases, air talent have nothing to do with choosing the music on the radio. That’s an entirely separate job, and may even be handled by a corporate programmer who is never at the station at all.)

The song is simply one side of a phone conversation between a middle-aged DJ and his ex-wife, to tell her he’s back in town, some years after their divorce, and telling her about his career after they broke up. He remembers that his dreams began to take off at their wedding, when he gets a job on an FM station (FM was the minor leagues in the time Harry’s talking about). Then he gets the dream job, and proceeds to make a serious mess of his life:

We were two kids, and I was was into AM rock
But I just had to run around,
It’s been eight years since I left you, babe
Let me tell you ’bout what’s gone down

So what has gone down? I’m not a radio person, never having worked at a station, but I’ve worked around the radio industry and with radio people for quite a while now. And here are the lines that, I guarantee, are what made jocks fall in love with this song:

The drinking I did on my last big gig
Made my voice go low
They said that they liked the younger sound
When they let me go
So I drifted on down to Tulsa, Oklahoma,
To do me a late-night talk show
Now I worked my way back home again,
Via Boise, Idaho
That’s how this business goes

And when Harry sings in the chorus that he’s “feeling all of 45, going on 15,” that’s not an exaggeration on the low end. There was a whole generation of DJs who started out in the late ’60s and early ’70s, in the freewheeling days of AOR and free-form FM, at 14, 15, 16 years old. Some of those guys are still in the industry, some as executives or program directors, and others on the air. If you have one of those old pros in your market, prize that. Radio is a very, very different industry than it was when they started out, and has changed enormously even in the 15 years or so since I began covering it, and there will never be another generation of jocks like those guys, who loved radio so much they dropped out of school and made it their whole lives.

So Harry’s aging DJ, finally back in the same town as his ex and their kids, thinks maybe he can get his life in order:

Sometimes I get this crazy dream
That I just drive off in my car
But you can travel on 10,000 miles
And still stay where you are
I’ve been thinking that I should stop disk jockeying
And start that record store
Maybe I could settle down
If you’d take me back once more
OK, honey, I see
I guess he’s better than me
Sure, old girl, I understand
You don’t have to worry,
I’m such a happy man

This is a song just full of wonderful production details. It’s not just the backup group making like jingle singers, it’s the sweet, Beatle-esque guitar that opens the song, and the way the energy and tension ramp up so swiftly when the staccato strings come in, and the irresistible hook of that first chorus: “I am the morning DJ on W O L D!” Those jingle singers haunt Harry throughout the song, singing along with the call letters and pointing up his mistakes; listen to them when he complains about aging out of his job. There’s even a deep voice in the second chorus playing on the radio custom of “puking” — that’s the highly exaggerated, big-voice, tongue-flapping style people associate with the old Top 40 “Boss Jocks.” (All DJs know what it is, of course, and most of them can do it.) And when the singers start up again after that hopeless declaration “I’m such a happy man,” their “Dubayou, Ohhhhh, Ellll, Deeeee…” is plainly mocking and even a bit sinister.

Harry Chapin had a love of melodrama that didn’t always serve him well — his more ambitious songs sometimes just plain got away from him — but in “W*O*L*D,” his big style fits the story about as perfectly as it possibly could. Love this record.

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