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It’s almost second-nature for musicians to write about drugs. Especially when you’re dealing with rock, where the idea is to do what everybody tells you not to do, and make it look like it’s cool. (This is probably where spandex came from.)
The catch is that musicians aren’t supposed to openly write about drugs (except in the case of rap, discussed here recently). They find metaphors, and usually those metaphors are about as complex as John Wayne’s dialogue. Everyone knows about the La’s “There She Goes,” i.e. the girl-as-heroin metaphor; or the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” whose blatant “shoot, shoot” euphemisms all but sell the stuff. The chemical factor in David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” was even spelled out clearly in “Ashes to Ashes” (with the line “We all know Major Tom’s a Junkie”), in case the kids missed the classic “floating above the earth” metaphor.
With songs like “Hotel California,” “Under the Bridge,” “Golden Brown” and “Comfortably Numb” all containing their crystal-clear to slightly hazy euphemisms, the list of artists who have poetically flouted their bad habits before the mainstream media is eons long.
But what about the more cleverly disguised songs? You won’t convince me that the only heroin songs out there are the obvious ones. It’s almost guaranteed that somewhere, some good-guy songwriter is kicking back, having pulled off such a well-disguised smack anthem that no one even noticed it. My mission is to uncover some of these sneaky writers. They deserve, at the very least, to be recognized for their ingenuity, and praised for fooling everyone.
The Osmonds, “Goin’ Home” – This song is a prize winner. Show me a “track star” who’s got a long road ahead of him, who has to fight to make it “home” if it takes him the rest of his life, and I’ll show you a desperately hooked junkie. “I’m a space man from a different world,” the song says, reeling dangerously close to Bowie’s more evocative metaphor. “I’ve been gone so long that I’m feeling like a useless man.” The song’s energetic charge is enough to create a deceptive shroud of positivity, but if you really think about it, this is as strung out as Trainspotting.
The Beach Boys, “Help Me Rhonda” – Come on. “Since she put me down I’ve been out doin’ in my head / I come in late at night and in the morning I just lay in bed.” This could be depression, but I’d really like to spin it as something else. The singer appeals to his friend “Rhonda,” trying to seek solace from a broken heart. “Well, Rhonda you look so fine, and I know it wouldn’t take much time / For you to help me … get her out of my heart.” Yeah, I know, the Beach Boys are too cute to be writing about something like that. Just saying.
The Mamas & The Papas, “California Dreamin’” – What kind of dreaming are we talking about here? My guess is the kind of dreaming rock bands tend to do during long stretches on the road. “I’ve been for a walk” sounds like an innocent enough confession for a winter’s day away from home, and admitting that “I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A.” could be a weak excuse disguised as wishful longing. But the point that sells me on this song is the notion of haplessly stopping into a church they passed along the way, where they get down on their knees and pretend to pray. This doesn’t make much sense in a realistic context -- but you could easily construe a small, newly picked up habit as a “church you passed along the way,” and a “preacher” who “likes the cold” as a substance that tends to circulate among the disenfranchised … especially if said preacher “knows they’re going to stay.” Good one, Mamas & Papas, you almost got away with that one.
Paul Simon, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” – Paul is masterful with imagery, especially on his Africa-recorded Graceland. But the skilled lyrical eye can sniff out the wayward content in this one like a police dog at a high-school locker. The diamond-wearing woman metaphor is tough to see, unless you’re aware that diamonds in Africa are traded for junk on a regular basis. But that’s not solid. Unless it’s next to lines such as “she makes the sign of a teaspoon, he makes the sign of a wave,” “she was physically forgotten, then she slipped into my pocket with my car keys,” and “she said ‘honey, take me dancing,’ but they ended up by sleeping in a doorway.” Now, this could simply be a very persuasive mistress. Again, just saying.
Hansen, MMMBop – Dude, Hansen is totally on drugs. They may look innocent with their grinning, middle-school charm, but what they wrote here is more or less a side-spun commercial for the smack. Take the deceptively negative opening lyrics: “You have so many relationships in this life, but only one or two will last.” “Hold on to the ones who really care, in the end they’ll be the only ones there.” Such a verse could have come from Layne Staley himself, holed up alone in his apartment with his one lifetime companion. It sounds like a cold, pained wake-up call to the futility of meaningful relationships outside of substance abuse. Yes, I can see it could also just be about friendship. But let’s go further. “Plant a seed, plant a flower, plant a rose … keep planting to find out which one grows.” Now, experimentation is built into the teenage mind, and we all know what comes from poppies. It’s a safe bet that any flower reference in a rock song is a neon arrow pointing to a drug reference (the classic example is the Stone Temple Pilots line, “pick a flower, hold your breath and drift away”). But still, it’s not enough. No, the real beef is the chorus: “MMMbop, tick a ta ba do ba, dooby dab a do ba, tick a tab a doo.” Have you ever heard more nonsensical singing? Those scattered, meaningless words are perhaps the biggest sign of an in-over-his-head singer who forgets his own lyrics, and if you don’t believe me, listen to anything off Down in Albion. I rest my case, Hanson are a mess of substance abuse. I’m definitely taking this to the authorities.
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