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Easter Road Toll

In February 1988, at the tender age of 15, some friends and I decided to form a punk / thrash band. Like so many young people going through puberty we were electrified with the spirit of rebellion and longed to make ourselves heard. After some lengthy lunch-time discussions of possible band names, one good friend, Owen, suggested Easter Road Toll as an appropriately offensive moniker and we were all instantly taken with it. Six of us agreed to meet at Owen’s place on the following Saturday and, keen to drive the project and play a leading role, I went home that night and wrote 10 songs in a couple of hours.

Having no musical training whatsoever, being practically tone deaf and entirely unable to carry a tune, I just wrote lyrics with simple rhymes and meters. When I showed these songs to “the band” at school the following day the excitement around the project grew to a fever pitch and we eagerly awaited that first “recording session.”

What followed on that first Easter Road Toll Saturday was an awful mess of teenage boys screaming into a tape-recorder and making a tuneless, discordant racket in Owen’s bedroom. Only three of us – Demitri, Max and Chez – had any recognisable musical ability, yet with no preparation or rehearsal, very little of this shone through on the day.

That first “album”, which we titled Gate Crashing at the Doors of Hell, is really very painful to listen to. A series of poorly chosen drum beats on the Casio, the squealing of boys on the verge of adolescence, the hammering of misshapen chords on poorly tuned guitars, the thumping of various items of furniture and the gang shouting of incomprehensible lyrics, does not make much of an album. It was, however, a first attempt and it got us excited enough to strive for something more orderly and complete.

Easter Road Toll

Easter Road Toll, with “Chez” as guest bassist, c. 1988

Within a few months the band’s numbers had been whittled down to three – Demitri, Mike and me – and D actually took the time to compose music for the lyrics which I churned out at a rate of knots. I bought a guitar and started taking lessons, but I was far too lazy to practise properly and could at best provide a sloppy rhythm section. Mike, our drummer, couldn’t yet afford a kit and so we either recorded with a drum machine or got him to play – wait for it – chairs. The stretched pleather of the cushions had to suffice for any “live” recordings which were made in Demitri’s garage. Other noise-making implements were also employed, including a real whipper snipper, pots, pans and a bicycle, adding a hint of German industrial to something otherwise entirely unclassifiable.

The main problem with Easter Road Toll was not the lyrics, which were universally pretty awful, but the fact that I sang most of the songs. Whereas I’d like to think I could write some decent lyrics these days, and have spent years trying to improve my singing, I certainly couldn’t write anything worthwhile back then and I most certainly could not sing. We did improve over time – Mike got a drumkit and achieved a basic level of enthusiastic competence, Demitri developed into an accomplished guitarist and singer, and my guitar playing improved marginally, yet I remained by far the weakest link. The last recording we ever made was after a four-year hiatus – in 1994 – where we laid down a couple of old favourites – Schwarzenegger and Zombies are Philosophers on a four-track. Despite being drunk and stoned and the songs being unrehearsed, those two tracks are without a doubt the best standard we ever achieved, largely due to the fact that Demitri’s tradecraft had improved so much in the intervening years.

Easter Road Toll 8

Easter Road Toll 14

Easter Road Toll 4

The final line-up, D, Mike and Me – acne, angst and the garage

The reason I am summoning Easter Road Toll back from the grave is that recently I bought a USB cassette player and have begun converting all our recordings into digital format. I haven’t owned a working cassette player in roughly fifteen years and it must be almost twenty since I last chose to listen to the old ERT tapes. Initially, I was deeply moved by the process – the excitement of rediscovery, the very fact that the cassettes still worked, the deep nostalgia of hearing sounds from a time now long ago – but this soon deteriorated into a sense of impatient disappointment. Why? Because most of the songs were so utterly dreadful and reflected embarrassingly intolerant stupidity and naivety.

The basic remit was to shock and offend as much as possible, something embodied in the deliberately insensitive band name. As big teenage fans of 80s action movies, many Easter Road Toll songs revolved around killing people with shotguns, whipper-snippers, chainsaws, hacksaws and pretty much any other household implement you could get your hands on – an immature celebration of gratuitous violence. Somewhere, Somehow, Someone’s Gonna Pay – a title ripped off from the rather cheesy song at the end of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Commando – is about killing the conservative premier of New South Wales and taking his whole damned party with him. Blow up your Relief Teacher is a song about having a relief teacher at school who makes the class do work, rather than letting the students “bludge”. Like most Easter Road Toll songs, it advocates an entirely disproportionate response: “Blow up the whole fucking class, burn down the school and blow it up with a howitzer!” Indeed, it finishes with a line about delivering the “coup de grace, with an 80 megaton ICBM”. Yep, pretty disproportionate stuff.

Rather too many of the songs focussed on the band’s title and featured people “increasing the road toll” by running over “peds”. Songs such as Hitch-hiker, Testing a Tank, Top 50 Victims, Roadtoll Rap, Car Accident, The Morgue ain’t a Bad Place to be and Shopping Mall Massacre all involved running people over just for the hell of it.

Easter Road Toll 2

Easter Road Toll “side-project” jam at Max’s, c. 1989

There was also a desire to express forthright political opinions, inspired by the fine example of Midnight Oil. The problem was, however, that when it came to writing lyrics, I knew absolutely nothing about politics – except that the conservatives were downright evil. At least I was right about something. There were a lot of songs expressing anti-McDonalds sentiments as well, mildly ironic considering how much I loved quarter-pounders at the time. Some songs were a genuine attempt at youthful wisdom and social commentary: You’ve got the Sack, Gun-toting Customs Officer, Fuck I hate Nazis, Drugs fuck you up and He’s no Value, all tried with astonishing naivety to make some kind of point that went beyond merely advocating massacres and banging on about “twelve-gauge shotguns”.

Most disappointing of all, however, was the degree of homophobia expressed in the lyrics of some songs. One such outing, That Winning Feeling, was about a guy running rampant through the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras in a Mack truck and killing as many people as possible. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so deeply disturbing and so awfully ignorant. It is, however, curiously indicative of a time when attitudes to homosexuality were in a swift transition. Paranoia about AIDS and HIV was rampant and Australia was yet to tackle the problem of homophobia in its society. Indeed, the word homophobia was rarely ever used – the term de rigueur was “gay bashing” – and there was no education about it in schools and no public campaign to stop it – at least so far as I recall. As a teenage boy in a boys’ school I fell all too easily into the lazy use of the words “gay,” “faggot” and “poofter”, words I still continually hear from the teenage boys I now teach, despite the far greater degree of education and awareness of this issue.

I’ve written elsewhere of how, in part, in my case, this was a response to being a nerdy kid in my first two years of high school and being called a “faggot” pretty much every day by the jocks. My homophobia reflected a resentment that I should be stuck with a label that wouldn’t exist were it not for the existence of homosexuals. Go figure. My attitude at the time must also have been rather confused, considering I went to watch the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras when I was fourteen and fifteen and enjoyed the show and felt no dislike or resentment towards gay people on those occasions. Perhaps, in the desire to shock and offend, which is really what Easter Road Toll was all about, there was simply an absence of sense or judgement on this matter and everyone and anyone who could be labelled was an equally valid target. It probably goes without saying that my views are now unambiguously gay-friendly and I whole-heartedly support same-sex marriage in Australia and the rest of the world. This is the greatest source of shame and disappointment when I listen to these old Easter Road Toll songs, yet thankfully there are only two or three songs of a large collection which contain homophobic lyrics.

Easter Road Toll 11

Easter Road Toll’s gear – quite a collection of not especially great instruments

Fortunately there are a number of tracks which I genuinely enjoyed hearing again, if only for their energy and outrageous silliness. Lemmings Know What They’re Doing suggests that lemmings are right to jump off cliffs to avoid living an empty, meaningless life:

“What’s the point of living a life spent in a burger joint?” Fingers Don’t Grow Back is purely and simply hilarious – unless of course you’re an amputee. The chorus “Fingers don’t grown back, not even when you glue them back on, so be careful with chainsaws, and things like electric knives, cos it may cause your fingers to suddenly not be there anymore,” isn’t easily put to a tune, yet somehow, we pulled it off.

I’ve always had a real soft spot for Schwarzenegger, a celebration of the man himself, who was, at the time, our biggest action hero – and, dare I say it, my last action hero. This probably constitutes our most complete song, neatly structured and arranged, it flowed better than any of the others and I still find myself singing it.

Yet, after recently listening to all this “music”, I think my new favourite Easter Road Toll song, is, beyond a doubt, Car Alarms. Of course, it’s just another puerile attempt to make a rather offensive statement about how we all (fucking) hate car alarms, yet it is fast and punchy and has a certain verve about it. I reproduce the entire song here, with apologies to any law-enforcement officers.

 

One thing we all fucking well hate

is when people’s car alarms go off late

no wonder people steal their cars

the fucking Martians can hear ‘em on Mars.

Cobra, Piranha, they’re all the same

They all piss you off right out of your brain

 

Fuck I hate car alarms, they piss me off

cops should smash them, then go piss of somewhere else cos I hate them.

Fuck I hate car alarms, fuck I hate them

Fuck I hate car alarms they’re buckets of phlegm.

 

But most of all I hate car alarms

in every fucking street

cops should authorise twelve-gauge use

so we can get some fucking sleep.

Steal the fucking hub-caps, slash all the tires,

smash the fucking windows and cut out all the wires – aaaahh!

 

Fuck I hate car alarms they piss me off,

cops should smash them then go piss off somewhere else cos I hate them.

Fuck I hate car alarms, fuck I hate them

Fuck I hate car alarms they’re buckets of phlegm.

 

I do still dream of having a re-union of some kind and trying to record a few of these songs as well as possible. Modern technology makes this a far easier prospect, as does greater wisdom and experience, yet I can’t imagine how or when this is likely to happen. Fortunately all the members of Easter Road Toll are still good friends, so there is little risk of “artistic differences” getting in the way. As for now, our three “albums” Gate-Crashing at the Doors of Hell, Loitering with Malicious Intent and From the Maw of Oblivion, are never likely to be available on iTunes, but that is probably for the best.

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Most love songs are rubbish. This is no particular fault of love songs, but rather fits with Sturgeon’s famous law that 90% of everything is crap. The same law applies for all artistic output – novels, movies, television programs, paintings – the world has long been flooded with cheap, disposable product through which we are forced to sift in order to find that rare percentile in which dwell the timeless classics. It is the purpose of this post, and indeed, of many subsequent posts, to highlight those songs which deserve respect for getting it right.

Firstly, it’s important to make a distinction between “love songs” and “songs about love.” A love song belongs to the romance genre – it is more often than not bludgeoningly romantic, fulfilling its function through cliché and banality, drawing upon well-established themes and tropes. They are often typified by overly sentimental choruses and trite circumstances involving material bribes, formulaic gestures, promises and the like. Or, otherwise, in the case of sad love songs, bemoaning the absence of certain stock sentiments and shows of affection, loss of trust and respect, lack of attention or commitment. Some of these songs have a simple charm and classic appeal, but all too many belong in the trash with all the other Valentine’s day pap, pandering as they do to the very worst commodification of romance, turning something beautiful into easily-marketed, mass-produced junk. They croon sweetly or bash our ears with brash platitudes, leaving the discerning listener feeling like they ate far too much sugar. The many failings of the average “love song” mirror the failings of most musical products (remember Sturgeon’s law) – bland compositions, tiresomely dull arrangements, and worst of all, dreadful lyrics.

Songs about love, on the other hand, are songs that explore the emotional experience of love and the complexity of relationships in a more sophisticated and less obvious manner. They use subtlety and carefully chosen, poetically expressed vignettes. They show, rather than tell, functioning in the same way as poetry: not being overly explicit and thus robbing the responder of the cryptic pleasure of interpreting the meaning and leaving little room for contemplation of the song’s, and indeed, the persona’s context. The best songs about love don’t even use the word “love”. Rather they find other means of expression, more covert modes of conveyance, hinting at and suggesting love, rather than just tossing it down on the table.

Equally, the best songs about sex function in a similar manner. Often they don’t even mention sex, but show through vignettes how the act reverberates in people’s lives and how its expression and the sentiments surrounding it can reside in objects, in spaces, in places, not just in the hackneyed “heart”, the body beautiful, nor in the wan, illusory “soul”. This doesn’t mean a great song about love or sex can’t speak of the heart, body or soul or indeed use the words love or sex for that matter, but it creates a context and a tone in which the word’s power is magnified through the potent lens of the very real and original emotion expressed. It’s not a cheap short-cut to meaning, nor a lame signifier of the song’s intent, not a repetitive slogan to drum us into emotional submission or give us a cheap sugar-high – it acts to punch us in the guts when we are already tearing-up in the emotional space the song has created around us – a very real story about very real emotions.

Such distinctions between the commonplace and the quality are as old as music and poetry. The ancients knew the difference well enough and Shakespeare’s sonnet # 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”, is a piss-take on all the trashy clichés of his day, as well as a welcome acknowledgement that beauty comes in many forms. And, as with Shakespeare, much of the best writing about love is based on personal experience. The dictum of “Write what you know” holds especially true in this genre, and only the very best can write what they don’t know in a deeply affecting way.

Of course, none of this is to say that one cannot or should not enjoy any of the more mediocre offerings of the genre. Junk food can be delicious, and sometimes the most ludicrously sentimental and simplistic of songs can move us deeply and hit just the right note. Equally, many will disagree as to where a distinction might be drawn between art and mere product, between masterpiece and bathos, and taste is a wildly varying thing. Yet if the art of review and critique has any validity at all, if aesthetics is something that can be judged objectively, if we can distinguish between great and poor on the grounds of technique, originality, subtlety and the like, and I firmly believe we can do so in all the arts, then we can recognise and pay due respect to those works which excel above others. In this sense, I come not to bury love songs, but to praise them – the good ones, that is, as I see it. There are enough posts and articles out there dedicated to listing the worst love songs of all time, so you won’t have to look far to satisfy your inner troll. I’m not interested in rubbishing that which others might hold dear.

And so, to praise the first subject of this series: Tom Waits’ – Ruby’s Arms, from his 1981 album Heart Attack and Vine. Here’s the song:

Heartattack and Vine

 

Ruby’s Arms – Tom Waits

 

I will leave behind all of my clothes I wore when I was with you

all I need’s my railroad boots and my leather jacket

as I say goodbye to Ruby’s arms, although my heart is breaking

I will steal away out through your blinds for soon you will be waking.

 

The morning light has washed your face and everything is turning blue now

hold on to your pillow case there’s nothing I can do now

as I say goodbye to Ruby’s arms, you’ll find another soldier,

and I swear to god by Christmas time there’ll be someone else to hold you.

 

The only thing I’m taking is the scarf off of your clothesline

I’ll hurry past your chest of drawers and your broken wind chimes

as I say goodbye, I’ll say goodbye, say goodbye to Ruby’s arms.

 

I will feel my way down the darkened hall and out into the morning

the hobos at the freight-yards have kept their fires burning,

so Jesus Christ this goddamn rain will someone put me on a train

I’ll never kiss your lips again or break your heart

as I say goodbye, I’ll say goodbye, say goodbye to Ruby’s arms.

 

 

This is a song about the sadness of leaving someone behind, yet it is richly complex in its evocation of regret, disappointment, loss and failed expectations. The maudlin brass with which it opens creates an almost agonised air of emotional pain, of desultory emotion, which is countered by the beautiful melancholy of the piano melody. The piano, in turn, tames the brass, bringing it, along with the strings, into a more complete, affecting whole. It is the sound of hollowness in the wake of an irreversible decision – it captures the unbearable sadness and the cold certainty of being cruel to be kind.

It is clear that the persona is deeply affected by his decision to leave; there is regret, there is sentiment – he misses Ruby even before leaving, yet has an intense awareness that what he is doing is necessary for he is simply not cut out for staying. His statement that “you’ll find another soldier,” offers a possibly misleading insight into Ruby herself – we catch a glimpse of a woman who, touchingly, desires a strong man, perhaps to protect her, comfort her and look after her. Yet perhaps our narrator has got it wrong? Is it not just “another soldier” that Ruby desires, but this particular soldier? Is this some cold comfort he is finding, reassuring himself that she will be alright, another man will come along, when really the failing lies with his inability to settle down, to stay with her and be faithful and fulfil the role she wishes him to fulfil?

Either way, irrespective of his understanding of her expectations, needs and desires, he is incapable of staying and this fills him with regret on her behalf as much as his. With this knowledge, he is deeply sympathetic on account of the hole he is leaving in her life: “Hold onto your pillow case, there’s nothing I can do now.” He knows how much she depends on him for strength and support, yet he simply cannot stay and provide this.

The slowness of his departure allows us to take the journey with him – a pre-dawn, wanly lit, sentimental tour of furnishings and personal effects which embody the intimacy they shared and remind us of how when we love someone and spend time in their space, we develop a deep fondness for their context and possessions. When we leave someone, we don’t merely lose them, but we lose all the trappings that signified their personality; that brought us comfort and pleasure – be it a chest of drawers or broken wind chimes. It is this reference to everyday objects, which, in the melancholy of the song, are invested with intense significance, that makes the song so effective. Indeed, the broken wind-chimes are, perhaps, a symbol of Ruby herself. Something beautiful, yet imperfect, and they also, indirectly, say something of her circumstances – she is not well off, but strives to have nice things, so to speak. By such means a surprisingly rich characterisation is achieved, just as “railroad boots,” and “leather jacket” are strongly suggestive not just of a working class persona, yet one who is perhaps a drifter, an itinerant worker, likely a de-mobbed soldier, offering further explication of the inevitability and root cause of what is perhaps the latest in a series of departures from other such women as Ruby.

The pale blue light of morning, the mention of the scarf, the rain and the fires of the hobos at the freight-yard create a cold atmosphere of early morning departure. Perhaps our persona has been lying awake all night thinking, only knowing for certain in the chilly reality of morning that the time to leave has arrived. And yet, despite this certainty, we can feel his anger and frustration, seemingly directed at the weather “this goddamned rain”, yet really directed at himself. “I’ll never kiss your lips again, or break your heart.” He knows only too well that he can’t be anything but his flawed self, yet wishes somehow that he could manage to be otherwise. At this point the difficulty of his decision has left him exhausted and doubting; “will someone put me on a train.” He finds some hope in the fact that the hobos have “kept their fires burning,” yet the burden of his choice, the weight of emotion he carries has left him spent; he wishes things to be taken out of his hands, he needs someone to be strong for him now, to get him away from this source of angst, doubt and regret.

This is a song which must be listened to to be fully appreciated. This is no deficiency of the lyrics, but rather a compliment to Tom Waits whose slowness of delivery, whose pauses and lingerings lend these lyrics quite extraordinary pathos. No matter how often I listen to this song I still get tears in my eyes at the line “and your broken wind-chimes.” Rarely have I come across such a potent piece of sentimental symbolism, combined with such a heartbreaking rendition. I always try to sing along with this song, but can never sing that line because my voice chokes every time. And that, apart from all the other great qualities of this song, is enough to make it one of the greatest ever written about love.

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Rhinestone Cowboy

There are many songs which I have known throughout my entire life. Clearly, these are songs I heard when I was a child, either played at home on the scratchy old record player and woolly-headed tape deck, or heard on the mono AM radio. As with most toddlers and young children, the music you listen to is your parents’ music. Be it through choice or accident, or the inundation of regular exposure, many of the songs make a significant imprint and don’t ever go away, for better or for worse.

My parents primarily listened to country and western when I was a child. This seems oddly incomprehensible in retrospect considering they were middle class people living in the very middle and upper class suburbs of Woollahra and Paddington in Sydney, but it makes more sense when you consider my father’s country town origins, blind attachment to 50s rock and roll and my mother’s preference for songs that “tell a story.” Country and western, which I too can appreciate for its narrative elements, is not exactly one of my favourite genres these days, but pretty much topped the billing as a kid. I had no idea to what degree, even in the mid to late 70s, country music was marginalised from the mainstream.

My favourite singers were Tom T. Hall, Frankie Laine and Marty Robbins – singers who, unsurprisingly, no one else at school had ever heard of. I found them to be a mix of wonderfully wise and mature and pleasingly harmonious, but most of all I think I enjoyed the narratives. Consider the song El Paso by Marty Robbins, which tells the tragic story of a young, impulsive cowboy who, overcome with jealousy for the beautiful Mexican maiden Felina, shoots another cowboy in Rosa’s Cantina and is forced to flee. It was not merely the lyrics of the song which appealed to me as a young child, but the beautiful harmonies and inexorable momentum of the flawless cadence.

El Paso – Marty Robbins

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl.
Night-time would find me in Rosa’s cantina;
Music would play and Felina would whirl.

Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina,
Wicked and evil while casting a spell.
My love was deep for this Mexican maiden;
I was in love but in vain, I could tell.

One night a wild young cowboy came in,
Wild as the West Texas wind.
Dashing and daring,
A drink he was sharing
With wicked Felina,
The girl that I loved.

So in anger I
Challenged his right for the love of this maiden.
Down went his hand for the gun that he wore.
My challenge was answered in less than a heart-beat;
The handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor.

Just for a moment I stood there in silence,
Shocked by the foul evil deed I had done.
Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there;
I had but one chance and that was to run.

Out through the back door of Rosa’s I ran,
Out where the horses were tied.
I caught a good one.
It looked like it could run.
Up on its back
And away I did ride,

Just as fast as I

Could from the West Texas town of El Paso
Out to the bad-lands of New Mexico.

Back in El Paso my life would be worthless.
Everything’s gone in life; nothing is left.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen the young maiden
My love is stronger than my fear of death.

I saddled up and away I did go,
Riding alone in the dark.
Maybe tomorrow
A bullet may find me.
Tonight nothing’s worse than this
Pain in my heart.

And at last here I

Am on the hill overlooking El Paso;
I can see Rosa’s cantina below.
My love is strong and it pushes me onward.
Down off the hill to Felina I go.

Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys;
Off to my left ride a dozen or more.
Shouting and shooting I can’t let them catch me.
I have to make it to Rosa’s back door.

Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel
A deep burning pain in my side.
Though I am trying
To stay in the saddle,
I’m getting weary,
Unable to ride.

But my love for

Felina is strong and I rise where I’ve fallen,
Though I am weary I can’t stop to rest.
I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle.
I feel the bullet go deep in my chest.

From out of nowhere Felina has found me,
Kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side.
Cradled by two loving arms that I’ll die for,
One little kiss and Felina, good-bye.

http://bit.ly/ElPasoMartyRobbins

Whether or not you appreciate country and western music, this song is a masterpiece of narrative song-writing with exquisite attention to lyrical technique – a natural, unforced rhyme, a constant, flowing rhythm, emotive language and genuine pathos.

One day in 1996, on my first trip around Europe, sitting in beautiful afternoon sunshine streaming through bay windows in a pub in Newcastle in the north of England, I found this song on the dukebox. I hadn’t heard it for years and simply had to put it on. When I did so I was so moved – as much by  nostalgia as  the song itself – that I listened to it three times. I made sure to get a copy of it a few years later and it’s now been on my iPod for some years – pleasantly surprising me here and there when it turns up on random.

Yet, as ever, I digress. Apart from country and western music, and the classical records given to my mother by a friend of hers, which I diligently went through at the age of 8 – settling on Tchaikovsky as clear favourite – there was the radio. My mother listened to AM radio stations, which played more classics than contemporary songs. Despite growing up in the 70s, I never, for example, heard Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple or even any disco for that matter, but I heard a hell of a lot of Elvis, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Roy Orbison and the like. I remember how astonished I was at the age of 10 when we went away on holiday with another family and they listened to a more contemporary radio station. Suddenly, there was a whole other world of music  – Kiss and Meatloaf were topping the charts.

Amongst all this, two songs really stuck with me through my childhood and have come, in retrospect, to be the ones that bring out the most nostalgic feelings of all: Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy and Captain and Tenille’s Do that to me one more time. The latter was actually released in 1980, but was just the sort of easy-listening croony ballad that wasn’t going to cause any controversy and thus was safe to play on the rather conservative stations to which my mother listened. Rhinestone Cowboy, on the other hand, was, purely and simply, a massive hit that had never really been off the radio since its release in 1975.

Though I didn’t really understand it as a kid, I loved that song and always wanted to sing along when it came on the radio. It’s not that the song’s lyrics are especially complex, indeed, they are very simple, but the song’s sentiments reflect those of the struggling artist or performer dreaming of the big time when the chips are down. The romantic evocation of the struggle itself and the heartfelt jubilation of at last hitting the heights are perhaps best appreciated with a little more life experience.

As a child, I loved the easy rhythm of the verses and their gradual rise through minor flourishes to a soaring chorus. It wasn’t the lyrics that appealed to me – though the word “cowboy” was evocative enough to gain my interest and the song certainly is narrative – but Glen Campbell’s voice, which is fatherly and unpretentious and has a natural and beautiful clarity to it. As I grew older and continued to hear the song in various circumstances, the lyrics came to make a lot more sense to me. It wasn’t until about eight years ago, however, when I had lived a good deal more and been trying for some time to make progress as a writer, that the song became a sort of personal anthem.  The song was not actually written by Glen Campbell, but by Larry Weiss, for whom, in 1974, it fell rather flat. When Glen Campbell re-recorded it a year later, it went global.

Rhinestone Cowboy – Larry Weiss

I’ve been walkin’ these streets so long
Singin’ the same old song
I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway
Where hustle’s the name of the game
And nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain
There’s been a load of compromisin’
On the road to my horizon
But I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me

Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo
Like a rhinestone cowboy
Getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know
And offers comin’ over the phone

Well, I really don’t mind the rain
And a smile can hide all the pain
But you’re down when you’re ridin’ the train that’s takin’ the long way
And I dream of the things I’ll do
With a subway token and a dollar tucked inside my shoe
There’ll be a load of compromisin’
On the road to my horizon
But I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me

Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo
Rhinestone cowboy
Getting’ cards and letters from people I don’t even know
And offers comin’ over the phone

Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo

FADE
Like a rhinestone cowboy
Getting’ card and letters from people I don’t even know

http://bit.ly/RhinestoneCowboyUT

There are few songs which have the same mysterious impact on me as this one. Whenever I hear it I’m pretty well guaranteed either to tear-up and get very emotional, or to feel a powerful, uplifting desire to succeed and bask in the glory of having made it. I find the song incredibly, unbelievably, almost incongruously moving and usually, when it comes on random on my iPod, I have to go back and immediately listen to it again to try to enjoy the emotional stimulus once more. It’s never quite as good the second time, but it’s still good enough.

There are many things I love about this song that transcend my nostalgia for it. One thing is the wonderfully provincial nature of its interpretation of making it big. He’s not dreaming of being a movie star, or even having a number one hit as a singer, but instead the song is about becoming a rodeo star – something very American, indeed, but also very southern and western USA. I like the way it reflects a more local, regional cultural expression of the big time. The rodeo itself has no appeal to me, but I can deeply sympathise with how for the song-writer, it is everything. It tells us something about fame and how provincial it can be. Often the people we most want to impress are the people we know and understand, not the whole world who might not really get it anyway. This expression of success is so refreshingly particular and modest and so adorably unfashionable outside of the country and western circuit – a far remove from the usual – the currency of fast cars, bling and hot women. Don’t get me wrong, this song is about bling from its very title, but it’s not quite the bling we’re used to, and it’s less about the possession of bling than the experience and status it entails.

The lovably innocent line “getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know”, offers a splendid vignette of how fame might surprise those unused to it. The word even is pivotal here for emphasising how curiously astonishing it is that total strangers might write to someone they’ve never met on account of their rise to popularity.

There is also something enticingly bohemian about the song’s expression of being down and out. The simple metaphor of walking the same old streets and singing the same old song celebrates the experience itself whilst lamenting the drudgery of it. I really don’t mind the rain either, and the song acknowledges that the struggle itself, the long road or slow train ride, are a mix of pleasure and pain. “And I dream of the things I’ll do, with a subway token and a dollar tucked inside my shoe” further reminds us that the struggle is romantic, in its freedom and possibility, yet ultimately, without success, it is exhausting and demoralising.

There is always, for most people, a “load of compromisin’”, both in art and in life, but the goal of making it is great enough to keep on trying. And that, ultimately, is the great appeal of this song. When Glen Campbell leads into that chorus with “I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me”, everything is not merely okay, but everything is possible, and, hearing it, I believe, perhaps more strongly than I can believe at any other time, that one day, somehow, I too will be riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo, so to speak.

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