Sunday, July 17, 2011
Not all rock songwriters are funny; some of them are. But, once a strong working-class bias is established, rock has less to do with humor (especially crude humor) than a thinking person might expect. “This is Spinal Tap” demonstrates that some rock musicians are inadvertently funny; stand-up comics making fun of rock stars are de rigueur. The best rock songwriters do have comic moments— some regularly, some less so. Many of Ray Davies’ comic moments have, depending on how you interpret the songs, an edge of self-deprecation or (if the “I” in the song is not naively construed to be Davies himself) deprecation of protagonists. A song like “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” riffs on the extreme nature of the protagonist’s delusions— that the milkman’s a spy, the grocer’s following him, etc. What gives the song its sharp edge is an ambience unfamiliar (until 1971) to the Kinks— the ragtime honky-tonk vibe of Bourbon Street, New Orleans. But the overall effect, after the first listen, is not totally comedic; you can get lost in the musical and lyrical nuances without feeling an overwhelming need to laugh.
Jarvis Cocker, in some ways Davies’ heir apparent, has a similar lyrical balance between dry and overt humor. Cocker’s protagonists are much more sexualized than Davies’; the Britpop equivalent of the familiar Woody Allen “horny nerd” archetype. Wherever the horny nerd wanders, tempting ladies await who are always (and for a variety of reasons) a little bit out of reach. Cocker’s heart-of-darkness soliloquies on Different Class are spoken with enough exaggerated emphasis that we know laughter is both permissible and encouraged. John Prine is another songwriter who puts the comic right on the surface. Prine’s humor is more equal opportunity than Cocker’s— he is very good at nailing pathos and humor together, as in “Sam Stone,” which details the travails of a heroin-addicted Vietnam vet. “Angel from Montgomery” is very close to an American equivalent of “Waterloo Sunset.” Prine’s protagonist shares age and weariness with Davies’; but with sardonic, rough humor and a working person’s grumpiness stirred into the mix. Elvis Costello counted John Prine as an influence; like Jarvis Cocker, he employed a “horny nerd” persona in his songs. More than Jarvis Cocker, with his class fixation, Costello plumbed the depths of male emasculation in his songs. Costello made this a funny process— early songs like “Miracle Man,” “No Dancing,” and even the darkly mordant “Watching the Detectives” combined absurdist humor with formalist precision. From the same era, John Lydon’s vocal delivery often made the Sex Pistols funnier than rock scribes have previously suggested— Oliver Twists on a bunch of uppers.
Another common occurrence in rock is humor so dark it more or less disappears. When Courtney Love belts out “When I was a teenage whore/ my mother asked me, she said Baby what for?” she backs it up with enough deeply felt emotion that a strong signal is sent against laughter. Though it may seem outré to follow Hole with Steely Dan, does Donald Fagen plant enough sly humor in his songs with dark enough edges to make the comparison apt? Songs like “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Hey Nineteen,” and “My Old School” are parodies developed towards enough sophistication that you have to pay very close attention to the lyrics to realize that something (or someone) is being made fun of. The surface of the Dan songs is so slick and shiny that it would be easy to assume that there is nothing underneath. But the humor is subtle, rather than broad. And put together in such a way that Dan were never huge among adolescents. In fact, every writer engaged here is better appreciated by adults than adolescents, from Cocker and Prine to Courtney Love and Steely Dan. Adolescents generally have a better time with Spinal Tap. To the extent that there are bands in rock history (who shall remain unnamed) who come dangerously close to Spinal Tap territory, both in terms of thematics and self-presentations, everyone, adolescent or not, can tell what too much of a good thing is.