Back in those days of yore when I reviewed contemporary music, I faithfully scanned the online shops every Tuesday for new releases in multiple genres. I don’t remember which album caught my fancy, but while listening to it I got bored and my eyes wandered down to the “Listeners Also Bought/You Might Be Interested In” section where I made first contact with Sexcapades. After scanning the track listing, I bought it without listening to a single song, for one very good reason: the album ends with a recording of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday Mr. President,” one of history’s most famous public attempts at seduction.
We’ll see Marilyn in all her seductive glory later in our program . . .
Being a lusty sort of gal myself, the subtitle “Songs of Love, Lust and Depravity” should have made my diddle go all a-twitter. Especially the depravity part. I admit I was delighted to see a woman pictured on the cover with a cigarette, the classic invitation to participate in naughty things even today in our health-Nazi infested universe. But despite the allure of the initial sales pitch, however, I was pretty sure the collection would turn out to be a ripoff, as are most come-ons emphasizing tits and ass (kudos to Lenny Bruce).
Because the digital edition came with no liner notes, I went ahead and purchased the CD as well, knowing that someday I would review this fascinating artifact of human culture. The liner notes were a bit skimpy, an adjective I later learned also applied to biographical information about several of the performers. The sales pitch on the back cover was worth the price of admission, though:
Fuel Records proudly presents Sexcapades, a curvaceous collection of the song stylings of bombshells, sirens and divas of the slinky, silky and come-hither variety. This sextastic compilation showcases some smoking hot mamas from the 1930’s through the 1960’s—from the subtle, seductive charms of Marilyn Monroe, India Adams and Diana Dors, and the risqué, bawdy saloon songs of Mae West and Sophie Tucker, to the striptease vocalizing of Gypsy Rose Lee and Faye Richmonde, and the blues queen belting of Alberta Hunter and Lil Johnson. Featuring 24 lava-hot songs of love, lust and depravity and a very sassy bonus greeting by zaftig goddess Miss Mae West, this delightful digitally remastered keepsake is gift-wrapped with plenty of vintage va-va-va voom, and offers a complete visual and audio experience that downloading simply cannot provide.
Here’s what we can deduce from the album’s marketing package, an effort led by one Athan Maroulis, a Brooklyn actor, vocalist and producer who also compiled the recordings and provided the artwork from his private collection.
- This collection is targeted at men who like broads with big tits: curvaceous, zaftig broads. Men whose mothers fed them formula.
- It’s also targeted at men who aren’t very picky. They’ll take a sassy babe, a silky slut, a slinky seductress and even a Shakespearean wench. Who the fuck else would say “come hither?” I’m going to try that tonight: “Come hither, wench, and apply thy lips of wine to the fountainhead of my unquenchable hunger.”
- You’ll notice there are three blondes and one brunette on the cover, reflecting the notion that men in general prefer their women dumb. As a blonde, I can get away with saying that.
- There are more images of scantily clad women elsewhere in the package, adding up to a grand total of 15 ½ broads displaying their wares (the half belong to a pair of legs that could be a nod to Betty Grable). There are 8 ½ images filling in the spaces on the foldout containing the track listing, and that’s when it hits you: of the 15 ½ images there isn’t a single woman of color in the bunch—despite the fact that eight of the twenty-four tracks feature African-American singers. This information gives us a more complete view of the target demographic: horny white racist males with adolescent-quality sex lives.
- The cover, liner notes and artwork are all in sync with one of the most common archetypes applied to women throughout history: Woman-As-Temptress. This myth tells us that goodness comes from the penis possessor and that all evil comes from the defective, second-hand creation called woman. We all carry with us the curse of Eve, whose crime as far as I can figure out was that she didn’t want to be stupid and obedient—she wanted a piece of that Tree of Knowledge. From that ludicrous tale with its heavily paternal god, women are expected to suffer through pregnancy and childbirth while serving under male rule, condemning half the human race to obedient stupidity.
I don’t know why anyone is surprised that I don’t want a fucking thing to do with religion.
While many of the songs on Sexcapades reinforce the temptress archetype, others reveal women who express more pride in their sexual power. Since you don’t see a warning to parents anywhere on the label, you can assume that those women express themselves in lyrics heavy on euphemism and in tones of nudge-nudge-wink-wink. I will disclose right here and now that I have a strong aversion to euphemism and any kind of indirectness in sexuality, which may color my opinions of some of the songs. Here’s my trusty, good old standby pick-up line when I meet someone I find appealing:
And here’s how I respond to men and women who find me attractive but beat around the bush:
If you want to fuck me, just fucking say so.
“Do those lines really work?” I hear you inquire. Not often. Usually the other party gets embarrassed and stammers some kind of half-assed reply. That’s fine with me, because why would I want to fuck someone who’s embarrassed by it all? My purpose in life is not to help you work through your insecurity about the size of your dick nor to help you figure out whether or not you really are a lesbian. There are therapists who can help you with those issues.
My point is those lines aren’t supposed to work. I’m not trying to “work” anyone. I believe the foundation of any good relationship is honest, authentic communication, right from the start. I don’t tease. I don’t seduce. I don’t play games. I present who I am in the moment and expect the other person to do the same. Hence my aversion to euphemisms.
I will admit that I do not practice such authentic communication in the workplace. I consider going to work an exercise in respecting the norms of an alien dysfunctional culture where honesty is considered taboo. One has to survive, after all.
And the women who appear on Sexcapades had to survive, too. Many of the songs depict Woman-As-Temptress, though you will hear a few women who dared to defy that sacred piece of crap. I also found plenty of examples of the other omnipresent theme regarding women in our male-dominated cultures: Women-As-Object. In a few cases, the women rejected that status, but in most of the performances, the women seem to accept their role as a piece of ass and do all they can to encourage the men to respond in kind. I say “seem” because music is part of the greater entertainment business, and most careers in entertainment do not end with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame or a Grammy for lifetime contributions. Most actors and musicians spend a good chunk of their lives in the unemployment line, scrounging for gigs and a few beers to live to fight another day. Artists always have to compromise, whether it’s to play roles they wouldn’t wish on their worst enemies, or to play music that makes them avoid looking in the mirror for weeks. Because so few of the women wrote the material they sang, it’s impossible to know how they really felt about it, or whether their compliance to inferiority was voluntary or reluctant. In any case, they have to take some responsibility for being willing victims; on the other hand, people have to eat.
The music in the collection is a mix of Vaudeville, “saloon songs,” “dirty blues” and “party songs.” The album covers for the original recordings—at least those released in the 1950’s and 1960’s—often feature a scantily-clad woman making goo-goo eyes at a potential buyer. In a few cases, the woman on the cover is the woman on the disc, but most of the time it’s a model, and as we’ll see a bit later, a very particular kind of model. Sometimes the models actually show their tits, a nice reminder that boobs once had different shapes and textures instead of today’s standard-issue silicon cannonballs.
And now . . . Sexcapades.
The Happy Whore: Marlene Dietrich, “I Am The Naughty Lola”: If you saw Marlene Dietrich’s name on the sleeve notes and hoped for a long-legged goddess in fishnet stockings, leather camisole and top hat wielding a riding crop on the stage at a smoky Berlin cabaret, those erotic fantasies are about to be cruelly shattered by an impotence-inducing performance featuring Marlene fully dressed in her winter dirndl. Gamely attempting to arouse the beer-hall crowd of fat cigar-smoking drunks, she plays the part of Naughty Lola, the neighborhood slut who spreads her legs for any man who shows up at her pad. With a nod to modesty or in consideration of her neighbors, Lola drowns out the grunts and screams of lovemaking by setting her pianola (player piano) on auto-mode all day and night. Her single act of assertiveness is a polite lesson in physiology that reminds her exclusively male customers that bang, bang, banging away has a fair shot of failing to make any contact with the female g-spot:
Now I tell you a secret
Don’t hammer on the keys
For a little pianissimo
Is always bound to please
That’s one teeny-weeny baby step for woman, one giant leap for Google searches on the word, “pianissimo.”
The No-Bullshit Broad: Sophie Tucker, “There’s No Business Like That Certain Business”: She called herself “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas” and no one disputed that. The Beatles introduced a performance of “Till There Was You” by playfully attributing the song to “our favorite American group, Sophie Tucker.” Sophie Tucker was a force of nature, and nothing—not the death of Vaudeville, not her gradually shrinking vocal range—could stop her. This piece, a spoken-word narrative written by longtime collaborator Jack Yellen (who brought us “Happy Days Are Here Again”), is an answer song to the Irving Berlin classic, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Sophie begs to differ:
There’s no business like that certain business
That’s the biggest big business of all
Railroads, motors, steel and banks, with all their cash and checks
Why, they’re pikers compared to what the public spends on sex
Sophie continues to apply the business metaphor throughout the piece, an approach that may trouble some listeners but actually has the beneficial effect of removing the stigma attached to open conversation about sex. And why not? We all know that sex is the number one preoccupation of the human mind, and as Sophie reminds us, sex sells:
According to records which I have in my possession,
It’s the only business in the world that has never had a depression
There are references throughout the song to the more formal business called prostitution, a profession Sophie views as a completely natural outcome of the laws of supply and demand. There’s nothing in this piece that the prostitute rights organization COYOTE would dispute; as founder Margo St. James once said, “to make great distinction between being paid for an hour’s sexual services, or an hour’s typing, or an hour’s acting on a stage is to make a distinction that is not there.” Sophie rejects the simplistic notion of prostitute-as-victim, identifying independent sex workers as entrepreneurs who see an opportunity and decide to exploit it (“Hotsy-totsy babes discovered there was gold in them dark thrills/That’s when the government began to print two-dollar bills”). Later in the song, Sophie offers dicks-for-brains johns a friendly piece of consumer advice:
But I get the blues when I get the news that I’m sure is shocking all girls
About how much those suckers and schmos are handing out to call girls
Five hundred dollars—why that’s all out of range!
If those guys had brains they’d make those janes kick back 498 dollars in change
It’s absolutely scandalous, a downright shame and a crime
Oh, when I think about what I gave away in my time!
If the business is ever incorporated be sure to buy some shares
On the dividends from my boyfriends alone you’ll all become millionaires
The piece is a certified hoot, and one of the few honest pieces in this collection.
The Cunnilingus Connoisseur, Kansas Katie, “Deep Sea Diver”: Our first dirty blues performance comes courtesy of Ethel King, aka Kansas Katie, whose entire recording career consisted of this one song. I couldn’t find a scrap of information about her anywhere, so I’m going to assume she found a way to please her deep sea diver and spent the rest of her life in a state of perpetual ecstasy:
My man’s a deep sea diver, got a throat that can’t go wrong (2)
He can dive to the bottom and his wind holds on so long
He came home one evening with his spirit way up high (2)
And what he had to give me made me wring my hands and cry
Katie was so excited that she spilled the beans to her girlfriend Lu and learned that her deep sea diver had applied tongue, lips and throat to Lu’s nether regions as well. Although it looks like Katie is about to bemoan the oat-sowing tendencies of the male half of the species, she winds up taking a far more sensible approach to adult sex . . .
Well it’s getting so now you can’t have no (one) man for yourself (2)
So you might as well be practical and give the other half to someone else
. . . leaving no doubt in your mind that this song was written by a man.
This song brings up a curious difference between the two traditional genders—in my experience, women are much more likely to talk to other women about their sexual experiences whereas men are much more guarded and rarely say much beyond “great tits,” “nice ass” or “she’s a scratcher/screamer.” And women just don’t talk about it—they share all the delightfully gory details. “His come was kind of chunky.” “Eeeew!” “He gave off this weird aroma when he started to sweat.” “Eeeew!” “He had a curved dick that kept slipping out when he went for the deep thrust, then he had a hard time getting it back in.” “That sucks.” I’d like to know if the women out there have noticed the same tendency or if what’s really happening is that once other women are confronted with my complete openness on sexual matters that they see me as some form of sex therapist.
I’d make a great sex therapist—I’d just fuck all my patients and give them a money-back guarantee that they’ll walk out a lot happier than when they came in. What? That’s unethical? Abuse of power within the context of the therapeutic relationship? What a world . . .
My Hero: Mae West, “My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)”: She was a strong woman who could hold her own with any man. She was a playwright whose Broadway play Sex was shut down when harried city officials worried about the upcoming election had the cops raid the theatre after three hundred seventy-five packed performances. Arrested and charged with obscenity, she declined the opportunity to pay the fine and spent eight days in jail, allegedly in silk underwear, correctly deducing that a jail sentence would result in more positive publicity (it did). Undaunted by the jailbird label, she followed up Sex with The Drag, a play that dealt openly with the taboo topic of homosexuality. Although financially successful in the sticks, the play never made it to Broadway due to pressure from the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Still, Mae West established herself as a feminist, an advocate for open conversation about sex and a supporter of gay rights . . . not in the 1960’s, but in the 1920’s.
She made the switch to film and became the classic Hollywood icon, a scene stealer par excellence. The yellow inflatable life-preserver used by pilots in WWII was nicknamed “The Mae West” in honor of her fabulous rack. Initially she refused the offer to appear on the cover of Sgt. Pepper, forcing The Beatles to call her directly and plead for her permission.
But as much as I love, admire and respect Mae West, this cover of Trixie Smith’s original is positively dreadful. The original is a fascinating minor blues number in the vein of “St. James Infirmary” depicting an extended lovemaking session organized by a striking clock. In Trixie’s version, the clock strikes one, three, six and ten and ends with Trixie crying “Glory! Amen!” The contrast between the mournful music and orgasmic revelation enriches the song—the words she sings reflects enjoyment but the musical mood indicates that Christian-induced guilt has put a damper on her good time.
By contrast, Mae’s version is a two-chord bore with a big band making a piss-poor stab at rock ‘n’ roll. Mae being Mae, the clock strikes one, two, three and four, five-six-seven, eight, nine and ten, culminating in a Broadway-like “ta da” that falls flat despite Mae’s best vocal sequence. She might have been better served had Mr. Maroulis pulled something from the three rock albums she released in her seventies, on which she covered classics like “Day Tripper” and “Light My Fire” as well as one-hit wonder songs like Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right” and Ian Whitcomb’s “You Turn Me On.” At least on those albums she works with a real but not very good rock band with real guitars that they don’t play particularly well, but . . . oh, fuck it.
Woman as Griot: Clara Smith, “It’s Tight Like That”: We finally get a first-class vocal performance from Clara Smith, a superbly earnest blues singer from the 1920’s who sang with such luminaries as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. “It’s Tight Like That” also appears on The Essential – Clara Smith and Volume 5 of her complete recordings. The song dates from her peak period from 1927-1929, and it’s another certified hoot! Clara opens by apologizing for giving her listeners a piece of the dirty blues (“Listen here, folks. I’m gonna sing a little song/But you mustn’t get mad, I don’t mean no wrong”) then takes us through various scenes where the problem is some kind of tightness in different forms—an unused pussy, an overused pussy, or a pussy drawn tight by bedbugs in the whorehouse. Clara is a powerful but sensitive singer with marvelous sustaining power, but what I really love about her is that she sounds like plain folk. In the last verse she gives us a little bit of folk wisdom, using the tradition of anthropomorphism common in folk tales:
Oh, the little red rooster said to the hen:
“You ain’t laid an egg in I can’t tell when.”
The little red hen said to the roosta:
“You don’t come around as often as you used ta.
Now it’s tight like that. A long delay
Makes it tight like that. Hear what I say.
Hear me talkin’ to you.
I mean it’s tight like that.”
That’s much more poetic than “fuck her every day or bring plenty of lubricant.”
Woman as Play-Doh: Ruth Wallis, “Soft As A Kitten”: Hey, Mr. Maroulis! Are you telling me this is the only material by The Queen of the Party Song you could get your hands on? Did you even bother to look at the list of musical numbers that appear in Boobs! The Musical: The World According to Ruth Wallis? Did you even know there was a musical—a very successful musical that ran for years in New York and beyond? No “The Hawaiian Lei Song?” No “Hopalong Chastity?” And no “Johnny Has a Yo-Yo” for chrissake? In protest, I am inserting the first verse lyrics to that masterpiece of sexual discovery:
Johnnie’s got a yo-yo
He got it from his dad
He always lets me play with it
It’s the best toy I ever had.
He never lends it out to any other kid in town
Cause I’m the only one who knows how to get it up and down.
Ruth Wallis had a thousand good days as a purveyor of the risqué and ribald . . . but what we get here is her one really bad day. In “Soft as a Kitten” she takes on the role of a woman with zero self-esteem, completely dependent on a relationship with a man to give her life meaning. And Ruth being Ruth, she gives it all she’s got, begging, pleading and debasing herself in an intensely uncomfortable display of worthlessness:
Want me strong as Gibraltar, that’s how I’ll be
Want me weak, I’ll be as weak as a cup of tea
Want me calm as the sunset, restless as the sea
Just tell me how you want me, that’s how I will be
Yecch! I need to take a shower! People! If your partner doesn’t want YOU, don’t pour yourself into the Jello mold! The only way to please your partner is to please yourself by being yourself!
Ruth has no one to blame for this one but herself, as she actually wrote this turkey. For a more modern and richer take on the experience of shape-shifting into the girl your intended wants you to be, see The Sugar Stems’ “The Greatest Pretender” from their Can’t Wait album. Besty Heibler nailed that one.
Woman as Secret Agent: Dinah Washington, “My Voot Is Really Vout”: This is Dinah Washington in 1947, the missing year between her time with Lionel Hampton and the beginning of her breakthrough in the R&B charts that would carry her through much of the 50’s and eventually into the pop charts once white people started getting over some of their hangups.
Based on the evidence before me, I have concluded that in 1947—the year that marked the beginning of the Cold War—the real Dinah Washington must have been kidnapped by Soviet agents for a brief period, because the woman on this record sounds nothing like Dinah Washington. Further evidence of Russian perfidy comes in the form of her version of “Since I Fell for You,” also recorded in 1947. THAT’S Dinah Washington, dammit! She has a full, rich voice with impressive range! The vocally-challenged bimbo who sings “My Voot Is Really Vout” is clearly an impostor! Somebody call Robert Mueller and demand he investigate! American singers were hacked!
And I have no idea what the fuck it means when someone’s voot is really vout. From the context of the lyrics, I assume it means she’s got a great fuck move or a particularly luscious honeypot, but that’s pure speculation. Remember, the 1940s’ were a weird period in music, a time of happy and even silly songs blasting over the airwaves while half the human race was trying to kill the other half. I’m just going to write this off as a naughty version of “Mairzy Doats” and move on.
Woman as Dick Tease: Kay Martin, “I Know What You Want For Christmas (But I Don’t Know How To Wrap It)”: Kay Martin was working as a model in Phoenix when she hooked up with a couple of guys named Bill and Jess to form an act they called Kay Martin and Her Bodyguards. The two pictures I’ve seen both depict the bodyguards protecting her with rapiers, an interesting gimmick that no doubt added to the pre-existing allure of a steamy platinum blonde with a nice rack and a rather disarming, pleasant singing voice:
Kay and guards played the circuit in the 50’s and early 60’s, most notably as regulars in the late-night/early morning spot at the Sahara in Vegas. The group released several “party albums,” often live recordings of their Vegas shows.
“I Know What You Want of Christmas (But I Don’t Know How to Wrap It” is probably her most famous work, and rightly so. It is simply The Greatest Dick Tease Song Ever Written.
Kay approaches the vocal with a girlish sincerity spiced with a touch of wickedness, accompanied by what sounds like a cheesy organ but in all likelihood is an amped-up accordion. Kay’s basic problem is she can’t figure out how to wrap a Christmas gift for her sweetie, and understandably so:
I know just what you want for Christmas
But I don’t know what to put it in
I’ve got a lot of fancy wrappings
But don’t know where I should begin
I need one hand to wrap with
Another hand to clutch it
It wriggles and it squirms
It even tickles when I touch it
I know just what you want for Christmas
But I don’t know how to wrap it, Dear
Aha! Sounds like pussy to me! The next verse seems to confirm our initial hypothesis:
It should be in a pretty package
Unwrapping it is so much fun
It won’t be a surprise
It should be a delight
It’s the same one you played with
Last Saturday night
As if you needed any more confirmation, Kay gives you definitive proof!
You’re really gonna get it Christmas
Because I got the Cadillac
I don’t know how I’m gonna wrap it
May give it to you in a sack
I bathed it and powdered it
And sprayed it with perfume
You may even have to chase it
All around the room
I always bathe and perfume my nether regions before fucking, so this sounds like the real deal. Daddy’s gonna get some poontang!
I know just what you want for Christmas
But I don’t know how to wrap it up
Your little Cocker Spaniel pup!
Wait a minute. She gets a Caddy, stimulates his production of testosterone to the point that his higher brain functions have completely vanished and inspires a hard-on that is now a stuck compass pointing in only one direction . . . and all he gets is a fucking puppy?
I hope Kay brought her Bodyguards to the unveiling.
Woman as Maniac: Myrna March, “I Leaned On A Man”: Myrna March was a gorgeous redhead, model and minstrel of the risqué in the 1960’s, and fully admitted that her impressive cleavage opened doors to opportunities. “I was always large breasted,” she said. “A 39 D. When I sang and modeled, my breasts opened doors. I got jobs because of my talent, but I got auditions because of my breasts.” Tragically, breast cancer claimed both her breasts; incredibly, she married a male ob-gyn who also developed breast cancer. In a feature in a New York Times exploring this unusual but still very loving relationship, Myrna reflected on the strange power of tits in human culture: “Gradually I realized how much our society overvalues breasts,” she said. “They are used to sell cars, but what’s their purpose? Even to suckle babies, there’s now formula.” Her husband, she said, “had long ago made me realize that the most important of the sexual organs was the mind.”
Amen, sister, amen.
While I feel for Myrna’s plight, I have to put that aside when evaluating her contributions to music history, and what I have to work with is “I Leaned on a Man.”
This one gave me nightmares.
First, there’s Myrna’s voice. I thought Ethel Merman was the dictionary definition of loud-and-brassy, but Ethel is a gentle flute compared to the power of Myrna March. One of her albums was entitled, “Explosive Vocal Percussion,” which pretty much sums it up. You can turn down the volume to its lowest level and Myrna will still come through, LOUD and clear.
After a dramatic orchestral opening that reminds one of the introductory music to The Jetsons, Myrna takes full control. In this piece, Myrna doesn’t just double down on her vocal wattage—she triples down by thoroughly dominating the center of the soundscape with the lead vocal and adding stereo call-and-response overdubs in her own voice. It looks like this:
I leaned on a man who told me to call him friend
Call him friend!
The basic story is Myrna bitching about how men are undependable wimps with either limp constitutions or limp dicks (“I found me a man I thought I could trust at last/I found me a man but he bent like a blade of grass.”) The call-and-response vocals drip with sarcasm, bitterness and manic depression. On one channel, Myrna sounds completely unhinged, and on the other channel, Myrna is . . . well . . . the image that comes to mind is from an old Dragnet episode where Jack Webb and Harry Morgan show up at a cheap L. A. apartment and the woman who opens the door is all decked out in a ratty bathrobe, a head full of curlers and a cigarette with an inch-long ash dangling from her lips. “Yeah? Whaddya want?”
After repeated experiences with lying cheating bastards who can’t get it up for her, Myrna has fucking had it, and engages in some self-reflection:
I said to myself, “A woman must stand alone.
The girl who will last is the girl with the will of stone”
Sometimes it was rough, but I never gave in
Til I met The Devil and wrassled with sin
I burned and I bent like the flame of a match in the wind
Uh oh! I see where this is headed . . .
So I called on the Lord and the Lord said we’ll have a talk
If you lean on me, woman, you’ll find that I’m like a rock
Pay heed to me stranger, whoever you be
Lean on the Lord and you’ll find out like me
He stands like a rock
Why don’t you have a talk with the Lord?
Oh, for fuck’s sake. You had a soft spot for losers, you blame them for acting like losers and then you turn to the Lord to show them a thing or two? Do you really think they’re going to give a shit? Sorry, but I’ll pass on the offer to pay heed.
“I Leaned on a Man” came from the soundtrack of a film called “The Big Land,” which the Los Angeles Times described as “about as plodding as a western can get and still be called one.” Shockingly, this silly piece of Christian propaganda was covered by none other than Connie Francis.
Woman as Entrepreneur: Georgia White, “If I Can’t Sell It I’ll Keep Sittin’ On It (Before I Give It Away)”: This is an old song that has been covered by many women, most notably the great Ruth Brown. While Georgia White sings it with gusto, this is hardly the version you’d want on an album called Sexcapades.
The narrator is the owner of a second-hand furniture store who encounters a customer interested in the chair on which the narrator’s butt happens to be perched. Georgia White plays it straight and refuses to sell the chair for the ridiculously low price the buyer has offered. So, she sits on the chair. End of story.
Are you hot yet?
Ruth Brown was the better salesperson, a savvy entrepreneur who remembered the all-important mantra—sex sells:
Now, how’d you like to find this waitin’ at home for you every night?
Only been used once or twice and it’s still nice and tight
But if I can’t sell it, I’m gonna keep sittin on it
I don’t see the need to give it away
Right on, sister!
Woman as Sociopath: Blue Lu Barker, “I Feel Like Layin’ In Another Woman’s Husband’s Arms”: There are really only two questions you can ask when confronted with this song’s title.
What the fuck? Why would you want to do that?
Blue Lu never explains herself. She just wants to do it. The repetition of “lord, lord, lord” after she sings the title line indicates she’s aware that her thoughts are sinful, but she wants to go for it anyway. Blue Lu wants to lay in another woman’s husband’s arms, have him rock her to sleep, get up and fuck to the sunrise. Not only does she refuse to back down from this curious challenge she set for herself, she lets us know she’s absolutely serious: “And I mean it, I feel like layin’ in another woman’s husband’s arms.”
How serious was Lu? She wrote the fucking thing!
The anonymity in the song is what is really terrifying—any husband of any woman will do. Again, why would you want to do that?
Folks, I thought I’d practiced every fetish known to the human race and a few more, but this . . . this is just fucking weird.
Advice for the Lovelorn: Sadie Banks, “Give It To Him”: Our second Jewish mama advocates a different approach to heterosexual interactions than the one espoused by Sophie Tucker: give it to him!
Now men can get women galore and a woman who says no gets her guys sore
So if your man wants a little bit more, don’t be stingy
And whether you’re fat or whether you’re slender, as long as you’re sweet and tender,
Let him know that you’ll surrender, let him have it
I think I get it . . . because women are the less desirable gender they have to make themselves useful to the more desirable gender by giving them unlimited access to their nether regions. But what if I’m not in the mood?
Every man I have acquired loved to know he was desired
And even when I was too tired—was I an actress!
Hah! Sarah Bernhardt had nothing on me!
So, ladies let this be understood—don’t lay there like a chunk of wood,
Especially if your man is good—give it to him!
While I love Sadie’s hard Brooklyn accent, she can take her advice and shove it up her ass.
Woman Debased: Little Esther, “I’m A Bad Bad Girl”: This sleazy blues number is the strongest expression of the Woman-As-Temptress archetype on the album. Little Esther plays the role of the wicked woman who breaks up a marriage only to find out that the guy she stole is a two-timing bastard. Classically, she blames herself for the mess and sits silently in self-debasement as the man in question (“probably” Clyde McPhatter, according to the liner notes) steps up to the mike and lays down the law:
Listen little Esther
You made me leave my home
You know that I’m no good
And everything I’ve done is wrong
Now you tried your best
To get rid of me
But I’ve got news for your baby
Cause you’ll never be free
Little Esther gives in, and the song ends on a duet where they both accept their status as evil human beings who were meant to be together.
Too bad they cut the song off before showing the part where he comes home from carousing, blames her for his own lack of moral character and beats the living shit out of her.
The Goldbricker, Gypsy Rose Lee, “I Haven’t A Thing To Wear”: For those of us who live in a time where strippers and pole dancers have limited fame and “can make at least $40,000 in a good year,” it’s hard to get our heads around Gypsy Rose Lee’s legendary and lucrative career. Consider this factoid from Wikipedia: “In 1940 she purchased a townhouse on East 63rd St in Manhattan with a private courtyard, 26 rooms and seven baths.”
Try to tell me sex doesn’t sell! She earned all that dough during The Great Fucking Depression!
“I Haven’t a Thing to Wear” is one-half of a conversation Gypsy is having with one Mr. Bixby, the sugar daddy who keeps her in furs and a Manhattan penthouse. He invites her to spend some time in his country estate, an offer she politely declines because “I haven’t a thing to wear.” What she means by that is that while she has a closet full of sable, she doesn’t have pearls to match, and while she loved the diamonds Mr. Bixby provided, diamonds go with mink, not sable. Adopting the attitude of an aggressive kitten with claws at the ready, Gypsy reminds him that the rent is due and threatens to answer the doorbell “though I haven’t a thing to wear.” At that point, a cornet plays a sleazy little riff and Gypsy cries, “Oh, Mr. Bixby!” indicating Mr. Bixby has caved.
I have a really hard time with this song. I realize that there is a long history of female dependence on male economic power and that many women have sought out partners primarily on the basis of a prospective partner’s balance sheet. Stories like the one told here reinforce the validity of dishonest manipulation, turning devious women into heroines because they’ve put one over on the powers that be.
So, yeah, sex sells. And that’s really sad.
Woman as Poor Substitute for a Souped-Up ’57 Chevy: Helen Humes, “Drive Me Daddy”: Helen Humes was a talented and versatile vocalist who sang with jazz greats like Count Basie, Harry James and Teddy Wilson in the 30’s and 40’s. And believe you me, she sounds ab fab on this track, accompanied by Buck Clayton’s All-Stars, a changeable assortment of top-flight jazz musicians.
But jeez, the lyrics are so fucking dumb I want to scream:
All I need is real good drivin’
Just ignite me with your key
Just ease down on my clutch
And let my motor run free
Now keep me goin’ baby
‘Cause I’m never out of gas
Just as long as you can drive me
That’s as long as I can last
Hey, baby, don’t waste your time objectifying me—let me do it for you!
Woman Taking No Prisoners: Juanita Hall, “I Don’t Want It Second Hand”: The strongest track on the album also features a woman giving the strongest message.
Juanita Hall was a Juilliard-trained singer who hit it big on Broadway, especially after Rodgers and Hammerstein chose her for roles in South Pacific and Flower Drum Song. In 1958 Juanita decided to record a blues album and managed to engage an outstanding group of jazz musicians, including Coleman Hawkins, Claude Hopkins and Buster Bailey. All three are featured in the instrumental passage here, and they are fabulous.
But this is Juanita’s show, and her rich, commanding voice dominates the proceedings. She takes this old blues piece and turns it into a timeless anthem for relational honesty—and though her language is politically correct, the message is strong and clear:
I want every bit of it or none at all
‘Cause I don’t like it second-hand
I want all of your loving or none at all
Give me lots of sugar and hold my hand
I like my loving both night and day
Won’t stand no cheatin’ that’s why I say
I want every bit of it or none at all
‘Cause I don’t like it second-hand . . .
I want all you got to give or none at all
Love me plenty—that’s a command
I like my loving when the lights are low
When I want it baby, don’t say no
Yeah, baby! I’m sure when Juanita and her partner get down and dirty she’ll have a few more specific instructions, but these few words of clarity should be more than sufficient to educate even the most oblivious gentleman on the planet as to what Juanita wants and the bullshit she won’t tolerate. If the gentleman accepts the offer, they can now explore what he wants from the arrangement and arrive at mutually satisfying agreement.
It’s called adult communication, people!
Ready to Spread Myself Like Warm Peanut Butter: Faye Richmond, “Come Up and See Me Anytime”: Faye Richmonde spent a grand total of one year in the adult music business—a very busy year at that. According to Discogs, Faye starred on three albums, all produced in 1957: For Men Only, A Little Spice and Girlesque. She also released a single that year, the truly horrifying “My Pussy Belongs to Daddy,” in which she describes a very young girl telling her playmates that her pussy belongs to her father. In the last verse, the girl adds the appendix “cat” to pussy, which I guess was the signal to the listening audience that it was all a joke.
Jesus Fucking Christ.
All the album covers feature a model in varying degrees of exposure—a little nipple action on one, an ass shot slightly obscured by a filmy negligée on another, and the more revealing package featured here:
So here we see Faye looking like a 50’s Playboy bunny, the girl next door who likes to have a little fun . . . except that’s not Faye Richmonde. That’s not Faye on the other album covers either. We see one redhead, one brunette and one blonde and none of them are Faye Richmonde. Theoretically, even with the primitive hair coloring options available to women in the 1950’s, Faye might have been able to pull off three different looks. But even if she had convinced record company owner and long-time “race records” purveyor Joe Davis that she was willing and able to do it, there was one part of her body she couldn’t change—her skin. Faye Richmonde was black, and in a still half-segregated country with plenty of state laws on the books forbidding mixed-race marriage, black skin was the kiss of death when it came to selling to the dominant white demographic.
The history I was able to dig up on Faye Richmonde tells us she and her brother won a jitterbug contest, hooked up with a band, and Faye wound up singing for the band when the singer fell ill. Joe Davis probably hired Faye because he couldn’t afford anyone else. She earned $250 for each of the three albums, an expense that record sales failed to cover. Jet Magazine reported that she died of complications arising from the birth of her third child in April 1959.
In “Come Up and See Me Any Time” Faye plays the role of a woman advertising her 24/7 availability to her lover, promising him a good time in her “crazy pad,” ya-da-ya-da-ya-da. Same old submissive shit we’ve heard on many of the tracks on Sexcapades.
So, you have this young black woman getting her one chance to make a real record, and a producer hoping to capitalize on the market for adult material. She had to know that she would never be able to perform the songs in public, and that the chances of a mainstream outfit hearing her work and signing her to a contract were next to zero. Still, I can empathize with her naiveté and her desire to dream . . . it just sucks that she never really had a chance.
I’m going to forgive Faye for this one.
Woman Humiliated, Alberta Hunter, “You Can’t Tell The Difference After Dark”: This one breaks my heart.
Alberta Hunter had an extraordinary long and relatively successful career as a jazz and blues singer and songwriter, performing well into her eighties. “You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark,” recorded in March 1935, may or may not be one of her creations . . . but I think I’d feel even worse if she were the songwriter.
The woman in the song has run into a problem attracting potential sexual partners, and tries to come up with reasonable arguments to overcome the objections of potential suitors.
Look what the sun has done to me
It seems there’s no more fun to me
Why must all the boys act so shy?
I have guessed the reason why
I may be as brown as a berry
But that’s only secondary
And you can’t tell the difference
I may not be so appealing
But I’ve got that certain feeling
And you can’t tell the difference
They say that gentlemen
Prefer the blond-haired ladies
Tell me am I out of style
Just because I’m slightly shady?
Alberta’s tone is rather light-hearted, as if she’s shrugging off the stigma of her skin color as a minor inconvenience. Her banter with the piano player (“Look out, Fats Waller”) confirms that light-heartedness. Alberta happened to be a pro when it came to dealing with oppression, as she was not only African-American, but also a lesbian who spent most of her life in the closet. What breaks my heart here is the self-debasement—the need to apologize for a skin color that violates the white ideal, the shame attached to a hereditary feature that automatically forces you into justifying your existence as soon as you are old enough to have any contact with white society.
Racism is a fucking outrage.
Woman as Instruction Manual for Dummies: Lil Johnson: “Press My Button (Ring My Bell)”: I’ll give Lil Johnson credit here—this is a song loaded with euphemisms, but at least these euphemisms don’t require you to overwork your noggin trying to figure out what the fuck she’s saying:
Come on, baby, let’s have some fun
Just put your hot dog in my bun
And I’ll have that thing
Just press my button, give my bell a ring
Later she encounters impotence, and shows no sympathy whatsoever!
Now, tell me daddy, what it’s all about
Tryin’ to fix your spark plug and it’s all worn out
I can’t use that thing
I been pressin’ your button, and your bell won’t ring
Hear my baby, all out of breath
Been workin’ all night and ain’t done nothin’ yet
What’s wrong with that thing
I been pressin’ your button, and your bell won’t ring
Lil sings this sucker as if she’s ready to crack-up at the drop of a hat, and Black Bob Hudson’s barrelhouse piano adds to the good-time feeling.
The Fashion Fetishist: India Adams, “It’s Silk”: The relationship between women and the garments they wear is a complex topic, and one of greatest gaps in the culturally-imposed gender divide. While there are men who qualify as clothes-hounds, male fashion choices are fairly simple and rather limited, and really, most men pay very little attention to the way they dress, especially in comparison to the extensive efforts made by women. We girls have been culturally indoctrinated to give greater importance to the way we look, and to pay close attention to the way other women look. Sometimes that attention is empathetic, and sometimes it becomes competitive and snarky, but the snark usually fades when we become full-fledged adults.
Can I explain it? No. Can I explain why I have 21 pairs of shoes? No. Just deal with it.
Sometimes the focus on clothing becomes something of a fetish, which brings us to India Adams. India was a “ghost singer” in the 50’s and 60’s, providing voice-overs for movie musical actresses who couldn’t sing to save their lives. She moved to the U. K. in 1965 and built a pretty successful career that continues to this day.
India wouldn’t have landed the ghost singing gigs that jump-started her career if she lacked acting talent, and her ability to mold herself into the role is on full display in “It’s Silk.” Over one of those odd backgrounds where the studio band attempts to apply modern jazz values to a musical number and fails miserably, India thrills to the touch of soft, sensuous silk, firmly rejecting a rayon substitute in favor of “the McCoy.” The tease in the song comes from India’s anxiety that the silk may be so slick it may slip off and expose her luscious privates.
What I find most curious in this piece is the pairing of the opening and closing lines:
Opening: “There’s nothing like a new dress to make you feel like a new man.”
Closing: “There’s nothing like a new man to make you feel like a new dress.”
We’ll reject the possibility that the first line describes a cross-dresser, for cross-dressing in the 1958 was limited to a small group of female impersonators. Given India’s impressive cleavage, I’m going to go out on a limb here and interpret the opening line as a visual come-on intended to increase blood flow to the penis. The closing line, therefore, is the age-old game of dressing to the nines for the new guy, a form of female manipulation that nearly always impresses the male who’s dumb enough to think he deserves the gesture. Little does he know he’s becoming entangled in those evil feminine wiles and will spend the rest of his life vainly trying to balance his checkbook after Lucy buys another dress she doesn’t really need!
Show Me You Love Me, Slap Me Around: Jayne Mansfield: “That’s Makes It!”: Jayne Mansfield’s contribution to the collection is an answer song to The Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace.”
It sure took Jayne a long time to come up with an answer. “Chantilly Lace” hit the charts in 1958. Jayne didn’t record “That Makes It” until 1964.
It all makes sense when you listen to “That Makes It,” where Jayne accentuates the dumb blonde archetype to the nth degree. She coos. She giggles. She squeals. And she’s a fucking idiot:
Nothing in the world,
Means more to a girl,
Than a man who’s cool,
Really knows how to rule.
The way he keeps me in line,
Makes me feel so fine.
Baby, cat, that makes it!
One of my roommates in college was an Oklahoma girl, a devout Christian who disappeared on Sunday and whenever we pulled out the booze and grass. One day we got into a conversation about marriage and I asked her what she wanted in a marriage partner. In addition to the obvious (male, man-who-walks-with-the Lord, wants a big family, doesn’t smoke-drink-fool-around), she said she wanted a man who “will keep me in my place.” I looked at her with utter astonishment and, ignoring her standing request to watch my language, asked her, “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” After scolding me for my language, she explained that all women are weak and easily tempted by the Devil, and it’s a man’s responsibility to make sure that a woman stays to the strait and narrow. “And how does a man do that?” I asked. “Well, if I did something that displeased the man, he should give me a good spanking, or maybe a slap when I say something evil.” “You mean turn you over his knee, like they used to do with little kids?” She laughed at my astonishment and said, “That’s his right. That’s the burden the Lord requires him to carry—to watch over his woman.”
I don’t think Jayne Mansfield was a devout Christian, but since the source of all female oppression is one form of religion or another, Jayne qualifies as an unwitting but willing apostle of male dominance.
Woman as Outlook Calendar: Diana Dors: “Come By Sunday”: On the other end of the spectrum, we have Diana Dors, tagged as the British answer to Marilyn Monroe but who began her career as a promising actress before turning her life over to a cad who exploited her natural sexuality and left her flat broke. Diana was hardly an innocent in the story of her degradation, allowing the cad to lend her out to producers for casting couch sessions in the hope they would be inspired to skip the audition. Later she would host adults-only parties at her home, where she was alleged to have placed movie cameras in the bedrooms so she could enjoy a private porn festival the following day in the comfort of her own home.
And people think I’m a pervert . . .
Despite her flexible moral code, Diana Dors was not at all dumb, possessing a sharp wit and a modicum of writing talent. She was also a decent singer; the song we have here is from her one and only full-length album, Swinging Dors.
In “Come By Sunday,” Diana plays the role of an extraordinarily busy woman receiving a request from an unidentified male to squeeze him into her schedule. Without a hint of a British accent and accompanied by a full band, Diana recites her plans for the week in her pleasant voice, ranging from working late Monday night to a Thursday night taffy pull to “balling about”(dancing, not fucking) on Saturday night. The reference to a taffy pull should have given the guy a clue that he was low-p, but she agrees to have him over for tea on Sunday.
And that’s it. The only sex you’ll find here is on the album cover . . . particularly if you’re into exceptionally tacky fashion design:
The American Dream: Marilyn Monroe: “Happy Birthday Mr. President”: There has probably been more written about the suspected relationship between JFK and Marilyn Monroe in the last fifty-five years than world hunger, global warming and nuclear proliferation combined.
Based on that assertion, I’ve been looking for a London bookie who will take my bet that the cockroaches and ants will defeat Homo sapiens in the Evolutionary Derby.
“Why the fascination with this storybook relationship?” I’ve often asked, answering my own question in the question itself. JFK and Marilyn represented the storybook American man and woman. He: full of vigah, confident, smiling, handsome, courageous, in charge. She: vivacious, sexy, deferential and willing to play the dumb, desirable sexpot, a woman who knew her place. Both were intensely photogenic and the objects of many dreams and fantasies.
As is usually the case, the images were total bullshit. JFK suffered from multiple infirmities ranging from a bad back to Addison’s Disease; Marilyn was actually a rather mousy looking girl who underwent a magical transformation thanks to healthy applications of bleach and coordinated makeup. Both maintained the façade through heavy use of various medications. JFK was indeed brilliant, but his image as a man of culture is overstated—Pablo Casals and his attendance at symphonies were Jackie’s ideas. Marilyn was far more cultured, far more well-read when it came to literature, and anything but a dumb blonde.
So, did they do it? Despite all the “investigations,” there is no conclusive evidence one way or another. There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence based on stories shared by those who claimed they were close to one or the other, but those stories are more likely to have their origins in the pursuit of the almighty dollar and fifteen minutes of fame.
Do I think they did it? Hell, yes! One thing we do know is that both JFK and Marilyn were two of the horniest people who ever lived. Marilyn did Joan Crawford, for fuck’s sake! JFK did . . . well, pretty much every woman who happened to drop by the White House. The pairing was inevitable.
I’ve read various accounts of what actually took place on May 19, 1962, when Marilyn wowed the crowd (and no doubt the president) with a steamy, sensuous version of “Happy Birthday.” Marilyn was drunk! Marilyn had to be sewn into her dress! It was all a diversion—she was really having an affair with Bobby!
I don’t buy the drunk story, don’t care about the dress story, and don’t know what to make of the Bobby story (nor do I care). After viewing the film of her performance several times, there’s no way in hell that Marilyn was not in full possession of her faculties. Her late arrival on stage was obviously deliberate. She sings with command. She hits her cues. She remembers the lyrics. She knows exactly what she’s doing—she’s trying to seduce the president!
When Marilyn Monroe was introduced she at first failed to appear. The spotlight shone but she was not in it, offering a comedic take on her well-known tardiness. Then when introduced a second time, she suddenly stepped into the light and skittered across the stage to the microphone. With the entire Garden now riveted, she removed her coat to reveal a dress so tight that Adlai Stevenson said it looked “like flesh with sequins sewed onto it.” Monroe jauntily flicked a finger against the microphone, testing it, then looked out into the darkened arena with a hand raised like a visor shielding her eyes. At last she began to sing, in a soft, cooing voice, what became an unforgettable rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” She sang slowly, luxuriantly, flashing a smile now and then, and sliding her hands sensuously up her body along her hips stopping just shy of her breasts.
Levingston, Steven. Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle over Civil Rights (Kindle Locations 3934-3940). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.
As for JFK, he handled this crisis in his typically cool manner, relying on his intelligence and wit to defuse the effect of the inevitable gossip that would have followed such blatant flirtation.
Though it seemed to last an eternity, her song was brief, and when it was over, President Kennedy hopped up a small flight of stairs to the stage and made his way to the microphone to raucous applause and cheers. The president, a slim figure in a dark suit, unflappable and charming, tilted his head and quipped: “I can now retire from politics after having had ‘Happy Birthday’ sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.”
Levingston, Steven. Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle over Civil Rights (Kindle Locations 3941-3944). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.
Whatever and whenever it happened, I hope they had the time of their too-short lives.
Despite its racy sales pitch and suggestive cover, Sexcapades is not the least bit titillating. None of these songs would ever appear on one of my infamous fuck playlists. Many of the songs have no discernible groove at all, and as Duke Ellington so beautifully observed, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Many others fall into the category of “cute,” and while “cute” may be acceptable at Disneyland, it has no place in the adult boudoir. In the final analysis, Sexcapades has very little to do with sex.
Sexcapades is really a chronicle of all the shit that women believe they have to do to survive in male-dominated cultures. It gives women a series of possible answers to the question, “How do I manipulate a man to give me what I want?” The stories in Sexcapades tell us that women want a variety of things from men—money, security, sexual satisfaction, fidelity, validation—and reduces all male motivation to one thing and one thing alone: sex. If you use Sexcapades logic, you can get pretty much anything you want from a man if you just “give it to him” the way he likes it. Problem solved!
Sexcapades essentially reduces human beings to their lowest common denominators. Yes, there are some men who think only with their dicks. Yes, there are some women who see relationships as a game where she who manipulates best comes out on top. For the most part, though, people have all kinds of feelings concerning sexual intimacy and those feelings change with time and experience. Most people feel uncomfortable talking about sex openly, even with their partners, which makes understanding those feelings all the more difficult. There are people like me for whom sex is both a passion and an art form who talk about it as easily as we talk about the weather; there are people who feel uncomfortable with the topic and prefer more subtle communication; and yes, there are people who don’t care about sex at all. Sexcapades reinforces the old notion of sex as a game, regurgitating stereotypes about men and women that have weakening validity in the world today and contribute mightily to sexual miscommunication. Despite its presentation as something “naughty,” Sexcapades is really a very conservative statement supporting traditional, binary relationships and the notion that you have to manipulate others to get what you think you want.
And though the songs on Sexcapades are relatively ancient, we still have a majority who think in binary terms, we still have women who play the game (now armed with boob jobs and inflated lips), and we still have men who believe sexual assault is a God-given right. Sexcapades is hardly old history; it is the timeless distillation of the manipulative, ugly and absurd actions human beings take in pursuit of sexual gratification.
Which begs the question—is that how we really want to act when we’re dealing with something as precious as love?
I’ve been keepin’ up with the goin’s-on over yonder in my ol’ neck o’ the woods, and I do declare, y’all are sure riled up about this Trump feller!
Now, I don’t mean to cause y’all any conniptions, but gettin’ madder than a wet hen ain’t gonna do you much good. Gettin’ your feathers ruffled over a guy who’s too big for his britches don’t make a lick o’ sense. Makes as much sense as tits on a bull! ‘Bout as useful as a steering wheel on a mule!
Back when I was knee-high to a grasshopper and used to pitch a fit when things didn’t go my way, my mama coulda tanned my hide but good, but instead she give me a piece of advice I can recall to this day. Mama told me that the only reason folks get angry is cuz they have these things called expectations, see? And when folks don’t live up to expectations, a hissy fit don’t make a whole lot o’ sense because t’ain’t their fault that you expected them to act one way and they went all cattywumpus on you.
The way I see it, this no ‘count Trump feller is doin’ ‘zactly what y’all should have expected him to do. Y’all knew he’s got the heart of a thumpin’ gizzard! Y’all knew if brains were leather, he wouldn’t have enough to saddle a junebug! Y’all knew he’d piss on your leg and tell y’all it’s rainin’! If y’all thought different, well, you don’t know dipshit from apple butter! Gettin’ your knickers in a knot ain’t gonna change things one lick, no sirree!
Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit, but I got just the thing to take that burr out of your saddle! You see, back in the old days when we had a Georgia peanut farmer sittin’ in the White House, a group of young ‘uns down yonder in that there Peach State started makin’ music that made people happier than Ol’ Blue layin’ on the porch chewin’ on a big ol’ catfish head. Now, truth be told, they let a couple of Yankees into that group, but I’ve lived long enough to know that folks is folks, and y’all shouldn’t give a hoot or a holler about that. So, set yourself down right here on the swing, pour yourself a nice cool glass of sweet tea, give these kids a listen and I guarantee that you’ll be grinnin’ like a possum eatin’ a sweet tater faster than a one-legged man in a butt-kickin’ competition.
I am now one of those foreigners Americans love to loathe, and I know that Americans have always had a hard time taking advice from foreigners. For just one moment, try to remember me as the girl you used to know—the one who follows baseball religiously, loves no culinary delight more than a cheeseburger and a chocolate malt and who has spent more time in the Love Shack than Pamela Anderson.
Here’s my advice about how to survive Trump: you could learn a lot by listening to The B-52’s, especially Cosmic Thing, one of the greatest comeback albums in history and a valuable lesson in human resilience.
When the B-52’s hit the scene in the late 70’s with their bouffants, passion for kitsch and a sound somewhere between girl group, surf and cheesy sci-fi, they were just what a world suffering from high inflation and energy earthquakes needed. They were a gas! Fuck this malaise shit, let’s slap “Rock Lobster” on the turntable and dance all night! The B-52’s were also unique, featuring two girl singers in Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson whose style mingled the best of the Shangri-Las with a touch of Brenda Lee, and a frontman in Fred Schneider whose sprechgesang fell somewhere between carnival barker and endlessly upbeat but down-on-his-luck used-car salesman. It doesn’t sound like that combination could have worked in any alternate universe you care to name, but it did, and The B-52’s took flight.
They continued on a strong trajectory with Wild Planet, where they gave us the marvelous “Private Idaho” and two brilliant theatre-of-the-absurd pieces in “Quiche Lorraine” and “Strobe Light.” An unfortunate detour involving a collaboration with David Byrne led to a truncated third studio effort, and their fourth album, Whammy! lacked the punch of the first two. They had just finished recording their fifth album—the surprisingly gloomy Bouncing Off the Satellites—when tragedy struck.
Ricky Wilson, the talented lead guitarist whose experimental tunings and love of classic reverb tone contributed significantly to the band’s signature sound, died of complications related to AIDS at the age of thirty-two. He hadn’t told anyone about his illness except fellow bandmate Keith Stickland—not even his bandmate sister, Cindy—so his death was doubly shocking. His death occurred at the height of the AIDS hysteria, when AIDS sufferers were treated like lepers and public sympathy for AIDS patients and their acquaintances was in short supply. The combination of shock and grief sent the band into seclusion for two long years. They needed those two years to work through all seven stages of grief; had they come back too early out of a sense of obligation to fans or in an attempt to use music to take their mind off the tragedy, I doubt very much if their output would have come close to what you hear on Cosmic Thing.
What you hear is the one quality that distinguishes great records from so-so records: total commitment. On Cosmic Thing, The B-52’s held nothing back, and the energy in their performances makes you want to join in, sing along and shake your cosmic thang. After the failed Byrne experiment and the tragic loss of Ricky Wilson, The B-52’s had to find themselves again, and as was true for dear Dorothy, there was no place like home. Fred Schneider observed:
When we started writing for that album, we realized that a lot of the songs seemed to hark back to our roots, the time spent in Athens. It was a way to reassert who we were and why we got together in the first place.
And they reasserted themselves with a vengeance.
The festivities get off to a roaring start with “Cosmic Thing.” After the shortest drum roll in history, Fred Schneider enters with a voice tinged in reverb, a megaphone like-effect that gives his vocal the quality of one of those shitty announcers on late night TV commercials selling magical junk guaranteed to solve your non-existent problems for $19.99 C. O. D. It’s the perfect introduction to a delightfully wacky journey that pokes fun at the ridiculous notion that higher consciousness is a platonic, puritanical experience:
I was havin’ this out-of-body experience
Saw these cosmic beings
Everywhere I went up there, they were shakin’ their cosmic things
Of course they were! As superior beings, the aliens must have already figured out that the drive of the species to procreate can be channeled into to the much more fulfilling, consciousness-raising experience of non-stop fucking, and we should all be grateful that The B-52’s were kind enough to share this vital knowledge with us! Here’s all we have to do to accelerate of human evolution:
You better shake your . . . honey buns! Shake your honey buns!
Shake it till the butter melts, shake it till the butter melts
Shake that cosmic thing, shake that thing, shake it, ohhhh yeah!
Shake that thing all night long, shake it man you can’t go wrong
Don’t let it rest on the President’s desk, rock the house!
The performance can best be described as a gradual build in the level of ecstasy, with Fred Schneider’s arousal levels eventually hitting peak intensity and the gals filling the spaces with screams, war cries, whoops and their typically spot-on dual phrasing. Keith Strickland had traded in his drum set for a guitar and had worked hard to learn some of Ricky Wilson’s stylings—and it pays off here in a surf-influenced solo that would have made Dick Dale proud. As an album opener, “Cosmic Thing” is a triumphant shout to the listening audience—“We’re back!”
“Dry County” follows, a more laid-back number with a lounge-like tempo reflecting memories of life on a hot summer day in Georgia. The problem is that this lounge is in a dry county with nothing stronger than the official Georgia State Drink of Coca-Cola. When the girls show up kicking up the stones on the passway in anticipation of a good time, there’s nowhere to go, no way to escape the dusty heat and nothing to do but sit on the porch and . . . swing. Sounds fucking lovely. I do love the vocal arrangement, particularly the synchronized glide of the voices on the word “swing” and the complex call-and-response in the song’s fade, but “Dry County” reminds me why I’ve sworn never to visit the South in summertime—been there, done that, screw that.
A more vivid and interesting recollection of Athens, Georgia arrives in the form of “Deadbeat Club.” Keith Strickland talked about it in an interview with Spin magazine, as reported on Songfacts:
In the early days, we all used to sit around like this, just hang out, drink coffee and talk. It was sort of Cafe Society in Athens. It looked like we never worked or did anything, and friends of ours would say, ‘Oh, you’re such deadbeats.’ So we’d joke about ourselves being the deadbeat club. When I played the music for Fred and Kate and Cindy, everybody just started singing about the deadbeat club. That’s what the music evoked in them, when in a lot of ways that’s what I was thinking when I wrote It. And I didn’t tell them that I was thinking a lot about Ricky. They just picked up on it. It was very spontaneous. It’s really one of the most autobiographical songs we’ve ever done.
I love the process: Keith came up with the music and the singers allowed the music to reveal what was flowing through the shared stream of consciousness. You can hear the synchronicity in the vocal performances, which evoke sweet memories of those long conversations young adults have before the economic system takes over and sucks up all their time. The various haunts they frequented in Athens take on a special meaning, and it’s obvious from the vocals that the girls cherished those places, that period in their lives and their identities as social outsiders, free of expectations and obligations:
Going down to Allen’s for
A twenty-five cent beer
And the jukebox playing real loud
We’re wild girls walkin’ down the street
Wild girls and boys going out for a big time
We’re the deadbeat club (deadbeat club)
Compared to other areas of the country, it couldn’t have taken much to earn the designation “wild girl” in the South of the 1970’s; the South has always been the most conformist part of the United States. Still, history records that Athens was the center of the musical explosion that made a major contribution in creating the genre we now call “alternative rock,” and the presence of a major university and its proximity to Atlanta almost foreordained Athens to serve as a center of Southern counterculture. In the stultifying atmosphere of traditional Southern culture, breaking free must have been a glorious experience, captured here in the song’s beautiful, triumphant chorus:
Any way we can
We’re gonna find something
We’ll dance in the garden in torn sheets in the rain
We’ll dance in the garden in torn sheets in the rain
In the rain
I just love that imagery—nipples and asses revealing their tantalizing shapes through the soaked sheets, music filling the air and the incredibly appealing idea of doing something just for the hell of it, for no reason other than . . . it sounds like fun! Deadbeats, my ass—these people are fucking alive!
And dancing in the rain is a great way to get yourself in the right frame of mind before you head on down to the Loooooove SHACK! Baby, if you can’t get your mojo going when you hear the opening beats of “Love Shack,” get your useless ass to the nunnery and lock the door behind you! I don’t think there’s any way you can’t get up and dance to “Love Shack”—it’s like it hits every dance-sensitive nerve in your body, transforming your voluntary muscles into involuntary captives of the groove. And better yet, the three vocalists give it their all throughout the song, encouraging even the klutziest dude in the joint to give it a go. The intro is absolutely fabulous, especially when Fred announces, “15 miles to the . . .” and Cindy Wilson finishes the line like an excited kid who just found out daddy’s taking her to Disneyland: “Loooooove SHACK! Love Shack, yeah, yeah.” The excitement continues when Kate steps in with the verse, soon joined by Cindy in a duet that shakes with excitement:
I’m headin’ down the Atlanta highway
Lookin’ for the love getaway
Headed for the love getaway
And while the girls continue to croon and swoon over the “love getaway,” Fred Schneider reappears as the caricature of the gloating American male, his big car a substitute for his small dick, his environmental obliviousness on full display:
I got me a car, it’s as big as a whale
And we’re headin’ on down to the Love Shack
I got me a Chrysler, it seats about twenty
So hurry up and bring your jukebox money!
The B52’s may very well be “The World’s Greatest Party Band” (according to their website), and if they are (I won’t argue), it’s because their songs are often peppered with subtle jabs at the absurdities of American culture, and they know how to pull that off without ruining the vibes.
Two passages in particular stand out as examples of musical excellence: the first begins with Cindy Wilson taking over and delivering the “glitter lines” in a low register:
Glitter on the mattress
Glitter on the highway
Glitter on the front porch
Glitter on the highway
Editorial aside: if you’ve never thrown glitter on the mattress, do it! Prep the room with soft candlelight and as your bodies gyrate and cover themselves with bits of glitter and the light captures flashes of color on warm skin . . . wow, fucking wow!
Cindy’s interval leads straight to another belt-it-the-fuck-out version of the chorus, and when Fred shouts, “Love Shack, baby!” the temperature goes up another few degrees as we come to understand that the Love Shack isn’t one of those No-Tell Motels where slimy people cheat on their spouses, but a spontaneous orgiastic experience driven by music:
Huggin’ and a-kissin’
Dancin’ and a-lovin’
Wearin’ next to nothin’
‘Cause it’s hot as an oven
The whole shack shimmies when everybody’s
Movin’ around and around and around and around
The second passage of note comes after the horns collapse, like someone let the air out of the musicians’ lung balloons. This is the classic bring-it-down-a-notch technique used in every dance-friendly genre since the beginning of time, from Glenn Miller to Little Stevie Wonder to the J. Geils Band. The B-52’s execute this passage with perfection, refusing to take it down too far and kill all the excitement—just a few bars before they explode with the high-volume repetition of “Bang, bang!” loaded with all the sexual connotations of that phrase. Neither of these passages would have been so memorable without a solid foundation, and interestingly enough, it’s not so much the rhythm section that keeps “Love Shack” moving as it is Keith Strickland’s guitar—a cascade of classic rock guitar licks executed with rhythmic perfection. If my rather tedious words haven’t painted a vivid enough picture for you, check out the video—Kate and Cindy shake their tits with pride, like every strong, shameless woman has the right to do without some jerk interpreting it as an invitation:
Stewart Mason of AllMusic described “Junebug” as “the sexiest song they’ve ever recorded” and opined that “‘Junebug’ sounds like a couple have slipped away from the love shack to indulge at a little private canoodling at the river’s edge.” Shit, do any of these mainstream critics ever listen to the songs they review? Or read the fucking lyrics? The first verse clearly obliterates any connection to the Love Shack:
She’s the wildest hon in the wild kingdom
She’s the wildest thang to float down
Well there’s alligators and razorbacks,
But I don’t care, I like to go down tubin’ with you, Junebug
The simple fact that the couple “go down tubin'” indicates that they’re most likely teenagers, and teenagers will fuck anywhere their parents can’t find them (“Let’s glide behind a wall of vegetation/I don’t want no prying eyes on a love celebration!”). And when I say anywhere, I mean ANYWHERE:
Hey there Junebug, you sure look good dancing in the mud . . .
In the red mud!
Mosquitoes and water moccasins, ‘gators and crocodiles
June’s imagination really drives me wild!
Do you get it yet, Mr. Mason? The girl’s name is June, she’s hotter than fuck, and her horny toad of an admirer calls her Junebug (an oddly affectionate term, since the junebug is a big, fat dumb insect that can hardly fly straight). Either June is so hot or this guy is so horny that he’ll fuck her in the red Georgia clay while mosquitoes feast on his exposed ass and nearby reptiles gather in anticipation of a hearty meal. Being quite the pervert myself, I hate judging people based on what gets them off, but getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and alligators is not my idea of a good time! No, sir, “Junebug” is a song about uncontrollable teenage hormones, nothing more, nothing less.
What I find most fascinating about “Junebug” is that it’s the first song that came together after the band’s hiatus. The song is hardly formulaic, and one would have thought that the band would have chosen something more straightforward to get their chops down before taking on what ends up as a relatively complex arrangement with an open-ended melodic line. The highlight of the song is the long fade where Keith Strickland rocks out on guitar and the singers engage in the go-go-go-go/whoa-whoa-whoa call-and-response to mirror the overwhelming sensations of a hard-and-fast fuck that is so intense that neither party gives a shit if their last contribution to the human race is to serve as crocodile bait.
You may have discerned from my comments on “Junebug” that I’m not particularly fond of natural environments, and if you read my review of Woodstock, you are aware that I thought about turning my father over to Child Protective Services for having the gall to take me camping. Based on those two pieces of evidence, you would likely conclude that I would loathe a song that celebrates “dancing down those dirty and dusty trails” and encourages listeners to “rocket through the wilderness.”
Wrong! “Roam” is one of my favorite songs ever, the only song that makes me yearn to own a convertible someday so I can take it out on the open road with the top down and sing this sucker at the top of my lungs.
The angelic opening passage presages a religious experience, and though I’m technically no longer an American, I fully embrace the true American religion of the open road. What I love about “Roam” most of all is that its message isn’t limited to the interstate highway system or bounded by the procedural and soon-to-be physical walls that mark the borders of the USA. It’s about exploring the world beyond those borders—not through packaged tours or planned itineraries or wealth sufficient enough to allow you to keep your distance from those weird foreigners who can’t even speak English—but exploring the world with nothing more than curiosity and companionship:
Fly the great big sky
See the great big sea
Kick through continents
Take it hip to hip, rocket through the wilderness
Around the world the trip begins with a kiss
Roam if you want to
Roam around the world
Roam if you want to
Without wings, without wheels
Roam if you want to
Roam around the world
Roam if you want to
Without anything but the love we feel
The song is a pièce de résistance for Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, arranged so Kate takes the first verse, Cindy the second and both sing in unison on the third. The way they shift in and out of harmony is mesmerizing, and the inspired, amazing falsetto harmony on “to-ooo” in the chorus always sends shivers up and down my spine. The feel of the song is loose and relaxed, with a nice easy groove accentuated by hand claps that like so many B-52 songs send you catapulting out to the dance floor. And while you’re out there having a good time rocking out to the music, take a minute and just imagine Kate & Cindy as co-Secretaries of State, instructing U. S. ambassadors and consular staff to approach foreign relations “without anything but the love we feel,” and try to tell me the world wouldn’t be a much safer, happier place than it is today.
“Bushfire” deals with heat and resistance—sexual desire and the weird instinct that warns some people away from realizing those desires; “the smoke in your eyes” (great harmonies there) that smolders but never explodes into fire. We’ve all had partners who couldn’t get wet or couldn’t get it up, and in most cases, the problem is in the head, not the hormones:
My mind’s been going places without me lately.
I need your arms to take me down, take me to the ground.
But I hold back!
I’ve heard all the reasons why the fire doesn’t kick in. It’s too hot in here. It’s too cold. I had a bad day at work. My hemorrhoid is acting up. I had too much to drink. I didn’t have enough to drink. You’re too aggressive. You don’t seem interested. You’re too pretty. You’re intimidating. These are all excuses, for while there can be physical reasons for a sagging dick or a dry twat, people usually can’t get it going because they’re afraid to let themselves go. The song leaves us in that unresolved tension, as it should: there’s nothing you can do if a person chooses to stay in their head instead of taking advantage of the precious opportunity to get their rocks off. File them away under Dumb Shits and move on to a more compatible partner.
“Channel Z” was the big underground hit of the album, scoring points with hipsters who were somehow offended by the success of “Love Shack” and “Roam.” We’ll leave the discussion of the fragile identities of self-styled sophisticates for another day and extol the song’s virtues without getting hung up on such nonsense. With its relentless beat reflecting the steady drum beat of bad news, “Channel Z” reminds us that the recent obsession with “fake news” only serves to mask the truth that the news hasn’t been worth following for decades. The big networks figured out long ago that fear and disaster result in a ratings spike, so they pluck the scary shit out of the news feed then hire alleged experts on the topic to make sure we really freak out and keep tuning in to learn how we’re all going to die. “Channel Z” is the American version of “London Calling,” and instead of impending famine, nuclear threats and rising rivers, the worries here include PCB’s, space junk, the polar shift, waste dumps, irradiated food and the market crash of 1987. Here The B-52’s take it one step further by identifying the obsession of the news junkie as an untreatable addiction:
Gotta tune in, pico waves, gotta tune out, PCBs
Gotta tune in, market crash, gotta tune out, polar shift
Gotta tune in, narrow minds, gotta tune out, space junk
Gotta tune in, bombs, gotta tune out, atomic lasers falling from the sky
My favorite part of the song is when the music suddenly stops and we’re treated to rising scale harmonies on the word “free” before getting sucked back into the relentless beat of the news cycle that attacks any attempt to make the world a better place.
In contrast, “Topaz” imagines a future where “We’ll walk in ecstasy/Clear planet blue and green.” The music has a light, feathery quality about it, creating a mood of peaceful optimism and reverence for the world we inhabit. The girls’ voices on this one are exceptionally beautiful, gliding effortlessly over the supporting beat with delectable harmonies. The fade is structured so the background music fades first, leaving the girls to sing a cappella for one sublime moment. My only criticism is that the a cappella segment should have been extended for several measures—the sound of their conjoined voices is so beautiful that I feel I could listen to them forever.
The album ends with “Follow Your Bliss,” a pleasant, reflective instrumental piece marked by Keith Strickland’s Duane Eddy-style guitar that serves as a touching and fond farewell to Ricky Wilson. We only get two brief moments with the girls and their lovely voices, little touches that make you crave more but still leave you thankful for what you had.
“Follow Your Bliss” is a phrase borrowed from Joseph Campbell, whose book The Power of Myth had been covered by Bill Moyers in a PBS special that aired in 1988, a year after Campbell’s passing. In this excerpt from the interview with Moyers (thanks to the Joseph Campbell Foundation website), Campbell explains what it means to follow one’s bliss:
If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.
Cosmic Thing was the direct result of four very talented people following their bliss. When you listen to Cosmic Thing, you hear their joy in finding that bliss—in the music, in the lyrics and especially in the remarkable level of collaboration that guided them every step on the way. These were people who had gone through a very difficult time but simply had to put themselves “on a kind of track that has been there all the while” and live the life they deserved to live. Cosmic Thing is a timeless reminder that we all have the capacity to follow our bliss, and that we can have more of an impact on the world by doing so instead of wasting our energies on anger and resentment.
Y’all hear that, America?