It was an old, old song, buried in history, emanating from that most reliable of sources: anonymous. At least that’s how it got started. It was one of those tunes that popped up in the ancient backwoods, or in lower-class taverns, a melody that was added to and amended due to its precise lack of ownership. Only a foolish hermit who needed to bolster his self-worth, who claimed inspiration from the Virgin Mary, would claim that the song had been stolen from him. It was everybody’s and nobody’s. It was underground, below the radar, and all those modern descriptions that would have made no sense to the acoustic bards. It was clandestine, as verses were added and dropped that skewered the clergy, the burgermeister, the gentry, or those same dirty whore-mongering faces that sat directly under the sway of the lute playing laureate. The tune would occasionally come close to expiration, but some desperate or savvy entertainer would take note of the charwoman whistling the catchy melody as she collected last night’s crumbs and revive the thing for the next generation until finally a composer supported by royal stipend would incorporate it into an opera. At that point, it had become five or six distinct songs, depending on when and where it was played and the size and skill of the orchestra. One could now only speculate as to how old the song actually was — a few hundred years or as primeval as Adam and Eve? The next big jump, as the song had been jumping from town to town, from country to country by foot or horse drawn cart, was to jump continents via an ocean liner, in crammed and festering third class compartments where it was most basically played to allay natural and man made discomfort. The song, or pieces of the song, then made the rounds of the new world ghetto and soon after, boarded a train for the coal mines, for the scrappy farms, ending up in a moonshiner’s cottage and on a cowboy’s saddle. It constituted culture in a society bereft of cultural pursuits, where the song and/or a plate of beans were equally incorporated into the everyday, a song to match the rhythm of digging a hole or darning a sock. It was at this point that the modern musical conveyance came on the scene, a machine that trumped the live, the actual, and reproduced, without variation, any particular song. Material was collected, songs were recorded, product was promoted, markets were carved out. Men and women who previously had relied on picking seasonal fruit or hauling a bucket of water suddenly realized they could make a stab at the hit record. That’s when the song was finally stolen, relegated to the specifics of ownership, a song that had previously been the common property of serf and landlord, of hardscrabble Negro and disbelieving Jew, a song that had landed on the plate of the perpetually famished as well as permeating the gilded confines of the palace. The song was committed to shellac and claimed by an agent. It became a regional hit, a modest enough investment that diverted money from the performers’ pockets into corporate accounts. After this outing, it was placed in a vault along side deeds to property, stock market bonds and cold cash, where it was eventually retrieved by yet another legal entity, someone who was looking for material for one of his properties, in this case a long haired, naïve beauty in black tights and turtleneck sweater who sat under a spotlight with a guitar resting in her lap. The agent was looking for “authentic” material, something to match the inherent talent and implied sincerity of his contracted performer. This entity bought the rights to the song, rewrote the lyrics, and hired an arranger who added melancholic French horn and piquant percussion to complement the languid vocals and de rigueur acoustic guitar of the agent’s designated performer. The agent then pitched the song to a major label, who after seeing the performer sing the song in a smoky, dank, basement coffee house, immediately signed her to a five year, three album contract. The song, as has been noted, now constituted five or six songs, given its different lyrics or breaks that had been added or dropped, and was variously known as, “The Woodman’s Complaint”, “New Boxford Reel”, “Boxford Rebels”, “The Death of Johnny Saint”, and “Saintlike Blues”. However, the title of the hit record that used the original melody and pieces of various lyrics was “Why Keep Me Down When I Rise In The Morning”. This was the only song (discounting the B side, a listless version of “House of the Rising Sun”) ever released under the performer’s name, and while the song took off into the stratosphere, heralding an unforeseen but highly lucrative tangent in pop music history, the performer, shortly thereafter, became a Born Again Christian and defaulted on her contract.
The Subjects first release was a double-platinum selling single that stayed in the top ten for nineteen weeks. The album sales remained flat, but the single showed no signs of falling out of the top forty even into the next year. The members of The Subjects were typical, white, working class young adults, residents of a satellite city that sat near a major American metropolis. They sported layered shag haircuts, crisp blue jeans and shirts that mimicked the jerseys of local sports franchises. They were all reasonably good looking, especially, as might be expected, the lead singer. The band had formed in the last year of High School, built around the vocal harmonies of the lead singer, rhythm guitarist and bass player. The song in question, the hit song, was predictably enough named after a former girlfriend, Kathy, changed to the catchy “Katy K”, whose story was extrapolated into the biography of a waitress at the local Holiday Inn, a single mother who many of the band members had slept with. The self same bar at the Holiday Inn was where The Subjects had honed their set list and, amazingly, been scouted by an A&R man from the subsidiary of a major label. The song, “Katy K”, was built around a canny, upbeat keyboard line followed by a nonsensical chorus of random, rhyming syllables completed by the entire band yelling, “Oh yeah!” When The Subjects entered the studio to record their follow-up, they had left behind the casual but well applied discipline of the previous session. They arrived with a handful of old songs that hadn’t made it onto the first album. The label had allotted 40 hours of studio time for the delivery of a full album. The producer was instructed to not tweak the sound too much but to make sure The Subjects pulled off another hit. The problem was that the left-overs were just that, songs that had been stuck in the back of the refrigerator in plastic containers that were reheated even though they had begun to collect mold. The producer tried combining one song with another, taking bits and pieces of two songs and combining it with a third, and finally, endlessly applying the ear-addicting chorus from “Katy K” (or parts of the chorus) to whatever song was at hand. To add to this dearth of inspiration, the band members had begun to feel the negative pull of fame, which soured the usual High School camaraderie. One or the other of the integral members would show up late or not at all. The second album was eventually completed, but far beyond the studio’s allotted time. It was immediately shelved, never to be released; soon after, their contract was terminated. One still comes across the insidious hook of “Katy K” being regurgitated over the sound systems of supermarkets, hotel lobbies, sports bars or even on the beaches of Acapulco. After their contract had been terminated, The Subjects toured the United States for a few years and then settled back into the Holiday Inn lounge where it had all begun, finally quitting music for good after a slow two year descent into oblivion. The small percentage that they had retained on the rights to “Katy K” provided the three songwriters with a modest income for the rest of their lives.
We were always arguing about whose band it was. The bass player had come up with the original name, had provided the initial riff for at least half the songs, but had been sidelined years ago by one or another asshole lead singer. The first was arrested for underage sex and the second stole all our material and started his own band, backed by members of yet another usurped band, in fact he had the clever idea of calling the band, “The Usurped”, sort of a new wave kind of thing. After going through three rhythm guitarists, the fourth one decided he was a lead guitarist, which entailed him having a fist fight on stage with the designated lead guitarist. We had to lay low for a while after that and all that time the designated lead guitarist kept insisting, “. . . it was my band anyway”. The only reason we didn’t break up was that the drummer provided a free practice space in one of the garages on his stepfather’s extensive compound. At least the rhythm section was relatively stable, which included myself on a slew of homemade percussion instruments. Even though I made it through every permutation of the band, I was basically considered expendable, a rinky-dink part of the ensemble. It was the guys upfront who were supposed to get all the glory. Anyhow, one day when the steadiest members of the band had been waiting at the practice space for a few hours, noodling on one riff or another, telling off color jokes about other band members or otherwise wasting time seeing as we had nothing else to do, we got a phone call from the current lead guitarist who told us he wasn’t showing up “because you suck”. We called the other absentee members who begged off, telling us they didn’t know we were supposed to practice. Of course the obvious question was, “Is this even a band anymore?” a phrase we began jamming on. We really didn’t consider it anything worth writing down, remembering, or continuing with. We were just playfully venting. But when the drummer’s stepdad, quite obviously blasted, burst in looking for a replacement part for one of his golf carts, muttering something about “e-z-go t-x-t 36 volt piece of shit”, his cadence, if not the actual words, provided the perfect break for our lackadaisical jam. We went home thinking nothing of it, but started working it up at the next full-fledged practice session. But here’s the kicker. The current lead singer, who decided, right then and there, to change the name of the band to a combination of his own and his girlfriend’s last name, and who insisted we go heavy metal due to its commercial potential, added the most bombastic, over the top lyrics about romantic anguish and how he was yet to receive his due. This was the only 45rpm we ever released and it didn’t go anywhere. It was only after a full decade, after we had all given up, gone straight or ODed, become diehard loners or members of an extended family, become reasonably successful or continued living from check to check, that the B side, an instrumental version produced and arranged by myself, became the holy grail of crate diggers everywhere. But really what put it over the top was when a TV network used it as the theme song for one of its late night talk shows. By then, the network’s lawyers, though legal back channels, had swept up the song and copyrighted it under the talk show host’s name. They did retain the original title, “E-Z-a-go-go”.
Motherfucker was one of the biggest pains in the ass in the neighborhood. Always stirring up shit. Once you saw his face in the crowd you’d be best advised to find another place to sit. A two-year prison stint didn’t do anything to cool him down, it wound him even tighter. His last couple of years on the street saw him ducking and diving, running out back doors, jumping out of cars to avoid the police or anyone who looked like the police. He had multiple warrants on his ass, parole violations and all that. But he still managed to stir up shit, shot some guy in the foot, got on the wrong side of the wrong people, crashed a couple of cars. Only way you’d want to be in the same room with him was when he was deep into the cough syrup, not seriously deep, but in that soft, velvety phase before he’d start yelling at the TV like it was someone who was passing judgment on his ass. In that velvety phase, dude was almost lovable, he couldn’t get a hard on. Bad boys like that do have a certain kind of vibe, a negative charm or something, otherwise he’d have been hung out to dry a long time ago. But most of them are dumb as shit, practically illiterate, couldn’t tell you the difference between A and B or right and left. But the story was, after the fact, that he had begun to read in prison, and read, of all things, poetry, and I’m not talking about commercial ditties or sentimental crap but that old classical shit, stuff from way over there, you know, about as far away from his turf as you could get. Story was, after the fact, that reading all that built up his rhymes more than actually making any kind of sense to him. He could only get bits and pieces of the thing but he picked up the flow, the rhythm. Some people boasted that his hit song was based on one particular poem by one of those geniuses who were all fucked up over the world, who walked around the countryside dressed in a cape versifying and then died of the flu or something. Well, his story, or the story they told about him, the story that made the rounds, was that he was holed up somewhere for weeks, squeezed between cops and criminals, and he wrote his hit song, well, the words to a song on the back of a Micky D take-out bag. He called it “The Rude Wind Is Slanging” and it told the story of his life. You wouldn’t have believed that the same person who wrote that masterpiece was the same asshole who forgot to turn the safety off his Glock before he pulled it out and pointed it at the local kingpin who’d been searching for him for weeks. I think you know the rest of that story . . . point is, the lyrics were passed from hand to poor ass hand until they landed at the feet of one of the biggest motherfuckers in music. And the rest is history.
Andrew S. Guthrie was born in New York City, lived for most of his life in Boston, moved to Hong Kong in 2005. He has been published online at Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Hong Kong Free Press, and Pop Matters.