Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The greatest (darkest? most disturbing?) noir song ever

I've posted often about crime songs, but not until tonight did I hear the greatest noir song ever.

The song was written and produced by three of the more celebrated names of the rock and roll era and recorded by a wildly popular girl group — in 1962.

So why had I never heard it until 10:30 on a Tuesday night in 2010, when many of us have had oldies shoved down our throats almost all our lives? Maybe because I'm not as cool as I thought I was. But maybe because of good, old-fashioned, do-gooding American censorship. Fear of the truth. Misconstruction, deliberate or otherwise, of protest as endorsement. Or maybe the subject matter is just too upsetting for people to deal with, and damn it, can I blame them?

This may be the most chilling recording I have ever heard. Listen, and tell me what you think.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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74 Comments:

Anonymous Elisabeth said...

“…replied, with complete sincerity, that her boyfriend's actions were motivated by his love for her.” Because even in this post-Women’s Movement time there are still many girls/women who say this about the sadistic behavior of their lovers/boyfriends/husbands, it’s perhaps not a bad thing the song is seldom given airplay. It could serve to reaffirm these women’s painfully distorted view of their situation. A sort of backwards anthem. I have read of young girls proudly displaying the bruises given them by their brutish boyfriends, showing them off like my generation used to do with hickies!

But of course the beaten woman who refuses to take it anymore has been grist for many a crime writer’s mill.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's why I amended my post to add "who could blame them?" Though that excellent Carole King and Gerry Coffin clearly intended the song as chilling portrayal, there is that risk that some will take the song the wrong way.

The beaten woman who can't take it any more is a familiar figure and easy to root for. This song is apt to induce more complicated reactions.

I called it a great noir song because that doom to which the narrator consigns herself is as chilling as anything David Goodis of Jim Thompson ever came up with. That she welcomes that doom is what makes it noir. Otherwise it would just be hard-boiled.

January 27, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"That she welcomes that doom is what makes it noir. Otherwise it would just be hard-boiled." As a woman, it's difficult to even read such a coldly clinical (if apt) analysis of the song.

Peter, you probably remember that Arnaldur's "Silence of the Grave" had the story of a battered wife at the center of the investigation of a 60-yr-old crime.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know that I've read a more heart-rending crime novel than that.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not entirely comfortable discussing the song that way, either. It even feels odd to say one of art's possible roles is to make an audience squirm. That feels rather detached.

I'm just trying to figture out why the song hit me the way it did, right in the solar plexus, the way some noir does.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It may be grim irony, to say the least, that Phil Spector produced the Crystals' recording of the song.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I'm pretty sure nobody reminded Spector of that during his trial.

That is grim. I've never heard King mention co-writing that one, perhaps for good reason.

January 27, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

How men and women "hear" that song from the perspective of their sex is interesting in itself.

Most men, like most women, are outraged by domestic violence. Yet it sometimes seems a small miracle that more men, considering the strength provided for them by testosterone, aren't thugs and brutes.

There are many crime stories of men, either as detectives investigating the death of a murdered battered woman or as an angry friend/lover, who seek retribution for the woman. And a number of revenge-the-woman tales can be found in Norse and Native American legends (among other traditions, I'm sure).

Yes, I noticed the Spector connection, too. The flip side of this song could be Spector's far more encouraging "The Chapel of Love." But then maybe THAT was the A side, and he began beating her after they got married...

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But the song has to add to one's respect for Carole King's depth as a songwriter. I read a mention of Neil Diamond on another blog tonight, and I was going to reply that Niel Diamond was no better that the second-best songwriter of the Brill Building's late period -- the best being Carole King.

I knew what a range of '60s standards she had written, and I looked her up to see what gems I'd missed or might not have known were hers. That's when I found this song.

And listen to the production. That would be astonishing today, never mind for 1962.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Donna said...

Brrrrr - that's really chilling. I can't imagin ever playing that one - makes me feel very uncomfortable. My favourite noir song is the Violent Femmes' Country Death Song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lwj5_SNWYc8

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, it has to be of interest that a woman co-wrote the song, and maybe of special interest that she wrote with her husband. If men and woman hear the song differently (and I don 't doubt that this is the case), one might wonder what each writer's contribution was.

I knew Phil Spector was supposed to be a pretty egotistical guy, but until the case that landed him in prison, I don't remember ever hearing anything about how he treated women. His production on "He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)" sets a mood perfect for the song, though.

Man, I am amazed it ever got recorded and played at all.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Donna, I had not heard "Country Death Song." It's nice and country-creep, I'd say.

The name Violent Femmes is a sure sign, if one didn't know it already, that the band came from a time when popular art had moved from embracing shocking images and idead to embracing them
ironically. And irony makes everything easier to deal with.

There is nothing ironic about the names "Carole King" or "The Crystals." The very innocence attached to the names makes the song hit harder than any of the many noir songs that have come up in previous discussions. It makes me uncomfortable, too.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Donna said...

Totally agree with you on the irony/innocence thing. That's why I love listening to Country Death Song but don't want to hear that Crystals track again. Generally, music makes me feel happy or relaxed or comforted or uplifted, or...all sorts of pleasant feelings. That one certainly didn't

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Donna, I wonder if Carole King or Gerry Goffin ever thought of writing a noir novel.

The song reminded me superficially of two more recent songs: "Luka" by Suzanne Vega and "What's the Matter Here?" by 10,000 Manianca. The second was made hard to take by Natalie Merchant's humorless hectoring, but am I remiss in hearing a certain pretiness in both songs (especially in Vega's chorus), or had times simply changed enough to make a pop song about a grim subject more acceptable in the 1980s or '90s than in 1962?

January 27, 2010  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

I was aware of this song and share the unease. One has to assume that Goffin/King did not intend to endorse the sentiments expressed, but the unease comes, in part, from the playing with genres. When Randy Newman sings 'In Germany Before the War' or Richard Thompson sings 'Killing Jar', we accept that these are only personae adopted for the song. But this is a commercial song - written and produced for a group who were themselves, arguably, largely a construct of the music industry and we're left unsure of the motives of the various parties involved. In this context, it's not a little chilling to note that Spector claimed that Lana Clarkson 'kissed the gun' that killed her. I wonder if it's too far-fetched to suggest that, in part, Carole King might have intended this also as a comment on exploitation in the music industry? Well, probably.

That last thought was brought to mind partly because the song's title was used for an extraordinary show/exhibition in the UK Manchester International Festival last year. The show was based round a film by the remarkable documentary maker Adam Curtis (worth having a look at some of his work on YouTube or the like if you haven't come across him, Peter), and used the song's title as a metaphor for the seductive and destructive power of the American dream from the 1950s onwards. The tone of the film is pure noir.

January 27, 2010  
Anonymous marco said...

Violent Femmes?

"There's nothing worth living for tonight
Tell me that there's something worth living for tonight
Don't let me down
Don't let me drown
The pain is somewhere very close to me"


My favourite noir song is probably Field of Glass by The Triffids. Many of their songs are contenders: In the Pines, Bright Lights Big City, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, Mercy, Trick of the Light, Everybody Has To Eat, Jerdacuttup Man... the list goes on

Apropos noir, I've just received your New Year gift. Thanks!

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Goodness, that title alone ... Utterly chilling. I'm almost afraid to play it on my computer without headphones, worried someone will come by and wonder what the heck I'm listening to.

January 27, 2010  
Anonymous marco said...

And, talking of chilling:

Sister Ray - Velvet Underground

Frankie Teardrop - Suicide

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Bill Crider said...

You never heard this one before because you're a whippersnapper. It did get some airplay in the '60s, but not as much as other Crystals hits. It was creepy even then. It's been included on several collections on CD.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, at least until recently, any song you or I were likely to hear was at least in part a construct of the music industry -- brought to us courtesy of a record company. Genre may be more pertinent in this case.

I don't know the songs in question, but I know something of their singers. Randy Newman often has a mocking, satirical edge, and Richard Thompson can sound like a folk singer even when he's singing material of his own composition. (None of this is to discount the impact of his songs. In fact, that's part of their power.) But satire and folk provide a kind of distancing. We expect exaggeration in satire. We expect a folk (or folk like) song to a haunting exception to everyday life. But no one expects anything like this from a girl group in 1962. Had the song been narrated by a woman in Weimar Berlin or the English countryside in the Middle Ages, it might have been just as brutal as the Crystals' version, but it likely would have been less shocking.

I don't know Adam Curtis' documentary, but I suspect the exploitation of something so direct and brutal for metaphorical purposes would leave be uneasy and, perhaps, blunt the song's effect. Ah, you mentioned that the show used the song's title, not that it used the song itself. Yes, that's a testament to the title's power. And that title itself is shocking, never mind the song. The article to which I link in this post gives other uses of the song and the title in popular culture.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, I still haven't gone back and listened to all the songs from previous crime-songs posts, much less this one. I still say that no title is a shocking as "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)."

But you have to understand that I become aware of the song's existence maybe twenty minutes before wrote my blog post. Let's see if the song retains its power with the passage of time -- say, another twenty minutes.

What's so shocking? The sentiment depicted in the song. A listener has to wonder: Could I ever feel that way? Could I ever treat another person the way the narrator has been treated? And maybe, just maybe, the listener feels a twinge of discomfort about such a sentiment's being made into a spectacle for his or her own enjoyment.

I hope you enjoy the books. You won them fair and square.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You said it, Loren. That title is alone is shocking. Almost anything can be made into a joke these days, but not that title (though it appears from some of the references in the article to which I linked that people have tried).

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, Lou Reed does a nice job delivering "Sister Ray" -- high-volume, desperate monotony. Great stuff.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bill, I haven't been called a whippersnapper since I was in short pants. The article to which I linked in the post has this to say about the song's initial reception:

"Upon its initial release, `He Hit Me' received some airplay, but then there was a widespread protest of the song, with many concluding that the song was an endorsement of spousal abuse. The song soon became played only rarely on the radio, as now."

I don't suspect I'll be hearing it on any chirpy oldies show any time soon.

January 27, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, in the Goffin/King partnership Goffin wrote the lyrics, King the melodies.

Supposedly, that song was based on the experience of Little Eva, their nanny at the time, but later a popstar herself. One of the songs Goffin/King wrote for Little Eva the same year as 'He Hit Me' was called 'Please Hurt Me.' The lyrics:

If you gotta hurt somebody, please hurt me
& if you gotta break a heart, then please break mine
I won't cry if you deceive me
I'll take it with a smile
I know someday you will leave me
But at least I'll have you for a while
So darlin', if you gotta hurt somebody, please hurt me
& if I have to be a plaything, that's what I'll be
Please hurt me, oh please hurt me
Come on & please hurt me
Why don't you please hurt me

Kind of makes you wonder what was going on in old Gerry's head at the time. On a similiar theme here's the lyrics to a Macy Gray song from 1999:

In my last year with him there were bruises on my face
In my dawn and new day
I finally got away
But my head's all messed up and he knows just what to say
No more dawn and new days
I'm goin back to stay
Why say bye bye
When it only makes me cry

I still
Light up like a candle burnin’ when he calls me up
I still
Melt down like a candle burnin’ everytime we touch
Oh say what you will
He does me wrong and I should be gone
I still
Be lovin’ you baby and it's much too much

That one was written by a woman.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I didn't know about that division of labor in the King-Goffin partnership. Thanks.

What was going through Goffin's head at the time? For "Please Hurt Me," it's easy to imagine him invoking that old tradition of women accepting emotional pain in songs. I don't know if he wrote those lyrics before or after "He Hit Me," but maybe at some point, perhaps after the future Little Eva revealed that her boyfriend had hit her, a light went on above his head, and he realized that welcoming emotional pain could bleed over easily into welcoming physical abuse.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Here's an insightful brief discussion of the song.

January 27, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, it seems to me there are two ways of looking at 'He Hit Me.' One is to suggest that it's hard-hitting social commentary. The other way would be to see it as a song written in bad taste by a man who didn't see anything remarkable about male violence against women or in a woman rationalising that violence as a form of love.

Given that Goffin and King were churning out fluffy pop songs aimed primarily at teenagers and frequently sung by all girl groups like The Shirelles or The Chiffons it's a little difficult to see them taking a hard left turn into brutal social commentary for this one song. More likely, it seems to me, is that Gerry Goffin was slow in realizing that on the issue of violence against women the times had changed.

January 27, 2010  
Anonymous Mike Dennis said...

For me, the greatest noir song ever is EL PASO, written and recorded by Marty Robbins.

Sure, it's set in the old West, but the lyrics and the story are strictly noir. Guy walks into a bar, gets a hard on for a honky tonk angel, watches her dance, gets ideas. Then he argues with another guy over her, shoots him. The other guy has friends, they chase him as he runs out and steals a horse to ride away on. He gets away clean, but he can't stop thinking about the girl, rides back toward the cantina in El Paso where he found her and is set upon and killed by his pursuers. The girl rushes up to him and kisses him as he breathes his last.

Starring Richard Conte, Gloria Grahame, and Charles McGraw.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

what about Ian Dury's, er, seminal, punk anthem Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.

January 27, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, your comment, “And listen to the production. That would be astonishing today, never mind for 1962” is spot on. The famous, immediately recognizable “Spector sound” made many songs instant favorites.

In a wider context for the period, think of the number of “teenage death songs” that received wide airplay in the late 1950s-early 1960s. Like Ray Peterson’s 1960 “Tell Laura I Love Her,” Del Shannon’s “Last Kiss (Where Oh Where Can My Baby Be), which received a contemporary update by Pearl Jam, Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel” (also sometimes banned for its morbidity), etc. The Crystals’ song was perhaps part of a mid-century Zeitgeist.

For me, the best music to _read_ noir by is 1958’s “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely.” “Angel Eyes,” “Willow Weep for Me,” “Blues in the Night,” and the essential "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)". Songs of loss that all seem to have that something that Chandler called “redemption.” And at least I don’t want to go out and kill myself after listening to the CD.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I'd discount the possibility that Goffin saw nothing remarkable about violence against women and probably that he was rationalizing it as well. Or at least I'd acquit Phil Spector of any such charge. You listen to that record -- there's nothing accepting about it.

I was never a fan of Carole King as a performer and, while the material she wrote did not rock hard, it wasn't all fluff, either. Besides, it's not necessary to assume they took a hard turn left or in any other direction. Remember: King and Goffin knew the victim. They could have written the song as heartfelt howl of personal pain -- a grim one-shot, you might say, without any implied wider or deeper awareness of the issues involved. It might do to remember as well that Carole King was 19 0r 20 years old when the song was recorded and that Little Ea, the victim, was 19. don't discount the personal aspect.

As for times changing, perhaps they had not changed all that much in 1962. (A short review of the song to which I link a couple of comments above has come interesting things to say about difference between 1962 and our own day with respect to how the record was received.)

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mike, what sticks with me about "El Paso" is its bouncing lilt (or lilting) bounce -- its sound is not terribly ominous, unlike that of the record under discussion in this thread. Perhaps the song is a product of that pre-ironic age, when the record makers could assume that the song would mean what the words said without having to worry too much about the sound.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nah, Adrian, Ian Dury was too much the cheeky, fun-loving sort to earn a place on this list.

January 27, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I'd have a hard time regarding Phil Spector as some type of proto-feminist. When Spector tried to persuade The Cyrstals to record this song they were more eloquent about it than I could ever be. They said: 'Yuk'

January 27, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, in the interest of accuracy here's where I got my 'yuk' quote from:

http://spectropop.com/hspeccrys.html

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, "He Hit Me ... " shows a stripped-down variant of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound -- ominous thuds of percussion rather than rolling waves. Anyone hearing it might not be shocked to learn it's a Spector record, but that same listener might not guess it was Spector. In any case, what astonished me was the degree to which it captured a mood, rathern that "sonic spectacular" of the more typical Wall of Sound records.

I know all the teen death songs you cited, and I found each of them creepy in its way, but nothing like "He Hit Me ... " Perhaps that's why I didn't make the connection that you did. But you could well be right. (And Richard Thompson's astonishing "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" partakes of the same tradition. It's a later song, and at the same time it has that timeless resignation of a true folk song. Brilliant, and cited in earlier discussions of crime songs on this blog.)

I don't know Sinatra's version of all the songs you cite, but I know the songs. Not that it's relevant, but I put forward Art Tatum's instrumental of "Willow Weep For Me" as he best ever.

"One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" is a great, boozy atmospheric song, but noir it's not. The narrator has his code to live by, he has a bar to visit, and he has a sympathetic ear. "Blues in the Night" Hmmm, noir, or is it more resignation than despair? Perhaps noir is the state of mind for people who don't have the blues as an outlet. But then, noir is also an atmosphere, and has any line ever captured that atmosphere better than "The evening breeze will start the trees to crying"?

I believe this year, or maybe 2009, was Johnny Mercer's centennial year. Set 'em up, Joe. Let's raise a glass to the greatest writer of lyrics American popular music has ever produced.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, thanks for that link. Barbara Allston's delcaration that "Phil was a master at getting you in the mood for whatever song(s) he was attempting at the time" anticipates my reply to your comment. It's not necessary to regard Phil Spector as a proto-feminist, only as a master craftsman supremely able to create a sound to suit the mood of the song at hand.

January 27, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Yes, Peter, when I think about it you're absolutely right.

Yes, he hit me
And it felt like a kiss.
He hit me
And I knew I loved him.
And then he took me in his arms
With all the tenderness there is,
And when he kissed me,
He made me his.

That Spector production makes it all so blindingly clear.

January 27, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, yes, I do realize that "He Hit Me ... " shows a stripped-down variant of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound” but it still has that aural sense of having been recorded in an empty aircraft hangar.

I didn’t mean to imply that the songs on the Sinatra album _are_ noir but rather that, played low, the album is a great accompaniment to reading noir. I don’t think I could read AND listen to noir at the same time… Although I think the final line of “Angel Eyes,” Excuse me while I disappear,” Is kinda noir.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I think I dispense sarcasm better than I accept it. I offer no speculation about the state of Phil Spector's mind when he made the record. Nor, in retrospect, looking back at my own thinking at half past ten last night, am I sure it was an entirely good idea to record and release such a song. But he created a mood just as horrible as those lyrics you quoted. So, yes, his production was true to the song.

At least one of the later bands that performed the song has retained the tempo and general feel even as its arrangement is necessarily much leaner than Spector's. I also saw a brief quotation from Courtney Love about her band's performance of the song. Her remark was rueful, essentially "Yuk!" but something compelled her to perform the song nonetheless, and I'm not sure it was perverse pleasure at its narrator's predicament.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Empty aircraft hangar" is a nice description.

”Excuse me while I disappear”? Oh, criminy, is that line ever noir.

When I first glanced on your comment, my first thought was "Pretty Little Angel Eyes," sung by Curtis Lee and produced by -- Phil Spector.

January 27, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Apologies for the sarcasm, Peter, and it was a very interesting post. And if you weren't giving us interesting posts, where would we be?

BTW, I'm in a good mood because my usual fix (horseracing) will be satisfied by the start of the Dubai Racing Carnival tomorrow. Ah, how easily I can be diverted from those women's lib issues!

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, fook, I have a thin skin -- not a good thing if I'm going to stir a controversial pot like this one.

Good job that Dubai is still racing after its recent financial scare.

January 27, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, "I think I dispense sarcasm better than I accept it" is a trait common to Aries. I know.

solo, Yes, isn't it an exciting 2 months for us punters? Will you be lounging poolside atop the Meydan Racecourse grandstand or mingling with the Sheik's entourage? The Tapeta footing promises to play very fair and it is, by far, the safest of all the new synthetic surfaces. Good luck!

January 27, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Elisabeth
I have a horrible feeling my poolside experience will be like that of William Holden in Sunset Boulevard.

I'm likely to be tempted by My Indy in the Group 3 tomorrow (what you would call a Grade 3). Although, that would depend on the prices which I haven't got yet. The newness of the Tapeta surface means stakes will have to be kept low.

Incidentally, it looks like the pro-ride at Santa Anita is doomed, given its drainage promlems. It rains in SoCal! Who knew?

Sorry for being so scandalously off topic, Peter

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I had not known that we Arieses were a fiery but sensitive lot. All I knew was the stuff about leadership qualities and loyalty to friends.

"Punters" -- what a cool word. And if you're a punter, you ouught to read Peter Temple's Jack Irish novels. I recommended them to someone recently, perhaps to you or to solo, here.

And finally, take Chico Marx's advice, and get your Breeder's Guide.

January 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Scandalously off topic, you say? Carry on; I'll just munch my popcorn and take notes occasionally.

January 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mike Dennis, I posted a comment to your post about "El Paso." Let me know if it doesn't show up, and I'll try again.

January 28, 2010  
Blogger Philip said...

A very interesting post indeed, Peter, with equally interesting follow-up about a very disturbing song. Your own comment pinpointing the significance of the date of the song and recording struck me particularly. I am not well-versed in the popular song forms discussed here, and if you had asked me what leapt to mind as the most noirish of songs, I should undoubtedly have thought of Die Moritat von Mackie Messer, or Ballad of Mack the Knife, perhaps in the translation by MacDonald and Sam from 1994, which approximates the original (and certainly not the version of Bobby Darin et al.) The Brecht/Weill song is from 1928, six years before James M. Cain's debut, chiming with your mention of Weimar Germany, of course. And, to boot, the song is derived from the moritat of the mediaeval period, which also you mention. Interesting indeed.

January 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Philip. "Mack the Knife" came up in a previous discussion of crime songs. I've heard (or read the lyrics to) "Die Moritat ... " just a time or two, but I do remember the song to be a lot more chilling and calculating than Bobby Darin's friendly, finger-snapping version.

Weimar Germany (and other inter- and prewar parts of the German-speaking world) may have passed out of fashion as settings for Shakespeare productions a few eyars ago, but the might just be coming into their own as settings for crime novels.

January 28, 2010  
Anonymous marco said...

Speaking of Die Dreigroschenoper, here's Amanda Palmer's rendition of Seeräuber Jenny

January 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, is she playing a Kurzweil synthesizer with one letter cleverly altered?

Here's a link to a literal translation of the lyrics. The file also includes links to Marc Blitztein's "official" English translation and to the original German for those who wish to follow along.

January 28, 2010  
Anonymous Mike Dennis said...

Peter, you're absolutely right about EL PASO's production failing to project an ominous feel, which is clearly evident in HE HIT ME. I think that was due to the fact that everyone involved felt they were recording a western song (which of course, they were). The Mexican trumpets, the acoustic guitar licks...it all fits into a western-type production.

But the naked lyrics are undeniably noir, even though Marty Robbins wasn't trying to write a noir song with a western backdrop. I don't even think "noir" as a term was used back then. I just believe that over the years, as you and I and so many others have come to appreciate it, noir continues to manifest itself in the most unlikely of spots.

January 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And you're right about the lyrics. The melody instantly came to mind even though I had not heard the song for years. When I read the lyrics on your site, I thought, yep, that's noir.

Noir was in use as a term when the song was recorded, but it may not have been so widely applied then. "Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs" is a great title, and here's a wild guess about the production. When the Dixie Chicks were banned from country radio, Johnny Cash said no one should be surprised because anyone who expected anything progressive on country radio was nuts. Perhaps Marty Robbins and his producers feared that a record with a rough or bleak noir edge would not get played and would otherwise meet resistance from the country-music establishment.

January 28, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Are the Jack Irish novels set in the horseracing world? I've read most of the Dick Francis novels; the early ones were enjoyable and then formula-itis set in.

"And finally, take Chico Marx's advice, and get your Breeder's Guide." I don't understand why this is supposed to be funny (and Chico was my favorite Marx brother). After all, the "Breeder's Guide to Mare, Foal, and Stallion Care" is on many horsemen's shelves. It's true, you don't need it to handicap races but, still... Is it a play on “Reader’s Guide” (slow-on-the-uptake Norwegian asking).

“I had not known that we Arieses were a fiery but sensitive lot.” Well, we Ariens (you gotta be careful using THAT word, although the heretical teachings of Arianism are intriguing, but that's a different story) always prefer to be on the dishing out end rather than the receiving end, n’est-ce pas? Especially those born in the first half of the sign. C’mon, you’re talking to an old “Age of Aquarius” dame here! You know, the kind who remembers when "What's your sign?" was a popular pick-up line.

January 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Call up a transcript of A Day at the Races here, and do a search for "guide" -- if the damned link will finally post correctly.

January 28, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Oh, I get it, sexual innuendo. Told you I was slow on the uptake. I like this line better: "You know, all I wanted was a horse, not a public library."

With the v-word being harse (Irish for horse?) maybe that added to my difficulties.

January 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nah, I'm the one who's slow. It's been years since I've seen the movie, and I didn't remember sexual innuendo in the scene. Rather, I remembered it for Chico's con artistry and for lines like the one you quoted.

The Marx Brothers made great routines rather than great movies, and for years, all I had to say to fellow lovers of those routines was "Get your nice-a tutsi-frutsi ice cream," and I'd get a big laugh.

January 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Jack Irish novels are set partly in the horseracing world. Jack works with a former jockey who trains horses and is also -- well, he figures out interesting ways to work betting angles. The novels will contain an occasional scene at a horse farm, say, and the scenes feel authentic, and they're beautifully written -- par for Temple. One of the novels opens, in fact, with a magnificent race horse being shot.

January 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mike: Once agqain, your blog is not accepting my comments. But I have been reading the "El Paso" thread.

January 29, 2010  
Anonymous Mike Dennis said...

Peter, I don't know what's happening! I got three comments from other people, and this is the first I've heard of anyone having a problem leaving a comment. I'll look into it immediately and let you know if I find anything.

Thanks for the heads-up.

January 29, 2010  
Anonymous Mike Dennis said...

OK, Peter, I've made a couple of changes. Try it now and see if it gets through. Let me know what happens. In any case, I'm sorry for the mixup.

January 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Your site still won't accept my comment. OK, let’s try again. Does Wordpress host your blog? I think I’ve had trouble posting to Wordpress blogs in the past.

In any case, I tried to post thanks for your reproducing the lyrics. I remembered the lilt of the song instantly even though I had not heard the song for years. When I read the words, I thought, “Yep, that’s noir.”

Now, someone needs to find dark nuances in “A White Sport Coat.”

January 29, 2010  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

The next line really bothers me--"and it felt like a kiss." As long as women view abuse this way, what chance do we have. As long as rebels (another of their songs)are idealized, this is the result. I guess Motown saw them as their "bad girls."

February 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think the song was recorded for Phil Spector's Philles label rather than for Motown, but "bad girls"? Perhaps, if "bad girls" means the performers picked for a song that would make listeners uncomfortable.

As for "He's A Rebel," I found out when looking up a fact for this comment that those Crystals were not even the same ones who sang "He Hit Me [But It Felt Like A Kiss]." Those earlier Crystals were in New York and Spector was in Los Angeles when he wanted to record "He's a Rebel," so he found session singers and people from other groups (including Darlene Love), and -- presto! -- instant Crystals. Read all about it here.

February 01, 2010  
Blogger Juri said...

Sorry - again! - for a late comment. "Jailbreak Hotel" is essentially noir, and John Cale's rendering from the seventies makes it even more so.

Someone mentioned Suicide. Anything by Alan Vega has just the right ominous sound to it, even though he flirts more with the trashy exploitation imagery rather than film noir. Same with The Cramps.

I thought that some of the darker psychedelic songs of the sixties have a rather noirish sound. Forgot the band, but there's a song called "My Daddy Walked in Darkness", which is a great noir title. I'm not really sure what it's about (I rarely listen to the words of the songs), but I got the noirish feeling.

As for the your original post and the Crystals' song - well, isn't it a stereotype or even a cliché to have a woman who likes to get beaten? It figures in many, many books and films, even in stuff that's taken seriously and not only in genre products.

February 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mass media in general and the Internet in particular have gone a fair way toward erasing distinctions between past and present, timely and late, so no apology is necessary.

Your comment calls for some research on my part, as I don't know most of those sengs. "My Daddy Walked in Darkness: is a terrific noir title -- young-adult noir, maybe. I don't know the Cramps' music, but Donna Moore took the title of her Scottish crime-fiction blog, Big Beat From Badsville, from one of their tracks, I think. Her blog is worth reading. She is one of the funniest women I know, maybe the funniest.

The woman who likes to get beaten is indeed a stereotype and an overheated cliche. But its impact is often dulled by campy, over-the-top melodrama (Don't ask me for examples here.) and the implication that the woman might somehow be rescued from her predicament or get herself out of it. But there is no such distancing, and no hope of things getting better, in the Crystals song. That's why it hits so hard, and that's probably what got it yanked off the air. And that's why it's noir.

February 03, 2010  
Blogger Craig said...

Actually I think the greatest noir song ever is "Never Going Back to Memphis" by Shemekia Copeland. Here's a live version -- judge for yourself:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNiVA9XX234

February 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Craig, someone posted that link, possibly during an earlier discussion of crime songs. That was the first I had heard of the song, and it's dynamic. How often do we hear of a woman on the run? Thanks.

February 05, 2010  
Blogger The Chosen One said...

I'm sure Jacques Brel must have written a noir song or two.

And perhaps Serge Gainsbourg, also.
Can't remember any titles offhand

May 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Er, when a singer in a Serge Gainsbourg song spends 12 minutes moaning, it's not because she is a crime victim.

I can't think of any noir songs by Jacques Bel off-hand, but he wrote some suspense songs -- one in which the narrator wishes his or her own heart will stop pounding, for example.

May 15, 2010  
Blogger The Chosen One said...

No, Gainsbourg wrote some great pop songs; I think he was something of a 'rebel', and might have recorded a 'crime-themed' album.

'My Death' was certainly the title of one of Brel's songs: Scott Walker, David Bowie, Marc Almond, and our own Jack L have done great covers of his songs

May 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've heard at least one Gainsbourg song that was not Jane Birkin moaning. I've also known people whose appreciation of his work was wider than mine, so it doesn't shock me that his achievements extend beyond that one monster hit.

May 16, 2010  

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