Old song lyrics are a beautiful thing when astutely composed. Even ones deemed nonsensical — “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” and “My Ding-a-Ling” come to mind — I find quite lovely.
Quoting Loudon Wainright from 1972, “Crossin’ the highway late last night; he shoulda looked left and he shoulda looked right. He didn’t see the station wagon car; the skunk got squashed and there you are. You got yer dead skunk in the middle of the road; dead skunk in the middle of the road; dead skunk in the middle of the road and it’s stinkin’ to high heaven.”
It’s funny because it’s true. I’ve come across dead skunks flattened by station wagons and it’s definitely an assault on the olfactory senses. Chuck Berry likewise put murder to music one can dance to. “When I was a little biddy boy, my grandma bought me a cute little toy; two silver bells on a string; she said it was my ding-a-ling-a-ling. My ding-a-ling; my ding-a-ling; won’t you play with my ding-a-ling?” (Repeat infectious chorus).
He cites several instances when holding tightly to his prized plaything amidst distractions and even physical danger. “Once while swimming ‘cross Turtle Creek; man them snappers right at my feet. Sure was hard swimming ‘cross that thing, with both hands holding my ding-a-ling. My ding-a-ling; my ding-a-ling …”
Children’s toys have really evolved, but the ding-a-ling was once a valued item. The tribute concludes: “Now this here song, it ain’t so bad; prettiest little song you ever had. And those of you who will not sing, ya must be playing with your own ding-a-ling.” Truth be known, I’d be playing with mine too if I still had it.
But not all lyrics were fun-and-games; many were quite violent and frankly, I preferred those to the sappy songs like “Happiest Girl in the Whole USA” and “Don’t Worry; Be Happy,” more impractical, absurd, pie-in-the-sky lyrics.
I love cold-blooded murder put to music. Johnny Cash seemed so nice — never mind he never could carry a tune — but from Folsom Prison he sang: “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die. When I hear that train a-comin’, I hang my head and cry.” But hey, he made his prison bunk; now he’s got to lie on it.
Freddie Mercury wailed, “Mama; I just killed a man. Put a gun against his head; pulled the trigger now he’s dead.” And then, “Mama, I don’t wanna die; I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all …” Within a couple years, Fred was indeed dead.
Probably few remember a song actually called “Freddie’s Dead”: “Another junkie plan; pushing dope for the man. A terrible blow, but that’s how it goes; Freddie’s on the corner now, and if you want to be a junkie, wow! Just remember that Freddie’s dead.”
That’s the risk you run when choosing that kind of career. Why do you think they call it dope? But lyrical homicide is my point, and no one sang it better than R. Dean Taylor. “Indiana Wants Me” paints a portrait of a killer with a conscience. “If a man ever needed dyin’, he did. No one had the right to say what he said about you, but it’s so cold and lonely here without you. Out there the law is coming; I’ve been so tired of running … Indiana wants me; Lord I can’t go back there; I wish I had you … to talk to.”
I’ve never wanted a killer to escape justice so bad in my life. I rooted for this remorseful killer because it tugs at my heart to hear, “It hurts to see the man that I’ve become, and to know I’ll never see the morning sun shine on the land. I’ll never see your smiling face or touch your hand. If just once more I could see, you, our home and our little baby … Indiana wants me …”
The ending hit me harder than the lyrical news, “Today Billie Joe McCallister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” Amid blaring sirens, R.D. cried, “I hope this letter finds its way to you; forgive me love for the pain I’ve put you through, and all the tears. Hang on love to the memory of those happy years. Red lights are flashing around me; good Lord it looks like they found me … Indiana wants me … Lord I can’t go back there. I wish I had you, to talk to.”
Among all that pain, I’m guessing Bobby McFerrin naively singing “Don’t worry; be happy,” would be pathetic little consolation.