When most composers write songs, they rarely write lyrics that are stated as literal prose. Imagine if the following were the words to a new hit single: “I was walking down the street and happened to meet up with John who I had a conversation with. John said, “Hello fella, long time no see, should we go out to lunch some time? I work till five o’clock every day except this Saturday”—STOP!!! Could you imagine a lyric like that, yet alone trying to sing it? It would be so dreadfully boring that it wouldn’t even be funny as a HA HA HA Parody. (LOL)
Lyrics, like poetry, provide an often-different less pragmatic mode of verbal communication from conventional linear writing. With lyrics, the lines, parameters and structures are less literal, more open-ended and far blurrier. (For example: I remember hearing David Bowie talking about cutting up lyric lines and words and sort of arranging them all together). When interviewed, Mick Jagger said that when he’s writing a song, he first writes down the words strictly as prose. Then he adapts the words and works with them to becoming a lyric.
Lyrics are often metaphorical on purpose. I’ve heard many artists say that they would like to have the listener take whatever they feel (in a sense whatever they want) from a lyric – not shove the lyric down someone’s throat as a verbatim statement. Kurt Cobain had commented that literal lyrics were one-dimensional and boring and that he tried to keep his lyrics blurry. With that blur, there are many potential interpretative possibilities. It’s sort of the difference between looking at a clear simple picture, versus an image with multiple dimension, shades, hues, textures, layers and even effects.
Some lyrics are stream of consciousness as in Walk This Way by Aerosmith or Come Together by John Lennon while he was still a member of the Beatles. These lyrics can take the listener on a sort of surreal journey, as these words often filter up from the subconscious of the writer.
Most people don’t have any problem with the above-mentioned styles of lyrics. They can be interesting, open to interpretation and thought provoking. What people usually do have a problem with though are the types of lyrics that dramatize a situation, often violently. A lot of people, especially non-music fans take these lyrics as being the gospel truth of the writer – as if the lyricist meant every word completely graphically. Especially if it’s violent, it would be presumably stated strongly, therefore, it incites reactions in people who don’t understand the art form as a medium or the real meaning behind the song.
Of course, Rapper Ice T didn’t really mean that he was plotting to go out and kill policeman in his song Cop Killer. The song came out originally on Body Count in 1992, an album by the rap & heavy metal band of the same name which Ice-T had been fronting. Said Ice-T, “I’m singing in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality.” Ice T considered Cop Killer to be a protest song.
However, the song wasn’t perceived simply as a protest song by a portion of society that was loud and vocal regarding their disdain for the song. In addition to the actual lyrics, the fact that he is a rapper and that the music itself sounded intense, are all contributing factors to people’s supposed outrage. Ice T received intense protests, pressure and death threats from the police, government and conservative social groups and shortly afterwards, the offending song was removed from the record. In the next year, Warner Brothers dropped both the band and Ice-T as a solo artist from their label roster.
Ice T ran into his problem regarding Cop Killer with the general public (the police and the good law abiding citizen thing) but certainly not his fan base. His fan base loved the song and identified with it largely from the vantage point of an “internal revenge fantasy” based on getting even with the police, who may have oppressed them or treated them unjustly, especially in the inner city.
I ran into a problem too, for my song Joan Fan Club which was released on my first LP in 1980, but for me, it was the complete opposite problem that Ice T dealt with in Cop Killer.
In the song Joan Fan Club, I put myself in the role of the ringleader, summoning the troops (in this instance the cheerleaders, jocks and normal popular kids in high school) to attack Joan (who was fat and ugly.) I wanted to make the song as vile, disgusting and intense as I could! Yes, I meant every word of it! I was going to recreate the drama and make people live through it! That would make my point – Live through this and see how it feels!
Here is an example of the lyrics:
Joan is the girl she waddles in class
I’m gonna stick some thumbtacks in her back
Gonna push her down gonna spray her with mace
Gonna touch her little pizza face
Joan is the girl we make her cry
She shivers and shakes on Friday night
Gonna egg her house throw some trophies too
Joan we’ve made this fan club just for you!
Can I have your autograph?
Hey fat pig we’re gonna push you down the stairs
That’s right we’re gonna touch your little pizza face
FAT! Hey fatty, you’re a real fox
You know the whole school wants to go out with you
Written in 1977 – © 1979 Skafish
Something I didn’t expect though, was that many people took these lyrics as literal. You might ask, “Why shouldn’t they? You sang them and wrote them, didn’t you?” I erroneously assumed that EVERYBODY would know that I didn’t really mean that I was intending on acting out these lyrics or advocating for anyone to do so for that matter. How could they? That me of all people: someone with a nose the size of an adult man’s small penis, boobs, huge feet, dressing strangely and wearing make up was going to attack someone in school — like I would even have the nerve to think of doing so for one minute! I was busy fearing for my physical safety every day — not attacking “fat and ugly” girls. Remember kiddies, Jimmy wasn’t the prom king! (LOL)
The problem started with the fact that my fan base really liked it – they loved Joan Fan Club! They perceived me as mean spirited, clever and oh so cynical! The song mirrored their own viciousness vicariously lived out through the song and me and their post teenage angst holographic illusion they created of me. On top of that, they damn well expected me to live up to it – I better call them, or at least someone remotely fat and ugly names if they were in my presence, especially if others were near.
It really kicked into gear when Glinda Harrison and I first launched skafish.com in October 2000. We started getting emails from the vast world of cyberspace where fans were initially cordial and I responded back to them. Then suddenly, they viciously turned on me! I committed a horrible sin! One worthy of a lifetime of eternal damnation…I was (I can barely get it out – I’m choking up right now – please be delicate with me) nice to them. OK—I finally said it! I WAS NICE TO THEM! (Please don’t tell anybody) –I was actually friendly! Don’t hate me, please…
“Jimmy, did you really push Joan down the stairs? And if you didn’t you are a complete fake and sellout” was the gist of some of these emails received via skafish.com. These kinds of “fans” (term used loosely) tried to pigeonhole me. Now that’s funny! Anyone who knows me or has listened to any of my work should know that I can’t and won’t be reduced to one-dimensional shtick – disingenuously living up to the fans expectations, keeping the gravy train rolling. If I was ever going to do that, I would have played it safe from the beginning – and playing it safe in the music business is very simple. As an artist, you attempt to live up to the expectations of your fan base. It is just like being a politician and playing up to your constituency. Whether in music or politics, it really means that you better be pretty darn one-dimensional: not complex, contradictory or multi faceted. I remember hearing Nikki Sixx of Motley Cure laughingly saying that his group would lose their audience if that audience thought The Crue drank milk.
I’ve lost fans many times throughout my career by not living up to their expectations and by following my own singular artistic evolution. Honestly, that’s quite fine with me and I don’t mean that in a quasi defensive way. I’m happiest being me and yes, I am a very complex and hard to define individual. I could never make performing and creating similar to a predictable office job…Why do it then?
Just a few weeks ago I actually ran in the same problem with being pigeonholed once again. This time, the vicious attack was based on me doing something oh so bad – eternally sinful…oh my God, I’m going to be hated by everyone forever now — What would the punk and punkettes think of this?
I created a Christmas Jazz album?!?! Yes, the same person who spewed sacrilegious lyrics, sprinkled authentically blessed Catholic Water on audiences throughout the world, made a Christmas Jazz record, with no shocking lyrics – or any lyrics at all!?!?
But this person who posted the nasty review was so uninformed that he actually thought that I (Joan Fan Club Skafish) wasn’t me (Christmas Jazz album Skafish.) Believe it or not, he actually thought that I was a different Skafish and there were two Skafishes. He couldn’t even begin to perceive that someone who did Joan Fan Club could have POSSIBLY did the Christmas Jazz record “Tidings Of Comfort And Joy: A Jazz Piano Trio Christmas.” Here is the one star review he wrote which was posted on iTunes:
Not THAT Skafish
Looking for “Joan Fan Club” or the quaint Christmas fave “Disgracing the Family Name?” Then go on, New Wave Seekers, because this is not that Skafish.
A common musically-gifted name. Like “Partridge”? XTC vs the lovely group with David Cassidy, methinks.
This pigeonholing process I’ve been through also reminds me of a story Andy Prieboy told me in the late 1980’s. Andy and I went to high school together and played in a couple of bands back then – him as a singer and me as a keyboardist. One of the bands, a group I formed called Sway, played at our prison camp high school auditorium, Bishop Noll Institute in 1973 and because the road crew was smoking pot backstage, we were banned from ever playing there again. For those of you who don’t already know, Andy replaced Stan Ridgeway as the singer of Wall Of Voodoo and had international success in the 1980’s.
When Andy came back home to East Chicago Indiana to visit in the late 1980’s we reconnected. Months later, he was back in Los Angeles, and when I flew there to perform for the IRS Records 10 year Anniversary in September 1989, I saw Andy again and played keyboards on some of his tracks in the studio.
Andy was talking about the international press core that he experienced traveling with Wall Of Voodoo and made the comment that the press wanted, expected, even demanded that he be a complete A**Hole. After all, what else is a rock star? And if you’re a real rock star, you must: do heroin, be rude, violent, not show up for gigs, puke in public, be tortured and act out and treat the press like shit. Obligatorily, you must be arrested at least once! Here, the press tried to pigeonhole him.
My typecasting problem with Joan Fan Club was different from Andy’s as it wasn’t from the press — and it wasn’t with overweight support groups protesting the song and calling me an insensitive person to people of plus size – like “I’m fat and I still love myself. Let’s ban this terrible song Joan Fan Club.”
It was the simple fact that some of my fan base didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t the snotty monster my song so virally portrayed. The song was supposed to emulate something quite ugly, even diabolically despicable about how horrible high school life can be for those who aren’t popular. Joan Fan Club was about real life experience – my life experience – and I was going to damn well tell it my way – the way it actually happened. I just put myself in the role of the attacker to make it as real as I possibly could and have the maximum impact I could hurl out to the world from my inner rage! (Journalists knew the song was autobiographical by proxy, so I assumed everyone else would too.)
YES, I WAS JOAN!!!!! As with most of my songs, Joan fan Club was about intense and confrontational social commentary – it wasn’t pretty what I went through – so the song wasn’t going to be pretty! I was the one who was pushed down the stairs, attacked everyday – and threatened always. My home was attacked – there was no place of safety – the monster of abuse created the rage and that rage created the art which I am proud of for the guts it took to do it!
In reflecting upon what Ice T, Andy Prieboy, myself or any artist has been through regarding how the world as a whole reacts to what we create, perhaps it is always most important to remember to simply be who you are – just be you! That has always been my philosophy. Keep it simple! Keep it real! Keep it true! It doesn’t matter at all what anyone thinks!
For the compromises one incurs to “make it,” the price tag is just not worth it: loss of self-respect, cynicism, losing your fire to create what only you can create and worst of all, boredom. For Ice T, he was expressing his rage from the inner city – for Andy, why should he try to live up to a farcical “A**hole boy” stereotypic image of what the press core demands? For me, I would never make fun of someone or be mean spirited to impress my supposed fans! I wrote Joan Fan Club as a vehicle of social commentary, awareness, confrontation, purging and ultimately healing, even though some people didn’t really ever “get it.”
Let me know what you think!
Jim (not Joan) Skafish