List: Top Five Story Songs — No. 2

2. Christmas In Cape Town—by Randy Newman.

This is possibly the darkest, ugliest song that Randy Newman has ever written, and he’s written some ugly ones.

Consider yourself warned: Listen.

The thing you have to understand about Randy Newman, though, is that he often writes songs from the viewpoint of despicable characters—polar opposites from the way he feels—to get his point across.  This song, about a bigoted white South African who sees his country going through changes he doesn’t like, could not be more bleak. The protagonist describes the locals lining up for work at the diamond mine: “They were staring at us real hard with their big ugly yellow eyes. You could feel it. This time you could feel it.”

“What we gonna do, blow up the whole damn country?” he asks at the end.

The song reeks of desperation.

Which will seem strange, when you consider what I associate it with in this list of “story songs.”

On September 22, 1984, I ran in the Busch Stadium Run in St. Louis. It was a 10K (6.2 miles) that wound through the streets of downtown, starting outside the stadium and finishing inside on the field near second base. Another twist on this race was that it had a staggered start; the very old and very young would start first, and then, in 30-second increments, other age groups would start, women before men, until it was the mid-20s guys like me starting last; the idea was that, in theory, everyone would have an equal chance of crossing the finish line first. The upshot was that for me, young and healthy and in shape (those were the days, eh?), I was starting at the back of this pack of hundreds of people, and so for the entire race, I was catching people and passing them. For a runner in a race, that’s almost the perfect definition of fun.

Like most runners, before a big race, I’ll generally focus on a particular song, and listen to that song right before the race so it’s still in my head while I’m running. Now, there’s no way that I would have picked a song like Christmas in Cape Town for that purpose. What probably happened was that I was planning on running to Newman’s  “I Love L.A.,” a considerably more upbeat song, which is the first track on the album Trouble In Paradise. But something happened; either I lingered in the car a little too long and the cassette went on to the second track—which is Christmas in Cape Town—or I just made the jump in my mind. In any case, as I ran the race, it was that darkest-of-dark songs that was playing in my brain.

To add to the mood, it was raining; that was one of the few races I’ve taken part in that was actually run in a steady downpour.

But here’s the thing: after I’d watched all the older and younger and female-er runners start ahead of me, and I got to start with all of my prime-of-life compatriots, something clicked. Suddenly, I was really enjoying myself. And Randy Newman’s song, although dark in tone, seemed somehow to be the perfect tempo for my mood. I started reeling in the runners ahead of me, a dozen at a time. The rain? Sure, I was wet. But once I was wet, I wasn’t getting any wetter, so why not just keep running?

And the running felt great. Joyous, really. Puddles, crowds: nothing bothered me as I glided through the St. Louis streets on my way back to the stadium. Maybe I didn’t realize it at the time, but at 25 years old, I really was in the athletic prime of my life. Actually, that day, I probably did realize it. I finished the race in 38:05, which was probably a minute faster than any previous 10K I’d run up to that point, and it still stands as my fastest 10K ever.*

So now when I hear the song Christmas in Cape Town, I’m not thinking about South Africa or Apartheid. Definitely not about Christmas. I’m thinking about that long-ago September morning, when nothing was slowing me down.

List: Top Five Story Songs — No. 3

3. Sunday, Bloody Sunday, by U2.

October 27, 1985: Denkinger screwed up, and the Cardinals were ticked. After the nightmare finish to Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, it was easy to see that Game 7 was going to be a powder keg. The only question was, who was going to set it off?

I previously wrote about the finish of Game 6 here.  Oh, and also here.

The next afternoon, Sunday, the day of Game 7, I was searching for a song that might capture my apocalyptic mood and get me emotionally prepared to watch the game that evening. I was thumbing through my record collection, and came to the album War, by U2.

AHA!   There’s a song called New Year’s Day on that record that was just right: from the very first distorted piano chord, the song draws you in with a taut, gritty tension that won’t let you go. It was perfect for what I was feeling that day.

I went to put it on … but New Year’s Day was the second song on that album; the first, which I’d forgotten about, was even MORE perfect: Sunday, Bloody Sunday.

“I can’t believe the news today,” the song begins. “I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.” And truly, the news was unbelievable. The Cardinals, with one of their best lineups ever, were supposed to coast through that World Series against the Royals, who were—let’s face it—pretenders to the American League crown. But after that awful finish to Game 6, there they were, all even, going into the deciding game at Kansas City’s home field. Their backs up against the wall, as the song says.

And yes, there was an egregiously blown call by the umpire, but the blame for the Game 6 loss falls squarely upon the Cardinals, who completely fell apart at the end. And worse, their reactions after the game indicated that they were going to spend the whole day Sunday fuming about the umpire, rather than focusing on Game 7.

(OK, readers who are not sports fans—and I know there are a few of you out there—may think that this violent, militaristic song and desperate imagery might be a little over the top when discussing a game. But we’re talking about the World Series here. And the St. Louis Cardinals. In the 1980s, baseball was all St. Louis had.)

So yes, the tone of this song was absolutely perfect. Even the title was exactly right: Sunday, Bloody Sunday. It was clearly going to be bloody. My prediction before the game—I’m not boasting; it was about the easiest prediction one could make—was that it was going to probably be an ugly, blowout game, with at least one person being ejected. I held out a slim hope that it would be the Cardinals on the upper side of the blowout, that “anger can be power” and they’d come out energized against the Royals. And yes, there’s even a tiny note of hopefulness in the song: “We can be a swarm tonight.” But deep down inside, I knew it would probably go the other way.

And, as we all know, it did: I think the score was 10-0 Royals when I gave up on the game, and both manager Whitey Herzog and pitcher Joaquin Andujar had been tossed. It was probably the worst day in the history of Cardinal Nation.

Bloody Sunday, indeed.

List: Top Five Story Songs—No. 5

“You see, I knew that song so long before we met,
that it means so much more than it might”
—Elvis Costello, King Horse

Elvis is onto something here, I think. There are certain songs that take on meanings that are far beyond whatever the songs are “about.”

Surely everybody has their own songs like this, songs that call up their own associations, their own stories, when you hear them. Here, with the usual caveats, are some of mine.

And I’m going to abandon the regular format for this list, since a couple of these are going to be long enough that it would be a nightmare to have them all in one post. So, for the next five days, it’ll be one Story Song a day on Shoulblog. Starting with Number…

5. For What It’s Worth-Buffalo Springfield.

Of the five songs you’ll see on this list, this is probably the only one that most people will recognize. For my part, I knew of the song for years before I ever heard the Buffalo Springfield version. In those days, as a little kid, my exposure to music was mainly from my older brothers, Phil and Jim. I had a little transistor radio, but I would have mostly listened to sports on it, more than music. My brothers were six and eight years older than me—a whole generation, at that age—and what little I knew about music, I learned by hearing from them.

One summer, while we were on our annual vacation at Gull Lake in Minnesota, we were hanging out on the porch of the cabin we stayed in — it was the three of us, plus our cousin Bruce. Jim had a guitar, as he usually did in those days. After a while, he started playing this song, which I’d never heard before. Phil and Bruce joined in vocals. I contributed by turning on a cassette tape recorder we had. There was a fly in the room; Phil or Bruce tried to slay it by clapping his hands at it, and the clap turned out to be right in time with the song, so he kept clapping.

And that, for me was the definitive version of the song. I held onto that cassette for a long time, and it was years before I heard the actual original. That tape is long gone now, of course, but still, today, when I hear Buffalo Springfield’s version on the radio, it takes me back to that decades-ago night at Gull Lake.

“Stop, hey, what’s that sound,
Everybody look what’s goin’ down…”

*****

A note for the ya-learn-something-new-every-day-from-Wikipedia file: I had always thought this song was written in reaction to the Kent State shootings. In fact, it was written about protests of a local curfew in Los Angeles in 1966—a full four years before the Kent State tragedy.