(10) primitive radio gods, "standing outside a broken phone booth with money in my hand"
defeats (7) Des'ree, "you gotta be" 108-87
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchfadness twitter poll. The polls closed at 9am on Saturday, 3/4.
des'ree is a vegetarian: dolly laninga on "you gotta be"
Des’ree has a nice boyfriend in 1991, tall with an earnest stoop to his shoulders. One morning he secretly records her singing in the shower, then plays the tape for her over omelets he has made. She cries a little and he urges her to submit the tape to a record studio; she does this and is immediately signed. Des’ree’s boyfriend waits on the couch in the recording booth, a knapsack of snacks, candles, and condoms slouched by his ankle. Des’ree will wake up one day and realize she cannot name the last time she saw him.
Des’ree reads Creative Visualization and writes a song about how it makes her feel. When it comes time to film the video, the video people drape her in simple black garments and tell her to dance her lyrics. She takes a deep breath and when the camera rolls she releases the spirit that wrote the song for her. The spirit is bigger than the pain of South London, and Des’ree’s gestures are generous, loving. No no, the video people say, and they stop the music. They cup their ears for Listen as the day unfolds and flex their arms for You gotta be strong. Like a mime, she says. Yes yes, they say, and they tell her to crinkle her nose more.
Des’ree watches with amazement as the world comes together to lap from the pool of her song. The broad, sunny appeal of its lyrics sells cars and PBS specials for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The upbeat melody lures more male viewership to morning news shows. The song adds its glossy fuel to transformation montages in a number of coming-of-age movies, and Des’ree finds the video of herself mime-dancing in black and white on every music channel at least once a day. When they recognize her in stores and bars, people flex their biceps in her direction, or ask her to sign something for their chronically sick children.
Des’ree tours with Seal, who one night looks hard at her across the rim of his third Sazerac. He says to her in his smoky voice, Don’t let them turn you into the You Gotta Be girl. He gets up abruptly and leaves her with the check.
Des’ree writes new songs. She experiments with melancholy and even despair. She flies to Mexico to sing her new song “Kissing You” in the Romeo and Juliet remake. Leaving her trailer one afternoon she spots David Blaine levitating for the amusement of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. This tilts her into a swift but wounding sense of failure.
Des’ree stumbles into her house one night, indecently late, after drinking with her producer. The ghostly, capricious light from the TV leads her into the kitchen with unpredictable flickers. She is thinking about how cool and smooth is the glass in her hand when the TV program interrupts her thoughts: Richard Branson and another hot air balloon. I get the shivers. Des’ree fills her eyes with images and drains glass after glass of water. I don’t want to see a ghost / It’s the sight that I fear most. When she turns off the TV, she sees that her hand had been busy at work, writing a song. I’d rather have a piece of toast / and watch the evening news. I’ll have a laugh at this in the morning, she thinks, but in the morning she falls in love with how messy and strange the song is, how irreverent.
Des’ree is in the back of an old-timey black convertible on a dusty red road. A young couple chauffeurs her through a field while overhead a yellow crop-duster belches a cloud of butterflies into her outstretched hand. I’m a superstitious girl / I’m the worst in the world. The man driving a cart and mule past her tips his hat, and children launch themselves from a bridge into warm, murky water. Life, oh life. Des’ree feels very much at home in it.
Des’ree spends every year of the late nineties charting top ten in at least one country, but she leaves music, she goes to art school anyway.
Des’ree tells her friends over brunch that “Life” has won an award for worst pop song lyrics. She laughs but is comforted by their outrage. It’s the death of pop music’s imagination, one friend proclaims, the final nail in the coffin. Another friend rubs her back and says somberly, I love toast very much. Late that night, Des’ree becomes obsessed with the idea that she is famous for the wrong song. She watches the videos for “You Gotta Be” and “Life” on repeat and asks herself, where is there more energy: in a bland anthem to self-sufficiency and mindless perseverance, or in a delightfully bizarre meditation on life’s many weirdnesses? Could she get some credit at least for widening her scope to take in all of the human experience? And anyway who wants to be told that they have to be everything to everyone? That they have to be at once strong and vulnerable and sexy and smiling? And whose love, precisely, is love going to save the day? In the morning Des’ree realizes she typed these questions into the message boards on her website under one of her two aliases, and that her fans have rushed to defend her from herself.
Des’ree grants an interview to Metro News in 2009. I was only having a bit of fun, she says when comes the inevitable teasing about toast.
Des’ree celebrates her 5000th friending on Facebook.
Des’ree is bored and so she sues Beyoncé when the young pop singer releases an unattributed cover of “Kissing You.” The violation is so much more flagrant than the Janet Jackson fiasco but the younger singer isn’t worth her venom, just a pup really, and there is something sort of sweetly naive in the flagrant violation. Who could punish such a child, Des’ree thinks as she marvels at insouciant stills from the video for “Irreplaceable.” When her lawyer delivers the settlement check she sticks it to the fridge, next to samples from her photography portfolio: Speightstown, Barbados, and the nature preserve just south of that town. Through the check, Des’ree feels a kinship with Beyoncé, and she clucks over it indulgently each time she fetches a glass of kefir.
Dolly Laninga lives in Philadelphia.
suburban angst: kenneth caldwell on "standing outside a broken phone booth with money in my hand" & fatherhood
“That music will rot your brains.”
I wasn’t listening. I’d heard about this band Sepultura, and old man Vic wasn’t going to dissuade me. The year was 1996 and I’d rode my bike to Vic’s Jukebox, the now-shuttered independent record store of my hometown. Vic, owner and musical impresario, was reluctant about the transaction he was about to make. Maybe it was the father in him, concerned the Brazilian heavy metal might irrevocably alter my worldview. Certainly, the incessant headbanging would be cause for alarm. But I never asked for Vic’s opinion. I’d had enough force-fed radio, Casey Kasem’s Top 40 sweet talk, the sea of sell-outs, MTV anything, Eurotrash de jour. All the formulaic ditties repeating in my head like a scratched CD.
It was the mainstream rotting my brains, so I thought. What I needed was to cleanse my aural palate with something genuine from Belo Horizonte: “Propaganda.” That’ll show ’em.
Let’s get this out of the way: The vocal sample in “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand” is B.B. King singing “How Blue Can You Get?” I’m not privy to blues canon, so I can’t wax poetic about the legacy of the 1964 song, but it’s well-documented that late jazz pianist, Leonard Feather, and his wife Jane are credited with songwriting. Turns out the whole downhearted thing stretches back a ways. Suffice it to say, someone made substantial royalties on account of Primitive Radio Gods’ single. B.B. King earned $100 million through his illustrious career, a sum approaching pro athlete-level absurdity. Contrast that with the $1,000 Chris O’Connor—Primitive Radio Gods’ frontman—used to record the 1996 album Rocket in his garage with a four-track.
I used to make mixtapes on cassette to play in my dad’s bright red Suburban, which was a veritable Headbangers Ball on wheels. He and my mom were divorced before I formed memories, so I always knew of a rift between them. In the case of music, that meant my mother blocked MTV on cable, whereas my dad sometimes bought me the music she wouldn’t—basically anything marked “Parental Advisory.” For as much as that sticker stigmatized explicit artists, it served just as much as a marketing vehicle. My friends and I wanted those albums even more, especially when the label was diminutive. Ironically, that meant it was raunchier, if the schoolyard rumors were true.
But even sans advisory, some albums wouldn’t fly under her roof. Take, for example, The Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land. I goaded Pops into buying the clean version at Target, and profane track titles on the CD jacket were censored with graphics of little insects that were apparently part of the band’s visual identity. “Smack My [SPIDER] Up,” I remember he said in the store as he read the package. A couple of weeks later, he was mimicking the British accents and helping me contextualize the synthesizer in “Firestarter.” “Hear that, son?” he’d say. “That’s the devil's fiddle.” He was joshing, of course, a subtle way of mocking the baseless fear mongers who make music a scapegoat. As though it might rot one’s brains.
Many other artists have performed renditions of B.B. King’s original song. Primitive Radio Gods opted instead to snatch a little piece of its emotional power, injecting it into what Billboard described as a “post-modern techno-blues lullaby.” Whether or not that particular adjectival phrase resonates, the song remains emblematic of its time, a pastiche in the beat of more established contemporaries like Beck or Portishead. New York Magazine called the song “Surrealist” and “trancey.” I can only explicate the latter word in this context to signify a dreamlike fixation with sustained tone and minimal notation. I don’t know what Surrealism has to do with it, but then, it’s hard to rely on music journalism to faithfully convey sonic aesthetic. Why do reviews so often fail to capture the essence of recorded music? I pity the writer who scrapes through Roget's in search of esoteric adjectives that never quite correlate with the sound.
Reports also suggest the Primitive Radio Gods hit was known as “the ‘I been downhearted, baby’ song” which does indeed sound like the reductive shorthand I would expect of conversations about top 40 music among the culturally inept. To be fair, the tendency to shorten the song’s title does speak to its unwieldiness. It originated, at least by one degree of separation, with the 1978 song by Bruce Cockburns, “Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money In My Hand.” O’Connor must have thought that title was a revelation. In a 2015 interview he said, “I threw ‘standing’ in front, but at the time I would have swore [sic] I lifted it word-for-word.” Given the gratuitous audio sampling, it would seem he lifted more than one thing.
The Suburban was a source of great pride. My dad had tricked out its stereo system by installing a powerful amplifier beneath the driver’s seat. It pushed some serious amperage to his “bass box,” two 12-inch subwoofers mounted in the back of the vehicle. I can still feel the deep-seated rumble in my ribcage, the squelch of treble as it reached deafening decibels, the kind you hear once and never again.
For a living, he hauled eighteen-wheelers in corporate relocations. He was a trucker. A mover. A professional driver. A Teamster. Somewhere nestled in my psyche is a memory. Or is it a dream? I'm a small boy sitting on his lap behind the wheel of a semi-truck, no trailer, gazing out in amazement through the massive windshield. I'm steering but he's doing the footwork, that magic dance of shifting gears. The earth is quaking or I am jostling with excitement or this is the bumpiest vehicle imaginable. We're high above the traffic, and my arms are outstretched across an enormous wheel, heart racing. I ask, would it be OK? Yes: I reach up to yank the air horn. The sky erupts with a glorious bellow. What a thrill to be driving a big truck! Then the memory blanks or the dream ends or the earth stops quaking, and I am fatherless again.
In Metallica’s music video for “Enter Sandman,” a small boy’s bed is splintered by a big rig.
It is said that “Phone Booth” gained at least some of its popularity because it was in the film The Cable Guy, which released in June 1996. That summer, the song began its run on the charts, peaking at #36 on Billboard 200 by August.
The Cable Guy soundtrack is a case-in-point for the eclectic mix of the era. It also showcases some decent hard rock. Notably, we hear White Zombie’s “More Human than Human,” that emboldened anthem in which Rob Zombie inexplicably proclaims himself, or at least the song’s reliable narrator, to be the Astro-Creep. Filter’s “Hey Man, Nice Shot” sets the scene as Jim Carrey's titular cable guy slam dunks in a pickup game of basketball, shattering the backboard. Silverchair’s “Blind” rocks through a bout of medieval jousting replete with chain mail and spiked ball-and-chain flails. And that’s Toadies’ spastic “Unattractive” playing in the car as Jack Black’s scorned character drops off his friend in pouring rain. By comparison, “Phone Booth” is the protagonist’s romantic jam of choice as the attractively-primped damsel visits his apartment to sip white wine. Not surprisingly, the B.B. King sample dominates the clip.
In the mid-90s, Jim Carrey was probably best known for his outlandish character in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Of course, that’s the one in which notoriously brutal metal band Cannibal Corpse performs their family-friendly jingle, “Hammer Smashed Face.” This fact illuminates the unexpectedly slapstick element of gore, a mainstay of heavy metal imagery. Like the satisfaction my friends and I derived from playing controversial PC shooter games of the ’90s, lost in the blood-soaked labyrinths of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom.
He was the Cool Dad, the kind who would drive me and my teenaged buddies to a hardcore show in the basement of a derelict Detroit building. It was the stuff of mothers’ nightmares, and morning television was keen to warn parents about violence in the pit. Sure, I did sustain several head punches and a few stray kicks of crowd surfers. Those were mere side effects of the vaccine that was underground music, our panacea. In retrospect, it does seem like there was always one oversized dude doing karate moves like he had something to prove, daring someone to dance with him, intent on inflicting pain. Notwithstanding that guy’s misguided mission, most of us were there to have our eardrums blown to smithereens, guilt-free.
Once I saw the lead vocalist of a band literally spit fire overtop the first few rows of the audience. There was Dad in the back of the club, just sipping rum and Coke and making eyes at the bartender.
Billboard described “Phone Booth” with phrases like “rote enervation of the working stiff” and “abstract dispiritedness,” which exemplifies the media’s blue-collar focus. O’Connor’s apparent angst toward day jobs surfaces in a question posed in the song: “Can money pay for all the days I've lived awake but half asleep?” He’d been an air traffic controller and was 31 years old by the time he landed a record contract. As far as the industry was concerned, he came out of left field. It would seem mid-90s pop music was characteristic in its unpredictability. According to former MTV VJ Dave Holmes in his 2016 memoir, anything could happen, radio-wise:
Nirvana blew everything wide open in the early ’90s, and radio jumped on the ‘alternative’ bandwagon, looking for the next big thing. They didn’t find it, but we got a few years of truly excellent one-hit wonders: New Radicals, Primitive Radio Gods, The Toadies; even the Butthole Surfers and the Meat Puppets had hits. You turned on commercial radio not knowing what you were going to hear next.
The Smashing Pumpkins’ song “Zero” never sounds quite like I remember it in the Suburban. Dad played my mixtapes thunderously loud. Let-the-neighborhood-hear loud. “Zero” has that screeching solo around the two-minute mark, a guitar like an incinerating hawk. I wanted him to turn it down but couldn't say so. I wonder if he felt the same, too proud to admit the pain. Instead, we let the tape roll, tweeters reverberating through our skulls, setting a new high-water mark for audible sound. “Wanna go for a ride?”
Top 40 is less about music and more about mainstream media marketing. According to Billboard, the phone booth imagery of the music video was also employed as a red sticker on the album and in all point-of-purchase materials. That probably means there was a slick counter display, Columbia Records’ effort to create top-of-mind awareness for a mundane—now antiquated—image for the sake of a sale. But they took their marketing dollar further by asking radio stations to give away prepaid phone cards. “The listener will receive free phone time and hear snippets of songs and O’Connor talking about his music.” What treasured secrets in such dazzling call quality! Primitive Radio Gods hysteria was in full swing, or so the label hoped.
The album’s second, ill-fated single had a much pithier moniker: “Motherfucker.” I suspect the sales team had a hard time with the counter display for that one. Still, the explicit title and its lyrics earned the album a parental advisory sticker which, for some, might have been a selling point. Rocket certified gold with over 500,000 units sold. Then, in 1997, Primitive Radio Gods was abruptly dropped from the label.
Pops wasn’t a stranger to shock rock. It was his generation that brought forth the sorcery of motown madman Alice Cooper, the subversive lyricism of Black Sabbath, and frenetic stage antics of AC/DC. Indeed, rock and roll has a legacy of veering outside the bounds of music into freaked-out, sexualized, and drug-addled performance. So, when I started bringing my heavy metal mixtapes to the Suburban, he was already well-versed. But something was amiss. He needed clarification: Did I believe Marilyn Manson was the antichrist? I laughed nervously, partly because I didn’t understand what “antichrist” meant, but also because I never identified with the Manson family. He must have been referring to the infamous artist’s sensationalized album title, Antichrist Superstar. Then he asked again, more sternly, as if to confirm I was not taking direction from a painted ghoul on stilts. Let alone a value system. Never mind the alt-metal mess parading the country as the Family Values tour.
What I couldn’t tell him is that, in his habitual absence, I took fatherhood wherever I could get it: bits of wisdom gleaned from friends’ dads at dinnertime, the gait of some guy seen on screen, the politic of a passerby. I adopted these deeds readily, hungry for a father figure. For all of the times mine didn’t show up—on account of his own drug-addled performance—other dads served as the next best thing. On the Rage Against the Machine track “Revolver,” Zack de la Rocha asks sardonically, “don’t mothers make good fathers?”
“No,” I answered after a long pause. “I know Manson’s not the antichrist.” I drew the line well before imitating freak-show personas. Even if my mother had allowed it, I was a follower of none. I saw through the bullshit charades onstage, the press kits, the headlines, the hype. All I wanted was to hear distorted guitar and double bass drum.
In a documentary about his protopunk band The Stooges, Iggy Pop said, “I don’t want to belong to the glam people, alternative people, to any of it. I don’t want to be a punk. I just want to be.” A nonconformist until the end, my father might have said something similar.
Much later, not long before he passed, I let him hear a contemporary metal jam by Old Man Gloom. He never came to the band gigs I played through my 20s, but I relished when he occasionally asked, “are you guys still playing metal?” I guess I wanted to uphold that perception, even as my aggressive days were waning. “There it is,” he said in his knowing way as the song went supernova. It was the affirmation I needed. For a moment we were back in the Suburban, blasting his bass box through the broken city streets.
I sometimes still hear that piercing ring in the final chorus of “Zero,” going out on a high the way my dad died. That was something Top 40 couldn't tell me. A word the DJ couldn't say. My ears are damaged. My ears are set free.
Kenneth Caldwell is eyes wide into the night, illuminated in electric blue.