(16) FASTBALL, "THE WAY" DEFEATS SOPHIE B. HAWKINS, "DAMN I WISH I WAS YOUR LOVER" 50-40 AND MOVES ON INTO THE TOURNAMENT WHERE IT WILL FACE (1) SIR MIX-A-LOT, "BABY GOT BACK"
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. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on Feb 4.
drew burk on "the way"
There’s a guy named Andrew Burke who travels for business reasons and for business reasons, one assumes, when he travels, he stays at La Quinta Inn. I know this because La Quinta told me. They tell me when he’s going, where he’s going, how long he’ll be there. They tell me when he checks in, they ask me what he thought of his most recent stay, they tell me they’re offering him extra perks, should he want to take advantage of them. Somebody, somewhere, clerical errored the fuck out of some simple data entry (maybe Andrew himself, but most likely the Desk—I’ve spoken to several of the Desks, and suspect them of having gone largely unschooled in the subtle art of Giving A Fuck), and thus involved me in this aspect of Andrew’s life. We are conflated, in the mind of La Quinta. I’ve made three attempts to correct it, and each time the conversation has gone along these lines:
Me: You’re sending me somebody else’s information.
Them: Who’s information?
Me: Andrew Burke.
Them: And who are you?
Me: Drew Burk.
Them: I don’t understand our conversation anymore.
Me: I am not the Andrew Burke who stays regularly at La Quinta when traveling for, I assume, business reasons. My name is Drew Burk, and you keep emailing me his information.
Them: What is your email?
Them: Yes, that’s what we have here. Everything seems to be in order. Is there anything else we can help you with today?
I’m thinking of this now, because Andrew checked into La Quinta today. He’s staying for two nights. I called the hotel, asked them to pass a message along to Andrew, gave them my name and phone number and asked them to have him call me when he checked in. Confusion necessarily ensued. “Mr. Burke,” they said, “you want us to remind you to call yourself when you arrive?” I called back, I asked to buy Andrew a drink, I attempted to open a twenty-dollar tab for him at the bar at the La Quinta. I was unsuccessful. I wanted Andrew to call me because I know where and when he goes. Because La Quinta sends me the information. I know where he lives, I know where he works, I know what he does and my assumptions about his business are my bigger dreams for him, my unambiguous NO when I asked if that was really the what and why of him. I know his phone number. I have it programmed into my contacts. I told myself a story about a year ago about why I wasn’t going to call him, that I wanted to make this thing go away for Andrew, so he would never have to know somebody had access and knew what I knew. I wanted La Quinta to fix it. I wanted a fucking world where fucking La Quinta Inn would acknowledge and correct a simple fucking error. They don’t even have to say thank you. I just wanted to hear—to feel—the OH FUCK at the other end of the line. I wasn’t looking for blame or retribution. I just wanted… I don’t know what I wanted. I knew at the start, I wanted something simple and obvious and the fact that I couldn’t get that simple and obvious thing I think destroyed some physical structures in my brain, the ones responsible for that kind of thinking, as they are obviously of no happy use in terms of my longevity. Because I care for Andrew and his well-being, I won’t substantiate my claims. I decided today, when I again failed to make La Quinta understand that I am not the Andrew they’re looking for, and probably succeeded only in getting a little flag in his file, some warning about eccentricities, some note about how he tries to get his drinks all lined up before his plane has even landed, that I won’t try anymore. I will bear witness to his business activities. I will care, and should Andrew fail to make his appointments (Google automatically adds them to my calendar), I will know and I will take appropriate action. I don’t know if his family has the same access that I do. Whatever the case, I am the backup plan.
Had Lela and Raymond Howard had a backup plan like me, Tony Scalzo would never have written his song.
The song is, of course, “The Way”, from Fastball’s 1998 album All the Pain Money Can Buy, released in March and which went Platinum by September, largely on the back of the aforementioned single which preceded the release of the album by a month and set unrealistic expectations for the remainder of the album. The song itself is essentially a Bible story. It is neither a good nor particularly effective Bible story, its truck in worn tropes the bare scaffold upon which Tony Scalzo hangs the few lyrics he scraped together for his premature romanticization of the far more interesting, far less romantic, actual thing that happened. One might characterize it as a kind of graphic novelization of an Old Testament horror show ported to the New via the NIV, specifically the one with the broad swath of smiling late-70s humanity splashed full-wrap on its soft cover. And yes, the 1978 NIV was itself a truckload of tropes; Scalzo’s truck in same an easy road to that Platinum status. A smart move, an awareness of his audience, this America and the story it wants to hear about itself.
The story he tells is of a couple who drives off. They are of no age. They elucidate no grievance, no desire, they simply up and go. Because this is America, our collective directional understanding is they went West. The song doesn’t say, but our cultural trajectory has, since the inception of this thing, always been West. You go West, and when there is no more West you put the car in park and then you die.
The story that happened is that on a Sunday, June 29th, 1997, Lela and Raymond Howard, an elderly couple in Salado, Texas, decided to go to a festival in Temple, fifteen miles from their house. Lela drove, though their son had offered to drive them, him not wanting them to drive themselves because Lela was going into some early Alzheimer’s stuff, and Raymond had already had a good few bouts of stroke and dementia and head injuries. They lacked the capacity to understand that they lacked the capacity to find the festival. Being American, such trivialities did not impede their Westward progress (Salado to Temple is actually a NE journey, but all American journeys lean West).
On July 2nd, Tony read a story in the newspaper titled “Elderly Couple Missing On a Trip To Nowhere” and he. Fucking. Loved. It. All anyone knew at that point was they went. Though the lyrics don’t say it, and probably he didn’t consciously intend it, he saw in them a modern Elijah-ization, their chariot lifting its rubber from the asphalt and ascending, transcending, the second and third ever of God’s creations to not die—and this is where Scalzo hits his Christian American stride, Old Testamenting into the New to rock his incomplete story of ambiguous meaning. The Ascension of the Howards is described thus:
Anyone can see the road that they walk on is paved with gold
It’s always summer, they’ll never get cold
They’ll never get hungry, they’ll never get old and gray
The scene, as described, is a clear reference to the Resurrection, a game only the dead can play, when all bodies are renewed, and at the head of the golden avenue is a lavish feast where God’s chosen spend all eternity gorging themselves and praising Him. Had Tony reached into the bottom left drawer in the dresser in his room at the La Quinta and retrieved the Bible the Gideons left there for him, he could have gotten this all worked out himself, told a less commercially viable tale. Fun, he said. He said he liked to think of them driving off on an adventure and having fun.
I think Tony knew full well the story he wrote but chose his choices for reasons of business. The song wonders further:
Where were they going
Without ever knowing the way?
Which describes the leap of faith required for all hoping to enter Heaven. It can be easily argued, in the context of the song, that they did, in fact, know The Way, as Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Light, no one can come to the Father except through Me,” and also, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” The driving off is a just such a leap of faith. It is also a romanticization of a suicide pact that cheerfully omits the uncomfortable reality of it having been based upon the tragedy of an elderly couple in the early stages of dementia and Alzheimer’s that made them unable to understand that they were experiencing dementia and Alzheimer’s. In short, Fastball’s “The Way” is a classic Americanization. A reframed retelling to obliquely illustrate an only tangentially-related Christian ideal.
The Howards were pulled over July 2nd in Arkansas, Lela driving with the headlights off. They were spotted the next day at a farmer’s market. They were found ten days later, having driven off the road and into a ravine. Lela put the car in park, she turned the headlights off, she grabbed her purse. She worked her way around the car and opened the passenger door for Howard, then walked about 20 feet from the car, sat down and died. Howard, presumably, did not survive the crash.
The song itself mirrors the musical structure of alternative contemporaries Cake’s 1996 miracle, “Frank Sinatra”, both songs leading with stripped staccato, muted distance—lean forward, I have a tale to tell—which on the second go-round flowers forward and full and you’re there, you’re sucked in, you don’t pull away, they sing their songs in you. Fastball is not Cake. “Frank Sinatra” is an evocation of an infinite universe of secular possibility; “The Way” is, as stated, a more American affair, aping the sonic constructs and tonal structures of its elder sibling. It is a smart and effective piece that sang the words we, then, faced with Heaven’s Gate and the Teletubbies, Versace, Kasparov’s loss to a machine, our loss of Diana, bird flu, Titanic, so desperately needed. In that respect, Cake is not Fastball. The difference between the world we wanted and the world we had.
The Howards did not know the way. The Howards did not have the capacity to know the way. The Howards drove and then they died. Fastball envisioned it as an escape. We took it up as our American anthem for those few moments, our dream of escape from what we were beginning to twig onto: That America is fundamentally a nihilist proposition; that the dream of America is a dream of escape—Forever West—and that the ultimate realization of the American Dream is death.
You go West. You go West and when there is no more West you put the car in park and then you die.
Drew Burk makes books and makes food. He is a part of the physical mechanism of Spork Press.
MATT VADNAIS on "damn i wish i was your lover"
In “Herstory of Dance,” a fourth-season episode of Community, Greendale’s resident activist Britta avoids having to admit that she confused Sophie B. Hawkins with Sadie Hawkins by doubling down in typical Britta fashion to throw the best gosh darn Sophie B. Hawkins Dance that television has ever seen. The Dean, as is his way, continues with the allegedly sexist sock hop that sparked Britta’s protest in the first place so that we get two, parallel dances happening at the same time. In addition to letting Britta be Britta, the episode’s double dance scenario creates two conflicting blind dates for Abed, Greendale’s resident film buff, metaphor for mental difference in the abstract, and enthusiast of all things meta. To negotiate his double booking, Abed must fully commit to a series of rom-com tropes involving preposterously frequent costume changes. These wacky hijinks lead to Abed to realize that, while he has no interest in either of his dates, he does, in fact, fancy Rachel at the coat check, who made it possible for him to pull off his date night caper. Against all odds, Sophie B. Hawkins takes the stage and, after Abed professes his interest in Rachel with an awkward, cryptic, and mostly embarrassing declaration, Ms. B. Hawkins declares that “Greendale loves love” and finishes this song with our dorky couple holding hands.
Though I would never claim to speak for Dan Harmon, let alone the season-four producers who were attempting to imitate Dan Harmon, it is probable that Sophie B.’s involvement with the episode owes itself entirely to sharing a last name with the most frequently dramatized dance in sitcom history. And yet, Sophie B.’s biggest hit is a perfect fit to score a new relationship for Abed-the-Un-Diagnosable.
For starters, the song is really weird and, like Abed, aggressive in a peculiar way. Even as I’ve claimed to love it for years, I’ve only really remembered the line that is the song’s title and the impossible task that was singing along in my parents’ Jimmy while disguising the fact that the most important word in the chorus was, at least by Lutheran standards, a swear. While it’s tempting to dismiss my shyness as teenage embarrassment, it’s worth noting that, depending on how one classifies that Alan Parson’s Project’s “Damned if I do,” the song was the first top-40 hit to feature the word damn in the title. It was, every time, a little unsettling.
In any case, not only are there other words to the song beyond the title, there are a lot of other words. For me now, a great deal of the song’s charm and power comes from a kind of logorrhea that not only conjures a very particular character at the center of all this longing but serves as evidence of that longing, evidence that justifies, contextualizes, and reinforces the word I tried so desperately to hide from my mother.
Beyond the sheer volume of words, there is narrative pressure. The sentiments here are what we might have, in the 90s, described as intense. The opening verse equates somebody in the interlocutor’s life as being an “old dog” that has somehow “chained you up” so that you “need to live inside a twisted cage / sleep beside an empty rage” and ends with the provocative revelation that “I had a dream I was your hero.” This quest to both save the beloved and to, in the process, find meaning and self-definition for the speaker runs throughout the song, getting progressively more idiosyncratic. From the declaration that “this monkey can’t stand to see you black and blue” to the assertion that “tonight, I’ll be your mother,” it is clear that the speaker doesn’t just want to love and be loved: this is a matter of personal salvation. Even the song’s goofiest moments—“shucks, for me there is no other” and “I’m getting on my camel / I’ll ride it uptown, oo”—find a liminal space between romance and delusions of grandeur.
Some of the jagged edge here can be attributed to the fact that this was a hit song in an openly homophobic decade featuring the line “and I lay by the ocean making love to her with visions clear.” The “old dog” language of the opening implies that the interlocutor is bound up in a straight relationship that is equated with servitude. The fever-dream imagery with next-level stakes serves the song in ways that are parallel to the lovemaking line, a line that relies on the word “her” that comes so fast, tucked into so many other words – dog, monkey, jungle, camel – that neither my mother nor myself were likely to hear it. In fact, I am sure that I thought the object of Sophie B.'s affection was a man. And yet, something about the lyrics and their velocity managed to queer the song in a resistant and triumphant way, even when I was fifteen and had no sense of what it meant to queer something.
Ultimately, this is a song that could have only been built in the 90s. Its strange, almost manic potency comes from a need to find other ways to articulate same-sex desire while only briefly being able to acknowledge its particulars. This song would have been far more heavily coded had it been written a few years earlier; likewise, it would have been far less fully embodied had it been written a decade later. It is the song’s atypical presentation of desire – she swears! She rides a camel! – that compelled me twenty years ago when I had no idea about anything else.
It is that same vexed, awkward, complicated desire that works so well as a soundtrack to Abed’s romantic escapades. His affections are the subject of much of the show’s musings and are frequently presented as othered in some way. Though it is worth acknowledging the irony of Sophie B. Hawkins being mistaken for Sadie Hawkins and a dance built around compulsory heterosexuality, it is also worth noting that, in the Community episode, the song becomes an increasingly flexible vehicle to talk about all kinds of affection. In the episode’s tag, Sophie B. kindly takes requests, changing the lyrics to “Damn, I wish you were my ice cream” and “Damn, I wish Abed was Batman.”
As I listen to it now, the song certainly doesn’t mean what I thought it did. It also, for a variety of reasons, probably doesn’t mean exactly what it once did to the LGBTQ community. However, it continues to make new kinds of meaning and will, I hope, prove to be a surprisingly tough out in this year’s tournament.
Matt Vadnais hosts “The Liminal Space,” a cover-heavy radio show on WBCR, the campus radio station for Beloit College where he is an assistant professor of renaissance literature and creative writing.