I cannot remember a time before I knew the band America. I grew up listening to these guys. Dad had the History: America’s Greatest Hits album, and I’d listen to it frequently while staring at the cover art.
Wikipedia tells me the cover art was drawn by Phil Hartman, one of my favorite comic actors. Hartman would become famous on Saturday Night Live, News Radio, and The Simpsons (“Hi, I’m Troy McClure.”) before being murdered by his wife. I didn’t know that until just now. Small world.
I liked the album because it had “A Horse With No Name” on it, which struck me at around ten years old as very mysterious. It may have been one of the first songs I really tried deciphering. Deserts sounded awful to me, but Dewey Bunnell had an interesting take:
I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
Now, for years I misheard that. I thought they were singing “in the desert you can’t remember your name” which is much different read on the nature of identity and how awareness of self depends on awareness of the existence of others, and that is actually a thought pre-pre-teen me actually had when listening to the song.
Sometimes misheard lyrics are hilarious; sometimes they reveal unintentional depths.
Whether or not you can remember your name, though, the song is pretty strong both sonically and lyrically as a meditation on … meditation. Up until the denouement…
After nine days I let the horse run free
‘Cause the desert had turned to sea
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
“And things.” Really? You’re going to go with that. I imagine a note written in the margin: “Pick a better thing than things.” And why are there rings? Because “rings” rhymes with “things,” I guess.
Well, at least it rhymes. I’m getting ahead of myself though.
The ocean is a desert with its life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love
Apparently Bunnell remembered to pack his soapbox, because whoomp there it is. The only thing worse than drawing circles and arrows around your theme is drawing them around a theme that suddenly materializes in the last verse.
Speaking of materializing, here’s a bit from Ventura Highway:
Seasons crying no despair; alligator lizards in the air.
Talk about burying the lede. To be fair, Bunnell says this was a reference to seeing shapes in clouds, but to the mind unprepared by interviews we’re missing a little context there. (Alligator lizards, by the way, are actual things and not merely alligators from the department of redundancy department. Whether or not it was alligator lizards in the clouds or alligators and “lizards” was just there to fit the poetic meter, who can tell.) It’s a reminder that America bridges the gap — often uncomfortably — between the era of Syd Barrett psychedelic rock and Jim Croce earnest singer-songwriterness. Here’s another one from “Tin Man” that illustrates the point.
But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man
That he didn’t, didn’t already have
And Cause never was the reason for the evening
Or the tropic of Sir Galahad
To which I can only say: what? I’ve been struggling with this lyric for years and the best I can come up with is it was a word list from Boggle. But it’s sung with such authority and confidence, like the meaning should be as clear as “today’s dinner is boiled aardvark.”
Also “have/Galahad” is not a rhyme.
So please believe in me
When I say I’m spinning round, round, round, round
Smoke glass stained bright colors
Image going down, down, down, down
Soapsuds green like bubbles
I think this means “I swear to god, I dropped acid on Lawrence Welk.” (He didn’t.)
Speaking of Jim Croce, and this is the last one I’m going to pick on, The opening to “Sister Golden Hair” is as maudlin as anything he wrote and describes so much of my life so perfectly:
Well, I tried to make it Sunday, but I got so damned depressed
That I set my sights on Monday and I got myself undressed
There’s also this jewel, which describes just about all of my relationships, friends, family, or otherwise:
I’ve been one poor correspondent, and I’ve been too, too hard to find
But that doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind
But the rest of the song. God, the rest of the song. Songs like these make me wish I had a daughter so I could forbid her to date puppy-dog poets like these.
Will you meet me in the middle, will you meet me in the air?
Will you love me just a little, just enough to show you care?
Well I tried to fake it, I don’t mind sayin’, I just can’t make it
Red flags. Red flags!
I ain’t ready for the altar, but I do agree there’s times
When a woman sure can be a friend of mine
Is this just a more polite way of saying “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks?” I think … it might be.
Also, “Sister Golden Hair” suggests he’s singing this love song to a young nun or at least someone he regards as innocent and pure as a nun, which is a little creepy. Or someone he thinks of as his sister, which is creepier. Or his own sister, which even causes Jerry Lee Lewis to give a little shudder.
The more I think about the lyrics to this song, the more I need a shower.
Maybe that’s a bit harsh. Is it too harsh? It’s probably too harsh. The music is poppy and mellow and sort of acoustic and I love it. The lyrics are awkward, occasionally brilliant, and all sound like stuff we would have been thrilled to get at the student literary magazine. And I’d hate to think that age, a quarter-century of MST3K fandom, and thousands of hours spent tracking down fiddly syntax errors in code have turned me bitter and cynical. (They haven’t, I started out bitter and cynical.) I love these songs.
And they remind me of being small, sitting on the floor next to my father’s huge seventies receiver and wood-laminate record player, staring at his albums trying to reach back and experience a time before I existed. Dewey Bunnell, if you’re reading this — I’m sorry. Know that I love the songs, even if I’ve been laughing about those damn alligator lizards for twenty years.
Seriously tho? Fuck “Muskrat Love.”