Monday, December 5, 2011

Death Becomes Him: Tom Jones: "Delilah"

There are many benefits of being a singer/songwriter, and one of them is that you don't look at the lyrics someone has given you and think to yourself, this is a joke, right?

But Les Reed and Barry Mason weren't kidding, so Jones dutifully sang it, and the public loved it and still do (particularly the Welsh Rugby Union and Stoke City fans). I am not sure if anyone concerned knew the word "camp" (as it had been recently specifically defined by Susan Sontag) but even your average mailman could sense in the oom-pah-pah rhythm and male-hysterical lyrics ("I was lost like a slave that no man could free") that this was, even for Jones, not a normal song. It is almost a Punch-and-Judy show-level song about insane jealousy, and the narrator's murderousness is caused by her "laughing" (I will leave it up to you to figure out why she is laughing). And so he stands at the end, the other man having of course already left, singing to her corpse, rehearsing his story for the police and thence the judge*...

That some members of the jury might be women is conveniently overlooked here, but not by this man, who knows full well what the song is about. It's about a man who is obsessed, a stalker; a man who considers the woman to be his even though she is no good for him (and he knows it). Alex Harvey digs into what Jones couldn't at the time - the unnerving self-justifications that make his begging for forgiveness hollow, the horror behind the drama, the flat face of a man who is not temporarily nuts but is deliberate, who would have killed her even if she hadn't been laughing.

But this is how things were in 1968 - an at heart grisly tale is done as a sing-a-long, grotesque and dramatic as a soap opera, while real deranged killers (Dr. King was assassinated while this was #2) were on the loose. Perhaps this song was one of the truer fruits of the Summer of Love, but I tend to think it is one that has gone sour, a twisted pleading yelp. As a song it is cheesy and I'm sure that Reed & Mason wrote it knowing the public would respond to its outrageous pantomime heart. (It also has, in the band and chorus, all of what would soon become Led Zeppelin, not to mention one Reg Dwight, aka Elton John, on piano.) In a way it is an oppositional #2 as well, sitting just under "Lady Madonna," a song where the only anger evident is in the sax solo, a precursor to another song I'll get to by McCartney about an ordinary woman's travails. But all is Drama with Jones as ever, and by now this is what his audience expects from him.

1968 was a year of violence, and in some way this song reflects that; it has lasted because it is easy for the terraces to sing on one part, and on another Jones himself does it in a jokey way now, as if to say, that era is gone. That may be true, but then it was another piece of the lurid and irrational end of the 60s, as idealism was giving way to despair and the decade was already being disowned by some as not being all it was cracked up to be (certainly the hippie scene of California was getting ugly). This song waltzes and and trots by it all, as if to say, in part, what do you expect? (The musical Cabaret had just started in London a month before; the uneasiness of that show reminds me of this song.)

Next up: the counterpart to all this madness, available at your local corner store.

*Jones was in prison waiting to be executed in a previous song, and here he is again, about to go through the whole rigmarole again. I can only assume a young Nick Cave was absorbing the sort-of song cycle at the time...

1 comment:

Bob Stanley said...

Ripper! The Musical springs to mind. But no doubt Jones atoned for this hokum with a Stax cover on the b-side. Delilah is bad, but his "they made me do it" excuse for a career plunged lower depths that summer (need to check my NME book to see if it'll bother MCBWT). Lena, I'm fascinated to know what you're going to make of another death song just around the corner.