Thursday, June 21, 2012

Popcorn Double Feature: R. Dean Taylor: “Indiana Wants Me”/Tony Christie: “I Did What I Did For Maria”


I’m not sure what was in the air to create this situation, but as you dear reader, can see, there’s not one but two men facing their ends here; men who took the law into their own hands, because of something that happened to their wives.  Vigilante chic certainly was part of this (particularly in the US); after the summer of love comes the fall of ass-kicking, or in these cases, death-dealing.  The morbidity rate is high here, with three dead people at the end, maybe four if the Indiana State police happen to consider their fugitive armed and dangerous. 

Of course these songs succeeded because these stories are practically the oldest ones around.  Honor, betrayal, slander, revenge:  Christie invokes the Bible, Taylor simply says that the man he killed (deliberately, I’ve decided, not accidentally or as a crime of passion) said something to his wife he really, really shouldn’t have said.  This moment might well distract the listener from the sirens at the start and finish, not to mention the unprecedented gunfire at the end – what on earth did the (now) dead man say? 
This is the black hole of the song, and the rest of the lyrics just end up getting sucked through it.  He’s sorry – terribly sorry – that she’s had so much shame to deal with, and he’s sorry to see the man he’s become.  Well, isn’t that nice. The fact that he’s a father as well is something that, um, maybe he should have thought about before killing the other guy?  What could he have possibly said to her that would justify murder?  Something about her, her family, her reputation, what?  I don’t want to get too obsessed with this, but unless this woman has led a rather sheltered life, she has probably dealt with enough insults and catcalls to deal, however she sees fit, with this one.  No, I suspect that the man was the real target here, not his wife; that the slur was somehow really aimed at him, but said to her. 

Beyond that I can’t really speculate, as the song focuses more on how the narrator is sorry, and how they have found him out at last (who knows how long he’s been hiding out – I always see him in a shack or old farm building in Kentucky somewhere).  The gunfire suggests that he’s dead, or that he soon will be; if this song could be compared to an aria from an opera, which I think it can, then it’s almost inevitable that he will die, whether being killed or killing himself (which would only add to his wife’s shame, but is sadly a strong possibility).  The strings saw away (this song is like the ugly flipside of Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy”) and the band marches along, clearly on his side.  He wishes he could talk to her; but what on earth would he say?  Why has he been running away instead of just calling the cops and turning himself in*?  Hmm, maybe this death wasn’t as premeditated as I first supposed it to be.  And yet words were said; maybe there was a fight, and some blunt instrument was handy – a kitchen knife, perhaps?  And in his own shame and defiance, he ran away, leaving his wife (whose shame in all this is perhaps presumed, but whose life is most certainly at this point miserable) to tidy up, as it were. 

The scenarios are endless, and the husband’s remorse is touching, but he meant to do it.  That he ran away makes him look, I’m afraid, like a coward; the music is desperately heroic, dramatic, and in some way is coming after him as surely as the state police are.  He can’t go back to Indiana so Indiana is conveniently going after him; he must figure a lonely death in another state beats a trial and the death penalty there.  He tries to appeal to us through his remorse, but that black hole makes it all but impossible to really figure out how justified his actions are.  At bottom, though, they’re repulsive – if the guy he killed was really so awful, why does he talk so little about him?  Was this a last-straw situation, had he been saying things and spreading rumors for months?  Or is the narrator of this song someone who is a bit too easily offended himself?  I can’t feel sorry for him – for his family, sure, but not him.  His last letter says too much and yet too little; he has taken matters into his own hands and isn’t happy with the result.  The story is old, but somehow the song asks us to sympathize with the narrator, and I can’t; he seems to be justifying what he did after the fact, almost as if he had a beef with this other guy for another reason entirely (perhaps) and this insult to his wife was his “reason” to go after him.  I cannot help but remain suspicious here, which suits the early 70s just fine (thus it was a hit) – because after the 60s’ betrayals and fallouts, who could be trusted?  And so, vigilantes sprouted up in music and movies, some proud and brave, and others unable to do anything but run**.
The world of Tony Christie is a much more bearable one, though just as deadly, because the man is avenging a death; his wife wasn’t just insulted but (it’s insinuated) tortured and perhaps even worse; and so the scales tip this way and that, and the whole thing has the ease of a mathematical equation:  3-1-1-1=0.  First the wife dies, then the murderer, and now, the widow, in what sounds like the Old West (the heroic horns here could be from the 50s, as could the song) prepares to die.  The narrator walks into town, to the designated street, and everyone hides, as he coolly and calmly waits for his foe.  It is all very theatrical; the ease of the song tells us there was no contest, the death was quick and neat, and the song is one heard en route to the gallows; Maria’s death has been avenged, his own death is one he is not afraid of (the Lord is invoked in both these songs, in the first it’s to help him escape, the second when he is happy to join Him). 

Christie sings it with his usual gusto, and his whole demeanor is not one of struggle but ease, as if this whole thing isn’t real but some sort of folk tale, where the narrator and Maria are reunited and the bad guy has no one but himself to blame for what happened.  There’s no anguish in the narrator’s story, it is as if he has realized that this is his destiny, and he is just doing what he has to do.  He doesn’t think; he acts.  The whole story could take place, from start to finish, over two or three days; the narrator doesn’t sound like the brooding type, and you kind of wonder where the police are in this town to arrest and then hang the culprit himself.  The police, who are so feared and dreaded in the first song, simply don’t exist in this town, it seems; and so the narrator has to do the dirty work himself. 

He doesn’t seem to mind; as he walks to his death he has no one to talk to (unlike the narrator in “I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You”) – the slate is clean, his conscience is clear, there’s nothing more to be done than finish the equation.  He doesn’t imagine anyone mourning him, missing him, even noticing his actions.  He simply says he did what he did for Maria, which is noble on one hand and sad on the other.  Is there no one else in his life who cares about him?  Was there no one else in town, even?  This whole song has the weird effect of an episode of The Prisoner, the one set in a western town where nothing is as real as it seems***.  It is hard to believe the simplicity and flat quality of the song, especially since Maria herself is not described in the least, beyond her name.  Vengeance is the thing, the only thing, and again I have to wonder at why this is all taking place, and just who the murderer is; but everything is boiled down to the basics here, so simple as to dampen and dull any real interest.

Next up:   no deaths, mercifully, but what on earth is going on?        

*The narrator of “Delilah” doesn’t run away, he’s too upset and maybe crazy to do so.
**Taylor was inspired to write this after seeing Bonnie & Clyde; perhaps the fact that he’s on the run from The Man is the most important thing here.  Taylor is Canadian, which adds a thin layer here of sheer survivalism, as if he's been a Worried Man for some time now (pace Greil Marcus on The Band).        

***If you haven't seen "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling", it works perfectly well by itself; though seen in context it's even better.

4 comments:

Marcello Carlin said...

I think “Living In Harmony” is the episode you meant.

A few other thoughts; did R Dean Taylor ever record a song where he was happy? He is always alone; on “Gotta See Jane” he is running to someone (or somewhere, or something; see “Along Comes Mary” etc.), on “There’s A Ghost In My House” (from ’67, but a UK top three hit at the time of Watergate) he imprisons himself in his own paranoia.

A stray thought I just had: if we take “Maria” in the greater sense (“Say it soft and it’s almost like praying”) is this song a religious parable?

Mark G said...

Of course, Tom Jones got into the action (blokeish aggression? He's your go-to dude!) with "Letter to Lucille", where he's in prison in year three of a ten-stretch sneering at all the 'innocent men' due for release (at the same time begging for one of them to be postie) proud to be "guilty" (but of what? nothing says..)

Lena said...

Thanks, the unreality of both of them applies, I think!

"Letter to Lucille" sounds a lot better than some of the songs on his 'best of' compilations...as for guilt, it's always loving too much with Tom, I think...

MikeMCSG said...

Some good linkage there Lena - we're only a few months away from "Dirty Harry" ( released on my 7th birthday).