Saturday, November 28, 2009

A love song, or a moritat, for a stray cat

Bragging about being tough and dangerous has a long tradition in music. There is the moritat- a murder ballad of a dangerous character and his amazing misdeeds- Stagalee, Staggerlee, Tom Dooley, Magali, or one of the most famous examples, the Moritat vom Mackie Messer- Mac The Knife from Brecht and Weil's Threepenny Opera. But at what point did the "I'm so tough," rather than "he's so bad" version of the moritat come to dominate popular song?

When I was young, and even more lost than I am now, I heard a rumor that Bo Diddley is Jesus. He would never have said that of himself, but he did spend a lot of time explaining his fighting skills, his gunslinging ways, and even if he didn't originate the art of bragging about one's toughness, Diddley took it to a whole new level, when he bragged about having a chimney made from a human skull. In Bo Diddley, the murder ballad became something new; when Bo posed as a gunslinger for the album of the same name, an entire alter ego of danger was born. Hank Williams also transformed the murder ballad from mere song into a way of being, and resorted to recording under the pen name Luke the Drifter to release the spiritual songs that clashed with the popular image of a man adrift on the lost highway.

But whether it's Luke the Drifter or Bo Diddley the Gunslinger, cries of "get away, I'm dangerous" often have a tinge of 'wounded cat' about them. You know that cat- it very slowly moves into your house, into your heart, and one night you wake up to find it peacefully sleeping on your chest.

Here is a little tribute I wrote to wounded cats. Holly and I performed it as a twosome the other night at the Gladstone, at the Blocks Recording Club night:

"Suitcase Full of Trouble"

After our set, dreamy Michelle McAdorey played with a band that included Eric Chenaux and Ryan Driver, then The Phonemes took the stage. Magali was backed by John Tielli on kick drum, guitar and theremin, and Stephanie Markowitz on vocals and keys. Magali's new songs are amazing, and the Stephanie and John lineup brings out the other worldly quality, as well as the beat, in Magali's songs. I'm looking forward to the next Phonemes record with anticipation.

Now I'm off to see if that old stray cat is on the front steps again.


  1. Everybody knows Mr. Diddley would have been nothing without The Princess.

  2. Sorry, I meant The Duchess.

  3. She was the beginning of everything.