The birthday of our nation is a good time to complain about complainers. I am referring here to “dues songs,” in which musicians who have been made wealthy by their music describe how difficult it is to be successful. And apparently success is very difficult indeed.

The ’70s were an unmatched decade for whiners, best typified by Deep Purple’s immortal doorstop, “Smoke on the Water.” This is of course the heart-rending ballad of a band that can’t record their music at a studio in Switzerland, not because the government of Switzerland wants to spray them for bugs but because the studio burned down. So the band makes other arrangements to record their music in Switzerland. Rough.

ABBA’s “Super Trouper” is not quite as dumb; ABBA, unlike Deep Purple, didn’t believe you had to have the guitar solo and then the organ solo except when you had the organ solo and then the guitar solo. But the story, about the love of one special person saving the singer from the horrors of performing before adoring crowds, makes me think they’re not such troupers.

Alas, even an artist as awesome as Joni Mitchell complained (though ruefully, and with wit) about the success that allowed her to enjoy carefree vacations abroad in “Free Man in Paris.” “Free Man in Paris,” by the way, is superior to the entire Deep Purple catalog, not counting “Hush.”

Moving to other decades, The Byrds and Bad Company warned us of the perils of reaching for the top in “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star” and “Shooting Star,” respectively. Of course both bands were thoroughly enjoying those perils at the time.

Say what you will about The Grateful Dead, they never complained about the Deadheads.

A dues song done right
Bob Seger writes about the rigors of the road in “Turn the Page”:

Later in the evening
As you lie awake in bed
With the echoes from the amplifiers
Ringin’ in your head
You smoke the day’s last cigarette,
Rememberin’ what she said

“Turn the Page” is a journalistic, matter-of-fact account of Seger’s life that gains power from the slow accumulation of details, not from lamenting the illogical. When Seger released this song in 1972 he was unknown, unheralded, and unwealthy. Listening to this song you can’t help but root for him.

A dues variation
Peter Yorn is a singer/songwriter with a knack for reflection and a love for Bruce Springsteen. His “Rock Crowd” is a whole new look at life on the road:

I sit backstage
Oh I never know what to play
My mind gets cloudy
Can’t think of what I wanted to say
But when I see you
And we’re moving through the night
I feel like I can make it through another night

[chorus]
Rock crowd throw your arms around me
I feel glad when you all surround me
It’s you, it’s you who grounds me
When you’re done put me back where you found me

This song is beautiful and haunting. I wish it had a video. I wish I had a rock crowd!

Thousand Foot Krutch also addresses their fans in “Throw Up Your Rawkfist.” I love saying “Throw Up Your Rawkfist,” particularly at my birthday parties and when I’m teaching chess. But Thousand Foot Krutch is a Christian rap/head-banger outfit that makes me want to spray them for bugs, and their less-than-impressive lyrics don’t set my heart afire: “Throw up your rockfist/if you’re feelin’ it when I drop this.” Don’t drop it in here, I just vacuumed.

More news from Steveworld
I entered one of my short stories in a competition at Glimmer Train and finished in the Top 25. There were 1,000 entries so I’m feeling double plus good about this. Of course, if I had finished in the Top 3 and had gotten published in the zine, my next story would be about how awful it is to be published and rich and to find every train station surging with girls.

I have a new post in The Nervous Breakdown. This time around I use the occasion of my birthday (July 3) to share everything I’ve ever learned. You only have to scroll down twice! Thanks as always to Special D. I’ve learned a lot around here.

Happy Independence Day! Soon I shall be drinking the Bloody Marys of Liberty. (Robert Farley)

Comments
  1. Accused of Lurking says:

    A lot of bands are much happier about being in bands. I’m thinking of Boston’s Rock and Roll Band, Grand Funk Railroad’s We’re An American Band, and Jackson Browne’s The Load-out.

    Happy Birthday, Congratulations, Thanks, and Don’t Forget to Wear Sunscreen.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      Notice how we’re back in the ’70s again? What a confessional decade. You’re right about those songs, as you so often are. I find Boston’s entry ironic given that Tom Scholz didn’t even have a band when he wrote it. The Grand Funk Railroad song is fun to dance to because you can pantomime all the lyrics, especially the “Now these fine ladies, they had a plan/they was out to meet the boys in the band/They said, “C’mon dudes, let’s get it on!/And we proceeded to tear that hotel down” part. GFR must be an American band, if their reaction to a sexual invitation is violence. Jackson Browne is the real talent among the three acts you mention, but “The Load-out,” however well-observed, isn’t as much fun as the idiotic “We’re An American Band”!

      • Accused of Lurking says:

        I always thought the GFR lyric was ” ‘C’mon Knute, let’s get it on!’/And we proceeded to turn that hotel down”, which I found to be an incredibly interesting piece of wordplay. A hotel maid turns down a room. An American band turns down a hotel.

      • Run-DMSteve says:

        That’s hilarious! I wonder who Knute was? Probably their travel agent. Did they go to another hotel, or did they sleep in the van? They probably slept in a parking lot. This song gets better all the time. BTW, there are 257 words in “We’re An American Band,” but 72 are the repetitions of “We’re an American band.” In case anyone missed their point!

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