Songs that are Horrible (#2)

Months back now, I wrote a piece about Oasis and their frighteningly catchy song, “Wonderwall.”  For a while now I’ve thought that I should try to create a series: songs you like but that are absolutely brutal in terms of their writing.  And while there are many, many possibilities to consider in this category – as in, have you heard almost any rock song in the recent past? – I’m only now prepared to take the next step.  Let’s create a series.

The band we need to address, the band I’ve often thought needs to be next, is the Red Hot Chili Peppers. There are so many choices to consider, so many songs that might make the list.  Here’s the beginning of “Dani California”:

Getting born in the state of Mississippi
Papa was a copper and mama was a hippie
In Alabama she would swing a hammer
Price you gotta pay when you break the panorama
She never knew that there was anything more than poor
What in the world does your company take me for

Black bandanna, sweet Louisiana
robbin’ on a bank in the state of Indiana
She’s a runner, rebel and a stunner
On her merry way sayin; baby whatcha gonna
Lookin’ down the barrel of a hot metal .45
Just another way to survive…

Brutal.  That’s a portrait?  It’s as if Anthony Kiedis, singer and main songwriter, said to himself, “I know, let’s play with the names of states and riff on their vowel endings!  If I do that long enough, surely some type of character sketch will emerge!”  Well, Kiedis does like to rhyme, and he always seems able to find one.  Not a good one, no, but a rhyme nonetheless.  That’s the problem with the Chili Peppers’s lyrics.  They’re always slave to the rhyme.

Here’s a section of”Otherside”:

I heard your voice through a photograph
I thought it up; it brought up the past
Once you know you can never go back
I’ve got to take it on the otherside

I like this stanza; indeed I think it has an interesting conceit in the opening two lines of how we imagine and interact with photographs that we keep, that we hold onto and gaze at.  But then see what follows.
Centuries are what it meant to me
A cemetery where I marry the sea
Stranger things could never change my mind
I gotta take it on the otherside
Take it on the otherside
Take it on
Take it on

I’m going to call these lines a disaster.  The first three lines here make zero sense, not only in the context of what came before them, but in and of themselves.  A disaster.  But what about the chorus?  Maybe things will improve?

How long, how long will I slide
Separate my side; I don’t,
I don’t believe it’s bad
Slit my throat
it’s all I ever…

Hard to fully see what’s going on here, but perhaps I’ll let it “slide” (see what I did there?!?!).  What follows you ask? Let’s see:
Pour my life into a paper cup
The ashtray’s full and I’m spillin’ my guts
She wants to know am I still a slut
I’ve got to take it on the otherside

A scarlet starlet and she’s in my bed
A candidate for my soul mate bled
I push the trigger and I pull the thread
I’ve got to take it on the otherside
Take it on the otherside
Take it on
Take it on

I’m nor sure we need to go on.  When was the sluttiness and how does that fit in?  How did it change from “you” to “she”?  Why is the starlet “scarlet”?  Is she sunburned?  Has she not found a good sunblock?  Why did the candidate for the soulmate bleed?  Is pushing the trigger and pulling the thread somehow equivalent?

Oh, the questions, the questions.  What’s most painful in these songs is that the melodies are killer, that the band puts together unbelievable hooks, rooted to serious basslines, that they can harmonize, they can funk out, they can get intimate.  They have perhaps the greatest guitarist-bassist combo in the world (John Frusciante and Flea) and that Chad Smith’s drumming is actually pretty good.  Hell, Kiedis’s singing has improved!  But my God, the lyrics!!!!!!

Finally, let us consider “Scar Tissue:”

Scar tissue that I wish you saw
Sarcastic mister know it all
Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you ’cause
With the birds I’ll share
With the birds I’ll share
This lonely view
With the birds I’ll share
This lonely view

Push me up against the wall
Young Kentucky girl in a push-up bra
Fallin’ all over myself
To lick your heart and taste your health ’cause
With the birds I’ll share
This lonely view…

Blood loss in a bathroom stall
Southern girl with a scarlet drawl
Wave good-bye to ma and pa ’cause
With the birds I’ll share
With the birds I’ll share
This lonely view
With the birds I’ll share
This lonely view

Soft spoken with a broken jaw
Step outside but not to brawl
Autumn’s sweet we call it fall
I’ll make it to the moon if I have to crawl and
With the birds I’ll share
This lonely view…

Scar tissue that I wish you saw
Sarcastic mister know it all
Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you ’cause
With the birds I’ll share
With the birds I’ll share
This lonely view
With the birds I’ll share
This lonely view…

Let’s begin with the positives.  I actually think the image of emptiness and loneliness is vaguely captivating.  I think the notion of the rough night out isn’t half bad.  And I think the marriage of these two has potential, kind of.  But not like this.  Somehow the notion of closing your eyes and kissing is the thing that brings together these two disparate threads – the night out on the town and the loneliness of the chorus.  It just doesn’t mesh in any way that makes much sense.

I suppose one could argue it need not.  I love that on Kiedis has apparently claimed that the words came to his unconscious mind.   (Unlike his other songs – ha!) It’s an aesthetic approach, though, and one that somewhat helps us make sense of what he’s doing as a lyricist.  Perhaps he’s not trying to make “sense.”  Perhaps he’s instead trying tot tap into something deeper – unconscious, primal, Jungian.  Perhaps.  But I kind of doubt it.

Ultimately, I actually don’t mind listening to these guys rock out, at least not that much.  The lyrics are just rdiculous.  But the band has serious chops.  I try to take them wholistically, almost beyond songs.  Within an individual song, there are great moments of musicianship, as a whole they display great craftsmanship.  Taking songs as a discrete unit, though, they’re often insupportable.

It’s kind of a shame, I guess.  But another part of me doesn’t ever want them to change.  Is it so bad to say that all of this is part of their charm?

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One Response

  1. One concern: I don’t think they’ve released anything for several years.
    Not that the critique is wrong, just saying. Although I feel like I should have a puffy violet scarf in doing so.

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