Well I’ve Been Your Fool Before and I Probably Will Again

There are times when I’m walking, or more likely driving, and all of a sudden I have a flash of a lyric enter my head that hasn’t been there in many, many years:

Honey why you always smile
When you see me hurt so bad
Tell me what I did to you babe
That could make you act like that

It hits me hard every time – bam! I’m eighteen again and I’m dying to hear the song, dying to hear the voice, dying to get a glimpse of the singer, with those blue eyes and that blonde hair. To get the full effect of you probably need to hear the voice yourself – sharp, cutting to the bone, tough, and always steady. And it would help to have a picture to go with that voice as well:

Maria McKee. Singer for Lone Justice and in 1985 certainly sexier than Madonna, who was working her own blonde tendrils at the exact same time on “Like a Virgin.” But while Madonna came across as a manufactured pop star, the amalgam of virgin/whore that had a certain sex appeal but that you knew was never actually authentic, Maria McKee always just came across to me as herself: strong-voiced, individualistic, adult – but not corrupted by compromises. To the eighteen-year-old that I was at that time, the opening lines of “Ways to Be Wicked” held the allure of sex, of a broken heart, of a woman who wasn’t afraid of what she might want, even if it might not be the best thing for her.

To hear the voice and to get a fuller glimpse of McKee and why I responded at eighteen to her and especially to the song, I want to show the video for it (I apologize for the lousy quality of it, though the audio is fine. I couldn’t find a better copy, but you do get a sense of the band):

Whether she’s riding her board or strumming her guitar, McKee commands the screen. She’s young, she’s got the varsity letter jacket  with the skirt and black boots, she’s on the mike, she’s the center of the show. It’s not a great video by any stretch of the imagination – hey, the band is playing on the rooftop! – but it’s a great showcase for the band and not a surprise that they highlight McKee in it. She works the camera, staring into middle distance and then directly into the lens, inviting the viewer in, keeping him at bay.

The lyrics are worth checking out, for the slyness of the come-on to the audience and the basic wordplay that McKee is selling:

Honey why you always smile
When you see me hurt so bad?
Tell me what I did to you babe
That could make you act like that?

Well I’ve been your fool before honey
And I probably will again
Cause you ain’t afraid to let me have it
No, you ain’t afraid to stick it in

Well he knows so many ways to be wicked
But he don’t know one little thing about love

I can take a little pain
Yeah I can hold it pretty well
I can watch your little eyes light up
While you’re walkin’ me through hell

Well I’ve been your fool before, honey
Yeah and I probably will again
Cause he ain’t afraid to let me have it
No, he ain’t afraid to stick it in

Yeah he knows so many ways to be wicked
But he don’t know one little thing about love

Yeah those cobra eyes
Lie with a smile
Baby you take pride
In that devil down inside

Well, I can take a little pain
Yeah, I can hold it pretty well
I can watch your little eyes light up
While you’re walkin’ me through hell

Well I’ve been your fool before honey
Yeah and I probably will again
He ain’t afraid to let me have it
No he ain’t afraid to stick it in

Well he knows so many ways to be wicked
But he don’t know one little thing about love

In those opening four lines McKee poses herself as a victim – someone “hurt so bad”  – and we immediately feel for her and wonder who would do this to her. But I love the next four lines and what they do to this opening in how they twist our expectations: she recognizes how she’s been his fool before and that she will be again, because he ain’t afraid to “let her have it,” a great line that leads into the double image of intercourse and masochistic pleasure. We recognize, by the end of the first verse, that the woman singing this song wants a little pain, she wants him to give it to her, to stick it in, but we also realize that while this has obviously to do with sex it also has to do with pain, and not just the physical kind.

She “can take a little pain,” she can “hold it pretty well.” And there’s something in her that enjoys it, that keeps her attached to him.  Part of it is might be what she gets out of it, but another part is the recognition that he is someone who enjoys it, “his eyes light up/while [he’s] walking [her] through hell,” and it’s clear that she doesn’t sing this with regret or fear or anything other than an enjoyment of his sadism. But there’s something in those opening four lines that I want to return to, now that we’ve gone through all of the lyrics.

The song has in it something of a paean to sadomasochism, to her pleasure at receiving pain and his at giving it. Still, when we hear it a second time, and every time after, we hear something slightly slippery in those opening two questions, about why he always smiles when he sees her hurt so badly and what she did to make him do it. She’s asked him to hurt her, and he enjoys it. And yet there’s something else here too. After all, while he knows so many ways to be wicked, to have fun, to have great sex, he doesn’t know one little thing about love. In the end, the song isn’t just one big come-on, there is actually some regret. The regret, though, isn’t about the pain, or the type of sexual relationship that they have.  The regret is that she recognizes that he will not be the one for her in the long run, in the ways of the world outside of this sexual relationship.

What she realizes in those opening four lines, what she’s told us from the very beginning, is that this guy ultimately isn’t the one for her, that he’s not ultimately good for her. It’s what we first think when we hear the opening verse, but it comes back to us in ways we don’t expect. He isn’t good for her, though he is in ways we at first don’t imagine! She may get off on the pain, on all the wicked things they do together, but ultimately she understands the circumscribed way that this sex operates in this relationship, and that life goes on beyond it.

It’s a sophisticated lyrical scheme at play, and the band’s rockabilly/country rock/cowpunk sound complements it well. And although we might expect that McKee had to write the song, considering how well she sells it vocally, in fact it was written by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell (guitarist for the Heartbreakers). McKee, you see, had been dating Benmont Tench, keyboardist for the Heartbreakers, and Petty and Campbell had been sitting in on some of Lone Justice’s live dates around LA in the mid-80s. It turns out that McKee and Lone Justice were quite the hot ticket at that time in LA and that a lot people liked working with them. Campbell and Tench play on the album, along with Steven Van Zandt (you might remember him as Bruce Springsteen’s guitarist in the E street Band!). Jimmy Iovine was the band’s manager and actually produced the album.

There was a lot of juice behind Lone Justice, and I can remember seeing them when U2 toured and how I insisted that we get to the show early enough to see Maria McKee because I dug her so. She was a sexy rocker, good looking with a killer voice that hit you hard, above and below the belt. But the band never did take off. I thought this song was great, and really like “Sweet Sweet Baby” too, but they never had the commercial success one might have predicted from all the talent involved. Somehow they just didn’t click with audiences, who seemed to want the manufactured virgin/whore that Madonna represented rather than the complexity of a woman like Maria McKee.

To me, she was genuinely gold. Loved the voice, loved the look, loved the song. I was eighteen and wanted, as much as anything else, for her to do wicked things with me. I guess that’s pretty much rock and roll.

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5 Responses

  1. I’m wondering whether you’re allowing your desire to lead you into a deeper pseduo-psych view of the lyrics.

    I’m struck by the idea that the song is about a woman who, at one level, realizes she’s being abused, but also, poignantly, with pathos, realizes that she won’t be able to get out of the relationship.

    If it’s sadomasochism, where are you finding the “pleasure” in there? Because it happens more than once?

    Isn’t she ultimately asking for love? Multiple times?

  2. I’m not so sure she’s looking to get out. When does she express a wish for that? She articulates pain and hell, but never comes out and says she wants out.

    But I agree that in the lyrics she’s repeatedly noting that he will not be able to offer her love, and that this is something that she desires. But I see that, here, as a desire that is in addition to the other desire expressed in the song.

    Having said that, sure, I can see a reading of this as a woman who is being abused. But I thought it’d be more interesting here to make the counterintuitive reading the one to go with – that’s what these spaces are for!

  3. Oh, the counter-intuitiveness just *oozes*
    ;-p

    “I’m not so sure she’s looking to get out. When does she express a wish for that? She articulates pain and hell, but never comes out and says she wants out.”

    Fair enough.

    Now let me ask you to imagine that the narrator is only 14.

    Would that change your interpretation?

  4. i won’t get into this psychological debate (my therapist and i have enough trouble understanding my thinking and behavior) but i will say this fisher…i had the very same strong reaction to maria, i was early twenties at the time( can’t believe we’ll all be hitting fifty soon) and while it has faded from time to time it’s still there…as a matter of fact she and her husband have a movie out so she’s back in the public eye to an extent (new videos up on yt) ..many many great videos up on the tube, i like the live ones…i could go on forever about her and would be happy to correspond with you more if you like…btw, if you’re going to keep going down the shrink route, we may want to take a hard look at tp…the “stick it in line” is classic petty though it sure got maria alot of attention at the time, what a hook….take care, marc nichol youngstown, ohio

    take

  5. also, as far as maria and guys, specifically tench, the back and forth between them, good heart-maria, you little thief-benmont is classic…feargal sharkey rode this thing hard to the top of the charts, fleetwood mac would be proud…so would seinfeld, there’s an episode where jerry and elaine were rooting for a couple to break up so they could date the spouses

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