Thursday, September 16, 2004

Not What They Mean by “Math Rock”

There have always been people who go into music because they’ve got no head for numbers. But then there are some who drag dubious computations into their songwriting and end up just embarrassing themselves.

Take the opening stanza of “Revenge,” by the Flaming Stars:

Oh Julie I feel weary now
Older than a man of thirty-three
The gates of Hell just opened
After twenty years, the warden says I’m free
A quick fiddle with the calculator shows us that this poor broken convict was just thirteen years old when he went to the Big House for killing the man who murdered his girlfriend—who was also, apparently, the town bicycle...
Well God knows, you were no lady
And the witnesses all said you were to blame
With the way you teased the menfolk
The jury all agreed you knew no shame
They grow up so fast, don’t they?

This peculiar revelation gives added poignancy to a later verse’s complaint that “Them lawyers took my money / and the Louisiana road gang took the rest.” You can’t help but feel for the kid; there’s a whole summer’s worth of paper route savings, gone in a flash.

Even more problematic is “Johnny Come Lately,” a track from Steve Earle’s breakthrough Copperhead Road. Like the title cut, it’s a multi-generational family saga. The musical backing (courtesy of the Pogues) is lively—but the chronology gets all hinky in the final verse...

Well my gran’daddy sang this song
Told me about London when the Blitz was on
How he married Grandma and brought her back home
A hero throughout his land
Now I’m standing on a runway in San Diego
A couple Purple Hearts so I move a little slow
There’s nobody here, maybe nobody knows
About a place called Vietnam
The problem, naturally enough, is that the Vietnam war was in fact fought primarily by the children of WWII veterans—which is part of the reason why it created such a traumatic rift between the generations, but that’s another story. Let’s confine ourselves to looking at the numbers, here.

Assume Gran’daddy was in London immediately after the US got into the war. The lyric “It took a little while, but we’re in this fight” would seem to support this. So we’re talking December 1941, at the earliest. Let us further assume that he got Grandma with child immediately upon meeting her. The offspring—our narrator’s future Daddy—would be born September 1942.

As for our narrator: Assume him to be involved in the war in Southeast Asia as late as possible, as the last GI out of Saigon—30 April 1975. Further assume him to have volunteered on his eighteenth birthday. His actual time spent in Vietnam may have been brief—Senator Kerry, after all, only needed four months to earn his two Purple Hearts. Still, our soldier boy would have to have been born in 1957—and sired in early 1956, when his own Daddy was just...


Shit, you don’t suppose “Revenge” takes place in between the second and third verses of “Johnny Come Lately,” do you?

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