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You call yourself intense

Posted by Joshua Glenn  November 19, 2007 08:17 PM

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In his new book, "The Sound of Our Town" (Commonwealth Editions), which was published earlier this fall, music writer Brett Milano surveys half a century's worth of Boston rock acts and concludes that there's no such thing as a "Boston sound." There is, however, a distinctive, peculiarly Bostonian rocker's fetish. Over the years, one local songwriter after another has penned hit tunes -- some of my favorites! -- about what Milano calls "the intellectual, slightly mysterious rock-and-roll woman." Sounds charming, but there's a dark aspect to this story, if you ask me.

Milano's description puts one in mind of the Fatal Woman who haunted the imaginations of the so-called Decadent novelists and poets of the late 19th century. In "The Romantic Agony," Mario Praz's 1930 overview of the Decadent movement, Praz notes that Théophile Gautier, Arthur Symons, and others described a beautiful enchantress who has seen it all before -- and whose smile, as a result, is as unfathomable as that of La Gioconda, the sexier name for Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Our local rock Gioconda made her first appearance in "Abigail Beecher," a popular 1963 tune by Revere-born Freddy Cannon, whom Milano calls Boston's first pop star. Cannon's titular character is a guitar-playing, blue sunglasses-wearing [i.e., mysterious] educator: "She knows her history from A to Z/She digs the monkey and the Watusi," he sings. "Whoo! It's Abigail Beecher, our history teacher." Whoo! David Lee "Hot for Teacher" Roth, a childhood resident of Brookline and Swampscott, was no doubt impressed by Cannon's fervor.

After Abigail, though, Boston rock's unrequited love affair with educated gals grew more tortured. (After all, unrequited love for your teacher is a normal part of growing up.) "Prime examples would be the women in all the early songs that Jonathan Richman wrote for the Modern Lovers," Milano elaborates via e-mail. Where else but in this hyper-intellectual environment, demands Milano, who moved to Boston in 1980 to study journalism at Boston University, "would someone offer a pickup line like 'Put down your cigarette and drop out of BU!'" In case you don't recognize it, that's the Natick-born Richman's retort, in the band's famous early-'70s anthem "Modern World," to a Kenmore Square coed who's too cool to talk to a guy who barely finished high school. I've always loved that pickup line... but now it strikes me as quasi-stalkerish.

The Modern Lovers

"Then, of course, there are all the women in Cars songs," Milano continues. In fact, he says, Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, who moved to Boston from Ann Arbor in 1972, "seemed to be fascinated with the type." As evidence, Milano quotes two enduring New Wave songs from the Cars' self-titled 1978 debut album. In "Just What I Needed," Ocasek sings, "It doesn't matter where you've been, as long as it was deep, yeah"; and in "Bye Bye Love," he complains: "You think you're so illustrious/You call yourself intense." Ocasek -- who the Boston Phoenix once named one of the 100 Unsexiest Men in the World -- sounds all mixed up. Substitution mass confusion/Clouds inside his head! If Ocasek was fascinated with the Gioconda type, he was fascinated like a rejected suitor.


And after that? Milano points out that "a lot of the women who've appeared in Boston bands since then have embodied that deep thinking mysterious type, from Kristin Hersh [Throwing Muses] to Juliana Hatfield [Blake Babies] to Amanda Palmer [Dresden Dolls]." OK, good point. However, if this trend is for real, I'd want at least one more example, from the 1980s or '90s, of a hit Boston rock song about a cerebral, unattainable woman.

The Del Fuegos' modestly popular 1986 song "I Still Want You," maybe? "Seasons change and lessons get learned" -- sounds like Dan Zanes is making an oblique reference to the semester-oriented life of a college student. "It's been awhile, but my heart burns/It said, I still want you" -- unrequited love. But this is a little vague.

That's when it hit me. How about "Academy Fight Song," by Clint Conley of the brilliant post-punk act Mission of Burma?

Mission of Burma

I know, I know! The song -- which was released in 1980 on the band's debut 7", and quickly sold out of its 7,500-copy pressing -- is supposedly Conley's frustrated response to a needy friend. But Conley has always refused to explain the lyrics: "It's just a big conceit, a metaphor," he's quoted as saying in Michael Azerrad's "Our Band Could Be Your Life." A metaphor for what, exactly?

This won't make me any friends among Mission of Burma fans, probably... but it's now obvious (to me) that "Academy Fight Song" was written from the point of view of a cool, educated young woman who was sick and tired of the obsessive attention paid to her by a would-be boyfriend -- perhaps Conley himself.

No wonder Conley has said that he finds talking about his lyrics "embarrassing." But he shouldn't be ashamed of this gender-switching, feminist, proto-riot grrl manifesto! He was way ahead of his time.

What am I saying? Mission of Burma's beloved theme song -- "Stay just as far from me/As me from you/Make sure that you are sure/Of everything I do/'Cause I'm not not not not not not not not/Your academy" -- is one of the greatest comeback lines of all time, tossed in the collective face of Richman, Ocasek, and every other guitar-slinging lowbrow who's musically expressed his bitterness about being rejected by a smart, hip coed on Mass. Ave -- or perhaps in a BU dorm where the "halls smell like piss" and "the rooms are underlit." The song is postpunk's response to a misogynist strain in punk.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Boston rockers!

UPDATE: Over at Crooked Timber, Scott McLemee says he thinks I'm onto something. He also suggests that the Fatal Woman was actually ventriloquized by another Boston band, Ultimate Spinach, which he describes as "a large group, consisting of unusually pretentious hippies with access to a lot of studio time."

UPDATE: Ed Park, an editor of The Believer and the LA Times's science fiction columnist, has Boston roots. He likes my kooky theory, too.

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1 comments so far...
  1. Rick Ocasek did not sing the song "just what I needed", the cars founder and bassist Benjamin Orr did. Most of THE CARS songs were sung by Ocasek with some exceptions such as this one, The two did sound very simmilar though.

    Posted by Nick Bond April 28, 09 09:29 AM
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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