Sunday, August 29, 2010

We Built This City

I come from a small family.

My mother was an only child, and my father had a sister who was six years older. Based on what I know of my aunt, she was something of a prodigy. I heard, for example, that she graduated from high school when she was about 16 and that she finished college before she was 20. Some time after that, she married a man who worked for General Electric, and she apparently devoted herself to her home and her three children.

My cousins were all older than I was, and, until I was about 10 or 11, they lived in the Netherlands. So I never saw them when I was a child.

They returned to the United States when I was about 12, but GE didn't send my uncle to Texas, where my grandmother still lived, or somewhere else in the South. Instead, GE sent them to Schenectady, N.Y. — more than 1,400 miles from Dallas and more than 1,100 miles from my hometown of Conway, Ark.

Even though we were finally on the same continent, it seemed to me that I might grow up without knowing that side of my family. But my parents were planning a trip to Vermont one summer to visit some old friends, and it was decided that we would stop in Schenectady and visit my aunt and uncle and the cousins while we were in that part of the country.

And so we did.

The youngest of my cousins was about five or six years older than I was so all three were around college age then. There were two boys and one girl. I think the girl was the youngest, and she may have still been in high school. I don't recall seeing the oldest — he may have been out of college by that time, might even have been married and living somewhere else.

But the middle son was there. As I recall, he had been away from home most of that summer and had just returned home. I even remember seeing his bags in the hallway. Maybe he had been taking summer classes at the college where he was enrolled. Anyway, our visit came during a period between the end of summer school and the beginning of the fall semester, and I remember my uncle teasing my cousin about missing the smell of cigarette smoke around the house while he was gone.

I have a memory of all of us sitting in my aunt's living room and talking, and I recall my aunt and uncle telling us that my cousin Cathy had just had her wisdom teeth extracted. That gave my father the opportunity to recall when my aunt had her wisdom teeth extracted. "She made sure we all knew about it," my father said.

Somewhere around that time, Cathy got up, excused herself and went to the back of the house, where her room was, and put a record on her turntable. And I could hear the familiar songs of Jefferson Airplane — "Somebody to Love," "Volunteers" and "White Rabbit," among others.

Those are the songs that I always associate with Jefferson Airplane. The group disbanded around the time of our visit to Schenectady and was soon replaced by Jefferson Starship, which later dropped the "Jefferson" part and just went by the name of Starship.

I always felt that was a corporate sellout, considering that Jefferson Airplane always seemed like the embodiment of the left–wing counterculture. Starship just seemed too commercial.

But when Jefferson Airplane crashed, Jefferson Starship rose from the ashes in its place. At first, there seemed to be little difference between the two. Grace Slick was still singing for the band, and it was churning out hits like "Miracles" and "Jane."

Initially, I suppose, I didn't realize just how commercial Starship really was. The parting of the ways, for me, came 25 years ago tomorrow, when Starship released "We Built This City."

I felt at the time that it was a perfectly horrid song — and that opinion was confirmed nearly 20 years later, when Blender magazine named it the worst song ever.

Now, that probably requires a disclaimer. Six years ago, Blender put together a list of what it called the 50 worst songs of all time, which was inspired by a VH1 special called "The 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs ... Ever."

I'm sure you can think of at least one song — probably many more — that could fairly be said to be worse than "We Built This City." And that brings us to the catch.

In order to qualify for the list, the song had to be a hit at some point. It didn't have to reach #1 on the Billboard chart, but it had to be popular enough that it sold fairly well and got decent airplay.

Astonishingly, though, "We Built This City" actually did reach #1 on Billboard's chart about 2½ months after it was released as a single. So it qualified for inclusion in the list. People liked it. They really liked it. But I didn't.

The issues I have with "We Built This City" are too numerous to discuss here. But I've always been irritated by the lyrics. I guess I owe that to my training as a journalist and my experience as a copy editor. I can — and have — put up with a lot. But "We Built This City" was the straw that broke this camel's back.

Early in the song, for example, it refers to Italian radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi playing the mamba. Mamba is the name of the species and subspecies of a deadly snake. My guess is that the writer of the song, Bernie Taupin, meant mambo, which is a dance. Poetic license?

I guess I expected better from Taupin. He wrote so many of the really fine songs that made Elton John a star. But words have meaning, and, when a lyricist uses a word simply because it rhymes with something else and not because it has a relevant meaning, that's just wrong.

Well, I suppose even the best song writers can come up with a clinker now and then.

Paul McCartney, for example, was half of the greatest song writing team in popular music history when he and John Lennon were composing songs for the Beatles. Then, after the Beatles broke up, McCartney went on to a very successful career as first the leader of the group Wings and then as a solo artist, writing several very good songs.

But he took his lumps from Blender — and justifiably so — for his collaboration with Stevie Wonder on the dreadful "Ebony and Ivory" and his participation in the Beatles' "Ob–La–Di, Ob–La–Da."

I don't have an argument with either of those selections, but I would include a third song, for which McCartney was responsible — "Let 'Em In," which was released 34 years ago.

It would be hard to beat the jejune quality of the chorus — "Someone's knocking on the door/Somebody's ringing the bell/Someone's knocking on the door/Somebody's ringing the bell/Do me a favor/Open the door/And let 'em in."

But I suppose it redeems itself, to a degree, by having lyrics that have some meaning — even if the meaning is an inside joke.

The song recites a list of names, which, as I learned later in my life, actually refer to real people. Well, most of them do:
  • "Sister Suzy" was McCartney's first wife, Linda.

  • "Brother John" is Linda's brother, John.

  • "Martin Luther" has never been made clear, but it probably isn't a reference to Martin Luther King, as might seem obvious. More likely, I have been told, it is a reference to Lennon, who was called "Martin Luther Lennon" by McCartney and the Beatles.

  • "Phil and Don" are the Everly Brothers.

  • "Brother Michael" is McCartney's brother.

  • "Auntie Jin" was McCartney's aunt.
And there is more. Later in the song, "Brother Michael" is replaced by "Uncle Ernie," which is a reference to the Who's Keith Moon, who played the character of Uncle Ernie in the film version of the Who's "Tommy."

"Auntie Jin" was replaced by "Uncle Ian" — whoever he is/was.

If Blender wants to come up with a revised list, I don't object to keeping "We Built This City" in the top spot. And most of the songs on the original list certainly deserved to be there.

But I wouldn't mind if "Let 'Em In" was in the Top 50.