John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“Loser”

Beck’s smart, eclectic song is kind of post-modern update of the obscure “Stone Loser” by Ben & Spence.

By - Aug 6th, 2014 03:36 pm
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email
Beck

Beck

It’s good to have a guy on the corner who, like the snitch in The Rockford  Files,  can hip you to what is going on. Mine is Milwaukee’s own Paul Cebar. He is a very reliable sources of new and fantastic music and his services are free. This connection goes back to the ’80s when we both were in the R&B Cadets, a band that mixed my songs with gems from Paul’s then modest collection of  about 10,000 records. By now he probably has one for every hamburger ever served at McDonald’s. On the drives to gigs, Paul was handy with the boom box and mixtapes, and his impeccable ear and sense of history was generously shared — it influenced the band and my writing greatly.

When I say he was a source for “new” music, that doesn’t mean he pulled from the Top 40 of the day. Songs could come from any point in time or part of the map, often by obscure artists or lesser known songs by popular ones. I prided myself on knowing a little bit about this stuff, but there was still plenty to learn. The ongoing education continues on a weekly basis Wednesday mornings on WMSE. His show, Way Back Home, is never dull and always a surefire source of surprising finds, like one of the songs we’ll be listening to here today, Stone Loser, by Ben & Spence. (There’s no YouTube video, I’m afraid. I had to upload the track to Soundcloud. You’ll have to imagine your own video.)

I caught this on Paul’s show about a month ago, as I was driving out to Waukesha to teach. Texting and driving would be safer than listening to this scorching track at anything over five miles an hour. I had to pull over. Ben & Spence, a new name for me, recorded at Rick Hall’s Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. If you missed the PBS special on this fertile crescent of of American soul music, find it and marvel. It’s the fascinating tale of mostly white musicians playing with mostly black artists and and giving Stax Records a run for their money. It all occurred in a small town that became the hippest place on the planet for a few years. If soul music were football, Muscle Shoals was it’s Green Bay and Rick Hall, the owner and mastermind at Fame Recording Studios, was its Vince Lombardi. I’ve already written about another the pinnacle of achievement created there, Aretha Franklin’s Do Right Woman. That was merely the tip of the iceberg.

There is now a three CD compilation of music from the studio with the perfectly clever title Hall of Fame and this song is from Volume 3, which I ordered as soon as I got back from the lesson. After a few listens, I feel the need to go back for the first two. Track for track, this one sizzles and the names, with the exception of Clarence Carter, are mostly unfamiliar.

Using the same compelling sequence of chords heard on The Monkees’ and Paul Revere’s Stepping Stone, this song is the funniest celebration of loserdom since David Letterman’s giant billboard above Times Square proclaiming “We’re Number 2!”  Funny yes, but also superbad. With a slinky little guitar figure that is squeezed through a rotating Leslie speaker, Ben & Spence, who could easily pass for Sam & Dave, let ‘er rip.

I’m stone loser
I’m a stone loser

Some folks got it
And some folks ain’t
Some folks can get it
I’m one that cain’t
And I never have

I’m stone loser
I’m a stone loser

I need a woman
To ease my troubled mind
But who wants a loser
Without a dime
And I ain’t got a dime

I’m a stone loser
I’m a stone loser

I ain’t got money
But I don’t need none
I ain’t got no women
Someday I’ll get some
Oh you bet I will

I’m a stone loser
I’m a stone loser

© Dan Penn Spooner Oldham Screen Gems-EMI Music

Cain’t rhymes with ain’t in this corner of the world and that is just one of the many perfect details in this burner. It doesn’t hurt that track was written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, with nifty changes and very simple, but funny lyrics. It most certainly benefits from an absolute ass-stomping drum part. Is this Roger Hawkins? It could be Bonham. The horn players sound like they flew down from Stax for this session. Why this song wasn’t a hit, I don’t know. Muscle Shoals, which divided into two studios after the original Swampers departed, could have kept the pop charts stocked with high quality songs like this and spared us a lot of the mediocrities of the age.

A couple decades later, a lad who was toddling when all this went down, shortened the title, added some surreal touches and brought us his his take on life on the lower rungs. Beck (Hansen) sounds like he stole Cebar’s record collection, learned everything in it before he went off to hip hop school. The ultimate well-rounded guy, he never met a style he didn’t like or couldn’t cop. His world seems to be filtered through the lens of a bad case of ADD. Whether he has it or not, this fractured vision is evident in every pleasantly jumbled track he records.

His song Loser launched an interesting career that boggles the mind. One of the richer lyric imaginations, he is located somewhere between John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Lewis Carroll. He has a deep appreciation of blues, country, hip hop and folk and delivers consistently cool ideas executed with post-modern panache. If his production borders on too clever at time, you never get the sense that he is merely a glib technician, it’s more like he’s someone whose mind is whirring at a very high RPM.

I think a quick scan of the lyrics will illustrate my point:

In the time of chimpanzees
I was a monkey
Butane in my veins
So I’m out to cut the junkie
With the plastic eyeballs,
Spray-paint the vegetables
Dog food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose
Kill the headlights
And put it in neutral
Stock car flaming’ with a loser
And the cruise control
Baby’s in Reno with the vitamin D
Got a couple of couches,
Sleep on the love seat
Someone keeps saying’
I’m insane to complain
About a shotgun wedding
And a stain on my shirt
Don’t believe everything that you breathe
You get a parking violation
And a maggot on your sleeve
So shave your face
With some mace in the dark
Saving’ all your food stamps
And burning’ down the trailer park

(Yo. Cut it.)
Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?

(Double-barrel buckshot)

Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?

Forces of evil in a bozo nightmare
Banned all the music with a phony gas chamber
‘Cuz one’s got a weasel
And the other’s got a flag
One’s on the pole, shove the other in a bag
With the rerun shows
And the cocaine nose-job
The daytime crap of the folksinger slop
He hung himself with a guitar string
Slap the turkey-neck
And it’s hanging’ from a pigeon wing
You can’t write if you can’t relate
Trade the cash for the beef
For the body for the hate
And my time is a piece of wax
Falling’ on a termite
Who’s choking’ on the splinters
Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?
(Get crazy with the cheeze whiz)
Soy un perdedor*
I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?
(Drive-by body-pierce)
(Yo, bring it on down)
Soooooooyy….
[Chorus backwards]
(I’m a driver; I’m the winner;
Things are gonna change
I can feel it)
Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?

Carl Stephenson, Beck Hansen © Universal Music – Mgb Songs, Funky Toe Publishing

“In the time of chimpanzees, I was a monkey,” may be the best first line I’ve heard from an artist. (I mistakenly played the B side of Elvis Costello’s debut and my introduction to him was, “I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused.” That’s not bad either.) Beck is brilliantly twisted and I’m glad he seems so darned good natured — if a brain like this goes to dark side, we’re all in trouble.

Beck is hardly a loser. He sits at the top of the rockpile, a critic’s darling who sells out shows. He has won the game and it’s great to see someone with his talent reap the rewards. There is no straight path to success, when someone like Beck arrives at the top, it makes perfect sense. Had he not gotten there, it would be baffling.

As for Ben & Spence, they remain frustratingly obscure, a footnote that speaks to the incredible depth of black music in this country. When things this good go unnoticed, the universe is begging for a serious realignment. At least they had the pleasure of singing this great tune and many others. A tired but “successful” oldies act is something they would never become. As unknown and lost to the ages as they were, it could be worse — because the documentation at Fame must have been pretty slipshod. There are two other songs on this collection that will burn holes in your speakers — they are attributed to “Unknown Male Vocalist.”

0 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “Loser””

  1. Anonymous says:

    The first lines of the A side of the first Costello album aren’t so bad either: “Now that your picture’s in the paper bein’ rhythmically admired…”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *