John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Blues Brothers and Sisters

Sieger dives deeper into a dark pool of defeatists and discovers glory in their loserdom.

By - Aug 14th, 2014 12:19 pm
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Steely Dan in 1970. Photo: Charlie Gillett Archive/Redferns

Steely Dan in 1970. Photo: Charlie Gillett Archive/Redferns

I recently wrote about two songs, one called A Stone Loser, by this year’s absolute champions of lost soul, Ben & Spence and I’m A Loser, by Beck. They both celebrate defeat in ways that are oddly triumphant and it got me thinking about other songs that accomplish this feat. There seem to be a lot out there and I would say, as a rule, they fare better than those that focus on the singer’s golden moment in the winner’s circle. End zone dances work better in football than in music. That’s just my opinion, but I’ll back it up with a short list of some of the winningest loser songs of all time.

Deacon Blues Steely Dan

I am sorry to say that this group was once a guilty pleasure of mine. Though they charted well, few women and even fewer cool guys liked this band. They were my secret band crush the public could never know about until I finally caught them at The Riverside Theater. There were more than a few hipsters who probably wouldn’t appreciate being outed as Dan fans, yet couldn’t resist the rare chance to catch these polished misanthropes. Anyway, no more apologies — it was as tight a show as anything James Brown ever put on and in this age of climate change denial and anti-intellectualism, I’m rooting for the smartest guys in the room. And just how smart are these lines?

They’ve got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blue

All right Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, you are the new valedictorians of cool; the Einsteins of snarky absurdism. But mostly, you are the class wise guys, sitting in the back taking shots at the jocks and pining for the cheerleaders. And I’m glad that school seems to have been a rough experience for you, if it made you write this caustic anthem of resignation — you showed the bullies by taking it to the top of the charts.

I’m A Loser  The Beatles

Speaking of popular, was there ever anyone as close to complete world domination as these guys, who also had the chutzpah to describe themselves as losers? To be more specific, let’s make that John Lennon, as complex and twisted as any pop idol we have known. If you’re one of the few who haven’t read a Beatles biography — his woes are well documented. Losing his mom would have to be the biggie. Yet he magically parlayed that into life at “the toppermost of the poppermost,” as he called it. It seemed he had begun to shut off the hurt just before his untimely death.

This song is a gem and I have had the pleasure of playing it live on many occasions.Utterly deceptive in its simplicity, it seems like a chip shot until you try to learn it. Nailing those rockabilly licks with George Harrison’s casual aplomb will probably remain something I only dream of. As for Lennon, he famously trashed many of his own Beatle songs. He was famously wrong.

I’m Down  The Beatles

Every statement made about Lennon and his particular skill somehow rings just as true when we speak of Sir Paul McCartney. Odd, isn’t it?The two-way street that ran between them resulted in a near cloning of their most salient traits. Lennon shredded his vocals on Twist & Shout? Well dig this screaming performance from Paul, an absolute tonsil twister! If Lennon cribbed from The Isley Brothers, Sir Paul was one of the best students Little Richard ever had — this track proves it. Being down never sounded like such an utter release — you might say it’s almost as good as life on the upswing. If love is this tortuous, he might think about not sounding so doggone thrilled. Happiness should have such an appealing advertisement.

Born To Lose Ray Charles

When Brother Ray did his take on country and western music he turned heads on both sides of the tracks. Segregation was as much a reality in the music business as it was everywhere else in America. Fortunately, radio stations were unable to beam their music into exclusively white or black homes, because many would have. There were as many black people listening to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM as there were young white hipsters tuning into Hoss Allen playing rhythm and blues on clear channel WLAC. (Both stations were in Nashville, by the way.)

Charles got plenty of flack from his own people when ABC Records released his ground-breaking album, Modern Sounds In Country and Western. Let’s say it was a bit counter-intuitive.  I’m sure there wasn’t much of a welcoming committee in the country world either. But the record was astounding. Even though background singers, famously lampooned on SNL as “The Young Caucasians,” weren’t showing The Raelettes anything and the arrangements were the hippest around, the unsurpassable Mr. Charles wrenched every bit a pathos there was to be had from this amazing chestnut. Again, we see the triumph of the last place winner.

I’d Rather Go Blind Etta James

Please do me a favor, the next time you hear someone praising Janis Joplin, God rest her soul, tell them about Etta James. Suggest they listen to this song before they crown Joplin. As talented and intense as Joplin was, she didn’t live long enough to steal the thunder from her main inspirations. It’s one thing to live life on the edge and sing with undeniable power. It’s a whole other thing to hold it in check until it hurts so much you will either implode or kill someone.

There is nothing like the visceral thrill that this woman, famously unhappy and talented in equal, plus-sized proportions, provides. Hearing Etta James sing this song leaves no doubt she was making a dangerous bargain with the universe, which somehow rooted her experience. If she was only playing the part of a broken-hearted reject in the game of love, let’s give her an Oscar for best performance. You can’t fake this kind of emotion anymore than you can resist starting the song again once it’s over.

The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes Elvis Costello

I mentioned the first lines of this song in my first loser column. Because I played the B-side first by mistake, “I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused,” served as my introduction to Costello’s acerbic wit. It doesn’t stop there — how’s this for a punch to the gut?

I said I’m so happy I could die
She said drop dead and left with another guy

Ouch! Costello, in his first effort not only wrote some of the best all-time romantic loser tunes, he completely owned the look with his nerd glasses and drainpipe jeans. His album cover was surely designed for ridicule by “winners” like David Lee Roth. (Who laughingly described all rock critics as Costello clones — would it have been better if they look like Roth?) That brand of cock-rock personified by Roth was 180º from what we are discussing here and many, myself included, found its mercifully short spandex moment in the sun tiresome and overblown. Thanks for the course correction, Elvis!

Poor Poor PitifulMe Warren Zevon

You lay your head on the railroad track ready to end it all. That is pretty much the ultimate loser act. Guess what? “…the railroad don’t run no more.” The universe has slapped you down and shown you the face of a real loser. Congratulations. Warren Zevon was word perfect before that software was invented. His constructions were never a line too long, plus he had an ear as true and funny as any. Zevon’s lyrics sit on the backbeat like Zen koans.

Speaking of Zen, Buddhists teach us that winning and losing are flip sides of the same coin. To want one more than the other is folly. We will all experience both unless we are so rich we can dig a crocodile filled moat around our lives. That’s good, because it’s hard to learn from winning — overall, it just makes you a nervous over the collapse of the status quo.

Still, there are few people looking to have their hearts broken or their lives upended just to build character. Even the Dalai Lama must have moments when he wishes things were different and somehow better. Should he ever decide to try songwriting, I’ll lay odds he writes about losers.

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