"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Friday, February 24, 2006

Random In the Foodchain 

"Let's start at the beginning; a very good place to start."

Today's Random Ten is only quasi-random, being drawn exclusively from the last 400 songs added to my library:
1. "Mission a Paris" (Gruppo Sportivo)
2. "The No-No Song" (Ringo Starr)
3. "Willie and the Pigman" (Tonio K.)
4. "Gimme Shelter" (Rolling Stones)
5. "Tennessee Stud" (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band)
6. "Spy In the House of Love" (Was (Not Was))
7. "Rio" (Duran Duran)
8. "Quicksand" (T-Bone Burnett)
9. "Passionate Kisses" (Lucinda Williams)
10. "God Is Watching You" (Leslie [Sam] Phillips)

Now, then. The reader's attention is directed to track number 3, "Willie and the Pigman" by Tonio K. This song is taken from Tonio's debut album, Life In the Foodchain, which was released in 1978 or '79 (the authorities are in some dispute on this point), and which is without a doubt one of my ten favorite albums of all time - on a good day, it's in my top 3. I own an original promo pressing on green vinyl, but in the interest of preservation I now play it only on special occasions (like when a Republican is elected to the White House). You can imagine my ecstacy, then, when I found the entire album in MP3 form while cruising some nefarious corner of the Internet two days ago. If you are unfamiliar with this album - and I confidently predict that you are - there is a big, gaping hole in your life.

Tonio K. is the nom de groove of Steve Krikorian, who was born on the Fourth of July (1950), and has the uniquely American scars to prove it. His stage name comes from a Thomas Mann novella, Tonio Kröger, which is, according to one scholar, "a study of the protagonist's emergence from the schizoid to the depressive position." Coincidentally, that's a not half bad description of this album. Life In the Foodchain is a dark, violent, decadent, and hilariously funny exploration of the links between the personal and the political, the sexual and the sociological, and the putrescent ooze that holds it all together. Throughout the album, the dismissive manner in which a lover exploits his partner is no different than the way society treats the poor and disenfranchised, and vice versa. There are no victims or villians, only losers and winners - but, since the winners are themselves consumed as one works up the food chain, ultimately there are only losers.

Also, I should mention that the album rocks really, really hard.

I must warn you that a good many listeners are likely to be put off by the apparently misogynistic tone of the album - at least four of its nine songs specifically describe acts of violence against women, perpetrated by the narrator. I think, however, that it would be simplistic to describe the record as "anti-woman." It is, more fundamentally, anti-human - or, perhaps more accurately, anti-humanity. People abuse their lovers simply because that's what emotional predators do; had any of the songs been written for a female voice, I am sure that the men in their lives would have fared no better.

The album opens with the title track, "Life In the Foodchain." Here, we learn everything we need to know about human nature in Tonio's world:
'Cause it's dog eat dog
And it's cat and mouse
It's watch your step and cross yourself
And get back in the house
And it's do or die
It's push and shove
Because everybody's hungry
And there isn't quite enough

That's right, we're talkin' about the good life
In the foodchain
Love among the ruins
I guess that you've finally got to accept
That there's nothing you can do about it
It's kind of like carving the turkey
It's kind of like mowing the lawn:
Everything gets to this certain dimension
Winds up on a customer's plate and then gone

So then, what to do in the face of such horror? Why, dance of course! The next track, "The Funky Western Civilization," presents "a brand new dance craze / sweeping the nation":
Well there's a riot in the courthouse, there's a fire in the street
There's a sinner bein' trampled by a thousand pious feet
There's a baby every minute bein' born without a chance
Now don't that make you want to jump right up and start to dance?

Let's do the funky
The funky western civilization
It's really spunky
It's just like summertime vacation
You just grab your partner by the hair
Throw her down and leave her there

While the first half of the record focuses mostly on the big picture (and it hardly gets bigger than "The Ballad of the Night the Clocks All Quit (And the Government Failed)," in which we meet Attila the Hun, John the Baptist, Hitler, and Uncle Sam, and find them all to be two-bit hustlers), the second half focuses on intimate relationships. Needless to say, the point of view is no less cynical. The side opens with "American Love Affair," in which we meet characters who have been left incapable of genuine affection by the sordid world in which they live:
Sweet Rebecca, she's a go-getter
She'll tell you that she loves you for a price
And she should know better, but no one's let her
Take the time to think at all, much less think twice
And now all the glitter and the human litter
That surround her seem as normal as the sky
And in the morning, if you buy her diamonds
She will always try to guess how much, but never why

Later on, however, Tonio tips his hand in the achingly lovely ballad "Better Late Than Never." Although the song begins with a typically violent image ("The insults and the punches flew, just like they always had / I knocked her down and left the room, but she came running back"), the core of the song is the closest this record comes to genuine redemption: After concluding that he and his lover can never treat each other decently while they're together, the narrator concludes that the only decent solution is to be apart:
So you keep the car
And all the passionate letters
They won't get you that far
They won't make it no better
And maybe someday
Some other time
We can try this again
Maybe someday these flamin' hearts
Will learn how to be friends

All this accompanied by a beautiful melody that would not be out of place on a record by any Nashville diva; indeed, Tanya Tucker covered this song shortly after its original release, on a long out-of-print album fittingly entitled Tear Me Apart.

Finally, Life In the Foodchain ends with one of the funniest, scariest songs I know. It's called "H-A-T-R-E-D," and it begins with a quiet, pretty acoustic guitar figure, before devolving into a full-on sonic thrashfest. Lyrically, it is indescribably arch:
I know I'm acting immature
I'm acting like a child
I should display some self-control
Instead of going wild like this
And I do wish I could accept all this
As simply "life," which includes pain
And act upon the actual fact
That nobody's to blame
Yes I wish I was as mellow
As, for instance, Jackson Browne
But "fountain of sorrow" my ass, motherfucker
I hope you wind up in the ground

I'm so full of H-A-T-R-E-D
I'm bitter and malign
You've got me P-I-S-S-E-D off
I'm angry most of the time
Why don't you G-O-T-O-H-E-double-L
You tramp, you philandering bitch
I'm going to K-I-L-L one of us baby
When I'm sober I'll decide on which

In the end, the song collapses into a chaotic cacophony, over which we hear the narrator blandly intone "but then again, maybe with the proper counseling, we can work this out." My guess is that the singer finally sobered up, decided who he was going to kill - and his faithless lover is as safe as milk.

When Life In the Foodchain was released, Stereo Review's repected critic, Steve Simels, declared it "the greatest album ever recorded." Several readers responded in enthusiastic agreement, but there was one dissenting response:
Has Simels gone mad? "Life in the Foodchain," while certainly a good, great, maybe even swell album, can't possibly be the greatest album ever recorded. "James Brown Live at the Apollo" is. This can be substantiated with actual documentation, so don't argue with me. And what about the Seeds' first album? And is the cat still in the freezer?
- Tonio K., Calabasas, Calif.

Some people never tire of being a wiseass.

Tonio K. went on to produce several more albums, eventually more-or-less settling into the fringes of the Contemporary Christian Music scene. Surprised? Don't be - you know what they say; scratch a cynic and deep down you'll always find a romantic (along these lines, I would refer the interested listener to such CCM mavericks as T-Bone Burnett and Sam Phillips, who also, by coincidence, appear on this week's Random Ten - is someone trying to tell me something?). He now makes his living as a songwriter, his work having been performed by such varied artists as Al Green, Bonnie Raitt, Aaron Neville, and Wynonna Judd.

And now, I get to conclude this screed with some genuinely good news - I was all set to finish up by complaining that Life In the Foodchain has been criminally out-of-print for a couple of decades now, and that some small record label somewhere could do the world a favor by reissuing this occult gem. Well, as it happens, that is exactly what has happened. Gadfly Records has re-released Life In the Foodchain - actually, they released it in 1995, which shows you how out-of-touch I've become - and it is currently available at a very modest price on Amazon.com. You should buy three copies - one to leave in your CD player permanently, one to give to the next person who asks you for spare change, and one to bequeath to your children (but not until they're suitably mature - say, 30 or so). While you're at it, you may as well grab James Brown Live At the Apollo as well, just to make sure you're covered.




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