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May 1, 2001
In Other Words


The Beautiful South and I go back quite a bit. I first laid eyes on Paul Heaton, the group's master-of-the-bizarre lyricist, when he was with the Housemartins. A rather unattractive bunch, they had daringly turned their profiles to the camera, and they were singing He Ain't Heavy (He's My Brother). Which is a much older song, predating them by a few decades, I guess, but I didn't know it at the time. I was just struck by how they handled the harmonies, and by their style-be-damned attitude bleeding through. No bullshit, just the song. (Years later, Bono of U2 would ad lib "three chords and the truth" in the middle of Bob Dylan's All Along the Watchtower to convey the same stance, but in his case, of course, it ended up coming across ironic.)

The Housemartins broke up, and I would come across their albums time to time. They had deliciously weird titles, like The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death, and I think a "Worst of" collection. It would report gleefully how poorly each of their singles had sold in New Zealand, giving exact figures. That kind of band, yeah.

The next time I heard Heaton singing it was a brilliant satire of bubble-gum pop, its opening bars a Trojan horse of triteness: "I love you from the bottom..." he cooed, and after a Catskills pause, went on, "...of my pencilcase." I bought the album, the new band's debut, and discovered the strongest collection of weird songs I'd heard in my life. Simon LeBon would show up, puke his guts out, and leave. Winston Churchill ran around with the Union Jack wrapped around his head (as I wrote before). A man drank in his living room while his wife's body decomposed, buried in the wall. That last one was as haunting a song about domestic violence as I'd ever heard, and it used instruments that would attract a great deal of attention when they were used, a few years later, by Paul Simon on his Graceland. And then there were all those throwaway sounds from a fairground buried in the mix, and throwaway lines: "Shall we dance again, in our special way, with our trousers down our knees?" and "I love you (but you're boring)" -- which was reprised as "I hate you (but you're interesting)" on the band's second album.

The characters populating the songs were uncouth, blunt, and invariably weird. As in (sung by a female guest vocalist):

Think of you with pipe and slippers
Think of her in bed
Laying there just watching telly
Then think of me instead

I'll never grow so old and flabby
That could never be
Don't marry her, fuck me

Or:

It took a few packed bags and a few slammed doors
It took a false, false smile with a septic pause
From my plastic moustache to your clip-on claws
(In other words I hate you)

My attitude leaves a lot to be desired
My fashion sense has never been quite right
But I'd rather live in drainpipes
Than with friends that I've acquired
(In so many words I hate you)

Here's how a man and woman recall a childbirth differently. The man:

I'll remember the birth
For the rest of my time on this land
Your mother sweating buckets
And me holding onto her hand

And the woman:

Well your father was absent
He claimed he couldn't find the ward
Just tugging on mescal
Trying to eat the umbilical cord

So if anyone asks you
Do you know where you're from, say yes
You're from your mother's womb
And your father's stinking breath

Beneath all the clowning around (which was sometimes too clever for its own good, admittedly), rejection and heartbreak dominated as themes; it seemed the perpetual smirk was the songwriter's way of coping with being spurned just for being different (when you see Heaton singing, it's impossible not to get that impression). For me, at the time, South's soft-spoken yet devastating take on life fit perfectly in an arc that went from (an as yet unseen) America's Paul Simon to Turkish harmonists MFO, weaving their stories of alienation and all-around funk. There was no need for electric riffs drilling through my head to make the same point (though occasionally I would lapse and play Midnight Oil or Pink Floyd and turn it up "to 11").

Perhaps my favorite lyric among all the songs Paul Heaton wrote is the one that sums up the commoner's moment of sweet revenge best. Savor the words and absorb the beauty of its restrained rebellion, a potential anthem for a generation of disgruntled freaks finding their salvation in words, not guns and trenchcoats:

With a face like a crab's bus ticket
And skin like a llama's door mat
He was always gonna struggle
Nature had seen to that

He dreamt of those old-fashioned movies
Where Bogart gets the dame
But a lorry load of Lorre
Is still the score of pain

And he sings
I may be ugly
But I've got the bottle-opener

You can take this song and, running with its inspiration, unleash -- like someone wrote of the human rights themed essays of Nigeria's Wole Soyinka -- "prodigious quantities of spleen" at your favorite target. Let's try it with Donald Trump, for example:

I may not own an Italian suit but I'm the one who bothered to learn the Heimlich maneuver and you're the one who's choking right now.

I may not have a diversified portfolio but my cell phone's got the coverage.

Well, screw the rigid format, let's just go: I may live hand to mouth, but you're a dick.

I may be shy, but I know more than your ignorant ass.

I may not be able to get a table at Spago's, but I've had better food at restaurants you'd be too scared to enter.

You may be a billionaire but you still say "between you and I."

You may be successful but you don't know Albinoni from Bulgari.

You think you're charming but it's just the Rolex.

I may be annoying, but you're repulsive and so's your ostentatious house.

You may hold the market in your palm but you've never held an interesting thought in your head.

I may not be as savvy as you but I know a gold-digging whore when I see one. And your weave is a crime against humanity.

I may not have a yacht but I'll never mistake Stephen R. Covey for a thinker.

She may ooh and aah with you in bed but she tells a different story when she's at the hairdresser's.

(In other words, Donald, I hate you. And your mama who read to you the Wall Street Journal for bedtime stories.)

Self-portraits

I may be ugly, but I've got the camera...

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The current banner photo was taken at the summer restaurant by the Greek monastery atop the summit of Büyükada (Prinkipo Island), off the coast of Istanbul. 1998, I believe.


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