I actually heard the first few rhythms and chords while driving home alone after dinner, a few days ago. I only sort-of recognized it, until the voices came in. Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson, those are two voices that stand out.
It turned out to be Planet Claire, from the very first album.
The next afternoon, I let the tape roll some more, until probably my favorite B-52’s song – MANY people’s favorite song, probably — came on: “Rock Lobster”. I remember listening to “Rock Lobster”, some year that resembled 1996, driving on a dark stretch of US-20, near the Dunes.
It was a softly cool Indiana summer night, middle of August. A fierce demand of fall dropped a hot week into a chilly night. Fireflies were out in force, in a mob, in a riot. In the space of only a few hundred yards, fifteen or so of them suicided onto my windshield with explosions of yellow glow. I actually had to pull over, and scrape off their kamikaze bodies, while the phosphorescence slowly disintegrated.
That night, “Rock Lobster” was a strange and ironic soundtrack, an urge to keep on driving no matter how many fireflies lemming’d themselves onto the windshield of what was probably a hand-me-down Buick, or a borrowed Mercury Sable.
During this commute, over a decade later, I could only marvel at how fucking hard the B-52’s work their early songs. They work them to death, wringing every bit of smoke and sweat of each lyric, each pluck at a guitar or bass string, each random-ass shout from Fred Schneider.
Here’s what especially struck me: “Rock Lobster” has only really got about two riffs. And really, only two basic lyrics. But the B-52’s turn that meager musical gruel into an epic goddamn meal. It’s SIX MINUTES AND 51 FUCKING SECONDS LONG.
(Damn me, I just checked. “Stairway to Heaven”, the gold standard for epic rock song to end all rock songs, is only 8 minutes, only one minute longer than “Rock Lobster”.)
But in the car, I finally realized how “Rock Lobster” makes that work for me. The song tastes of 2AM in a basement, or a frathouse, and you’re finally drunk enough. You’re finally out of your own head enough. You’ve give on getting laid, given up on conversation, but you haven’t given up on the night.
And this simple song kicks in. From a band that can clearly play just okay, not great, but they work harder than any other band you’ve ever seen, and they play just well enough to kick the music around in a very simple way.
But thank god, because simple is all you can handle at 2AM, on the tenuous string between “just getting started” and “fucking done”.
On that string, “Rock Lobster” is an moment that lives and thrives, and it’s easy for you to actually dance. Not dance-club dance, not with any skill. You wouldn’t draw any eyes, or win any awards. You’d simply throw your hands in the air, like you just did not care. And you’d dance that mess around for as long as you could, until the sweat ran down your face, and the floor vibrated like a trampoline.
Of course, that would be the last song of the night, the lights would go up, some jackass would put on Frank Sinatra, and you’d stagger out into the street, dissatisfied but happy.
12 years later, the B-52’s would put out “Love Shack”, which is about as effortless a song as ever existed.
I did not listen o that side of the tape, and here’s why.
I have a kid on the way. First kind, very happy, very expectant, thanks very much.
If it’s a girl, we’ll call her Vivian. A boy: Henry.
Right, stick that on the corkboard for a second. Hold it…
During the middle of the song, there’s that singular point of silence, where Cindy Wilson shouts out unintelligible words, and then the song continues. I learned years after the song came out that she shouts, “Tin roof! Rusted.” I believe it is probably one of the most misheard lyrics around, but I’m sure you all recognize what I’m yapping about.
I always heard her singing, “Henry! Busted!” Or more accurately transcribed:
If it’s a boy, if it’s Henry, I’m going to listen to that song with him. And I’ll tell him my misheard version is the correct one. So always, even after he’s old enough to think and KNOW I was full of odiferous crap, Henry can think that song is about him.
Then maybe I’ll flip the tape, and see if my son likes to dance.