Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Building A Better Rat Trap


I’ve been meaning to write about the Boomtown Rats for some while and today’s big Live 8 announcement seems like an opportune time. People are actually thinking about Sir Geldof again. It feels like it’s been twenty years or something, yes? This Live 8 concert series happens to coincide with the re-release of the Boomtown Rats catalog. Is this a coincidence or a conspiracy? I’ll let you be the judge. My only comment for Live 8 is they should let the Spice Girls play! How can Mary J. Blige or Destiny’s Child be considered more political? Here’s the announced concert line-ups so you can click and see for yourselves. But the point of this post is not to criticize Live 8 (at least not much), but to talk about one song from the Boomtown Rats first album.

Like “Mary Of The 4th Form”, “Joey’s On The Street Again” was good enough to be included on the US release of their second album, Tonic For The Troops. “Joey…” was so good it didn’t even have to be re-recorded. It was a song that seemed like it could have come from Springsteen’s Born To Run album, though Geldof claimed he didn’t nick any ideas from Bruce since he had never heard any of his music. I can accept that. Just because a song tells a story about street life and has a saxophone taking a solo doesn’t mean it’s all because of the Boss or Clarence Clemmons. Further tracing might lead to West Side Story and then to James Dean and then to Marlon Brando in The Wild One. The romantic rebel is a well worn archetype. “Joey’s On The Street Again” proceeds to turn that archetype right on its head with a post-modern shakedown.

The first verse begins appropriately at a rock and roll show. It had to be one hell of a show since “dawn was breaking” when Joey decides to sneak in and check it out. I’ve tried to pretend I was with the band to get in for free and it never worked, but Joey “never used to pay” and get away with it. The next verse is one of the finest portraits of loneliness out there: “he was no great draw at pulling the chicks, he used to lie against the wall like he was holding up the bricks” – and soon after we learn that Joey is a legend to the neighborhood kids. He is a loner, a romantic rebel to be admired, but never gotten too close too. Anytime something crazy happens he gets the blame whether he was responsible or not.

That kind of societal pressure can wear on a man. So by verse two we find out that Joey has grown older “without a cause”, so he decides to stop rebelling. Society has beaten him down. He gets married, has kids, and gets a job. Still he gets into “brushes with the law.” They probably wouldn’t let the man have any peace as he walked the straight and narrow. The things you do as an adolescent and young adult can haunt you the rest of your life. A romantic rebel who flames out gets everybody’s awe, but one who settles down gets antagonized if he doesn’t merit just pity.

Joey doesn’t take it. He cracks and goes back to his life as a loner. There’s no warning. He just says he’s “leaving” one day. He disappears completely, although rumors start spreading from people who said “they’d seen him, they were nearly always wrong.” Here’s where Joey takes a mysterious turn in the song. A “rumor, floating from the docks, saying a crazy stranger had been found lying among the rock” suddenly makes the rounds which either means they think Joey killed this man, or perhaps the crazy stranger was Joey himself? The first scenario is far more likely as the chorus kicks in again to remind us that Joey was considered crazy after all, plus everybody knew Joey.

It’s hard to say if Joey knew he was a legend to the younger kids. He seemed too insular and aloof to have been that big on socializing. A romantic rebel is not going to conform to anything or anybody. He was a legend though, as much for his crazy actions as for his absence from what’s likely to have been the city of Dublin, since this was where the Boomtown Rats were based. After he leaves his admirers begin to question why they are hanging around. The city with its alleys and dirt stink. There are too many people packed in like sardines, a person can barely find room to have a quiet time to think. Maybe Joey’s life has inspired others to get out before they get completely beaten, before they end up like the characters in Geldof’s first number one hit, “Rat Trap” do.

That inspiration may be enough to redeem Joey but we all know the rebel archetype always gets it in the end. Where would the glamour be if they didn’t live fast and die young? Joey doesn’t end up dead though, he just ends up missing. Maybe he couldn’t take either lifestyle. Maybe he was just a “crazy cat” and nothing more. Joey’s fate is left up to the listener’s imaginations. It’s up to you to decide whether Joey was a rebel to admire or just another low life chump chewed up and spit out by both proper society and the underground.

That seems easy enough. He’s got to be a romantic rebel worthy of our idolatry, right? The way the song has just told his life, those uplifting choruses you can’t help but sing along with – crazy cats are worshipped in rock and roll. That Dionysian urge is where it’s at. Until you run into the existential mojo of the 20th Century smacking you right upside the head. Because Geldof gets it – the implicit quaking fear at the heart of the romantic rebel’s being – the sad fact that there’s a real good chance that as my favorite poet named Shelley (Pete, that is) sang, “there is no love in this world anymore.” Geldof beat Shelley to the punch with the ending lines of “Joey’s On The Street Again” with “don't believe it, don't believe it what they say on TV, there's no romance, no romance, for Joey in this city.” There’s no romance for us either. Taken to heart, we see that Joey’s story is just simply depressing – neither hero nor chump is he. The ending of the song is like being beaten in the head with a hammer. After building Joey up in our minds, it’s a complete shocker of an ending and it hurts, but perhaps it’s a hurt we needed.

All of the Boomtown Rats albums have been recently re-issued so for those with money – go buy them. If you’re like me – you’ll just pull out the original records and shake the walls.

Here are the complete lyrics of "Joey's On The Street Again"

Sooner or later when the dawn was breaking
The joint was jumping and the walls were shaking
Joey sneaked in the backdoor way
Pretending he was with the band, he never used to pay
He was no great draw at pulling the chicks
He used to lie against the wall like he was holding up the bricks
And all the things that guy used to do to get his kicks
He was a legend in his lifetime with the neighborhood kids

They said "Joey did this" and "Joey did that"
Oh that guy was crazy, what a crazy cat
Then something strange would happen, there's trouble on the way
And trouble only means one thing....
Joey's on the street again.

Joey grew older, older without a cause
Got married, had some kids and had his brushes with the law
Settled down and got a job, then said "I'm leaving" one day
"I've gotta hang loose a while, take care while I'm away."
People said they'd seen him, they were nearly always wrong
'Cause no one knew how much he had, where he'd gone or for how long
'Til one day there came a rumor, floating from the docks
Saying a crazy stranger had been found lying among the rocks.

The said "Joey was this" and "Joey was that"
Oh that guy was crazy, what a crazy cat
But no one quite believed it, all rumors are the same
And now if something happens they say....
Joey's on the street again.

When Joey moved away
A lot of the kids said "I can't stay around here"
They said "I'm moving out, going away
They said "I'm leaving, getting out
"I'm gonna go somewhere where it doesn't stink
Away from the alleys, somewhere I can think
Wash the dirt from my hands, watch it wash down the sink
It's a strain on the brain living close to the brink

Look at the brickwall gravestone where some kid was sprayed
Saying nobody could be bothered here to rule O.K.
Don't believe it, don't believe it what they say on TV
There's no romance, no romance
For Joey in this city.

I snagged the lyrics from this good Boomtown Rats fan site.

No comments: