July 17, 2017
Hey, can I play you something?
by Ian Dreiblatt
Check out this song, it’s weird and excellent:
So, yeah. That was Potrzebie (That’s What I Want) by Mike “Sport” Murphy. Each author’s name—including, forgive me for observing, more than one Melvillean—accompanies a recording of birds from the part of the US where they lived. In other words, we hear their names while hearing the birds they heard. Factor in some sweet-as-hell shredding and the fact the song’s title calls out both Mad magazine and one of pop music’s most exquisite high-water marks, and this, I say unto you, is something worth liking.
It enters this world via Willoughby (as in The Twilight Zone), a luxuriantly dingy record Murphy self-released in 1997, and saw commercially re-issued by Kill Rock Stars in 1999. (I come from a wonderful country called the past. It’s full of record stores and there’s no internet: paradise.) Willoughby combines a Charles Ives-y sort of sprung Americana with a pessimism that smells of having read too much — an album whose studious poppiness is achingly thirsty at its most austere and positively manic at its most baroque. The songwriting is characterized by passages like this one:
Kettles will be whistling to proclaim with shrill insistence an impending cup of Sanka,
Someone will be hearing and presumably enjoying something written by Paul Anka,
Dogs will be forsaken and taken to the pound,
On the day they lay your body in the ground.
The record finds its apotheosis in its final song, a rousingly bleak rendition of Gentle Annie by Stephen Foster, the dude who wrote Oh Susana. Murphy—who feels like spiritual kin to Foster, in a cobwebbed-parlor kind of way—begins the cover with an intro entitled A Wretch Like Me (complete with Beach Boys harmonies):
Smug as any specialist,
Blithely cruel as any child,
Vain as any atheist,
Devout in all his high denials.
Thank you for the seasons, God,
Thank you for the Beach Boys, too,
Thank you for my life, dear God,
And on a final note, aaaah-oooooooh.
Something tells me this is going to be just the week for Willoughby, the peculiar, sad, funny, beautiful, and ridiculous record Mike “Sport” Murphy released twenty years ago. Carry it with you, and be brave.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.