First release: John Henry, 1994
(This is an ongoing countdown that will be updated through April. Click here for the full list.)
As we move into the teens in our countdown, we reach the first entry from my favorite TMBG album, John Henry. The album was the band’s first with a full band in place of a drum machine [Get it? John Henry??] and some fans hate it the way Bob Dylan fans sneer at his electric guitar. While I don’t have strong feelings about Dylan, however, I will fight to the death over John Henry–while the band may later have struggled to find their sound with a band, on this record they were exploring new possibilities with wildly creative arrangements.
The song begins with an Allen Ginsberg line: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical.” According to the band, Ginsberg gave permission to use the quote without any kind of payment. It then moves into something like a narcissistic artist’s grandiose delusion, or a teenager’s overblown sense of persecution. By the second verse, that line has evolved: “I saw the worst bands of my generation applied by magic marker to drywall.” And then, in the third: “I was the worst hope of my generation.”
TMBG have a knack for expressing some of their deeper fears and darker thoughts through song, and two recurring themes are the loss of creative inspiration (Number Three, Stalk of Wheat, Nouns) and the difficulty in reaching an audience (Rhythm Section Want Ad, Hey Mr. DJ…, Alienation’s for the Rich). While John Linnell has apparently referred to this song as featuring an “unreliable narrator,” I suspect there may be more than a little of the band’s id informing these lyrics.
Alex says: “There’s nothing like starting off a song with a reading from “howl”… The work on this song really seems to betray the template for the mid-90’s TMBG songs. Organ tracks under Guitar arpegios with plenty of snare on the downbeat. That’s not meant as a criticism… it’s actually one of my favorite songs on the album.”
BONUS: The (apparent) Dial-A-Song version is available on YouTube!