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One day back in 2002, my mom called and said excitedly, “Rocky, have you heard that new Johnny Cash song, ‘The Man Comes Around’?” I had not.

“Oh, you need to hear it. Johnny Cash is always good, but this song is something else. It’s… biblical.”

She tried to explain, but it was futile. I had no idea why the song had her so amped.

When I finally heard it, I understood her enthusiasm.

The song was the title tune on Johnny’s 2002 album “American IV: The Man Comes Around.”

Wikipedia explains it thusly:

“There are numerous biblical references in the lyrics. A spoken portion from Revelation 6:1–2 in the King James Version introduces the song. The passage describes the coming of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, each heralded by one of the ‘four beasts’ first mentioned in Revelation 4:6–9.

“The musical portion then begins with Cash reciting that ‘the man’ (Jesus Christ) will one day come to pass judgment. The chorus indicates that these events will be accompanied by trumpets, pipers, and ‘one hundred million angels singing.’ The voice of the Lord in Revelation is often likened to the sound of a loud trumpet. Revelation 5:11 states that John saw that there are millions of angels in Heaven.

“The song also alludes to the Parable of the Ten Virgins from the Gospel of Matthew with the lyrics ‘The virgins are all trimming their wicks,’ a reference to the virgins’ preparation of the Second Coming of Christ.

“The phrase, ‘It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks’ cites Acts 26:14, where Paul the Apostle describes meeting Jesus while traveling to Damascus. It is a reference to a Greek proverb where a kicking ox only injures himself by attempting to kick against a goad, intended to represent the futility of resisting the Lord.

“Elsewhere, the song mentions the wise men who bow before the Lord’s throne, and cast their ‘golden crowns’ at the feet of God. Revelation 4 refers to elders who worship the Lord and ‘lay their crowns’ before Him. ‘Alpha and Omega’ refers to Jesus Christ. ‘Whoever is unjust… etc.’ is a quote from Revelation 22:11.”

Mom was right. Johnny Cash going Old Testament biblical is something else.

The Man Comes Around

The Man Comes Around

By Johnny Cash, 2002
Written by Johnny Cash

And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder:
One of the four beasts saying: “Come and see.” And I saw.
And behold, a white horse.

There’s a man goin’ ’round takin’ names.
An’ he decides who to free and who to blame.
Everybody won’t be treated all the same.
There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down
When the man comes around.

The hairs on your arm will stand up
At the terror in each sip and in each sup.
Will you partake of that last offered cup
Or disappear into the potter’s ground
When the man comes around?

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers.
One hundred million angels singing.
Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum.
Voices callin’, voices cryin’.
Some are born and some are dyin’.
It’s Alpha and Omega’s Kingdom come.

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree.
The virgins are all trimming their wicks.
The whirlwind is in the thorn tree.
It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

Till Armageddon, no Shalam, no Shalom.
Then the father hen will call his chickens home.
The wise men will bow down before the throne.
And at his feet they’ll cast their golden crowns
When the man comes around.

Whoever is unjust, let him be unjust still.
Whoever is righteous, let him be righteous still.
Whoever is filthy, let him be filthy still.
Listen to the words long written down
When the man comes around.

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers.
One hundred million angels singing.
Multitudes are marchin’ to the big kettle drum.
Voices callin’, voices cryin’.
Some are born and some are dyin’.
It’s Alpha and Omega’s Kingdom come.

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree.
The virgins are all trimming their wicks.
The whirlwind is in the thorn tree.
It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

In measured hundredweight and penny pound.
When the man comes around.

And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts,
And I looked, and behold: a pale horse.
And his name that sat on him was Death.
And Hell followed with him.

 

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The 1973 film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kidwas a major hit, and so was Bob Dylan’s soundtrack. The album became a best-seller.

Most of the songs are instrumentals and supportive of the plot, but the exception was “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which turned out to be a significant hit single in its day.

The song is slow, simple, and emotional. It consists of the last words (I assume) of a mortally wounded (I assume) deputy sheriff to his wife. One music critic called the song “an exercise in splendid simplicity.”

PG&BK

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door

By Bob Dylan, 1973
Written by Bob Dylan

Mama, take this badge off of me.
I can’t use it anymore.
It’s gettin’ dark, too dark to see.
I feel I’m knockin’ on Heaven’s door.

Knock, knock, knockin’ on Heaven’s door.
Knock, knock, knockin’ on Heaven’s door.
Knock, knock, knockin’ on Heaven’s door.
Knock, knock, knockin’ on Heaven’s door.

Mama, put my guns in the ground.
I can’t shoot them anymore.
That long black cloud is comin’ down.
I feel I’m knockin’ on Heaven’s door.

Knock, knock, knockin’ on Heaven’s door.
Knock, knock, knockin’ on Heaven’s door.
Knock, knock, knockin’ on Heaven’s door.
Knock, knock, knockin’ on Heaven’s door.

 

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Tune o’ the Day

I’m a big fan of Concrete Blonde, the alt-rock band from California in the 80s and 90s. They released some of the best and most intelligent music of the time.

Moreover, their lead singer was the incomparable Johnette Napolitano, whose magnificent voice is as captivating today (she still writes and records) as ever.

The band’s self-titled debut album in 1986 was a solid hit. Among its many great tunes: “Dance Along the Edge,” a thinking person’s love song.

Concrete Blonde

Dance Along The Edge

By Concrete Blonde, 1986
Written by Johnette Napolitano and James Mankey

Sometimes, we laugh like children.
Go running hand in hand.
I never felt like this before,
I never will again.

Sometimes, we cry like babies.
And I hold you to my heart.
I just can’t stand to see you sad,
It tears me all apart.

And we’re so afraid, and it’s such a shame.
There is no reason we should doubt it.
And the things we want to say, we’ve never said.
And we look away, and it’s all okay,
And never really talk about it.
It’s a shame the way we dance along the edge.

Dance along the edge.
Dance along the edge.

We always seem so careful.
We’re always so unsure.
Our past mistakes, they make us shake, eyes on the door.

When do we stop searching
For what we’re searching for?
Then when it comes, we question love, and try for more.

And we’re happy here, but we live in fear.
We’ve seen a lot of temples crumble.
Some of flesh and blood, and love is under glass.
Will we come undone? Will we turn and run?
And will we know it when we find it?
It’s a game the way we dance along the edge.

Dance along the edge.
Dance along the edge.

And we’ll walk the line, and we’ll do our time
For just as long as we’ve been given,
And pretend that we don’t hear the things they’ve said.

Can we promise love? Is it all too much?
And do our old souls still believe it?
It’s insane the way we dance along the edge.

Dance along the edge.
Dance along the edge.

Dance along the edge.
Dance along the edge.

Dance along the edge.
Dance along the edge.

Dance along the edge.
Dance along the edge.

Dance along the edge.
Dance along the edge.

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Tune o’ the Day

When the rock band The Cars released their debut album in 1976, they had me at “Good Times Roll,” the first tune on the album.

To me, The Cars are in a special category because I like pretty much all of their songs, not just the familiar hits.

I can count on one hand the bands that clicked with me like that. And, no, I won’t burden you with the list.

One of my favorites among The Cars’ tunes is “Drive.” It’s a melancholy song, a lament by someone in a relationship with an addict or an alcoholic, trying to snap the person out of it, and probably about to give up. It’s a moving and beautiful song.

A relatable situation, simple and effective lyrics, and a captivating melody. This is good stuff.

cars-the

Drive

By The Cars, 1984
Written By Ric Ocasek

Who’s gonna tell you when
It’s too late?
Who’s gonna tell you things
Aren’t so great?

You can’t go on
Thinkin’ nothin’s wrong.
Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?

Who’s gonna pick you up
When you fall?
Who’s gonna hang it up
When you call?
Who’s gonna pay attention
To your dreams?
Who’s gonna plug their ears
When you scream?

You can’t go on
Thinkin’ nothin’s wrong.
Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?

Who’s gonna hold you down
When you shake?
Who’s gonna come around
When you break?

You can’t go on
Thinkin’ nothin’s wrong.
Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?

Oh, you know you can’t go on
Thinkin’ nothin’s wrong.
Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?

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The 1995 folk song “Lake Marie” by John Prine is an odd one. It’s a beautiful ballad that combines three storylines — A Native American legend, the rise and fall of a marriage, and two gruesome murders — and weaves them together with sausages sssizzlin‘ on the grill.

Lake Marie is a real place in southern Wisconsin. Prine knew the lake from summer vacations there as a Chicago teenager.

He found the beginning of the song, the story of the Indian tribe, in a local library. The middle section, about good times at the lake and meeting a girl, is largely autobiographical. Prine explained the third section, the murders, in the late 1990s:

“The suburbs were kind of thought to be a pretty safe place at the time. And then some of these unexplained murders would show up every once in a while, where they’d find people in the woods somewhere.

“I just kinda took any one of them, not one in particular, and put it as if it was in a TV newscast. It was a sharp ‘left turn’ to take in a song.”

And it works very well.

prine-j

Lake Marie

By John Prine, 1995
Written by John Prine

We were standing,
Standing by peaceful waters.
Standing by peaceful waters.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.

Many years ago, along the Illinois-Wisconsin border,
There was this Indian tribe.
They found two babies in the woods. White babies.
One of them was named Elizabeth.
She was the fairer of the two,
While the smaller and more fragile one
Was named Marie.

Having never seen white girls before,
And living on the two lakes known as the Twin Lakes,
They named the larger and more beautiful lake ‘Lake Elizabeth.’
And thus, the smaller lake that was hidden from the highway
Became known forever as ‘Lake Marie.’

We were standing,
Standing by peaceful waters.
Standing by peaceful waters.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.

Many years later, I found myself talking to this girl
Who was standing there with her back turned to Lake Marie.
The wind was blowing. Especially, through her hair.
There was four Italian sausages cookin’ on the outdoor grill.
And they was sssizzlin’!

Many years later, we found ourselves in Canada,
Trying to save our marriage.
And perhaps catch a few fish.
Whatever came first.
That night, she fell asleep in my arms,
Hummin’ the tune to ‘Louie Louie.’
Ahh, baby. We gotta go now.

We were standing,
Standing by peaceful waters.
Standing by peaceful waters.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.

The dogs were barkin’ as the cars were parkin’.
The loan sharks were sharkin’.
The narks were narkin’.
Practically everyone was there.
In the parking lot by the forest preserve,
The police had found two bodies.
Nay, naked bodies!

Their faces had been horribly disfigured
By some shhharp object.
I saw it on the news.
The TV news.
In a black and white video.

You know what blood looks like in a black and white video?
Shadows. Shadows!
That’s what it looks like.
All the love we shared between her and me was slammed
Slammed up against the banks of old Lake Marie.
Marie!

We were standing,
Standing by peaceful waters.
Standing by peaceful waters.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.

Peaceful waters.
Standing by peaceful waters.

Ahh, baby. We gotta go now.

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I’ve never used a song to introduce a science fiction short story, but here goes.

“The Thing” was a popular novelty tune that came out in 1950. In it, comedian Phil Harris tells of finding a “thing” in a box — never identified — that horrifies everyone. Harris simply can’t get rid of it.

In 1954, author Edward G. Robles, Jr. published a short story that is based on the concept of the song — and further reveals the thing’s identity.

Here is the song, followed by the short story.

SEE?

By Edward G. Robles, Jr.
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1954.

Well, there was this song a few years back. You know the one. Phil Harris singing about a thing that you couldn’t get rid of, no matter what you did, a thing so repulsive it made you a social outcast. Never thought I’d see one, though. Dirty Pete found it.

Don’t rush me. I’ll tell you about it.

We’re hobos, understand? Now a hobo is a different breed of cat than you think. Oh, people are getting educated to the idea that a hobo will work and move on, whereas a tramp will mooch and move on, and a bum will mooch and hang around, but you still find folks who are ignorant enough to call us bums.

We’re aristocrats, yes sir. If it wasn’t for us, you wouldn’t enjoy half the little luxuries you do. Oh, don’t believe me — talk to your experts. They know that, without the migratory worker, most of the crops wouldn’t get harvested. And, if I talk highfalutin’ once in a while, don’t blame me. Associating with the Professor improves any man’s vocabulary, in spite of themselves.

There was the four of us, see? We’d been kicking around together for longer than I care to think about. There was the Professor and Dirty Pete and Sacks and Eddie. I’m Eddie. Nicknames are funny things. Take the Professor—he was a real professor once, until he began hitting the bottle. Well, he lost his job, his home, his family, and his rep.

One morning, he wakes up on Skid Row without a nickel in his jeans and the great-granddaddy of all hangovers. He comes to a decision. Either he could make a man out of hisself, or he could die. Right then, dying looked like the easiest thing to do, but it took more guts that he had to jump off a bridge, so he went on the Road instead.

After he got over his shakes — and he sure had ’em bad — he decided that, if he never took another drink, it’d be the best thing for him. So he didn’t. He had a kind of dignity, though, and he could really talk, so he and I teamed up during the wheat harvest in South Dakota. We made all the stops and, when we hit the peaches in California we picked up Sacks and Dirty Pete.

Sacks got his monicker because he never wore shoes. He claimed that gunny-sacks, wrapped around his feet and shins, gave as much protection and more freedom, and they were more comfortable, besides costing nix. Since we mostly bought our shoes at the dumps, at four bits a pair, you might say he was stretching a point, but that’s one of the laws of the Road. You don’t step on the other guy’s corns, and he don’t step on yours.

So guess why Dirty Pete was called that. Yeah. He hadn’t taken a bath since ‘forty-six, when he got out of the army, and he didn’t figure on ever takin’ another. He was a damn’ good worker, though, and nobody’d ever try anything with him around. He wasn’t any bigger than a Mack truck. Besides, he was quiet.

Oh, sure. You wanna know why I’m on the Road. Well, it happens I like whiskers. Trouble is, they’re not fashionable, unless you’re some kind of an artist, which I’m not. You know, social disapproval. I didn’t have the guts to face it, so I lit out. Nobody cares on the Road what you do, so I was okay with my belt-length beard.

A beard’s an enjoyable thing, too. There’s a certain kind of thrill you get from stroking it, and feeling its silkiness run through your fingers. And besides, combing it, and keeping it free of burrs, snarls and tangles, sort of keeps your spare moments so full that the devil don’t find any idle time to put your hands to work in. If you ask me, I think that the razor has been the downfall of society. And I’m willing to bet I have plenty of company with the same opinion.

Show me a man who doesn’t let his beard grow once in a while, even if it’s only for a day or so, and you’ve shown me a man who thinks more of social pressure than he does of his own comfort. And show me a man who says he likes to shave, and you’ve shown me a man who is either a liar or is asking for punishment.

That’s enough about us. Now to get on with the story. You know, if the Professor hadn’t been around, there would probably have been murder done over the Thing, or at least our little group would’ve split up, ’cause none of us had the brains to figure it out.

Pete’s an expert scrounger. His eyes are sharp, and he’s always on the lookout for a salable piece of goods, even if he can only get a nickel for it. One night, we’re sitting in a jungle near Sacramento, trying to figure out whether to go north for the grapes, or south for the grapes. They’re all over California, you know, and they pay pretty well.

Pete, as usual, is out looking, and pretty soon he comes back into camp with this thing in his hand. He handles it like it was hot, but he’s pleased he’s found it, because he hopes to merchandise it. So he walks up to me, and says, “Hey, Eddie. What’ll you gimme for this, huh?”

I say, “Get that to hell away from me! I’ll give you a swift kick in the pants if you don’t.”

He looks real surprised. He says, “Huh, I thought maybe you could use it.”

I get up on my feet. I say, real low and careful, because maybe he’s joking, “Look, Pete — you oughtta know by this time, I like my beard. Now will you go away?”

He mooches off, looking like I’d kicked him, and goes over to the Professor. I figure maybe the Professor could use it, so I listen. The Prof looks like he was being offered a live rattlesnake.

“No, thanks, really, Pete. I have resolved never to touch it again. I hope you don’t mind.”

Well, for some reason Pete don’t look pleased, and he’s real unhappy by this time, but he tries again.

“Hey, Sacks, what’ll you gimme for –”

He don’t get a chance to finish. I’m only listening with half an ear, but I’m so surprised I stand up like I been stuck with a pin. Sacks says, “Whatinell would I do with a left shoe? You know I don’t use ’em.”

Pete looks at the thing in his hand, and the Prof and I go over there.

The Professor looks at the thing real carefully and speaks up. “Say, Pete, look at that thing and tell me what it is.”

“Why, it’s a brand new bar of soap, of course. I don’t use it, but one of you might want to. What’s all the beef about?”

“Soap?” I say. “Why, you poor fish, something must have happened to your eyes. When you offered me that straight razor, I thought you’d gone off your nut. Now I know it.”

The Professor interrupts. He looks excited. “Wait a minute, Eddie. To me that item looks exactly like a full fifth of Old Harvester, 100 proof. Used to be my favorite, before I became an abstainer. To Pete, it looks like soap. To you, it looks like a straight razor while, to Sacks, it resembles a shoe. Does that give you any ideas?”

“Means we’re all having hallucinations,” I grunts.

“Exactly. Pete, was there anything else in the location where you found this thing?”

“Nothing but some scrap tin.”

“Show us.”

So, the four of us wanders across the field and, sure enough, there was this silly-looking object lying there. It was about eighteen or twenty feet across, and two feet thick, and I nearly made a fool of myself. I almost screamed when I saw six straight razors crawling out of a hole in its side.

The Professor whistled. “Grab them, boys. We want them.”

Well, Sacks sacrifices one of his sacks, and we rounded up fifteen of the useless things. We went back to the jungle, where the Prof explained it.

“Look, fellows, suppose you were a being from another planet that wanted to take over here. Suppose, further, that you were rather small and relatively defenseless. To finish the suppositions, suppose you were a positive telepath, with not only the ability to read minds, but also the ability to create visual and tactile hallucinations. How would you protect yourself?”

A light began to dawn, but I didn’t say a word about it.

The Professor continued. “If you could do all this, you’d make yourself look just as useless as possible. To Pete, you’d look like a bar of soap, because he never uses the stuff. To Sacks, you’d look like a shoe, because his dislike for shoes is evident in his mind. To Eddie, who is proud of his beard, you’d look like a razor, while to me, you’d look like a bottle of booze, because I dislike its effects intensely. In other words, you would assume an imposture that would assure you’d never be picked up, except by someone like Pete, who would see in you a salable item, even though not a usable one. It may be, Pete, that you have saved the world.”

So, that’s the story. We’re all still on the Road, of course, but now we are the “Commission for the Investigation of Extraterrestrial Invasion.” Congress named us as that, when we got the data to them.

Now, Mr. Mayor, you see our problem. Have your citizens seen anything around that they don’t want? If they have, we want to look at it.

ashman-illustration

Original illustration from Galaxy Science Fiction by William Ashman.

 

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Tune o’ the Day

“Overkill” by the Australian rock band Men at Work is a melancholy tune. Many fans think it’s about some poor soul burdened with anxiety, depression, paranoia, or even schizophrenia.

Not so. Colin Hay, the composer and vocalist, said the song reflects what was happening to the band at the time: success and the fear of stepping into the unknown.

“It’s about leaving somewhere and leaving your comfort zone,” Hay explained. He said the band spent years struggling to make it to the top, but getting there meant a loss of control and feelings of vulnerability. Suddenly, all those managers and studio executives were taking charge.

Fair enough. But I’m not surprised when people out there with personal, emotional, or mental troubles hear the line, “Ghosts appear and fade away,” and it speaks to them.

men-at-work

Overkill

By Men at Work, 1983
Written by Colin Hay

I can’t get to sleep.
I think about the implications
Of diving in too deep,
And possibly the complications.
Especially at night,
I worry over situations
I know will be all right.
Perhaps it’s just imagination.

Day after day, it reappears.
Night after night, my heartbeat shows the fear.
Ghosts appear and fade away.

Alone between the sheets
Only brings exasperation.
It’s time to walk the streets,
Smell the desperation.
At least there’s pretty lights,
And though there’s little variation,
It nullifies the night
From overkill.

Day after day, it reappears.
Night after night, my heartbeat shows the fear.
Ghosts appear and fade away.
Come back another day.

I can’t get to sleep.
I think about the implications
Of diving in too deep,
And possibly the complications.
Especially at night,
I worry over situations that
I know will be all right.
It’s just overkill.

Day after day, it reappears.
Night after night, my heartbeat shows the fear.
Ghosts appear and fade away.
Ghosts appear and fade away.
Ghosts appear and fade away.

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