Stephen King on pop music
''Brown Eyed Girl,'' ''Subterranean Homesick Blues,'' and other great songs that take you higher and higher
If you check the Pop of King archives at ew.com/king — a thing I urge you to do often — you’ll see that I’ve touched on most aspects of the pop cult, from TV ads to the annoying DVD ”extras” self-absorbed filmmakers feel compelled to throw on their discs. The topic I’ve written about least is pop music. Not because I don’t love it, but because I do. There are writers who do a good job on this subject — Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, and the late Lester Bangs are three of the best — but I will never be one of them. You might as well ask a teenage girl why she spends so much time wishing she were Bella and that her Edward would come along to sweep her out of her ordinary life. That’s what pop music does for me, when it hits the sweet spot: turns my ordinary life inside out like a pocket and coats my feet with happy dust. ”Your love keeps on lifting me higher and higher,” Jackie Wilson sang in 1967, and that’s how I feel about pop music. Must be true love, because it’s never died.
For me, the love affair started when I was 9 years old and living in rural Maine. We got exactly one radio station, WLAM out of Lewiston-Auburn. It mostly specialized in snooze-tunes (e.g., Perry Como, Dean Martin, and the McGuire Sisters), but one day that summer my brother David came tearing upstairs, wild-eyed, and screamed for me to come and listen to what was on the radio. ”It’s insane!” he screamed. ”It’s TOTALLY COOL!” It was both. It was Jerry Lee Lewis belting out ”Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” He wasn’t just playing the piano; he was nuking it. Much later I heard he actually set his instrument on fire near the end of a performance, and that seemed perfectly natural to me, because the song made me feel like I was burning.
That’s what makes it hard to write about, you see. The best rock isn’t about thinking, but about being on fire and delighted to burn. And unlike so many of the things that bang our happy buttons when we’re kids, this feeling stays. The first time I heard Tim Armstrong’s ska-flavored, incredibly happy ”Into Action,” I was 60 years old, but the feeling of unbridled joy that such a great song should exist on planet Earth was as strong as it had been at 9, when I was first exposed to Jerry Lee’s pumping piano. I left my computer and went pogo-ing madly around my office, shaking my elderly ass until my wife told me to stop before I gave myself a heart attack. I stopped…but as soon as she was gone, I started again. Just couldn’t help it. Check out the video on YouTube, and pay special attention to the insanely cool hat Mr. Armstrong is wearing. It’s the essence of rock & roll, but I can’t tell you why. You just have to see it — like Jerry Lee’s crazy, swinging hair — in conjunction with the music.
I think I can remember exactly where I was every time some particular song hit me like a lightning bolt. Blasting along I-90 at 80 miles an hour in upstate New York when a tune called ”Brown Eyed Girl” came on the radio. Heading for the stock-car races at Oxford Plains Speedway and being electrified by Dylan’s ”Subterranean Homesick Blues,” a full-volume blues rap like nothing I’d ever heard on the radio. Bringing home the Stones’ Let It Bleed album and hearing the mysterious chords that open ”Gimme Shelter.” ”War, children, it’s just a shot away,” Mick sings. For years I thought it was ”Oh, children, it’s just a shot away,” and so what? That’s one of the good things about pop music. You hear it the way you want. Sometimes the wrong lyrics can be right. Better, even.
The supply is endless. ”Turn the Page,” by Bob Seger, and the most excellent cover of same by Metallica. ”1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” by Richard Thompson, with those amazing guitar licks and terrific lyrics (”Red hair and black leather/My favorite color scheme”). ”Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” by the Ramones. ”At the Hop,” by Danny & the Juniors. ”Shake It,” by Metro Station. ”Boogie Shoes,” by KC and the Sunshine Band.
And how many more? Oh, I’m gonna say 6,000, but can I write about them? Can I explain how a good song is like a good kiss? No. All I can do is refer you to the late Jackie Wilson and say each one lifts me higher and higher.