Yeasayer’s song “Folk Hero Schtick”– on their new album Fragrant World – is a jeremiad directed at an “annoying rock star,” according to multi-instrumentalist Anand Wilder. The band never names the person they’ve got in mind, but they’ve got lots of pointed things to say to him or her: “Pack it in/ Please pack it in,” Chris Keating sings.
“Folk Hero Schtick” belongs to a long tradition of songs that are meant to tear down a particular person, but that leave the identity of the person in question as an exercise for a listener. The king of this particular genre has to be Bob Dylan‘s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which he wrote in 1965 and has played, on and off, ever since. (On his current tour, he’s been playing it almost every night.)
The identity of the “Mr. Jones” at the center of the song is one of the enduring mysteries of rock. Was it Jeffrey Jones, a New York film professor? (“I was thrilled,” he later claimed, “in the tainted way I suppose a felon is thrilled to see his name in the newspaper.”) Was it British journalist Max Jones? Was it actually somebody named Jones at all? The correct answer was nicely expressed by Momus’s 1998 song “Who Is Mr. Jones?”: “Mr. Jones is a man who doesn’t know who Mr. Jones is.” Here’s a ferocious performance of Dylan‘s song from 1966.
“Mr. Jones” subsequently turned up in an enormous number of songs. The Temptations sang “Don’t Let the Joneses Get You Down”; John Lennon sang “feel so suicidal/ Just like Dylan’s Mr. Jones” on the Beatles‘ “Yer Blues”; and… let’s not talk about Counting Crows, shall we? The best of the post-Dylan Jones songs, though, may be Talking Heads’ “Mr. Jones,” from their 1988 album Naked. Here’s a live performance of it by David Byrne from 1992.
In 1972, an incensed Carly Simon wrote a smart, resentful lyric about someone she’s never named outright. It originally went by the title “Ballad of a Vain Man,” but by the time she released it, she’d simplified that to the chorus’s “You’re So Vain.” As with Dylan’s Mr. Jones, it was an eloquent enough attack that people actually wanted it to be its target. “Let’s be honest,” Warren Beatty said a few years ago. “That song is about me.” Self-fulfilling prophecy!
It’s not always the best idea to identify oneself as the subject of a vindictive song, though. Queen‘s “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To…)” appeared on their 1975 album A Night at the Opera. It doesn’t name its “misguided old mule with your pig-headed rules, with your narrow-minded cronies who are fools of the first division” — could’ve been anybody, right? According to Phil Sutcliffe’s Queen: The Ultimate Illustrated History of the Crown Kings of Rock, their former manager Norman Sheffield heard about the song, and “… threatened to sue Mercury, Queen, and EMI and block the release of the album.” Queen’s members have never quite gone on the record as to the song’s subject; they didn’t really have to.
One of the harshest anonymous attacks in all of pop was written by Tina Turner‘s sister Alline Bullock; it’s a scathing assessment of a “dirty, dirty old man,” called “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter.” The first released version of it was a roaring Ike and Tina Turner single released in 1971.
Three years later, Nina Simone resurrected “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter” for a contract-filling album, It Is Finished. Her version didn’t catch on at the time, but it subsequently became a breakbeat classic, and recognized as one of Simone’s most remarkable vocal performances: where Tina cranks her voice up to a bellow, Nina turns hers all the way down. The central line of the song –”the things you do ain’t never really pleasin’” — is just an unaccompanied, contemptuous whisper.
Very recently, in fact, a bit of “Mosquito’s Tweeter” got resurrected. Cat Power‘s been a major Simone fan for a long time (she sang a version of “Wild Is the Wind” inspired by Simone’s on The Covers Record in 2000), and “Peace and Love,” from her new album Sun, gets its title and hook from a line from Alline Bullock’s song: “Talkin’ sex is your favorite conversation/ But peace and love is a famous generation.” Cat Power‘s song is very different — it’s a victory dance, not a put-down — but that line suggests that there’s someone, or something, over which she’s declaring victory.