Wednesday, July 16, 2014

COLUMN: Creepy Songs Pt. 1

A few weeks ago, I devoted a column to "earworms," songs that for better -- but let's be honest, mostly always for worse -- get stuck in your head on an endless loop of torment and awkward shower singalongs. It might be one of your favorite tunes, it might be your most hated. Sometimes it's a song you didn't even realize you KNEW until your brain started belting it out in a never-ending private concert.

One thing's for sure, though: we ALL have them. After that column printed, I was inundated with letters, e-mails and even mp3's full of your earworm pain. You'll be happy to know that many of them instantly wormed their way into MY brain, so thanks for that. But all this talk about earworms got me thinking about another musical phenomenon that I've experienced my whole life, and I'm anxious to get your input to find out if it happens to us all or if I'm just extra crazy.

Are there any songs that just inexplicably creep you out? I'm talking about innocent tunes that give you the heebie-jeebies with rhyme but definitely without reason. Ever since I was a kid, I've encountered songs that plain and simply give me the willies, send shivers up my spine, and make me leap up to change the station immediately. It's not one particular sound, it's not one particular lyric -- it's just a creepy feeling that makes me want to listen to anything else on Earth post haste.

Two immediate offenders come to mind.

The first is a 1980 Dire Straits song called "Skateaway." Down the road, they'd become household names with the iconic "Money for Nothing," but back in the early 80's, not too many Americans were familiar with the musical stylings of Dire Straits. Among those ignorant masses was a 9-year-old me. You'd think it would be impossible to be afraid of this song. At its core, "Skateaway" is a harmless ditty about a carefree girl who rollerskates through the city at night without a care in the world.

But then I saw the video. Back when MTV first fired up, music videos weren't that commonplace. Ergo, the few videos that MTV had, they played incessantly. All I remember about the "Skateaway" video is an exotic girl roller-dancing through claustrophobic, angular, all-white sets. Inexplicably, it terrified me. Time and again, I would have nightmares of being trapped in a weird white dystopia while an evil rollerskating monster stalked me to the strains of bland, forgettable mid-tempo bluespop.

To this day, I still have nightmares of being chased by random faceless bogeymen, and I think it all started with "Skateaway." Well, I just re-watched the video, and and you'll be happy to know the only thing it's guilty of is having been made in 1980. Aside from some truly awful dancing, the only terrifying thing about the video is its rainbow pastel color scheme. Still, I won't be surprised if I go to bed tonight to find the rollergirl waiting in my subconscious -- and she won't be up for a dance.

But that's nothing compared to the evil that is the world's creepiest song ever. I speak, of course, about "Black Water" by the Doobie Brothers.

And no, I have no idea why. At face value, it's a song about rolling down the Mississippi in a raft and not having a care in the world. Lyrically, it's about as threatening as "Don't Worry Be Happy." And the Mississippi is seven blocks away from me as I type this. I should identify with this song and love it with all my heart, which I do. Except that I don't, because it's evil.

Randomly, I have a single snapshot memory of being in the back seat of the family car on the way to see my grandparents. They lived in a little town called Maquon that was about a half-hour twisty country drive from our house. It was night, and "Black Water" came on the radio. My folks were carrying on a conversation about who-knows-what, but in the back seat, I was being flooded with visions of "old black water, keep on rolling, Mississippi moon, won't you keep on shining on me." But this wasn't happy, carefree, Huck Finn imagery.

No, in MY mind, it was water the color of molasses that beckoned you to a watery grave. It was a Mississippi moon that revealed every possible creature that went bump in the night. Basically, it was every horror movie ever made plus a healthy dose of "Deliverance," which I had accidentally channel-flipped into a few days prior and watched at WAY too young an age.

Thirty-some years later, the song still creeps me out. I don't know if it's the languid fiddle playing or the in-your-face production that makes it sound like various Doobies are hanging out harmonizing just behind my left shoulder. I just hate it. I hate it so much that whenever it's on the radio, I force myself to listen because I'm constantly amazed by how much I hate it.

The lyrics even drive me a bit bonkers. "I'd like to hear some funky Dixieland, pretty mama come and take me by the hand"? Don't get me wrong, I'm perfectly okay with pretty mamas. If any of you want to grab my hand, I'm cool with it (unless, as we've established, you're on rollerskates and listening to Dire Straits.)

But living in a river town as we do, I've heard my share of Dixieland over the years. There's a lot of words I can use to describe Dixieland, but "funky" just isn't one of them. I'd even go so far as to say that Dixieland is about the LEAST funky music I can think of this side of Justin Bieber. Maybe I just don't know how to appreciate jazz (which is true,) but until I see footage of Bix Beiderbecke coming down on a mothership connection with Bootsy Collins, I'm sticking to my funky guns.

I wish it just stopped there, but there are others. "Passion" by Rod Stewart. "Nights in White Satin" by the Moody Blues. Whatever the heck's happening in "Emotional Rescue" by the Rolling Stones, which to me sounds a little like Mickey Mouse narrating a date rape. The list goes on and on.

And I guess I just want to make it bigger. That's why I've put an open call out to Facebook -- and now to you, readers -- to find out what songs send shivers up your spine. E-mail me at and tell me about your musical heebie-jeebies and why you think they give you the willies. I'll share the results in my next column. With any luck, by this time next week, we'll be able to assemble a mixtape that no-one will ever want to hear.

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