Sunday, April 29, 2012

Timbuk3 -- "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" (1986)

I'm doing all right, getting good grades
The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades
Timbuk3 -- the name is a little play on Timbuktu, the city in the Sahara Desert that is the modern epitome of in-the-middle-of-nowhereness -- was a husband-and-wife duo formed in 1984 in Madison, Wisconsin.  

Timbuk3 (Barbara and Pat MacDonald)
"The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades," which appeared on their first album (Greetings from Timbuk3), was by far their most famous song.  The couple released five more albums before they got divorced in 1995.  

"I Gotta Wear Shades" is not the happy-go-lucky college-student ditty that it initially appears to be.  The song is actually about a young nuclear scientist who is about to help unleash some sort of nuclear disaster on an unsuspecting world.  (The future's bright, but those shades better be radiation-proof -- and you better wear a lead-lined suit, too.)

"Greetings from Timbuk3" cover
No matter -- college-themed songs don't exactly grow on trees, so we're going to pretend that this is just the song to accompany an account of an optimistic high-school student's trip to visit some prospective colleges.

If you've read the previous 2 or 3 lines -- click here if you haven't (or just scroll down to the next post) -- you'll know that we visited Allegheny and Hiram Colleges on the same day, and spent the night on the Hiram campus.

We were up early the next morning, with 65 miles to cover before the next stop on our four-college tour, the College of Wooster (1850 students) in Wooster, Ohio (population 26,000).

Here's Kauke Hall, which dominates the center of the Wooster campus.

Wooster was founded by the Presbyterian Church in 1866, and is notable for its requirement that every senior work one-on-one with a professor to complete a thesis or other significant project.  (Only Princeton has a similar requirement for undergraduates.)

Each spring, after the seniors turn in their independent study projects, Wooster's Scottish bagpipe band leads them through the Kauke Hall archway:

There's one other interesting Kauke Hall tradition.  When there's a lot of snow, Wooster students attempt to fill the entirety of the Kauke archway with the white stuff.  If sufficient snow has fallen to enable them to do that, they believe that classes will be cancelled the next day:

After joining about a dozen other parents and their sons and daughters for a presentation by an admissions officer, students escorted each family to the dining hall for a free lunch.  (We were close enough to Cincinnati that I went for the chili-and-spaghetti daily special.)  Later, and another student took us for a campus tour.  

After our tour guide mentioned in passing that Wooster had a special "gender-neutral" dormitory suite, my wife couldn't resist questioning her closely about exactly what that meant -- I'm surprised my son didn't kick her in the shins when she asked the first question, but he merely glared fiercely at her, willing her to shut up and not embarrass him.

After we returned home, I found an explanation in a 2010 article in the college newspaper, The Wooster Voice:

Beginning next fall semester, gender-neutral housing will be available to students on campus. This student-initiated accommodation's main goal is to give students a secure living environment in which they have no obligation to identify with the preconceived, culturally-formed gender identities of our society.  
"Students will be able to express themselves as people as opposed to as a specific gender, and will be able to live without a gender label,” said Professor Karen Taylor, a faculty member in support of this housing alternative. . . .

Our society attempts to separate people distinctly into two specific groups, male or female, with no variation, when for some, gender is not a one-sided issue.  "All institutions want us to choose a side as either one identity or the other, so it's nice to have the opportunity to have a space where we aren't required to identify either way,” commented Taylor.
(As I understand it, this has nothing to do with sexual orientation -- straight, gay, bisexual, or whatever.  It has to do with whether you are a man or a woman.  I always thought that was a matter of biology -- not a matter of social or cultural factors -- but I guess I was wrong.)

One of our stops during the tour was the Wooster art museum, where one of the exhibitions included a photograph of one of Banksy's satirical London street art works:

(Ain't that the truth, boys and girls . . .)

After a brief meeting with Wooster's basketball coach and a quick stop back at the admissions office to snarf up some chocolate-chip cookies for the road, we were in the minivan by 3:30.

Our next (and final) stop was Granville, Ohio, the home of Denison University (2100 undergraduates).  Granville is a picture-perfect little New England village of 3200 souls that is situated about half an hour east of Columbus, Ohio.  It was founded by a group of neighbors from Granville, Massachusetts, who all moved west in 1804.

Our destination was the Orchard House B&B, which was built in 1850: 

You have a lot of four-legged company at the Orchard House -- including llamas, goats, pigs, dogs, and rabbits. 

After checking in and helping myself to more chocolate-chip cookies and a cold drink, I headed off to get a little exercise on a hiking trail just a few blocks from Granville's main street.

The Licking River
Some Bob Dylan fan must have gotten a couple of cans of spray-paint for his or her birthday:

(Close enough for government work.)

That night, we had dinner at a brewpub on Granville's main street, which is exceptionally charming:

We had a very comfortable bedroom at the Orchard House:

After an extravagant breakfast the next morning -- French toast made with apple-cinnamon bread, strawberries, and the most delicious bacon I've ever tasted -- we headed to Denison for a 9:30 AM visit.  

Our first stop was the admissions office:

Denison was founded by Baptists in 1831.  The Denison campus is quite hilly and heavily wooded.  It looks like the Platonic ideal (or perhaps the Hollywood ideal) of a liberal-arts college campus.

I couldn't talk my wife and son into sitting in on a class after the tour -- they were eager to hit the road and get back home.  So we left shortly after 11 AM and completed the 375-mile return drive home by 6 PM.  That's four colleges and about 900 miles of driving in a little over 72 hours.

The highlight of the drive back was sighting the headquarters building of the Longaberger Company, just east of Granville.  Guess what Longaberger sells?

Here's "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades":

Use this link to buy the song from Amazon:

Friday, April 27, 2012

Steely Dan -- "Reelin' in the Years" (1972)

The weekend at the college 
Didn't turn out like you planned
The things that pass for knowledge 
I can't understand
When I decided to write about my recent spring-break trip to visit colleges with my youngest son (who is a junior in high school), this is the first -- and only -- college-themed song that immediately came to mind.

There are a lot of great pop songs about high school, but not that many about college.  I'm not sure why that is.  But I do know that I have much more intense memories of high school and the people I went to high school with, and I suspect that is true for a lot of people -- including a lot of songwriters.

I've always associated Steely Dan's debut album, Can't Buy a Thrill, with my college years -- the album was released in the fall of 1972, shortly after I began my junior year, and I remember hearing this album playing in the dorms all the time that year.

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who co-wrote Steely Dan's songs, met while they were both students at Bard College in New York.  Given the rather negative tone of the song's lyrics, I'm guessing that one of them had a bad experience with a girlfriend who went to another college.  

My theory is that the writer of the lyrics didn't get in his first-choice college, but that the girl did, and that she chose to go there rather than go where he went, and that the relationship was never he same after that.  Or maybe I'm reading too much into the words of the song based on certain personal experiences, which I DON'T care to talk about after all these years because WHAT WOULD BE THE POINT OF THAT, ESPECIALLY GIVEN THAT I'VE PRETTY MUCH PUT THE WHOLE THING OUT OF MY MIND FOREVER!

I've put three kids through college already, so I feel pretty blasé about helping my youngest child, Peter, decide were to go.  

I became a believer in small, liberal-arts colleges when my twin daughters were looking several years ago, and visited about a half-dozen such schools with them.  One of my girls ended up at Ohio Wesleyan (near Columbus, Ohio) and one ended up at Franklin & Marshall (Lancaster, Pennsylvania), and it's probably no coincidence that we visited four somewhat similar liberal-arts colleges in Ohio and Pennsylvania on our recent trip -- including two that my daughters were admitted to, but decided not to attend.

Franklin & Marshall College
I don't know whether Peter will end up applying to any of the schools we visited earlier this month, much less attending one.  The idea was just to start exploring the universe of liberal-arts colleges.

I planned the trip with my usual obsessive-compulsive care.  Unfortunately, as I had almost completed making arrangements to visit four schools in three days, I found out that one of them was holding a special overnight-visit program for a lot of admitted students, and wasn't able to do tours or interviews the day we had hoped to be there.  So we revised our driving route to go counterclockwise rather than clockwise, and reversed the order of the college visits -- to paraphrase Matthew 20:16, the last became first, and the first became last.

The first stop was Meadville, Pennsylvania -- north of Pittsburgh, and just south of Lake Erie -- which is the home of Allegheny College.

Like all the colleges we visited, Allegheny is small (2100 undergraduates), located in a small town (Meadville has about 13,000 residents), relatively old (it was founded in 1815), coeducational, was once closely affiliated with a Protestant denomination (the United Methodist Church), and is one of the 40 schools listed in the book Colleges That Change Lives.

That book was written by the late Loren Pope, who was the education editor of the New York Times for many years.  Pope believed that the benefits of attending the elite "name-brand" colleges were greatly overrated by parents and school counselors, and that there were many lesser-known schools that did a better job of developing a lifelong love of learning and providing the foundation for a successful and fulfilling life beyond college.  

While the colleges listed in Pope's book are diverse, they tend to be small (averaging about 1500 students -- the same size as my and my son's high schools), focussed on undergraduate education (most do not offer graduate degrees), and residential (students are expected to live on campus to more fully participate in the college community).  

Classes at these colleges are small, and there's an emphasis on writing regardless of your major.  There's plenty of opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities -- nearly everyone is involved in sports (these schools generally don't offer athletic scholarships), music, theatre, or student publications.

It's a little over 300 miles from our home to Meadville.  After we checked into our hotel we decided to take a quick drive through the town, and saw an amazing sight. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation facility in Meadville is bordered by an outdoor art project titled "Read Between the Signs," which was created by Allegheny faculty and students.  The whole 1200-foot-long sculpture/mural thing was constructed from old highway signs.  Here are several photos, which don't begin to do justice to this artistic extravaganza:

Next, I headed off to walk on the Ernst Trail, a paved hiker-biker trail that follows the right-of-way of an old railroad that used to run from Meadville to an amusement park on Conneaut Lake, which is the largest natural lake in Pennsylvania.

Here's a view from the trail up French Creek, a tributary of the Allegheny River that was named by George Washington in 1753:

View of French Creek from the Ernst Trail
We had a 9 AM appointment at Allegheny.  Colleges do their best to make prospective students feel wanted, and Allegheny had a TV monitor in the admissions office that scrolled through the names of all the high-schoolers who were visiting that day, including my son:

After a brief interview with a student admission intern, another student gave us a tour of the very attractive campus.  Here's the school's original building, Bentley Hall, which was built only a few years after the college was founded in 1815:

Bentley Hall at Allegheny College
Here's a picture of a poster the British government printed during World War II in hopes of keeping civilian morale high:

That poster was obviously the inspiration for this one, which we saw in one of the Allegheny dorms:

Allegheny has some very interesting alums, including lawyer Clarence Darrow, President William McKinley, and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (who dropped out after a year and moved to Cleveland to pursue a musical career).

The 1971 movie version of Richard Fariña's famous college novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, was filmed on the Allegheny campus.  Click here to read more about Fariña and this book.

After the tour had been completed, we grabbed some chocolate-chip cookies at the admissions office, hopped in the minivan, and were on the road by 11 AM.  We had to hustle to complete a 65-mile drive on mostly two-lane roads in time for a 1 PM appointment at our next stop, Hiram College.

Hiram was an even smaller college (1250 students) in an even smaller town.  (Hiram, Ohio is a tiny village -- it doesn't even have a gas station).  Hiram was founded in 1950, and was once affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, which was the church I attended growing up in Joplin, Missouri.

South Joplin Christian Church
One of Hiram's notable alumni was Harold Bell Wright, a Disciples of Christ minister who wrote the famous Ozarks novel, The Shepherd of the Hills.  The 1941 movie version of the book starred John Wayne, and a play based on the novel has been performed outdoors in Branson, Missouri for many years -- according to this promotional video, the play has been performed there 6500 times for more than 7 million people.

Other Hiram alums include President James A. Garfield and poet Vachel Lindsay.

We finished our visit with an admissions officer, a visit with a professor, and a student-led tour of the campus by about 4 PM, which gave me time for a walk-run on the college's track.  I went around and around the track as a group of students (boys and girls) played ultimate frisbee on the artifical-turf football field.

Henry Field at Hiram College
That night, we had a really bad dinner at a pub in a neighboring town before returning to the Hiram Inn -- a small hotel/conference facility on the campus -- for the night.

The Hiram Inn
After enjoying free waffles the next morning, we were on the road by 9 AM.  We'll cover the rest of the trip in the next 2 or 3 lines.

Here's "Reelin' in the Years":

Here's a link you can use to buy the song from Amazon:

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ides of March -- "Vehicle" (1970)

I'm the friendly stranger in the black sedan
Won't you hop inside my car?
I got pictures, got candy, I'm a lovable man
And I'll take you to the nearest . . .

The nearest what?  Woods?  Abandoned house? No-tell motel?  Self-storage facility?

The next word in the song is "star," of course, but I think the alternative choices I've listed above are much more provocative -- don't you?

My friend Lesley wrote to me recently to praise my recent post on "The Rapper," and to tell me that the Jaggerz had travelled down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Wheeling, West Virginia, to perform at her sister's college dormitory sock hop.  This was just before they "hit it big" [sic] with "The Rapper."  (She titled this anecdote "My Attenuated Brush with Musical Greatness."  I would have called it "My Very Attentuated Brush with Musical Greatness [sic]" but I have a strict policy of no more than one sic per paragraph.) 

Lesley went on to say that the Ides of March had played at her brother's college roommate's senior prom at a Chicago-area high school -- "My Even More Attenuated Brush," etc. -- and that "as creepy as the lyrics are, 'Vehicle' remains one of my favorite songs."

GMTA, Lesley -- I was already planning to include "Vehicle" in my current series of posts about "one-hit wonder" singles from my senior year of high school.

But Lesley has it backwards when it comes to why "Vehicle" is a good song.  "Vehicle" isn't a good song in spite of its creepy lyrics.  It's a good song because of its creepy lyrics.  Without the creepy lyrics, what is really left?  

The Ides of March, who hailed from Berwyn, Illinois (a modest Chicago suburb that is home to one of the world's largest laundromats), called themselves the Shon-Dels when they formed in 1964.  But then one of the band members read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in a high-school class.

The Berwyn "Spindle" (torn down in 2008)
After changing its name in 1966, the band released a half-dozen singles that did reasonably well in Chicago, but made no impression anywhere else.  The group then switched recording labels.  When they sent a four-song demo to their new label (Warner Bros. Records), they were surprised when their producer liked "Vehicle" best.

While the group was overdubbing the horn parts, the recording engineer accidentally erased 13 seconds of the existing master tape.  Out of sheer desperation, the engineer spliced in those 13 seconds from a previous take.  Miraculously, the spliced 13 seconds fit perfectly -- the tempo, pitch, and "feel" were virtually identical.  (The splice starts at the second "Great God in heaven" and continues right up to the beginning of the guitar solo if you want to prove it to yourself.)

All's well that's ends well.  "Vehicle" broke into the top 40 in April 1970, and became the fastest-selling single in Warner's history, eventually getting all the way to #2.

Jim Peterik, the group's guitarist and lead singer, wrote "Vehicle."  Thanks to the truly indispensable "Songfacts" website -- if you aren't visiting regularly, you should be -- I am able to tell you the story behind the song.  It's a story that makes perfect sense when you realize that Peterik was 18 when he wrote "Vehicle."

On April 9, 1968, while I was waiting to see one of my favorite groups, The Turtles, at Riverside Brookfield High School . . . my eyes wandered to the girl standing in front of me -- she was a vision in knee socks and orange culottes -- long silky hair and huge blue eyes.  As I was trying to screw up the courage to say hello, she turned to me and said, "Aren't you Peterik?"  Turns out she had seen the Ides Of March a month previously when we opened for the New Colony Six at Morton West High School.  
I said, "Yeah," and from there the conversation just seemed to flow. Never had I met a girl I had so much in common with. Karen and I sat together at the show, and by "Happy Together" she had placed her leg on top of mine (a very positive sign for a first date).  
After about six months of great dates, good times, meadows, making out and serenades, Karen informed me that it was over between us, that she wanted to see other people.  I was thoroughly heartbroken.  I spent the next few months writing sad songs, depressive melodies, introspective garbage, and forcing the Ides to do long blues jams for our show encores . . .  I was also on a mission to find another Karen. There was a girl who looked a lot like her, but when we started dating, I realized that personality was nine-tenths of the law.  I guess I had to somehow win her back.

One day I got a call from Karen.  My heart jumped into my throat. She asked me if I could drive her to modeling school . . . Instead of playing it cool, I found myself saying, "I'll be right over."  I figured our proximity would remind her how much she really loved me.  It was great riding next to her again, though I had to make sure I controlled my hands and my heart.  
This pattern continued for a few weeks with Karen asking me to drive her to various appointments and functions. We even sang at a few coffee houses as a duo . . . Though it was great to be with her, the newly platonic nature of our relationship was bumming me out.

One day in a fit of frustration, I heard myself blurt out to her "You know, all I am to you is your vehicle." . . . Just then the light bulb popped up on top of my head and I thought about all the guys like me who don't mind being taken for a ride by a beautiful girl.  I said "See you later" and started writing the song.

The song's original opening line was "I got a set of wheels, pretty baby," but then a friend showed Peterik a government-issued anti-drug pamphlet that featured an illustration of a sleazy pusher cruising the streets looking for potential customers.  It was captioned, "I'm the friendly stranger in the black sedan."  (Here's a tip for you aspiring songwriters out there.  The government can't copyright anything it publishes, so if you see a line you like in an anti-drug pamphlet, feel free to use it in your song -- just like Jim Peterik did.  Smart move, Jim!)

Karen and Jim Peterik today
After "Vehicle" became a hit, Jim got back together with Karen.  They've been married for over 30 years.  According to Peterik,
To this day, she doesn't like to be in audiences where I tell that story.  She feels very embarrassed by it.  She knows it's true, but at the same time, she doesn't want to be thought of as this opportunistic woman who just wanted her guy to drive her around.
Peterik's got it backwards.  Karen has no reason to be embarrassed -- she was just doing what women do.  He, on the other hand, is totally (and I mean TOTALLY) P.W'd.  He's the one that should be embarrassed by the story.

Unfortunately, the Ides of March wasn't able to replicate the success of "Vehicle" and broke up in 1973.  (They subsequently reunited in 1990, and continue to tour today.)  Peterik co-founded Survivor in 1978, and co-wrote "Eye of the Tiger," the theme song for Rocky III, which shot up to #1 on the Billboard "Hot 100" and stayed there for six weeks.

He also co-wrote hits for Sammy Hagar, REO Speedwagon, and .38 Special -- including "Hold On Loosely," which experts agree offers surefire advice for a successful relationship:

Just hold on loosely 
But don't let go 
If you cling too tight, babe 
You're gonna lose control 
Your baby needs someone to believe in 
And a whole lot of space to breathe in! 

Amen, brother -- take those words to heart, boys and girls, and you will live happily ever after.

By the way, has anyone else noticed the eerie similarities between the histories of the Ides of March and the Rogues?  For example, Jim Peterik was not quite 14 when the Ides of March (then the Shon-Dels) got together in 1964.  I was the same age when we formed the Rogues a couple of years later.  Karen put her leg on top of Jim's as the Turtles sang "Happy Together," and one of the Rogues' go-to covers was that selfsame "Happy Together."

Of course, the Rogues never released a record, much less a #2 hit single -- but that doesn't preclude us from reuniting and starting to perform again in front of large and enthusiastic crowds, just like the Ides of March did.  (They perform every Christmas Eve at Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral.  Surely we could find a church in Joplin that would love having a drawing card like the Rogues at their Christmas Eve services.)

My copy of "Vehicle" is on a promotional LP released by KLIF, a classic top-40 AM station that dominated the airwaves in Dallas-Ft. Worth in the 1960s.  (If you look very closely, you'll see the $2.99 price sticker on the extreme upper-left-hand corner of the album -- I got this one used many years after it was released.)

Here's the listing of the songs that are on side two of this album:

I just noticed that there's a rather glaring error here.  They reversed the names of the groups that performed two of the songs.  The Five Man Electrical Band (shortened to "5 Man Band" on the record cover) did "Signs," of course, and the Bells did "Stay Awhile."  

Here's "Vehicle":

Here's the band as it sounds today:

Not bad, huh?

Lesley, if you want to see the boys live, I'd suggest you mark your calendar for June 24.  That day, the Ides of March will be at the White Sox game as part of a special "Seventies Night" extravaganza.  They'll be doing the National Anthem and "God Bless America" as well as "Vehicle," and the first 10,000 kids who attend will get a 1972 White Sox throwback jersey.

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Rolling Stones -- "The Singer, Not the Song" (1965)

The same old places and the same old songs 
We've been going there for much too long 
There's something wrong
And it gives me that feeling inside 
That I know I must be right 
It's the singer not the song 
I wrote a few months ago about "She Said Yeah," another cut from the fifth Rolling Stones album to be released in the United States, but the first one I owned -- December's Children (and Everybody's), a rather haphazard assemblage of originals and covers, some taken from previous UK releases and some brand new.  I got the LP when I was 13 and played it to death until Between the Buttons was released about a year later.

Which is more important?  The singer or the song?  The Stones say that it's the singer, not the song.

Dirk Bogarde said the same thing as he and John Mills lay dying at the end of the 1961 British movie, The Singer Not the Song.  I have to think that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards must have seen that movie, and that it inspired this song.

The Singer Not the Song was a very odd movie -- it was a commercial flop, but eventually attained a certain cult status thanks to its undercurrents of homoeroticism.   

It is a western, filmed in Mexico by a British director and featuring a mainly British cast (all with impeccable upper-class British accents).  Bogarde plays a church-hating Mexican bandit who reigns over a timid Mexican town.  Mills plays an Irish priest who comes to the village to bring religion back to its residents.  

Mills tries to reform Bogarde, who eventually comes to respect the priest's courage and integrity.  The two men end up in a truly bizarre love triangle with the daughter of a rich rancher -- she was played by a young French actress, for some reason -- and perhaps with each other.

Dirk Bogarde in The Singer Not the Song
Bogarde, who was gay but very closeted at the time, wore a rather remarkable pair of skin-tight leather pants in the film.  A 2011 story in a British newspaper says that after the movie was screened for the press, 

critics sniggered loudly at those leather trousers and went home to write reviews that wondered whether The Singer Not the Song was about "the love that dare not speak its name." 

The writer of that article went on to say that the movie is "of such telegraphic queerness" that it's hard to believe that Bogarde remained the idol of many British teenage girls after its release.

The film ends with the death of both the outlaw and the priest in a shootout in the town plaza.  As they lay dying, the priest embraces the outlaw, begging him to say an act of contrition and save his soul.  The outlaw's last words are "It's the singer, not the song" -- he apparently means that while he will never accept the teachings of the church, he did respect and believe in the priest.

Here's the climax of The Singer not the Song:

I'm guessing that the meaning of "it's the singer, not the song" in the Rolling Stones song is that what's important isn't for a man to be with a woman -- what's important is to be with the right woman.  

In the first two verses, the singer believes he is with the right woman.  But things seem to have taken a turn for the worse in the third verse, which has subtly different words.  

Instead of having a "feeling inside that I know must be right" (verses one and two),  the singer says in the third verse that he has a "feeling inside" that there's something wrong and "I know I must be right" about that bad feeling.

Let's put the movie and the song aside for a moment, and consider the broader question.  What is more important?  The singer?  Or the song?

Years ago, there was a Roz Chast cartoon in the New Yorker that featured some poor soul being asked whether a certain experience had been 

A.  More fun than a barrel of monkeys

B.  Less fun than a barrel of monkeys

C.  Exactly as much fun as a barrel of monkeys  

The correct answer is C.  In other words, the singer is exactly as important as the song -- or vice versa, if you prefer.

Here's "The Singer, Not the Song":

Use this link if you'd like to buy the song from Amazon:

Friday, April 20, 2012

Jay-Z -- "D'Evils" (1996)

It gets dangerous 
Money and power is changing us 
And now we're lethal, 
Infected with d'evils

Class, may I have your attention.  It's time to get started -- cell phones off, please.  (Linda and Margaret, that means you.)

Today's "Hip Hop 101" begins with a visit to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the Colossus at Rhodes, the 107-foot high bronze statue of the Greek sun-god, Helios, that was erected in the city of Rhodes on the Greek island of the same name to celebrate the defeat of an invading army in 305 B.C.  It stood for 56 years until it was toppled by an earthquake.  

The statue may have looked something like this:  

But it almost undoubtedly did not look anything like this:

Or like this:

The image of a harbor-straddling giant captured the imagination of many, including Shakespeare, who wrote these lines comparing Julius Caesar to the Colossus at Rhodes:

[H]e doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his legs and peep about

Jay-Z (born Shawn Corey Carter on December 4, 1969) is without a doubt the Colossus of Rhodes of rap music, towering over the world of hip-hop like the ancient bronze statue.  

Beyoncé and Jay-Z
If you don't believe me, maybe you'll believe 11 number one albums (more than Elvis or any other solo artist ever had), worldwide sales of about 50 million albums, and a net worth of $450 million . . . not to mention his marriage to R&B superstar Beyoncé Knowles, who is a suitable queen for the king of the hip-hop world.  

He not only co-founded a record label (Roc-A-Fella Records) but also was behind the creation of the Rocawear apparel brand and co-owns the three 40/40 Clubs and the NBA New Jersey Nets franchise.  As he has famously said, "I'm not a businessman -- I'm a business, man."

We will discuss several Jay-Z songs in upcoming "Hip-Hop 101" lectures -- there are dozens of worthy candidates, so it will be a challenge to decide which ones make the final cut.  Let's begin at the beginning with a track from Jay-Z's very first album, Reasonable Doubt, which was released in 1996.

The early life of this modern-day Colossus -- perhaps we should call him the "Colossus from Marcy Houses," the dangerous Bedford-Stuyvesant housing project he called home -- has elements of Greek tragedy.  

Jay-Z was the youngest of four siblings.  His father abandoned the family when Jay-Z was 11, and he became one of the many crack dealers operating in the Marcy projects.  When he was 12, he shot and wounded his older brother for stealing some of his jewelry.  

A lot of Jay-Z's songs talk about his mother, Gloria Carter.  She indirectly helped get his musical career off the ground by buying him a boom box for his birthday.  He began freestyling for his Marcy friends, and was given the nickname "Jazzy," which eventually evolved into "Jay-Z."  (Jay-Z has many nicknames, including "Jigga" and "HOVA," which stands for "Hustler of Virginia" -- he says he used to run drugs from New York City to Virginia.)

A very young Jay-Z
Jay-Z appeared on the records of a number of other rappers in the early 1990's, and his association with Big Daddy Kane helped bring him to the attention of a larger audience.  But when no existing record company would sign him to a contract, Jay-Z and a couple of his associates started their own record company. 

His debut album, Reasonable Doubt, sold reasonably well and was reviewed favorably.  It is now considered a classic by most critics and hip-hop aficionados -- some would say it was his best album ever.  

Reasonable Doubt is usually characterized as "Mafioso rap," an East Coast gangsta rap variant that is characterized by references to organized crime, drugs, money, expensive cars and expensive champagne, and so on.  The album presents Jay-Z as cocky and unapologetic, but also reflective and self-aware when it comes to the downsides of being a gangsta.  Critics correctly praised the album for its "gritty realism" and  "disarming honesty."

One of the many interesting tracks on Reasonable Doubt is "D'Evils."  The capitalization of the "E" and the way the words is rhymed makes it clear that "d'evils" is a phonetic rendition of "the evils."  But it's impossible to miss the implicit reference to "devils."

John Gotti
The singer of this song is no strutting, boasting gangsta, but a tortured and conflicted soul who admits "I never prayed to God, I prayed to Gotti" -- a reference to the notorious Mafia boss, John Gotti, who had been convicted of five murders in 1992.

But he changes his tune in the course of the song, praying "Dear God, I wonder can you save me?" from the temptation of the easy money available to drug dealers.

The second of the song's three verses is a chilling tale of betrayal -- you can't help but think the guilt of shooting his only brother still weighed on Jay-Z's mind when he rapped about his no-holds-barred pursuit of a former childhood friend who has become a dangerous rival:

We used to fight for building blocks 
Now we fight for blocks with buildings that make a killing 
The closest of friends when we first started 
But grew apart as the money grew, and soon grew black-hearted 
The first two lines of this verse are brilliant.  Jay-Z and his friend once squabbled over who could play with their building blocks when they were small boys.  Now that they are adults, they battle over turf -- over which of them will control drug sales in the project apartment buildings with the largest populations of crackheads and other potential customers.
Thinking back when we first learned to use rubbers 
He never learned so in turn I'm kidnapping his baby's mother 
My hand around her collar, feeding her cheese 
She said the taste of dollars was shitty so I fed her fifties 
About his whereabouts I wasn't convinced 
So I kept feeding her money 'til her shit started to make sense 
She liked this cheese
In his determination to track down and eliminate his rival, Jay-Z has kidnapped his baby's mother.  With an intimidating hand on her throat, he's "feeding her cheese" -- offering her money to betray her baby's father.  She is no innocent -- she's not tempted by one-dollar bills, but finds a fistful of fifties more to her liking: once he upped the ante, she started telling him the truth ("her shit started to make sense") about where his enemy is hiding out.

In the last verse, Jay-Z admits he is powerless to resist the temptations -- the evils (or "d'evils") -- that have been thrown at him: 

My soul is possessed
By d'evils in the form of diamonds and Lexuses . . .
I can't be held accountable
D'evils beatin' me down, boo

In other word, the devil -- or "d'evils" -- made him do it.

The last lines of "D'Evils" indicate that nothing is going to change:

For the love of money, son
I'm giving lead showers

The singer isn't just killing his enemies, he is showering them with bullets.

And even if Jehovah witness,
Bet he'll never testify

Is Jay-Z suggesting that even if God witnesses his crimes, Jay-Z is so intimidating that he'll be afraid to testify at his trial?  Or is the last mention of "d'evils" intended to say that there will no be witness against Jay-Z because the evils (or the devil) is stronger than the forces of good?

But there's even more going on here.  First, there's a pun based on the fact that Jehovah's Witnesses refuse to swear to tell the truth in court because they don't believe in taking oaths to anyone but God.  (That doesn't mean they don't testify, of course -- they just affirm that they will tell the truth rather than swearing an oath to do so.)  Second, if you combine the "Jay" from "Jay-Z" with one of his other nicknames -- "HOVA" -- you have "Jehovah."  So another meaning here is that Jay-Z will never snitch anyone out in court.  

You may find the subject matter of this song repellent and disturbing, but I don't think you can deny the art and skill that its author brings to bear.  I'm not sure it's fair to put him in the same league with Eliot or Joyce, but I don't think such a comparison is that much of a stretch.

We'll learn more about Jay-Z in future "Hip Hop 101" classes, and we'll also learn about his chief rival for the throne.  If you want to know who he is, here's another clue for you all: he is supposedly dating this woman:

(Given that this post began with a reference to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, perhaps it's only fitting that we close with a reference to one of the seven wonders of the modern world . . . )

Here's "D'Evils":

You can use this link to buy "D'Evils " from Amazon: