Day Ninety-Seven: "Callin' In Sick" from Bad Hair Day
In the middle of Bad Hair Day Al, whose songs often deal with somewhat outlandish phenomenon such as Slime Creatures from Outer Space, Yuletide nuclear armageddons and Spam consumption, gets unexpectedly relatable. “Cavity Search” and “Callin' In Sick” both chronicle things pretty much everyone experiences: the terror of being in the dentist chair and calling in sick for work.
“Callin' In Sick” is Al’s post-Nirvana/“Smells Like Teen Spirit” grunge pastiche. Now we all know that the only “jobs” grunge rockers have involve being depressed and getting addicted to heroin but “Callin' In Sick” imagines a world in which they work the same kinds of jobs us normal folks do, you know, like writing about every “Weird Al” Yankovic song in obsessive detail.
As always, Al and his collaborators nail the sonic details: the groove here feels effortlessly authentic. It’s easy to imagine some long-haired, flannel-clad moaner mumbling something quasi-profound over this particular music. These were men of intensity, men of drama. They were men who wore too much eye liner and struck glam rock poses while bleating, cow-like, in the preferred post-Eddie Vedder style. They were men like Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots and Bush’s Gavin Rossdale who weren’t “talented” or “original” but had very striking cheekbones and could easily dabble in male modeling.
Al’s vocals here alternate between a low, almost conversational moan during the verses and an angry shout during the choruses, hewing to the soft-loud dynamic that flourished in the aftermath of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which in addition to inspiring one of Al’s most important songs, turned out to be fairly influential in some other ways as well, both good and bad.
The vibe of “Callin' In Sick” is dramatic and intense but the lyrics are low-key and observational as Al adopts the perspective of an ennui-addled wage slave who decides to engage in a little low-level, everyday rebellion by shucking off the onerous responsibility of going to their place of employment for a day of avoiding labor, meaningful or otherwise.
Al channels the escapist fantasies of clock-watchers everywhere when he insists, “When I’m sick of taking abuse/I just think up some lame excuse, freedom’s only seven digits away!” He’s not going to wait until the weekend to stop working. In a sense, “Calling in Sick” plays like the flip side to the album-closing “The Night Santa Went Crazy.”
Both songs are alternative rock pastiches about people who get bored with their jobs and rebel, but where “Callin' In Sick” opts for an incongruously banal, low-key vibe, “The Night Santa Went Crazy” opts for blood-crazed Yuletide horror and pitch-black dark comedy. So while the singer of “Callin' In Sick” contemplates whiling away the hours through everything from shining his pennies, to cleaning his lava lamp, to spending the day in his underwear watching Ernest Goes to Camp, at no point does he even suggest that he’s considering spending a sick day using an arsenal to murder all of his co-workers. And I think that’s good. We need more people who channel their professional frustrations into finding novel ways to amuse themselves and fewer people who use those same aggravations as fodder for embarking on killing sprees. I’m not just saying this because I currently happen to be writing a book about the movie Postal.
“Callin' In Sick” is probably the only grunge song ever to reference Ernest Goes to Camp though if Nirvana had gotten a chance to release an official studio follow-up to In Utero maybe it wouldn’t be able to claim that lonely distinction. We’ll never know, dear reader, and that is one of a number of reasons it’s sad that Kurt Cobain died so young.
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