Day Fifty-Seven: "Good Old Days" from Even Worse
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Huey Lewis & The News’ Sports, the very first album (as in big old record) a young Nathan Rabin ever purchased with his very own allowance money, American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic (whose In 3-D would be the third album I ever owned, after Michael Jackson’s Thriller) and Huey Lewis appeared in an American Psycho parody/homage riffing on the memorable role Patrick Bateman’s commentary on Lewis & Company’s early, multi-platinum efforts plays in both the film and novel.
The closest Al ever came to Bret Easton Ellis/American Psycho territory in his own work would probably be “Good Old Days”, whose deceptively white-bread, milquetoast title and soothingly cloying folk-rock melody belies some of the most warped lyrics in Al’s entire discography. “Good Old Days” is as All-American as apple pie, David Lynch and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
It’s a brazen exercise in anti-nostalgia that depicts the faraway land of the past as a Norman Rockwell wonderland populated by such Happy Days-ready staples of cornball Americana as dad watering the lawn or heading out to the ol’ swimming hole with a pole and a cooler full of bait, mom’s biscuits and apple pie, the local shopkeeper’s big friendly smile and kindly advice, “Sweet Michelle”, the narrator’s “high school romance” and the homecoming dance.
But it also depicts the past as a realm of infinite depravity, a violent and nonsensical world where behind perfectly manicured lawns and white picket fences children torture “rats with a hacksaw” and pull “the wings off of flies”, the narrator repays the local shop-keeper’s avuncular benevolence by burning his business down and bashing his skull in for reasons he can’t begin to understand and ends the evening of his homecoming dance by shaving off all of his beloved’s hair and leaving her in the desert to die.
As I’ve written here, Al likes to pair his gentlest melodies to his most demented and violent lyrics. So when Al decided to turn his attention to the mellow folk stylings of James Taylor, it was inevitable that the result would be some pretty messed up junk. Oh, and now would probably be a good time to remind you that I committed myself to not swearing in this column and it has not always been easy! Because, to be brutally honest, I really enjoy swearing, or at least having that option, but it can be good to work with restrictions as well.
Pastiches like “Dare to be Stupid”, “Dog Eat Dog” and “Happy Birthday” are valentines to the cult artists they’re lovingly paying tribute to, but I’m not sure how flattered James Taylor should be by “Good Old Days.” It doesn’t just replace Taylor’s earnest 1970s Sensitive Man of Earnest Emotions with a possible serial killer. It also depicts Taylor’s music as cloying, bland and overproduced and his crooning as saccharine and mellow to a nap-inducing degree.
Of course, the mellowness of the singing serves the warped comedy of the lyrics. The singer sings about the local corner store owner’s smile and smashing his brains out with the same fuzzy, nostalgic fondness. For him, these are all good memories because he is a sadist with no concern for human life or the emotions of others.
The song is a particularly dark and uncompromising exercise in juxtaposing light and dark, the safely nostalgic and the violent and psychotic, but it has a larger satirical point to make about the myopic dishonesty of nostalgia as well. We tend to fetishize the past as a time of dewy innocence but it was a world of darkness and brutality as well as light.
Donald Trump ran on nostalgia for America’s distant past, but he's a living reminder that the lily-white American past that Trump romanticizes was full of scummy, racist people like Donald Trump’s father, Roy Cohn, Donald Trump’s mentor, and also Donald Trump himself. That dude is old, and has been sleazing around and single-handedly making America worse for decades.
Besides, Ed Gein and Norman Bates are as much staples of our collective past and collective consciousness as Pat Boone and Norman Welk. Or consider Bill Cosby, who took time out of a decades-long serial rape spree to tell young black men to pull their pants up and return to the conventional values of tradition-minded, backwards-looking men of honor and moral purity like himself.
Yes, the past can be a pretty messed up place, full of awful people like Bill Cosby, Donald Trump and the lunatic singing “Good Old Days”, who certainly has an insect body count, and probably a human one as well, if his fond ramble down memory lane is any indication. “Good Old Days” is the rare exercise in dewy nostalgia that could be entered into evidence as a confession in a court of law.
Like poor old Mr. Fender, the corner-store owner, in the moments before his brains were bashed in, we encounter a darker side of a familiar face and voice on “Good Old Days.” It’s yet another Al song that borders on horrorcore in its morbid lyrical content, albeit with a mellow acoustic vibe.
Am I once again claiming that Al invented horrorcore? Yes, I am, and I’m amazed that despite the lyrical content of “Good Old Days”, Al once again managed to avoid the Parent Advisory sticker created specifically out of culture-wide fear and panic caused by “Nature Trail to Hell” from In 3-D.
Even Worse began with a safe choice for a parody and single in "Fat" that succeeded in getting Al back on the charts but it closes with the sort of darkly comic oddball album cut that has endeared Al to multiple generations of weirdoes and malcontents throughout the decades. It’s the kind of song that reminds them that he’s one of them, and that while he may have a singular gift for making popular, accessible and kid-friendly music, Al has also never shied away from releasing songs that might lightly traumatize children, like “One More Minute”, “Nature Trail to Hell” or “Good Old Days.”
As both the dad of a nearly-three-year-old and an Al fan, I think that’s oddly healthy, even essential. Children need to be entertained, after all, but it never hurts to freak them out a little bit as well.
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