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November 20, 2007

La Mal Babe Sans Merci

Over at Brainiac, Josh Glenn discusses the theme of "the intellectual, slightly mysterious rock-and-roll woman," as a recent book calls it, running throughout songs from the Boston scene over the years. All those smart but fragile girls that Jonathan Richman sang about with the Modern Lovers, for example.

Josh suggests that there is a strain of hipster misogyny in this: the revenge of the sophomore spurned, no doubt. And he reads Mission of Burma's "Academy Fight Song"

as a response to that kind of thing -- its lyrics "written from the point of view of a cool, educated young woman who was sick and tired of the obsessive attention paid to her by a would-be boyfriend...."

This seems plausible. But it would not be the first song from the Boston scene to approach this archetype (or whatever it is) from the inside. I'm thinking here, of course, of "Ballad of the Hip Death Goddess" by Ultimate Spinach.

Seldom has a group been called "undeservedly forgotten" by more people who, deep down, aren't really sure that much of an injustice has been done. (I'm glad that you can still find a best-of album on CD, but probably don't listen to it more than once every couple of years.)

The band was a leading force in the psychedelic (and for the most part synthetic) "Boston sound" of forty years ago. The Spinach seems to have been a large group, consisting of unusually pretentious hippies with access to a lot of studio time.

Not that there is anything wrong with that; sometimes it can be extremely enjoyable, even. But when a band has a song called "Suite: Genesis of Beauty (In Four Parts)" -- with lyrics like "The tears have flown like velvet thunder" and a protracted organ solo -- it is making certain challenges to a listener that not all of us are going to ready to face. I'm usually more in the mood for the Standells.

"The Ballad of the Hip Death Goddess" opens with a very solemn guy describing her from what I hope is a safe distance:

See the glazed eyes
Touch the dead skin
Feel the cold lips
And know the warmth
Of the Hip Death Goddess.

Then a female singer with a rather lovely high voice starts channeling the H.D.G. herself. She invites you to come into her arms. There, she can "keep you safe from all harms." But don't believe her for a second, because she did not get that name by accident:

Kiss my lips for they are very nice
Kiss my lips and you will turn to ice.

She has a few other lines, with you ending up dead figuring into most of them. She has cold eyes that will free you from lies, and so forth. Then she disappears for a while, and you get lots of guitar and theremin noodling over a sometimes rhythmically challenged bassline. I am not sure, but this may represent purgatory.

The effect is "like a deadpan parody of psychedelic malarkey taken to a logical extreme," as one blogger puts it. (You can hear an excerpt of the song at the bottom of that page.)

In pushing things to that extreme, perhaps the Spinach actually did criticize the Fatal Woman archetype by making the whole thing seem very, very silly. All things considered, though, I'd rather hear "Academy Fight Song," most of the time.

(crossposted from CT)

Posted by smclemee at November 20, 2007 3:10 PM


Now, having posted this, it dawns on me that the Spinach song is more about your generic misogynist ur-female, rather than one who is particularly brainy. But she's touching down in Boston, so that's two out of three points anyway.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at November 20, 2007 5:19 PM

I hope your readers will post more examples of this phenomenon to the comments, here...

Posted by: Josh Glenn at November 20, 2007 7:40 PM