Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Kenny Rogers & The First Edition's "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town"

War is hell. And hell is other people (thanks, Jean-Paul Sartre). Sadly, though we all know war is good for absolutely nothing (thanks again, Edwin Starr), we keep doing it. And when we get a respite from all the fighting, we get involved in personal wars with the ones we love. Kenny Rogers knew this, as did his "backing band," The First Edition, when they cut "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" during the height of the Vietnam War (in 1969). He also knew that he was in the process of growing the greatest beard since Merlin the Magician. Both of these contributions to our cultural landscape can no longer go overlooked.

According to Wikipedia, war has existed for years, extending all the way back to World War II in the early 1940s. Troubled relationships, at least in the United States, extend all the way back to a fictional, colonial Boston in the mid-Seventeenth Century when the noted seamstress Hester Prynne cheated on her "slightly deformed" alchemist doctor of a husband Roger--who was away on business for an extended period of time--with Boston's most respected up and coming reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Posterity views her as the heroine in this love triangle. It is rather unfortunate as well that love and war have been so intertwined for the bulk of humanity's 6000 years of existence on this planet.

What makes "Ruby" so universally understood is that everyone can relate to it. How many of us have lost the use of our legs serving our country only to find out our significant other is going off to carouse with anonymous men or women "hundred[s] of times"? Well, if this hasn't happened to you, literally, it has totally happened to you metaphorically -- literally! Kenny Rogers and the First Edition had just made the transition from C-grade psychedelic rockers (especially with their quirky hit "I Forgot What Condition My Condition Was In" in 1967) to a lite-country act for the occasion. The First Edition gently stomp through the cut as Rogers wistfully sings one of the most dour lyrics in the history of mankind. The traditional "my dog died, my woman left me, and I'm out of booze" lyrics of country music are seem like a kids' birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's compared with "Ruby," which examines the moral obligations of a union (whether a long-term relationship or marriage) where one of its members has been physically incapacitated during "that old crazy Asian War" from injuries that mean "it won't be long ... until I'm not around." Is Ruby the villain in this scenario for leaving her symbolically impotent and physically absent man behind (like Hester Prynne did) to have intimate couplings with strangers, "in town," like she has a "hundred times before"? Is it her right? Well, according to the narrator, Ruby's actions are not cool at all: "If I could move I'd get my gun." Because he is not able to provide the kind of physical affection that Ruby desires does not mean he is incapable of love.

Wow, Kenny Rogers and The First Edition: y'all are depressing the hell out of me, despite the relative peppiness of your musical backing. Fortunately, this wasn't Kenny Rogers' last great contribution to society's collective psyche:

I don't think I need to persuade anybody how genius that beard is!

1 comment:

  1. I nearly shed a tear when I hear that part when the narrator says, "If I could move, I'd get my gun and put her in the ground." He'd kill her but he can't move. Meanwhile, she's out screwing everything that does move. You just have to feel sorry for the old poor bastard.