Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: The Buoys' "Timothy"

Many things make us laugh. Like farts. Or platitudes. Or Crotch-shots on America's Funniest Home Videos. Or elaborate jokes involving three holes in a wall and a particularly vicious milking machine. These things are funny. And so is making fun of old people. One thing that's not funny, however, is cannibalism. Aside from incest or bestiality, humanity finds nothing more repulsive or terrifying than cannibalism. In fact, imperial powers often claimed the people they were colonizing were cannibals to justify their actions and to tame these so-called "barbarians" with bullets and poison-tipped arrows full of "civilization." Over the last sixty years, Americans have been morbidly fascinated with revolting mass murderers like Edward Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer, both of whom ate some of their victims. If there is one instance, though, when cannibalism seems to be only slightly less disgusting, it is in the act of survival. This is why the travails of the Donner Party in 1846-7 or the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crash of 1972, dramatized more recently in the 1993 film Alive (directed by Frank Marshall), have long fascinated many people. I'm sure many people wonder just how deprived of food they would have to be to seriously consider cannibalism as a viable gastronomical option. More mind-blowing than any of these facts, well-researched though they may be, is The Buoys' 1970 hit single "Timothy." To date, it is the only American song about cannibalism to crack Billboard's Top Twenty.

The man who wrote "Timothy" was preoccupied with flavors. Rupert Holmes, The Buoys' pianist and "Timothy"'s scribe, would later become an international superstar with his epic single "Escape (The PiƱa Colada Song)," the yacht-rock song that would go on to define an entire generation."Timothy" presents the narrative of a small group of miners, three to be exact (the narrator, Joey, and Tim), who become trapped. The Buoys' lead singer, Billy Kelly, with his competent, impassioned voice deceptively relates this narrative, coming off as a Summer of Love crooner singing about flowers in his hair and getting crabs. The shuffling rhythm work of the group's guitarist, Chris Hanlon, is backed by a tight rhythm section, a light brass section, and some of the most deliciously sappy strings you'll ever hear. It is against this bubblegum wash of diabetic infectiousness that Billy Kelly delivers this chilling tale.

What is so brilliant about "Timothy" is that Kelly never mentions cannibalism by name. Instead, he drops hints. Seriously. The lines "Me and Joey feasted on the delicious meat of Timothy down in the mine / He sure was tasty! / We now have a constant craving for human flesh / Where's the A1 sauce? / Because we're totally cannibals now" do not appear in the song. Instead, Rupert Holmes' sly lyric begs the question, "Do you like Can-ni-bal-ism ... and getting caught in a mine?" The track's brutal setting is a mine disaster. Three men are trapped. But when they are rescued, only the narrator and Joey are to be found. During the chorus, the group sings, "Timothy, where did you go? God, I don't know." God refuses to answer their question because He hates cannibals. Clearly. He also dislikes people who sell their souls for just a piece of meat, like Joey, who tells our hungry narrator, "I'd sell my soul for just a piece of meat." The narrator, however, has no qualms about being a cannibal, because, unlike Joey, he makes no such Faustian deal to survive. He proves that, yes, there can be atheism in a foxhole, so to speak.

What elevates the song above being a cruel joke is its potent commentary on the dispiriting nature of collective apathy. In the final verse, the narrator mentions that he has blacked out, waking up to find himself rescued from the mine disaster. Curiously, his stomach is full. How on Earth did that happen? Clearly, the narrator is a lousy detective, as are his rescuers. The narrator notes, "Nobody ever got around to finding Timothy." Perhaps if they would have noticed the narrator's bib or how his breath curiously smelled just like Timothy, they would have found out the ugly truth. BUT NOOOOOO!

What The Buoys' "Timothy" actually accomplishes is quite stunning. In the song, they manage to rail against apathy, criticize the betrayal of ones own humanity, and make cannibalism seem cute and funny, WHICH IT IS NOT. Cannibalism is serious business, and no laughing matter. As a result of this song, the bubblegum pop scene of the early 1970s got just a little meatier, if you know what I mean?

Here's a clip of the song:

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