When I was in college, my friends and I would spend hours (some of them sober) poring over lyrics in songs, trying to decipher what Michael Stipe was mumbling on Radio Free Europe. For some reason, REM spoke to us like the Holy Spirit, and the best decoding happened late at night in an attic that we had broken into. ---
“I think he’s singing, ‘Sign yourself, the deaf don’t go that way,’” Drew said from under a Yankees cap.
“No way, dude, Stipe is far more philosophical,” Russell argued. He was from Georgia so he thought himself a bit of an expert on the Dirty South and its history of crooners. “It’s ‘Mine the shelf, dead gonna lead the way.’”
I just laughed because I had no idea what the hell anyone was talking about, which was true for most of the time I spent in that attic.
Now it’s my 9-year-old son London doing all the guessing about the libretto to Black Sabbath of all bands, and it’s because of Iron Man, the movie, not the guy Drew knew who sold weed that he claimed was fortified with vitamins.
The Marvel film has been clever enough to unite myriad generations through the use of old-school bands like Sabbath and AC/DC on its anthemic soundtrack. While some metalheads love the nostalgic familiarity of arguing whether the midgets Ozzy Osbourne employed onstage were really poking fun at Ronnie James Dio’s height (or lack thereof), nippers like London believe these iconic songs were written just for a smirking Robert Downey Jr. to kick the lumpy ass of Mickey Rourke (in a Russian accent straight out of a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon). So we’re in the minivan not long after forking over our super bucks to see Iron Man 2, and some classic rock station was doing (surprise!) a Sabbath marathon. They started with “War Pigs,” a song I actually enjoy more, ironically, covered by the band Cake. But who wants to listen to me, a gangster of the minivan variety? Either way, London started to deconstruct straight outta his booster seat.
“When that guy says ‘War Machine keeps turning,’ he’s talking about the machine gun on his left shoulder. You know that, right, Dad?”
“Sure,” I said, with the same level of confidence I had back in the attic when Russell and Drew tried to convince me that the REM song “Perfect Circle” was about competitive cheerleading.
London does not reference the military-industrial complex when he hears the term War Machine; in his mind screen, all he sees is Don Cheadle desperate to return a gunmetal suit to a bloody but still grinning Robert Downey.
When the title track came on, I checked the rearview to see my little Chuck Klosterman racking his brain to apply the darker lyrics of the song to the more heroic fare of the films.
“Let’s see,” London mused, “the part about him being blind is when Tony Stark makes his first suit in that prison. He can’t see so well then.”
“That makes sense.”
“And the whole thing about nobody wanting him.” London’s eyes became distant. I could tell he was applying some intense critical thinking to these two great works of art. “Well, that’s when he gets drunk and everybody’s mad at him, even his friends.”
“I can feel his pain,” I said, and realized I hadn’t spoken to Russell since Michael Stipe shaved his head.
The Sabbath song isn’t exactly complex, either musically or lyrically, so London could really concentrate on his essential text.
“And he has to get his vengeance, you know, Dad, because his victims are really his enemies, the villains. Let’s see, there’s Obadiah, Crimson Dynamo, Whiplash, Doctor Doom and MODOK, which stands for something. Do you remember what it stands for?”
“No, London,” I said, “but if you keep listening, you’ll probably figure it out.”
Robert Wilder’s most recent book is Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge. Daddy Needs a Drink appears the first Wednesday of each month in the Santa Fe Reporter.