A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have not thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: 1987 college-rock semi-novelty semi-hit by Rochester, New York-based band.
And here’s why I like it:
1. Rochester! My attachment to my hometown fades a little more with each passing year, but I’ll still fly the flag sometimes. And one of the things that delights me about this song is that it took a Goof Troop club band from the Home Districts and gave them a genuine touring-abroad rock n’ roll career path for a couple of years. I’m not sure it’s a rags-to-riches story — it might be more like rags-to-nicer-rags. But still, better them than some brain-dead heavy-metal band.
2. Pirozhkis! I have never associated Memphis with a sizable Eastern European population. So the line in which the narrator assumes he will find pirozhkis to eat seems to sum up his starry-eyed optimism more concisely than any other … as if his mental Memphis has poly-ethnic restaurants on every corner with menus as long as his backbone. (The line, for reference: “Some days I’ll order chicken, some days I’ll order fish / Some days I’ll have pirozhkis, that’s a Polish dish.”)
Doing some Googling, I learn that:
1) Pirozhki are Russian and Ukrainian, not Polish. Whoops. Also, pirozhki is the plural of pirozhok; “pirozhkis,” strictly speaking, isn’t a thing, although maybe in the cross-linguistic muddle it gets used anyway.
2) Memphis does have an active Polish-American Society, and even has a Memphis in Poland festival that brings local musicians to Eastern Europe to perform. Go know! Maybe you can eat pierogies in Memphis, if not necessarily pirozhkis. I learned something from this silly song … more than I’ve ever learned from, say, “Stairway to Heaven.”
3. The visitor. For most of the song, the narrator appears to be daydreaming about some idealized vision of Memphis. But at one point, he drops a line that suggests he’s actually been there: “Memphis isn’t all that big, at least that’s how I found it / Why, it only took an hour and a half to walk completely around it.”
To me, that makes the whole notion even funnier and more delicious. He’s been there, walked from one end of the other (either because he longs to see it all up close, or he can’t afford a car), and he still thinks of the place as some sort of dream destination.
(Of course, it is probably a fool’s errand to close-read a lyric with lines like “The people in the restaurants will all use forks and knives / They won’t take decongestants, though, for fear of getting hives” — my least favorite part of the song, for what that’s worth. Still, I’ll think deeply about it if I feel like it.)
4. The riff. The song is ferociously loyal to its one and only riff; they only stop it to chant. I admire the purity of that level of songwriting. It makes James Brown and his token four-bar bridges look like Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. To paraphrase the McKenzie Brothers: Chord changes are for sucks. Heck, chords are for sucks!
5. The statement of purpose. Other than the recurring chant — “I’m considering, I’m considering” — the lyrics that come to my mind most frequently are the very last lines. I think of them as a wonderful statement of purpose, gift-wrapped in a layer of silliness: “When I arrive in Memphis, I’ll put a sign out on the door / ‘It’s OK to disturb me. That’s what I came here for.’ “
Isn’t that perfect? He’s going there ’cause he wants to shake things up. (And he seems confident everything will settle down in its right place afterward, like a snow globe.)
I envy that kind of spirit.