For the past couple of weeks, every time I’ve picked up my guitar or sat behind a piano, I’ve played the same two songs: “The Beast in Me,” penned by Nick Lowe and most memorably recorded by Johnny Cash, and “Return of the Grievous Angel” by Gram Parsons. Both are great examples of songwriting craft. They’re built with simple chords and melodies, but feature innovative construction nonetheless.
But the real reason I’ve played them is that I’m able to create ideal versions of both songs, which contain only the brilliant first halves and leave out the disappointing back ends. Both open with a tightly knit stitch of words. Over the course of the song, the construction unravels. I love being able to sew them up.
The first verse of “The Beast in Me” is basically perfect. It’s rich with meaning. It’s perfect for redeemed wildman Johnny Cash but relatable to anyone who’s ever had to fight a wild urge.
The Beast in Me is caged by frail and fragile bars
restless by day and by night, rants and rages at the stars
god help the beast in me
The “frail and fragile bars” part kills me every time. It’s a tidy non-showy alliterative phrase that speaks volumes about how hard it is to put your wild days behind you. That beast is going to escape, but it’s going nowhere. Also—and I think that this isn’t intentional, but still illustrates how rich the words are—it makes me think he’s talking about a rib cage (what could be more frail and fragile than bone?), which implies that the beast and heart are one and the same.
The second verse is a marked drop off in quality, but redeems itself at the end.
The beast in me has had to learn to live with pain and to take shelter from the rain
and in the twinkling of an eye, must have to be restrained
god help the beast in me
The “twinkling of an eye” phrase is especially problematic. Depending on how you say it, it’s the first word with over two syllables in the song. It’s a word borrowed from a Disney songwriter’s vocabulary. And it comes after a line that contradicts the wonderful imagery established in the first verse: why would something that lives in a cage have to take shelter? Does the cage have no roof? Does it rain “in me”? Clearly, Lowe liked the line about learning to live with pain and wanted something to rhyme with it. I really do like how the beast “has to be restrained,” though. It’s like King Kong when he’s on display.
The bridge is acceptable. It has a good point, but doesn’t make it very well.
Sometimes it tries to kid me
That it’s just a teddy bear
And even somehow manage to vanish in the air
And that is when I must beware
The beast is always a beast and its always there. And when you think you have it tamed or that it’s gone, that’s when it’s at its most dangerous, because you’re comfortable and complacent. Powerful stuff, sure, but why is the meter all over the map? Why are you dipping into the cliche drawer for teddy bears to make this point?
The last verse starts strong and then faceplants.
Of the beast in me that everybody knows
They’ve seen him out dressed in my clothes
If it’s New York or New Year
God help the beast in me
“They’ve seen him walking in my clothes” is good. So good. The beast and the man may be the same, and the man might not even know it. So good. So, so good.
Now on to the bad. “Patently unclear” is worse than meaningless. It’s agonizing in how nonsensical it is. Why invoke patents? Did you go to a government office to register the originality of your lack of clarity? And after that low standard is set, we get the lazy, meaningless wordplay of “New York or New Year.” I guess we should be glad that he didn’t say “New Coke.”
“Return of the Grievous Angel” doesn’t start as strong as “Beast,” but it hits two much higher peaks. The song has this weird structure. It doesn’t really have verses or choruses, just sections that cycle back into each other. So I’m starting with what I’ll call “section two” and include “section three” as well.
Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels
And a good saloon in every single town
Oh, and i remember something you once told me
And i’ll be damned if it did not come true
Twenty thousand roads i went down, down, down
And they all lead me straight back home to you
`cause i headed west to grow up with the country
Across those prairies with the waves of grain
And i saw my devil,
And i saw my deep blue sea
And i thought about a calico bonnet from
Cheyenne to tennessee
OK, I could take or leave the business about calico bonnets. But the 20,000 roads? The devil and the deep blue sea? There’s a beauty and a meaning to those phrases that stretches beyond the reach of the words somehow (the Parsons/Emmylou Harris harmonies probably have a lot to do with that).
Lyrically, the song never gets any better. Really, how could it? But, oddly, it gets far worse after that. Like the strange complaints about radio advertising.
And the man on the radio won’t leave me alone
He wants to take my money for something
That i’ve never been shown
Huh? So you’re cool with TV, magazines and billboard advertisements then, because they have visual components? OK, whatever. But then why the weird but toothless swipe at Elvis?
The news i could bring i met up with the king
On his head an amphetamine crown
He talked about unbuckling that old bible belt
And lighted out for some desert town
The crown is made out of amphetamines? That’s weird.
But Parsons is accusing this King guy (I think we can make a reasonable inference that he’s talking about Elvis) of taking amphetamines? That’s bold talk for a dude who would die from a heroin overdose before the song was ever even commercially released.
By now, it’s pretty well known that Elvis was on a rainbow of pharmaceuticals, including fistfuls of pep pills. The song was recorded in the early ’70s, and I don’t know if that was well known. It is interesting to note that the backing band playing on the song was the TCB Band, AKA the Taking Care of Business band, AKA Elvis Presley’s actual band. When Gram Parsons says “pick it for me James” before the solo, he’s talking to Rock ‘n’ Roll hall of fame member James Burton, who still, to this day, plays lead guitar in the strange “Elvis Live on Tour” stage show.
All of this rock trivia nonsense only takes away from the purity of those early lines. Which is really a shame.
Anyway, both songs are below.