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Certain Songs #177: The Cat Burglars – “Song For Julie Newmar”

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Album: Meet The Cat Burglars.

Year: 1985.

About 30 years ago or so, a weird song just kinda showed up at my college radio station KFSR and became a unlikely hit. It was a tribute to Julie Newmar, who was one of the women who played Catwoman on the 1960s Batman TV series.  While it was received at the time as a novelty song, future rock historians have reassessed it as something much deeper.

One thing you have to remember about 1985: it was pretty much the last moment where that the 1966 TV series was the dominant cultural representation of Batman. (Even the Filmation cartoons took their cue from it, otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten that motherfucking Bat Mite.)  Frank Miller would put out The Dark Knight Returns the very next year, followed by the Tim Burton’s films, and Batman would grow ever darker.

However, in 1985, a Batman-oriented song by a band of deep thinkers who clearly loved that Batman TV series could still find a small audience.  And of course, “Song For Julie Newmar” had more than just lust for a Batman actress on its mind,as a deep dive into the lyrics will soon reveal. It’s actually a trenchant look at the price of fame and how it can twist our perceptions of the famous.

No one ever found out who The Cat Burglars really were: to the listening public, they were known only as Bob Feline, Jools Newmar and Anonymous.

Julie, can you hear me?
I can see you on TV
Hiding in the Batcave
Just 14 miles away

Of course, that opening line is a reference to The Who, but the rest of the verse raises. Is Bob Feline saying that Julie is on the Batcave’s TV, or he’s watching her on TV, hiding in the Batcave. The “14 miles away” is of course, the distance from the entrance of the Batcave to Gotham City. But everybody knows that.

Then you’re in the Twilight Zone
Sitting on your evil throne
Crank calls on the Batphone
And something’s in your hair.

This is a reference to the famous Twilight Zone episode “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville” where Ms. Newmar played the Devil. Bob Feline has noticed the parallels in this role to her role as Catwoman, especially that in both of these roles, she’s got something sticking out of her hair: a costuming consistency that links the two characters in the minds of a generation.

Then, on the bridge, Feline observes:

Cat or devil, horns or ears
You call forth the greatest fears
Batman’s who you love and hate
I thought he was overweight

Who is this woman? That’s what Bob Feline wants to know. In his mind, she is both terrifying and alluring, but in a way, it doesn’t matter, because she’s clearly got only the Batman on her mind. Which pisses Bob Feline off, since Batman clearly needs to lay off the late night visits to Gotham’s Waffle House.

Dancing at the Pink Sandbox
Temporarily Woolite socks
You were better than Eartha or Lee
In fact, you still look good to me

Meanwhile, while generation after generation of Batman scholars puzzle over the hidden meaning of “temporarily Woolite socks” by pouring over Julie Newmar’s IMDB page – or maybe the socks she was dancing in at the Pink Sandbox were washed in Woolite, but who could know that? – the song shifts musically into a straight “Like a Rolling Stone” parody.

How does it feel?
To be a cat?
To be stared at?
To be caught by a bat?
To be far from flat?
2F3567!
Like a Batman villain
Like a Batman villain

Setting aside the dodgy-by-2015-standards “to be far from flat?” and the weird shouting of the Batmobile’s license plate number, these are all incredibly trenchant questions. What is the price of fame if you have play a cat? Or be caught by a guy in a bat suit? Is it too much? 

What is it like to be a Batman villain?

Can you even deal with the fact that you’re not even the only person to play that villain? And the world will rank you against the other people who played that villain forever? The whole world wants to know, Julie.

And the song shifts gears once again, going into the famous “Louie Louie” riff, as Bob Feline, now joined by his compatriots Jules Newmar and Anonymous, decides to make his move.

Julie, Julie, oooooohhhhh
I said, we gotta go now
Meow meow meow meow meow meow
Julie Julie, oooooooohhhh
I said, we gotta go now
Meowwwwwwwwwwwww

Why the meows? Some scholars think that the Cat Burglars are making fun of her for being cat caught by a bat, but I think that they they’re saying  “look, Julie, we can be cats too!!”  This is reinforced by as they stop the song cold so that Bob Feline can cosplay as Batman via The Troggs.

Catwoman, I think I love you
But I wanna know for sure

Then, the whole song falls apart for a second as there’s what sounds like a recording of a kitten locked in a bathroom, The Joker laughing,

a jealous Robin calling her a “hateful hussy. and the Penguin going “wak” “wak” “wak” in a desperate frenzy of just trying to get her attention before reprising the “Julie Julie” part as a round.

Did it work? History records that the photo with his post is allegedly Julie Newmar actually listening to “Song For Julie Newmar,” but of course The Cat Burglars themselves had a checkered history to say the least. While they had a couple of other minor songs – “Saturday Morning” and “Take a Walk (to The Litter Box”) – those seem to be lost to history, and besides this song, the only existing recording is a live concert on KFSR, where they sounded over-reverbed and under rehearsed.

I happened to have been around for that – in fact, it was one of the first times I ever played drums – and the problem was that The Cat Burglars, in order to protect their identities, wore cat masks the whole time. Even during rehearsals. The other musicians who backed them, Blake and Ross and Joseph, could probably testify how intransigent they were the whole time.

 And while Kirk & I tried to impress on them just how important a live radio broadcast could be to their career, they were far more wed to their concept, and stuck to wearing masks even while playing in a closed radio studio. Such, I guess, is the price of art.

That said, noone was surprised when they died soon afterwards, leaving this as their one legacy.

“Song For Julie Newmar” on Soundcloud

Certain Songs #175: The Cars – “Just What I Needed”

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Album: The Cars.

Year: 1978.

Has there ever been anything more precise than “Just What I Needed”?? From the guitar & drum crashes on the opening, to how the instruments build during the first verse, and then the introduction of Greg Hawkes’ synthesiser hook where you would expect the chorus to be.

It’s that synth hook, of course, that grabs you. Once it enters your head, it never goes away, and it shows up during the back half of the rest of the verses just to remind you who the boss of the song is.

It’s all so precise – with every single note exactly where its supposed to be – that you almost fail to notice how weird it all is. I mean why would they put that synth hook in between verses? Why did the archetypal new wave vocalist have what sounded like Queen singing backing vocals on the big hard rock chorus? Why did the drummer do a secret double-time during the last verse? “Wasting all my time time?”

It was a mystery. How could something that was made so precisely from such familiar materials feel so strange?  “Just What I Needed” was like a UFO made from Mercedes-Benz parts. 

In early 1978, I’d been reading about “Punk Rock” and its immediate record-company-sanctioned twin the “New Wave,” in Rolling Stone and Creem, but precious little of it had made the Fresno airwaves. Maybe a stray Talking Heads song, possibly even a Ramones tune. But nothing had penetrated my thick, white, suburban classic rock skull.

Until “Just What I Needed.”  It was cool and mysterious and new and not too threatening all at the same time. For the first time in my life, I heard a New Wave song on the radio and thought: maybe I should find out what the rest of the album sounds like.

Next time on Certain Songs: 15-year-old Boy Decides to Buy The Cars, and You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next!!

Fan-made video for “Just What I Needed”

All of the songs I’ve written about

Certain Songs #174: Carly Simon – “You’re So Vain”

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Album: No Secrets.

Year: 1972.

Decades before Taylor Swift got criticized for writing songs about her ex-boyfriends, Carly Simon did the same damn thing, and has been playing hide-and-seek with the truth ever since. Warren Beatty? Mick Jagger? David Geffen? In the end, it really doesn’t matter, because “You’re So Vain” is a textbook pop single.

First off: the production, spearheaded by 1970s uber-producer Richard Perry. At least until the strings come in at the end, “You’re So Vain” is kinda sparse and surprisingly swampy, allowing you really hear the sly internal rhymes (”yacht,” “apricot” “gavotte” is genius) in each verse.  

Even better is how each the drums in each verse drop out at the end for just a measure or so before building into the chorus. 

About that chorus. It’s just brilliant, isn’t it? It’s one of the all-time great “fuck yous” to be sure, but there’s also a bit of a wistful sigh that undercuts the nastiness.

You’re so vain
You probably think this song is about you
You’re so vain, you’re so vain
I’ll bet you think this song is about you
Don’t you?
Don’t you?
                

Oh, and from the second verse on, that other voice doubling Carly Simon’s? Mick fucking Jagger, doing some of the best harmony singing of his life. If you listen for it, you can totally here his unmistakable cadence on the “Don’chews,” but he’s also not dominating. I’m guessing that there are people who have gone their entire lives not knowing that he sang on this song.

It all added up to a song that sound amazing on the AM radio – just fucking huge to my pre-teen ears – and was not only a huge smash at the time, but has become a pop culture staple.

Video for “You’re So Vain”

All of the songs I’ve written about

Certain Songs #173: Caitlin Rose – “Only A Clown”

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Album: The Stand-In.

Year: 2013.

One of my favorite pop music trends of the past few years is the plethora of dynamite post-Taylor Swift (or post Miranda Lambert) female singer-songwriters coming out of – or at least associated with – country music. Or alt-country. Or Americana, whatever. If you think that modern country music is all bro-country that gets the headlines, then you’re not paying attention.

Folks who have been paying attention probably know about Kacey Musgraves and (maybe) Lydia Loveless, but there are tons and tons more – people like Nikki Lane and Pistols Annies’ Angeleena Presley & Ashley Monroe come to mind – and I’m positive that I’m missing half of them myself.

And right now, Caitlin Rose’s “Only A Clown”  might be my favorite recent song to come from any of them. A simple story of going to a party by yourself, it’s also highlighted by an arrangement that pits a pedal steel guitar in one speaker with a jangly guitar that wouldn’t be lost on Reckoning in the other.

 But that’s not so uncommon, of course, but when she sings:

Put your record on
Let the band play a song
All about love and believing
Good for you
Cause if that’s true
Then it’s only a clown that’s leaving

It’s her big sad voice – that reminds me a lot of Kathleen Edwards, speaking of alt-country – over a big sad melody over a big sad lyric that puts it over. 

Video for “Only a Clown”

Certain Songs #172: Camper Van Beethoven – “All Her Favorite Fruit”

Album: Key Lime Pie.

Year: 1989.

The most serious – i.e. the only serious – album that Camper Van Beethoven made, for the first side, Key Lime Pie is also the best album they ever made. While their trademark psychedelic absurdity remained, it found itself serving songs with actual specific politics – left-wing, thereby surprising no one – attached.  Though, naturally, Camper Van Beethoven couldn’t be bothered to write their anti-Reagan song (a staple of the 1980s indie scene) until after he left office.

Sadly, side two of Key Lime Pie didn’t hold up, and even the Status Quo cover that topped that alt-rock charts that year just left me cold. That said, smack dab in the middle of a sea of songs I haven’t played on purpose in 25 years stands “All Her Favorite Fruit,” which is my favorite Camper Van Beethoven song.

Slow, majestic and brooding, “All Her Favorite Fruit” was a twisted love song featuring a gorgeous guitar hook (that kinda reminded me of early U2 at the time) snaking around a soaring violin, as well as one of my favorite Lowery lines:

And I’d like to take her there, rather than this train

Thinking about it now, it’s not early U2 that “All Her Favorite Fruit” reminds me of, it’s Pavement circa Wowee Zowee, where the tempos have slowed, but the guitar hooks you can sing along with still remain. If you think hard enough, you could hear “All Her Favorite Fruit” easily share space with “Grounded” or “Father To A Sister of Thought”

Of course, in 1989, Pavement was in about the same place in their development that Camper Van Beethoven were during the Telephone Free Landslide Victory, but I now wonder if  Camper Van’s later days was any kind of example for their fellow Californians. 

“All Her Favorite Fruit” performed live in 2010

Fan-made video for “All Her Favorite Fruit”