Tales of tails, felines and canines, in layered song| BRAND HUGHES COBB
Random bewilderment for late-night post-workout, when simultaneously energized and exhausted: Why aren’t there more cat songs?
I mean, except “Cats”. And “The Lion King”. And a little further, “Shinbone Alley”, based on the old New York cat and cockroach stories of Don Marquis.
I guess “Born Free”, based on a real life lion cub raised in captivity and then released into the wild, matters. “Stray Cat Strut” by Stray Cats and “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” by David Bowie are the only two cat songs I remember playing.
Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” is about a woman with feline qualities. I think.
You say to me: “One morning from a Bogart film / In a country where we go back in time / You will stroll in the crowd like Peter Lorre / Contemplate a crime. / She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running /Like a watercolor in the rain/No need to ask for explanations/She’ll just tell you she came/In the year of the cat.”
In the Vietnamese zodiac and that of the Gurung people of Gandaki province in Nepal, the year of the cat ranks fourth in their 12-year cycle, although the Chinese recognize a rabbit rather than a cat.
In there are tales and tails. Both involve rats and the Jade Emperor, a representative of the First God, also known as the Jade Lord, Highest Emperor, Grand Emperor, and my favorite, Heavenly Duke.
The story goes that Heavenly Duke, a mystical being, soared above for so long that he couldn’t remember what Earth was like, so he sent all the animals to visit him in Heaven.
Despite what Noah, our zoos and our zoologists think, there were only 12 or 13 animals back then. Cat and Rat were friends. Cat didn’t own a smartphone, so he asked his friend Rat to wake him up early on Duke’s Day. Rat, thinking he would look fat and rancid next to his sleek friend Cat, neglected to give the wake up call, and Cat slept – you know cats – and thus got kicked out of the zodiac.
Another version says that Cat and Rat, on their way to Heavenly Duke’s seal, convinced Ox to take them across a raging river. Upon reaching the other side, the cunning Rat pushed Cat away leaving him to drown. The rat became the first in the Chinese zodiac cycle.
And now you know why cats hunt rats.
As to why the Vietnamese and the Gurung replace rabbit – fourth place – with cat, the most commonly accepted explanation is that the ancient words for rabbit and cat looked very similar, something like “mao” and “meo”.
It’s probably no coincidence that cat lovers interpret their beloved saying “meow” because let’s face it, if a cat could talk, what would it say but “cat”? Me me me. Ouch.
Or maybe “fud”.
If you remember that Far Side cartoon, you already have stitches, but just in case you don’t: open to a laundry room, with scrawled signs that read “cat fud” and arrows pointing to the open dryer. A cat watches. The dog just stands around the corner, thinking “Oh please, oh please.”
“Honky Cat” and “Nashville Cats” use the vernacular form for “cool person”, or as with “What’s New Pussycat”, obsolete slang for a woman.
It seems that most cat songs are about qualities rather than specific felines, while dog songs – “Shannon”, “Old Shep”, “Cracker Jack”, “Seamus”, “Feed Jake”, “Martha My Dear”, “Ol’ Red”, “Old Blue”, “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo”, “Old Gray Dog”, “Gypsy, Joe and Me”, “Lilly”, “Chasing Butterflies”, ” Maggie’s Song” – can often be about specific loved ones.
And specifically, about the heartbreaking notion that our pets have a finite lifespan, that we will almost inevitably outlive them all.
Am I missing songs of love and mourning from the cat? That’s what I asked on social media, and sure enough, friends dropped by.
Kind of. I mean, after explaining for the fourth time that “Cat’s in the Cradle” actually has nothing to do with furry mammals. Not the four-legged kind, anyway, just as ZZ Top’s “Thunderbird” makes no reference to the Native American mythological creature, and Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” makes no mention of canines.
Harry Chapin’s best-known ballad – although you might also remember ‘Taxi’, the one about two old lovers meeting by chance; whoever isn’t the New Year’s Eve song “getting drunk in a parking lot” – is about a father and son, and their warped life roles over the decades. The melancholy anthem has become shorthand for loved ones who can’t or won’t find time for each other.
The chorus is named after nursery rhymes and fairy tales: Little Boy Blue, the Man in the Moon and the Dutch Cat and the Cradle legend, in which a baby adrift in a flood is kept afloat by a tireless cat, jumping sideways to maintain the balance of the boat.
Friends responded with real cat songs, although a few weighed in to say “Because cats make me want to cry, not sing” and “Because cats are stupid”. I’m excluding “Cat Scratch Fever” because I don’t want that idiot’s name poisoning our journal, but also because it talks openly about sex and possibly venereal disease. Yeah.
So “Cool for Cats”, by Squeeze. “The Cat Man”, Gene Vincent. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, The Tokens. “Stinky Cat”, Phoebe in “Friends”. “Cat Duet” by Rossinni, aka “Duetto buffo di due gatti”. “China Cat Sunflower”, The Grateful Dead. “Tiger by the Tail”, Buck Owens. “Phenomenal Cat”, The Kinks. “Lions”, Tones on Tail. “Love Cats”, The Cure. “Lucifer Sam”, Pink Floyd. “Señor Don Gato”, traditional Spanish folk song. “Alley Cat”, folded fabric. “Big Electric Cat”, Adrian Belew. “Tommy the cat”, Primus. “Kitty’s Back”, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. “Della and the Dealer”, Hoyt Axton. “Facts about cats”, Tombouc 3.
As far as I know, only “Phenomenal Cat”, “Lucifer Sam”, “Tommy the Cat”, and “Smelly Cat” are even about real beings rather than mythical ones. Most are about sex, wild nature, a human with perceived feline qualities, or shared wild sex with a human possessing feline qualities.
“Alley Cat” is an instrumental, although to be honest it sounds like the way a cat flies with its tail held high. Rossini’s lyrics simply read “miaou miaou miaou miaou”, or in the Italian original, “miau miau miau miau”.
Songwriters get fuzzier about their dogs, that’s my theorem. Although I haven’t played many songs about specific dogs, I can tell you that it’s hard to get through “Old Shep” or “Shannon” without a scream in your throat.
Because Henry Gross’ falsetto is so piercing – he originally started out as guitarist and vocalist with 50s tribute band Sha Na Na, who, believe it or not, played Woodstock , so give them credit for being ahead of the nostalgia curve — you might not even notice, at first, that “Shannon” is a dog story. It’s sort of two of them, both named Shannon, both Irish setters. Gross, after leaving Sha Na Na and launching a solo career, was on tour with The Beach Boys and befriended Carl Wilson, who sang the lead role in the classic “God Only Knows,” and God knows. if he had never done anything. otherwise, this exceptional voice would put Carl in rock ‘n’ roll heaven.
In a strange coincidence, Gross and Wilson owned and loved dogs of the same breed, with the same name. Shannon, who loved the beach, had recently died, hit by a car. Gross later said he was unwittingly writing in the style of the Wilson Brothers, a ballad of elegiac, layered harmonies, dedicating the song to his pal:
“Shannon is gone, I hope she’s drifting out to sea/She always liked to swim/Maybe she’ll find an island with a shady tree/Just like the one in our backyard.”
There are two hard things about singing “Shannon.” First, hit the stratospheric notes. Second, remembering all the dogs you loved, imagining where they went.
Assuming there are several nested heavens, why not? Shannon can roam the trails, from rock ‘n’ roll nirvana to wild with all the other good boys, lounging in pools and shady trees.
Contact Tusk editor Mark Hughes Cobb at [email protected], or call 205-722-0201.