“A Dethroned King” – Everybody Makes Mistakes

Here is our spooky song for the album.  The lead guitar lays out a reverb-laden, creepy melody line in the intro.  The fuzzy guitar effect from “20 Dollar Bills” and “No More Shows” (JM was really into that effect on this album; I am glad it was a short-lived fascination) is back on the rhythm guitar.  It counters the powerful melody of the lead by scratching out chords that make you feel unsettled.  You are made to understand that something is not right here.

The bass and the drums hold steady throughout the verses but break loose in the chorus.  The drums do some fills and the bass runs down and then up the fretboard.  The vocals are decent but have trouble standing apart from all the rest of the noise in this song.  The vocals are overdubbed but not quite in sync, lending to that that something is off.  

The song ends in a buzzing minor chord that is held as long as it can be.  This is a trick that we saw on “Too Much Fun”.  In many ways, this song tries to be the “Too Much Fun” of this album, the discordant rock out tune with the layers of sound.  It doesn’t hit the heights of “Too Much Fun”, but, really, what in this life ever does?

This is how you know when you can’t do right
Think you should have gone for a country life
Good for nothing when you lose your ring
Good for nothing but a dethroned king

Today’s song interpretation comes to you courtesy of my Halloween costume I’ll be wearing at a party.  By luck, my best friend was also invited to this party.  We’ve had a pact for years that if we were ever both invited to a costume party, we would go as the Beales of the cult classic documentary Grey Gardens.  I will go as the matriarch, Big Edie.  My friend is going as the stylish daughter, Little Edie (I’m going over to his house after I write this to make sure his drag is on point).  

The Edies were from the Bouvier family, old money from Europe.  They were aunt and cousin to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.  They were the closest that you could get to royalty in this country, from a wealthy, established family in the social register in New England.  They were within arm’s reach of the most powerful people in the country.  But something went wrong.

The documentary was made in the mid-70s when the pair lived alone in absolute squalor in a 28 room mansion named Grey Gardens in the East Hamptons. They had no running water and were overrun by feral cats, raccoons and imported garden plants that had not been tended in decades.  Big Edie was abandoned by her husband because of her increasingly crazy behavior and obsession with becoming a famous singer.  She was left with the mansion and a small stipend of about $60 dollars a month to live on.  Little Edie did not marry even though the richest man in the world once proposed to her because she believed that she would become a famous dancer if she could only get her break.  Instead of getting her break, she moved into Grey Gardens to care for her mother.

They got by on no money by selling what rings and Fabergé had not already been stolen from them.  Neither of them worked.  People from the aristocracy don’t work as secretaries, you know.  They invented ways to fill up their time by singing, dancing and creating costumes out of drapes, tablecloths with head coverings made of pastel hand towels.  They had been living like this for decades at the time that the documentary was filmed.  And they are, without a doubt, crazy.  Little Edie, in particular, is plagued by paranoia, thinking that strange men peer at her from the privet hedge.

A dethroned king

All of this has made me wonder what it is like for a person who was born into a position of influence and power and know no other life to lose that.  What happens to them when power is stripped from them?  As this lyrics states, a dethroned king is still a king.  He’s not described as a guy who used to be king.  Who else can he be but who he was born and raised to be?  And so it was with the Edies.  They still consider themselves aristocracy as the walls of Grey Gardens fall in around them courtesy of the raccoons who have taken up residence in the spaces between rooms.  

Grey Gardens is fascinating in that in makes you wonder what made them so crazy.  Was it the poverty?  Was it the decades of isolation?  Were they crazy from the very beginning and that is why they were abandoned?  They would tell you that they are not crazy; they are women of conviction and belief in their talents.  They were born into a culture that did not allow for women to have conviction or follow their desires and so they were spat out to fend for themselves.  Little Edie refers to herself as a staunch character.  “S-T-A-U-N-C-H”.  Staunch women don’t break, “they don’t weaken… no matter what.”  

This is how you know when you can’t do right
Think you should have gone for a country life
Good for nothing when you lose your ring
Good for nothing but a dethroned king

Even though they were living in abject poverty as bad as any coal miner’s family from Kentucky in the ‘70s, they still saw themselves as aristocracy.  They were good for nothing else.  They might have fared better had they sold Grey Gardens and lived in a modest home out in the country.  But the aristocracy doesn’t live like that.  To give up their home was to give up their station in life and they could not abide it.  

A dethroned king

Even at their elderly age, they believed that if they could just get their talents in shape, they would become famous and be returned to the life they were born to live.  It was certainly delusional thinking, but I have to admire their conviction.  

One of the most famous scenes in the documentary is Big Edie singing “Tea For Two”, extolling the virtues of a reclusive life with the one you love.  She caresses the multicolored straw sun hat on her head as if it was a tiara.  She gestures her hands like a professional performer.  She loses herself towards the end, rips the hat off her head and bellows indecipherable syllables. She regains her composure just in time for the last line,  “Oh can’t you see how happy we would be?” The dual themes of a delusional grasp of current reality and the heady mix of dreams and fantasy that permeate the film are distilled into this one moment.

I’ve been practicing the song so that I can perform it.  It is one part classically trained, one part elderly and one part crazy.  Big Edie is a soprano.  I am a contralto.  It takes some work to mimic this unique performance, but I have learned from it.  There is no room for being timid.  There is no time for being concerned about how you might appear to others.  You just go for it, full-throated, like you were born for it.  It is a staunch attitude I would do well to practice more in my own life.  I was never born to power or influence, but I can learn how to tap into them more by observing these dethroned, noble women.  

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