La Mal Babe Sans Merci

by Scott McLemee on November 20, 2007

Over at Brainiac, Josh Glenn discusses the theme of “the intellectual, slightly mysterious rock-and-roll woman,” as a recent book calls it, running throughout songs from the Boston scene over the years. All those smart but fragile girls that Jonathan Richman sang about with the Modern Lovers, for example.

Josh suggests that there is a strain of hipster misogyny in this: the revenge of the sophomore spurned, no doubt. And he reads Mission of Burma’s “Academy Fight Song” as a response to that kind of thing –its lyrics “written from the point of view of a cool, educated young woman who was sick and tired of the obsessive attention paid to her by a would-be boyfriend….”

This seems plausible. But it would not be the first song from the Boston scene to approach this archetype (or whatever it is) from the inside. I’m thinking here, of course, of “Ballad of the Hip Death Goddess” by Ultimate Spinach.

Seldom has a group been called “undeservedly forgotten” by more people who, deep down, aren’t really sure that much of an injustice has been done. (I’m glad that you can still find a best-of album on CD, but probably don’t listen to it more than once every couple of years.)

The band was a leading force in the psychedelic (and for the most part synthetic) “Boston sound” of forty years ago. The Spinach seems to have been a large group, consisting of unusually pretentious hippies with access to a lot of studio time.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. Sometimes it can be extremely enjoyable, even. But when a band has a song called “Suite: Genesis of Beauty (In Four Parts)” — with lyrics like “The tears have flown like velvet thunder” and a protracted organ solo — it is making certain challenges to a listener that not all of us are going to ready to face. I’m usually more in the mood for the Standells.

“The Ballad of the Hip Death Goddess” opens with a very solemn guy describing her from what I hope is a safe distance:

See the glazed eyes
Touch the dead skin
Feel the cold lips
And know the warmth
Of the Hip Death Goddess.

Then a female singer with a rather lovely high voice starts channeling the H.D.G. herself. She invites you to come into her arms. There, she can “keep you safe from all harms.” But don’t believe her for a second, because she did not get that name by accident:

Kiss my lips for they are very nice
Kiss my lips and you will turn to ice.

She has a few other lines, with you ending up dead figuring into most of them. She has cold eyes that will free you from lies, and so forth. Then she disappears for a while and you get lots of guitar and theremin noodling over a sometimes rhythmically challenged bassline. I am not sure, but this may represent purgatory.

The effect is “like a deadpan parody of psychedelic malarkey taken to a logical extreme,” as one blogger puts it. (You can hear an excerpt of the song at the bottom of that page.)

In pushing things to that extreme, perhaps the Spinach actually did criticize the Fatal Woman archetype by making the whole thing seem very, very silly. All things considered, though, I’d rather hear “Academy Fight Song,” most of the time.

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Jackie Onassis « Petunias
11.21.07 at 3:38 am



Cryptic Ned 11.20.07 at 10:00 pm

However, if this trend is for real, I’d want at least one more example, from the 1980s or ’90s, of a hit Boston rock song about a cerebral, unattainable woman.

Bridging the 1980s and ’90s, one of Boston’s most successful indie bands, Big Dipper had “The Insane Girl” on this topic (it had a simultaneously rousing and mysterious guitar song), and probably a couple other songs, from what I remember of phrases in their songs. Surprisingly I can’t find any of their lyrics on the www, so I can’t say definitively.


Scott McLemee 11.20.07 at 10:17 pm

Now, having posted this, it dawns on me that the Spinach song is more about your generic misogynist ur-female, rather than one who is particularly brainy. But she’s touching down in Boston, so that’s two out of three points anyway.


Josh Glenn 11.20.07 at 11:08 pm

Thanks for airing my theory, Scott. And thanks to your readers, in advance, for providing examples of Boston rock songs that prove or disprove it…


rea 11.20.07 at 11:21 pm

Song? From Boston? About hip, unattainable woman?

Well this will probably get me banned for life from Crooked Timbers:

I looked out this morning and the sun was gone
Turned on some music to start my day
I lost myself in a familiar song
I closed my eyes and I slipped away

Its more than a feeling, when I hear that old song they used to play (more than a feeling)
I begin dreaming (more than a feeling)
till I see marianne walk away
I see my marianne walkin away

So many people have come and gone
Their faces fade as the years go by
Yet I still recall as I wander on
As clear as the sun in the summer sky

Its more than a feeling, when I hear that old song they used to play (more than a feeling)
I begin dreaming (more than a feeling)
till I see marianne walk away
I see my marianne walkin away

When Im tired and thinking cold
I hide in my music, forget the day
And dream of a girl I used to know
I closed my eyes and she slipped away
She slipped awa y. she slipped away.

Its more than a feeling, when I hear that old song they used to play (more than a feeling)
I begin dreaming (more than a feeling)
till I see marianne walk away
I see my marianne walkin away


Anne 11.20.07 at 11:40 pm

I heard a theory on Radio 4 (UK) yesterday when I was half awake that the lyrics of rock songs were adolescent (unrequited love etc) whereas the lyrics of C&W were grown up (mortgages, children, divorce). Almost persuaded me.


Zarquon 11.20.07 at 11:42 pm


The Next to Last Pope 11.21.07 at 1:38 am

I stopped listening to popular music when the Stones came out with “Angie.”

Christ, am I old.


vivian 11.21.07 at 1:39 am

Peter Wolf’s monologue-riff leading up to the live version of “I Must of Got Lost”? (why isn’t it “Musta” anyway?)


Slocum 11.21.07 at 2:56 am

Peter Wolf’s monologue-riff leading up to the live version of “I Must of Got Lost”? (why isn’t it “Musta” anyway?)

Don’t know about the ‘musta’, but somehow I don’t think ‘Reputa the Beauta’ with her green mascara had anything to do with ‘intellectual, slightly mysterious rock-and-roll women’.


JohnL 11.21.07 at 3:42 am

Where does ‘Jackie Onassis’ by Human Sexual Response fit? She, the singer, is looking for the mysterious, but really she wants the power (sample line ‘I’d make Harry go down on his knees’).
‘Talk to Loretta’ by the Nervous Eaters doesn’t seem to fit.


JohnL 11.21.07 at 3:57 am

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I have an Ultimate Spinach record. I didn’t know anyone else knew of them.


Andrew Brown 11.21.07 at 10:34 am

IF we’re talking Peter Wolf, the shortest version of that song is surely “This one is called ‘Take out your false teeth momma: I want to suck on your gums’ “


Bill Gardner 11.21.07 at 3:17 pm

The Ultimate Spinach? The horror, the horror…


Michael Bérubé 11.21.07 at 4:43 pm

Scott, will you ban rea? Thanks.

And didn’t Jeff “Skunk” Baxter play on a Spinach album? If so, that may very well be the final piece of the “six degrees of Skunk Baxter” puzzle we’ve waited for all these years. . . .


Scott McLemee 11.21.07 at 9:41 pm

Will I ban rea? Why? For rocking too hard?


sweaty guy 11.22.07 at 12:27 pm

Save a little love for the mysterious woman in “I’ve Been Tired” by The Pixies.

Don’t know if she’s all that mysterious actually, but they are from Boston and the song is surely misogynistic in that chaming, Black Francis way.


sweaty guy 11.22.07 at 12:28 pm

Excuse me please! I meant that CHAFING Black Francis way.


Chris Lowe 11.23.07 at 12:35 pm

“gertrude stein” by the Rentals has to fit in here somewhere …

Not sure it’s quite restricted to Boston though, one could argue for Patti Smith on both sides of the relationship, on Horses at least, & there’s “Love Has Come to Town” by Talking Heads, though RISD/Providence aren’t so far from Boston & they did get Jerry Harrison from the Modern Lovers — still, at the end of the day they went to NYC.

X’s “White Girl”?

Back to Boston, I can’t swear to it from memory but the song titles from Real Kids/Taxi Boys into the ’80s are suggestive.


Chris Lowe 11.23.07 at 8:44 pm

Oh, and New York Dolls, “Who are the Mystery Girls?”

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