Jimmy Soul: Ugly Can Be A Beautiful Thang
Or: Buck Up, Buttercup. Joy is Right Around the Corner!
Before I go into my reasons for why I believe the Jimmy Soul tune “If You Wanna Be Happy” is the sonic boom that could cure the world of all its despondency, I wanna explain why I picked this song in the first place. After all, it's not everyday that anything makes you feel genuine awe, much less exhilaration/glee -- but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that those are the irrefutable rushes of feelings I get whenever I hear this tune. Moreover, “Happy” is a song that exceeds almost every definition of what constitutes a great pop tune from any decade, anywhere.
Around this point, I'd typically ramble on about the artist of the tune and how his nigh obscurity is yet another meandering symptom of the decline of Western Civilization (as are all forms of complacency). But I'm gonna switch things up and spare you the details of Jimmy Soul's life, because they ain't nearly as interesting as his breadth of work. I will say one thing about ol' Jimmy, however: He's probably one of the goofiest-lookin' crooners I've ever laid eyes on, which, by industry standards (even back in 1962), is a pretty good indication that he was sitting on a powder-keg of talent (despite his mediocre career/success in the music biz).
Anyway, “Happy” gained some notoriety in its day, peaking at the number one spot on the Hot 100 in 1962. Musically speaking, “Happy” is an up-tempo, soul-stomper of a tune insofar that it'll get you up on your feet and howlin' with joy. Hell, you might even do a jig. One of its most striking qualities is its instant accessibility and intuitive charm, delivering joyous melodies from the very first note without any of the pretentious hang-ups which often convolute so many would-be great songs. It goes without sayin' that the allure of early rock, blues, soul, country, R&B, and later, punk music is/was in its primitively simple yet driving backbeat and infectious melodies. Plus, the production of “Happy” is timeless. Recorded in the bathroom of SPQR studios -- talk about charmin' anecdotes -- it has none of that slick, lifeless production you'd expect from today's tunes. But as far as critical assessment goes, all that aforementioned mess is just a heap of folderol, because the true magnetism of this song resides in its content, which is little more than a word of advice from ol' Jimmy himself.
The chorus says it all. It goes: "If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life/ Never make a pretty woman your wife/ So from my personal point of view/ Get an ugly girl to marry you." Jimmy then proceeds to school us about the fairer sex: beautiful women are bloodsuckers by nature, and you will wither and wilt quicker than Britney Spears' career if you attach your star to one of 'em. Whereas homely women will appreciate you, can cook, will toss your salad, and fulfill every other dark, twisted fantasy that your perverted little brain can cook up. Naturally, lyrics of this stature are rare. And before you slander these lyrics as camp or kitsch schmaltz, this exact same sentiment has been reiterated many times before in contemporary lit (in Bukowski's Women, for instance). But fuck-all, who am I kidding? “Happy” is undeniably a kitsch tune if there ever was one. Every line that Jimmy sings sounds like it was delivered with a wink, which probably explains why it took me hearing it five different times on five different occasions before its lyrical content even began to sink in. Notwithstanding, although “Happy” is categorically a bubble-gum/kitsch tune, it still illuminates brighter than a vast majority of the dry rot that has garnered regular radio-play in the last decade.
Which brings me to my point.
Songs of “Happy”'s caliber are preciously few and far-between. What's more, it seems like the further we progress into our musical mise-en-scene, the less I expect this type of musical poetry to emerge from the cultural ether. Nowadays, artists take themselves so goddamn seriously that it seems like the whole lot of them are incapable of having a good time (unless it involves some act of narcissistic decadence and/or self-destruction via binge-drinking, drug-blitzing, etc.) or more importantly, manufacturing a song that inspires good ol' clean fun. Presumably, playing the role of the perennial huckster these days is akin to emitting bad mojo. I guess it's not enough to do anything but compose a masterwork these days. But I'm not sure where all this bad stigma began, because it doesn't seem all that long ago when there existed bands that were capable of cutting loose and getting silly while still carrying on some pretense of dignity and creativity. Let's not forget The Beatles, ? and the Mysterians, The Ramones, They Might Be Giants, etc. -– and incidentally, clowns like Weird Al don't count because his shtick is essentially parodying and satirizing, which ain't quite the same thing (although he's undeniably brilliant at his craft insofar that it's a goddamn miracle that he's maintained a career which spans over two decades by poking fun/paying homage to pop-stars).
My point here is that a big part of music's allure is its implicit propensity to liberate the hearts and minds of the masses from the daily drudgery of everyday existence. If every musical artist in our era is hell-bent on creating serious art at the expense of having a little fun every now and then, then not only are those artists limiting the possibilities of their own potential, but they're simultaneously narrowing the inherent possibilities of the medium they operate in. Which in a roundabout way brings up larger, more fundamental questions like why the bulk of High Art delves into the most wretched depths of the human condition, whereas comedies are essentially distractions for simpletons. And if expression of pain is the apex of all art, what does that say about us as a race? Cuz if all of this is true, that basically means that we're a bunch of sadists getting off on other people's pain.
But perhaps those ruminations are inconsequential; there's very little art being made these days. Which is a-okay by me because art is mostly overrated and dull, not to mention the antithesis of what youth noise (rock ‘n' roll) at heart is all about. Unfortunately, however, the innocent and innocuous jive of rock is in danger of extinction unless our artists change their trajectory once in a while from the monotony of fevered introspection to kick out some fun-filled jams. And isn't that ultimately what all this youth-noise/rave-up is all about? Having a good time? I don't think I'm asking too much of our artists to lay at least a sliver of their personalities/good-humor into their albums inasmuch that merriment is every bit as much a part of the human experience as agony and despair.
I believe you can retain your artistic integrity while still having a goof. The Ramones were/are proof of this edict considering they practically built a career on it. Moreover, it's what made them so goddamn personable. At the time, there were hordes of bands who cranked out Chuck Berry riffs at amphetamine speeds, but not too many that had the charisma to dish out good humor lines like "I'm friends with the President/ I'm friends with the Pope/ We're all making a fortune selling daddy's dope." Which sorta brings us back to Jimmy Soul. There's more than a little of what made the Ramones so goddamn great in Jimmy Soul. Not only that, Jimmy trail-blazed this unbeaten path 20 years before the Ramones reared their ugly, sedated heads in the summer of ‘76.
Although Jimmy Soul was never prolific, his relatively obscure yet radiant catalog is filled with gems that run the gamut: songs about spousal abuse, nymphets obsessed with bowling, and midget stalkers named Christina- all of which, I should add, aren't quite as catchy as “If You Wanna Be Happy”, though they come pretty damn close.
So by now, I'm sure the question yer askin' yerself is: is “Happy” the greatest pop tune in all creation? The answer, of course, is no, it ain't. That honor goes to the ‘84 Chicago Bears for their timeless classic “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” followed closely by Otis Redding's “Glory of Love,” if not The Velvet Underground's “Sister Ray” (which is 20 minutes of the most perfect noise-chaos ever committed to record). Notwithstanding, seldom are we presented with a song that everybody -- from toddlers to geriatrics -- can enjoy, regardless of their station in life. And at risk of being idealistic here, I truly believe that music of this sort can potentially bring people together, if only momentarily -- and it's this power to unify people in spite of their inherent differences that makes this Jimmy Soul tune radiate like a cure.
Recommendation #452: To enhance any mixtape, just add a Jimmy Soul jam to the mix.