I like music. I write about limb loss/difference. Let’s do a mashup of the two, shall we? Without further ado, here’s my Top 10 list of songs and bands that have some connection to LL/D.
10. Rise of a Thousand Prosthetic Limbs, by combatwoundedveteran
What would we do without the internet? For one, we might not ever know that a band named combatwoundedveteran released a song called Rise of a Thousand Prosthetic Limbs. And, sadly, I suspect we might be better for it.
I will first disclose that I am unable to locate any audio for this track on the fabulous interweb, so I haven’t heard any of the lyrics. And I must say, I’m curious to know what the band was thinking when it wrote this.
But I feel compelled to share with you some of the other song titles that the band came up with, as they sound like the kinds of things my friends and I used to say to each other at 3 AM in college thinking ourselves tremendously clever, only to realize 20 years later that we were complete morons. To wit:
Cumbersome Ant People
Brown Tie is a Clip-On
Christ, My Leg is Sore
You Win, I’m Stupid
My Spine! My Spine! My Spine!
15 Minutes on a Forklift
Very First pterodactyl
One Arm Left
Holy crap! As I was typing this list, somewhere on 1 of the 7 tabs I have open to explore the wonderful world of combatwoundedveteran, an audio track started playing! In fact, it’s My Spine! My Spine! My Spine!
I have experienced the entirety of this less-than-2-minute-long song and can report to you that it doesn’t matter what the lyrics to it, Rise of a Thousand Prosthetic Limbs, or any of the other tracks are. I now understand why the band invested so much time in song titles – they’re literally the only way to demarcate one screamo song from another.
I’ve never quite understood screamo. (For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, “screamo” refers to the technique employed by the lead singer.) I intellectually understand (I think) the cathartic aspect of it. And I suppose if you want to batter yourself in a mosh pit, it would be extremely well suited for that purpose. I even have to grudgingly admire a human being who can shred their voice like that for a full show and be able to talk the next day. But man, I guess I’m just not angry enough to really get it. (To give you a sense of where combatwoundedveteran fall on the spectrum, they make System of a Down sound like The Beatles, and Rage Against the Machine sound like Barbara Streisand.)
9. Amputees Make Bad Swimmers, Chapter 1., by The Postman Syndrome
Where to begin? First, I don’t quite get why The Postman Syndrome placed the words, “Chapter 1,” after the rest of the title. This would imply that there’s an “Amputees Make Bad Swimmers, Chapter 2,” somewhere on their multi-tin album, Terraforming. But there’s not. And when you study the complete track list, you learn that the title of every song ends with “Chapter [insert track number].” So either The Postman Syndrome is making some kind of artistic statement by putting the chapter numbers after the “chapter” title, or its members don’t read much and simply aren’t aware that normal practice would result in the following: “Chapter 1: Amputees Make Bad Swimmers.”
However, the good news is that the band masks whatever lyrical deficiencies it may suffer from by refusing to mix this song in a way that allows you to understand much of anything. Lyrics and music are intertwined in a kind of sonic haze that renders both difficult to focus on. At one level, this is clever, as it gets The Postman Syndrome one extra hit on its MySpace page, as I tried to carefully listen to the song not once, but twice, to find the word “amputee.” I’m reasonably confident that it doesn’t appear anywhere in the track’s 4 minutes and 13 seconds.
The song itself is forgettable, a strange mix of super loud drums and annoying single-note guitar licks for the verses, a Tool-like bridge, and an unremarkable thrash chorus. Not an impressive album opener.
The band doesn’t seem to be going much of anywhere judging from its MySpace page. The Postman Syndrome blogs even less frequently than I do, its last post coming in February 2010, and boasting that “We’re not the kind of band that makes money on tour…. well really we’re not the kind of band that makes money, period. In fact we lose money. We hemorrhage it.”
Interesting marketing strategy.
One last thing – based on my experience, the title is factually incorrect.
8. The Angry Amputees
One could accuse this band of false advertising, as only one of its members, John “Dalty” Dalton, is an amputee. Dalton lost both his legs below the knee, one hand, and the fingers of the other to meningitis in 1990. A musician before his illness, Dalton converted from guitar to bass and became part of this four-person punk rock band.
The Angry Amputees has played the Warped Tour, and been featured on the “Tony Hawk Underground” video game (6th edition). YouTube clips reveal that the band was playing live gigs as recently as 2010, though it appears that it only released one album, Slut Bomb – the album cover contained, somewhat predictably, visual depictions of each word – back in 2003.
The band plays straightforward punk rock. With a female lead singer who sounds a bit like Joan Jett, The Angry Amputees offer a relatively melodic approach to the genre, and I found myself not fleeing its MySpace page as the songs followed one another in rapid succession. That being said, I also felt no compulsion to actually download any of the tracks from Slut Bomb.
7. Phantom Limb, by the Shins
The Shins have been critical darlings since the release of Oh, Inverted World in 2001. I heard so many wonderful things about this band that I ultimately took the plunge, having never heard a song they had played, and downloading that debut album to my first generation iPod shortly after its release.
I listened to it. Several times. And I concluded that I had no idea what all the fuss was about. The Shins aren’t bad. They write moderately creative lyrics. Their lead singer can sing. They play their instruments well. But I found them overwhelmingly . . . ordinary.
Phantom Limb falls into the same category. I wouldn’t say don’t buy it. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad song. I just don’t feel much of anything. And, like several songs on this list, it doesn’t actually have anything to do with limb loss. Ultimately, this is just as frustrating to me as everything else about The Shins: it seems like there should be something more going on, but I’m not sure there is.
6. Walter Reed, by Michael Penn
The title doesn’t contain an explicit reference to limb loss, nor do the lyrics, but this song makes the top ten for no other reason than Walter Reed Army Medical Center has become associated in significant part with amputee rehabilitation for the men and women in the military who have lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the song is good.
If you must have a more explicit connection to limb loss, here it is. Walter Reed appears on Penn’s self-released album, Mr. Hollywood, 1947. If you Google “Walter Reed 1947,” the fourth result (not including videos related to Penn’s song) is a 1949 study entitled, “Causes of amputation performed at Walter Reed General Hospital during 1947 and 1948.”
“Walter Reed” experienced an explosion of popularity following its use in the popular TV show, House. Sadly, though, from a cosmic alignment perspective, that episode of the hospital-based drama did not involve anything even remotely related to amputation. (I checked.)
5. Frozen Man, by James Taylor
For those of you who have read this blog before, and in particular, the “about” page, you know that Green Day and Foo Fighters occupy a special place in my music-loving heart. So it may come as a surprise that I also like James Taylor. This has not always been the case.
When I was growing up, James Taylor music was omnipresent on the AM stations my mother chose to listen to on the radio. (Yes, my mother listened to AM radio to get her daily dose of music. No, I don’t have any idea why. If she were alive today, this might be the first thing I would ask her: “Mom, why the hell did you listen to AM radio stations? Did you have something against being able to actually hear your favorite songs?”) Anyway, I couldn’t comprehend why James Taylor was played at all, no matter which radio band. He seemed the very embodiment of bland.
But my wife has always liked James Taylor, and just after we got married, I purchased two tickets to see him at what was then the Paramount Theater at Madison Square Garden. I expected to suffer in silence for the benefit of my wife. And over the course of roughly two hours, James Taylor proceeded to blow my mind.
When you see James Taylor live, you realize that (a) his voice is not augmented by the recording process – it’s actually that good, and (b) his producers choose, for whatever reason, to produce much of the grit and emotion he conveys so well in front of an audience out of his recordings. If, like me, you grew up hearing James Taylor on easy-listening AM radio, seeing him in-person is a transformative experience.
Ironically, one of the songs he did not play during that concert – even though it was on the album he had released the previous year – was Frozen Man. The song details the reanimation of a Liverpudlian sailor who becomes frozen in ice in the 1800’s following a storm at sea that washes him overboard. He wakes up in the current era and tries to come to grips with the disconnect between who he was and where he is.
The Frozen Man is painfully aware of the uniqueness of his situation, saying:
It took a lot of money to start my heart
To peg my leg and buy my eye
Newspapers call me “state of the art”
And the children, when they see me, cry
Bonus points to JT for not only getting a reference to a prosthesis into this song – albeit one more befitting a pirate in the 1800’s than a person in the 1990’s – but for also capturing how a person can both feel alien and be viewed as such by the world simultaneously. It’s not the best song Taylor has done, but it has become a standard at his shows and the lyrics are top notch.
4. Phantom Limb
Until I began this little journey into the intersection between limb loss and music, I had never heard of the band, Phantom Limb. (Do not confuse with #7, above.) An English act that blends country, rock and soul, Phantom Limb is currently recording its second album after the release of its self-titled debut in 2008.
Phantom Limb’s lead singer, Yolanda Quartey, can flat-out sing. And her band mates refrain from doing anything more than what they absolutely have to, wisely eschewing demonstrations of individual virtuosity to produce a unified, spare, but powerful foundation on which Quartey can hang her attention-grabbing vocals.
I often classify music by where I would listen to it. Foo Fighters and Green Day are great when you’re in the car, plowing down the highway. Pink Floyd virtually requires you to be alone in a semi-depressed state, refusing to turn the lights on even though it’s night. Phantom Limb is the kind of band you’d listen to with your friends after the party has ended, when everyone’s in that “it’s time to get up and go home but I really don’t want to leave” mode, and there’s a kind of tired happiness suffusing the hot room containing the detritus of the previous 3 hours.
And how could this blog not promote a band that, on its MySpace page, opens with this description:
Phantom Limb go beyond the famous adage that ‘less is more’ with the simple and often forgotten principle that great music is about playing the right things at the right time.
Amen, Phantom Limb. Amen. I will be purchasing Phantom Limb on iTunes after completing this post. (And please, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t confuse the band Phantom Limb with the song “Phantom Limb” by that incredible – yes, screamo – band, Pig Destroyer.
3. Amputee Rap, by Josh Sundquist
I hesitate to put this song on the list, as it’s clearly closer to Weird Al Yankovic than Public Enemy in terms of seriousness and social import. But Josh took the time and trouble not only to write this song, but to shoot a video for it also. So I’ll take the time to discuss it here.
Josh is a Paralympic skier and motivational speaker who lost his left leg to cancer at age 9. He has spoken to Fortune 500 companies, published a book, and founded a social networking site for amputees. I’ve never had the honor of meeting Josh, and I’m certain he’s an extraordinary guy.
But this song is just awful.
On the bright side, it appears that was kind of the point. Let me illustrate by sharing some of the lyrics:
When I do the laundry it totally rocks
Because unlike you I don’t have to pair my socks
I’ll swing my arm and crack your cranium
Because these crutches are made out of titanium
As bad as the lyrics are, the underlying beats are even worse. All in all, Amputee Rap is a train wreck.
But there is a kind of perverse beauty in something that strives so hard to be this bad. This is the limb loss equivalent of William Shatner singing Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. You can’t stop listening, despite yourself.
2. Flagpole Sitta, by Harvey Danger
Harvey Danger was a Seattle-based band that, according to Wikipedia, took its name from graffiti on the wall of the University of Washington student newspaper office. On the strength of Flagpole Sitta, Harvey Danger hit the Billboard Top 40, found heavy rotation of its video on VH1 and MTV, and had it featured in the movie American Pie, though the track wasn’t on the official soundtrack. (Someone has to explain that to me. How do songs get included in movies but left off the soundtrack? Can we argue that this somehow violates the Americans With Disabilities Act, excluding songs about limb loss? Actually, if you’ve read this blog before, you know that the answer to that question is “no,” because of this.)
In any event, Flagpole Sitta is a wonderfully catchy tune, and as far as I can tell, the only top 40 song to ever feature the word “amputee” in the lyrics. You can hear the frustration and anger in lead singer Sean Nelson’s voice as he belts out:
Been around the world and found
that only stupid people are breeding
The cretins cloning and feeding
And I don’t even own a TV
Put me in the hospital for nerves
and then they had to commit me
You told them all I was crazy
They cut off my legs now I’m an amputee, God damn you
1. I Can’t Write Left Handed, Bill Withers
Bill Withers is better known for the songs Ain’t No Sunshine and Lean on Me. But this track, first released in 1973 on the Live From Carnegie Hall album, captures the stark reality of limb loss in its title. At the beginning of the song, Withers describes how he came to write it. Rather than re-tell that story here, I suggest you listen to it yourself.
Also, for a modern cover of the song, listen to John Legend and The Roots on the album, Wake Up! That version takes advantage of heavier drums and guitars, and builds more consciously from verse to bridge to chorus in a steadily increasing crescendo that results in a powerful reinterpretation of the original.
Download it. Now.