As I’ve mentioned before in connection what I guess you’d call my “formative years,” there were few songs that had as much purchase on my attention in those days as the Adverts’ “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes”. I’m pretty sure I first heard it on Dr. Demento. (I’d have discovered punk rock a whole lot later in life without the Dr Demento Show, though as you’ll know if you’ve followed that link, college radio was also a resource.)
Anyway, the song really “spoke to me,” somehow, and I spent lots and lots of time thinking about it. I had it on a tape I recorded from the radio, but I was really excited when I ran across an actual copy of the single, which I’ve hoarded and cherished ever since. (Nowadays, when you want something like that you just look it up on discogs.com and paypal whoever has it whatever it is he wants for it and it arrives a few days later in the mail. But back then acquiring such things was more like a random act of fate that just happened to you.)
How could a song like that, about the (allegedly true) story of a man who wakes up in a hospital bed after eye surgery and realizes to his horror that his corneas have been replaced by the donated ones of an infamous, firing squad-ed murderer whom Norman Mailer wrote a book about — how could such a song “speak to” a thirteen year old suburban kid?
Thinking about it now, I believe it’s not what it’s about that was important. Rather, it’s what it does. What I mean is, it’s a song that takes an unusual, rather far-fetched, unlikely conceit, and forces you to reconsider the original state of skepticism you were probably in before having heard it. You see the title and you think to yourself: ha, there’s no way someone could turn that into a good song I’ll care all that much about, though it might be good for a laugh. But of course you have to find out. And by the time you’ve finished listening, it all makes sense, like it was always there, just waiting to be written. “Why didn’t anybody think of doing that before?” you ask yourself, when just two and a half minutes ago you were asking “why would anyone do that?” Sometimes it doesn’t work, but when it does, man is it ever great. The song proposes something preposterous and sells it, makes it work, and wins you over, simply by being good. That’s magic. Personally speaking (and I know I may be a bit weird) there’s just no aesthetic thrill that can compare to that psycho-conceptual “turn-around.” I never get tired of it, ever.
Not all “novelty” songs are like that, and there’s no reason they have to be, but the ones that are like that are, in my world, the best songs, not just the best novelty songs but the best songs, full stop. “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” might well have been the first time I encountered this phenomenon, but it’s the same basic I reason I love George Jones so much. And it’s the kind of thing I have tried, in my own small way, to make my own songs do (e.g. “Lawnmower of Love” — I wish I was a good enough writer to describe with any accuracy the deep, deep, deep skepticism that suffused Kevin Army’s face when I he read that title on my lyric sheet for the first time.)
Anyway, “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” was a big deal to me. Twenty-five years later, I had the opportunity to play a few shows with the Adverts’ TV Smith, the guy who wrote that song, which is how I wound up with his autograph on the 7" I’d been hoarding for all those years. Amazing, huh? Another sort of random act of fate, I suppose, in a way. Or, better: the non-random but nonetheless highly unlikely denouement of a plot that began with a seed planted in my brain by Dr Demento all the way back in 1977.
Whatever it was, it’s something you can’t just order off discogs.
[A version of this story was posted on my old blog on June 13, 2011.]