Saturday, July 2, 2011

The whole story behind this great song --

I can promise you
You'll stay as beautiful
With dark hair
And soft skin . . . forever

I think I'll turn this post into the pilot episode for a "Possum Kingdom" television series and see if I get a cable network to put it on the air.  I'm pretty sure it would sell if I could get Keith Morrison to narrate it.

Keith Morrison
Keith Morrison is the creepy reporter who does the Dateline Saturday Night show on NBC.  (He's not the guy who does the "To Catch a Predator" shows -- that's Chris Hansen.)  Morrison specializes in lengthy, drawn-out pieces on obscure small-town murders.  He manages to take a story that could be told in 5 or 10 minutes and drag it out for an hour or so (not counting commercial breaks, of course). 

My wife watches Morrison's shows regularly.  I've never seen one from start to finish, but I've seen enough bits and pieces of them to have figured out that every one is pretty much the same.

Each episode begins with what appears to be an accidental death or a disease-related fatality or a suicide. 

There's usually a family member or friend who suspects foul play.  Eventually, that person is able to overcome the lethargy or incompetence of law enforcement officials -- sometimes with the help of a maverick police officer -- and the truth is revealed.

In about 90% of the shows, the victim is a wife, and the murderer is her husband.

Occasionally, the victim is a husband or a parent, and the killer is the wife or a child.  But most of the time the guilty party is a husband who killed his wife because he is having an affair with another woman, or a husband who killed his wife because her death would result in him coming into a large sum of money.

Not infrequently, the guilty party is a husband who wants a large sum of money to support his affair with another woman -- giving him not one, but two reasons to murder the wife.

Here's a typical Keith Morrison piece:



Click here to see Bill Hader's parody of Morrison on Saturday Night Live

There's certainly some kind of foul play going on in "Possum Kingdom."  What exactly is going on in this song is subject to interpretation.  How you interpret it will likely depend on whether you're a big vampire fan or not.  

The Toadies
First, you need to know a little bit about the Toadies, the band that recorded "Possum Kingdom."  The Toadies formed in 1989 in Keller, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth.  They broke up in 2001 -- their bass player, Lisa Umbarger, quit the band for personal reasons, and the rest of the Toadies didn't want to continue without her -- but reformed with a couple of new members in 2006.  "Possum Kingdom" was released in 1994, and was by far the band's most successful single.  

Our Chief Executive Senior Contributing Editor (we'll call her "Linda") is not only a resident of Keller but also a close personal friend of the band's lead singer.  I'll let her tell you more about him and how they got acquainted:

I don't know much personal stuff about Todd Lewis.  I think he goes by Vaden, his real first name, with his friends.  His full name is Vaden Danger Todd Lewis.  He has also gone by the name Danger Lewis.  
The closest I ever got to him was drinking the rest of the vodka he'd brought to my friends' ranch the weekend before we were there.  I know he's 45, divorced and has a young daughter, but that's pretty much it.
Vaden Danger Todd Lewis
Perhaps Linda really doesn't know much about Lewis, or perhaps all that binge drinking at her friends' ranch has left a few gaps in her memory.  Her account of how she came to be drinking Lewis's vodka doesn't include anything about peeing in a big-ass travel coffee mug, which makes me wonder if she is giving us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  

Note also how Linda's account leaves the impression that she and Lewis were at the friends' ranch on different weekends.  But if you read her words very closely, you will see that she does not actually deny that she and Lewis were there at the same time.  Nor does she actually deny that they drank that bottle of vodka while relaxing in a hot tub and gazing out at a beautiful Texas sunset.    

A hot tub, a sunset, and thou
I find that interesting.  Don't you find that interesting?  (I thought you would.)
Of course, my purpose in pointing this out is not to embarrass Linda by revealing facts that she has managed to keep secret until now.  I freely admit that I have no proof whatsoever that her relationship with hunky rock star Todd Lewis goes beyond their having gotten drunk from the same bottle of vodka at a secluded Texas ranch while sitting in a hot tub.  Anything else is just speculation.  

Let's hear a little more about that romantic getaway where Linda and "Danger" Lewis shared that bottle of vodka:
Our friends' ranch is about 60 miles northwest of Fort Worth. It's rustic but comfortable -- a log house (not a log cabin) on 75 acres with a small lake and lots of wildlife.  A huge raccoon joined us near the patio one night.  Even with an extended happy hour's worth of wine consumption, I got into the house in a split second.  [NOTE:  Linda's binge drinking is obviously not limited to vodka.]

A rattlesnake has been shot on that same patio.  A cougar has been sighted on the property a couple of times.  [NOTE: I'm sure that when Linda says "cougar" here that she is referring to the large cat species that is also known as the puma, mountain lion, and panther -- and not using the slang term for an older woman looking to "score" with younger men, especially hunky rock stars.]


Our friends raise a few calves every year so that it's considered a working ranch for tax purposes.  [NOTE: What the IRS doesn't know won't hurt them!]  The "Supremes" (3 black Angus heifers) were there in late winter/early spring this year, but have since been sold.  [NOTE:  I'm not sure quite what to make of the previous sentence -- an example of Texas humor, mayhaps?]
The ranch is probably about 80 to 90 miles northeast of Possum Kingdom Lake. 
I'm sure you'll agree that "Possum Kingdom Lake" is a helluva odd name for a lake.  Let's let Linda explain the derivation of the lake's unusual sobriquet.

Possum Kingdom Lake is a man-made lake on the Brazos River about 90 miles west of Fort Worth.  Around the turn of the 20th century, a Russian Jewish emigrant named Ike Sablosky lived around there.  He was a fur and pelt trader, including possum pelts.  The canyons around the Brazos were prime hunting grounds for possums.  Whenever the possum hunters would bring pelts to him, he'd say "Here are the boys from Possum Kingdom."  That's what locals started calling the canyons, then when the dam and resulting lake were built by the WPA (completed in 1941), it became known as Possum Kingdom Lake.

Here's a good pic of a part of the lake called Hell's Gate:


If you go through Hell's Gate, there's a good-sized cove on the other side where I've heard a lot of boaters go to tie up or drop anchor and party.

"Possum Kingdom" is one of those songs whose exact meaning is hotly debated.  

The most obvious interpretation of the lyrics is that the singer is trying to talk a young woman into accompanying him to a secluded spot behind a boathouse and have sex with him there.  (That's what professional journalists refer to as a "dog bites man" story -- no news there.)

But after the first couple of verses, things take an odd turn.  The singer promises the girl that she will stay beautiful forever if she "give[s] it up" to him.  "Do you want to die?" he asks, and then promises that he "will treat you well, my sweet angel -- so help me, Jesus."

Some people believe the singer is proposing a suicide pact -- by committing suicide together, the couple will never grow old but remain eternally young in the afterworld.  

Others believe it must be about vampires, which are tres chic these days.  They say that vampires don't age, so if the young woman agrees to become a vampire, she will remain young and beautiful.

The "Zodiac Killer"
In a comment posted on the Songfacts website, one fan of the song theorized that it has something to do with the "Zodiac Killer," a serial killer who murdered at least 5 people in northern California in 1968 and 1969.  This fan notes that the Zodiac Killer said in the letters he wrote to local newspapers that he was killing people in order to have slaves for his afterlife.

This is all very confusing, so let's go right to the source and ask Todd Lewis, who wrote the song, what it is all about.  From the Songfacts website:

In a 1995 interview with RIP magazine, Toadies lead singer Todd Lewis said: "It's just a story I heard long ago; it's just a really cool, eerie lake, and some stuff I heard and some stuff I just make up. I tend to do that. They dammed up this big river up there, and it's got all these spooky names like Hell's Gate. It's really cool."
Lewis went on to say that there was a real stalker in Tyler, Texas who became a folk hero: "I was down there for Thanksgiving, and after the family got through talking about who died and who's got cancer and all those things that families talk about, they started talking about this guy who was peeping in windows and started breaking into people's houses. He'd go out of his way to be seen, and everyone is like armed to the teeth, and he's like tapping on windows. The whole family was freaked out about it."
That doesn't make a whole helluva a lot of sense, does it?  Maybe ol' Todd was hitting the vodka when he gave that interview.  

What about the music video?  As Linda notes, 

The official video is mostly intercutting between footage of the band and scenes of something being dragged out of the water, the impression being that it's a body wrapped up in a tarp. The action in the music video doesn't seem to be consistent with the lyrics.

That's an understatement.  Perhaps Todd had also hit the vodka the day he met with the director of the music video to go over the draft shooting script.

There's no doubt that what the video wants you to think is that there is a body wrapped up in the tarp that is being towed through the water by a mysterious figure and eventually pulled up on to the lakeshore.

I just noticed that at 1:57 of the video there's a very quick close-up of a false eyelash and someone's finger reaching out to touch it.  Near the end of the video, there are several quick shots of a hand holding a knife and rising and falling in a stabbing motion.  But the final shot is of a woman's bust sculpted from a block of ice -- complete with that false eyelash.  

OK, that clears everything up.  The guy hasn't been towing a dead body in the tarp, he's been towing a big hunk of ice -- and he wasn't stabbing the girl, he was carving a statue out of a block of ice.  Now I understand perfectly!

Here's the music video.  You're the boss of you, but my advice is to ignore the guy towing the tarp-wrapped block of ice through the water and just listen to the music.




I'm not gonna lie
I'll not be a gentleman
Behind the boathouse
I'll show you my dark secret

Even if you're not a musician, you've probably noticed that there is something very unusual about the rhythmic structure of "Possum Kingdom." 

A typical rock song is built around units of four measures with four beats per measure.  This is how you would count out such a song:

ONE-two-three-four
ONE-two-three-four
ONE-two-three-four
Mechanical metronome
ONE-two-three-four

(The "ONE" is capitalized because you usually accent the first beat.  There is sometimes a secondary accent on the third beat.)

But most of this song has a slightly different structure:

ONE-two-three-four
ONE-two-three
ONE-two-three-four
ONE-two-three-four

It's odd, because the impression this pattern left on me when I first heard "Possum Kingdom" was that they had added an extra beat at the end of the fourth line.  That's mostly because the third and fourth beat of that fourth line consist of repeated chords -- the repetition sounds odd, like the second one doesn't really belong.

But what the band really did was omit the fourth beat of the second measure.

The third beat of the second line is emphasized somewhat, which helps smooth over the transition to the next line -- the omitted fourth beat isn't quite so jarring as it otherwise would be.

I want you to start the video at the beginning and start counting.  Don't follow the words -- follow the guitar chords.

The chords are usually played in pairs -- the first is on the beat, and the second is off the beat.  (That is, between beat one and beat two.)  Another way to put that is to say that the chords are eighth-notes, not quarter notes.

Virtual metronome
So on beat one of the first measure, we get a quick pair of guitar chords -- on beat one and between beat one and beat two (beat 1.5, if you like).  Beat two is silent -- it's a rest.  There is another pair of eighth-note chords on beat three.  And beat four is silent.

The second measure has the two quick chords on beat one, a rest on beat two, and two most chords on beat three (although the chord changes) -- but there is no beat four.  Instead we go right into beat one of the next measure (which consists of the same two chords as all the first beats have).

But when we get to the fourth measure, you get the same quick pair of chords on beat three, which are repeated on beat four -- beat four is not silent.  

After that, we repeat the 4-3-4-4 pattern over and over again.  There are some normal 4-4-4-4 passages, but the song is characterized by four-measure units with the 4-3-4-4 pattern. 

And that, boys and girls, is what makes this song unique.  The skipped fourth beat in the second line propels you right into the third line, and the double pair of chords on beats three and four of the fourth line propels you to the next four-measure unit.  So the song has a lot of rhythmic momentum.

But skipping the beat is unnatural, disturbing, distracting -- try to dance to this song, and you'll see what I mean.  The Toadies get into a pretty good groove, but you never really stop noticing the rhythmic irregularity that makes "Possum Kingdom" so unique.  The song moves right along, but it's a little herky-jerky -- for those of you old enough to have owned LPs, the effect is just like the record skipping.

Todd Lewis
There's one other rhythmic oddity in this song.  Starting at 2:34 (when the binge-drinking, hot-tub-loving, cougar-pursuing Todd "Danger" Lewis sings "Give it up to me") the song shifts gears again.

The first two lines ("Give it up to me" is the first line, which is then repeated) are six beats each -- the singer rests on the first beat of each line, which makes it a little tricky to locate the first beat.  The next two lines ("Do you wanna/Be my angel") are four beats each.  So the pattern is 6-6-4-4 for a bit.

So what are the Toadies up to today?  According to Linda,

The Toadies are still hugely popular down here, revered really by their fans. They play a one-off show every once in awhile and those sell out immediately.

Oklahoma casino
Linda recently had an opportunity to see the Toadies play at some second-rate casino in Texas or perhaps Oklahoma.  (Can you believe that Oklahoma has 77 casinos?  What is the world coming to?)  For some reason, she didn't go.
If she had attended that concert, her account would have no doubt been a great post.  We all could have read about her and Todd meeting backstage after the concert, perhaps sharing another bottle of vodka, etc. -- wouldn't you have loved to read about that?

Here's a live performance of "Possum Kingdom" featuring the band's original lineup, including hockey-jersey-clad bassist Lisa Umbarger (who looks like she would be a natural for that reality show that gives women fashion makeovers):




Click here to order "Possum Kingdom" from Amazon:

11 comments:

  1. the best song of the 90s.... great review.

    ReplyDelete
  2. you're wrong about the meter/count of the song. I have taught guitar, bass, drums and harmonica for over 6 years and have been a gigging musician for 13 years and I am on several albums with several different bands. Okay, now that my qualifications have been stated. The count of this song would be 7/4 time if your statement was correct (or possibly one 3/4 time measure and one 4/4 time measure), and it isn't. What it actually is, is 4 ct measures then an alternating addition of either a 1/4-note of time or a 1/2 note worth of time before repeating the phrase, assuming you're counting in the 100-120 bpm range with 1/4 notes. 2 cents from a musician. and yes it is an awesome song. stick to opinion articles, leave the music analysis to the musicians. :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. the added 1/4 or 1/2 note worth of time being when they are banging the A chord briefly before coming back home to the E chord

    ReplyDelete
  4. Jacob, read what I wrote -- what I said doesn't mean that the time signature is 7/4. I don't think what I said is inconsistent with what you are saying -- I think you're just using different terminology. (BTW, I'm a classically trained pianist and took two full years of theory/harmony/composition is college. So I think I'm qualified to do a little simple rhythmic analysis here and there.)

    ReplyDelete
  5. The story about the stalker in Texas refers to their song Tyler, not this one.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Sounds to me it's about a serial killer in Texas - the one sometimes called "
    Candy man" because he worked at his parents' candy factory. He paid 2 young men to lure other young men into his boat storage, where he also buried their bodies, as well as killing and burying one or two by the local lake. That's the "dark secret" behind the boat house...
    "Do you wanna die?" Hmm...

    ReplyDelete
  7. Why is this guy telling all the bands musical note secrets?? I don't like people that do that . Some things just sound better when you don't have to think about what note and what riff does this and that!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    2. Sometimes it helps you appreciate it more, though. Like there's a Tool song where different members are playing in different meters, but they all overlap so they are synchronized--right when the band is singing "breathe in union"

      Delete
  8. You start off this by talking about a reporter that takes a 5 minute story and stretches it out. You did worse than that. You took this story around the world and to the moon and back. WTH?

    ReplyDelete