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A Reasonable Guide to Scum Rock

Let the strippers go unpaid, let the motel rooms burn—rock’s only as good as its most depraved leaders are terrible.

Back in the day, music critic Lester Bangs began an essay by pretending to berate a bunch of hapless 1970s youths. Snarling like Old Man Crotchrot at the bottom of his rheumatism jug, Bangs derided the hedonistic bands of the Seventies as weak imitations of earlier misfits like the Count Five, Question Mark and the Mysterians, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, et cetera.

Well, now it’s my turn to mutter darkly into the medicine jug. The radio is lousy with playground gimps like Linkin Park, those goofball fools Blink 182, and loser emo-core (Dumbest-Genre-Label-Ever) bands whining that their own minds frighten them. What happened to rock music? Where have all the scumbags gone?

Where are the compulsive womanizers, casual liars, unrepentant sinners, swaggering derelicts, and all-round dirtbags? Where are all the busted bottles and broken crushed-velvet hearts? Like Tolkien’s elves, have all the low-life rockers gone to some bong-water harbor, boarded a floating tour bus, and sailed away? I miss tunes about brawls, interstate laws, groupies, bad attitudes, and Quaaludes. Granted, there are a few who keep the lava lamps burning, notably the White Stripes, but as for the rest—it’s hard to claim outlaw status when your anthems first earn heavy rotation as SUV commercials.

For those who want to relive the bad old days before anti-depressants, Febreze-scented sheets, or plasma anything outside of a comic book, here’s some true scumbag rock, old plus new, to get that arrest warrant started. Turn it up, glug bourbon, dance on tables, dance on laps, or just scream obscenities in the street: It might only be rock’n’roll but we like it, like it, yes we do.

The Faces, ‘Stay with Me’
Scum-Level (out of 10): 9

Yup, you heard right: the Faces, with goddamn Rod Stewart fronting them. Before you get your knickers too twisted, imagine long ago in a galaxy far away, where Rod Stewart was actually cool. I know, ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’ is unforgivable, and one more time hearing ‘Maggie May’ on the jukebox and you’ll set the maudlin sot who played it on fire. But put all that aside—and I’m going to be nice and not even get into how ‘Maggie May’ is an almost perfect short story as well as a great song—and hear me out, preferably after you’ve downloaded the tune (legally, of course, with 30 pieces of silver sent to the RIAA and ASS-CAP).

Once you’ve got it cranked you’ll learn, this song is a real sonuvabitch. Kicking off with massive honky-tonk guitar chords, the first lines are some rude shit: In the morning please don’t say me you love me/cause I’ll only kick you out of the door. The lyrics only get worse/better, with Rod tossing off such bon mots as, Red lips, hair, fingernails/I hear you’re a mean old Jezebel/let’s go upstairs and read my Tarot cards and Won’t need too much persuading/I don’t mean to sound degrading/But with a face like that you’ve got nothing to laugh about. All the while, the band, including Ron Wood, attempts to burn down the roadhouse through sheer force of intoxication. In love with its own braggart momentum, the song goes on forever, Stewart gleefully kicking his girl in and out of bed the entire time.

Released in 1971 on A Nod Is As Good As A Wink… the song was the Faces’ only real radio success. The concurrent release of Stewart’s solo album Every Picture Tells a Story (including ‘Maggie May’) propelled Rod the Mod into the iconic stratosphere, with Ron Wood not far behind. Wood eventually joined the Rolling Stones, while Rod ruined his legacy with greasy bullshit like ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.’ Long gone, the Faces are not forgotten, though, and anyone who isn’t a believer after ‘Stay with Me’ has just never had their Tarot cards read correctly.

Tom Waits, ‘Mr. Siegel’
Scum-Level: 11 (perfect score, plus extra point earned for Lifetime Achievement)

Choosing any single Tom Waits tune as an exemplar of scum rock is almost impossible. With a catalog that includes such nuggets as ‘Sixteen Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six,’ ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,’ ‘Cemetery Polka,’ ‘Murder in the Red Barn,’ ‘Jockey Full of Bourbon,’ and ‘Shore Leave,’ Tom Waits has set a standard for unexpurgated malfeasance. That so many of his songs are equally heartbreaking, and his talents so diverse, only makes the sleaze that much seedier. But even amidst such a gutterball past, one song stands out: the grim saga ‘Mr. Siegel,’ from the 1980 album Heart Attack and Vine.

In the spirit of Hunter Thomson’s fear and loathing, Waits’s visit to Las Vegas should be subtitled ‘Doom and Retribution.’ Raunchy, ribald, and mean-spirited, ‘Mr. Siegel’ is a cathouse stomp the great Blaze Starr could have burlesqued to. With its rollicking New Orleans-style piano and honking guitar, ‘Mr. Siegel’ begins, I spent all my money in a Mexican whorehouse/across the street from a Catholic church, then devolves from there. The narrator prostitutes himself, inhales nasty drugs, receives malign advice on an underage girl (when the bitch is wound up and her parents are gone/man you ought to hear her with the siren on), and threatens to burn the hotel to the ground if he could only find a book of matches. The story is degenerate in every way, but when that Dixieland piano surges as Waits counts down, And now it’s one for the money/two for the show/three to get ready, and go man go…, it becomes a high-kicking chorus line of dancehall hookers and flophouse stumblebums. Waits knows all-too well: How do the angels get to sleep when the Devil keeps the porch light on? When you get a gander of that red light, you too will join Mr. Siegel’s wanton flock.

Liz Phair, ‘Flower’
Scum-Level: 8 (extra point because most can’t bear to listen more than once)

If the Stones’ Exile on Main Street was a shout-out to scum rock, then Liz Phair’s 1993 debut Exile in Guyville was a literal response from the fairer sex. Told from the viewpoint of the women that slept and dealt with Main Street-type low-lifes, Guyville was a combined homage/collision with the Glimmer Twins, and Phair’s throaty vocals proved an even match. Meeting strut for strut and posture for posture, Exile in Guyville was just as brassy as the rockers and groupies it portrayed. (The album was also a gutsy discussion of gender politics in general but let’s just steer clear of that right here.)

Amidst the shuffling beats and indie-blues guitar work, however—and notice no solos exist on the entire album, a comment itself on the grotesqueries of cock rock—there is a song called ‘Flower,’ and it’s unlike anything else on the record. With Phair’s singsong falsetto and trippy cadence, ‘Flower’ feels like a nice little post-concert acid binge. Listen closely, though, and you’ll soon realize the binge involves dirty sheets and obsessive lust. The overlapping vocals echo each other, obscenely: I want to fuck you like a dog, I’ll take you home and make you like it. Everything you ever wanted, everything you ever thought of, is everything I’ll do to you, I’ll fuck you and your minions, too. A bit later: Everything you say is so obnoxious, funny, true, and mean. I want to be your blowjob queen. The ditty ends with the merciless promise, I’ll fuck you till your dick is blue.

A litany of anger, debasement, desire, and shame, ‘Flower’ is as chilling as the pornography it both apes and is aroused by. This is scum rock of a different sort, from the other side of the bedpost and far more honest that almost anything the boys have dared. What kind of listener will love and listen to ‘Flower’ repeatedly? The same perverse freak who has read every existing description of heroin addiction but still can’t wait to try that shit for the first time. Still, that’s the whole point of the song. Whether the obsession is sexual or chemical: once burned, twice as eager. Which happily rates ‘Flower’ a place among the scum rock greats.

The Rolling Stones, ‘Some Girls’
Scum-Level: 10

It’s about time to give Their Satanic Majesties their due. Like Tom Waits, the Rolling Stones are so notorious for depravity that picking just one song feels like a slight. These are the louts that destroyed the goodwill of Woodstock with the carnage at Altamont, ratted out Mom’s Valium habit, and titled an album Sticky Fingers with an actual unzipped fly on the cover. Whether painting it black, letting it bleed, or offering sympathies to the Devil, the Stones have left a scum trail a million miles long.

So I tossed a rusty needle at a stack of CDs and came up with ‘Some Girls,’ the title track of their epoch 1978 album. No longer the street fighting men they once were, by the late seventies the Stones had settled into a quiet routine of Oriental decadence. The drugs and invitations to high-society orgies came all too easily, and ‘Some Girls’ shows it. The song is a list of sexual conquests relayed by an ingrate. Always a bit of a ponce, Mick Jagger has the gall to complain about the burdens of his debauched lifestyle. Between casually bigoted observances on how black women like to fuck all night, Jagger manages to save the tune with genius like, American girls want everything in the world you can possibly imagine! With its laid-back beat, venomous solos, and wailing harmonica, ‘Some Girls’ is music from the depths of the seraglio, with Jagger a sultan too pampered to feel much pain but able still to piss and moan at whim. As Lester Bangs would say, that’s so fucked up it has class, and so too does ‘Some Girls.’

Smarmy, pretentious, loose-lipped and still loutish, the Rolling Stones capped their evil glories with the Some Girls album, and who are we to deny such triumphs? There’s no point in selling your soul without the worldly rewards. The Stones just cut a better deal than the rest of us.

Hole, ‘Teenage Whore’
Scum Level: 9

The band is called Hole and the album Pretty on the Inside; the song is ‘Teenage Whore’ and the singer’s name is Love. Do you really need more explanation why this ranks? For those concerned with Ms. Love’s dead husband Kurt Cobain and his band Nirvana, I’m sorry but this just isn’t the place. If Cobain had choked to death on vomit surrounded by sycophants and ringing cell-phones, it might be a different story. Alas, some people are too tragically fucked up for scum-rock greatness.

But for anyone who’s ever wondered why a person would debase themselves for no obvious reasons, ‘Teenage Whore’ answers that right here:

When I was a teenage whore
my mother asked me, she said, ‘Baby, what for?
I give you plenty, why do you want more?
Baby, why are you a teenaged whore?’
I said, ‘I feel so all alone …’

The White Stripes, ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’
Scum-Level: 7 (reduced a point for being too cool)

Like great bands, great blues often emerge from the Wilderness. Whether it’s the forlorn levees along the Mississippi delta, the darkling hollows of Appalachia, or rail yard wastelands in the Midwest, there’s something about desolation that produces a howl of collective anguish. Referred to as ‘traditional’ in song credits, some of the best music in the American songbook has no actual creator. It’s as though the song itself sprung from the depths of earthly misery, and our job as artists is to add a new twist every decade to keep it fresh. ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’ is such a song, and the White Stripes were the perfect band to revive it.

When the White Stripes first barrel-assed out of Detroit, Michigan in 1999, no one knew what the fuck was going on. Just a guitar and drum played by two kids named Jack and Meg White—were those names for real? Where was the bass player, and what was the deal with those bizarro red-and-white outfits? Were they brother and sister or husband and wife? They looked like siblings but then the band released pictures of a marriage certificate and confusion reigned again. One thing never in doubt, however, was how refreshing the White Stripes were. Screeching like a billygoat on a hot tin roof, Jack tore chords out of a wall of amplifiers while Meg demolished her drum kit behind him. It was like every garage band ever had risen to conquer the world, bass players and common sense be-damned. Their eponymous debut featured originals like ‘Jimmy the Exploder,’ ‘I Fought Piranhas,’ and ‘The Big Three Killed My Baby,’ plus covers of ‘Stop Breaking Down’ and ‘One More Cup of Coffee.’ But the best example of new breed White Stripe-ism and old-school blues was ‘St. James Infirmary Blues.’

Known as ‘The Gambler’s Blues’ in the late 1800s, ‘St. James Infirmary’ tells about a grief-struck gambler gazing down at the corpse of his love, cold and dead on a hospital slab. Obviously not long for the world himself, the card-sharp imagines his own parting: When I die, bury me in my straight-leg britches/Put on a box-back coat and a Stetson hat/Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain/So you can let all the boys know I died standing pat. Everyone from Louis Armstrong to Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin has covered the tune, but the White Stripes brought their own magic to ‘St. James,’ substituting a piano for guitar to transform ghoulish sorrow into an infernal joyride. If you were a poker cheat gunned down in the Wild West, this would be the melody playing in the Devil’s reception hall. Adding to the glorious damnation are lyrics that appear newly invented by the Stripes:

Give me six craps-shooting pallbearers
Let a chorus girl sing me a song

Put a red (unintelligible)
Hallelujah as we go along.

Just as good, Take apart your bones and put them back together/tell your mother that you’re somebody new. Whether the lyrics are new or unearthed from some bordello archive, as the Guinness commercial says, ‘Brilliant,’ and so far as scum rock goes, very meritorious. Who in their right minds would turn a dirge about corpses, doom, and funerals into a ragtime free-for-all? The White Stripes, that’s who, and listeners will better their souls, if not exactly save them, for the experience.

Guns N’ Roses, ‘Paradise City’
Scum-Level: 8

Last but definitely not least: those evil bastards Guns N’ Roses. If the White Stripes made a carnival of death and damnation, GNR turned such into a white-trash rally. Fronted by a redheaded gutter punk named Axl Rose, GNR ripped on gays and minorities, caused bloody riots when they couldn’t bother to haul their drunken butts onstage, and killed off supermodel girlfriends in blowhard videos. Whether it was drug addiction, Federal laws, the press, fans, other bands, or each other, Guns N’ Roses battled anything that crossed their path. As the expression goes, Is this a private fight or can anyone pitch in, and GNR gave everyone a piece of the action.

But somewhere along that low road, Guns N’ Roses found a niche. The Stones were already long in the tooth, Rod Stewart had died and come back as a Vegas freak show, Tom Waits would never crack the mainstream, and the burgeoning grunge rockers were too guilt-stricken about sin to be much fun. People missed a hell-for-leather attitude, and GNR rocked. Even bigoted garbage like ‘One in a Million’ had about the catchiest melody imaginable, and when it came to aural destruction like ‘Welcome to the Jungle,’ ‘Night Train,’ and the truly awesome ‘Civil War’ (a human grocery store—ain’t that fresh!), GNR stood toe-to-toe with any band on the planet. But the one tune that no one could resist was ‘Paradise City.’ When that song played, the whole world banged its head in atavistic ecstasy. Take me down to the Paradise City, where the grass is green and the girls are pretty, oh won’t you please take me home. Even if delivered by a bunch of human snot rockets, the message was still perfect: In a criminally evil world, what else could anyone ask for? More powerful than going to Hell in a bucket, ‘Paradise City’ was driving full speed into the Stygian depths because it didn’t fucking matter, we were already in Hell anyway. Loose, confused, raging, and unrepentant, ‘Paradise City’ is the tarnished gold-heart at the center of every scum rocker, as well as the rest of us poor sinners. And yeah, with or without God’s mercy, we plan on enjoying the ride.

For G—You’re meaner n’ a snake and tougher than old boot leather, but I love ya baby, gawd knows it’s true.


Tobias Seamon recently published the novella The Fair Grounds. More can be found here. More by Tobias Seamon