Song of the Day: Education in Music (Day Seven). “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm …”

Canadian folk rock band Crash Test Dummies released their second album God Shuffled His Feet in October 1993.  The first single from the album was Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm, was released in the same month.  The song’s distinctive chorus of simply “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm …” sung in singer, songwriter and guitarist Brad Roberts’ distinctive bass-baritone voice helped to make the song the band’s most successful single  and an international hit.  The song was a number one hit in Germany, Australia and on the US Modern Rock Track chart.  Additionally, it reached number 2 in the United Kingdom and number 4 on the US Billboard Hot 100.

Of writing Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm, Roberts, whom had studied to be a professor of English literature prior to the band’s success, told The Independent in May 1994:

“When I wrote that song, it didn’t flow through me, I wasn’t inspired.  I sat down and I decided I had certain themes that I wanted to make sure I handled in a way that wasn’t sentimental but at the same time was powerful and poignant.  I wanted to put a funny angle on it without being merely slapstick.  It all boils down to careful scrutiny of what you’re doing, your rational faculties being brought into play”.

Each verse of Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm deals with the isolation and suffering of a child, two of whom have a physical abnormality.  The first verse of the song tells of how “Once there was this kid who, Got into an accident and couldn’t come to school, But when he finally came back, His hair had turned from black into bright white, He said that it was from when, The cars had smashed so hard”.  Ironically, in 2000, Roberts was nearly killed in a car accident but escaped with a broken arm before his car exploded.

Meanwhile, in the second verse, Roberts sings about a girl with birth defects:  “Once there was a girl who, Wouldn’t go and change with the girls in the change room, But when they finally made here, They saw birthmarks all over her body, She couldn’t quite explain it, They’d always just been there”.

Following this, the bridge of the song expresses the boy and girl’s relief that “one kid had it worse than that” before Roberts tells of how “then there was this boy whose, Parents made him come directly home right after school, And when they went to their church, They shook and lurched all over the church floor, He couldn’t quite explain it, they’d always just gone there”.  During a live performance of Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm for Dutch radio station Kink FM, Roberts whispered during the third verse, “Pentecostal”, inferring that the lyrics relate to the Christian denomination.

Sometimes when the band perform the song in concert, the character in the third verse is replaced by a boy whose mother disposed of his tonsils after a tonsillectomy, thus depriving him of the possibility of bringing them to show and tell.

The promotional video for the single sets the song’s lyrics as the script for a series of one-act plays performed by school children.  During the performance of the plays, the band are seen playing the song at the stage side.

Despite the success of the single, Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm is constantly mentioned on lists of bad songs.  The song was ranked number 15 on VH1’s 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs Ever, whilst Rolling Stone magazine named it as the “15th Most Annoying Song”.  On AOL Radio’s list of 100 Worst Songs Ever in 2010, Matthew Wilkening described the song as “Not only bad but amazingly monotone and depressing”, and “Absolutely the last song to play for your sad friends”.  On a positive note though, in 2011, VH1 named Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm the 31st greatest one-hit wonder of the 1990’s.

Heartbreak Hotel: Ten Songs About Hotels. Portions of the Holbrook Hotel in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, England, Fall into the Sea Following a Landslide. This Day in History, 05/06/1993.

1.  Chris Isaak ‘Blue Hotel’

(from the album Chris Isaak, 1986).

2.  The White Stripes ‘Hotel Yorba’

(from the album White Blood Cells, 2001).

3.  Regina Spektor ‘Hotel Song’

(from the album Begin to Hope, 2006).

4.  Leonard Cohen ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’

(from the album New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974).

5.  John Cale ‘Heartbreak Hotel’

(from the album Slow Dazzle, 1975).

6.  Morrissey ‘At Amber’

(B-side of Piccadilly Palare, 1990).

7.  Eagles ‘Hotel California’

(from the album Hotel California, 1976).

8.  The Who ‘Bell Boy’

(from the album Quadrophenia, 1973).

9.  Nico ‘Chelsea Girls’

(from the album Chelsea Girl, 1967).

10. Super Furry Animals ‘Presidential Suite’

(from the album Rings Around the World, 2001).

Song of the Day: Hollywood in Music (Day Seven). “The Day of the Death of a Matinee Idol”.

“I would rather quit while I was ahead.  There’s no need in overstaying your welcome”.

– River Phoenix.

It was the night of the 31st October, 1993 on a West Hollywood street outside The Viper Room.  Around 1am, the stage door of the club opened.  Actor River Phoenix, most famous for roles in films such as Explorers (1985), Stand By Me (1986), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991), was carried out of the club by his film actress girlfriend, Samantha Mathis and Phoenix’s younger brother, Joaquin (aka Leaf) Phoenix.  River Phoenix’s younger sister, Rain Phoenix followed.

Many present at The Viper Room that night had thought River Phoenix was drunk, but as the night air hit him, River Phoenix fell to the ground and began to have a violent seizure.  Some reports suggest that the seizures started inside the club, where Johnny Depp, co-owner of The Viper Room, was playing guitar on stage with Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass and Gibby Haynes of The Butthole Surfers on vocals, together with other assorted members of Depp’s short-lived band P.  River Phoenix, an accomplished guitarist, was due to join them on stage for a jam later that night.  The Viper Room’s doorman had previously ordered River Phoenix’s friends to take him outside earlier on during the night.  There are many stories surrounding what happened prior to the actor being taken out onto the pavement.  Some say he was shouting and vomiting inside the club and in one particular newspaper report, he was said to have screamed “I’m gonna die dude” as his entourage took him outside.

As River Phoenix began to have his first seizure, the doorman shouted, “Do something, call 911!” to which his brother looked back and yelled, “He’s fine, he’s fine, he’s fine”.  Following the first seizure, there was a pregnant pause and then a second seizure.  By this point, River Phoenix’s eyes were rolling back into his head, he was shaking violently and his arms were shaking around.  Leaf Phoenix rang for an ambulance but was already unable to determine whether his brother was breathing.

In total, River Phoenix had five seizures outside the club, arms flailing and head banging on the pavement.  Rain Phoenix laid on top of her brother in an attempt to suppress the movements.  Following the final seizure, River Phoenix went still.  His sister laid next to him on the pavement, lifted up his shirt, rubbed his stomach and said, “Can you hear me, can you hear me …?” She attempted to give him mouth to mouth resuscitation.

By the time the ambulance arrived, River Phoenix had no pulse, was not breathing and up close, his complexion was dark blue.  Basic life support was given but it was already too late.  River Phoenix was loaded into the ambulance.  As it was preparing to pull away, Flea, who had abruptly left the stage after news of the events unfolding outside had filtered through the club, ran outside and tried to climb in the back of the ambulance but was told to sit in the front.  River Phoenix was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.  Further unsuccessful resuscitation attempts were made.  River Phoenix was pronounced dead at 1.51am PST on the morning of October 31st, 1993.  He was just 23 years old.

The following day, The Viper Room became a makeshift shrine to the actor, with fans and mourners leaving flowers, pictures and candles on the pavement as well as graffiti messages on the walls of the club.  A sign was solemnly placed at the club’s window, reading:  “With much respect and love to River and his family, The Viper Room is temporarily closed.  Our heartfelt condolences to all his family, friends and loved ones.  He will be missed”.  The club remained closed for a week.  Each year on the anniversary of River Phoenix’s death, Johnny Depp would close the club in respect until selling his share in 2004.

River Phoenix’s autopsy, signed November 15th, 1993, reads, under the second ‘Opinion’:  “Toxicology studies showed high concentrations of morphine and cocaine in the blood, as well as other substances in smaller concentrations”.  The cause of death was stated as “acute multiple drug intoxication”.

During his lifetime, River Phoenix’s image had been squeaky clean, something that he continuously moaned about in interviews.  This image of River Phoenix stems from his reputation as firstly a child star and then a ‘teen sensation’ and his public dedication to many social, political, humanitarian and dietary interests that were not always popular during the 1980’s and early 1990’s.  His death caused much media interest, with some circles calling him “The James Dean of our time”, making comparisons between the youth and sudden deaths of both actors.

Amongst the many tributes made to River Phoenix, he has inspired a large number of songs, many of which have been written by his musician friends.  Despite his reputation as a truly gifted actor, River Phoenix had actually wanted to be a full time musician.  He had his own band, Aleka’s Attic, and loved to spend time with bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, who all became close personal friends after he and Flea met when they were both cast in My Own Private Idaho.

It is no wonder then, that the Red Hot Chili Peppers have recorded a number of tributes to River Phoenix, notably the song Transcending from 1995’s One Hot Minute album, which includes lyrics such as “Smartest fucker I’ve ever met” and “I called you a hippie, you said ‘Fuck off’”.

Whilst he was still alive, the Red Hot Chili Peppers dedicated a whole verse of one of their biggest hits, Give It Away, from the album Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991), to the actor.  The verse reads:  “There’s a river, born to be a giver, Keep you warm, won’t let you shiver, His heart is never gonna whither”.

Another artist profoundly affected by the death of his close friend was Michael Stipe of REM, who was so devastated by the loss that he could not write songs for five months afterwards.  After his recovery, REM made the album Monster (1994) which the band dedicated to River Phoenix.  Monster featured the single Bang and Blame, which had backing vocals performed by Rain Phoenix.  Following the death of his friend, Stipe bought the rights to Aleka’s Attic’s recordings from Island Records, which River Phoenix had under contract.

Incidentally, whilst River Phoenix laid dying outside The Viper Room, Johnny Depp, Flea and co were playing a song entitled Michael Stipe.

Rufus Wainwright was another friend of the actor deeply affected by his death.  His debut album Rufus Wainwright (1998), written over a period of several years, included the song Matinee Idol.  Matinee Idol is about the rise and fall of an entertainment figure and was directly inspired by River Phoenix’s death.  Set to a 1920’s cabaret style musical backing, the lyrics of the song tell of River Phoenix laying dead on West Sunset Boulevard as the angels come down for the actor:

“Still so beautiful as the angels

As the angels came down from on high

So sweet and so soft

So charmingly daft

So young was the matinee idol

Lips of crimson slightly open

As the flash and all fame put to rest”.