Song without Pity!

by Jeff Grimshaw



Have you ever had a song stuck in your head for over a week? And nothing that you do, not even whacking yourself in the skull with a tire iron or shoving your hand in the garbage disposal, will dislodge that song?

Has that song ever been "Town without Pity?"

As you may have surmised, a song has been stuck in my head for nearly three weeks now, and that song is, indeed, "Town without Pity." That’s because Gene Pitney died nearly three weeks ago and some disc jockey felt it would therefore be appropriate to play Gene’s staggering rendition of "Town without Pity" over the public airwaves. I happened to be within earshot of a radio when this took place. I heard about 3 seconds of it before I was able to dive across the room and shut off the radio.

Three seconds of "Town without Pity"—of the intro to "Town without Pity"—and I absolutely can not get it to stop playing in my head.

Is it a great song? A good song? A terrible song? Is it the most spectacular pop tune ever preserved on vinyl? Is it the worst musical atrocity ever committed? I have no idea. All I know for certain is that I can’t get it out of my head. This is not a newspaper column. This is an exorcism.

You know, the way pop songs work, the way HIT pop songs work anyway, is they get stuck in your head. The part that gets stuck is called "the hook" and the hook can be a melody or an ear-catching syncopation or a neat lyric. The Hook can also be an escaped maniac prowling Lover’s Lane with a hook for a hand, but never mind that. What’s the hook for "Town without Pity?" The whole song is one big hook.

For one thing, it doesn’t sound like an actual song so much as it sounds like some bizarre, over-the-top Saturday Night Live parody of an actual song. Musically it’s a close cousin to sleazy burlesque numbers like "Night Train" but the huge brass section pumps so much testosterone into the arrangement it’s something else entirely. It totally transcends ‘sleazy’ and crosses over into ‘clinically insane.’ And of course wailing away on top of this, there’s the late great Gene Pitney. He takes on a brass section roughly the size of Patton’s Third Army and fights it to a draw; he grabs the tune by the throat, slams it into the dresser, frog-marches it into the bathroom, sticks its head in the toilet, slams the lid, and flushes repeatedly. "Had enough??" pants Gene. "Town without Pity" stands up, dripping, spits out 15 or 20 teeth, and says, "Is that all you got, bitch?" But it's not! Gene's got plenty left!! What a singer! What a song! It’s like Ali versus Foreman! Or more properly, Alien Versus Predator, in that no matter which one wins, we lose:

"When you’re yooooooooung and so in love as weeeeee / And bewiiiiildered by the wooooooorld we see / Why do people hurt us so / Only those in love would know / What a town without pity can doooo..."

Adding to the insanity are those lyrics. Although "Town without Pity" is the title song to a movie, the lyrics have absolutely nothing to do with anything that happens in the movie. They’re just these great rhyming near-random near-generic youth-must-be-served non-sequitors, the best that veteran lyricist Ned ("When You Wish Upon a Star") Washington could manage, given the berserk melody:

"Ours is not an easy age / We’re like tigers in a cage / What a town without pity can do / Take these eager lips and hold me fast..."

And this thing has been playing on endless repeat in my head for THREE WEEKS NOW. So far the only way I can make it stop is to march down the street chanting "LEFT... LEFT... Left-a-wife-and-sev-en-teen- child-ren-in-star-ving-con-di-tion-with-noth-ing-but-gin-ger-bread LEFT... LEFT...left-a-wife..." et cetera; but this is something I want in my head even less than I want "Town without Pity."

You know, if it was just a matter of hearing this thing twenty-four hours a day I could probably stand it. Plenty of songs can get lodged in your head. I used to live next door to a crazy lady who only owned one record, "Abba Dabba Honeymoon," which she played all the frigging time. Annoying, yes, but I can handle annoying. The real dilemma with "Town without Pity" is that it doesn’t just get into your brain. It gets into your brain and compels you to do these cheesy modern dance moves. The music has been insidiously coded to contain the complete choreography for this Gene-Kelly-"Slaughter-on-10th-Avenue"-Death ballet, which, while the tune is playing in your head, has to be performed at all costs, preferably while wearing pin striped gangster-type pants. Although a zoot suit will also work. I think it takes place in a smoky basement with a lot of brick on the walls and there’s a lot of floor work, and shoulder action, and every time the horns come in you have to go with that ‘jazz hands’ thing.

Naturally you can’t actually do this dance, because if anybody saw you, you’d be waking up in Bellevue for a long time to come and buttering your toast with your finger because they don’t let you have knives in that ward. And of course by "you" I mean "me."

I just want it to STOP.

That’s why I wrote this. This has not been a newspaper column. This has been an exorcism.

An unsuccessful exorcism.