Thursday, October 14, 2010

Buoys -- "Timothy" (1971)

Trapped in a mine that had caved in
And everyone knows the only ones left
Was Joe and me and Tim
When they broke through to pull us free
The only ones left to tell the tale
Was Joe . . . and me

In 2004, a thousand linguists were asked which words were the most difficult to translate.  "Serendipity" finished #3 among English words, behind only "plenipotentiary" and "gobbledegook."

I credit serendipity -- defined as "a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something unrelated" -- for my stumbling across this old song at just the right time.  I was working on my "D.O.A." post this past weekend, and found a website devoted to songs about teen deaths.  I saw "Timothy" listed and thought of it for the first time in decades.   

A couple of days later, I woke up to see the trapped Chilean miners emerging from the "Phoenix" rescue capsule.  I'm sure that this came as less of a surprise to most people -- I'm sort of clueless when it comes to the news -- but I had no idea it was about to happen when I stumbled across "Timothy." 

Watching those 33 men emerge after spending 69 days over 2000 feet underground is proof that some stories do have happy endings.  How could any human being not be moved to tears by this remarkable rescue?  But after listening to "Timothy," I had to ask myself -- what if there were originally 34 or 35 miners?

"Timothy" was written by Rupert Holmes, a jack-of-all-trades musician and award-winning playwright.  (His 1985 musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, won 5 Tonys.)  Holmes is best known for his song, "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" -- you know that song, the one that goes "If you like pina coladas, getting caught in the rain," etc.  It is an excruciatingly bad song.

"Timothy" -- a song about cannibalism -- is one of the least likely one-hit wonders ever recorded. A number of radio stations banned it once they figured out what it was about, but it had enough of a following to reach #17 on the Billboard singles chart.

Click here to read a long article about the Buoys and "Timothy."

Here are the rest of the lyrics:

Hungry as hell no food to eat
And Joe said that he would sell his soul
For just a piece of meat
Water enough to drink for two
And Joe said to me, "I'll take a swig
And then there's some for you."

Timothy, Timothy, Joe was looking at you
Timothy, Timothy, God what did we do?

I must have blacked out just around then
'Cause the very next thing that I could see
Was the light of the day again
My stomach was full as it could be
And nobody ever got around
To finding Timothy

Timothy, Timothy, where on earth did you go?
Timothy, Timothy, God why don't I know?

The record company that released the single -- which at first had claimed that Timothy was a mule, not a man -- had the band record alternative versions that could be played on the stations that didn't have the intestinal fortitude to play a song about cannibalism. For example, on one version, "My stomach was as full as it could be" was replaced by "Both of us as fine as we could be."

The happy, bouncy melody and arrangement is completely inappropriate given the subject matter of the song. "D.O.A." took the opposite approach -- it was almost over-the-top creepy, using diminished fifths to simulate an ambulance siren.

"Hannibal the Cannibal"
Cannibalism is perhaps the ultimate taboo for the human race -- I think most people would be more understanding even of incest. There are many literary works involving cannibalism, including Shakespeare's play Titus Andronicus, the Edgar Allan Poe novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, and Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter novels.

But there are plenty of real-life instances of cannibalism, too. Perhaps the most famous historical example of cannibalism was that of the Donner party, a group of California-bound pioneers who were trapped by winter weather in the Sierra Nevada mountains and resorted to cannibalizing their dead to survive.

A more recent incident involving cannibalism was the October 1972 crash in the Andes Mountains of an airplane that was carrying a Uruguayan rugby team from Montevideo to Santiago, Chile for a match. About a dozen of the 45 passengers and crew were killed in the crash, and others died shortly thereafter as a result of injuries, exposure, and an avalanche.

The crash took place at an altitude of 11,800 feet, and the survivors had little food. After they heard on the radio that the search for survivors had been abandoned, they fed on dead passengers whose bodies had been preserved in the snow.

One of the survivors explained:

At high altitude, the body's caloric needs are astronomical . . . We were starving in earnest, with no hope of finding food, but our hunger soon grew so voracious that we searched anyway . . . Again and again we scoured the fuselage in search of crumbs and morsels. We tried to eat strips of leather torn from pieces of luggage, though we knew that the chemicals they'd been treated with would do us more harm than good. We ripped open seat cushions hoping to find straw, but found only inedible upholstery foam . . . Again and again I came to the same conclusion: unless we wanted to eat the clothes we were wearing, there was nothing here but aluminum, plastic, ice, and rock.

After 72 days, two of the 16 survivors started walking westward in hopes of finding help. Twelve days later, they ran into a Chilean cowboy, who rode to the nearest village and summoned help. Piers Paul Read's 1974 book about the ordeal, which was titled Alive, remains a very popular book today.

In law school, we read the old English "Dudley and Stephens" case, which involved four men who were forced to take to a 13-foot lifeboat when the "Mignonette," a 52-foot yacht they were sailing from England to Australia, sank in the South Atlantic in 1884. The men had no fresh water and only two cans of turnips to eat, and eventually one of them used a knife to sever the jugular vein of one of his companions who had consumed seawater and seemed to be dying. The three survivors consumed the flesh of the unfortunate fourth crew member, but were rescued only a few days later.

The "Mignonette" lifeboat
At their trial, the defendants asserted necessity as a defense to the charge of murder, but the judges ruled that was no excuse for their acts. In the words of the court,

To preserve one's life is generally speaking a duty, but it may be the plainest and the highest duty to sacrifice it. War is full of instances in which it is a man's duty not to live, but to die. The duty, in case of shipwreck, of a captain to his crew, of the crew to the passengers . . . these duties impose on men the moral necessity, not of the preservation, but of the sacrifice of their lives for others, from which in no country, least of all, it is to be hoped, in England, will men ever shrink, as indeed, they have not shrunk.

(Easy for the judges to say, of course -- sitting up there all high and mighty in their fine black robes with a nice roast beef dinner to look forward to when they went home to the missus that night.)

The defendants were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, but with a recommendation for mercy. The sentence was reduced to six months' imprisonment.

Here's "Timothy":

Here's an extended remix version with some footage of the band today.

Here's a link to use to order the song from iTunes:

Here's a link to use to order from Amazon:


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