Monday, December 6, 2010

Grand Funk Railroad -- "I'm Your Captain (Closer To Home)" (1970)

Am I in my cabin dreaming
Or are you really scheming
To take my ship away from me? . . .
I'm your captain, I'm your captain,
though I'm feeling mighty sick.

Part Eight -- "I'm Your Captain" Is a Very Long Song (and Eight Posts on Grand Funk Railroad Songs Was Probably Four or Five Too Many)

(Click here to read Part Seven of this series of posts.)

No doubt you've noticed something different about the last couple of posts.  You probably haven't been to put your finger on it, but you know it's there.

I've experimented with a variety of fonts for "2 or 3 lines," and have decided that 18-point Georgia is the way to go.  Most of my earlier posts were 16-point Georgia.  Given the relatively narrow column width of the blog template I've chosen, a smaller font had some advantages.  But I think the 18-point is so much more readable, especially for my "mature" demographic.

Let me know what you think about 18-point Georgia vs. 16-point Georgia.  Unless you have better things to do.  (And heaven help you if you DON'T have better things to do.)

Back to Grand Funk -- we've finally reached the last song on side two of the Closer to Home album.  Believe me, I'm just as happy about that as you are.

Grand Funk Railroad on tour (1971)

In 1970, incoming Rice University freshman reported for orientation about a week before classes started.

I remember two songs that were on the radio that week:  Free's "All Right Now," and the last track of  Grand Funk's Closer to Home album, "I'm Your Captain (Closer to Home)."  (This song was given different titles on subsequent Grand Funk albums, but this was the title that's printed on the Closer to Home record label.)  

But before I discuss this song, I need to fulfill a promise I made in the first post in this series (I am a man of my word, at least when I remember) and spend a few minutes discussing my favorite soap opera from the late 1960's and early 1970's -- "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing."

I spent a lot of time at my grandmother's house when I was growing up, and she was a soap opera fan.  She watched "As The World Turns" religiously. 

"Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing" -- which I will abbreviate as "LIAMST" -- aired on CBS for five-plus years while I was in high school and college.  I bring it up because we were speaking early of Richard Nixon and Watergate, and I have a vivid memory of watching Senate Watergate hearings and LIAMST on summer days when I wasn't working. 

Senator Sam Ervin chaired the Watergate hearings

The summer of the Watergate hearings, I was working two jobs.  One paid considerably better, but was much more irregular in terms of hours.  Eventually, I had to choose between the two, and chose the better-paying one.

A lot of the shifts I got were at nights or on the weekend when the regular employees didn't want to work, so I spent quite a few weekdays at home in my pajamas, watching soap operas, game shows, and Senator Sam Ervin grilling John Dean et al.

If we've learned anything from this blog, it's that my memory is never to be trusted.  The Watergate hearings began in May 1973, so I was certainly watching them in the summer of 1973 -- the summer before my senior year of college, which was the summer I had the irregular work schedule.  So that part is correct.

But LIAMST went off the air in March 1973.  So I couldn't have been watching it that summer.  I must have watched it in previous summers -- maybe the summers before college.  (It first aired in September 1967, when I was a sophomore in high school.)

Donna Mills
 LIAMST had a tyically convoluted plot line -- Wikipedia offers a detailed season-by-season synopsis.  You had a female character named Laura (originally played by Donna Mills, who went on to fame and fortune as a star of "Knots Landing") who starts out as a novice nun before falling in love and marrying the boyfriend of her sister Iris.  Iris later  becomes pregnant (the father is a married U.S. Senator), is seriously injured in a private plane crash, and gives up the baby to Laura because her injuries will surely kill her within a year. 

But then Iris undergoes experimental laser surgery, is cured, and demands her baby back -- which causes Laura to go insane and kidnap the child.  

Anyway, you get the picture.  (BTW, all that stuff happened in just one season.)

Leslie Charleson
as Iris
I remember two things about LIAMST.  One was the actress who played the sister named Iris -- a Kansas City native named Leslie Charleson (who has been a member of the cast of General Hospital for the last 33 years).  I had a major crush on Iris.

Here's the second aspect of LIAMST I remember, and which really intrigued me for some reason.  Laura's husband (the one she left the convent for -- Iris's former boyfriend) was named Mark.  Iris's Senator husband was named Spence, and Spence's stepmother was named Jean.  

Leslie Charleson
Mark (played by David Birney, who married Meredith Baxter after they co-starred in Bridget Loves Bernie) had an affair with Jean during the 1969 season of LIAMST.  In other words, Mark had an affair with his sister-in-law's (and former lover's) mother-in-law.  I couldn't quite get my mind around this.  

It may have that the man in the relationship was one generation younger than the woman -- we didn't have any Ashton Kutcher-Demi Moore couples back in 1969. 

Demi Moore (the original
cougar) at age 45

Of course, because she was a stepmother, Jean might have been younger than her stepson Spence -- and younger than Mark as well.  (Laura and Iris and Mark and Spence all appeared to be about the same age.)  So there might have been no age difference -- or at least not a significant one.  

I think what got my attention was the quasi-incestuous element.  I realize we're talking about in-laws and a stepmother -- so there are two degrees of separation between Mark and Jean.

But I had rather simple tastes when I was in high school.  These people were much more advanced when it came to love and family.  They were virtually French in their level of sophistication.

Elizabeth Taylor
as Cleopatra
I was reading a review of a new biography of Cleopatra of Egypt recently.  We know the European royal families of the 1800's were the products of a lot of cousin intermarriages -- that's why the son and would-be heir of Russian Emperor Nicholas II and many other royals were hemophiliacs.  

But the Egyptians -- who were obviously not acquainted with the laws of genetics --  did them one better: their rulers usually married their siblings.  For example, Cleopatra (who was born in 69 B.C.) was married to her younger brother Ptolemy XIII when she was 18 and he was 11.  When he was 14, Ptolemy XIII -- no doubt his regent Pothinus did the heavy lifting for him -- attempted to depose Cleopatra and a civil war ensued.  He drowned in the Nile a year or so later.

Cleopatra immediately married her next younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, when she was 22 and he was 13.  After Cleopatra's lover, Julius Caesar, was assassinated in 44 B.C., Cleopatra supposedly poisoned Ptolemy XIV.  

"The Death of Cleopatra"
(1892 painting by Arthur Reginald)

Cleopatra had given birth to a son three years earlier, who was called Caesarion -- she insisted that Caesar was the father.  After Ptolemy XIV's death, she named the three-year-old king of Egypt.  (At least she didn't marry him.) 

So I shouldn't really make fun of LIAMST for having a too-fantastic plot.  Cleopatra's history certainly proves that truth is stranger than soap operas any day of the week.

I was reminded of the Mark-Laura-Iris-Spence-Jean situation and the Ptolemaic dynasty years later when I heard the Oscar and Lorenzo hit from 1947, "I'm My Own Grandpa."  That song tells the story of a man who marries a widow who has a adult daughter -- who eventually marries the man's father -- making the narrator his own grandfather -- sort of.  (The narrator's father is also his son-in-law.)

Both couples then have children.  Oh, my.

Here are the words to "I'm My Own Grandpa":

Now many, many years ago when I was twenty-three
I was married to a widow who was pretty as can be
This widow had a grown-up daughter who had hair of red
My father fell in love with her and soon they too were wed
(And you know what that means, don't you?)

Oh, I'm my own grandpa
I'm my own grandpa
It sounds funny I know,
But it really is so
Oh, I'm my own grandpa

(The plot thickens.)

This made my dad my son-in-law and changed my very life
My daughter was my mother 'cause she was my father's wife
To complicate the matter even though it brought me joy
I soon became the father of a bouncing baby boy
My little baby then became a brother-in-law to Dad
And so became my uncle, though it made me very sad
For if he was my uncle, then that also made him brother
Of the widow's grown-up daughter who was also my stepmother
(Another baby means more complications.)

Father's wife then had a son who kept them on the run
And he became my grandchild, for he was my daughter's son
My wife is now my mother's mother and it makes me blue
Because although she is my wife, she's my grandmother too
Now if my wife is my grandmother, then I'm her grandchild
And every time I think of it, it nearly drives me wild
For now I have become the strangest case I ever saw
As husband of my grandmother, I am my own grandpa 

It's mind-boggling, isn't it?  If you ask me, this song is one of the great creative and intellectual achievements of our century.

A lot of people have tried to explain the song graphically.  Here's one example:

Here's a more elaborate diagram:

Here's yet another diagram.  I think I like this one best of all:

If you're confused, this video (featuring Ray Stevens singing the song -- my parents took my kids to see him in Branson many years ago) will make everything perfectly clear:

If that's still too complicated, maybe the Muppets can straighten you out:


I don't know if you realize this, but they didn't have to stop where they did.  They could have kept on and on until things got really complicated.  (I think the narrator could have eventually become his own great-great-grandfather.)  Thank heavens they stopped when they did.

This is REALLY cool stuff -- don't you agree?  With content like this, it's no wonder that I am hitting new highs in visits and page views almost every day!

"Closer to Home" cover
Let's wrap with a discussion of our featured song -- the 8th and final (yaaaay!) cut on the Closer To Home album. 

"I'm Your Captain" was not at all characteristic of Grand Funk Railroad songs, which were typically much less sophisticated and often quite a bit more bombastic. It is a compound binary song -- really two songs joined into one (like "Hey Jude," "Layla," and "Can't You Hear Me Knocking").

The first half of the song is rather plaintive.  It is ostensibly sung by a ship captain -- seemingly incapacitated by illness -- who is facing a mutiny.

Things go from bad to worse, and by the end of the first segment of the song, the captain is in extremis:

I can feel the hand of a stranger
And it's tightening around my throat.
Heaven help me, heaven help me
Take this stranger from my boat.

I'm not sure how a literal stranger would make it on to a ship that is presumably out of the middle of an ocean.  Maybe the stranger is the grim reaper -- or maybe the captain is too delirious to recognize the crew member who is about to murder him.

Grand Funk's
Mark Farner
In the second half of the song, the captain sings one phrase -- "I'm getting closer to my home" -- over and over again.  Presumably the captain is singing posthumously, or knows he is dying, or is simply hallucinating.  

There are a lot of different interpretations of this song.  Some people think it has to do with drugs -- not a bad theory for just about any song from 1970 that you can't make heads or tails of.  But most people think it has something to do with the Vietnam War -- that the captain who is lost at sea represents the United States, which was lost in Vietnam.

Here's a link to a discussion of the song on Songfacts --  Songfacts is a website with a zillion facts about thousands of songs.  Carl Wiser, a Hartford DJ, created Songfacts in 1997 as a database for other DJs, and took it online in 1999.  Click here for more info about Songfacts.  (Carl has graciously agreed to write about a particularly interesting song for "2 or 3 lines," so look for his post later this month.)

The Songfacts logo

Whenever "I'm Your Captain" came on the radio, I'd always try to count how many times the "I'm getting closer to my home" phrase was repeated before the song finally faded out, but I'd always get distracted and lose track of where I was in the count.  (I did the same thing with "Hey Jude.")

But "2 or 3 lines" is all about getting to the truth -- not to mention spending inordinate amounts of time on things that any normal person would find trivial -- so I've just listened to the song very carefully, taking detailed notes.  Here's what I learned.

The second part of the song begins at about the 4:30 mark.  The singer sings "I'm getting closer to my home" four times.  Then there's an instrumental break that lasts about a minute. 

The singer then sings "I'm getting closer to my home" exactly 24 times -- the song starts fading about 30 seconds before it ends, and fades out entirely just as he finishes repeating the line for the 24th time. 

So 28 times altogether -- 4 times, then a break then 24 times.

Cleveland Symphony
album cover from 1970
By the way, Wikipedia says the orchestral part was played by the world-renowned Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.  I've been unable to verify that, and I doubt that it is true.

Now it's time to bid a fond farewell to Grand Funk Railroad.  You may feel this post was too much of a good thing -- or perhaps you think it was too much period -- but I couldn't close out the more ambitious series of posts in the history of "2 or 3 lines" with a halfhearted effort.

And if reading this post has exhausted you, imagine how I feel after writing it.  My desk is moist with my blood, sweat, and tears.  (Actually, it's probably not blood -- I may have spilled a little red wine.)

Looks like my old college friend David had the last laugh after all.

Here's "I'm Your Captain":

And here's a fabulous short film of Grand Funk performing the song at Shea Stadium in New York City in 1971 -- the band sold out Shea in 72 hours, faster than even the Beatles had.

(Click here to read an interview with lead singer/guitarist Mark Farner about the Shea Stadium concert.)

Here's a link to use if you want to buy this ten-minute-long song from iTunes:

I'm Your Captain - Grand Funk Remasters: Closer to Home

Here's a link to the song on Amazon:

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