ECSOTW #11: Rome Burns Down and Everybody Fiddles

EC-KOA

 

JORGE FARAH: My entire first year in Buenos Aires was spent in three different hostels. This was a sometimes harrowing, often thrilling experience that I’ve written about before, so I’m not going to go into a lot of detail. The one thing I can definitely say about that time is that I was never bored. Even when I was overwhelmed and annoyed—and trust me, living in a hostel environment surrounded by all kinds of tourists and miscreants, with a revolving-door cast of colorful characters, there was plenty to be annoyed and overwhelmed about– there was at least something going on, there were new people to talk to, there were drinks to share and laughs to be had. And when you’re a teenager living in a brand new city, savoring your first taste of independence, you tend to take advantage of every one of those opportunities. It was a fun time. But every once in a while, something would happen. Sometimes in the quiet of my dorm room once everybody had fallen asleep, and sometimes right in the midst of the revelry, I’d be hit with these paralyzingly intense pangs of melancholy. It wasn’t just homesickness, though that definitely was a part of it—it was more like this enormous, insurmountable sense of aimlessness and despondency. I missed my family and my friends, yes, but I also felt profoundly lost amid the endless cavalcade of new faces and foreign languages and hasty introductions, and all those streets with names I just couldn’t learn.

Sometimes a song sounds a certain way, like it captures a kind of truth or explores a certain emotional space, but it won’t exactly align with what the writer had in mind when they wrote the lyrics. In these cases I tend to favor my own interpretation of the emotional core of the song rather than whatever point the lyrics are trying to convey. I’m not exactly sure what the lyrics to “Deportee” are about. The song seems to paints a vivid picture– or rather, several vivid pictures—of a sullen, lovelorn, inebriated protagonist, stumbling in and out of fancy bars and lofty conversations, losing his wits as well as his money, confessing his troubles to anyone who’ll listen, struggling for some sort of connection and ultimately lamenting either a love lost or a missed opportunity. There’s probably a different narrative than the one I’m projecting onto the song. But to me this song—with its gently descending melody line, its dreamy folk vibes and its references to backless dresses and exotic kinds of liquor– captures that terrible emptiness beautifully, that in-between feeling of being stranded in a foreign land, way in over your head, drinking yourself into gregariousness, unsure of what’s to come in the morning.

There are two songs in EC’s catalogue that feature this set of lyrics. One is actually titled “The Deportees Club” and it is a garish rocker with suitably ugly production, fittingly housed in The Attractions’ worst album Goodbye Cruel World. The other is this stark, guitar-and-vocals home demo, recorded around the same time that Elvis was writing King of America and had all these fantastic ideas for devastatingly sad songs running around his head. This reworked version is one of his quietest, loveliest guitar ballads, and was covered beautifully by Christy Moore (though still bearing the old version’s title). Moore crafted a very well-orchestrated arrangement, effectively transforming the song into a mournful Irish folk ballad, but Elvis’s home recording remains my favorite version.

KEVIN DAVIS: King of America is perhaps the definitive moment for one of EC’s trademark voices: the judgmental onlooker. In these songs, our hero plays the role of a snide introvert who sits in the corner with a pen and pad while rooms full of sleazy buffoons and loose women trip aimlessly around in service of their vices, lampooning them with wordplay and sarcastic nicknames and just about any other rhetorical device he can get his hands on. I love Elvis in this mode — these songs all have such strong senses of time and place to them, and are so easy to put yourself into (even if only as another snarky spectator, heaping derision upon the fools of the world with your thesaurus and your superiority).

“Deportee” is very much in the spirit of these King of America tracks, though EC’s a little harder on himself here than in, say, “Our Little Angel,” counting himself among the stumbling, drunken riffraff rather than a man apart from it. Again, the song has a tremendous sense of setting, established immediately in the opening couplet: “In the Arrividerci Roma Nightclub bar and grill/Standing in the fiberglass ruins, watching time stand still.” Everything that follows in the song exists within the confines of this contained environment, even though the remainder of the song is essentially a journal of the narrator’s drunken musings. Through the stark simplicity of the arrangement we see the tears of a clown, revealed in lucid detail as the singer pours out his sorrow over the life of carousing and debauchery he never had — “the secret life of Frank Sinatra.” Regrets — he’s had a few.

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