KEVIN DAVIS: I was seventeen years old in the fall of 2000, so over the next eight years I grew pretty accustomed to songs by liberal-minded rock musicians devoted to the defamation of George W. Bush’s character (professional musicians are actually contractually obligated to compose songs like this anytime there’s a Republican president in office), but from memory I can’t think of any songs that specifically wished him dead (quick Google search for journalistic integrity – apparently Eminem made one). But replace Bush with Margaret Thatcher and off the top of my head – despite the fact that I know virtually nil about British politics – I can think of three: Morrissey’s “Margaret on the Guillotine,” Pink Floyd’s “The Fletcher Memorial Home” (which fantasizes about applying “the final solution” to her), and Costello’s own “Tramp the Dirt Down,” from 1989’s Spike (best known to the general public for producing Elvis’s highest-charting single to date, “Veronica”). The song essentially brings a litany of charges against Thatcher prior to appropriating Bob Dylan’s famous parting sentiment from “Masters of War”: “I’ll stand o’er your grave till I’m sure that you’re dead.” Costello repeats this nigh-on verbatim, only minus the broad scope of address (Dylan’s song was aimed at all unjust warmongers; Costello’s thoughts were specifically closer to home). “Tramp the Dirt Down” reached number 79 on iTunes when Thatcher died in 2013; apparently the song’s lyrics were vicariously cathartic for more than a few Thatcher detractors who identified with Costello’s symbolic act of grave-stomping.
As something of a nonpartisan rube who most of the time doesn’t even really understand his own country’s politics, I don’t feel remotely qualified to assess Costello’s lyrics as social commentary, but I still think the words to this song pack a wallop, because in conjunction with the music I feel they illustrate a larger, more universal truth about the emotions which drive political dissent, one which eludes so much other topical music. Musically, “Tramp the Dirt Down” is a lovely, pastoral-sounding ballad comprised of eclectic Celtic instrumentation running the gamut from an arpeggiated bouzouki to a wistful Uilleann pipe to an assortment of other oddities (producer Mitchell Froom plays something called an Indian harmonium, while Marc Ribot – who I didn’t even realize played on Spike – is credited simply with having contributed “distant sound”). It’s not an angry song, despite the venomous lyrics; it’s downright sad, though not gloomy-sad, or sad in the country-and-western tradition. Instead, it’s a song about a sadness of the deepest kind, the sum-total sorrow of a corrupt world where millions suffer their own individual horrors at the hands of a greedy few – and indeed, the song’s final build (beginning at about 2:44) is the musical equivalent of the welling up of tears, of a lump forming in the throat, as Costello grows more and more indignant in sympathy with those to whom the song attempts to give voice: “And now the cynical ones say that it all ends the same in the long run/Try telling that to the father who just squeezed the life from his only son.” It’s the kind of bottomless, wide-open sadness that only Uilleann pipes can convey.
So much protest music comes off as smug and self-righteous – despite its ultimate truth, it’s often difficult to shake the feeling that the driving force isn’t the singer’s sympathy with the offended but rather his or her superiority over the offender. That in mind, I’ve always felt that EC managed something deeply artful with “Tramp the Dirt Down” – to dually convey both seething bitterness and deep compassion, while still managing to give the illusion (despite the song ultimately hinging upon a first person promise to desecrate the subject’s burial site) that the grievances in the song aren’t his own. In the middle of the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink junkshop that is Spike, it’s a moment of deeply focused sincerity, and a foreshadowing of the political themes that would dominate Spike’s follow-up, Mighty Like a Rose.
JORGE FARAH: When Margaret Thatcher passed away in 2013, people all over Argentina were downright jubilant. There were impromptu celebrations in the streets of Buenos Aires, and my Facebook feed changed abruptly from adorable pet photos and Buzzfeed animated gif compilations to unusually-long status updates expressing the deepest glee over the death of this woman; footage was shown on the evening news of groups of families congregating around city circles, joyful tears streaming down their faces, talking about how much they’ve longed for this day. As an expat who has had a relatively easy adjustment experience, it’s times like these when I am reminded most vividly of my own foreigness, as I tried to make sense of the national reaction to a person’s death. The scars of the 1982 Falklands War run deep among the Argentine population, to the point where children are still taught in school that the islands are property of Argentina, and the British are widely derided as piratas. “¡Las Malvinas son Argentinas!” is a chant that can be heard at just about any political rally, even ones that have nothing to do with maritime borders. The conflict is perceived as a great national failure, but not one to learn and grow from; rather, the public sentiment is that this is a wrong to be righted. Tensions around the sovereignty dispute were still bubbling up until the end of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s second presidential term.
When Thatcher passed away, I had already been living in Argentina for the better part of a decade, and had all the relevant information to understand the deeper significance of the conflict. But I was still taken aback by the public reaction to her death, and had to wrestle with my own conflicting feelings about it. On one hand, seeing the outpouring of emotion from people I’d grown to know and love as family was genuinely moving and almost contagious; I wanted to join them in celebrating some kind of overdue victory (in fact, looking at my own Internet history, I actually came to utter the words “I’m glad she’s dead” on a public message board, and post this very song all over social media) . On the other hand, I had to grapple with the underlying ugliness of celebrating the death of a human being—a human being who, by that point, had long been stripped of any power that made her any kind of threat to Argentina, Britain, or the world in general. This wasn’t a sitting dictator who’d been dethroned. This was someone who’d lived past the point of relevancy and head-first into the indignities of old age. Why were people out on the streets celebrating the death of a senile old lady over a terrible war that happened over 20 years ago? All these mixed emotions were dredged up recently when I was confronted with the public reaction to Antonin Scalia’s death. We’ve come to understand now that the world isn’t black and white, and that the “good guy” and “bad guy” designations are the stuff of comic book movies and fantastical thinking. Celebrating the death of a human being—somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s partner and confidante—is still profoundly disquieting to me, however egregious their offenses may have been.
This is why I found some comfort in the fact that Elvis introduced this song in Glastonbury 2013 with a story about how he lost his father to dementia, and how it’s a horrible way to go; one he wouldn’t wish to his worth enemy. And he reframed the song as celebrating not the death of a person, but rather wishing for the death of a political idea that is still alive and prevalent and destroying lives every day. This shift in perspective gave new light to a song that I always had a hard time enjoying—musically it’s a bit too solemn, too bitter, too dour a funeral dirge for me to really appreciate. Thatcher’s death gave this song a poignancy that was absent for me, and shone a light on its virtues: the exquisite and well-orchestrated arrangement, the twisting melody, Elvis’s impassioned performance. As far as mandolin-led Celtic laments from Spike, I still prefer the other one– “Any King’s Shilling”, which I hope Kevin and I get the chance to write about here— but “Tramp the Dirt Down” is still a uniquely powerful song in Elvis’s catalogue.