“’Put Your Big Toe In the Milk of Human Kindness’ is a demo of a song originally written for a Disney movie. Mercifully, the Mouse declined the tune, and I was able to cut it a few years later with Rob Wasserman and Marc Ribot for Rob’s album Trios. It now sounds to me as if I was attempting to write something like the Cahn/Van Heusen song ‘High Hopes.’”-Elvis Costello, from the liner notes to the Spike reissue, 2001
KEVIN DAVIS: Prior to his passing last week at the age of 64, Rob Wasserman was one of those guys whose name I would see pop up in album credits from time to time to whom I otherwise never gave a second thought. He appears on a few underdog albums by some of my favorite artists – Van Morrison’s Beautiful Vision, various live records with former Grateful Dead personnel, even a cameo on the famously derided Lou Reed/Metallica collab, Lulu. But session bassists aren’t high on the list of guys whose careers I find myself latching onto, so when my music geek friends inundated my Facebook feed last week with YouTube videos and sentimental remembrances, I found myself impressed – as so often happens with professional collaborators who lurk quietly on the peripheries of bigger-name careers – by the breadth and caliber of artists Wasserman accompanied. As I can tell, Wasserman played on three separate Elvis tracks: “After the Fall” and “Broken” (both from Mighty Like a Rose), and “Put Your Big Toe in the Milk of Human Kindness.”
I imagine this last song is the most immediate connection most Costello fans draw to Wasserman, it probably being the most significant of the few collaborations between the two men, with Wasserman’s record serving as a vessel for the song’s release as well as an excuse for an unplugged session (along with guitar wizard Marc Ribot) that seems to vaguely foreshadow Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. I have no idea which Disney film this may have been written for (the song dates back to 1986 or so, and according to Wikipedia the Disney films released around that time were The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver and Company), or if it was even written with any specific film in mind, but I find myself amused at the thought of it appearing in any of them, simply because I can’t imagine what would compel a character in an animated film to sing this lyric. The prevailing impression of the song is, I suppose, somewhat Lewis Carroll-esque: endearing gibberish, reaping the occasional nugget of wisdom. But it’s still difficult to imagine Disney finding EC’s references to the Virgin Mary and his off-the-cuff philosophizing about the nature of belief particularly integral to any of its storylines. The song captures the playful spirit of “High Hopes,” as Costello rightly acknowledges in his reflection, but it lacks that song’s effortless sense of narrative; for as playful as it is, it’s ultimately probably too abstract to serve its intended purpose.
All that aside, this is a masterfully composed song, laying down a litany of sophisticated musical ideas in a very short time, within the confines of an extremely economical song structure. The song opens with a sort of arrhythmic passage that recalls some of the “musical monologues” that Sinatra would use to lead in to some of his greatest performances, from “Can’t We Be Friends?” and “I Can’t Get Started” to “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “Luck Be a Lady” – this is a long lost compositional device that builds an element of anticipation as the listener awaits the introduction of the rhythm, weirdly causing the song to commence with a sense that you’ve already been fulfilled by it. Costello moves swiftly from one chord to the next, incorporating many clever but sensible changes from transitional sevenths which emphasize harmonic suspense (the first syllable of the word “starry”) to irrational minor fourths which allow the melody to integrate rogue blue notes (the first syllable of the word “simply”), all culminating in the childlike, nursery-rhyme melody that makes up the chorus section (“but always so capricious…”). Both Wasserman and Ribot treat themselves to tasteful but accomplished leads throughout, and Costello negotiates the peaks and valleys of the vocal melody with admirable precision. So while I don’t know Wasserman well, I have to be grateful to him for giving a final version of this track a place to call home. The demo on the Spike disc just doesn’t hack it.
JORGE FARAH: See, for the longest time, the demo version on the Spike disc was the only version of this song that I was aware of, and I didn’t really give it much of a chance (it took me forever to wade through the bonus disc content of Mighty Like a Rose, where the much-superior Ribot-and-Wasserman recording was waiting for me with arms outstretched). The demo felt like a vaguely-charming yet ultimately failed experiment; an early attempt at the kind of vaudeville tune he’d later master on National Ransom, but not a whole lot more than that. The fact that the version featuring Wasserman is such a monumental improvement speaks to how a great performance can elevate a song, bringing out all the charms that were hidden away in the awkward tentativeness of the demo version. Unlike, say, the difference between the “It’s Time” demo and its final released form, Wasserman/Ribot’s take on “Put Your Big Toe…” is not some radical reimagining of the tune; in fact, the song remains more-or-less intact from a compositional standpoint, but everything about it just clicks and pops somehow. I guess it should be no surprise to learn that a song is improved by the involvement of two world-class musicians such as Rob Wasserman and the great Marc Ribot, two extremely skilled players who are also highly versatile, playing it mostly straight for this performance. Both solos are playful and fun, yet fill in around the corners of the song’s main melody in a hugely satisfying way.
And so now that I’ve seen the song’s virtues so much more clearly, I look back on the demo version a lot more favorably. Despite the fact that I find the song’s title and main lyric to be extremely off-putting (seriously, how gross is the phrase “the milk of human kindness”? And putting your foot into it?), this is now one of my favorite Elvis deep-cuts. Like KD said, it really is a very well-composed song, a sort of showtune that is equal parts Cole Porter and the Sherman Brothers (speaking of, I love the fact that this is a rejected Disney tune; it makes me wish that Elvis did an entire album based on the imagined soliloquies of non-existent cartoon characters. Think of the possibilities!). Aside from what Kevin said about the “musical monologue” at the start, I also enjoy the unwinding, off-tempo opening verse as a structural device. It’s something that Elvis is quite fond of. For live performances of National Ransom’s equally showtuney “A Voice in the Dark”—a song that jumps right into the action, without the opening monologue– Elvis has actually borrowed the first verse of a different song, Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke’s “Pennies From Heaven”, a song that “A Voice in the Dark” actually has a lot in common with thematically and melodically. As a devoted student of 20th century pop music, you get the feeling EC wishes these long-lost tropes were more prevalent these days, and with songs like “Put Your Big Toe in the Milk of Human Kindness” he’s doing his best to make that happen.