Ball of Wax 39 Songs: The Foghorns – If You Can’t Get Lucky Please Get Up

I’ve typed more words about the Foghorns on this here Blog of Wax than any other band, and this post will certainly add to the digital pile. Their contribution to Ball of Wax 39 is called “If You Can’t Get Lucky Please Get Up,” a nearly eight minute song unlike any other I’ve heard in the almost decade Levi’s been sailing this proverbial ship. The premise, tone, and content of “If You Can’t Get Lucky Please Get Up” are bound to get people worked up. The song tracks a protagonist, presumably a young Bart Cameron, through a pair of frightening encounters with urban predators in pre-Bloombergian New York City. And the song makes very clear that the protagonist is white and both predators are males of color. There’s a lyric in the first third of the song that goes “He says ‘white bitch / gimme that watch'” and “‘if you make me ask you again / you ain’t never getting up.'” Hoo-boy, let’s get into this.

Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil from 1979 to early 1983 is masterful, albeit reactionary phantasmagoria at times

At first glance, “If You Can’t Get Lucky Please Get Up” is a song about fear. The protagonist fears for his safety and, eventually, his life during both dire episodes. The narrative tracks like a horror movie or suspense thriller, heightening the dread as each encounter becomes more real and more dangerous. As a white boy in these parts of town, the protagonist fears both predators. This, of course, is a common construct, more prevalent in the decades before this song is set than today. There has been a well-worn, inescapable urban decay narrative that, in years past, helped drive white flight, elect Ronald Reagan president and make upstanding white-guy revenge porn movies like the Dirty Harry and Death Wish series cinematic and home video rental mainstays. The notion that New York in the ’70’s through the mid-’80s was a brutal, decaying death trap is well worn across art and media, spawning work as varied as Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Walter Hill’s the Warriors, and even Frank Miller’s amazing, in-no-way-appropriate-for-kids-under-12 run on Daredevil.  All of this work is powered by fear, particularly fear grown in the hearts of maturing baby boomers and their parents, of the urban landscape, its lawlessness and its nightmarish denizens. “If You Can’t Get Lucky Please Get Up” channels that narrative, even if it’s set during a time when Rudy Giuliani was busy Disney-fying Times Square and lower Manhattan had long since been upcycled by wealthy cultural oligarchs. A light gender theory reading of the song also turns up plenty of homophobia (“white bitch,” the threat of rape in the second episode), but in my opinion this songs is less about fear than it is about power.

Come for the Foghorns, stay for the Foucault

This is where Bart and the Foghorns go all post-structuralist on us. Foucault explains in The Subject and Power that “something called Power, with or without a capital letter, which is assumed to exist universally in a concentrated or diffused form, does not exist. Power exists only when it is put into action.” Furthermore, according to Foucault, “a power relationship can only be articulated on the basis of two elements which are each indispensable if it is really to be a power relationship: that ‘the other’ (the one over whom power is exercised) be thoroughly recognized and maintained to the very end as a person who acts; and that, faced with a relationship of power, a whole field of responses, reactions, results, and possible inventions may open up.” And so the emotional truth of the song relies on the the slippery context of power. On subway platforms in Harlem and Burnside at night in the late ’90s, it’s not an educated young white man from Wisconsin who’s in the position with power; he’s “the other” here, and the ones in a position of power are, in most cases, those who have been largely marginalized and made powerless in society. That’s how overdetermination rolls.

Bart/the protagonist, of course, knows this – he’s an idealistic young Wisconsinite living in New York to “teach in the Bronx / where I’m unqualified.” But all the John Edgar Wideman seminars in the world can’t help him in situations like these, nor can his otherwise potent white privilege. Of course, the situation depicted is inflammatory and, in other hands, could be a ripe example of Willie Horton-eque race-baiting (I’m from Philadelphia, the city of Frank Rizzo, MOVE, Grays Ferry and Mumia Abu-Jamal – I know race-baiting when I see it), but this specific situation isn’t a right-wing fantasy. It’s awkward to rally behind, especially in the wake of what went down so publicly last year in Ferguson and Cleveland, but it’s a reality in a lot of places and Bart has the writing chops to pull it off.

The song shifts from terrifying narration to vague summation in the third act, which goes:

Well I love Lou Reed and I love Bo Diddley
But the shit they sing, it don’t happen to me
And there ain’t no moral
Or sometimes dignity
You can do what I did
But you better get lucky
And if you can’t get lucky, please
And if you can’t get lucky, please
And if you can’t get lucky, please
Get up

I’m not sure exactly what Bart’s saying here, but it seems powerful and desperate at the same time. Does the “I Love Lou Reed” line suggest that Bart’s confrontation is more menacing than the one in “Waiting for the Man” that goes “hey white boy / what you doin’ uptown? / hey white boy / you chasin’ our women around?,” making real life deadlier and thus less romantic than fantasizing about urban grime from the snowy safety of Wisconsin? What is it exactly that the protagonist did to presumably escape both situations and how did it require luck? And what’s meant by “get up”? Is it intentionally vague to hammer home the idea that there’s no silver bullet in these situations or am I missing something obvious? Unpacking a song like “If You Can’t Get Lucky Please Get Up” requires more than one (albeit long) review can handle, so I invite other Seattle music writers to have a go at it.

If you’re still reading this and not curled up in puddle of flop sweat, make it a point to come out to Conor Byrne on Saturday night for the Ball of Wax 39 release show and see the mighty Foghorns play this song live.

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