Friday, November 30, 2018

Take another look: The Magic Plants' "I'm a Nothing" (1965)

You better take another look, girls
I've been jamming lately to "I'm a Nothing," by New York City's The Magic Plants, a 1965 stomper which I discovered years ago on the I'm a No Count compilation in the inestimable Teenage Shutdown! series. Who says that a garage rock and roll song can't be smart, or needs more than three chords to sustain an argument? The singer, snotty in the best garage style, pitches his vitriol at the gullible girls mooning for the Rock Stars manufactured by fan magazines, pretty in make-up and long hair, out of reach on the movie screen and in limousines. Yet the man underneath the trappings of pop fame is a disgrace, a nothing. Sung in venomous first-person, the song wages war against the formulaic pop star and the fans who send blind adulation his way.

"I'm a Nothing" was a regional one-and-done for the Plants, two members of which went to form the far more remunerative Left Banke. After a bit of research—kickstarted by this post at the great Garage Hangover—I discovered that I"m a Nothing"'s songwriter, Mike Wexler, is still around and, to my utter amazement, lives in my town. I asked him about the song. "What was I thinking about 54 years ago?" Wexler says. "The way-back machine suggests a starry-eyed kid hitting the great white way in search of fame and fortune and finding a den of thieves, con artists, and hopelessly sad groupies." He adds, "At least the groupies were honest." In all-too-familiar fashion, the producers at World United added their names to Wexler's writing on the flip side of the record, "on the chance we actually made some money, assuring me it was all part of the business. As far as I know, no promise went unfulfilled. No lie proved too demeaning. Verve pressed a few copies, how many is unknown, but there was no push."


Here are the uncompromising lyrics:
I'm the one that you see on the movie show
The type that you hear on the radio
The one that makes you really scream
The one that you always see in your dreams
You write your name all over my car
Just because I'm a long-haired star
But I'm a nothing 
Take away my crazy long hair
Take that silly makeup off my face
You better take another look, girl
I'm a disgrace
I'm a nothing 
I ride around in your limousine
Sign my name in your fan magazine
You think that there's something that I'm tying to prove
But baby that's not part of my groove
Once was true, now it's a drag
Baby, that's just not my bag 
Take off the silly makeup
Take away my crazy long hair
Baby, take just one more look
Now you don't care about a nothing 
If you'd ever take a good look at me
Baby, you'd cry at the things you'd see
A normal average unconcerned guy
So get them stupid stars out of your eyes 
You carried this game now way too far
I don't like to be a sex symbol star
"I'm a Nothing" seethes with righteous garage nerve, but the sneer and decibels belie the song's origins. "The truth is, at that time, I was actually a folk singer working the Village, a la Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, etc.," Wexler says. "I have a truck load of good songs never heard by anyone. 'I'm A Nothing' was a part of my act and delivered entirely as parody, including the vocal inflections, a satire on the prevailing culture of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Peter [Schekeryk, Wexler's manager] heard it one night and thought it would pass easy as genuine." Wexler adds that there were no "magic plants"—band members so-named, that is—"just me and Tom Finn doing a little backup singing. We used to stand on street corners and harmonize Beatles tunes." Schekeryk did manage to arrange an audition for Wexler at Elektra Records for Paul Rothchild, who'd heard Wexler perform at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, "but then the label started making changes, emphasis to Blues and groups like the Doors." When Wexler later inquired, the tapes were, apparently, "quote-unquote lost."

Parody or satire, turn it up, this is the real thing:

The Magic Plants, "I'm a Nothing," single (1965)
Words and music by Michael Wexler


John Domini said...

Fascinating, Joe -- & more than a little heartbreaking, for Mike Wexler. If he does have those songs still in some form, & if he has the heart to re-record, our 21st-C. interwebs do allow for him to get them out. Anyway, many thanks to him & to you.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks for reading, John!

Dawn Eden Goldstein said...

I loved reading this. Had no idea of the story behind the record. Thanks, John! R.I.P. Tom Finn.