Saturday, July 16, 2022

The way it goes

"Born To Lose" is a perpetual motion machine between defeat and swagger
Had Johnny Thunders not died in New Orleans in 1991 at the too-young age of 38, he would've turned 70 yesterday. Occasioned by that sad realization, I heard the Heartbreakers' immortal "Born To Lose" on a loop in my head all day.

As thrilling as the song is, the opening ten seconds may top everything in it. What sounds like a false start is probably deliberate, Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan evoking unhappiness, ugliness, and sourness all at once—a loser misfit wearing an itchy sweater that doesn't fit. Nolan clears the disenchantment enough to count in Walter Lure (guitar) and Billy Rath (bass), and the song roars into life, item #234,989,000 in rock and roll's Fun Songs about Sad Stuff file. Thunders's desperate vocal, both confessional and self-mocking, is answered by his signature lead lines, only here his guitar evokes demented fun house clowns. "The city is so cold," he complains,
And I'm so sold
That's why I know
Nothing to do
I've nothing to say
Only one thing that I want
It's the only way
Living in a jungle
It ain't so hard
Living in the city
It'll eat out, eat out your heart
That's why our hero is born to lose. Or is it born too loose? The band had it both ways on L.A.M.F.'s initial German release (the first of the album's multiple iterations), printing "loose" on the back cover and "lose" on the label:

Subsequent reissues have occasionally swapped the words' places, but more often than not "lose" appears on both sleeve and label, and some lyrics and fan sites winkingly split the difference as "Born To(o) Lo(o)se." I hear both words whenever I jam the tune, a sonic transparency laid one on top of the other—and that's perfect, it seems to me, the two words so close phonetically and, given the right unhappy context, so near in meaning, too, each evoking a hardscrabble existence on the margins where excess of sex and drugs—or simply the fact of being born into a body whose parts rattle around and threaten to fall apart—conspire only to numb or deaden, and to breed self-contempt and a grim understanding of one's place in the fucked-up cosmos. 

Even if you strip the song of Thunders's unhappy fate, I've always found "Born To Lose" very moving: it's a raucous, righteously-rocking ode to loserdom, an anti-anthem shorn of self-pity (though I acknowledge its seeds of the junkie romance that Thunders often traded in). The song's funny, in a louche, ironic street way, but also really affecting. The last line of the chorus slays me with its earnest major-minor melody lifting ever so slightly (in some mixes aided the third time around by Rath's extended-hand bass line in the previous bar), signaling to my ears both weary acceptance and resolute celebration. I'm born to lose. I'm born too loose. The night's young! I know: it's just a hook, but Thunders's intentions, whatever they were, don't necessarily affect what I and so many will forever hear in that infinite space between song and listener. That chorus is a perpetual motion machine between defeat and swagger. Could've been Thunders's epitaph.

Long curious about the lose/loose dynamic, I've for decades apparently misheard Thunders's answer to the chorus's title phrase: I'd always thought that Thunders sang—bellowed—"I can't hear it!" when, if the vast majority of lyric sites are to be trusted, he's really exhorting his charging band with "I said hit it!" 

Which is, of course, the same thing. Play really loud, we'll wake up tomorrow.

Photo of Thunders by Beth Herzhaft via Beth Herzhaft Photography

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