Monday, April 1, 2013

Zager & Evans’ “Mr. Turnkey”: the awesomest sophomore slump of the '60s

I’ve never really understood the widespread animosity toward Zager & Evans’ “In the Year 2525.” It was a small-label single by a couple of guys from Nebraska that came from out of nowhere to top the charts in 1969. Almost immediately thereafter it became a fixture on those “worst song ever” lists people never tire of publishing. Personally, I appreciate it for being one of the weirdest damn songs ever to hit it big on the Billboard charts. How can you not have at least a little love for a pop song that’s nothing but sci-fi speculation about mankind’s trajectory over the next seven (seven!) millennia?

What I find most interesting about “In the Year 2525,” though, is the way Zager & Evans opted to capitalize on their success. Their follow-up single “Mr. Turnkey,” released later in 1969, is the folksy, first-person confession of a Wichita Falls rapist who commits suicide by crucifying himself in his jail cell. Seriously. That’s not only something they wrote and recorded, it’s a song they thought the American people would want to hear crackling over the airwaves on their transistor radios. It’s as though the duo surveyed the unexpected success of “In the Year 2525” and said, “Well heck, if it’s grim, dystopian, non-commercial dirges they want, they ain’t seen nothing yet!”

It isn’t just the subject matter that makes “Mr. Turnkey” so fascinating. The tune is actually fairly catchy, which only accents the lunacy of the lyrical choices. I’ll give Z&E this much: their rapist comes off legitimately creepy. “I need a woman and I ain’t gettin’ far / I never was the kinda man a woman looked for,” he mopily self-assesses before bemoaning that his victim “led me on” with her “flirtin’ eyes.” Of all the similes one could apply to a comely lass at a bar, Zager & Evans went with “She was lovelier than oil rights.” Yes, oil rights, that eternal standard-bearer of feminine beauty. Perhaps that was intended as some sort of comment on capitalism? Environmentalism? I guess you could make an argument about the whole thing being a metaphor for the rape of the land, but I can’t imagine why you’d bother.

And then there’s the crucifixion sequence. Everybody knows that the awesomeness of a bad lyric is directly proportional to the passion with which it’s delivered. Zager & Evans sing the hell out of “I’ve nailed my left wrist to your wall / I’m a-goin’ home” and “I’m cryin’ / Hangin’ here dyin’.” Sadly, pop audiences inexplicably failed to embrace rape and self-mutilation and Zager and Evans quickly faded into obscurity. (“Mr. Turnkey” did briefly crack the Hot 100 in Australia, which seems appropriate for some reason.)

Through the miracle of YouTube, I’ve been digging into the Zager & Evans catalog. Their other material isn’t quite as bananas as “Mr. Turnkey” or “In the Year 2525,” but there’s still plenty of weirdness to go around. In between standard ‘60s stuff (the bleeding-heart call to action of “Help One Man Today,” the sardonic hippie gobbledygook of “Little Kids” and “I Am”), you get the insanely melodramatic anti-war ballad “Fred,” the ironic, horn-laced hate anthem “Taxi Man”  and the queasily specific love hymn “Less Than Tomorrow.” All of these are of a piece with Zager & Evans’ unique brand of madness.

It’s easy to see why the pair never scored another hit, but it’s inspiring to know that this stuff existed in the first place. Like the best worst art, it’s steeped in sincerity and completely of its time and place. “You ain’t never seen nothin’ like this before,” the rapist assures the titular Mr. Turnkey. I certainly ain’t never heard nothin’ like it before or since, but I’m delighted that I’ve gotten to know “Mr. Turnkey” in all its deranged glory.