Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Track of the Week: Mott the Hoople, "The Ballad of Mott the Hoople"

Over the years I've developed a special love for British bands with a sizable following in the home isles that didn't make a splash over here in the states: Suede, The Small Faces, The Move, and now Mott the Hoople. I first got into Mott a few years ago after a record store clerk back in Illinois pushed their All the Young Dudes album on me. In the ensuing years I've picked up more albums on vinyl, and enjoyed rockers like "Roll Away the Stone" and "All the Way from Memphis."  Their killer cover of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane" speaks of the magic they could work with a good riff.

It's one of their ballads, however, that has really sunk its hooks into me. Around the time I started teaching high school after my escape from academia, I dusted off their Mott album, and for the first time really listened to the wistful track "The Ballad of Mott the Hoople (26th March 1972, Zurich)."  It's a heart-wrenching account of what it's like when you've realized that the dream you've chased for so long and for so hard isn't going to come true. The whole premise is rather meta: before taking the stage at yet another show, lead singer Ian Hunter opines in his distinctive rasp about never having quite made it. (The Allmusic site describes the band as "one of the great also-rans in the history of rock & roll.") One of the most cutting lines of the whole song is "rock and roll's a loser's game," and it's really stuck with me. When I hear the song, I tend to substitute "academia" for "rock and roll," and think about my own also-ran status.

Like rock and roll, academia attracts true believers willing to endure poverty and all manner of indignities for the opportunity to be on the stage, whether it be at Madison Square Garden or an Ivy League lecture hall. The sheer numbers mean the odds are slim, and the number of failures is rather steep. For every tenured professor there are ten adjuncts and grad school dropouts; for every Bad Company there is a Mott the Hoople and several other bands too obscure to even get a record deal. And yet Bad Company covered one of Mott's songs ("Ready for Love") without even approaching the quality of the original. There's the rub, of course: many also-rans are a whole helluva lot better than a good number of their more successful peers. I know plenty of academic Mott the Hooples who have a lot more to offer the world than the professorial Bad Companys and Foreigners that I've had the misfortune to meet and even work with. (Like those bands' music they tend to be overblown and devoid of taste, but inexplicably popular.)

The problem with big dreams is that they come with big disappointments. The most cutting line in "The Ballad of Mott the Hoople" for me is "Oh I wish I never wanted then/ What I want now twice as much." I too have felt the regret that I was ever so stupid and silly to chase such a preposterous, impossible dream. Or to let that dream dominate my life and steal my youth. My undergraduate professors warned me, and told me how long the odds were, but I refused to listen.  How dare they presume to tear down my dream?

Our society tends to romanticize the pursuit of dreams and the following of one's bliss, but it's taken me a great deal of time and meditation to overcome my bitterness with the loser's game that I used to play. I've recovered, and I'm happier than I've ever been, but my years of having dreams are over and done. Perhaps that's for the best.

[Note: I wrote a version of this back in the autumn of 2011, and I pretty much feel the same way still.]

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