Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Poison Ivy" (1959)

32. Coasters, "Poison Ivy" (Sept. 7, 1959, #7)

Perhaps the most comical line in all of Wikipedia occurs in regard to this song, delivered so dryly: "In a recently published biography about Jerry Lieber & Mike Stoller, the song's authors, it was revealed that the song's lyrics are about sexually-transmitted disease, not the illnesses previously thought [measles, mumps, chickenpox, common cold, whooping cough]." Well, all right then, good to have that settled. And now that we're all done laughing I should probably mention that I didn't exactly realize that myself back when I first listened for it on oldies weekends. No, what I liked were the insistent rhythms, the infectious melody, the weird way it twists the words around, plays with the themes of disease and flora, making them hooks all in themselves: "Measles make you bumpy / And mumps'll make you lumpy / And chicken pox'll make you jump and twitch" and especially the flat declaration, "You're gonna need an ocean of calamine lotion." Later on, as an adult, I figured it out, but on those early encounters when I fell into its orbit so naturally, it was just bewildering and transfixing what they could be going on about. This was the first hit by the slick novelty specialist Coasters that arguably wasn't a novelty, though you could certainly make the case that it is. But it's sly as opposed to the broad strokes of "Charlie Brown" or "Yakety Yak" or "Along Came Jones." Not that there's anything wrong with any of those—the Coasters are actually one of my favorite acts of the '50s and perhaps my favorite vocal-oriented group of all. But there's something uniquely special about this one, I think. Listen to it a few times and see if it doesn't get under your skin.

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