Romancing the Bean

The rich brown joe flow has been the grounds for plenty of perky pop

Don't speak to me. Don't even look at me. For sure, don't smile. Not before that first dose of caffeine is more than halfway down my gullet and racing back up to set synapses firing and endorphins pumping, noticeably -- though barely -- improving my demeanor. Good morning? Those terms are mutually exclusive.

Thank God, or Juan Valdez at the least, for coffee. Even the nasty gear-grease that passes for coffee here at the office is swilled with barely a moment's hesitation. I need this jolt so desperately that the recent story of a disgruntled loser draining his bladder in a factory's communal coffeepot is easily ignored.

Seems that more than a few songwriters have had the same destructive love-need romance with the mood-elevating bean-juice. So, with the price of the vice rapidly escalating, we offer these duty-free examples:

"The Java Jive" (The Inkspots, with an honorable mention to the Manhattan Transfer): "I like coffee, I like tea/I like the java jive and it likes me/Coffee and tea/The java and me/A cup, a cup, a cup..." We'll cut the 'Spots some slack: This track was waxed in 1941. But it's definitely not something you want to cue up first thing in the morning. Especially if you're a postal worker.

"Coffee Blues" (Mississippi John Hurt): Willie Dixon talked about a spoonful of diamonds. John Sebastian and others milked the "spoonful" metaphor, either for its sexual or drug connotations (both have been big pluses in the rock and roll game from the beginning). Lord knows what Julie Andrews was singing about with her sugar-medicine mix. (We've always suspected Mary Poppins was just a mescaline-addled hallucination, anyway. Geez, dancing penguins?) But for Mississippi John Hurt, it wasn't junk or jism, but java. Just a spoonful of Maxwell House, he shamelessly plugged at an Oberlin College show in 1965, is as good as two or three cups of any other brand. Grandfatherly vocals rolling atop some fine front-porch guitar picking are as friendly as a steaming, light brown cafe con leche, un poco dulce.

"Coffee House Blues" (Lightnin' Hopkins): Nobody could spin a tale like ol' Lightnin' Sam Hopkins. Especially an autobiographical tale like this one about Mama's reaction when Papa comes home without the coffee she sent him to fetch. "Shut your mouth, baby," Papa replies, "And I'll buy you a coffee house." Probably more than coincidentally, Lightnin's revival in the Sixties blues boom was greatly helped by the coffeehouse crowd.

"Nadine" (Chuck Berry, with an honorable mention to John Hammond): Rock and roll's greatest poet influenced just about everyone who followed with lines such as: "I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back/And started walking toward a coffee-colored Cadillac." Hammond gets props for his jacked-up cover with Little Charlie and the Nightcats.

"Black Coffee" (Tina Turner, with an honorable mention to Humble Pie): Both Tina Turner, the song's author, and the late great Steve Marriott (Pie's lead slice) are given meritorious mention here for caffeinated vocals above and beyond the call of throat polyps. Add a licentious lyric and racy interracial overtones just under the surface, and you've got the aural equivalent of una colada muy fuerte, you bet.

"Good Morning Coffee" (Greg Brown): "I will bring you your good morning coffee with a smile/If not now, well then have a sip or two and maybe in a while." Even the steaming instrumental riffs sound like the bubbling call of a ready percolator as this country's quintessential songwriter pays both melodic and lyrical tribute to liquid speed. But if the morning cup is rousing, morning itself can be arousing, and Brown manages to brew the two sunrise services A as soon as he pours, he crawls back into bed, and I don't mean alone. Wow, it's even an aphrodisiac!

"Nobody Knows Me" (Lyle Lovett): "I like cream in my coffee/And I like to sleep late on Sunday." Two of life's great pleasures from the man who married the third.

"You're So Vain" (Carly Simon): "I had some dreams they were clouds in my coffee." If you see clouds in there, you should probably check the date on the milk container.

"Black Coffee in Bed" (Squeeze): "There's a stain on my notebook where your coffee cup was." For that Chris Difford line alone we would give Jools's old backup group top-bean honors, even if the song didn't possess such an irresistibly perky hook. Add Elvis Costello on background vox, and you have more than a mouthful.

"Cigarettes and Coffee" (Otis Redding): A late, late, late night coffee song, with a languid horn chart that slowly swirls like smoke from the end of a Kool dangling between fingers that clutch a porcelain mug of joe. One listen to the ultra-emotional Otis and you know Mr. Pitiful put back more than his share of each of these substances.

"Big Bess" (Louis Jordan): Big Bess from Key West, Jordan tells us, runs a sort of slop joint there at the end of U.S. 1. Preferred beverage? "Coffee so strong make you hipty-hoo."

"Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe" (Harold Arlen, as sung by Ella Fitzgerald): Hey, it's possible!

 
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