Here’s a curious sort of musical meme, persisting through decades of songwriting (and, now that I think of it, given my overeducated former grad-student-in-English status, centuries of lyric-writing, going back to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.5 “Shall I compare thee to a winter’s day?”): the absurd statement as contraindicator to the writer’s love.
Going way back to 1955, here’s Little Willie John, covering Little Milton’s song “All Around the World” (alternately known simply as “Grits Ain’t Groceries”), suggesting that if he doesn’t love the woman in question, “grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry, and Mona Lisa was a man” (never mind, in this context, the theory that the Mona Lisa was a Da Vinci self-portrait in drag).
Move forward fifteen years, to find the Jackson 5, of all people, in “I’ll Bet You,” indulging in dark, funky, psychedelic soul, to posit that, in contrast to the unlikelihoods put forth in the verses, the woman addressed can place her faith in the narrator’s love.
Was (Not Was), themselves highly influenced by the African-American musical traditions exemplified by the previous tracks, record their own absurdist take on the idea (featuring none other than Ozzy Osbourne) in “Shake Your Head (Let’s Go to Bed),” from their second album Born to Laugh at Tornadoes.
And finally, Elvis Costello, in his long-delayed album of covers Kojak Variety, also primarily of African-American artists, does a version of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “Strange” (with an off-key solo from Marc Ribot), yet another entry in this series, wherein the lover expresses the confused state of his mind as evidence and proof of his besotted, in-love state.
Little Willie John “All Around the World (Grits Ain’t Groceries)” (1955)
The Jackson 5 “I’ll Bet You” (1970)
Was (Not Was) “Shake Your Head (Let’s Go to Bed)” (Born to Laugh at Tornadoes, 1983)
Elvis Costello “Strange” (Kojak Variety, rec’d 1990)