#18 – “I Should Be Allowed To Think” (1994)

John Henry
L.K.: I have to start this discussion by saying that when other people were teenagers and were probably sneaking looks at pornography or something, I was sneaking my mom’s old college poetry textbook into my bedroom at night and was reading “Howl”.
A.S.: Your mom wouldn’t let you read “Howl”?
L.K.: …Also Edgar Allen Poe, but that’s unrelated to this discussion. Hey, I wasn’t allowed to watch Power Rangers! How was I to know what I would actually be allowed to do. I learned better than to bother asking.
A.S.: You should be allowed to think… Sorry.
L.K.: I feel like my opinion on this song has sort of shifted over the years because I feel like some people take the lyrics a little too seriously, but it’s still a really great song.
A.S.: Second John Linnell masterpiece in E major in a row! But I agree with you on people’s reactions to the lyrics.  As Linnell himself concedes, it’s one of those unreliable narrator songs.  In this case, I’m pretty sure that it’s from the point of view of some sort of overeducated kid who thinks he has a lot of profound opinions on life and a false sense of entitlement or whatever, but at the exact same time, the lyrics are gorgeous, and they’re the sort of thing I’m sure we’ve all felt at one time or another.
L.K.: Yeah, “I should be allowed to glue my poster” contrasted with “I should be allowed to meet the criminal government agent who oppresses me”; it’s very much about the whole “overentitled young ‘artiste'” thing
A.S.: Exemplified of course by the “Howl” quote.
L.K.: Linnell also commented on being made uncomfortable by Andy Richter reciting the lyrics to this song in Gigantic, in that Andy just seemed so earnest about it. I feel like that probably must be concerning as a lyricist, to have something that you’ve written as a tongue-in-cheek thing be taken really seriously by some people. It’s just a risk you have to be willing to take if you’re as devoted to the unreliable narrator concept as TMBG is.
A.S.: It’s difficult too if you’re just so convincing, as Linnell often is.  In the hands of a lesser songwriter, this song could have been a more-than-obvious potshot at, as you said, entitled young artistes.  But that wouldn’t be interesting.  Instead, Linnell almost goes so far as to make the case for this unreliable narrator, especially in the last verse, which, cynicism aside, contains a really lovely set of lyrics.
L.K.: Yeah, lyrics aside, man, musically the chorus to this is just so incredibly great. And then when you hit the “I am not allowed to think” part at the end, the instrumentation just shuts down, as if representing the narrator’s stifled self-expression.
A.S.: Like we said in the “I’ve Got A Match” post, Linnell also utilizes the “Be My Baby” beat, again to great effect. Also, that was great of Ginsberg to let Linnell quote the poem in the song for no cost.
L.K.: Oh yeah, really nice of him.
A.S.: Although at the same time, Ginsberg seemed like a pretty cool dude, at least if The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is to be believed.
L.K.: Are there any other songs that use Ginsberg poems as lyrics? You’re more familiar with modern songwriting than I am.
A.S.: The only one I can think of is that Fugs song, “I Saw the Best Minds of My Generation Rock” (or “Rot” as it’s often misspelled), which I have a feeling Ginsberg was probably involved with in some way, although I have no idea how.
L.K.: TMBG have cannibalized poems by other people for songs a couple of times later on (“Robert Lowell”). I think this is the only time they had to ask for permission though.
A.S.: Interesting that they didn’t ask the estate of Robert Lowell for that one, but we can discuss this when we get to that song.
L.K.: It’s interesting that they did ask Ginsberg for permission since at least in the realm of sampling, they tended to take stuff without permission a lot back in the early-to-middle period of the band’s existence.
A.S.: Interesting point.  Why did they single out Allen Ginsberg and not, say, Gloria Gaynor?
L.K.: Maybe by 1994 they had more money to potentially pay people, so they weren’t afraid to ask.
A.S.: And probably a greater risk of exposure too.
L.K.: The last thing a starving young band wants to do is have to hand over chunks of money to Johnny Cash.
A.S.: Yeah, they’ve gotten pretty lucky that there have never been any serious copyright infringement issues amidst their career, but it’s nice to know that Allen Ginsberg would never issue a lawsuit.
L.K.: You know, I wonder if Linnell’s apprehension over misinterpretation of the lyrics might have played a role in why they haven’t performed this song live since 1994. Maybe he himself felt the lyrics were too over-the-top. The song certainly enjoys a great deal of popularity amongst fans of the band, just… less so amongst the band itself?
A.S.: It seems like it’s a common occurrence.
L.K.: Another reason to hope for a John Henry show at Mohegan Sun next year, man.
A.S.: Oh yes. It feels like the John Henry era was a pretty lousy time for the band, given the backlash to altering the line-up and the change of staff at Elektra. But it seems like the LP is finally getting its due recognition, if the upcoming vinyl release is anything to go by. Hopefully those issues are far enough in the past for the band to realize that some of its best work is on that record.
2 Responses to “#18 – “I Should Be Allowed To Think” (1994)”
  1. Nathan says:

    I guess the “Howl” quote is more direct than the references in other songs. “The Biggest One” doesn’t DIRECTLY quote “I Will Survive,” after all. Still, I can’t say I really know how that kind of thing works.

    • Copyright law is difficult to pin down, and I also don’t claim to be an expert. However, I personally think “The Biggest One” quotes enough of “I Will Survive” to justify a lawsuit (lyrics not in order, nor are they entirely directly quoted, but it’s pretty obvious as to where Flansburgh got them from). Seeing how Chuck Berry’s publishing company successfully sued John Lennon over merely the first line of “Come Together”, I think it’s plausible (although that was 15-odd years prior to “The Biggest One” so who knows).

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