Monday, November 17, 2008
Music Review: LIFE AT THE OUTPOST (1979, Skatt Bros.)
Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 4 minutes.
Best line: "Hup.../ Shoot 'em up/ Hup.../ Ride / Hup.../ Shoot 'em up/ Hup Hup Hup/ Riiiide"
Now, Jacques Morali's The Village People are a pretty good band, I'm not going to deny them that, but by 1979, it seemed that they had appropriated mustaches, leather vests, aviator glasses, cowboy hats, male bonding, tight jeans, and whacky occupational costumes for their own homosexual subcultural ends, things that had always been mainstays of the straight male beer-swilling, football-watching, arm-wrestling crowd. And it was all well and good to let the gays lay claim to these things for about two years, but by 1979 it was time for straight men to reclaim them. To re-appropriate them. And it took a bold Canadian band known as the Skatt Brothers to take the first steps to doing so with their cowboy disco classic, LIFE AT THE OUTPOST.
The setup is almost genius in its simplicity. It's just about a bunch of guys hanging out at this cowboy bar, the Outpost. Some of them at least are on shore leave, and they're all just sitting back, playing pool, kicking back a few cold ones, and singing a song trying to entice the local ladies, including the tempestuous spitfire Miss Lilly, who happens to also be the night bartender at the Outpost.
The Skatt Bros. were even able to enlist the services of the young up-and-coming actor, Matthew McConaughey, who delivers one of his best, early, impassioned performances. Not until BOYS ON THE SIDE in 1993 would we see such a nuanced, pitch-perfect McCounaughey.
In order to properly reclaim these masculine traditions, LIFE AT THE OUTPOST was charged with the difficult task of showing what it was NOT. Hence, the inclusion and pivotal role of Miss Lilly in the proceedings. But it also had to remind its audience who it was reclaiming these traditions from, hence the inclusion of what could be interpreted by some as homoerotic imagery. But it's also a story song. It indeed does tell a tale; the tale of the underdogs versus the system, a common theme in 1970's works from SERPICO to ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.
The song begins with a plea from the Skatt Bros. to the local ladies: "Give your love to a cowboy man/ He's gonna love you as hard as he can can/ Give your love to a cowboy man/ He's gonna love you as hard as he can." But then the tale begins, a tale a of a ruthless taskmaster determined to stamp out individualism. It is in light of this cruel Sergeant-at-Arms that we begin to understand the source of the men's fieriness and fervency. "Oh, the Sergeant-at-Arms had masculine charms/ he could keep all the ladies waiting/his black leather boots kick the butts of recruits/ what a way to keep up your rating!"
A Skatt Brother is appalled at the abuses suffered at the hands of the evil Sergeant-at-Arms.
There's definitely an allusion, a parallel being drawn between the Sergeant-at-Arms and the cruel Master-at-Arms John Claggart from the Herman Melville classic, BILLY BUDD. In addition, he threatens the men, because furthermore, his masculine charms could steal away the vaunted Miss Lilly, so he becomes doubly frightening. And what a sadistic, calculating, monstrous man- to charm the ladies and then keep them WAITING, when the Skatt Bros. are here, ready, and willing to charm the ladies and sweep them off their feet forthwith, with no wait whatsoever.
Then we come to the venerable Miss Lilly. "The enlisted men/ they all had a yen/ for the lady they called Miss Lilly/ Struttin' around on the cavalry ground/ Just as hot as a love struck filly."
Miss Lilly, the epitome of class, serves drinks to the libidinous clientele of 'The Outpost.'
The men of 'The Outpost' hoist their drinks, fists, boots, and sneakers in honor of their love for Miss Lilly.
Miss Lilly represents what is good in their world. What they all strive for. What tight jeans, cowboys hats, mustaches, and leather vests have always strived for (except for that brief, dark period from 1977-1979), which is heterosexual bliss.
You almost can't tell, due to a preponderance of graphic overlays, but Miss Lilly has succeeded in snaring and riding a cowboy, complete with miniature saddle.
As if to drive this message home, the men become increasingly unhinged as the song reaches its sweaty conclusion. Choreography is discarded in favor of pure energy, one of the men sings the refrain with an almost impossibly deep voice, and McConaughey begins to truly shine as he makes his final, deranged plea for cowboy love in the face of adversity.
All in all, one of the best social message records of the 70's and a historic one at that.