Roger Miller – Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love To Town).
Tragically, there’s only audio of this record on YouTube – I’ve never seen Roger Miller on film or live so I only have photographs of him. I don’t know how he moved or how he sang and that might be for the best because I have a very specific mental image of what I expect and no amount of reality is going to compete with anything like that.
My mental image of Roger Miller comes from one of about six records that my parents owned when I was growing up: Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love To Town) the album by him on Contour Records.
This isn’t the most famous version, I don’t even know if this is remotely popular but I like it a lot more than I like Kenny Rogers’ take on it. Probably because this is the one I grew up with and heard hundreds of times before I was ten.
The other record of my Dad’s that I really liked went under the somewhat clumsy title, “Million Copy Hits Made Famous By Simon And Garfunkel: The Alan Caddy Orchestra and Singers” I could never remember Alan Caddy’s name, so I think of them as the Harry Shit Orchestra And Singers. Neither Simon, Garfunkel, The Alan Caddy Orchestra & Singers were manly men as far as I could gather, even though they had a song about a boxer, which I enjoyed enormously.
Anyway, I digress, I listened to both of those records repeatedly through his enormous headphones, sitting next to the record player behind the telly in the living room and it’s only recently that I’ve enjoyed the original records by Simon & Garfunkel. The Roger Miller record has several cover versions of records strongly associated with other people and I still prefer his versions. Me & Bobby McGee is another one. I can’t be doing with Janis Joplin at all. I don’t mind Kenny Rogers, but not for singing Ruby, which is, again, one hell of a record.
There’s always the possibility of reading something into a song that’s not there, but that’s the great thing about songs like Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love To Town) which give you only a few details and leave the rest up to you, especially if you’re about eight and hero worshipping your dad – who bought the record, so it must be good – and wanting to be a proper manly man like he is and realising that there are probably some important lessons about what it is to be a proper manly man hidden within the grooves of this hardware shop record. And believe you me, I looked. Or, more accurately, I listened.
The song on this album that alerted me to the idea that my old man had bought this record in order to teach me about manliness followed Ruby: The Ballad Of Waterhole #3, which should probably be called The Code Of The West, as that’s what it is: a code for living. Like The Hound in Game Of Thrones said years later , “A man’s got to have a code.” The code of the west is that you eat when you’re hungry, you drink when you’re dry and you look every man in the eye. Which doesn’t sound all that radical to most sentient people but it struck my eight year old self as profound in the extreme and I immediately adopted it. It wasn’t that difficult because I already did all of those things anyway, like most human beings, but now it was a code and I was newly invigorated to drink when I was thirsty and now felt that doing such a thing put me on the road to being some sort of cowboy inspired manly man. Not like Bernie Taupin, no.
But as advice goes, I was looking for more than that because I already knew about the first two items and the third one didn’t seem especially abnormal. So I listened to the rest of it, looking for other instructions on how manly men conduct themselves. I liked a lot of the songs on the album and the songs on it that I particularly liked were the ones that I tried to learn from. From Me & Bobby McGee, I learned not to go hitchhiking, even though singing songs with lorry drivers sounded alright, because Bobby McGee ended up dead and hitchhiking was the last thing he’d gotten involved in, so there’s a lesson, eh? From Little Green Apples, I learned that the way to tell if your girlfriend really loves you is to see if she’ll still do everything for you and your kids while you just fart about all day and do things on purpose to piss her off for years on end. From, My Uncle Used To Love Me (But She Died), I learned that county fairs in America sounded daft and entertaining. From Walking In The Sunshine, I learned, well I don’t know if I learned anything much from that apart from that when it’s sunny, things seem better, even if you’re just imagining it’s sunny because you might as well. I didn’t take that one on board so much. I was Northern and gritty, so getting rained on and feeling melancholically ambivalent about it was part of the deal anyway.
But Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love To Town) was vague enough for me to spend more time trying to work it out hidden depths that I was convinced must be there, if only I was manly enough to find them. Following my moaning about what Bernie Taupin probably thinks of as evocative, inspirational lyrics that are nothing of the sort, we’re back in a lesson in subtly putting a couple of details there and letting the listener fill in the blanks though the situation is quite explicit by the end of the song.
Starting up with a finger picked acoustic guitar that sounds simultaneously like a light bulb going on in your head and someone impatiently tapping their fingers as if to contain their impotent fury, the sweetness of the guitar melody belies the mood of the song, which is generally sadly resigned. Ruby‘s an unusual song in that it seems to me that it’s about not overplaying your hand, even if – no, especially if – you’ve seen your arse about something. While the narrator is pitiful, in the genuine sense of the word, he eventually spills the beans and the undertone of the guitar’s impatient fingernail tapping is made explicit in narrator’s finally expressed solution to his fears, which is to shoot the shit out of something or, actually, somebody, but it’s only as the situation escalates that his admission slips out and even then, it’s only to himself.
The story goes that the writer of this song – Mel Tillis – lived next door to the couple that he wrote Ruby about, the woman was even called Ruby. It wasn’t during the Vietnam war though, it was after World War II. When he played it for his wife she told him it was, “...the most morbid song she’d heard in her life.”
I don’t think it’s morbid, I think, oddly enough, there is a lesson in there and the lesson is, if you’re relying on somebody to look after you because you can’t look after yourself, probably it’s best if you don’t start laying the law down and, even more so, don’t make threats you can’t carry out. I don’t know what the word for that is. Prudent, possibly. How many songs are there about that? And no, Dear Prudence doesn’t count.
“You’ve painted up your lips and rolled and curled your tinted hair. Ruby, are you contemplating going out somewhere?” That’s one hell of a first line, isn’t it? Not just because it sets out the scene of Ruby getting dolled up, but that the narrator was ignorant of her plans because she hasn’t told him. Why not? Well, let’s contemplate how the narrator reacts when he does find out she’s going to town, shall we? She can’t be arsed with his being arsey about it so she just gets on with it and doesn’t give him chance to stew. I don’t blame her. Not only that, but also the passive aggressive, overtly ‘polite’ and loaded question that sounds more like a disapproving parent than a romantic partner. Which is probably a realistic description, given what we later learn about them.
The very next line is a marked change of mood, from passive aggression straight into pity. The statement and question of the first line might have made us sympathise with Ruby initially, but the suggestion that the narrator’s only method of ascertaining when sun is going down is by the movement of the shadows on the wall shifts it abruptly because we realise that he’s stuck inside a house and doesn’t get to see the sun.
The second verse slightly clarifies the question that’s formed in our minds from the first – are you paying attention, Bernie Taupin? – and suggests that we ought to have deeper sympathy for the narrator because “(He) didn’t start that crazy Asian war, but (he) was proud to go and do (his) patriotic chores.” I had to ask my Dad what Asian wars there’d been and he told me about Vietnam. See? Roger Miller and My old man? Like that in the manly man’s club. Yeah. He’s a Vietnam veteran and he can’t move.
Third verse and he’s getting desperate and more explicit now: “It’s hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralysed. And the wants and the needs of a woman your age, Ruby I realise.” Fucking hell. Cards on the table time, eh? He’s tried being passive aggressive, he’s tried pointing out how it’s not like he lost his legs playing silly buggers on railway lines or anything, he did it for the love of his country and, anyway, he didn’t start the stupid war and now it’s shit or bust. He knows he’s crippled and he knows he can’t satisfy her needs so he’s laying a guilt trip on her. And when that doesn’t work, he really goes for it: “But it won’t be long I’ve heard them say until I’m not around.” Meaning, I’ll be dead soon, can’t you wait to go off shagging about until then? Jesus, eh? Talk about laying it on thick. Still, he was probably a manly man before he had his legs mangled in the jungle and now he’s this and she’s still that.
Final verse and she’s gone out. The instrumentation stop and it’s just the drums continuing their mocking skippety beat which sounds like a screen door flapping back and forth in the frame after being slammed shut because, “She’s leaving now cause I just heard the slamming of the door.” It’s a nice touch. Now Ruby’s gone to town though, the narrator doesn’t have to try to keep a lid on his impotent fury and he tells us, pathetically, “And if I could move I’d get my gun and put her in the ground.” But he won’t because he can’t and everybody knows it.
Bearing all that in mind, what did the eight year old Middlerabbit learn from Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love To Town)? Middlerabbit learned, paradoxically, considering the manly man lessons he was looking for – that going to war was a mug’s game. Which is odd in a couple of ways. First, it’s odd because the long term damage of wars on ordinary people’s lives is, really, what it’s about. At heart, it’s an anti-war song, whether the narrator realises it or not. Second, I might not have known too much about what it was that properly manly men did, but one of the things I was pretty sure about them was that they definitely did to go to war. Even though my old man hadn’t, he was interested in wars and all that, so war seemed like a manly thing and yet here was a record, sung by a manly man, owned by another manly man, who was apparently now telling me that there was some sort of downside to being in the army. Frankly, it wasn’t really what I wanted to hear. I was looking for clarity, not cloudiness. I was looking for straightforward answers from straightforwardly manly men and what I’d been given was this. Third, even though I realised that, even though Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love to Town) was ostensibly anti-war, there was also more to it than that – the not overplaying your hand thing. The not making hollow threats thing. The message that war could lead to suffering and misery in the long term was a shock, but the more subtle undertones – and also the idea that maybe he’d be better off accepting that Ruby still wanted to go out now and then and not being passive aggressive or guilt tripping her about it was a good idea. Wallowing in bitterness didn’t sound very appealing either and I gathered that there was a downside to being a manly man too. Something else I’d not contemplated.
Ruby (Don’t Take your Love to Town) was far less embarrassing to admit to liking than Sylvia’s Mother or I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues, but I still didn’t ‘fess up about it in public. Probably because Country & Western’s not the coolest genre of music when you’re 18 in 1989 and, anyway, I’d long given up on being a proper manly man by then because I was too busy being psychedelic and, whatever else Country & Western is, it’s only very rarely psychedelic.
And, having watched the Katie Puckrick programme about Yacht Rock last night, I have learned that Psychedelic Country & Western is about the least Yachty Rocky thing in the world.