Last week, ChicagoNow had its monthly writing challenge, "Blogapalooza," with the topic "Pick a song that has special meaning to you and explain why." I’m rarely able to participate, either being not home or asleep during the appointed hour for posting. But when I read Mary Tyler Mom’s Bad, Bad Leroy Brown: The Funeral Recessional That Never Was, I had to smile. That would have been my song as well. It brings back happy memories and fills me with nostalgia for a simpler era.
My kids adored the song, originally written and performed by Jim Croce in 1973. How did they grow up singing and dancing to it? Well, their father loved to play folk rock on his guitar and this song was one of his greatest hits, meaning it was part of his limited repertoire. As soon as he played the first chords, they joined in singing at the top of their lungs. But what on earth could the words have meant to them?
A man named Leroy Brown from the South side of Chicago, the baddest part of town who was called "Treetop Lover" by the downtown ladies.
I guess they liked the fact that Leroy was from Chicago, although they had no idea where the south side was. Hopefully, they had no idea what a Treetop Lover was (I’m not sure I do either), but it sounded funny.
The song goes on to tell us Leroy was a gambler who wore fancy clothes and diamond rings. He drove fancy cars, carried a gun, and kept a razor in his shoe.
Good grief. I sang these words with them? Here’s a no-good, gun-toting gambler with a razor in his shoe, and we are laughing and jumping around the room with Croce blasting on the stereo, accompanied by their father’s guitar work. But wait, it gets worse.
Leroy was shootin' dice when he cast his eyes on Doris, the wife of a jealous man. A fight broke out, leaving Leroy looking like a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone.
So now our hero Leroy hits on another man’s wife and ended up looking... I’m not even sure to this day…full of holes from gunshots? Beaten? Whatever happened to him, it was not a G-rated narrative for my young kids.
But who can sit still when the chorus blasts out about “Bad, bad Leroy Brown, the baddest man in the whole damned town. Badder than old King Kong and meaner than a junkyard dog.” Was it the badness that the kids loved? The catchy tune? The beat that made it so easy to dance to and so had to sit still?
When my older daughter got married, she made sure the song was played and everyone ran to the dance floor. Now her daughter sings it, except she thinks it’s about “the baddest man in the whole downtown.” I guess that makes as much sense as any of the lyrics.
Looking back, it was never about the message. It was about the sheer joy of dancing wildly to a song about the “baddest man.” There’s something very wistful about the years we danced to that song. It was an age of relative innocence musically. I cherish my memories of a time when saying “damned” was about as bad as one could get.