From The Desk Of Over The Rhine: One Great Song

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since Over The Rhine issued its debut album. The Ohio-based husband-and-wife duo of multi-instrumentalists/vocalists Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have marked the anniversary with new album The Long Surrender, which was produced by Joe Henry at his Garfield House home studio and features an assortment of musicians handpicked for the project by Henry, including Lucinda Williams. Though Detweiler and Bergquist had never worked with Henry or his assembled backing band before, The Long Surrender was finished in less than a week. The fan-funded, 13-track album was just released via OTR’s Great Speckled Dog Records, which the duo named after Elroy, their much-loved Great Dane who passed away last year. Detweiler and Bergquist will also be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our brand new Q&A with Detweiler.

Karin: Once while on tour with the band HEM, we were hanging out in the dressing room before the show, like you do—might have been the Birchmere—and we were shootin’ the shit about songs. Great songs. Which were among the greatest ever written? And which had had the biggest impact on each of us as songwriters? Thinking I was about to sound off alone, citing a reasonably (and unfairly) obscure song that I first heard in the early ’90s, I was pleasantly surprised to be joined in remarkable unison by HEM’s Dan Messe as I/we both blurted out with confidence and emotional conviction: “Panic Beach”

I could name songwriters who have been bigger influences on me than Maria McKee. Some more obscure and some less. I’d have to begin with Lucinda Williams and Tom Waits, for instance. I have imbibed more of their body of work than most others, and they have (unknowingly) held my hand through much of my development as a songwriter. But I found Maria before I found Lucinda and Tom, and Maria reminded me of something that I had known since I was very young: I needed to sing, because it felt good in my body. Maria McKee was huge for me.

And there’s still enough—what? urgency, magic, wisdom, mojo?—in this one amazing song by Ms. McKee to even now sustain a very memorable conversation between two hopeful songwriters still in the hunt for something good. Enough lyrical prowess and content, layers and enough meaning to nudge the song all the way to the top of two very personal and otherwise fairly unique playlists. I haven’t had the opportunity to speak with Dan in a couple of years, and I wonder if this song would still be his top pick or even in his top five. It is still very much in mine.

I found the lyrics to “Panic Beach” online; it’s from Maria McKee’s self-titled first solo album, produced by Mitchell Froom, released in 1989 on Geffen Records.

Video and lyrics after the jump.

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“Well the dog act got drunk again last night
The king and queen of the waltz clog team had another fight
The king was careless with his tango grip, nearly lost his queen in a dip
Yeah she righted herself, straightened out her slip and kicked him in the shin
Miss Billy Begonia thinks she’s hit the “big time”
She wants a thick red rug from the dressing room door to the frontline of the footlights
She’s got a sky blue swansdown powder puff and a corset to keep her spirits up
Yeah, she don’t sweat, she sours and melts like ice cream in the sun
She’ll be out of a job at the end of this three week run
We’re having fun out here on Panic Beach
All the vaudeville bums are here out on Panic Beach
I hear them talk about the Palace but it’s so far out of reach
So I’ll do my time then say goodbye to Panic Beach
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
The visionary theatric strikes a juggler’s seesaw tune
And the dying swan pirouettes and fawns by the light of the street lamp moon
When my trunk is filled with taffeta those “big time” hacks won’t laugh at us
When my taps are made of silver I can make the kiddies thrill for just one buck and wing
Yeah, I will nail them to my heel and the Panic Choir sings
Here comes a lucky little thing to Panic Beach
Yeah you know we got to teach him how to sing while we’re stuck on Panic Beach
Ah the way ya hear ‘em say it, doesn’t seem so outta reach
So I’ll do my time then say goodbye to Panic Beach
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
Well, the landlord gets a free show every Saturday at six
Sometimes on a Sunday, all dependin’ on whatever kinda mood he’s in
I keep his glass filled up with sherry and sing him all his favorite songs
If a tear comes to his eye he may let a month go by before he takes away my key
Oh that sherry starts to taste real good to me
Hey mama look at me on Panic Beach
I may be hungry but my rent is free up on Panic Beach
Yeah I can almost see the Palace no longer outta reach
So I’ll do my time then say goodbye to Panic Beach
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye”

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One Comment

  1. Russ
    Posted March 18, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always loved this song. It seemed almost like a shoutout to Springsteen’s style of storybuilding, and Maria had the chops to pull it off without sounding contrived or silly. When McKee sang “She’ll be out of a job at the end of this three week run”, it certainly wasn’t autobiographical.