From the Dictionary app on my iMac:
- A cake containing dried fruit and nuts.
- (informal) an eccentric or insane person.
I’ve always considered “Fruitcakes” to be Jimmy Buffet’s masterwork. The musical backing is infectious, swaying and danceable, and the background vocals add depth. The words are cleverly crafted, and perfectly suited to Buffett’s conversational, wisecracking delivery.
The song is from 1993, and contains some dated references, but these just add to the fun for me.
The singer starts with a spoken introduction, setting up the verses that will follow.
You know I was talking to my friend Desdemona the other day. She runs this space station bake shop down near Boomtown. She told me that human beings are flawed individuals, that the cosmic bakers took us out of the oven a little too early, and that’s the reason we’re as crazy as we are, and I believe it.
Note what Buffett is doing here. First of all, he establishes the existence of a network of friends who talk to each other regularly. He does this, not only by referencing a conversation with Desdemona, but by talking to the listener in the same vein, thus inviting us into this same circle.
He also establishes the diversity and eccentricity of the individuals in this circle with his description of a “space station bake shop” owned by his friend Desdemona.
He also introduces a framing metaphor, the idea that “the cosmic bakers took us out of the oven a little too early.” And so, in a single sentence, he comes up with his own origin story explaining human fallibility: one of the foundational elements of any religion. And, even though he has not yet referenced the title word, he’s already leveraged its meaning in both senses, referring to both human eccentrics and baked goods.
Now the singer continues speaking, giving us an example of his own eccentricity.
Take for example when you go to the movies these days, you know they try to sell you this jumbo drink, 8 extra ounces of watered-down Cherry Coke for an extra 25 cents. I don’t want it, I don’t want that much organization in my life. I don’t want other people thinking for me. I want my Junior Mints. Where did the Junior Mints go in the movies? I don’t want a 12 lb. Nestle’s crunch for 25 dollars. I WANT JUNIOR MINTS! We need more fruitcakes in this world and less bakers! We need people that care! I’m mad as hell! And I don’t want to take it anymore!
And so, although this rant offers an example of the singer’s own eccentricity, it also advances the proposition that individuals, with all their imperfections and eccentricities, are preferable to an ethos of standardized, corporate consumerism.
We now transition to the words being sung instead of spoken, with the first appearance of the song’s chorus.
Fruitcakes in the kitchen (Fruitcakes in the kitchen)
Fruitcakes on the street (Fruitcakes on the street)
Strutting naked through the crosswalk
In the middle of the week
Half-baked cookies in the oven (Cookies in the oven)
Half-baked people on the bus (People on the bus)
There’s a little bit of fruitcake left in every one of us
And here Buffett fully reveals the song’s core proposition, that we humans are all a little half-baked, all fruitcakes of one variety or another.
Now we get a series of verses, each offering a different sort of example of this nuttiness, with the chorus repeated at suitable intervals.
Paradise, lost and found.
Paradise, take a look around.
I was out in California where I hear they have it all.
They got riots, fires and mud slides,
They’ve got sushi in the mall.
Water bars, brontosaurs, Chinese modern lust,
Shake and bake life with the quake,
The secret’s in the crust.
Note that the phrases “shake and bake” and “the secret’s in the crust” are both references to advertising slogans of the day, as well as being hijacked in this context to refer to the frequency of California earthquakes.
Speakin’ of fruitcakes, how ’bout the government?
Your tax dollars at work.
We lost our Martian rocket ship,
The high paid spokesman said.
Looks like that silly rocket ship
Has lost its cone shaped head.
We spent 90 jillion dollars trying to get a look at Mars.
I hear universal laughter ringing out among the stars.
The “cone shaped head” phrase is a reference to the Coneheads featured in Saturday Night Live sketches for many years, as well as a movie released in the same year as this song.
Note also that the image of “universal laughter ringing out among the stars” is another way of putting this song in the sort of broad philosophical context usually reserved for religions. Buffett further emphasizes this cosmic perspective in the next version of the chorus, varying the first few lines to say:
Fruitcakes in the galaxy
Fruitcakes on the earth
Strutting naked towards eternity
We’ve been that way since birth
Buffett now addresses religion directly.
Religion! Religion! Oh, there’s a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Here we go now. Alright, altar boys.
Mea Culpa Mea Culpa Mea Maxima Culpa
Mea Culpa Mea Culpa Mea Maxima Culpa
Where’s the church, who took the steeple?
Religion’s in the hands of some crazy-ass people.
Television preachers with bad hair and dimples,
The god’s honest truth is, it’s not that simple.
It’s the Buddhist in you, it’s the Pagan in me,
It’s the Muslim in him, she’s Catholic ain’t she?
It’s the born again look, it’s the WASP and the Jew,
Tell me what’s goin on, I ain’t got a clue.
With the ascent of the religious right in American politics in recent years, as well as the controversies over Muslims and diverse religious backgrounds, this verse seems as relevant today as it was two and a half decades ago. And although the singer professes to his own cluelessness, I think Buffett gives us more than a few clues here to fitting together some of the fragmented pieces of our modern culture.
Buffett takes on romantic relationships in the next verse.
Now here comes the big one.
We all got ’em, we all want ’em. What do we do with ’em?
Here we go, I’ll tell ya.
She said you’ve got to do your fair share,
Now cough up half the rent.
I treat my body like a temple,
You treat yours like a tent.
But the right word at the right time –
“Say, give me a little hug” –
That’s the difference between lightning
And a harmless lightning bug.
Doubting that anything I could say would add anything here, I’ll quickly move on to the next and final verse of the song.
Captain’s log, star date two thousand and something.
We’re seven years from the millennium,
That’s a science fiction fact.
Stanley Kubrick and his buddy Hal
Now don’t look that abstract.
So I’ll put on my Bob Marley tape,
And practice what I preach.
Get Jah lost in the reggae mon,
As I walk along the beach.
Stay in touch with my insanity
Really is the only way.
It’s a jungle out there, kiddies,
Have a very fruitful day!
The spoken intro to this last verse obviously references the Star Trek television series, and the line about “Kubrick and his buddy Hal” refers to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The phrase “Bob Marley tape” reminds us of cassette tapes and the days of the Sony Walkman, before iTunes, iPods and iPhones.
Here Buffett seems to be speaking to us most directly, first suggesting some questions about where we’re headed as a species, then offering himself and his listeners some final words of advice, then bidding us good day in his own eccentric fashion, and finally leaving us with the image of the singer/songwriter/philosopher meandering down the beach with his headphones on, lost in his reggae-tinged world.
Buffett’s not quite done with us yet, though. We’re treated to another delivery of the chorus, and then, just as he opened with a spoken intro, he closes with a spoken outro. And then, within the outro, he brackets another example of a personal rant between admonitions to “spread those crumbs around” and “keep baking, baby, keep baking.”
That’s right, you too. Yeah those crumbs are spread all around this universe.
I’ve seen fruitcakes. I saw this guy in Santa Monica rollerskating naked through the crosswalk. Down in New Orleans, in the French Market, there are fruitcakes like you cannot believe. New York, forget it. Fruitcake city. Down Island, we’ve got Fruitcakes.
Spread them crumbs around. That’s right, we want ’em around. Keep baking baby. Keep baking.
Fruitcakes clocks in at seven minutes and 40 seconds, suitable for a rock artist’s magnum opus. But the pieces all fit together beautifully, and there’s not a second I would want to remove. There’s no grand pretension here, but a lot of tongue-in-cheek humanist wisdom, all set to an infectious Caribbean groove.
And we can never have too much of that, can we?
Appreciation written by: Herb Bowie
Date Posted: Monday October 15, 2018
This is a rather amazing song by The Kinks, first released in 1968. I loved this song from the moment I first heard it, but my appreciation for it has only grown over the years.
Date Posted: Saturday September 22, 2018
To Read More: the-village-green-preservation-society.html
It’s certainly fair to categorize this song as a religious one, and more particularly as a Christian song, and yet, even though I consider myself to be a non-believer, my lack of faith doesn’t diminish my appreciation for this song in the slightest: if anything, I think it increases it. For unlike many songs that we could put in this category, this song does not seek to proselytize, or ask us to accept any particular religious teaching.
Date Posted: Wednesday August 15, 2018
To Read More: will-the-circle-be-unbroken.html
In this next series of songs, I’m going to highlight some that provide hope and strength in the face of societal adversity. (I might tag these with the theme of “resistance” if that hadn’t become such an overused term lately.)
I’ve always found this song from the Steve Miller Band to be uplifting and inspiring. The lyrics are pretty simple, but their effect is amplified by their musical delivery. And even though the whole track clocks in at under two -and-a-half minutes, there’s a lot going on here.
Date Posted: Friday February 9, 2018
To Read More: dont-let-nobody-turn-you-around.html
“Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” was written in 1934, and was first sung on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in that same year. It became an instant hit, and it’s been a perennial holiday favorite ever since.
Date Posted: Saturday December 23, 2017
To Read More: santa-claus-is-comin-to-town.html
It would be hard to leave this one off of any list of holiday tunes. First of all, as it’s named, this is “The Christmas Song.” Second of all, everyone has recorded a version of it – I have thirty different renditions of it in my own personal collection. Third, there’s the classic story of the song’s composition….
Date Posted: Friday December 22, 2017
To Read More: the-christmas-song.html
R&B singer Mabel Scott recorded this little number in 1948, and it’s been making its way onto stylish Christmas compilations ever since. The song was written by Leon René, who also penned “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” and “Rockin’ Robin”.
Date Posted: Thursday December 21, 2017
To Read More: boogie-woogie-santa-claus.html
This is a bluegrass song written by Bell Labs engineer and bluegrass fiddler Benjamin “Tex” Logan, and first recorded by Bill Monroe in 1951.
Date Posted: Wednesday December 20, 2017
To Read More: christmas-times-a-coming.html
This is a lovely little song, written by Terre Roche and recorded a cappella by The Roches for their Christmas album, We Three Kings.
Date Posted: Tuesday December 19, 2017
To Read More: star-of-wonder.html
Some might protest that “My Favorite Things” is not, strictly speaking, a Christmas song. After all, there is no mention of Christmas, and that “holiday” word appears nowhere in the lyrics. However, those points notwithstanding, it has been included on many a Christmas album, and it’s easy to see why: with references to packages, sleigh bells, snowflakes and winters – as well as the overall theme of “my favorite things” – it’s easy to sneak it into any holiday playlist.
Date Posted: Monday December 18, 2017
To Read More: my-favorite-things.html
This is an odd little song, but an undeniable Christmas favorite. It was written in 1941 by the American classical composer Katherine Kennicott Davis, and was said to be based on a traditional Czech carol. Davis’ interest in writing the song was to produce something that could be sung by amateur and girls’ choirs. The original title was “Carol of the Drum.”
Date Posted: Sunday December 17, 2017
To Read More: the-little-drummer-boy.html
Although this isn’t strictly a Christmas song, its use in the closing scene of It’s A Wonderful Life qualifies it as one in my book. And, in any case, it expresses a wonderful sentiment entirely appropriate to the holidays.
Date Posted: Saturday December 16, 2017
To Read More: auld-lang-syne.html
Like Robbie Robertson and The Band, Dave Matthews seeks here to craft a retelling of the story of Jesus that might cause us to look at this old tale from a fresh perspective, and consider anew its core meaning. This retelling is a bit more ambitious than Robertson’s. Like Jackson Browne, Matthews is not an avowed Christian, and yet he finds deep meaning in this story.
Date Posted: Friday December 15, 2017
To Read More: christmas-song-by-dave-matthews.html
This is a favorite yuletide tune that has been recorded by almost everyone at least once. Note that the lyrics have varied quite a bit since the song’s original composition. Written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, the song was introduced in the 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis, as performed by Judy Garland.
Date Posted: Thursday December 14, 2017
To Read More: have-yourself-a-merry-little-christmas.html
I’ve always loved this Christmas song from The Band. There’s nothing terribly fancy or ambitious about it. Robbie Robertson just recounts the story of Christmas, of the birth of Jesus, in a series of familiar scenes, using simple and straightforward language.
Date Posted: Wednesday December 13, 2017
To Read More: christmas-must-be-tonight.html
On Christmas day in 1863 American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “Christmas Bells.” Longfellow’s words from this poem have been set to music by a number of different composers and performers, starting as early as 1872. There are a number of contemporary recordings based on this poem, but the one with which I am particularly taken is a rather obscure track by John Gorka. The music here is Gorka’s, and doesn’t seem to share anything with other musical renditions of the poem. Gorka dropped three of the stanzas, including those most directly referencing the Civil War, leaving him with four verses for his song.
Date Posted: Tuesday December 12, 2017
To Read More: christmas-bells.html
As long as we’re enjoying a “Holiday in Harlem” with Ella, we may as well stick around a little longer for a “Christmas Night in Harlem” with Louis Armstrong.
Date Posted: Tuesday December 12, 2017
To Read More: christmas-night-in-harlem.html
Christmas may be a time for returning home to see family and friends, but not all of us pine for snow-covered hills in the country. In this song, written by Chick Webb, and sung by Ella Fitzgerald, the singer reveals to us the joys of spending the Christmas season in Harlem, circa 1937.
Date Posted: Sunday December 10, 2017
To Read More: holiday-in-harlem.html
Phil Spector released his magnum opus in the 1963 holiday season. Titled A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records, it’s hard to overstate the extent of Spector’s ambition and accomplishment on this album. Understand that this was just before the Beatles conquered American airwaves, and came at a point when Spector was being condemned by old-guard members of the entertainment industry as a “sharpie poisoning American culture.” It was also a time when the industry was dominated by singles, and long-playing albums were often filled with hastily-recorded second-rate material.
Date Posted: Saturday December 9, 2017
To Read More: christmas-baby-please-come-home.html
If Christmas is supposed to return us to home and family, then of course songs will be written about those who are still left yearning for a reunion with loved ones during the holiday season. Charles Brown helped to give us the joyful “Merry Christmas Baby,” but he also first delivered, and co-wrote, the plaintive appeal found in “Please Come Home for Christmas.”
Date Posted: Friday December 8, 2017
To Read More: please-come-home-for-christmas.html
It seems to me that the eternal promise of Christmas is to restore for us a certain unbroken wholeness. This wholeness can take on many appearances, but this song certainly nails one of them for me: a feeling of returning to a family home, isolated from our usual cares, but still connected to something larger than ourselves.
Date Posted: Thursday December 7, 2017
To Read More: christmas-time-back-home.html
This song was originally recorded in 1947 by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, featuring Charles Brown on piano and vocals. The original recording was a hit on the Rhythm and Blues charts, and the song has been recorded by many blues and R&B artists down through the years. The lyrics recount the happy tale of a man feeling appreciative of his wife/girlfriend on Christmas morning, after opening his many presents.
Date Posted: Wednesday December 6, 2017
To Read More: merry-christmas-baby.html
Much like Jackson Browne’s “The Rebel Jesus,” this Christmas song from The Kinks is also focused on the needs of the poor. And although the children in this tale seem to come more from the Oliver Twist/Artful Dodger tradition than from “The Christmas Carol,” Dickens would still recognize their predicament and their motivations.
Date Posted: Tuesday December 5, 2017
To Read More: father-christmas.html
Jackson Browne’s Christmas song is everything one might hope for from a singer-songwriter whose career has combined political activism with a deeply personal romanticism.
Date Posted: Monday December 4, 2017
To Read More: the-rebel-jesus.html
This has always been my favorite Lyle Lovett recording. The singer starts with the chorus, which is then repeated after each verse. Both musically and lyrically, it starts out as a simple children’s song, with gentle, bright finger-picking on the guitar.
Date Posted: Saturday August 19, 2017
To Read More: if-i-had-a-boat.html
Author C. S. Lewis once said: “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors.” Lewis was talking about his sense of obligation to books and their creators, but I have long felt a similar debt owed to songwriters. Oh yes, I’ve learned a lot from books, but many of the songs that I love can teach me something new – about the world, about other people, about what it means to be human – in the space of two to five minutes. Without them, as Lewis went on to say, I would truly inhabit a “tiny world” that would feel like a prison to me.
Date Posted: Friday August 18, 2017
To Read More: about.html