Don’t get too close, I have rockin’ pneumonia: 15 songs that make diseases (real and imaginary) rock
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1. Huey “Piano” Smith And The Clowns, “Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu”
If the gift from God to your moneymaker that is New Orleans R&B were to disappear from the earth, this is the record scientists would use to replicate its DNA. No one, from Peggy Lee to The Sylvers, has made catching a fever sound like such a winning proposition; the only debilitating aspect seems to be wanting to kiss a tall girl whose lips are up out of reach. The lyrics of this song were something of an afterthought, farmed out and grafted onto the rhythm, but that hasn’t stopped crowds of people from shouting along with them at Mardi Gras parades for decades.
2. Tindersticks, “City Sickness”
Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples invariably sounds like he’s recovering from a profound head cold, but this song from the band’s 1993 debut suggests another possible ailment. “I got this sickness as I stepped off the train,” Staples sings, “and now it chafes away at my heart.” Since the reactions “last for minutes only,” it sounds like Staples is suffering from panic attacks that pass quickly but “may just fuck my mind.” To calm him down, we prescribe a nonstop listening diet of Tindersticks albums, which should lull him into a profound, restful slumber.
3. Björk, “Pneumonia”
Building from a single chord that repeats for a full minute before its frozen dissonance begins to thaw, this song from Björk’s Volta likens a friend’s grief to a paralyzing illness. “Your lungs, they’re mourning TB style,” she sings, later adding, “To shut yourself up would be the greatest crime of all.” Apparently there’s nothing for an ailment, real or figurative, like a little fresh air.
4. Radiohead, “Myxomatosis”
Where Thom Yorke’s lyrics are concerned, searching for precise meaning only gets listeners so far, but it’s still worth wondering how a virus that devastated Britain’s rabbit population in the 1950s found its way into a Radiohead song. Unless Yorke is part rabbit himself, he should be safe from contagion, but that doesn’t stop him “twitching and salivating like with myxomatosis.” Maybe that explains the raw vegetables in the band’s rider.
5. Joe Jackson, “Cancer”
Considering that Joe Jackson penned a lengthy manifesto against New York’s smoking ban, then left town for more smoke-friendly climes, it’s no surprise that he isn’t fond of being told what’s bad for him. In a song from his classic album Night And Day, Jackson takes the satirically on-point, though medically dodgy, viewpoint that “everything gives you cancer,” running down the list of don’ts to a catchy Latin beat. There’s a snotty “Don’t tell me what to do” quality to Jackson’s rebuttal, but also a kind of gallows humor. If everything gives you cancer, you might as well live it up, since metastasis is only a matter of time.
6. Frank Zappa, “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?”
The answer to the titular question from Zappa’s 1979 rock opera Joe’s Garage is given as “Gon-o-ka-ka-khackus,” the closest the titular garage-rocker can come to pronouncing whatever it is he’s caught. Although Joe is convinced he “got it from a toilet seat,” the more likely culprit is a Jack In The Box employee named Lucille. Regardless of the source, poor Joe’s “balls feel like a pair of maracas,” so let that be a lesson to you kids out there.
7. Ween, “Mononucleosis”
Ween’s 1991 album The Pod was supposedly recorded under the influence of Scotchgard, but the record’s torturously slowed-down tempos and darkly infected melodies nod more toward deep sickness than chemical ecstasy. “Mononucleosis” is a prime example, dealing explicitly with the pitfalls of having mono—they include having a “sweaty mucus bed” and not being able to “move your fucking head”—but the way this song sounds really puts across the feeling of head-spinning, stomach-turning nausea. It isn’t a terribly pleasant song, but like the disease it name-checks, it’s pretty catchy.
8. Ween, “The HIV Song”
On Ween’s early albums, Gene and Dean approached horrific subject matter with the unknowing innocence and smirky irreverence of children. Such is the case with “The HIV Song,” which marries a rinky-dink nursery-rhyme melody with a shudderingly simple chorus—“AIDS! HIV!”—that repeats like a bad crank call. It isn’t the most insightful song about AIDS ever recorded, but in the early ’90s, when the distinction between HIV and AIDS still wasn’t clear in most people’s minds, “The HIV Song” had an odd educational value.
9. Bruce Springsteen, “Streets Of Philadelphia”
The Boss never mentions AIDS in his Oscar-winning song "Streets Of Philadelphia," but his usual knack for setting the scene with evocative, economical language puts listeners inside the skin of someone carrying the disease. Springsteen focuses on the relatable details: The character is “bruised and battered,” wandering alone and hearing “the voices of friends vanished and gone.” By the end, he can “feel himself fading away.” He could be anybody, yet Springsteen’s delivery makes it feel singular and personal.
10. GG Allin, “Needle Up My Cock”
GG Allin surely experienced a host of nasty ailments before succumbing to the ultimate one—mortality—in 1993. But the filthy, nihilistic punk icon commemorated one particular ailment in song: gonorrhea. “Needle Up My Cock” is a crudely catchy, gut-churningly detailed account of Allin’s battle with the clap. “I got it from her, and I’ll give that shit to you / I don’t need my pecker running with pus or goo,” he confesses with heroic candor. The way he sees it, the pointy, intrusive cure is at least as bad as the disease itself. According to Allin, though, the most excruciating thing about having gonorrhea is simply this: “I can’t get fucked.”
11. Fugazi, “Smallpox Champion”
Fugazi has always had a knack for embedding messages in metaphors, but it cuts to the chase in the scathing “Smallpox Champion.” Amid a barrage of beehive guitars and one of the group’s hookiest choruses, guitarist Guy Picciotto rails against the genocidal practice—still debated by historians—of early American settlers and/or the U.S. government giving smallpox-exposed blankets to Native Americans. “Smallpox champion, U.S. of A. / Give natives some blankets, warm like the grave,” Picciotto rages. He goes on to extend the metaphoric thrust of his rage: “Weave the disease that’s gonna take you right out.”
12. Ted Nugent, “Cat Scratch Fever”
It seems strange that somebody as badass as the Motor City Madman would be concerned enough about subacute regional lymphadenitis—an easy-to-treat disease usually transmitted from kittens to children—to write a song and name an album after it. But apparently he isn’t just about hard-rocking, bow-hunting, and getting mad poontang—he cares about the children, too. Wait, “Cat Scratch Fever” is a metaphor? About getting pussy? Ted!
13. Gang Of Four, “(Love Like) Anthrax”
Like many a song about how great it is to get up in the morning so you can once again start loving your baby, Gang Of Four’s signature tune begins with the singer waking up in bed, only to veer into a detailed explanation for why he already feels pinned to the canvas. “We just don’t think that what goes on between two people should be shrouded in mystery,” the band protests, and its way of tearing back the curtain is to pelt listeners with feedback and rhythms so thrillingly harsh, they seem meant to shred immune systems. Usually, when people say a pop song is “infectious,” they mean it’s shiny and catchy. This one deserves to be called infectious, as in “requires a hazmat suit.”
14. Woody Guthrie, “VD Blues”
In the palmiest days of the age of rock, which was also the pre-AIDS age of groupies and easy access to penicillin, venereal disease was often the subject of songs meant to be greeted with a wink and a dirty smirk. And not all of those songs were written by Shel Silverstein. For Woody Guthrie, the nomadic composer of such cheerful ditties as “Dust Pneumonia Blues,” there’s nothing cute about the infection that robs him of sleep and gives him chills, along with a crippling dose of self-disgust and shame. “These VD blues are the worst I ever had,” he moans, and coming from him, that’s saying something.
15. Van Morrison, “T. B. Sheets”
This song, almost 10 minutes long in the version included on Van Morrison’s 1967 solo debut, is the missing link between the hard Irish R&B he performed with the band Them and the intense, drawn-out, yet hypnotic numbers that helped inspire near-religious awe in critics and fans. It’s told not from the point of view of the dying girl suffering from tuberculosis, but rather that of the visitor trapped with her in the hospital room; his desire to comfort her is overshadowed by his wish that she’d just die already, so he can get the hell away from the suffocating atmosphere of sickness and pain. John Lee Hooker included a cover version on his aptly named 1972 album, Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive.