BB #07: MASON CITY
They said it wouldn't happen! Uh, and by "they" I mean "me."
Another song with three very discrete sections, although they're all linked in various musical ways this time. Uh, except for the intro, which has not a damn thing to do with the rest of the song.
The song begins with a synth line that goes like this: half note->sixteenth note octave up->sixteenth note octave down->eighth note octave up->eighth note octave down->eighth note octave up->new bar with note a step down. This cycles through four times and then repeats. Under it is an organ accompaniment and a simple drumbeat (quarter-quarter-quarter-eighth-sixteenth-sixteenth). After two cycles the synthline goes from descending to ascending and the drumbeat becomes fuller, with a delay applied to it with a feedback sufficient to build instead of decay, so that after a cycle and a half the sound of the delayed drums has totally overtaken the track and you can't hear the keys very well. Then at the end of the second cycle, everything cuts out, the delay begins to decay, and the verse begins.
The first section begins with just claps, a piano playing chords in an eighth-eighth-quarter pattern, and Eleanor's double-tracked vocals. The latter in particular sound weird for some reason--they are maybe EQed with the bottom cut off to make her sound thinner, older perhaps. The reverb, too, is dusty, and overall everything has an aged feel. The chords for the verse are C-Am-F-C. A drumfill comes in at the end, and then full Moon-ish drums run through the chorus. The chords for the chorus are F-G-F-C-F-G-G-G. For the second verse, a heavily reverbed, frequency modulated synth line comes in, and this ensemble continues through the second chorus and the lackluster guitar solo, which takes adds a bass and, obviously, an electric guitar, and takes place over a verse-chorus cycle. Then for the third verse the drums and electric guitar drop out, the bass stays in, and an organ chord doubles the piano chords. This continues through the third chorus, halfway through which a totally out-of time kick-kick-snare drum part comes in that will form the basis for the next section.
The section section begins with said drumbeat, an unaccompanied piano line doubling the melody, and Matt singing single-tracked, with light chords coming in halfway through. Then for the chorus the left hand joins in on the piano more strongly and plays a counterline. Matt sings a line, then whistles a line, then sings a line, then shouts "Wait!" and the drums play along for a few bars. The piano then comes back in and plays the verse and chorus melody, with a synth line gradually being added, and more enthusiastic drums (including crashes) coming in as they move through the chorus melody. Then there's another break, and we're on to the third section.
Which starts off with Eleanor singing, what sounds like a nylon-string or baritone acoustic guitar, and a piano (the throughline on this whole song). In contrast to the previous section, which was ominous and open, this one has an immediately more upbeat feel, and soon resolves into a specifically laid-back vibe. A clean electric guitar plays along. The chords are A-F#m-D-A. (Down a third from the first section, you'll note.) After each line, a whistling synth riff plays. Everything's well-reverbed. After two lines, the guitar slides down to a third to a F#, then to an E, accompanied by piano and voice, then goes back into the regular verse progression. This time, there's a muddled, out-of-place sound in the right channel, that to my ears sounds distinctly like the bass riff from "Paw Paw Tree" passed through a bunch of filters. Then another chorus, then a noise-heavy guitar solo over a repeated A chord until the end of the song.
In chart form:
0:43-1:03 Verse 1
1:04-1:23 Chorus 1
1:24-1:44 Verse 2
1:45-2:04 Chorus 2
2:05-2:43 Guitar Solo
2:44-3:03 Verse 3
3:04-3:21 Chorus 3
4:09-4:17 Drum break
4:18-4:43 Instrumental verse
4:44-5:10 Instrumental chorus
5:11-5:21 Instrumental break
5:33-6:03 Verse 1
6:04-6:14 Chorus 1
6:15-6:52 Verse 2
6:53-7:02 Chorus 2
7:03-8:14 Guitar Solo
First off, let me just note that this entry would not have ever been written, more than likely, had not two people responded to a previous entry and sent me some thoughts about "Mason City." I'd like to recognize those people at the outset here, and they are Dan Beirne, "an occasional (read: rare) contributor to Said the Gramophone" and Hayden Childs, of The High Hat
. I will reprint their thoughts after mine, but first I'll run through what I came up with, with their aid.
"Mason City" is the story of Eleanor, an old maid living with her overprotective father who has developed a career as a mail-order conman--er, con woman. As she has been shut into her house and is not allowed to leave because of past misbehavior (running around with criminal types and the like), she has been forced to turn to self-advancement by less than legal means, in this case insurance scams. Her con is to befriend lonely old men as "pen pals" and then cause them to fall in love with her. Consequently, she then takes out insurance policies on them, with their blessing, and with her as the beneficiary. Inevitably, the romance is broken off, but as she was the one corresponding with the life insurance companies, she then asks for extensions, borrows some money against this policy, and then uses this money to pay for a killer, who then offs the old man.
In this particular instance, as she's pulled this scam a few times, she's working through an intermediary, an insurance fence of a sort, who refers to herself as "the Riceville widow." The fence sends her the loan (the "kill fee" if you will) along with a self-addressed stamped envelope in which Eleanor should return the fence's share of the insurance money, 2.6%. But Eleanor has problems--after this many times (or, it being her first time--hard to tell I suppose) she's having a hard time working the scam, and can only get Aetna to give her a policy on the old man's life. Two others reject her, and she's worried about actually getting the extension. Nevertheless, she sends off for the killer, Matt, who in the second section recounts his travels to get to Chicago, where the old man lives. We do not see the killing.
In the third section we have a sort of flashback to Eleanor's golden days hanging out with the criminal element, and it seems she was actually the head of a whole con mob. It's just a bunch of slang, really, her giving a Guys-and-Dolls-ish monologue to the gang. To go line-by-line:
"How are you my nabs?"
How's it going, guys?
"Little tender footed crabs,"
You're all so inexperienced.
"Meet my knuckle duster."
Why I oughta punch your eye out!
"You geeches that gazoon's gow / tried to break into the bow"
You brought the mark all the way to the end but then took it too far and got nothing!
"go wipe your nose."
You snot-nosed brat, get on with ya.
"Prussian who got jackered,"
The German tourist you conned,
"my snapper til you knockered,"
you used my trick so much it became obvious,
"get on the snam."
so get outa here.
"The chivman wants your chip,"
The guy who keeps track of the money wants to account for your share, so where is it?
"better dummy up then go dip,"
Better go look sympathetic before you break the bad news.
"you're outa turn."
But don't shove.
"I learned that the lowest form of life is the buffer nabber,"
i.e., the jewlery thief--
"even worse than the dicer stabber"
i.e., the gambler robber--she's all pissed off at a jewlery theif for stealing her make.
Thanks to David W. Maurer's The Big Con
for some of this.
Now, here are the two interpretations.
This song is about money.
Eleanor's character is posing as an accountant for a Mr. Nelson (fictional
or actual, I don't know, it's possible it's her father). As his
accountant, she takes out a loan "for him" from Aetna Life.
[footnote]Which is weird, because Aetna is an insurance company, not known for
loans. However, it's possible it's a policy loan, which would mean the
receiver of the money, probably Mr. Nelson, is a policyowner with Aetna, which
means there is money to be had when he dies. Her secrecy regarding the
letter, she doesn't even tell her father, or Mr. Nelson, that the loan came
through, makes me think she kept the money for herself, and then proceeded to
spend all of it. She writes to a rich widow from Riceville asking for
money, saying that other people (the Dunlay heirs) have set bad examples and she
will not be able to get an extension, so she needs immediate help. She is
not hopeful of getting help, but she does send a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope
anyway. The widow turns her down and she is forced to ask for an extension
anyway, in the name of Mr. Nelson.
Then Matt's part doesn't seem literally related to Eleanor's (it's not like
he's one of the Dunlay heirs, or Mr. Nelson or something) but it does seem to
relate in theme. He seems to be a manual labourer, riding the rails all
across the country (whereas the rest of the song takes place strictly in Iowa),
doing whatever he can as a job; blacksmith, forgeman. But he doesn't
mention masonry, maybe because if he only went to mason CITY (instead of Oregon,
Utah, Michigan, Wisconsin, New York), would he realise you can make money by not
even trying (Eleanor is a scammer). But his part does note that he's not
really trying to make quick cash, "none on the make", but there is no
implication that he would refuse it if he could only figure out how to get
it. He seems more occupied with the more immediate problems associated
with being a labourer in what appears to be the turn of the century, his hands,
and their subsequent stillness.
The last part...damn. I'll start by listing all the words I could not
find ANY meaning to anywhere, each followed by what I think they may well
nabs - seems to be a term of endearment, like this might be the starting of
Eleanor's letter to the Riceville widow, or some other person from whom she
tender footed crabs - perhaps it's literally what it says. if so,
it's beyond me.
knuckle duster - this one I did find: brass knuckles.
geeched - there's a lot of contemporary definitions, but none of them
gazoon - whew. no idea.
gow - part of a gazoon. I get the 'nickname' feeling again, like it's
a made up name for a real part, but used strictly to rhyme with "bow".
noler knockums - 'nole' means head, so perhaps this is like "stupid people"
or "my dumb friends"
jockered - perhaps jipped, or swindeled, which would fit with part I.
snapper - if it's literal, it would fit with crabs.
knockered - if it were "you're" knockered, I would say 'drunk', but it's
"your knockered" which seems grammatically amazing, so maybe it's a typo.
the snam - I'm reminded of that Simpsons episode: "get on the trolley,
chivman - that commenter on your entry pleading for help: "a
knifeman". maybe they have more help than me.
chip - "money" or "life"
dummy up - "give up" or "settle with the house"(perhaps in terms of
go dip - "go swim", given we're probably on a boat again, or "die"
buffer-nabber - I'm thinking it's a real thing. a bbc quiz asked
"would it be better to be a buffer-nabber or ______(not dicer stabber, something
else)" I don't know what it is, but to see it used again was certainly
dicer stabber - probably similar to a buffer-nabber, but still,
Okay, all that said, here's what I THINK is going on: it's one of Eleanor's
letters to someone she is asking for money. Well, more like
threatening. "Meet my knuckle duster" is a pretty clear threat, and the
rest of the letter starts from there. I think it's like blackmail: "You
geeched that gazoon's gow" is like "I saw you do something, I caught you".
Then she says she's just wasting time until her 'stock comes' which is probably
like easy money that she's very sure she's going to get (perhaps the very money
she's asking for). The Prussian who got jockered is perhaps the person
affected by the geeching, another referral to act she hangs over the head of the
person receiving the letter, and from "get on the snam" all the way to "you're
outta turn" is like "wake up, you're done for, either pay or die". And
then the last two lines are the final threat/insult, as in "YOU are the lowest
form of life". But also, in the larger scope of the song, Eleanor also
seems to be talking about herself as well.
Whew. That's what I think, anyway.
The first third of the song, as sang by Eleanor, is from the point of view
of an Iowan attorney sometime in the 1920s. I don't know what the deal
with the dad is, but presumably Eleanor is only secretly practicing law or is
using the family name to get things done, despite the father's
disapproval. First, she gets a letter from an Aetna Life Insurance
agent in Mason City. Aetna has lent a gentleman money on the attorney's
recognizance and taken a 2.6% fee. Then, the attorney is attempting to
keep a widow in Riceville, Iowa from being thrown out of her house. She is
presumably a Dunley (check out the story partway down here) but
the other Dunleys won't help. Eleanor is worried that the Banker's Trust
won't give the widow an extension to get her mortgage note together because if
they give her an extension, they'll have to give other extensions.
Finally, the attorney writes a flattering letter to Des Moines, possibly to the
Banker's Trust in relation to the Riceville widow, but maybe on other
matters. Mr. Nelson, who may be the attorney's father, is too proud to ask
for an extension, but the attorney is asking for one instead.
Then, Matt sends the listeners cross-country on extinct railroad lines
across several years. The Oregon Short Line ran along the Oregon Trail
through Oregon, Idaho, and Utah, including a leg through Salt Lake City, which
was sold in 1903. The Pere Marquette ran across the Midwest into New York
starting in 1900 (although it didn't run to Salt Lake City). The Michigan
Central refers to an abandoned railroad station in Detroit. I suspect that
West Madison doesn't mean the street in Chicago, but western Madison County in
New York, where Crumb Hill Road and Crumb Hill Cemetary are. I don't know
for a fact, but I'd guess that this was the site of some sort of Prohibition
booze route, thus the reference to the railroadmen (forgers, molders,
blacksmiths, and boilermakers) who weren't on the make and the cure for shaky
The third part of the song with the nabs & such, is a Artful Dodgerish
combination of British and American working class slang. "How are you my
nabs?/Little tender-footed crabs?" - Eleanor/Artful Dodger greets her street
gang. "Nabs" is either an ironic reference to cops or made-up slang for
thieves. Crabs is Brit slang for disagreeable persons or people who borrow
money without returning it. "Meet my knuckle duster" - El/AD smacks them
around with her brass knuckles. "You geeched that gazoon's gow" - Many
articles claim that this is nonsense, but that doesn't seem right.
"Gazoon" seems to be some kind of Asian slang for pompous person, but I don't
have confirmation on this. Geeched & gow -- this is a guess, but "pai
gow" is a Chinese gambling game played with dominoes, and the high play is a
"gee joon". Say it fast and you've geeched a gow. "Tried to break
into the bow" - of a ship, presumably. "Go wipe your nose" - more
dismissive artful dodgerisms. "Noler knockums" - There was a trucking
company called Finke and Noler. I guess the knockums are those who knock
over Noler trucks. Eleanor is waiting for the stolen shipment (the stacks)
to come in. "Prussian who got jackered" - the hijacked shipment,
maybe? "My snapper till your knockered" -- I think this should read "My
snapper 'til you're knockered," meaning "my accomplice (in old Brit slang) until
you're marked for burglary."
I don't know if El/AD is speaking to a hijacked Prussian who's her
accomplice until she can rip him off or if they're both waiting for the same
shipment and she intends to take him for everything. "Get on the snam" is
her order to her accomplice. Snam is a natural gas provider in Italy who
also provides fiber optic service (which plays into the overall "flow of capital
& information" theme of the album). If this is right, it fixes the
time in the present, rather than the Industrial Revolution, which is where the
rest of this section appears to take place. "The chivman wants your chip"
-- the guy who's very good with a knife wants your shilling. "Better dummy
up then go dip" - Pay him, then go pickpocket more. "You're outta turn" -
I don't know in context, but it seems in general to play into their themes of
entropy & the winding out of time. A "buffer nabber" is a dog-thief
who sells the pelts, a la Cruella de Vil. "Dicer stabber" - I would guess
it's just what it sounds like, but couldn't find a reference to it.
Overall, I can't see how this one stands on its own. It has to be a
transition part for the larger narrative of the album, but I'm still working on
The only thing is that Eleanor's character here is a precursor to, and maybe even an ancestor of, Eleanor's character in "Chris Michaels." Otherwise, the only thing it's close to in time is "1917," sorta, except that doesn't have much to do with anything else either. So it's of a piece.