The laminated tag on her desk read “Latisha”, but everyone in the third grade called her Tish. We were gathered around her at the lunchroom table as she sang, her head tilting from side to side:
Ain’t your mama pretty?
She got meatball ‘tween her titties,
She got ham an’ eggs
‘Tween her legs.
Ain’t your mama pretty?
There was a hint of a sneer on Tish’s full, round face, like she was a bit bored with the entire proceeding. But that was part of the magic in the spell she cast.
I took her to a party,
She turned around and farted.
I asked her why she did it.
She turned around and shitted.
My mind went to work on the vividly tactile aspects of the scene she painted: Were the meatballs between your mama’s titties cold or hot? Why would she want to go through the considerable trouble and mess of grasping both ham and eggs (I imagined them fried sunny-side up for some reason) between her legs? And for how long? More to the point, why? Why why why?1 Tish may not have had a great singing voice, but all my questions were a testament to her singular talents.2 She was a master of the third grade sea shanty, those self-consciously illicit rhymes that were passed along a capella from child to child.3 They were dirty for the sake of being dirty. And she was just getting started.
Batman, take me to the movies.
Batman, the movie was groovy.
Batman, take me to your house.
Batman, lay me on your couch.
Batman, stick it in easy.
Batman, take it out greasy.
Though it sounded like a rejected B-side to the Dixie Cups “Iko Iko”, the see-saw rhythm to “Batman” had a compelling monotony that built some nice suspense. Just what would Batman do next? Oh, really? You don’t say! And then, just as things get really interesting, the listener is dropped abruptly without a bridge or chorus to provide some semblance of closure. Wow. What the hell, right? Was it a love song? If so, it was one of the most jaded stripe; its matter-of-fact inventory of events devoid of any feeling after the initial assessment of the movie being groovy. And the way Tish made “greasy” rhyme with “wheezy” in the last line really sold the whole package. Lord almighty. The fact that it involved Batman – Batman, for Crissakes – just made the whole thing all the more skeevy. While I had heard the Caped Crusader previously name-checked in vain, it was in a far tamer send-up of a holiday classic:
Jingle Bells, Batman smells,
Robin laid an egg.
The Batmobile lost a wheel
And the Joker got away. Hey!
Kid’s stuff. Tish was dealing in much headier fare, with far greater implications. There in the Shoesmith lunchroom, with the rank smell of institutional grilled cheese hanging in the air, everything we thought we knew was cast in doubt. Heroes were debased. Scales fell from eyes, piling on the ceramic tiled floor at our feet without a sound. It is still with me over 40 years later.
Yet Tish was not the first to share such lyrics with me. In the summer of 1972 my mom took us on a road trip with our cousins, the Bilds. A mammoth Winnebago was rented and we set out for the Great White North for Expo in Montreal. Six kids (!) rattled around in the back of the camper, playing cards, hide and seek4 , and fighting, To cut the boredom at one point, my cousin Greg decided to regale us with his own repertoire of ribald poetry, which was more spoken word than song. He began with the tale of the chaste and resourceful Sally Brown.
There once was a girl named Sally Brown,
Swore no man could pin her down.
Over the hill came Piss-ball Pete:
Two-hundred pounds of solid meat.
Pinned her down in the tall green grass.
Stuck his dick right up her ass.
All of the sudden she let a mighty fart,
Blew his balls ten feet apart!
Yowzah! Such detail! Such rich characterization! There even seemed to be a moral of a sort somewhere in there, if you cared to do some digging. More notable was the ballad’s brutality. It chronicled a battle royale, but no one seemed destined to be the winner. As grim as it was, it was downright jocular compared to Greg’s next offering:
Charlie Chan was a dirty old man,
Walkin’ down the street with his dick in his hand.
Threw ten bitches against the wall,
Betcha ten bucks that he fucked ’em all.
He fucked and fucked ’til his dick was sore.
Went downtown and fucked some more.
Went to Nursie and Nursie said,
“Sorry Charlie, but your dick is dead.”
“Nursie! Nursie! That can’t be true!”
“Sorry, Charlie, but your balls are, too.”
Devastating stuff. An almost Germanic nursery rhyme straight from the foulest boy’s locker room in Hell. Where Piss-ball Pete suffered the ostensibly excruciating experience of having his scrotum stretched over three yards, Charlie Chan, after what sounds like a nightmarish spree of serial rape, is left with useless, necrotic junk. It’s game over for him, fuck-wise, and he’s summarily sent through Kubler-Ross’ grief stages for his late penis like shit through an incontinent goose. Mores the better, I think. You couldn’t say the rapist asshole didn’t deserve it and then some.
As the words rattled around my head (I think I heard them the once, to be remembered forever), I put them through some mental filter that was equal parts Allan Sherman and Sesame Street, coming up with my own take that could now well be adopted by PETA.
Charlie Chan was a clean old man,
Walking down the street with his hand in his hand,
Threw ten chickens against the wall,
Betcha ten bucks that he plucked ’em all…
Went to Nursie and Nursie said,
“Sorry, Charlie but your hands are dead.”
“Nursie! Nursie! That’s can’t be true!”
“Sorry, Charlie but your palms are, too.”
I know, right? Precious. But what’s most notable about my sanitizing is that it still implies the original smut. It can’t stand on its own, and is only funny in the context of the original.5 So much for cleaning up the act.
Fast forward to my sophomore year in college: While browsing a cluttered record store in lower-Manhattan with my friend Mike Heller, we discovered a nasty looking album by a band called The Mentors. Scanning song titles like “Sandwich of Love” and “Golden Showers”, Mike and I decided it was the perfect gift for our friend Stafford and we snapped it up.6 Later, as we collapsed in laughter on the floor of Stafford’s dorm room while listening to the mind-roasting, unremitting foulness of the music, I still couldn’t help but find it lacking. Sure, it was utterly depraved, but it didn’t hold a candle to the more honest obscenity of my childhood. Ah, well. Isn’t that the way it always goes?
1I will say that I find your mama’s response to being questioned about her flatulence entirely reasonable and justified. Well played, Mama. Go Back To Reading
2Tish was also an avid eater of paste, dipping into a barrel-shaped tub she kept in her desk every so often, the red plastic applicator in the lid doubling as a spoon that she ran over her tongue. It wasn’t a secret. She was unabashed about her penchant for paste. God bless her. Go Back To Reading
3I would learn later that Tish was just carrying on the great tradition of The Dozens, but she also brings to mind for me the mysterious and ethereal chanteuse in Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West”, which happens to be my all-time favorite poem. Just saying. Go Back To Reading
4The combination of our kid-sized bodies and the plethora of cabinets, cubbies and crannies in the camper made hide and seek a viable diversion for quite a few miles. We played it so much that it nearly resulted in catastrophe. After herding us back aboard after one rest stop, a parent took a head count. Though my older brother Josh was missing, they assumed he was hiding and we took off down the road. After several miles the kids finally convinced the parents he was not aboard and we turned back around. Sure enough, standing at the roadside confused but remarkably unruffled was Josh. He was hardly ever forgotten again. Go Back To Reading
5I hadn’t thought of it until now, but my fascination with these songs could well be directly related to my habit of making up obscene lyrics for songs on the radio when I am driving alone. Go Back To Reading
6“You Axed For It” turned out to be just as potent as the cover advertised. We became such fans of the band that at one point we drove an hour from Wesleyan to see them play in an under-age punk club called Anthrax that was nestled in an industrial strip mall in Norwalk, CT. The band went on at least 90-minutes late because El Duce, their singer/drummer, was missing. He was finally discovered passed out in the john, revived, and propped behind his kit for the set (and yes, they did perform in their trademark black hoods). Their songs and overall zeitgeist were so offensive that they went on to be cited during Tipper Gore’s PMRC hearings, with Frank Zappa himself memorably quipping, “Anyone who writes a song about anal vapors had to do some digging.” El Duce wound up playing a role in the conspiracy theory around Kurt Cobain’s death, and was then (according to Wikipedia) somehow killed by a train after a gig in 1997 in a case of “misadventure”. Pour some liquor out. Go Back To Reading