SOME SONGS ARE GREAT SHORT STORIES (Chapter 20)

Johnny Ryall is the bum on my stoop
I gave him fifty cents to buy some soup
He knows the time with the fresh Gucci watch
He’s even more over than my mayor Ed Koch
Washing windows on the Bowery at a quarter to four
‘Cause he ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more
Livin’ on borrowed time and borrowed money
Sleepin’ on the street there ain’t a damn thing funny
With the hand-me-down food and hand-me-down clothes
A rockabilly past of which nobody knows
Makes his home all over the place
He goes to sleep by falling down on his face
Sometimes known as the leader of the homeless
Sometimes drunk, man the kid’s always phoneless
Sleepin’ on the street in a cardboard box
He’s better off drinkin’ than smokin’ the rocks
Johnny Ryall, Johnny Ryall
Kickin’ uptown, kickin’ downtown, kickin’ crosstown
Johnny Ryall, Johnny Ryall

He drinks where he lies
He’s covered with flies
He’s got the hand me down Pumas and the tie dyes
Well, you go upstate and get your head together
Thunderbird is the word and you’re light as a feather
Detox at the flop house no booze allowed
Remember the good old days with the rockabilly crowd
Memphis is where he’s from (out in Tennessee)
He lives in the street but he’s no bum
He’s the rockabilly star from the days of old
He used to have teeth all filled with gold
He got platinum voice but only gold records
On the bass (was Boots), on the drums (was Checkers)
Louis Vuitton with the Gucci guitar
Johnny Ryall
Who do you think you are?
Johnny Ryall, Johnny Ryall
Takin’ the night train, drinkin’ O.E
Johnny Ryall, Johnny Ryall
One, two, three, four
One, two, three, four
One, two, three, four
One, two, three

Donald Trump and Donald Tramp living in the men’s shelter
Wonder Bread bag shoes and singing “Helter Skelter”
He asks for a dollar you know what it’s for
Man, bottle after bottle he’ll always need more
He’s no less important than you working class stiffs
He drinks a lot of liquor but he don’t drink piss
He paid his dues playing the blues
He claims that he wrote the Blue Suede Shoes
Elvis shaved his head when he went into the army
That’s right y’all his name is Johnny
Kick it
Johnny Ryall, Johnny Ryall

Track 3 from Paul’s Boutique, and one the most extraordinary parts of an extraordinary album.

Worth recalling that the prior to the release of their second album in 1989, Beastie Boys were regarded by many as one-trick ponies. The album caught just about everyone out in that it wasn’t anything close to a re-tread of Licensed to Ill, and indeed the past 30 years have only seen it grow in stature, partly from the recognition of its ground-breaking nature but also from the fact that many have since tried but failed in their efforts to replicate it. And given just how expensive it would be nowadays to get clearance for that amount of samples (over 100 were used on the album), it never again will be attempted.

The idea of the these three early-20s rappers writing something making reference to the plight of a homeless man on the streets of NYC would have seemed ludicrous to those who were part of the initial journey from hardcore to hip-hop, but what you have here is one of the earliest examples of the band increasingly making use of their profile and platform to make significant sociopolitical statements.

A book dedicated to an in-depth analysis of the album reveals that Johnny Ryall was the name given to a vagrant who had hung around the outside of Mike Diamond’s apartment building in NYC a few years previously. The vagrant was also given a back story of being a down-at-luck rockabilly star who had been friendly with Elvis Presley. The source for the name and the back story was Mike D’s flatmate, who was Sean Casarov, previously a member of the inner circle of The Clash before he upped sticks and moved to the States. The Beastie Boys book also reveals that neither Mike nor Sean regarded the vagrant as a source of fun or amusement and indeed would provide him with clothes when it got particularly cold. The irony of the song is that the lyric was pieced together in Los Angeles where the band had relocated to and the inspiration was long gone. Nowadays, the power and reach of social media would likely have tracked him down for a reunion with Mike D.

mp3 : Beastie Boys – Johnny Ryall

Oh and I bet nobody involved would have thought the person referenced in the first line of the final verse would one day be PoTUS.

JC

2 thoughts on “SOME SONGS ARE GREAT SHORT STORIES (Chapter 20)

  1. Excellent band – lesser acts who’d spent so long playing up to the caricature of themselves would have sunk but just so many brilliant songs and albums.

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