Kenny Rogers and me

In 1983, during Year 12, these are the songs I unforgivably thought were cool:

“Twisting by the Pool” by Dire Straits
“Bop Girl” by Pat Wilson
and this, yes, this
“Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats.

 

How could this ever have happened?

 

Later that year, just after I turned seventeen, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton released “Islands in the Stream” (named after a Hemingway novel) and I scoffed at it. Country music! Old people! Corny! I was seventeen.

 

It was unlikely played on 5SSA-FM as SA-FM was then known. I can’t recall hearing it on the Morning Zoo with John Vincent and Grant Cameron as I drove my sky-blue HR Holden to Kapunda High to endure the poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins (“I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon”).

 

I didn’t appreciate its alternating lead vocals, superb harmonies, and thrilling key change until, I’m ashamed to share, much later in life. And Dolly, somehow both tiny and colossal, is the perfect partner to Kenny’s warm yet seasoned voice.

 

Often now making an appearance on the back patio at a BBQ it’s one of the great duets.

 

*

 

Growing up in the 70s, Mum and Dad had some of Kenny Rogers’ vinyl including his greatest hits and the compelling Eyes That See in the Dark (of course, he could never have been Ken Rogers for he’s obviously the manager of your local hardware store). The albums are long gone but I remember him spinning on the Pye 3-in-1 (turntable, cassette and radio) and his voice. It was golden but with an edge of experience and slight menace as needed. It also hinted at a mythic America of adventure and promise. It evoked a place I wanted to go.

 

As with much in art and music there’s often a dramatic gap between the sunny melodies and the lyric’s dark narrative. “Coward of the County” is about sexual violence, “Reuben James” explores deep-seated racism and “Ruby” concerns a Vietnam veteran whose disability renders him unable to satisfy his wife so she ventures into town- “painted up your lips and rolled and curled your tinted hair”- to get her needs met, but my childhood ears were deaf to these distant themes.

 

*

 

The Big Lebowski is my favourite film and Kenny contributes to this too. In this shaggy-dog story bringing together a congregation of random, found objects, “Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was in)” fits the much-loved dream sequence perfectly. It’s by The First Edition and lead vocals are by Kenny. The scene begins when porn star Jackie Treehorn drugs The Dude’s White Russian.

 

The Dude is the main character played by Jeff Bridges and presents like Kenny if he’d let himself go and frequented his local supermarket Ralph’s in his house pants and dressing gown. Featuring bowling, Saddam, love interest Maude in Viking costume, and some Johnson-dismembering Nihilists welding novelty-sized scissors, this psychedelic pop track is an irresistible accompaniment, and gave Kenny some late-career pop culture panache.

 

The lyrics open thus:

I woke up this morning with the sundown shining in
I found my mind in a brown paper bag within
I tripped on a cloud and fell-a eight miles high
I tore my mind on a jagged sky
I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.

 

Just like the Dude, and most of The Big Lebowski, these are joyously nonsensical.

 

*

 

Early this century on my first big overseas trip I saw much that bedazzled me. The Berlin Wall, Big Ben, the Colosseum. But, among the strangest sights was one at the start in Penang. Wandering about Georgetown, the muggy, sister-city of Adelaide, and staring at the Chinese, Indian, Islamic and British architecture beyond the downtown markets, I saw what appeared as yet another American restaurant.

 

Getting closer, I squint at the signage. Kenny Rogers Roasters. Oh, must be another of that name I thought. A local icon I’ve not heard of. Fantastic. That’s why we travel. But the face seems familiar. White beard, grandfatherly. Vaguely Colonel Sanders so that is right for a chook place. Intrigued I stroll in.

 

It was that Kenny Rogers. With his own restaurant! In the middle of Asia! A long way from Nashville. What a glorious, unforeseen world.

 

Inside the walls were festooned with gold records and beaming (possibly photo shopped) pictures of Houston’s favourite country star. “The Gambler” strummed out beneath the slowly circulating ceiling fans. Still disbelieving, and considering the menu, it seemed neither Southern American nor Asian but possibly a Mississippian/ Malaysian fusion.

 

A decade or so later there was a Kenny Rogers Roasters (although the last American KRR diner closed in 2011, it’s still powering in Asia) across from my Singaporean condominium at the geographically-confused shopping centre Great World City. Fresh to the country, I took our boys there once for a dreadfully expensive meal of chicken and chips, and wondered how mad the unrelenting stream of Kenny’s Greatest Hits might send even the most devoted of wait staff.

 

*

 

Kenny Rogers has drifted in and out of my life in both affectionate and minor ways. Glancing at his back catalogue, there’s an ungodly number of Christmas albums, but he’s made a personal mark. Yesterday with everything spiralling, a mate sent me a message which said:

Kenny Rogers dippin’ out in the middle of an apocalypse is the most “know when to fold ‘em” shit I’ve ever heard.

 

Well played, Kenny. Thanks.

 

To watch the clip of Kenny Rogers singing ‘The Gambler’, please click here.

 

@MichaelRandall5

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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About Mickey Randall

Favourite film: The Shawshank Redemption Favourite song: Khe Sahn Favourite holiday destination: Gold Coast Favourite food: steak Favourite beer: VB Best player seen: Dogga Worst player seen: Frogga Last score on beep test: 3.14159 Favourite minor character in Joyce’s Ulysses: Punch Costello

Comments

  1. Old Kenny certainly had a way of engaging us in his stories, Mickey. You capture the nuances of his voice very well. Until his passing, I hadn’t thought of his original band, The First Edition, for decades. I love your mate’s message about the timing of Kenny’s departure – priceless.

  2. Punx Pete says

    Mickey, reading this was like panning at Sovereign Hill at the height of the rush: chock full of nuggets. Thanks for the wonderful read. Lovely to have a bit of normal back in my life.

    PS: “is the most “know when to fold ‘em” shit I’ve ever heard.” Eureka! And never knew Kenny was at the helm of the First Editions version of “What condition I was in.” Respect.

  3. Damn, it is has been years since I have heard it being referred to as “Johnson”. But I like it.

  4. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Thanks Mickey. My piece on Reg Lindsay must be due soon.

    Tell It All Brother was the one that lodged in my 10yo bonce, a bit of a turnup from Something’s Burning.

    I must have heard Ruby… before that, but don’t remember doing so.

    Geez, the charts around the time of Ruby were sizzling:

    http://www.poparchives.com.au/gosetcharts/1969/19690913.html

  5. Thanks Ian. Some interesting narratives in Kenny’s discography.

    PP- The First Edition’s second album is called “2nd” (edition). Of course. There’s my back patio/work station isolation sorted for this afternoon.

    Smokie- “Johnson” is but one term popularised by Lebowski. And the German Nihilists, who were in a Kraftwerk-style band named Autobahn, knew how to say it with menace!

    Swish- That chart is bursting with great songs. Amazing. Puts Ripper ’76 in the shade.

    Thanks to everyone.

  6. Some classics on that list, Swish! I can still sing bits and pieces of most of those songs. I was a fan of Tony Joe White’s “swamp music”, especially ‘The High Sheriff of Calhoun Parish’. Doug Parkinson’s version of ‘Dear Prudence’ is one of the great covers of all time – almost made the original sound insipid.

  7. george smith says

    Kenny Rogers Roasters is still going strong in Manila. I asked my uncle where to get decent coffee and he mentioned Kenny Rogers Roasters. Sadly, like most Filipinos when it came to coffee, he was wrong…

  8. Michael Cunningahm says

    It’s a little-known fact, as Cliff from Cheers would say, that “Islands in the Stream” was written by the Gibbs originally in a soul groove for Marvin Gaye. He was ill or not interested, so they changed it to a country song, gave it to Kenny, saw Dolly in the studio, put one-and-one together, and the rest is, as others say, history.

    How different those three careers may have been, but for….

  9. Neither no.2 or 3 on that music chart supplied by Swish enjoy current scrutiny- “In The Ghetto” and “In the year 2525.”

    Thanks George. A good tip for all when in Manilla although I’d also avoid Starbucks!

    Michael – always like hearing the backstory behind a song. Of course the Bee Gees’ version of their own tune goes pretty well, being suited to their voices, but K&D take the prize.

  10. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I’ll back Creedence over Billy Preston in the futurist stakes Mickey.

  11. Swish- No. 37- Joe Dolan’s Make Me An Island is our social-isolation theme song (I guess; never heard of it) while at least for the next five minutes “Hair” is back in favour, I think (no.21). Prime Ministerial edicts aside.

    What a rich Top 40 chart this is.

  12. Loved “Ruby” as a kid but similarly turned up my nose at the rest of Kenny as being country schmaltz. “Gambler” made me squirm. Love your last line. “Fold ’em?” “When you’re treading on thin ice you may as well dance” (Jesse Winchester).
    Amazing chart. Prime 5AD/KA high school years for me. Paul Kelly stole the guitar intro to “Something in the Air” for “How to Make Gravy”. Both amazing.
    Why does “Boy Named Sue” not feature in any of the Johnny Cash tributes?

  13. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Check out the chart debuts in the next couple of weeks after that Mickey

  14. matt watson says

    I grew up with Kenny Rogers.
    My parents were huge fans.
    They saw him live in Melbourne in the 80s.
    I saw his movies. Listened over and over to his hits.
    My favourite song – she believes in me.
    Played it over the jukebox in the late 90s at Dooleys in Brisbane.
    Kinda hid away from my selection at first until people nearby grabbed each other and sang along.

  15. PB- Great line about dancing on ice. I agree that the chart Swish shared is a beauty. So many great songs at once. A superdraft! Hopefully, there’s a post or two in some of these.

    Matt- I know that moment too: when you play a song on a jukebox and before and as it starts there’s a vulnerability in wondering what inconsequential strangers (and friends) might make of your selection. We fear public humiliation by faceless drunks!. Over a song! Glad it went well for you.

    Thanks.

  16. Ruby Princess – Don’t Take Your Flu to Town
    “It wasn’t me that started that old crazy Asian flu
    Border Force asleep let me take it home to you
    Yes its true Dutton’s not the man he claims to be
    Oh Ruby, you shoulda stayed at sea”

  17. george smith says

    I’d like to do a shoutout to Kenny’s “Lucille”. What a song!

    Written by Roger Bowling and Hal Bynam and sung by Kenny, it truly was lightning in a bottle, evoking the spirit of Hank Williams – the farmer saying “this time your hurting won’t heal”
    The spirit of Kitty Wells – the Honky Tonk angel Lucille saying “I’m tired of living on dreams”;
    Waylon and Willie, whooping it up with a Honky Tonk angel and reaping – bitter regret, regret, regret…
    And even Joan Baez, whose male character would rather die than admit his affair with a married woman.

    Philandering with a married woman, particularly one married to a good man was a big no no in country music, even in the sexy ’70s when divorce was an epidemic, so it was a great feat by Kenny to evoke sympathy for his womanising character. But gentlemen beware, lest we go there…

    Kenny Rogers – Lucille – YouTube
    http://www.youtube.com › watch

    ? 3:37
    Apr 8, 2014 – Uploaded by top40197

  18. Thanks George. It’s another KR song which has entered the public consciousness. I especially like the internal rhyme of Toledo/depot in the opening line. It’s a great hook. Your analysis of its place in country music history gives it added lustre.

  19. Old Kenny had so many hugs from Dolly that one could think he has had Heaven on Earth, regardless of where he is now…

  20. Bucko- there’s certainly a school of thought that she did the real vocal work on Islands in the Stream.

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