New Music Preview: San Diego Chicken, The Story Behind the Song

The San Diego Chicken himself. Although the song's not really about him.

The San Diego Chicken himself. Although the song’s not really about him.

Ordinarily I would have a song post ready for this alternate Friday. But with “San Diego Chicken,” I’m going a different route. This song was the most challenging and the most gratifying one I’ve ever written, both in terms of lyrics and music, and the arrangement for it will be a work in progress, which will play out on this blog over the next few weeks as I post various arrangements of the song. For now, though, allow me to whet your appetite by telling you about how I came to write it. Because it’s a longish story, I decided to post it separately from the song post.

Trigger warning/content note about depression and suicide, which figure into the lyric. About a year ago, a few months before Robin Williams took his life, I read an interview with a female rock star in which she said she wished she was dead, and she wasn’t joking. I thought, “Here we go again, yet another rich/famous person tells us, ‘I have everything and I’m miserable.’ Why don’t we ever believe them?” Probably it’s because this culture is all or nothing when it comes to recognizing artists, so a lot of us think, “Well, if I just had a fraction of what they have…” But that’s the problem; we can’t just have a fraction of it, we have to take it all — feeding frenzy or total obscurity, take your pick. (The reason I’m not naming the rock star is because I’m curious to know if it’s obvious to people who it is, or whether it matters if you’ve heard of her or not in terms of what you get out of the song.)

Right around the same time, I was reading a book about sports mascots, because of course I was. It’s called Yes, It’s Hot in Here, and the author is A.J. Mass, who used to play Mr. Met, the Mets’ baseball-headed mascot. There was all kinds of great stuff in there. He talked about how people who spoke to him instinctively wanted to look into Mr. Met’s eyes, and since Mr. Met’s head was perched above his own, he spent a lot of time looking at people’s necks while they looked way up into the air to talk to him. He talked about how he worked the mechanical tongue that Mr. Met had in his early incarnations, that would jut out to lick ice cream or something like that, but which had to be jettisoned because of mechanical malfunctions.

And he told us that teams often want to have multiple mascot costumes so the mascot can be in multiple places at once, but one costume will never be duplicated: that of the San Diego Chicken, the Padres’ mascot, which was created in the 1970s by the man who still plays him today. Although he is now in his sixties and it’s getting harder and harder for him physically to run around in the Chicken outfit, he insists that no one else will ever wear it, because he believes no one else will ever do it right. “When I die,” he says, “the Chicken dies too.” And I thought, “Wow, he really thinks he is the Chicken. What does he do, get in the shower wearing that thing?”

So that’s when I stuck the chocolate bar in the peanut butter, so to speak, and it hit me that being a rock star is kind of like being a sports mascot who never gets to take the costume off. Or maybe never wants to, until they find out how much of life they are missing by being trapped in that thing, and by then it’s too late to remove it. I spent the next few months working on a draft of the lyric, which leans much more heavily on metaphor than what I usually write. I was excited about it.

And then Robin Williams died. And suddenly, what I wrote suddenly seemed shallow, flippant, maybe even kind of tasteless. Though I wanted to maintain a certain amount of irony and humor, and the song was obviously satire of a sort, I did not want to mock this woman for having these feelings; quite the contrary. Those feelings suck; no one should have them. And I knew what it was like to think I should be dead. I wanted to mock the culture, not her.

I went to my psychiatrist and we talked about Williams, and he told me that it was his experience that rich and famous people often get the worst mental health care, in spite of the fact that they can spend unlimited amounts of money on it. Because one thing money can’t buy is trust; in fact, the more wealth and fame someone has, the less they feel like they can trust other people. They can’t trust that what they say and what they are prescribed will be kept private, and they can’t trust that the people who say they love and respect them now would still love and respect them if they knew what was really going on in their heads. And people with substance abuse histories have the extra double whammy of being judged if they take medications to manage their neurocrap, and sometimes the meds won’t even work on them, depending on what drugs they abused before. Not to mention that some of these drugs cause hella weight gain (hi, exhibit A here!), and they’d probably get judged harshly for that.

So that’s when I realized that the missing piece of the song was my realization that in a way, I had a privilege this woman did not: I got to work through my demons outside the prying eyes of the public. Nobody was going to take pictures of me on the beach post-medication weight gain and tut-tut about it. And admitting these horrible feelings was not going to sully my public image, because I didn’t have one. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing whatever was necessary to put the evil death troll to sleep, and that even if the troll woke up, it was between me and him; I would not have to explain his presence in my brain to the rabid media.

In other words, I don’t have to wear a chicken costume (metaphorically speaking) all day. Probably never will. And maybe if attention for artists was more equitably distributed and not crucially contingent on youth and beauty, as it usually is for women, this rock star could take care of herself without being affixed with the public’s death stare. This song had to be written and sung by someone like me, someone for whom there is no chance of ever resembling this beautiful, slim young woman. Obviously there is no “costume” that would make a fiftysomething fat chick visually interchangeable with her, which is why it should be self-evident that it’s an elaborate joke. But it’s not a joke on her. It’s a joke on them, and we know who they are.

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