A case that Melissa Etheridge's 'Refugee' is the best rock song ever

Back when I used to work at the morning paper, I inhabited a happy little corner of the newsroom. The desks were arranged in "pods" of five. Bryn Bailer sat on one side of me, and M. Scot Skinner was on the other side. James Reel, the grown-up in the group, sat around beyond Bryn, and Gene Armstrong was at the back.

I will never work anyplace I enjoy as much, with people I like as well. (We at the Weekly mostly work piecemeal and off-site, which keeps costs down. It's way less fun, but one reason we, like alternative papers across the country, are kicking morning-paper ass. Heh heh heh.)

During lulls, we'd discuss important things like, what's the best Rolling Stones song? ("Gimme Shelter." Period. We settled it.) We tackled enduring musical mysteries (Elton John: why?) and passed along rumors. (Someone was making a dirty sequel to Edward Scissorhands called Edward Scissorpenis. That one was courtesy of Gene.)

We were paid to revel in pop culture and, oh, we did. I still have dreams where I'm working there.

BTW, James, although his beat is the higher stuff, is startlingly knowledgeable about popular crapola, as he is about everything else except, I don't know, maybe automatic transmissions. You can't say that about many other people in his business. We had a critic on staff for a while at the Star who had never heard of Bob Dylan. Word of honor.

OK, so I have a taste for these sorts of senseless arguments. My brother and I used to argue about whether Gilligan's Island was the worst show of all time, or whether that was F Troop. (My money was on the latter. On top of being ideally stupid, it was dusty. I hate that in a TV show.) My husband and I argue about whether The Wire or Deadwood is the best show of all time. (That one's a deadlock. The plentiful dust in the grim little TV town of Deadwood regularly turns to mud, in which form I enjoy it. Mud was one of the great facts of human existence until not so long ago, and we shouldn't forget it.)

In this vein, I recently heard the best rock 'n' roll song ever. Ready?

It's Melissa Etheridge's new recording of Tom Petty and Mike Campbell's "Refugee."

As a good critic, or as any sort of essayist at all, I'm obliged to support this outrageous assertion. Here goes.

1. "Refugee" is the perfect rock song. It's lean, mean, poetic, sneering, heartfelt, personal, true and has a great hook.

It's just got that rock 'n' roll attitude, you know? That Dylan-esque, barely post-adolescent contempt and menace of "Like a Rolling Stone," and, coincidentally, a whole bunch of Stones songs, that you never hear in, say Bruce Springsteen, which is why he will never write the quintessential rock song.

The singer is telling the cold, hard truth to some mixed-up girl, but you can hear that it's really a plea. And you know, too, that the singer is talking to himself (or, in Etheridge's case, herself) as much as to the girl, trying to whip up the courage to make it in a rough world.

Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some--
Who knows maybe you were kidnapped, tied up, taken away and held for ransom.
Honey, it don't really matter to me--
Everybody has to fight to be free.
You don't have to live like a refugee ...

The lyrics are incredibly tight. Check out the catachresis (literature-ese for "crossing") in the first of these lines, and the rhythm and assonance of the second:

We ain't the last babe and we ain't the first
Been a whole lot of other lovers been cursed.

That's writing.

2. Etheridge is the perfect performer for the song.

The Heartbreakers aren't a distinguished band, and Etheridge brings a burning power-rock surge to "Refugee" that beats up the original recording and leaves it for dead. She's usually too histrionic for my taste, but for this number, her all-out, rock-like-a-boy romanticism is perfect. The first verse is acoustic, but then she kicks the band in with these giant chords like a monster's footsteps behind you: You DON'T. HAVE. To LIVE LIKE a REFuGEE. On the last word of "It's one of those things you have to feel to be true," her endless wail rises on a transcendent, "Layla"-like guitar riff so stinging it hurts your chest, and you wonder if your car, not to mention your heart, can contain that much emotion.

Stuff like this makes driving around town OK. So turn it up--you really don't have to live like a refugee.

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