Friday, November 16, 2007

“Let Him Dangle” / Elvis Costello

I’m so besotted with Elvis’ relationship songs (very few of them are really love songs, I’m afraid), I tend to overlook his political numbers. But there are plenty to choose from—Accidents Will Happen is loaded with them—and this morning, this chilling example from Spike popped into my head and just wouldn’t go away. Well, it’s been that sort of day.

“Let Him Dangle” is about a specific miscarriage of justice, a celebrated 1952 case where two teenagers breaking into a Croydon warehouse shot and killed a police officer. The 19-year-old, Derek Bentley, was hung for the crime, even though he didn’t shoot the gun; the shooter, Chris Craig, was only 16 so could not be executed under English law. Bentley was borderline retarded and probably not competent to be tried. Much of the case hinged around the fact that when the officers apprehended the kids on the warehouse roof, Bentley shouted “Let him have it, Chris” – which could have meant either “give him the gun” or “shoot him.” We'll never know.

Bentley was hung in 1953, before either Elvis or I was born, but the gruesome case lived on in tabloid culture. I saw a disturbing 1991 movie about it called Let Him Have It; Elvis’s song recites all the same names and details—“Bentley had surrendered, he was under arrest, / When he gave Chris Craig that fatal request / Craig shot Sidney Miles.” Still, the song’s about more than this one horrible case. “Well it's hard to imagine it's the times that have changed,” Elvis points out, with venom in his voice, “When there's a murder in the kitchen that is brutal and strange / If killing anybody is a terrible crime / Why does this bloodthirsty chorus come round from time to time?” It’s a savage rant against the death penalty, and against the mob hysteria that arises around certain cases.

And just to make sure no one escapes with their complacency intact, Elvis lets fly a final bridge that indicts the present age as well: “From a welfare state to society murder / Bring "back the noose" is always heard / Whenever those swine are under attack / But it won't make you even / It won't bring him back.” Bentley was finally granted a royal pardon in 1993 (four years after this song, two years after the movie), and the conviction was overturned in 1998—but he’d already been dead 45 years. Fat lot of good that did him.

The verses are minor-key, brooding, with a menacing sort of finger-snapping syncopation that feels very Fifties to me. There’s a distinctive Marc Ribot guitar riff wailing through it like a police siren, and Benmont Tench hammering wearily on the piano; somebody’s even whacking on a hubcap in the background, adding to that gritty urban texture. Elvis scornfully spits out the repeated word “dangle” in the chorus, following it up with a grim “doo-doo doo doo doo” that sounds to me like skeletons dancing.

Nobody else does political outrage like Elvis Costello. Dylan turns snide, Neil Young falls back on mottos, but Elvis takes no prisoners -- he just comes tangoing into the room like a Jesuit on a mission, and serves up this cocktail of vitriol and passion. Whew.

Let Him Dangle sample

1 comment:

Julie said...

A chilling and effective song. One of my favorites from "Spike."