52 GIRLSThree Veronicas
Three girls named Veronica -- but oh, how different they are.
"Veronica Sawyer" / Edna's GoldfishLet's start with the outlier. Edna's Goldfish -- now, sadly, defunct -- was a ska band from Long Island, active 1997-2000, part of the US ska revival that gave us Catch-22, Less Than Jake, and Reel Big Fish (who liked this song so much they did a cover of it).
Though ska is essentially an urban sound, this song's pumped-up tempo and crisp jittery horn section perfectly capture suburban teen restlessness. The kid's looking out his window, he's pacing around his yard, he's cruising the boulevard, he's trying to get into the cool parties. The chorus takes us through the dreaded weekend, from Friday night through Sunday morning, underlaid with that propulsive ska beat. "Just waiting for the afternoon so I can be a kid again..."
So who is Veronica Sawyer? For all you pop-culture mavens, she's the character played by Winona Ryder in the 1988 cult classic Heathers, one of the scariest movies ever made about vicious high-school social cliques. Veronica was the one queen bee smart enough to see how evil it was -- but it almost took her down, too. She may not be a character in this song's scenario, but her story hangs over the whole thing, a cautionary tale indeed.
"Veronica" / Wreckless EricSo what happens after high school? If you're the sort of lovable loser that usually populated Wreckless Eric songs, you join the army and get shipped out. And then you miss the girl back home.
In true Stiff Records style, this 1978 track from Wreckless Eric's second UK album The Wonderful World of Wreckless Eric, is defiantly rough and handmade. Eric Goulden's mumbling guttural snarl wasn't vicious like the Sex Pistols or the Clash could be, but it definitely didn't sound like polished pop. And therefore, it was a lot easier to believe that this really was a sad sack private sitting miserably in some barracks, maybe in Northern Ireland, kissing Veronica's picture.
She's not much of a sweetheart -- she's not writing him back, for one thing: "There's been no messages for me from a girl by the name of Veronica." She's not even "my Veronica" -- how well did he know her? (Later he sings, "I don't need a note to know she could be friends with me" -- is she just a pen pal?) Yet he insists "I'm going to this war / I'm gonna fight for my Veronica." Whether she knows it or not, she's become a beacon of home in his mind.
With a howl of sexual frustration, he sings, "I wanna hold her / But I can't because I'm a soldier" and later, repeatedly, "I'm a soldier, bang bang / I really want to hold her." (Nice double-entendre with that "bang.") That's most of the song, really. The melody isn't much, lines ending randomly on unresolved chords. He doesn't give us any picture of the girl -- "she's my angel" is about the extent of it -- for all we know, he doesn't even remember what she looks like. But his longing, his loneliness, and his terror of the near future? Those are all crystal clear.
"Veronica" / Elvis CostelloElvis may have been a cynical New Wave punk, but what happened when in 1989 he had a chance to work with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney? Like any of us would, he leapt at the chance. The result was, I now learn to my surprise, Elvis's biggest selling US hit, boosted no doubt by endless re-runs of this video on MTV (remember when MTV could make or break a record?).
This EC/Macca Veronica is anything but a teenage beauty queen -- she's more like, oh, I don't know, maybe Eleanor Rigby. (Coincidence? I think not.) Stuck in a nursing home, drifting in dementia, in her memory she's still a hot number. "Well she used to have a carefree mind of her own / And a devilish look in her eye." Listening patiently, he pieces together bits of her poignant past: "Well it was all of sixty-five years ago / When the world was the street where she lived / And a young man sailed on a ship in the sea / With a picture of Veronica." Elvis says the song was inspired by visiting his own grandmother in a nursing home -- not the usual stuff of pop hits.
Just as in "Eleanor Rigby," the verses are storytelling patter while the chorus swells and rises wistfully. "Do you suppose, that waiting hands on eyes, / Veronica has gone to hide?" She's like a little girl playing peek-a-boo, happily adrift in her second childhood, untouched by the indignities of the nursing home. "And all the time she laughs at those who shout / Her name and steal her clothes? / Veronica / Veronica." I love how he repeats her name, more urgently the second time, trying to get through to her.
The snappy tempo, the syncopation -- it's far more upbeat than you'd expect from the subject matter, but then, the movie in Veronica's head is pretty lively. At least as her grandson Elvis imagined it . . . .