Regardless of how you might feel about 2017, there's an immediately good reason to look forward to 2018: As the calendar turns, we enter the Year of the Dog. While the Chinese New Year isn't until mid-February, we can't wait to begin celebrating the zodiac sign that honors man and woman's best friend. So, as you get ready to raise a toast at midnight at the end of the year, maybe let out a bark instead of a "cheers." As we look ahead to the Year of the Dog, we look back at five of our favorite pup-referencing songs.
Willie Mae 'Big Mama' Thornton, "Hound Dog"
Elvis Presley's 1956 recording of "Hound Dog" may be as American as baseball and apple pie. It also serves as one of the templates for rock n' roll. As it shakes via a hip-shaking stomp, you can practically feel the spit coming from Presley's mouth as he sings the lyrics. But take the opportunity to dig up the first recording of the tune by Willie Mae 'Big Mama' Thornton. Boasting the original lyrics from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Thornton's rendition more pointedly takes aim at a no-good man who comes around and wags his tail to try to get her attention. There's no goofy rabbit-catching referencing, just Thornton's hair-raising wail and jaunty guitar to provide a bluesy taunt. And what a wail! Thornton's take-no-gruff rasp is enough to send the boldest stray running for cover. The original also offers a devilish put-down for lousy dog lovers: "You ain't no real cool cat."
Pulp, "Dogs Are Everywhere"
A single verse into this mid-80s, little-known Pulp song, and you may think bandleader Jarvis Cocker is having a lark. But stick with the somber tune, which shows flashes of anger and silliness courtesy of a playful keyboard and slightly aggressive chorus, and you'll uncover a wealth of loneliness. "Dogs Are Everywhere" patiently unfolds, first putting you into some nameless, bustling urban area where canines and their owners dot the landscape. The dogs play, sniff, bark, and whine – essentially, they act like dogs – but Cocker zeroes in on the way animals react around women. The scene, while never spelled out, pictures a a man sitting idly in a café while observing strangers lavish affection on adorable pups – affection our narrator desperately wants, and lacks. Cocker, then, concocts existential dread, all out of an innocent, innocuous sight.
The B-52'S, "Quiche Lorraine"
Consider this a breakup tune, only here, the jilted lover is a pet owner. The 1980 cut shows the new-wave act at its goofy best, with Fred Schneider playing the part of an overbearing dog dad. Cutesy toys and rawhide aren't good enough for the little poodle named Quiche Lorraine. No, Schneider insists she needs designer jeans, sunglasses, a bonnet, and outrageously dyed hair. We get an upbeat rainbow of sounds that captures the fantasyland inside the narrator's head. A wire-thin guitar seemingly plays hopscotch, a keyboard possesses a chirpy effervescence, and Schneider punctuates the verses with a mighty "yeah!" Sillier still are the barks from backing vocalists Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, each serving to make the dog parent proud. But ultimately, this isn't a song about someone who wants a pet. It's about someone who wants an accessory. No wonder Quiche Lorraine makes a run for it when she spots a Great Dane.
John Hiatt & the Goners, "My Dog and Me"
Not many love letters open with a lyric about urinating, but the regularly exquisite rock singer/songwriter John Hiatt manages to go there on "My Dog and Me." "How many times can one dog pee?" he asks just as the song launches. But as the gently strummed electric and acoustic guitars make clear, Hiatt keeps things sophisticated. We never learn the four-legged creature's name, yet Hiatt's interests lie in capturing the jubilation of having an animal companion. "Buddy, I coulda gone that extra mile/For an extra bark or an extra smile/'Cause I never felt so free/It was just my dog and me," he sings. Here, we get a glimpse at the joy of an animal discovering the world, and the pleasure a man gains from observing a pup. Singing clear-voiced with a wistful guitar shadowing every word, Hiatt underlines his deliveries with a bittersweet tone to convey the knowledge these moments can't last forever.
Neil Young, "Old King"
With more than a hint of twang, Neil Young's "Old King" begins with a banjo on the run, as if to mimic the gallop of the mutt introduced in the opening verse. The voices of Young and singer Nicolette Larson deliver the chorus of this 1992 tale in tandem: One vocalist effectively serves as the narrator and the other reminisces. Less than a minute into the track, we learn the sad fate of Young's fabled hound King. But this isn't a downer. The rootsy swagger doesn't let things get too low, and Young comes off as a lone cowboy, exploring the world on his own now that his dearest friend is gone. "I may find one, you never do know," Young sings, open to the idea of loving another tail-wagging pooch. The lesson here remains one every animal lover knows: We don't choose the pet; the pet chooses us.
Photo credit: Jim McGuire