As you know, almost all of the songs we write tell stories. We want to share those stories with you. Just as we did for our first two records (see the stories behind the songs on our first CD 13 and the songs on our second CD Again), we’ll post the story behind each song on our new CD now more than ever here for you to read. The plan is to feature one song each week for the next few weeks.
Here is the story behind Monkey in the Middle as related by Clark Hansbarger.
The song “Monkey in the Middle”
Monkey in the Middle is an exciting song for me. It’s also dreary.
Because I’m more excited about about why it’s exciting, let me get the dreary part out of the way first.
Basically, Monkey in the Middle is another mournful break-up song. I’m not sure why I write such songs. I’m a pretty happy guy—contented, pleased, and even grateful, too. But…I often sit down to write a song, and sad just comes out.
Anyway, this song is about a guy who believes he is still part of something that has actually left him behind. He imagines he is in a “sorry game” of monkey in the middle, but the other two players are long gone. So, he is stuck in the middle of his sadness, relieved only by the black hope that his ex will wake up “some dark night” and look back with the same longing he feels.
He is probably deluded, of course. Nothing in his story hints that the woman in the song feels about him as he does about her. In fact, he acknowledges that he saw her exit coming long before she left. Even still, he can’t seem to admit that the end is the end.
I feel for the guy. He is in anguish. Most of us at some time or another have felt loss in such a way. Hope against hope.
Yet, as mournful as the song is, the way it turned out musically excites me.
I have been toying with Monkey in the Middle in various forms for years. I’d played it out solo as a slow country ballad. But in my head, it was a nod to ’80s electronic rock, sort of a synth-pop number. It was a song I considered interesting, but not one I could ever make work.
Anyway, one evening I brought it to the band on a whim, kind of as a test run, to see what this new Bitter Liberals configuration could do with it. We were still getting to know Michael and Nick as musicians, so when they came up with a very tight rhythm that matched this thing I could hear in my head, I was beyond pleased. I think we all were. [ed: We were.]
The structure of the song is circular and a bit relentless, heavily reliant on a steady bass line and a metronomic percussion to keep the forward movement consistent. That’s why I had imagined the song as more electronic. What Mike and Nick put together was simple and perfect..though actually not that simple at all. Listen closely and you’ll hear the complexity of what they are doing to nail the rhythm behind the song.
With the rhythm so tightly established, Gary’s symphonic rising violin and Allen’s echoing lead guitar could swirl around my singing, which is pretty straightforward. What happens is the song ends up a cool mix of the mechanical and the ethereal. It chop-chops along like a little train, but also whirls and drifts like smoke.
In the end, a song I had essentially set aside long ago has now become representative—-for me anyway—of the exciting new possibilities of this iteration of the Bitter Liberals. While the original Bitter Liberals had its own unique sound and texture, I absolutely love the fact that this new configuration has its own equally satisfying sound and texture.
We hope you agree!
We performed Monkey in the Middle live in Richmond at the Tin Pan. Here is a video.
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