Songs and the City

Medical jams: From plastic surgery to cancer to sex changes, it's been rocked about

Medical jams: From plastic surgery to cancer to sex changes, it's been rocked about

Music and medicine seemingly make odd bedfellows, but when you think about how many songwriters moan about illness of the heart and mind it makes more sense. On top of that, narcotics (both of the legal and illicit variety) is another prevalent subject matter. So, now that we've established the connection, here's a playlist featuring music about medicine.

"Heart Doctor" by Lee "Scratch" Perry

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This late period track by the legendary (and legendarily kooky) Lee "Scratch" Perry finds the reggae/dub artist and producer doling out "advice" to his patients. Based on the uncontrolled giggling that starts off the track and the litany of narcotics reeled off during the verses, I would venture to say that this is one type of heart doctor you won't find making rounds at St. Luke's.

"A Nurse's Life is Full of Woe" by Billy Bragg

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An unreleased track taken from the sessions of Talking With the Taxman About Poetry, "A Nurse's Life is Full of Woe" finds Bragg taking on the plight of the working class, a cause he's been singing about for over two decades now. A fiery protest singer who is equally adept at churning out a sublime love song (see "Must I Paint You a Picture" or "A New England" for proof), the Bard of Barking is one of the modern era's unheralded lyricists.

"Plastic Surgery" by Maps of Africa

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You can't have a medical themed songlist without a nod to the vain, and there's no better ode to plastic surgery than this psychedelic thumper by Maps of Africa. Granted, it seems as if things have gone horribly wrong for this patient: "I used to be a person/but I've turned into a version/of my plastic surgery."

"Still Ill" by The Smiths

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If you know anything about Morrissey you know that the illness in question is undoubtedly an ailment of the heart. And by heart, I don't mean clogged arteries. As is true with almost any song by The Smiths, there are multiple interpretations of "Still Ill."

Clearly the Moz is lamenting a fading relationship ("Under the iron bridge we kissed/and although I ended up with sore lips/it just wasn't like the old days anymore."), but he also appears to be making a political dig at the rampant individualism of the Thatcher years ("I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving/England is mine and it owes me a living."). But what to make of the repeated lines, "does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?"

Depression? Knowing Morrissey I would say that's a safe bet.

"Call the Doctor" by J.J. Cale

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Such a smooth groove, this track from J.J. Cale's 1971 debut finds the laid back bluesman ravaged after a particularly rough night of loving: "A shady lady took all my bread/Ravished my body, lord, and messed with my head/I don't know but I've had my fill/Call the doctor and tell him I'm ill/"

"I Tried to Stay Healthy For You" by Palace Brothers

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Like the rest of the Palace Brother's mysterious debut, "I Tried to Stay Healthy For You" sounds like it was recorded in Appalachia during the early part of the 20th century. Will Oldham's quivering wimper and the slow, waltzing plucked banjo and strummed guitars behind him come across like a long lost Louvin Brother's classic or an unearthed gem from the Harry Smith folk collections.

The lyrics, seemingly written from the point of view of an aging coalminer are equally ancient and haunting, "Sing to them all and I'll stand by/Though jealousy it threatens/Smoke's around my blackened lungs/It is my only weapon."

"Cure for Pain" by Morphine

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Morphine is the band's name!

"Sick Bed Blues" by Skip James

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There's nothing worse than lying in bed stewing with sickness. Skip James's haunting blues bristles with despair, his falsetto moan all high and lonesome. Although the protagonist isn't doing too well physically, it sounds like there's more to the story: "Oh Lordy, Lord, Lord, Lord/I been so badly misused/An treated just like a dog."

"Cancer" by Joe Jackson

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Jackson laments that everything give you cancer and that's no cure and there's no answer. Hopefully M.D. Anderson, the nation's top-ranked cancer hospital, will have something to say about that real soon.

"Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues" by The Kinks

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Nobody captures insulated suburban paranoia quite like Ray Davies. Although written in 1971, this ode to the product of fear-mongering is as timely as ever. "They're watching my house and they're tapping my telephone/I don't trust nobody, but I'm much too scared to be on my own/And the income tax collector's got his beady eye on me/No there ain't no cure for acute schizophrenia disease."

"Hospital" by The Lemonheads

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Although he's best known as an early '90's alternative rock "hunk" who temporarily went bonkers and snorted mounds of blow with Oasis brothers Gallagher, there's no denying that Evan Dando knows his way around a catchy melody. But while his hooks are as sweet as the band's namesake candy, Dando's cheeky lyrics can often be shallow and inane as this medical-related track shows: "There's a disease going 'round the hospital/Green green leaves falling from the trees." Hmmm.

"Lady Godiva's Operation" by The Velvet Underground

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"Lady Godiva's Operation" is a terrifying account of a sex-change operation ("... sees the growth as just so much cabbage that now must be cut away") that goes horribly wrong. The menacing cacophony of the droning viola alongside the pulsing drums and jagged guitars provides the perfect backdrop to the harrowing lyrics. Never has the miracle of modern medicine been described in such gruesome terms. Somebody call a lawyer, I think we have a malpractice suit on our hands.

T.D.K. (Token Dylan Track)

"Love Sick" by Bob Dylan

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The most common ailment that has afflicted musicians, poets and artists for centuries (and which has led to some of man's most breathtaking works of art) can be traced back to the germs spread by love. Dylan's bitter rumination on heartbreak ranks among his finest songs of the past thirty years.  
 

Plastic surgery
Plastic surgery can be an obsession in music too. Courtesy photo
Morphine
The band's called Morphine. They have a song titled "Cure For Pain." Yes, they know a particular brand of medicine.
Billy Bragg
Billy Bragg sings about a nurse's hard life.
News_medical_M.D. Anderson Cancer Center_by M.D. Anderson_placeholder
Hopefully, M.D. Anderson can make Joe Jackson's lament about cancer a thing of the past. Courtesy of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center
News_Douglas Newman_earth songs_Bob Dylan
It's a Songs And The City. Of course, there's a Token Dylan Track.